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Archive for December, 2009

4061: 50-50, a Setter’s Blog by Phi

Posted by phiology on 12 December 2009

I suppose the seed for this one goes back to a couple of Christmases ago when I spent a fair bit of time cataloguing my puzzles. The following year I created a notebook consisting solely of the solution grids to my Listener puzzles, accompanied by handwritten comments (this blogging thing will never catch on, you know…). I’ll be adding 50-50 to it once I see the comments forwarded by John Green.

Between them, those actions threw up the fact that Disorders would be my 49th Listener puzzle (some of them were collaborations, which leaves me with the option of a 50th Phi puzzle, I guess). And with my turning 50 in July 2009, it suddenly seemed a good idea to try and get the next puzzle in before the end of the year.

A double 50. Or 50-50. And that happened to be the title of a puzzle rejected very early on in my career – it would be nice to get a puzzle with that title in eventually. 50-50 led to the idea of a double L, and then a little bit of playing around with grid sizes to see how big each L could be – I didn’t want lots of short words, so there was a minimum size for each L.

Next, the thematic element. Other 50-year-olds were an obvious target. I thought first of others born in the same month as me (July 1959) – that would have given me composer James MacMillan and pianist Joanna MacGregor (born the same day, as it happens) and Andrew Marr the journalist. But they wouldn’t really fit together in the Ls, and it was also clear that I wouldn’t get the puzzle published in July(too soon after Disorders), so it was off to Wikipedia and ‘1959 births’.

I selected several names I knew, and was pleased to see that two of them were of the same length and could form the backbone of the big L. A little tinkering with the third name allowed me to slot it into the smaller L. Since there wasn’t any other restriction on choice of words, the grid could now be completed. Wonderfully, the unchecked letters could be formed into a single word, and while GERUND was not specifically linked to the theme, it was still an encouragingly fortuitous circumstance. I realised that anything to do with living people was likely to cause some claims of ‘Unfamiliar!’, but that seemed a bit unavoidable with a puzzle based on 50th birthdays. Each name chosen was a significant figure in his/her realm of popular culture, but, as I’ve often noted, popular culture is now so large and fragmented that very few bits of it are truly popular.

Now the thematic clue element. Something that linked the two Ls seemed a good bet, and I cast my eye over the word lengths, at which point the ‘Wrong Number’ style of idea came to mind. The unusual shape and symmetry of the grid could be a problem, so something that enabled you to partition answers might not be a bad idea. Pairing the answers so that X+Y was matched to Y+X might also give solvers a way to sort out what otherwise could be difficult clues. (I was slightly concerned to find that those clues came very easily, which I always take as a bad sign – what’s easy for the setter is generally hard for the solver.)

And then finally, before finishing the clues, another glance at the 50-year-olds. I’d chosen them because they were all musicians. The two women were clearly singers; N’Dour sings and plays instruments (and acts, which is the field in which I’ve seen him), but SINGER seemed a good common definition, and neatly there were six six-letter answers in the big L, but none in the smaller. So that was a way to give an extra hint, that wouldn’t leap out from a casual inspection of the clues.

That all looks very smooth, and in fact it was – everything just seemed to slot together neatly in a very pleasing sequence of serendipity. Ultimately I was after setting a reasonably hard puzzle (in general, I think most Listener regulars find my puzzles at the easy end of the spectrum, so there was no harm in giving their expectations a jangle), but one that was hard all the way through, and without recourse to spotting hidden messages, or guessing at cryptic interpretations. The thematic elements may have been slightly out-of-the-way for some (most?), but the research facilities on the Web are easily equal to that task, and I think it not unreasonable to assume most solvers have access (and you got SINGER and GERUND as hints). I find myself slightly taken aback by one setter (who otherwise enjoyed the puzzle) baulking at using Google, saying that he preferred that thematic material should be available on his bookshelf. But why is consulting your own book any different from consulting reference material in another form?

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50-50 by Phi

Posted by shirleycurran on 11 December 2009

While Phi celebrates, the perplexed solvers hang on by their fingernails and scratch their heads in bafflement.

