Listen With Others

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin

Archive for Mar, 2020

Listener No 4597, Bunch of Fives: A Setter’s Blog by Brock

Posted by Listen With Others on 29 Mar 2020

I find that one of the joys of teaching children chess is that the children often provide me with inspiration. Thinking how to explain something in a way that connects with them often results in new ways of looking at things. Similarly in the context of my inquisitive daughter. How do you explain how an “&lit.” clue works to a 7-year-old with a lack of vocabulary? The clue “Racetrack is the place to see this going round repeatedly (3)” was the result in my case.

A further question about how setters get ideas for and set a Listener puzzle led me to pick up her younger brother’s picture book and flick through. I stopped at the page with the starfish and the idea of “fish star” suggested itself to me – “PISCES in 5 arms radiating out from centre” according to my first written note. This end game survived throughout the numerous iterations of the puzzle idea while other features came and went. Some of these features were specific nods to the inspiration. References to the “star fish” Peach from Disney’s Finding Nemo featured in some of them, including in the test-solver version which had an additional message to find “Colour Peach” (thereby constraining all clues, but a step which probably would not add enough to the puzzle). A hidden reference to a character in one of my daughter’s favourite books was disrupted by a small change in clue order. A mention of my daughter in the final grid remains.

The grid went through many fundamental rewrites. The first attempt was a conventional one using squares, but after a few iterations, I quickly decided the theme would be enriched enormously by using a pentagonal grid. I printed a grid from the learning resources website by Jo Edkins at and drew in constraints with a central P, 5 Is and 100 cells in a diamond shape for a grid fill by hand.

The next stage was to produce a grid fill. I had a wide range of thematic ideas, which were mostly scoped out in the many hours sitting waiting as a chess parent while my children played in junior chess tournaments. One for which I produced an almost complete grid fill was the idea of 5 thematic groups linking to make words or phrases STAR – FISH – DIVE – BOMB – SHELL (…STAR etc). This was more time consuming as it was important that while producing the fill I made sure there were enough non-thematic words available to provide checking and a unique grid solution. I decided that I could do better, instead implying synonyms for starfish. My next completed grid fill had 5 of each STARS, ASTEROIDS, FISH, synonyms for HAND (implying five fingers) and shades of RED (herrings). I had constrained myself at this point to use only entries in Chambers. I was still not happy with this, however, as the items in the sets were somewhat arbitrary. Instead I decided that I should use very specific sets. After some research, and trial and error as to what would fit, I finalised the list as 5 brightest stars, 5 brightest asteroids, 5 fish most commonly eaten with chips (in UK), 5 fingers on a hand and 5 seas of the “port of 5 seas” (Moscow). I found that to squeeze all of the items in from these very specific sets required a slight increase in grid size.

My next step was to prove that it had a unique solution which could be determined from the entry answers and to make sure that those entries were adequately checked by other entries. At this point I had in mind that only the first squares of entries would be numbered. I stalled somewhat in this. I then put it aside altogether as I could not see a way forward for checking the solution, nor could I face doing yet another grid fill to avoid the ambiguity I spotted in one of the PISCES. It was when the first of the excellent SQUARE ROUTES® puzzles was published that I thought there may be a way forward, and I shared the basic concept with the authors of that puzzle, hoping that an extension to their setting software might do the trick. The answer was it would unfortunately require far too much computing time to extend from 5×5 square to over 100 cells using pentagons, but I was encouraged to continue looking for another way to make it work.

The idea of using initial and final squares as enumerations came to me, which allowed my daughter and I to check what words were needed in addition to the thematic ones to make sure that the grid was uniquely fillable. I dropped several words at this point to leave just 36 entries (all but 2 required to make it unambiguous). While checking that this worked, the idea of how to resolve the ambiguity in PISCES also occurred to me although it involved a very significant constraint on the clueing, it followed the thematic theme of 5 and led in a natural way to the ordering of the groups to indicate the synonyms.

