The GIF is an animation showing how retired Butler University math professor Jeremiah Farrell designed the Times crossword for Nov. 5, 1996. The center clue was "Lead story in tomorrow's paper, with 43-across." Well, Nov. 6 was election day. So the lead story was going to be which candidate, Democrat Bill Clinton or Republican Bob Dole, won the presidency.
Sure enough, some folks filled out the clues and found the answer at 39-across to be "Clinton elected!" Wow! Was the New York Times so good they could predict the outcome of presidential elections? Probably not, although they could read opinion polls and conclude that the former senator from Kansas was not likely to win. But that's not what was going on in the puzzle.
Was it an example of the paper's supposed liberal bias now infecting even the innocent crossword puzzle? Not really, because some people had filled out some of the same clues with some different words and got the result "Bob Dole elected." Farrell had designed the puzzle so that seven of the "down" clues had two answers that each differed by only one letter apiece. Depending on which set of answers you chose, you either predicted the 1996 election or you were told to go sit in a tank with Michael Dukakis.
Farrell has designed quite a few puzzles for NYT puzzle editor Will Shortz. Despite his specialty -- and degrees -- in math, chemistry and physics, Farrell edits Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics and apparently finds his affinity for numbers no barrier to being clever with words. Word Ways doesn't have much online content, but the little bits available at the link look like a lot of fun.
Not enough fun to make me take a math course for a grade, mind you, but fun nonetheless.