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Listener No 4631, Seconds Out: A Setter’s Blog by Stick Insect

Posted by Listen With Others on 22 November 2020

Thanks to all those who’ve sent comments on this puzzle, which are much appreciated. A few wondered if it had been inspired by a famous NY Times puzzle where either Clinton or Bob Dole was entered depending on the 1996 election result. The answer is no, as I was shamefully ignorant of its existence. It’s a clever bit of construction so I’m glad to have been alerted to it. By a strange coincidence it was the inspiration for the previous week’s Listener. If you haven’t already seen it, Twin’s setter’s blog on this site provides a link: well worth a look. [This blog does as well now. Ed.]

This puzzle actually started from an idea in early 2016 when I thought a crossword based around the quotation “History is written by the victors” might work with the idea of losers being replaced by winners. US presidential elections seemed a good fit as it would be readily easy for solvers to check and looking at the list of losing candidates also provided a good number of real word surnames which could be clued without immediately making the theme obvious. Having got that far, I then actually bothered to check sourcing for the quotation and discovered, as with many “quotes”, that there’s no firm view on either wording or author and it doesn’t appear in the usual reliable sources. So it didn’t seem like it could be a fair theme to use and I shelved the idea.

I came across my notes for the above earlier this year while doing some sorting out – it was in the first couple of weeks of the first UK lockdown, so that may have been the impetus for the sorting. It was just about the point that Joe Biden had secured the nomination in practical terms, though not quite officially. The fact that the two main candidates would have the same number of letters immediately struck me as giving potential for either to be the final stage in a puzzle and I set to work to produce a grid using that as the centrepiece with the other winners I’d previously identified arranged around them. The symmetrical shape was serendipitous but strangely satisfying.

Of course, less than seven months from submission to publication is unusual for The Listener but I thought Biden’s relatively recently becoming the nominee gave me some excuse, so I sent it off requesting October 31 for publication and asking for the editors’ indulgence, which they were kind enough to give.

Naively, I hadn’t actually considered the possibility there might not be an agreed result in time for solvers to send entries, but as November got closer that clearly seemed to be a strong possibility. I mailed the editors, who had already considered that and come up with the “one’s best guess if necessary” addition to the preamble, which hopefully gave solvers enough flexibility, particularly those overseas with postal deadlines which meant submitting early.

Some have asked whether solvers “voted” more for Biden or Trump. I don’t have the numbers, so that will have to wait for the publication of the statistics next year However, based on the comments I’ve seen, Biden would have no trouble winning the Listener Solvers’ Electoral College.

As mentioned above, it’s great to get feedback on the puzzle and particularly helpful to know which clues worked well and which not so much, so thanks to all those who’ve done that. Overall, the favourite clue was to COX – a very nice &lit, for which the credit entirely belongs to Roger Phillips as it was one he rewrote. My thanks finally to both editors for their improvements and to John Green for his diligent analysis of entries and curation of feedback.

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L4631: ‘Seconds Out’ by Stick Insect

Posted by Encota on 20 November 2020

Fun! But am I tempting fate?

[update] Re-editing this 2 weeks later and I think I’ve got the middle row right. Maybe …

Cheers all,

Tim / Encota

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Listener No 4631: Seconds Out by Stick Insect

Posted by Dave Hennings on 20 November 2020

What’s this?! It was another Stick Insect puzzle following close on the heels of his purple cow puzzle in August, no. 4618 You Don’t Say. Well I do say. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that until writing this blog otherwise I might have wondered “Why so soon.”

Here we had misprints in most clues spelling out what needed to be used for the non-misprint entries. What’s more, it seemed from the preamble that we were in for a bit of leeway with 26ac. It seemed to imply that there could be one, two or three outcomes, or a best guess if necessary. “Sounds like the US election next week!” I sniggered to myself, immediately dismissing it as a possibility.

Of course, 1ac Steer behind crew, primarily (7) was obviously COX, despite the (7) and I wondered if the University Boat Race had been rescheduled from March! Next came an equally obvious 6ac Following old road, wade across (6) for FORD and it looked like the top row could be OXFORD. I checked Wiki only to be told that the race had in fact been cancelled.

A good smattering of entries came next despite some nicely misleading misprints: 10 ONION, 12 OMERTA, 14 ENTERAL and 17 EDDAIC. And then came 25ac Either end of Geordie parachute section (4) for GORE (probably helped by the (4) being correct) and Bingo! Good old Al Gore it was and my earlier sniggering proved unfounded.

I knew that Gore had been beaten by Bush (Jr) in 2000 and, dredging my memory, I got CARTER beating poor old Gerald Ford back in 1976. I had no idea who Cox was beaten by, but it turned out to be James Cox who was beaten by Warren HARDING in 1920. An interesting feature of that election was that Harding (Republican) won 37 states, which ran from the west coast to the east coast via the mid-west and the Great Lakes. Cox (Democrat) won just 11 states, all in the south and including Texas. How things have changed!

