2869: Puzzles

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
(Redirected from 2869)
Jump to: navigation, search
Why couldn't the amulet have been hidden by Aunt Alice, who understands modern key exchange algorithms?
Title text: Why couldn't the amulet have been hidden by Aunt Alice, who understands modern key exchange algorithms?


Many children's books, especially those read by Randall's generation, feature in-story puzzles. Some of these hold up pretty well decades later, like the ones in Ellen Raskin's award-winning mystery books for kids. Others, however, are…a lot less impressive. Randall doesn't specify which children's books have "terrible" puzzles, but the Hardy Boys series by Franklin W. Dixon, the Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol are all strong possibilities. (The Riddler in the 1960s Batman TV series famously played the trope for laughs.)

In the panel, characters from one such book (presumably a made-up example) are contemplating a puzzle involving somebody's Aunt Gertrude. The characters guess Gertrude's amulet must be hidden in the Ground, because that starts with a G, like Gertrude, and that they should diG a hole. These guesses are not very practical; it seems unlikely that Aunt Gertrude either (A) chose to be known indefinitely by a G-name purely as a clue about where she hid an amulet, or (B) was inspired by her own name to choose a vaguely relevant hiding place. Even if she did, there are many other words that begin with G, such as Gulf, or Gull, or Get-a-Glider-and-Go-to-Greenland, and any of these would be just as plausible "clues."

Moreover, once deciding, even more implausibly, that this "clue" is telling them to dig a hole in the ground, because 'dig' ends with a G, the search is not significantly narrowed as the world is a big place and "underground, somewhere" leaves a huge range of possible locations. As for the comic, perhaps it could be a Garden, which the characters don't figure out. If you're still lost, you may need at least one more letter to narrow the options down. All this leads us to Randall's point — that these connections made by the characters are tenuous at best and are unreasonable to make, especially as part of a riddle.

Aunt Gertrude is probably named after a supporting character in the Hardy Boys series; the Aunt Gertrude in that series didn't set puzzles, but main characters Frank and Joe Hardy frequently had to decipher clues to find hidden objects. The name may also be a nod to Gertrude Chandler Warner, whose Boxcar Children are an adventurous group of mystery-solving kids like those in the comic.

The title text references Alice, a fictional character commonly used in discussions about cryptography. In those discussions, Alice is often sending and receiving encrypted messages, and she would be expected to be able to make a better puzzle than the one shown in the comic. The title text may also be referring to AES, a common modern algorithm used for encryption that begins with A. In context, finding a key to decrypt a phrase with AES would be a reasonable puzzle. Alice and Bob and other characters from the same set are the reverse of case of Aunt Gertrude, in that they have been given their names to reflect a convenient A, B, C, ... pattern. They have been mentioned previously in xkcd, like in 177: Alice and Bob. Using modern cryptography in lieu of riddles in children's stories was also mentioned in 370: Redwall.


[Possibly teenage versions of Hairy, Jill, Ponytail, and Cueball, listed from left to right, are standing in a line. Hairy is in a thinking pose, Jill faces Hairy, and Ponytail and Cueball are walking to the right; Cueball is pointing off-panel.]
Hairy: Aunt Gertrude must have left a clue to the amulet's location.
Jill: Hmm. Wait a minute.
Jill: Gertrude. G.
Hairy: As in "Ground!"
Jill: And "diG a hole!"
Ponytail: I'll get a shovel!
Cueball: To the yard!
[Caption below the panel:]
Some of the authors of books I read as a kid were terrible at designing puzzles.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


Aunt Alice is obviously a reference to the standard Alice / Bob / Eve crypto protocol characters. 20:00, 18 December 2023 (UTC)

Anyone know if this is an actual scene from an actual children's book? Or is it just sort of an ad hoc representation of how these things might typically go? -- MeZimm 20:27, 18 December 2023 (UTC)

