Kominers’s Conundrums: The Empire Strikes Back on a Holiday

This Tuesday — May 4 — we celebrate Star Wars Day (May the “Fourth” be with you)! But this year, there’s trouble brewing: Conundrums intelligence has discovered that the Galactic Empire is working on a fourth Death Star.

A rebel agent codenamed “Zigzag” discovered this while embedded inside the Empire’s Office of Major Initiatives. He managed to get a copy of the plans, which he’s smuggled to our non-canonical outpost in a galaxy far, far, away with the help of trading droid BL00M-Bg. These documents reveal that like its predecessors, the new Death Star has a critical weakness. This time, though, it’s not the usual thermal exhaust port — the Empire does learn from its mistakes, eventually.

Here’s the transmission. Can you figure out what the new Death Star’s weak point is? That’s this week’s answer — and the fate of the galaxy depends on it!

++++++++++++++++++++ BL00M-Bg Terminal Readout ++++++++++++++++++++

FROM: SOPLRNYE [[3-LEVEL CODENAME ENCRYPTION USED]]
SUBJECT: Death Star weak point

This is the part of the Death Star plans that record where the fatal design flaw is. But it’s encoded with the new Empire’s “combination-lock” cryptosystem, which I haven’t been able to crack.

The text is here:

Z CYZY ZYZZ ZYYZ ZZ ZYZYP Y ZZYZ UCZ YZY ZYZZ FYY YYZ ZYYZ ZYYZ UZYZ ZYYY YYYY YY YC CYYY YZGC ZZ YZ UYYUC YYZ YYZ ZZ PYZ YYYG Z YZY ZYZZU ZYZ Z YZY ZYZZ YYYU ZZ YZ PUCY ZZF ZU UUYZY ZYZZ YZ Z FYYYY YYYZ Z YZY ZYZZ ZYZY FYZ GYYYZ Y YYZF UGZYZYP ZY ZY ZYYC CFUZYZY YZZZ ZU YZY ZYZZ ZYZYC ZZ YZ Y ZZGG YZ ZZZ UCZZ Z PYZY GUZYZZ YZFBF YYY ZZZ ZZZU ZYZY FCYYY ZZYZ YZYYB ZZ Z YZY ZYZZ YZB UYYY ZZYC Y GBZZYYCU YYYY UZZZ YZYU YZZY YZP Z YZY GUUZYZZCU ZZYZ BZ YZYY UUZZ YZ CZZ BCYZGU YYYYC ZZ YZ Z ZYZP UYZ YYY YZ YYYY ZYUP ZZ UYZ BFYZYYU YZYYG FZZY UPZZ CYZ YZZY ZZZ ZZ ZZY YYYY YYYC PZ ZZ YZ YZ

And the four-step decryption instructions are as follows — but unfortunately all the instructions after the first one seem to be encrypted as well.

  1. SHIFT ALL LETTERS BACK ONE SPACE.
  2. ESPQ MFUUFST JO OBNF PG CPVOUZ IVOUFS XIP DBQUVSFE IBO TPMP. UIFO EFDSZQU XJUI NPSTF DPEF; Y NBSLT UIF EPU.
  3. YXX EBFTATAFBBTYYYFAE / FTFYYY XYXO BBA / BTTB EABABBTTAOTFAFBABBYXXBAFABBBBF TOOAYYYTTTTTTBAB / BYXATOE ATFEYYY TTYAABB!
  4. UTRYSE TRYTHTRYE TRYFTRYORTRYCTRYTRYE TRYTRYETRYQTRYUATRYTITRYON;TRYTRYTRY THTRYENTRYTRY RTRYTRYEAD ETRYVERY FTRYOURTH TRYLTRYETTER STRYTTRYTRYARTRYTINTRYGTRY TRYTRYFTRYROTRYTRYM TTRYHETRY TRYFTRYTRYOUTRYRTHTRY.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Using the letter shifting tool at https://www.dcode.fr/caesar-cipher/, we noticed that if you apply the first instruction to the text of the second, you get: “DROP LETTERS IN NAME OF BOUNTY HUNTER WHO CAPTURED HAN SOLO. THEN DECRYPT WITH MORSE CODE; X MARKS THE DOT.”

But we’re not sure what to do with that — although we did find a Morse code tool on the same website.

Once you’ve figured out the new Death Star’s Achilles’ heel, there’s one more puzzle you can solve: Can you identify agent Zigzag’s secret identity?

If you manage to stop this dire threat in time for the Star Wars holiday special — or if you even make partial progress — please give us a yell at skpuzzles@bloomberg.net before midnight New York time on Thursday, May 6.

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 9.

Previously in Kominers’s Conundrums…

For Oscars weekend, Zarin Pathan and I put together 14 surreal-sounding pseudo-sequels. Each one “followed up upon” a classic Academy Award winner or nominee by adding a word at the end of the title in a way that completed a common word or phrase but led to a rather different movie concept.

“2001 Super Six helicopter war movie reimagined as set in Australia,” for example, referred to “Black Hawk Down Under.” Meanwhile, “Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bletchley Park code-breaker who solves enigmas with a look of serious determination” referred to “The Imitation Game Face.”