This was our second Listener Phi (even if it was his fiftieth) and we didn’t find his ‘Disorders’ easy, but he is a familiar setter and has never caused us great anguish in the past. Just pleasure. The Junior 8X8 easy clues coffee break solving team was not over-anxious – YET. We saw the grid and read the preamble and consternation dawned.

I have imagined a scenario. Phi produces a standard grid, with clue numbers, fine clues and bars etc. to celebrate this anniversary and Mr Listener says, “Far too kind. Solvers are becoming hooly namby pambies. Cut the bars, cut the clue numbers, no clue lengths. While you are at it, you might as well separate most of your definitions from the wordplay. In fact, why bother with a grid at all? Give em ‘ell!” – and so he does! Or perhaps hitting the half century has simply made Phi change tack and decide to be a draconian curmudgeon for his next half century. Either way, we suffered.

Act 1: We threw up our hands in despair with memories of a maze that we never even managed to get into about a year ago – and, as usual, we hadn’t even read the preamble correctly. Just a few regular clues yielded solutions: TASTE, EFFED (and we did), SUMMA, and RESELLER. We saw ESCHALOT, CEORL and OCTAVIA of those that were separated from their wordplay (but could we find the wordplay? Oh dear, no).

Act 2: Kind friend pointed out that the wordplay and definition partners were in sets, so that if we found one of a pair, we had the other. With lots of help and prompting, we began the difficult process of attrition – grinding down those clues and cold-solving. This wordplay was tough, and I struggled to understand where the anagrind was in ‘Enlargement of gland must start to atrophy – doctor finally called in’ (for STRUMA). The genius of this clue was explained to me, ‘Enlargement of gland = STRUMA, made up of STUM (another word for MUST, as in unfermented grape juice) + A (start to (of) atrophy), with R (last of doctor) called in, so ST(R)UM-A?  Brilliant!

 Act 3: With three-quarters of the clues solved, we addressed the question of reflective symmetry. A suspiciously large number of clues had five letters and they were significantly placed near the beginning and end. A diagonal line would conveniently split an L. Fumbles with a putative L grid were fruitless. 50-50? Could it be two Ls? One nestling inside the other to preserve the symmetry. There’s a problem there. I quote Don Manley’s Crossword Manual, ‘Nowadays we would expect a grid to show total connectedness with no isolated portions’. (Clearly the Listener applies the same rule – as we found later, though I imagine a setter as experienced as Phi could have sneaked round a few of the hurdles had he felt like it.)

Act 4: This was fun – fitting those solutions into a couple of Ls. TEND and DETH caused some heartache until it became clear that there were two words linking the Ls (SPLIT END and DETHRONE). Now the obscure clues began to fit into the gaps. NINE-EYES, ADEEL, LOOK-SEES and MEHDI.

Act 5: Strange-looking gaps were left; those unclued names had to be found. Our clever friend had finished by now but I spent time hunting through the initial letters of all the clues that had more than five letters. How did he know to go straight to those with six letters in order to produce SINGER? The singers appeared very quickly (though ignorance here had never heard of any of them – I was surprised to learn that my French friends all know of YOUSSOU NDOUR!)   Obviously singing is not the talent that Phi shares with these three so what is it? Aha – they were all born in 1959. Not only that, the way their names fitted together coupled with that unusual bending of SUZANNE VEGA gave us two more Ls to add to the two clued ones and the two L-shaped blanks. Thematic in a graphic way. Superb Phi!

Epilogue: we were invited to shade or leave blank those unused cells. Out with the pencils – this one requires celebration (even if it is only of the fact that we completed it). Here’s to Phi’s next fifty!

