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Kominers’s Conundrums: A ‘Home Alone’ Caper With 2020 Traps

Scott Duke Kominers
·8 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Home Alone” is a holiday classic, but also a bit dated. Falling irons and icy steps? With the latest technology and all the great ideas on YouTube, today’s kids could find far more clever ways to keep robbers away from their advanced algorithms, educational robots and innovation sessions.

This week’s Conundrum imagines such a modern rendition. Seven fictional thieves have attempted to infiltrate our hero’s house. Inevitably, they got tangled up in a series of traps. Descriptions of the traps, along with a schematic diagram of the rooms are given below. Your first task is to figure out what the traps were, and where each one was located. (The blanks and numbers in parentheses together indicate how many letters each trap has in its name, as well as where that name fits into the clue.)

A large bucket balanced on the edge of the playroom door is filled with thousands and thousands of ___ (6) puzzle pieces, perfect for burying a thief who hasn’t already gotten the picture. A ___ (7) set has been spread out on the dining room floor, creating 144 opportunities for an unsuspecting thief to slip and skid into the red wood table. An arrow-shaped sign pointing to the computer declares “The secret plans are here!,” but anyone who tries to log-in is in for a letdown: A music video starts playing — it’s just a ___ (8). It looks like a present under the tree, but when you open it, pounds and pounds of ___ (7) spew forth, blinding would-be thieves and getting all over everything. That ___ (6) looks cute, but it’s programmed to get underfoot of even the most nimble crooks — pushing them over the edge of the staircase and cleaning the floor all the way. The basement refrigerator contains a milk ___ (6) that’s been there for decades; a motion sensor trigger flings open the door and grosses out even the most hardened criminal. The den television is on, chilling crooks out by immersing them in a marathon of ___ (7) series. The garden is planted full of ___ (8); they grow near the ground, but they’ve been rigged to shoot up and squash invaders, leaving them green in the face. The movie room is showing Galactic Senate negotiations on rerun, but that’s just to distract crooks long enough for the bust of Emperor ___ (9) to fall on top of them. The smell of baking bread lures hungry thieves into the kitchen, where the floor has been replaced with a giant vat of sticky ___ (9) discard. There is a ___ (7) in the den, but it’s been re-rigged to run over scoundrels and spin instructors alike. To celebrate their political party affiliation, the house owners got a pet ___ (6); he’ll headbutt any hijackers.

Filling in the schematic should help you identify these seven thieves (number of letters in each name in parentheses):

a casino con man with a taste for eggs and elevenses (5); a cat burglar trying to rocket to the top of the rogues’ leaderboard (6); a crafty woman known to detectives, Scotland Yard and at least one bohemian Duke (5); a criminal who is always a step and a third ahead of Interpol, at least according to his calling card (5); a fugitive looking for an angel to guard the money from her last heist (5); a miserly thief-lord who despises peaches (5); and a small-hearted holiday-hater (6).

After hanging each thief out to dry in succession in the grid below, you should be able to figure out the identity of their ringleader, whose name is this week’s answer:

That sounds like quite a challenge, but it’s not as hard as it looks! You can think of this puzzle as a bit like a crossword — the traps are spelled out “across,” while the thieves’ names fill in “down” following the arrows. But there’s a significant wrinkle: Along the way, you have to figure out which word goes where.

It’s probably easiest to start by trying to solve a few clues of each type, and then looking to see if you can make them fit together in the schematic. If you get stuck on any part of the puzzle, “go fish!” At Conundrums, it’s always kosher to turn to Google or phone a friend. (Bonus points to anyone who manages to get help from Macaulay Culkin himself!)

If you manage to crack this caper — or if you even make partial progress — please let us know at skpuzzles@bloomberg.net before midnight New York time on Friday, January 1.

If you get stuck, there’ll be hints announced on Twitter and in Bloomberg Opinion Today. To be counted in the solver list, please include your name with your answer.

Programming note: Happy new year! The next Conundrums will run on January 3.

Previously in Kominers’s Conundrums …

A thief more clever than this week’s septet managed to make off with seven magnificent monoliths we had spotted around the world. This special double-Conundrum asked solvers to both identify the culprit and determine where the monoliths had been taken.