Finally (almost) came the clue writing. As a solver, I find clues which are thematically related to the puzzle itself more satisfying. As a setter, I enjoy writing thematically constrained clues, but it can be hard work. Producing thematic clues using definitions which did not give the middle game away, having a specific first letter and a specific fifth letter in the fifth word was probably the biggest challenge I’ve had in any crossword to date. Clues such as the &lit one for CANOPUS (“Receptacle with truncated animal cover over?”) took many rewrites to get right. Even then purists would argue that it should be “and” not “with” in the wordplay reading (I vacillated between the two), but I think it can be justified by considering “cover” to be imperative. The clue to AZOV (“Inland Eastern European sea, fifth’s covered all over in water fern”) was another tricky one, and while the final version is sound, I would have preferred to have found a simpler treatment. I’d also have written clues to some of the non-thematic entries quite differently if I’d not had the constraint of an additional hidden message there in the original version.

Kudos to my test solvers, who are cited in the grid, for solving the puzzle in its trickier form before clues had been refined and more cross-checking words added. The Listener Crossword editors made the whole puzzle a lot more accessible to the typical solver by adding these additional words, as well as changing the second message which originally read CHOOSE THE RIGHT ARM POSITION. A few clues were removed, others trimmed and new ones introduced. Apart from the thematic clues, the only constraint now was that all clues should have at least five letters in the fifth word.

And the mistake in the clue numbering? I would have asked my daughter to check the proofs for me, if she had not been away at university. This puzzle is dedicated to my inquisitive daughter, now 20.

Posted in Setting Blogs | Leave a Comment »

Listener No 4597: Bunch of Fives by Brock

Posted by Dave Hennings on 27 Mar 2020

Only the third Listener puzzle from Brock, and eight years since the last with its Biblical misprint theme. What faced us this week was one of those grids that is almost impossible to describe in words although “lots of little pentagonal cells scrunched together in a roughly hexagonal shape” would probably do. The central cell was unchecked but needed completing in the endgame.

The answers, all clued, included five thematically-related sets of five. The preamble then proceeded to describe how the initial letters of clues would spell out an instruction, and the fifth letter of the fifth word would enable an ambiguity to be resolved. I always worry about the need to resolve ambiguities, especially if I complete a grid without stumbling across one.

The first set of five that I spotted were the stars, although I got some of them mixed up with asteroids, the next set I spotted. The stars were VEGA, SIRIUS, ARCTURUS, ALPHA CENTAURI and CANOPUS. I particularly liked the clue to number 4, True chaplain and a converted near neighbour? (13, two words) even though it was a straightforward anagram. The asteroids were CERES, VESTA, IRIS, EROS and PALLAS although the third and fifth were new to me.

So we had an astronomical theme, didn’t we? Well, no! The fish put paid to that with HADDOCK, PLAICE, SKATE, COD and HUSS.

All in all, my favourite clue, albeit quite complex wordplay was 58-47 Espresso? Head waiter, initially confounded, brings it in with milk (5) for WHITE — (E(spresso) H(ead) W(aiter))* around IT. The last one in, and not just because it was down the bottom of the grid, was 63-56 I amplify microwaves, keeping magnetic flux density lower (6) for IMBASE — I + MASE around B.

Finally, the other sets could be seen, with BLACK, ASOV, CASPIAN, WHITE and BALTIC Seas plus RING, INDEX, LITTLE, MIDDLE fingers and THUMB.

A bit of Google search finally uncovered what was going on. Asteroidea is the class of echinoderms, the starfishes which in turn led to sea stars, five fingers and, why not, fish fingers.

The initial letters of the clues taken in the correct order gave Centre and twenty-five others for the cells that needed to be highlighted. Fifth letters of fifth words in this clues, in a different order, gave Choose the rightmost S option. So, once the central P was inserted, all the PISCESes in the grid had to be highlighted to represent a starfish, with the S in the south-east corner being the rightmost one.

