Listen With Others

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Listener No 4534, A Secret Unlocked: A Setter’s Blog by Harribobs

Posted by Listen With Others on 13 Jan 2019

Back in the olden days, before computer games and even before colour TV, one of the more popular entertainments in our house was the comic. At various times we subscribed not only to the ubiquitous Beano and Dandy, but also to Buster, Cor!, Sparky, Whizzer and Chips, Bunty, Jackie, Mandy, and the more educational choice of our parents, Look and Learn. Sometimes, as a bonus, a comic would include a free gift, such as the noisy ‘Flying Fizzer’ in the Beano and the even noisier ‘Banger’ in Buster. But on one occasion the free insert was a card with holes in it which, when placed over a text inside the comic, revealed a secret message. Such was the inspiration for A Secret Unlocked.

The Wikipedia entry for cryptography leads eventually to the subject of steganography. It makes interesting reading: for example, during WWII the UK government was so anxious about messages being hidden in knitting patterns that it banned people from posting them overseas. But my favourite story was that from Herodotus in Histories, where Aristagoras has to cut the hair from the head of Histiaeus’s servant to reveal the secret message.

The trickiest part of the puzzle’s construction was coming up with the preamble template. It needed to provide an introduction, not too stilted, while containing the right number of occurrences of the letters H,A,I,R, reasonably spaced. The slightly awkward ‘popped up’ in the preamble was a late replacement, needed because I had overlooked the ‘R’ in ‘turned up’.

Some solvers were mystified by the instruction ‘USE TEMPLATE AND NOTE WHAT HAIR CONCEALS.’ It could have been clearer, but I reasoned that solvers could act as cryptanalysts, and deduce what the template was.

I can’t remember seeing steganography used in a Listener crossword before, and was surprised to see the excellent puzzle Telling Lies by Somniloquist, published just the previous Saturday, using a similar technique – cutting out some words and folding to reveal others.

Thanks, as ever, to Roger and Shane for their rigorous vetting.


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