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Listener 4079, Sine Qua Non: Setter’s Blog by Shackleton

Posted by Listen With Others on 17 Apr 2010

I had a very pleasant chat with Dave Hennings over breakfast last month, the morning after the annual Listener dinner in Chepstow, and I promised him a setter’s blog for my soon-to-appear puzzle (which, pleasingly, was scheduled by the Listener editors to appear on the anniversary of Beethoven’s death). So here it is.

The germ of the idea for Sine Qua Non happened quite quickly. I knew of the connection between the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth (V) and the Morse code for V (something that was exploited in BBC broadcasts during the war), and I was idly wondering if there was enough traction in this for a puzzle. Looking at the anagrams of ‘• • • —’ gave me L,B, and F, and I immediately saw the possibilities of LvB. Turning to ODQ, I saw the wonderfully succinct “MUSS ES SEIN?” quotation associated with the F major string quartet, and I knew I had a puzzle.

The following gradually emerged from the initial idea. There would be a Morse code message embedded in the clues somehow. There would be some hint to discover the Morse code connection between L,V,B,F and this would lead to LVB and F-major highlighted in the original grid. There would be a morphing of the F-major quartet to the Fifth symphony in C minor, and the final ‘rendition’ would at show DIT-DIT-DIT-DAH. As DIT-DIT-DIT-DAH would be glaringly evident in the final grid, I also wanted to disguise it a little bit to lessen the possibility of arriving at the solution without fully understanding the theme. The details took many months to work out as I explored a large number of ideas. Unfortunately these ideas are sitting unrecoverable on a crashed hard disc, and as I actually worked on the puzzle about three years ago (I remember starting work on it around the time of the Listener dinner in 2007), many of those ideas are long forgotten. I do remember that I had discarded around 25 different grids/fills by the time I arrived at an approach I was satisfied with.

Some of the main details I had to work out were (a) how to render the Morse code, (b) how to indicate that all four anagrams of ‘• • • —’ played a role, (c) how to disguise the DIT-DIT-DIT-DAH, (d) how to reinforce the fact the final grid would be rendering Beethoven’s fifth, and (e) what exactly should appear in the final grid.

I tackled (a) first, and for a long time I was fixated on the possibility of using various combinations of dashes, full stops, ellipses, colons, and exclamation marks, with an instruction to look at the (possibly rotated) punctuation. In the end these ideas seemed too complicated, and I discarded them when the much simpler idea of representing the code with dots from “i’s” and the dash from the “t’s” occurred, especially since the hint “DOT ONE’S I’S AND CROSS ONE’S T’S” was verbatim in Chambers. Also this phrase had a good length, corresponding to the number of across or down clues one might expect to have in a thematic 13×13 grid. As the phrase was somewhat oblique, I needed to give a further hint about the Morse code, and I came across the delightful ‘IDDY-UMPTY’ which was short enough to leave the appropriate number of clues for holding the Morse code. As the clues turned out, the misprint for MAGS in 1D was ambiguously E or I (a known but not deliberately-crafted ambiguity) and, in a personal communication, I was amused to find out that one solving team, in attempting to unravel the code, had somewhat optimistically searched the internet for a person named Eddy Umpty.

Given that some clues were going to be holding hints relating to the Morse code, and the remaining clues would contain the code itself, it was clear that the preamble would have to provide the instruction about the four anagrams of “…-“ and their role. The preamble caused a fair amount of comment in the feedback I had – “Why not institute an annual award for the most impenetrable preamble?”, and “a preamble that initially makes one want to lie down in a darkened room, but all makes sense in the end”. Although there is a risk that a complex preamble puts off would-be solvers from tackling a puzzle, my feeling, shared by several solvers, is that the gradual enlightenment that occurs as layers are peeled off adds to the solving enjoyment, so I make no apology for it. It was one thing that delayed the appearance of this puzzle for quite a while, as the Listener editors were worried about the complexity, and suggested some improvements to it which necessitated an additional round of test solving.

I wanted a more explicit way to validate the connection between L, V, B, and F, and, searching in Chambers, I found the apposite PAEON. This allowed me to kill two birds with one stone, as I could position PAEON prominently in the middle of the DIT-DIT-DIT-DAH thus disguising the denouement, and position the replaced letters diametrically opposite. This, in principle solved (b) and (c) if I could find a way to show the transformation. The term DIAMETRIC EXCHANGES was the most accurate hint I could come up with that would fit in the ‘normal’ clues, and it gave me the opportunity to emphasise the V=Fifth symphony connection by hiding the message in the 5th letter of the 5th word, thus solving (d).

At this point I had most of the constraints for the grid:

– 23 across clues, and 27 down clues
– The partially swappable DIT-DIT-DIT-DAH and PAEON leaving real words after swaps
– Just one copy of the letters L, V, B, and F
– F MAJOR changeable to C MINOR leaving real words

Desired (just my de facto setting preferences):
– Symmetry
– Good unching (in the event, the grid was close to being Radixean – see a previous blog),
– Good words (not too many inflections)
– No excessively long connected set of bars
– Reasonable average entry length.

Of course the steps above didn’t occur in strict order – any set of ideas has to be validated for feasibility by constructing trial grids, and testing out if clueing devices are workable. As the grid and fill started to take shape, I noticed that the key LIVEBOX and A MAJORI entries used some of the rarer letters, and I wondered if I could make the original fill pangrammatic, something I was able to do without too much extra work. I was especially pleased about FONE with the F giving the key of the original, as it forced understanding of the theme, with A ONE, BONE, CONE, DONE, GONE, and even HONE (in German notation) as possible substitutions.

I take a long time to write clues. I like to get a full set of clues written initially, and then I chip away at them one by one over several weeks or months, picking in turn what I consider to be the weakest, and looking at other ideas until I’m satisfied. In the end I usually end up overwriting most of my original clues. I was in my element for the ‘misprint in definition’ clues, this being my favoured device, but the Morse code/5th letter of 5th word clues were very tough – apologies for the unavoidably otiose treatments in one or two cases.

Finally, the title. I did consider ‘H’ (Beethoven’s Fifth) as being a confirming title, but I thought that this might lead to some ambiguity earlier in the solving process, given that four other single letters were in fact the key to the puzzle. In the end I went with a thematically paeonic (DIT-DIT-DIT-DAH) title that resonated with Beethoven’s answer to the original question, and hopefully also served as an answer to the questions and complexities raised by the preamble.

Many thanks to all who have taken the time to provide feedback, either via John Green, or on the message boards.

Shackleton 17/04/2010

3 Responses to “Listener 4079, Sine Qua Non: Setter’s Blog by Shackleton”

  1. Mick H said

    Thanks for a fascinating insight into the crafting of a fantastic puzzle. The use of the fifth letters of fifth words, an incredible self-imposed constraint on clueing, emerges as a beautifully economic way to steer us the the 5th symphony at the same time as indicating the message.

  2. Pat said

    As Mick has said, an absolutely fascinating insight. Many thanks for writing it. I enjoyed the puzzle immensely – almost as much as Much Ado About Nothing, one of my two favourites of last year!

  3. This is the kind of bewilderingly good puzzle that I try to recount to non-solvers to try and enthuse them about The Listener. Your long hard work paid off in spades. Really special.

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