Kominers’s Conundrums: Take a Crypto Break With Ancient Traders

With Elon Musk tanking crypto last week, the team at Conundrums has decided it may be time to look into more tangible alternative currencies. 

Luckily, Conundrums archaeologist Paul Kominers recently discovered an intact premodern tablet belonging to an ancient commodities trader. We passed it along to the translation team, which was able to determine that the trader was about to make a big, big move. Unfortunately, however, even our expert translators found some of the idioms — shall we say — puzzling. Now it’s up to you.  

According to the tablet, the currency of the day was gold coins, and one egg was worth one gold coin. Other market rates on the day in question were as follows:

  • One CURLY NEW ENGLAND FERN (10) is worth two BLEATING ANIMAL (4) plus two TART YELLOW FRUIT (5).
  • For three TART YELLOW FRUIT (5), you can buy two BLEATING ANIMAL (4) plus one BALLPARK LEGUME SNACK (6).
  • Seven COMMON BEACH FIND (5) can be exchanged for ten TART YELLOW FRUIT (5).
  • For a combination of nineteen DINNER SEASONING (4) and three MARK KURLANSKY BOOK (3), you can get two ENGAGEMENT RING SPARKLER (7).
  • Meanwhile, four ENGAGEMENT RING SPARKLER (7), five HEN FRUIT (3), and six MARK KURLANSKY BOOK (3) are together worth a whopping one hundred and fifty-four COMMON BEACH FIND (5).
  • One ENGAGEMENT RING SPARKLER (7) will buy you a bundle of four BUILDING MATERIAL (4) along with two MARK KURLANSKY BOOK (3).
  • And if you gather up ten TART YELLOW FRUIT (5), two BUILDING MATERIAL (4) and one MARK KURLANSKY BOOK (3), you can trade them for five ROMAN PARTY WRAP (4).
  • Got forty BLEATING ANIMAL (4)? That plus three HEN FRUIT (3) will buy you five ENGAGEMENT RING SPARKLER (7).
  • Alternatively, you can get one ENGAGEMENT RING SPARKLER (7) in exchange for four ROMAN PARTY WRAP (4) plus four BLEATING ANIMAL (4).
  • And if you’re short on BLEATING ANIMAL (4), you can get four of them for one ROMAN PARTY WRAP (4).

By cross-referencing this new tablet with other materials in our archives, the translators were able to figure out how many letters were in the name of each commodity; we’ve included that information in parentheses.  Also, we’re confident that each given description matches only one commodity — for example, we’re sure that “TART YELLOW FRUIT” is the same thing everywhere, even though we’re not certain what it is. 

So can you help us figure out what the trader expected to get out of all the following items after trading them in for gold coins? That is this week’s answer.

  • Dead Sea mineral × 38
  • Torres island × 5
  • Once-in-a-generation champion × 40
  • Junky used vehicle × 100
  • Fireplace fodder × 24
  • “Million Times” band from Boston × 5
  • Icelandic fish × 9
  • Baseball locale × 5
  • Elephant treat × 100
  • Easter hunt objective × 3
  • Solid-liquid ice cream topping × 28

You will have to determine what the trade goods were, of course. With all those strange idioms floating around, it’s hard to know what was available for trade, and how that relates to the market rate information. But we’re sure you can work that out with a bit of thinking — and maybe an abacus or two. 

Once you’ve figured out what our trader was going to cash out each set of items for, you might have to “cash in” somehow to find the final answer.

And after you’re done with that, there’s a bonus puzzle you can try and solve: What was our trader going to do after exchanging everything?

If you manage to master this marketplace — or if you even make partial progress — please let us know at skpuzzles@bloomberg.net before midnight New York time on Thursday, May 20.

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. And don’t forget to sign up for our Conundrums email list!

Programming note: The next Conundrums will run on May 23. We’ll also be doing a series of puzzles at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, starting on Monday, May 17.

Previously in Kominers’s Conundrums…

For our Mother’s Day Conundrum, we gave clues to a series of common words — many of them “mother” or “spring” themed. To make solving a bit more fun, we made sure that each clued word could also form a well-known word or phrase with some of the words at the end of the clue text.

“Waterfowl Bostonians might have to make way for,” for example, clued “DUCKLINGS” — as in “Make Way for DUCKLINGS.”

We also indicated two letters for solvers to pull out of the answer to each clue, and explained that half of those letters (one from each answer) would spell out the answer to the full Conundrum — which was “a trait shared by our favorite mothers around the world.”

  • What it takes to stand up for what your compass tells you is solidly moral (7 | 3,5) = COURAGE
  • A place where you shouldn’t leave toys, lest people crossing from room to room trip on the mess (4 | 3,4) = HALL
  • Place in New York where theatrical performers put their shows on (8 | 4,6) = BROADWAY
  • Stem tuber, or a kid who spends too much time on the couch (6 | 3,4) = POTATO
  • Type of board that serves a company in a role that’s almost parental (8 | 4,8) = ADVISORY
  • Some aspire for their children to be this kind of artist, whom you might hear at a Billy Joel concert  (7 | 1,6) = PIANIST
  • Revolutionary 1950s-60s Court, or burrow for a rabbit (6 | 3,4) = WARREN
  • Sendak’s Kitchen, or a time when you might ask your parents to read one more story if they give you an opening (5 | 1,2) = NIGHT
  • Waterfowl Bostonians might have to make way for (9 | 3,8) = DUCKLINGS
  • Our planet, which we sometimes call “mother” (5 | 2,5) = EARTH
  • What mothers know — every day, and especially this Sunday (4 | 3,4) = BEST

Once you had worked out the clues, you still had to figure out which letter from each pair contributed to the final answer. But solvers quickly noticed a rather straightforward pattern: It was the second letter every time.

Indeed, reading those letters from top to bottom spelled out “ALWAYS RIGHT,” which is not only a trait of our favorite mothers, but also a description of the set of letters that gave the answer — we always chose the letter on the right.

(Then of course there were 11 other letters left over; we’re not revealing what they’re for yet — but you might want to hang onto them.)

Zarin Pathan solved first, followed by Franklyn Wang & Cindy Yang, Noam D. Elkies, Zoz, Ellen Dickstein Kominers, Michael Thaler, Ruth Hofrichter & Matthew Smith, Luke Harney, Nelson Niu, Lazar Ilic, Barb & Nathaniel Ver Steeg, Carolina Brettler & Michael Perusse, Nancy & Murray Stern, and Sanandan Swaminathan. The other 16 solvers were Anika Ayyar, Dan Caprera, Nicol Crous, Filbert Cua, Elizabeth Grove, JC, Maya Kaczorowski, Chuey Ng, Fernando Raffan-Montoya, Ross Rheingans-Yoo, Nur Banu Simsek, Adam Slomoi, Spaceman Spiff, Michaela Wilson, Dylan Zabell, and Rostyslav Zatserkovnyi. And thanks especially to Iolanthe Stronger and Paul Kominers  for test-solving!

The Bonus Round

A virtual island escape game from the Sherlocked team; “Black Hole Math Closes Cosmic Blind Spot” (warning: mesmerizing animations); and also, find the snake! A vanishing octopus; birds forging feather patterns (hat tip: Ellen Dickstein Kominers); as well as quokkasHevesh5 explains vaccination math with dominoes. And did you notice that yesterday’s date, 15.05.2021, has an elegant and unusual form of symmetry when written in digital clock font?

Yes, he is my brother.

We’re planning to review their performance -- some of these idioms don’t sound ancient at all!

Yes, she is my mother!

Still my brother.

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.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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