Something about this reminded me of *The 39 Clues*? Which I've never read, so I don't know why. Looking them up, Wikipedia says book 1 leads to the clue "iron solute", and the fact that it specifically anagrams to "resolution" (sounds backwards, I'd think the final one would be "iron solute") - never mind that it could be many, many other things, such as "tonsure oil" or "ursine loot" (honey) or "oriole nuts" or "urine stool" or lots of other less-immediately-interpretable-as-an-ingredient things. And never mind that this clue was supposedly hidden by Ben Franklin, old enough that I wouldn't trust anything that relies on very specific spellings. I would assume that other puzzles within the book, and the rest of the series, are of similar dubiousness. 04:15, 19 December 2023 (UTC)
"Aunt Gertrude" suggests *The Hardy Boys* series of children's novels. I don't recall this particular scene. 20:38, 18 December 2023 (UTC)
I don't think Aunt Gertrude ever set Frank and Joe a puzzle herself, but it is certainly evocative of several puzzles in the Hardy Boys. 21:07, 18 December 2023 (UTC)
Can anyone with stronger Hardy Boys knowledge add some examples? I never read the Hardy Boys books or similiar kid mysteries, so it's hard to imagine how thin those mysteries got, to be compared to "character name -> random letter/word association -> answer" as used here without some examples. Mneme (talk) 22:57, 18 December 2023 (UTC)
I read seven of the earliest Hardy books plus about that many around #100, give or take. They didn't use a lot of word clues, it was more about who looks shady/innocent (but isn't), interviews, half-overheard crime plans, footprints, vehicle tracing, a suspect lost a hat/glove/crossbow, etc. The only word clues I recall off the top of my head were: shipment abbreviations (easy), a crook deathbed-confessing where he hid his loot (but the boys search the wrong building, confusing them), a bit of Morse Code (bonus for Frank sending it to Aunt Gertrude, and she understood despite the fact that she hated the idea of her nephews getting into danger), and two or three other coded distress signals (which the boys and/or their expert detective dad had already discussed beforehand). The most obscure of those signals I can recall was from The Mystery of Cabin Island -- Google that name plus "alley cat" and you'll see how difficult it was (i.e. not at all) for them to guess that shady-guy-of-the-week Mr. Hanleigh was dangerous. (there was also a time when their computer-geek friend cracked a password, but it wasn't really a puzzle -- the computer belonged to a medieval faire technician, so I think the friend just brute-forced medieval words until he got in) 00:18, 19 December 2023 (UTC)
The Mystery of Cabin Island included a substitution cipher that was not trivial (at least to crack by hand). The cipher told the location of the stolen medals. The Yellow Feather Mystery used a platen (a piece of paper with cutouts which, when placed on the proper source text, reveal the hidden message) as the device to reveal the location of a dead man's will. I also recall a time when the Hardy's pilot friend Jack Wayne was kidnapped and could only communicate in an obfuscated radio message that was something like 'beware the bite'. Turns out he mean the homophon 'bight', like a curve or recess in a coastline (it was a geograpical reference). There was a public domain Hardy story published earlier this year, The Crypto Mine Cypher, which involves a group of thieves that are stealing electricity to run a crypto mine as well as stealing NFTs and crypto via a drainer smart contract. Perhaps that would be more to Randall's liking? -- 06:21, 19 December 2023 (UTC)
The Secret of the Lost Tunnel has a good example of a multi-layered mystery involving codes. A piece of paper is hidden in an ammo box. The paper itself is a sort of book cipher that when decoded just gives a clue to location ("Find coin in iron"), not much better than "diG a hole in the Ground", really. Of course this was a reference to hiding a lot of gold in some cannon balls.

Could someone add a category for "Alice and Bob" comics? Right now, the list seems to be 177, 1323, 2440, 2691, 2869. 22:07, 18 December 2023 (UTC)

I'm not convinced that 2440 should be in the list; at best, it's using similar naming patterns. BunsenH (talk) 22:48, 18 December 2023 (UTC)
Eve is clearly mentioned in the title text (Evangeline the Adulterator, which is clearly a reference to Eve from 177).
Is Evangeline the Adulterator clearly a reference to Eve? BunsenH (talk) 23:57, 18 December 2023 (UTC)
Well, 2440 doesn't mention anything about Evangeline the Adulterator except that she is named Evangeline and presumably adulterates. But in 177, Eve (not Evangeline) is the adulterated, not the adulterator. That would be Alice, since Bob was in a relationship with Eve, not Alice. It feels disingenuous to say that they might be the same person; there's no proof they aren't, but there are no reasons to think they are. GreatWyrmGold (talk) 00:52, 19 December 2023 (UTC)
I've always felt that xkcd fans are better than even conspiracy theorists at finding connections that don't exist172.69.6.15 13:26, 19 December 2023 (UTC)
Conspiracy theorists don't actually exist, though. They're all actors spreading lies to distract from what's actually happening! 14:09, 19 December 2023 (UTC)
Clearly there had to be some way to blame the actor's strike, for all this global unrest recently. Thanks for clearing that up!  ;S
ProphetZarquon (talk) 21:18, 19 December 2023 (UTC)

I think Aunt Vergenie would leave a clue that has some specific content and requires some effort to understand, but isn't simply impossible to figure out without the key like Aunt Alice's. 05:04, 19 December 2023 (UTC)

Is it worth putting in this scene from Batman 66 as a similar example? Even if it is A. TV instead of book and B. Making fun of the idea itself


Commissioner Gordon : It could be any one of them. But which one? Which ones?