Filling the rest of the grid was reasonably quick, although not totally straightforward. My favourite clue was 38dn Ancient beret held up by Scrooge — bah! (4) for BEGO with beret the misprint for beset. The clue that nearly fried my brain was 21dn LA rodent passed through Universal occupying third of Tulare County (8) — (CUT + U) in (TU(lare) + CO) — I spent too long thinking that part of it was (Tu)L(are)!

Finally, the correct version of the misprints told us something that we already knew went in the grid: American presidential race winners, not losers.

And so to 26ac which could obviously be BIDEN or TRUMP, both providing real words for the entries they crossed. That requirement eliminated a whole slew of third party and independent candidates. But who should I enter? The polls indicated that Biden would win handsomely. On Wednesday morning, however, as I was getting my pre-Lockdown-2 haircut, I heard that he was only leading by 217-213 electoral votes and it was all up in the air. Depression set in as another four years of Trump made me feel quite unwell.

By Friday I was confident that Biden would win, despite all the hoo-hah from the Trump camp, so off he went to St Albans. But the thrid outcome mentioned in the preamble? Well that just referred to the date of the election. Nice!

Thanks for a fun puzzle, SI.

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Seconds Out by Stick Insect

Posted by shirleycurran on 20 November 2020

Stick Insect’s Purple Cow appeared in a Listener crossword just three months ago and that leads us to be very suspicious. To have another just three months later prompts us to conjecture that this one must be ‘date-related’ and we haven’t solved long before a few words that don’t fit their lights appear. COX, FORD, CARTER, SMITH, KING, DOLE. They provide an early ‘aha’ moment. But I am going too fast. I haven’t checked whether Stick Insect meets the oenophile requirements yet.

‘Rob the French charity no more (4)’ = DO LE. DOLE is one of our favourite wines. Originally from the Jura mountains it is now a speciality of the Swiss Valais region. But sadly I fear Stick Insect is referring to Bob Dole here, the ‘Second Out’ in the Bill Clinton electoral race.

‘Manufactured materials, lacking tellurium device to catch wine (7, two words)’ Now that’s more hopeful. A decanter, I suspect, but the other Numpty (the sailor/scientist) subtracts TE from an anagram of MATERIALS and announces that it’s a device to catch winD – a SAIL ARM. And we have another of our corrected misprints (which have already given us AMERICAN P…)

NUTMEG has appeared almost by itself as ‘Dali’s kid overturned stone cask (6)’ We upturned the GEM TUN so there wasn’t much hope of  wine there. This really had me head-scratching. I thought Gala was Salvador Dali’s ‘kiN. Stick Insect must really have been hunting for a misprint that would produce the N of PRESIDENTIAL (yes, we have guessed that and are ‘back-solving’). Fortunately The Big Red Book comes to my rescue. Dali n a tropical American tree related to nutmeg, yielding staves etc. and wax seeds [Native name].

I’m fearing that Stick Insect has to be relegated to the TT zone when we almost reach the end of the clues with a dismal alcohol drought. ‘Boer adult ejected from defensive ring (5)’ That’s a crossword favourite isn’t it? We remove the Adult from the LAAGER and get LAGER. All is well after all!” Cheers, Stick Insect!” We have to change our Boer to bEer.

That E also completes the message that has been emerging. PRESIDENTIAL RACE WINNERS NOT LOSERS. We were suspecting something of the sort, as our grid has produced HARDING, CARTER, MONROE, CLINTON, HOOVER, BUSH, POLK and clearly we need to insert next week’s winner in those five central cells. We needed Google to tell us who the remaining ‘Seconds Out’ were in those electoral races: GORE and CLAY, of course.

If we had a vote, I suspect that we would, like the US electorate, overwhelmingly vote for BIDEN. How can the US tolerate an antiquated electoral college system that allows a minority to potentially hold sway? Is that democracy? But this isn’t the place for a whinge. My small American granddaughter’s fifth birthday is on the election day and I believe she will grow up in a better world with a President who believes in a generous immigration policy and health care available for all. My vote is here!

Living overseas, we had to mail our crossword solution before it was all decided, but there wasn’t a lot of doubt in our minds and how we rejoiced when BIDEN had such a strong lead. I wonder whether any Listener solvers voted for the other fellow.

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Listener No 4630, Tip-top: A Setter’s Blog by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 15 November 2020

The inspiration for this one came from the famous Bob Dole / Clinton puzzle in The New York Times (see The Most Amazing Crossword Puzzle Ever and This Is Why if you’ve not come across it), where the clues led to two possible outcomes depending on who won the presidential election. I’d been very impressed by this idea when I heard about it, years ago, and had often wondered since if a similar thing could be achieved in the realms of the cryptic crossword. This sat in the back of my mind, without any serious thought of developing it, until the lightbulb moment when it struck me that the wordplay could exclude (or, as it turned out, replace) the ambiguous letter in each case.

As usual with my Listener ideas, I don’t recall exactly when I came up with just using I and O, but having had the thought I set about making a list of all the words I could come up with that could be treated in this way, and added to it whenever I thought of a new one – although, being impatient, I probably only made the list for a week or two before setting to work on the puzzle. In the end I came up with 35 possibilities, albeit some that were a bit of a stretch and I didn’t really want to submit if I could avoid it.