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4061: Phi’s Birthday Puzzle (or What the ’eLL)

Posted by Dave Hennings on 11 December 2009

OK, so let me read that preamble again … for the fourth time! The solution fits within the grid (a 14×14 carte blanche). Well, that’s something I suppose, but some cells are unused, and it doesn’t say how many. Bars must be added (perhaps they give a 50-related special pattern). The grid has reflective symmetry, but it doesn’t say whether that’s vertical, horizontal, or both. Some clues (it doesn’t say how many) give the definition of the answer at the appropriate place (presumably the standard location), but wordplay for an answer of the same length elsewhere … except word lengths are not given! These are called 50-50 clues. There’s another paragraph about unclued names A, B and C, but my brain is in overload at the moment. At least there are some clues!

Well, if you ask me, this looks like the puzzle that is going to whittle down what I suspect is a fairly large number of all-corrects this year (which so far, I think, includes me). I decide to give a very detailed description of my solving (or non-solving) process, much as Chris Lancaster did in his early LWO blogs. I hope this doesn’t bore you too much!

I number the clues consecutively to start with, 1-23 across and 1-23 down, and decide to work through the clues in sequence. At least that’ll give me an idea of how tricky they are.

1ac MASERS: a 50-50 clue perhaps, but I can’t see the definition ‘instruments’.
2ac CEORL: another 50-50 clue possibly, and yes there’s ‘freeman’ a few clues down, so ‘poet’s to follow’ defines something.
4ac, hidden in Soviet Asia, is VIET perhaps (but it’s not in Chambers) or ETA.
9ac is AGHA, first and third of August plus HA for hoc anno, giving ‘chief officer’ at the last clue down.
10ac wordplay leads to ENSEW (good old ESNE reversed plus W), and that goes with ‘poet’s to follow’ at 2ac.
13ac looks like RESELLER with ‘subsequent trader’ defined at 4dn.

That’s it on the acrosses, and although not many solved, the clues don’t look fiendish. However, this symmetry is bothering. RESELLER means it can’t be horizontal mirror symmetry and PAYS/ENSEW means it can’t be vertical either. DO’H!! It’s about one of the diagonals!

Onto the downs, and 1dn is obviously PORTICO, which means 1ac isn’t MASERS. How about PAYS, French for country and, yes, it also has a second meaning of ‘smears’. PORTICO also means that we have NE-SW diagonal symmetry.
2dn’s dawn music is AUBADE minus U plus R gives ABRADE, so that crosses with 1ac.
4dn is the RESELLER, and there’s no R in 1ac or 2ac so the R is probably unchecked in the top row.
11dn wordplay leads to SENOR, the Spanish gent at 14ac, and bottom beginning with W looks like WORST.
17dn is AFEAR, E is (s)AFAR(i), and 20dn is SUMMA, a hidden reversal (or whatever the up version in a down clue is called), and OPIE.

OK, time to think. The preamble says there are two parts to the grid. There’s lots of occurrences of 50, so perhaps Roman 50, the letter L, is in the grid and divides it into two. In other words runs down from the top and takes a 90° turn to the right.

It has taken over an hour to get here. Is this about par for the course, or am I slow?

4ac wordplay is ETAS and fits at 8dn; I think the native there is RUSS, but I cannot unravel “cutting head from flowers on top of stem” (something ending RUS plus the top of Stem). 6ac is TASTE which fits in the top left nicely.
17ac has an anagram of THE COALS for its wordplay, and that is ESCHALOTS, which goes with ‘onions’ at 15ac, two clues above. Hmmm, these two clues seem to have swapped their 50-50, giving AEROSOLS. And since these two words must therefore be in different parts of the grid, I’m guessing that there’s an 8×8 square ion the top right corner with ESCHALOT in it.
13ac’s ‘aware’ must be 8 letters, so could (according to Mrs B) be informed, sentient, etc, but sentient it is to fit with the wordplay at 4dn.
21ac LAMEDH and our second six-letter word, so the initials of these clues probably give what Phi and the three have in common. 23dn, oh and I can slot AFEAR in.
18dn EFFED, a lovely clue, mainly ‘cos I like rude ones! The bottom right gets finished off with RILLE, word played at 5ac by L in RIFLE – F, and LENDL.