The full set was as follows:

  • Stuttering Albert works hard to become George by overcoming a comic-bookish conversation cloud (6) = “The King’s Speech Bubble
  • As “McMurphy,” Jack Nicholson rallies patients to oppose a controlling nurse who is stopping them from accumulating substantial retirement savings (3) = “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Egg
  • Matt Damon plays troubled math genius who is only allowed to go after big game during certain well-defined time periods (6) = “Good Will Hunting Season
  • Jazz-themed romance set in Los Angeles, with a bittersweet ending in which the protagonists’ real estate holdings are administered by a single individual (5) = “La La Land Trust
  • Globe playwright finds a muse in Viola, leading him to write sonnets and concoct an associated tonic — No. 9 (6) = “Shakespeare in Love Potion
  • 2001 Super Six helicopter war movie reimagined as set in Australia (5) = “Black Hawk Down Under
  • Dystopian Stanley Kubrick picture in which Beethoven music adds extra flavor to the recipe (4) = “A Clockwork Orange Zest
  • Burnt Briton without a name tells his story to compassionate nurse and is eventually recognized as being an index case for a novel epidemiological study (4) = “The English Patient Zero
  • Classic Poirot mystery transposed from railroad to congestion-priced highway (4) = “Murder on the Orient Express Lane
  • Harold and Eric race to Vangelis on a large red ladder truck (6) = “Chariots of Fire Engine
  • Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bletchley Park code-breaker who solves enigmas with a look of serious determination (4) = “The Imitation Game Face
  • Secretive, suit-clad agents tracking alien activity hear warnings in the Arctic regarding stepping on hard-to-see slippery surfaces (3) = “Men in Black Ice
  • Audrey Hepburn plays flower seller who loses her accent, joins high society, and dances all night in order to help bettors win at the casino (4) = “My Fair Lady Luck
  • Middleweight boxer loses fight against inner demons and obsessive jealousy but eventually makes it big as stock investor (6) = “Raging Bull Market

Stringing together the first letters in each of the tack-ons (indicated in bold above) spelled out the name of “an award category we’d like to see the Oscars add:” BEST PUZZLE FILM.

Zoz* solved first, for the fourth week in a row; Lazar Ilic* and Ellen Dickstein Kominers* tied for second;  and up next were Michael Thaler*, davidad, Ashna Pathan*, Zach Wissner-Gross* (FiveThirtyEight’s Riddler, who submitted an emoji solution), Rostyslav Zatserkovnyi*, Michaela Wilson*, Shara & Siddharth Batliboi*, Elizabeth & Douglas Grove*, Purvin Darbary*, Fernando Raffan*Brooke Sample*, and Ruth Hofrichter & Matthew Smith*. The other 23 solvers were Josh Elman; Darren Fink & Dina Teodoro; Luke Harney*; Maya Kaczorowski*; Paul Kominers; Eric Mannes*; Daniel Miron*; J Moore*; Niranjan*; Julie, Kevin, and Michael Perusse*; Ross Rheingans-Yoo; Benjamin Salop*; Hyeon-Jae Seo; Gordon Shearer; Nur Banu Simsek; Adam Slomoi; Spaceman Spiff*; Matthew Stein*; Nancy & Murray Stern; Robbie Stern*; Sanandan Swaminathan*; Franklyn Wang & Cindy Yang; and Dylan Zabell*. (Asterisks denote solvers who nominated category winners.) And thanks especially to Jack & Rosie DeStories for test-solving!

And who should win the Oscar for Best Puzzle Film? 

We really enjoyed all your nominees, including puzzler classics like “Primer” and “Clue” and a few we weren’t aware of, such as “Fermat’s Room,”  “Mulholland Drive,” and “The Last of Sheila” (first nominated by Moore, the Perusse family, Ilic, Sample and Ellen Dickstein Kominers, respectively). “The Game” and “Knives Out” (first nominated by Zoz and Harney) were fan favorites, with more than four nominations each. Thaler pointed out that there is literally a film called “Puzzle”; Stein, meanwhile, reminded us about an awesome augmented reality puzzle game that was used to promote “The Dark Knight.” 

But after careful deliberation (and a bit of re-watching), the Conundrums Academy (aka Zarin Pathan and yours truly) chose to award the title jointly to “Memento,” “Inception” and “Wordplay” (first nominated by Zatserkovnyi, Wissner-Gross and Robbie Stern). And at Conundrums, Nicolas Cage is always in season (see these  puzzles for a reminder of why), so we’re also giving a special shoutout to “National Treasure” (first nominated by Wilson).

The Bonus Round

AI (sort of) wins its first crossword puzzle tournament; mantis shrimp; avoiding pentagons; and all the memes in “The Emperor’s New Groove.” Math jokes (hat tip: Christopher Snyder); the Pokémon card crisis; really old whiskey (hat tip: Ellen Dickstein Kominers); and making money off your own meme (also hat tip: Ellen Dickstein Kominers). Plus inquiring minds want to know: How well does Magnus Carlsen know classic chess (hat tip: Josh Krieger)?

We’re counting “Starkiller Base” as a third Death Star because – serious talk here – “The Force Awakens” and "A New Hope" are pretty much the same movie.

Why do they even write this stuff down?

I would watch that.

Their submissions were time-stamped within seconds of each other, which is below the margin of error of our processing system.

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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