By far the harder exercise was getting all the words into a workable grid. I always wanted to have one whole row of ambiguous letters, but my first stab was to make it the central row: that proved far too hard, so I tried the second row from the top, and then the third when I realised I had plenty of words where the I/O ambiguity was the second or third letter of the word. Barring off as much as possible of the rows immediately above and below the unclued row was key to creating a grid that worked; another necessary step was finding words where the I/O came immediately before or (particularly) after a vowel, so that I could create what turned out to be TROMINO & NORN. Thank goodness for FOOL/FOIL & TOOL/TOIL.

What to use for the second unclued entry? I had the G from INCOMING/ONCOMING and therefore looked up every 13 letter word with a central G. I was briefly excited by HETEROGENEOUS, given that (Wikipedia informed me) a heterogeneous relation is a binary relation – but in the cold light of day it was clear that this was rather too obscure. Next I considered DOWNING STREET, with the obvious connection to 10, and came close to using it, but ended up with UNAMBIGUOUSLY because of its direct connection to what solvers had to do – this made the puzzle less complex, and allowed me to keep the preamble short.

I was delighted when I managed to complete the grid with almost all of my preferred I/O options, an acceptable average word length and the best set of unching I’ve ever managed (usually an area where I struggle). There also weren’t too many answers where the ambiguity was simply a change in tense (SHINE/SHONE & SMITE/SMOTE seemed like enough; to aid the definitions for those clues I did google every verb that is the same in the past and present tense, and cast / beat fit the bill nicely for those two). Imagine, then, my disappointment when I realised that the word NORK (coinciding with SPIKES / SPOKES in this version of the grid) had only one meaning, and not one that I would be prepared to include in a Times crossword! A bit of reworking, not as trivial as I’d hoped, fortunately did the job.

Some of the I/O options that didn’t make the cut include:

  • TITTER / TOTTER (lose balance)
  • MITE / MOTE (small thing in the Bible)
  • CHIP / CHOP (strike with a sharp blow)
  • SLIP / SLOP (loose garment)
  • MILLIE / MOLLIE (girl’s name)
  • TIMMY / TOMMY (boy’s name; I deleted this from my list of possibilities, though, when I remembered Tammy Abraham)

In the final list I played the definitions with a fairly straight bat, but there were a few more tenuous options – or perhaps more fun, depending on your point of view. Mostly the limitations of the grid made the decision for me, hence these were all cut, so I didn’t have to worry about the balance between raising smiles and raising eyebrows:

  • FLICK / FLOCK (The Birds, perhaps?)
  • DIES / DOES (gets executed?)
  • FIRE / FORE (possible warning shout)
  • STICKS / STOCKS (means of punishment)
  • BIAS / BOAS (what might constrict)
  • TIMES / TOMES (reading material)
  • TIED / TOED (perhaps having five on each side)

The last of these, which I completely forgotten before coming to write up this blog, was a shame to have lost. Ah well. It’s no coincidence that most of these were four letter words with the I/O as the second letter, since they tended to be the most useless for the purposes of creating a workable grid – no such words made the final cut. One – slightly blasphemous? – note I would add is that I wanted my definitions to be a little stronger than those in the CLINTON / BOB DOLE puzzle, which was a masterpiece but which included slightly dubious efforts like “French 101 word” for OUI / LUI and “Provider of support, for short” for IRA/BRA. Don’t think that would get into the Listener. The tricksiest definition I used was the one about creating radical upheaval, where I learnt with joy that ‘radical’ could relate to roots.

One of the possibilities that didn’t make the puzzle was TIP/TOP (‘furthest point’) but obviously I repurposed it for the title, and it also gave me the idea for a message spelled out using the starts and ends of clues; treating even and odd clues differently felt nicely thematic. This made the clues harder to write, naturally, which I think contributed to them being an easier set than some of the ones I’ve written: for example, I was happy with ‘Rub back softly to get this?’ but would have used an alternative to ‘Rub’ if I hadn’t had to start the clue with an R. Hopefully, though, they weren’t so awkward as to awake suspicion in the solver – I don’t think so.

Having decided to make the first unclued entry the binary representation of a number, I got lucky that the Listener is currently in a lengthy run where the puzzle number uses 13 digits in binary (anything from Mr E’s Some Assembly Required in 2010 to – I’ve read on a forum this week! – January 2089 would have been fine). I did play around with some more exciting binary numbers – e.g. alternate 1s and 0s – but I wasn’t prepared to wait the years / decades required, and in any case there was something about submitting a puzzle without knowing myself what the answer would be that made me chuckle. This may have been a joke restricted just to me and the editors!

Speaking of whom, many thanks as always to Shane & Roger for their expertise, as well as to John Green for his tireless marking. Thanks also to John, Paul & Stuart who test-solved the puzzle for me; they all told me that I couldn’t have ‘Guilty, perhaps, of foot leaving crease’ in an across clue, but I tried nonetheless (foot of the bed?). They were, of course, right, but fortunately the edited clue was an excellent suggestion that I was happy to have instead.

One final confession… since I was a few years old I have had a teddy bear called Pluggy, and I took great delight in slipping him into the bottom row of the crossword.

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