Batman : Pretty *fishy* what happened to me on that ladder.

Commissioner Gordon : You mean where there's a fish there could be a Penguin?

Robin : But wait! It happened at sea. See? C for Catwoman!

Batman : Yet, an exploding shark *was* pulling my leg...

Commissioner Gordon : The Joker!

Chief O'Hara : All adds up to a sinister riddle. Riddle-R. Riddler!

Commissioner Gordon : Oh, the thought strikes me. So dreadful, I scarcely dare give it utterance.

Batman : The four of them. Their forces combined.

Robin : Holy nightmare

I feel like the explanation needs at least one example, from somewhere. 10:21, 19 December 2023 (UTC)

Same immediate association here. You soooo beat me to it...TVTropes doesn't call it "BatDeduction" for nothing. 18:48, 19 December 2023 (UTC)
I think the 1966 Batman is a bad one, because that is mocking the whole phenomenon. But Batman Forever is an example, where this was seemingly played straight. Batman jumps from the solutions to Riddler's riddles, which are obvious but don't say much to the fact that the answers aren't the point. The riddles are pointing to numbers, and then when the digits are combined in the right way, they form an alphanumeric code. The code spells out A,M,R, which then is supposed to be read as MR E —> mystery, and enigma is a synonym for mystery. Ergo Edward Nigma is the Riddler. The kicker is that it was completely obvious that Nigma was the Riddler, if one put three seconds of thought into how the Riddler was committing his crimes, instead of making a blind leap from the riddles.
Aunt Alice did, but when she told her will to her lawyer Bob, Eve listened in and got the tresure before... --Lupo (talk) 13:28, 19 December 2023 (UTC)
Actually, I feel like 1966 Batman being also a reference to this sloppy mystery design trope makes it MORE relevant, not less. Though I agree about Batman Forever (except it wasn't A M R, it was M A H E, but the 1 of A and the 8 of H were to be combined into the 18 of R. I forget if anything linked those clues to make this logical, but I doubt it, LOL!). NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:48, 30 December 2023 (UTC)

This reminds me a lot of the classic E.Nesbit book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_the_Amulet

However, I don't think they had an aunt Gertrude. I read tons of Hardy Boys books but I don't remember Aunt Gertrude ever giving clues like this, either. Gtschemer (talk) 16:11, 19 December 2023 (UTC)

A lot of the books (& even comics) I've read were pretty old, & it strikes me that the opposite of what this comic claims, seems more accurate in my experience? Older stories have a lot of legit world-war \ cold-war tactics depicted, whereas newer stories (including those meant for "adults") often have something absurdly simple; presumably so that the most naive readers can get an "ah-ha" moment? ProphetZarquon (talk) 21:29, 19 December 2023 (UTC)

This one made me think of the Encyclopedia Brown books. Most of those puzzles were baffling if you thought about it for more than 5 minutes, like the stolen money was stored in stuffed penguins in a museum display on the artic wildlife, the reason that Brown figured that out was penguins were only in the southern hemisphere, which doesn't explain where the penguins to be stuffed with money came from in the first place. 16:26, 20 December 2023 (UTC)

You said it yourself: The southern hemisphere... Ultimately. ;) 17:31, 20 December 2023 (UTC)

Hang on, Cousin Mallory is trying to eavesdrop again. 18:26, 20 December 2023 (UTC)

The important question, though: is it Gertrude as in gif or Gertrude as in gin? 10:17, 29 December 2023 (UTC)

It's actually Gertrude as in gnome.... 11:43, 29 December 2023 (UTC)
Trying to start an argument by using the same kind of G twice? I see what you're doing... NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:40, 30 December 2023 (UTC)

I grew up with Enid Blyton (British author, I assume my mom's familiarity with British stuff led to this), loved them, particularly the Famous Five and the Adventure series, I'm sad that I can't remember which side of this particular coin Blyton lands on, LOL! I FEEL like they were great, fun books? So maybe Blyton was decent at designing mysteries? Both WERE stories of this ilk, children on their own finding, investigating, and solving mysteries (not sure about Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew, etc, but they were NEVER at home, always travelling, LOL! What kind of kids travel and explore unfamiliar locations without adults?) NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:40, 30 December 2023 (UTC)