I must admit that I got a bit lost with all the sets floating around,, but I’m sure the published solution will make all clear, and probably more succinctly than I could manage it.

Good fun, thanks Brock.


Here’s hoping good health to all LWO readers and non-readers alike.

Posted in Solving Blogs | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Bunch of Fives by Brock

Posted by shirleycurran on 27 Mar 2020

Our first reaction on downloading Brock’s puzzle was delight at the original grid. Then there was a moment of consternation as we read the repeated ‘five’, ‘five-letter’, ‘fifth’ etc – eight times in all, including the title. We were left with no doubt that we were going to find something to do with that number to highlight in our completed grid.

Brock’s clues were fair and clearly had to be unambiguous since we could initially place only the first and last letters of our solutions in the grid (- shape? It isn’t really a ‘grid’ is it?) and although HADDOCK, ALPHA CENTAURI, EXCESSIVENESS, ARCTURUS and TICKETLESS were among our early solves, we couldn’t enter them yet but just a few potential routes for those long words to take.

What we could do, though, was spot that somethng fishy was going on. We soon had HUSS, COD, HADDOCK, PLAICE and SKATE. Brock was giving nothing away. All but the fluke were clued with non-fishy definitions. Of course I did see Brock’s entry ticket for the oenophile outfit, ‘Tintin’s friend put on Rhenish drinks (7)’ We put ADD into HOCK (the HOCK ‘drinks’ the ADD – nice!) getting Captain HADDOCK, Tintin’s friend.

I love Rhenish wine so was rather surprised to read ‘Not much drunk (half leaving bottle) (6)’ Of course, I realized that Brock was already LIT so that half the BOT(tle) could go leaving the TLE, to give LITTLE (not much). What masterful cluing! Sadly, though, he now brought in the BEER. “Mix-up with beer in order of bananas (7)’. MUS with ALES giving us an ‘order of bananas, MUSALES. What a mess! But cheers, anyway, Brock.

Soon we had five seas, too: AZOV, CASPIAN, BALTIC, BLACK and WHITE, four of them disguised as a prince, excessively cold, bad luck, and coffee, and a set of stars: VEGA, CANOPUS SIRIUS, ALPHA CENTAURI, and ARCTURUS. The asteroids followed: CERES, IRIS, EROS, PALLAS and VESTA. It was the most obvious set that I saw last of all, the digits; THUMB, INDEX, MIDDLE, RING and LITTLE. However, it was only after working out the pair of messages that we saw how these groups, STARFISH, SEA, DIGIT and ASTEROID suggested four thematic synonyms. I learn something with every Listener solve; I had no idea that a starfish was an asteroid – ‘a member of the Asteroidea’.

With a full grid but no idea what to highlight, we could now read the first letters of each of those groups and were told what to highlight, CENTRE AND TWENTY-FIVE OTHERS. We had to read the fifth letter of the fifth words which gave us CHOOSE THE RIGHTMOST’S OPTION – that was to solve an ambiguity. Of course when PISCES appeared sending its five digits out, we saw that we had Ss in cells 57 and 53, and chose the rightmost of the two.

A dazzling compilation. Thank you Brock.

Posted in Solving Blogs | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

L4597: 'Bunch of Fives' by Brock

Posted by Encota on 27 Mar 2020

Feels like the puzzle of the year to me, so far at least!

I was only recently introduced to the term OP: it arose in a novel written for an online puzzle hunt that I and several others of the Listener community recently took part in. I suspect that clarifies that my playing of video-games peaked a long while ago. I understand OP to mean OverPowered, where a player or card etc is almost too strong in a certain situation. Of course my children laughed at me for not knowing!

On a related train of thought I recall, somewhat with awe, when the computer virus Stuxnet was first analysed. It had utilised four previously unknown or unaddressed vulnerabilities (so-called zero day attacks, for those that love the jargon). Stick with me!

