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Listener No. 4328, Reductio ad Absurdum: A Setter’s Blog by Stick Insect

Posted by Listen With Others on 1 February 2015

Most setters’ blogs usually start with a description of the years of effort that went into the construction of the puzzle followed by the years of waiting for publication. Not this one! From conception to publication was about six months. Observant readers will have noticed that my previous Listener (4299: Godly Mix-up) was published in June 2014. This puzzle was inspired by the feedback information received from John Green, the Listener’s checker and statistician, for that puzzle.

I suspect most readers here will be well aware of the service John provides but, for those who aren’t, John sends setters a detailed analysis of total entries, those incorrect and details of how they went astray, plus passing on all comments received from solvers. This is of course a fantastic and unique service to setters, which I’m sure we all greatly appreciate.

On this occasion, John also put in a personal comment – “When I finished this myself … I thought it might produce my first zero-error puzzle check (this being the 1,471st) but as usual it was not to be”. Which of course prompted two thoughts: was it possible to construct a puzzle to which there couldn’t be a wrong entry, and could such a puzzle mark John’s 1500th check?

A blank grid would at least eliminate transcription errors so that should give a reasonable chance for error-free? I had toyed a couple of years earlier with an idea for a grid that would have a perimeter message which triggered erasing itself and other parts of the grid to reveal another message. It was going to be called No Preamble, the preamble would have read “No preamble is needed to solve this puzzle” and the letters of NO PREAMBLE would have been the unchecked letters of the perimeter message, which would have led to deletions and the emergence of another message. Needless to say, I couldn’t make it work with the constraints I’d imposed on myself. However, dredging up the idea, I thought the overall idea might still work if the perimeter message had fewer constraints: I tried a few possible options for that message, and then worked up a grid, again trying some options for the second message until a fill was possible. A few days work on the clues and I had a finished puzzle.

So could it be John’s 1500th check? I mailed the first vetter to ask if he would consider an expedited look for a January puzzle and whether a second publication with barely six months gap would be allowed. I claimed there was a good reason but of course couldn’t explain what it was. Prompt encouragement came back so off it went.

Four weeks later, Dipper’s puzzle (4306: Hosta la Vista) appeared which required erasing all but a few cells in the grid. I wondered if I had been scooped! That triggered some further correspondence from John (I had replied to his earlier comments by saying that the challenge of a zero-error puzzle was an interesting one, but without revealing I’d tried to construct one) who’d had the same thought, but again not to be. In that letter, he also told me that a blank grid submission had been tried during his time as checker (in 1995, well before my time as a solver) and that had got incorrect entries too, so by this stage I was thinking my idea had little chance of appearing.

However, a few months later, the second vetter mailed to say the puzzle was accepted for the proposed date. A few changes were required to clues and the final version was done. My thanks to both vetters for taking me on trust and accommodating the quick turnaround. And my apologies to other setters for jumping the queue – if it’s any consolation, I jumped over one of my own too (OK, it probably isn’t).

So to publication and the hope that the puzzle would provide a fitting thank you to John. As my younger friends might say, epic fail! There were a substantial number of incorrect entries after all, nearly all of them deleting the wrong rows and columns, thus being left with the wrong 6×6 letter matrix and missing the second (flagged) message. In fact, this received the highest number of incorrects for any of my Listeners to date. So much for that cunning plan! So, I will just have to content myself with thanking John for the great work here. I’m hoping at least that the correct entries were easier to check.

And perhaps someone will think of a way to produce an error-free entry for John’s 2000th check ….

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2 Responses to “Listener No. 4328, Reductio ad Absurdum: A Setter’s Blog by Stick Insect”

  1. I think you mean “zero-error”, not “zero-entry” (twice).

  2. Thanks, Roger… now fixed (twice).

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