The first step towards both parts of the problem was to identify where the monoliths had been originally, using the clues and pictures provided:

Among tourists outside cathedral in this ruined ancient trading city on the Mediterranean: CARTHAGE (Tunisia) A bit submerged within this pearly white palace complex: ALHAMBRA (Granada, Spain) Outside this country music venue operational since late 1800s: RYMAN AUDITORIUM (Nashville, Tennessee) In this Navajo park, accessible by stagecoach since 1939: MONUMENT VALLEY (on the Arizona-Utah border)(4) Near this truly gigantic deposit of pink granite: ENCHANTED ROCK (outside Austin, Texas) Blending in with the “mission control” campus of this government agency: NASA (in Houston, Texas) Perched on this unique pathway across the Mississippi River: STONE ARCH BRIDGE (Minneapolis, Minnesota)(3)

We hinted that the monoliths had been relocated to either Aleppo, Syria; Los Angeles, California; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; or the underwater City of Atlantis. Plotting the monoliths’ pictured locations on the map we provided, and connecting those dots with three of the locations we gave (Aleppo, Sioux Falls, and Atlantis) yielded the shape of an arrow pointing at the last location we had given: Los Angeles. And that’s where the vile villain had taken the loot.(2)

But who was the crook? Putting the monolith locations’ names together spelled out the answer:

CARTHAGEALHAMBRARYMAN AUDITORIUMMONUMENT VALLEYENCHANTED ROCKNASASTONE ARCH BRIDGE

“CARMEN S” — that is, Carmen Sandiego, burglar extraordinaire. And with that solvers could identify several confirmatory clues: We wrote, “I warrant you’ll have plenty of time to locate the loot and catch the crooks” — referencing the three key items that have to be found in each episode of the “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” game show: the “loot,” “warrant,” and “crook.” Plus, the Conundrum’s closing line (“Where in the world could these monoliths be?”) was reminiscent of the show’s theme song.

And speaking of the Carmen Sandiego theme: Sean Altman, founding leader of Rockapella — the show’s house band — kindly recorded an a cappella video clue for us based on the song. It’s out of this world. Check it out below:(5)

Zoz solved first — keeping up his first-solver streak for the fourth consecutive week — followed by (counting complete solves ahead of partial ones) Ellen & Bill Kominers, Ross Rheingans-Yoo, Murray & Nancy Stern, Zarin Pathan, Lazar Ilic, Michael Thaler, and Dan Morrison.(1)

(No news on the gingerbread monolith, however.)

A Conundrums Gift for the Holidays

With the help of the brilliant Jessica Karl, we put out a series of bonus “24 puzzles” on December 24th, as part of the annual Bloomberg Opinion Advent calendar. Check them out on Instagram here!

The Bonus Round

The history of NORAD’s Santa tracker; smashing 2020 to pieces with domino genius Hevesh5. A supermassive gingerbread black hole (hat tip: Ellen Dickstein Kominers); an AI that plays both chess and Pac-Man; plus a Mandalorian holiday light show. Traditional Japanese wood joinery (hat tip: Shengwu Li); squaring the circle (hat tip: Mike Nizza); and playing Bach on an enormous xylophone. The economics of Lego (and the top 10 Lego sets of 2020); making your own bismuth crystals; and winning at YouTube. Message in a bottle found after a century and a quarter; goat math mystery solved after more than 270 years. Turning colored pencils into a globe. And inquiring minds want to know: Why can’t “Jeopardy!” stars solve sports clues?

(1) The site of the 1939 movie Stagecoach.

(2) The only arched stone bridge across the Mississippi River.

(3) Apologies to solvers who found this part of the puzzle frustrating – we should have added one more location to close off the arrowhead, rather than trusting people to connect the dots visually. (Although also, note to solvers-in-training: the "Atlantis" location could in principle have been anywhere in the ocean, so the fact that we placed it where we did should have been a clue that its specific location was significant.)

(4) You might also want to see Joe Biden's cameo on the Carmen Sandiego show.

(5) And thanks again to Spaceman Spiff and Lara Williams for their extraordinary help in constructing the Conundrum!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.

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