It looks like the initials of six-letter clues gives .ING.R, and the long unclued across entry ends FLEMING. Googling singer fleming gives us RENEE FLEMING who was born in 1959, thus having one thing in common with Phi, assuming he isn’t a singer. I should have got MENDHI before now, and this leads me to EM + BEDS at 20ac.

At this point the diagram looks like this:

I finally decode BRUSH OFF, but it’s too short for its space and there’s an I.U left over. I finally get solve a scoundrel in part (RAT in PT) and realise that WORST has been wrong all this time, and PRATT needs to be relocated. However, this is nothing to the cry of pain I utter as I work out Bring down the rocks, interrupting layabout leading to DETHRONE.


Ten seconds later my grid looks like this:

And one visit to the photocopier and a re-entering of clues to date, and I have this;

After all that, the rest of the grid falls into place reasonably quickly, despite YOUSSOU N’DOUR, whom I’d seen and heard many times with Neneh Cherry and 7 Seconds but never known (or understood) his name. A wonderfully imaginative puzzle from Phi, so thanks for that. I’m now thinking that it won’t be the tie-break that I expected before solving … perhaps that will be revealed over the Christmas weekend. I cannot wait.

Oh, and the resolution of cutting head from flowers on top of stem … it’s just TRUSS without it’s head!

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BAT by Schadenfreude – PIN number

Posted by shirleycurran on 4 December 2009

The Junior 8X8 easy clues team may have been struggling with the Listener crossword for almost a year but we are still beginners. When faced with a preamble that begins, ‘This puzzle uses a code in which 20 letters are encoded to a permutation of the same 20 letters’, then tells us that extra words in the clues ‘spell out an encoded instruction’, we naively imagine that the entire crossword and the instruction are going to be in code. How we are going to decode this is not evident: some sort of Bletchley Park  deciphering of letter frequency?

Next, we decided that either the across or the down clues were going to be encoded, thus producing a permutation of 20 letters.

We laboured under this delusion for rather too long, cold solving across clues in the top part of the crossword and down clues in the bottom half, but none that intersected. Finally VOLED, STEERS and AIR-TO-AIR intersected with ERUDITE and we realised that we were on familiar ground; plain, straight-forward solving – and the code?

At last, we saw that those jumbles on lines 1 and 42 were the key to solving the code that was appearing as a long string of very odd letters alongside our solved clues. We saw that 8d. SLIDING could become only GLIDING or ELIDING and opted for the E (with Bletchley Park letter-frequency thinking).  That led us to ENTER as the first word of the encoded instruction – three more letters found – and a potential CELLS at the end of the command – two more letters.

A few well-placed letters and a lucky guess gave us PIN then PERSONAL IDENTIFICATION NUMBER. Sixteen letters of the key! Not home and dry yet though. We had ?AR? for 37d. (Fish vitalises female cat) The V was coming out to give us an S on CELLS but where was this fish that could be a female cat? GAR + F was fairly convincing (GARB when deciphered) but Chambers doesn’t even have Garfield, never mind GARF. Who would have thought that BARF (vomit) could have a synonym – ‘cat’? We were in a similar snarl for those two Scottish words SAIM (SAIC) and CLOW (CLOU).

If I make this sound easy, I am giving a false impression; it took us hours. However, we eventually had ENTER DECODED RO?FO?R AS NUMERALS IN VACANT CELLS. We had found words that fitted the definition parts of most of the clues, but couldn’t suss out the word play and find our missing letters of that RO?FO?R (as usual!)

We were left with the alternative of working on the code and its permutation to see which letters were left to be paired off in the two groups . Of course, the W leapt into view. (40ac. Liberal to be thrown out of very angry committee? That Indignity can be avoided) Again, who would have thought that ‘very angry’ would appear as ‘evil’  in Chambers, to justify our EVITABLE – and to tell us that ‘I’ decoded as ‘W’! ROW FOUR, indeed. We should have spotted that hours ago.

How did Schadenfreude do this? Our attention was at last drawn to letters we would not normally consider even glancing at: RIEETSVACRDNSS – TWO ONE SIX THREE

FNAPPAOTR, Schadenfreude!

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