So how many new (zero day?) features were concurrently involved in this puzzle? There was the hiding of five each of Seas, Stars, Fish, Asteroids & Digits/Fingers. There was the hidden message based on first letters of those 25 clues [CENTRE AND TWENTY FIVE OTHERS], asking for the centre and 25 others to highlighted. There was the re-use of Asteroids / asteroidae as those minor planets and the ‘family’ of Starfish. There was the use of fish – well, PISCES – to create each ‘arm’ of the central starfish. And, for me, the pièce de resistance, the fifth letter of the fifth word in those 25 clues to spell out another message, purely to remove an ambiguity as to which S one should pick for the SE arm of the Starfish. [CHOOSE THE RIGHTMOST’S OPTION] If that feature ain’t OP, then I don’t understand the term!

The letter to be added at the centre? “I’ll have a P please Bob.” Sorry, I meant Brock. A Blockbuster of a construction. Delightful!! Fabulous!!


Tim / Encota

Posted in Solving Blogs | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Listener No 4596, CRNT: A Setter’s blog by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 22 Mar 2020

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. Robin first appeared in 1940, the Flash in 1956, Spider-Man in 1962 and Iron Man in 1963. I first appeared in 1985, and I mention all these dates, tongue-in-cheek, because I know that the superhero theme is not of interest to all Listener solvers (and also that I’m bringing down the average age of Listener setters a little), but my point is – there’s been time to get familiar.

Actually, this puzzle was in part my revenge for all the poetry I’ve had to look up over the years. I’m a fan of superhero movies – I’ve also dabbled in the comics a little – and I thought that, if I’ve got to google the works of Robert Browning, John Keats, William Blake et al, it’s only fair that I point the Listener community towards Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne & Barry Allen. Also, the Superman emblem is familiar, I think, to almost everyone – there is a case to be made that he is the most iconic fictional character of the 20th century – so even those solvers who can’t tell their Captain Marvel from their Wolverine should still be able to enjoy that, I thought.

The idea of converting alter egos to superheroes was a fairly obvious one – although the mention of ‘disguise’ in the preamble came very late in the day – but I wanted to do a bit more than that, which is where the idea of highlighting the famous S came from, even though I wasn’t initially sure how to go about achieving that. An early attempt to have every cell in it as an S was always doomed to failure, and stabs at spelling out a message were not very hopeful, in part because of the non-linear shape. Eventually I hit upon the idea of using letters from KAL-EL, which helpfully gave me a couple of vowels and a couple of consonants to work with, and I started by trying to enter superhero names in the grid with those constraints, and without being too obscure. In the end I only managed five, with HULK not quite managing to make the grid, which was a bit disappointing but probably inevitable (and I was fortunate to be able to get AIGUILLETTE across the middle in the pattern I needed). Understandably, most solvers seem to have back-derived the answers to the thematic clues after entering the superhero name, rather than solving the clues first.

Using additional letters in wordplay is a tried and tested technique, and not particularly imaginative, but I’d never tried it before so it was partly a personal challenge to see if I could do it – particularly as I wanted to avoid using extra words yet again. It’s a fun technique and I can see why it is so often favoured – it also allowed me to get a further nod to the superhero genre with Thor being involved in 12a, and reference to my beloved Beatles in ‘Improve Let It Be’.

The title seems to have left a few people scratching their heads, so for anyone still scratching: it’s Clark Kent without the letters from Kal-El (which, in case you haven’t googled, is Superman’s birth name). I came up with it when I noticed the large crossover between the two names, and I thought that I should have a reference to the mild-mannered reporter somewhere in the puzzle – I was considering changing the title, but was reassured when one of the editors spotted what the title meant before discovering what to highlight, and it helped his journey through the puzzle.
One last point that went possibly undetected by all: Superman’s birthday is (usually) 29th February, hence the date of publication. Tenuous, perhaps, but may have raised a smile somewhere.

Thanks to my test-solvers (Apt & Trelawney), the editors and of course to John Green.

Posted in Setting Blogs | 1 Comment »