The Top Ten (IQ#103) blog by Charybdis
Over the last year (2008) I have come to realise that the average length of grid entries in some of my puzzles can be a bit on the low side for some tastes. Sympathy (under Tools) has a Statistics window which I hadn’t used much in the past but which handily calculates Average Light Length and I was getting into the habit of consulting it more frequently to check a grid was OK in this respect..
I think it was probably while checking this statistic for some puzzle in progress that my eye was caught by the bar chart of letter frequencies in the grid. I’ve occasionally looked at this in the past, mainly if I thought that a potential pangram was in the offing, but I hadn’t ever given it much further thought beyond that..
For some reason this time it occurred to me you might use this letter frequency information thematically and, geek that I am, I found this possibility quite exciting. So. I looked at the 12 or so most frequent letters in the puzzle I was working on and using these letters I consulted TEA to see if any useful words or phrases might be thrown up.
E.g. if the ordered letter frequencies had been EARSINODLTFH (as in my most recent puzzle), you could type in ……….;EARSINODLTFH and get a list of all the 10-letter possibilities, words such as DISENTHRAL or THRENODIAL etc.
No doubt there exist umpteen crosswords themed around the word ‘threnodial’ but luckily for me there was also a G in the actual mix I used and ELO RATINGS looked like one promising avenue.
ELO RATINGS, for the uninitiated, are how the relative strengths of chess players are calculated but my earliest thoughts were to eschew this entirely and to follow the idea of ELO = the popular beat combo called Electric Light Orchestra. For a start, I liked the use of The Top Ten as both a reference to pop music and to the ten highest letter frequencies.
By the time I settled properly to considering setting the puzzle I was on my August hols in the beautiful pueblo blanco of Montejaque in the Sierra de Ronda in Andalucia, and although I had my laptop (with Chambers CD-ROM and Sympathy) I had no internet link.
However, I was near as dammit certain that ELO had a Number One with ‘Mister Blue Skies’ and I felt confident enough of this that I decided to go ahead and use this in the grid. (All right, you clever clogs out there. I can see you shaking your heads. I can hear you tutting. Keep it down, will you?)
[By the way, totally tangentially, the highlight of this holiday was driving back to Montejaque one night when an Iberian Lynx ran across the road in front of us. Amazing thing to see as there are only about 100 of them left in the wild -well, 99 now, I suppose. (Only joking!).]
Anyway, I always do regular Save As’s on Sympathy as I go along and by the time I’d put into the grid MISTER, BLUE, SKIES, LETTER, INGRID, ELECTRIC, LIGHT and ORCHESTRA and a couple of other words, the file was called “TheTopTen04 ESARILOTudmNGc” (as you can see, quite a long was from the desired ELORATINGS…) but, with lots more saves along the way, I was able to progress to such exotic file names as “TheTopTen07g too many S’s ERLOISTAdcNG” (!)– which was already looking like a dead end since, while I might conceivably get L and O to overtake R by the end of the grid fill and to get A to overtake I and T, I also needed to get all of T, A, N and G to overtake S . There was already enough of the grid filled that I could see this wasn’t going to happen. What’s more I still have a vague memory of words like SASS and ESSES presenting themselves as the only possibility for continuing the grid fill! Nightmare!
Actually getting a grid to come out with ELO RATINGS in the right order turned out to be a lot tougher than I’d realised to start with and I had to go completely back to the drawing board quite a few times (using interactive grid-filling throughout). There were far too many L’s needed and keeping the T’s and S’s down proved tough as well but I gradually realised that I also needed, wherever possible, words with a good choice of alternative unch letters in the grid so the frequencies could be tweaked towards the end to come out right.
Eventually I got there (we’d moved on to Sevilla two weeks later by this time!) and here’s the evidence:-
When we got back home I just checked on the net that all was OK with Mister Blue Skies. Unfortunately (yes, you can stop tutting now) I found that Mister Blue Skies was never a number one hit and in any case it was “Mr. Blue Sky”. “Aaaarggghhhh!” I think comes near to expressing my reaction. But were we daunted? Yes, we bloody were!
Anyway, I found out that ELO (albeit with Olivia Newton John) DID have a Number One hit (Hooray! Phew!) and it was called Xanadu, and having seen it performed on YouTube I can tell you that I can’t remember ever hearing such a piece of old tat, not ever in all my life. Until then I’d sort of quite liked what little ELO I knew.
On the other hand … it fitted the theme! So Xanadu it was, and it entered the grid hidden across a few unches so as not to be too obvious.
By this time I was feeling I’d been wrong to entirely skip the proper chess meaning and a little Googling told me Kasparov was reckoned to have the all-time highest ELO Rating, so as a World #1 he also went in the grid (hidden again).
I forget now why I decided to avoid the word FREQUENCY in the grid – probably not to give the “letter frequency in grid” game away too soon, but mostly I think I liked there being an element of a countdown (nine letters of FREQUENCY plus the Number One) – but this meant that I needed a way for solvers to arrive at the letters of the word ‘frequency’.
The appearance of ORCHESTRA (=CART HORSE*) was suggestive – one of my all-time favourite anagrams, no idea why – and then I discovered that ELECTRIC = LECTRICE* so I decided to see if I could get a total of 9 anagrams in the grid and, although the second grid still proved tough (it helped to get as many L’s as poss in from the start and to avoid unnecessary S’s like the plague), filling it with anagrammable words surprisingly proved not a problem at all. They kept presenting themselves at every turn. Maybe there are more anagrams out there than you’d intuitively suspect. And it was a nice, not too demanding, challenge to set clues to CART HORSE, LECTRICE etc (i.e. anagrams of the actual words in the grid) with the letters of FREQUENCY as the first letters of each clue. That way, FREQUENCY ought to appear as a Penny Dropping Moment reasonably late on in the proceedings.
Can’t think what else to add, short of displaying the 76 part-completed grids – probably a minority interest! Just a final word of warning – DON’T look up that YouTube clip of ELO and ONJ’s Xanadu. . It is jaw-droppingly awful. You have been warned!