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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener No 4572, Don’t Tell: A Setter’s Blog by Poat

Posted by Listen With Others on 6 October 2019

The world of thematic cryptics is probably more accustomed to Victorian nursery rhymes than the drug-fuelled outpourings of amoral sexually-fluid libertarians such as William Burroughs, but I had always been intrigued after reading a couple of his books as a teenager. Finding out more about his cut-up technique gave me the germ of an idea a while back, and then in 2017 Victorian Opera mounted a production of The Black Rider in Melbourne. Fascinating – the back story was a treatment of the Freischütz legend, but recalled the tragic events of Burroughs shooting dead his own common-law wife Joan Vollmer, supposedly during a game of William Tell. So I reckoned that finding the title could constitute the endgame, subject to certain manipulations of parts of the grid in accordance with that technique.

I set to work allying grid movements with the workings of the seven thematic clues whose answers would give a hint to VOLLMER. Long-standing solvers might remember an old puzzle of mine (Listener 3983) which delivered W B YEATS in a similar way. Some of the new words here after manipulations (e.g. BERG-ADDER to BERGANDER) were suggested by the handy Quinapalus pattern-matcher, and a few fragments of GUILLAUME/WILLIAM TELL somehow found their way into the grid.

There were no circled cells initially (an improvement wisely offered by the meticulous Listener editors), and I was uncertain whether solvers would be able to track down the solution from the letters of VOLLMER alone – I can’t say I had heard of her before doing the research. However, the first draft was ready just in time for my trip to Kenya, attending the first African-based WESPA Scrabble championship in November 2017.

Fortunately there were two top-level Listener solvers also making their way to do battle in Nairobi, and we were on the same pre-tournament safari in the Masai Mara (see pics). I imposed my puzzle on them as testers and got some useful feedback – thanks are due to David and Esther, though I should really have let them spend more time enjoying their choice of beverage by the pool. Before too long we were all doing battle in the Laico Regency, and then the caravan moved on…but I will still associate this puzzle with Kenya.


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Listener No 4571, International Standards Organisation: A Setter’s Blog by Harribobs

Posted by Listen With Others on 29 September 2019

I used blocks of anagrams to cover the grid in a puzzle for the Inquisitor last year and was pleased with how neatly it turned out. I thought the device deserved another outing and embarked on ISO.

Countries represented by their flags were chosen as a theme because I liked the colourful solution. The editors, however, thought many solvers wouldn’t be too happy about all that fiddly colouring in, and added textual unjumbling as an alternative option.

The grid might look as though it were tricky to construct, but it wasn’t, thanks to the excellent grid fill software Qxw (available free from Quinapalus). A key feature of the software is the ability to select any group of cells and stipulate that they be filled by text from a special list. The text can optionally be jumbled, and so all the country anagrams were straightforward.

My source for the country names was the UN website. The site lists CABO VERDE rather than CAPE VERDE, following a request from their representative in 2013. The new name doesn’t seem to have been widely adopted yet, but the letters are close enough to suggest CAPE VERDE and a check on Wikipedia gives both names. MACEDONIA changed its name to NORTH MACEDONIA this year, after the puzzle had been completed.

Extra letters in wordplay were used to give the instruction to solvers. This method is sometimes considered overused but I find it helps considerably in cluing. Because the extra letter can be tried at various positions in the answer, it offers more possibilities for the components of the clue; and when there are fewer extra letters than answers there’s quite a bit of leeway in matching them up. So, in general the method should result in more natural sounding clues than the methods ‘misprints in clues’ and ‘extra letters in clues’, which are more constraining. It should even facilitate better clues than a puzzle with no hidden message at all. And it makes life easier for the setter too!

Thanks, as ever, to the editors for their rigorous vetting, and to the bloggers and John Green for coping with the graphical solution.

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Listener No 4570, Bright Spark: A Setter’s Blog by Shark

Posted by Listen With Others on 24 September 2019

I like science and I like a good story, whether it be fact or fiction. Myths have played a part of several puzzles of mine, but the Kite experiment created by Benjamin Franklin is one that is clouded in mystery as to what really happened. I am sure this incredible figure in American history came up with the idea and probably tried it in some manner, however the outcome of it, perhaps is more questionable.

The pictorial representation of recreating the experiment in a Listener appealed to me; the remarkable coincidence that STRING / KEY and STRING / KITE, each hold the letters of (lightning) STRIKE could not be passed aside. The grid was naturally going to be longer in its vertical dimension to fit all the letters including LEYDEN JAR in a nice 3×3 section at the bottom, plus a zigzag LIGHTNING shape at the top. However, I wanted to create a final denouement leading to the “potential” result and therefore ELECTRICITY fixed the width of the grid to 11 letters. This took a considerable amount of fiddling with the grid to ensure real words after removals. Working from the bottom up, SEE A WOLF and SEA WOLF, was one of those fortunate finds in Chambers. Interestingly, I have just been on qat and it fails to come up with this change, so I am pleased even now that I discovered it. I had to weigh up whether to have a different E in that column or sacrifice an E from LEYDEN JAR. I liked the SEE A WOLF change so much that I thought that once the Kite experiment was drawn, it wouldn’t disappoint too much to destroy it slightly to create the ELECTRICITY.

I clued the puzzle in the standard Shark fashion, which tends to be at the hard end of the spectrum. I do not intentionally do this, but given I prefer puzzles that make you think when solving the clues, it seems a natural result of Shark puzzles. Of course, a carte blanche or jigsaw grid will naturally require easier clues to start cold solving, but this puzzle did seem to tax quite a few (according to the feedback). However, after the grid was completed and endgame realised, the overall feedback was pleasingly positive. Glad you enjoyed.


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Listener No 4569, Bearskin: A Setter’s Blog by Elap

Posted by Listen With Others on 15 September 2019

I decided, one day, out of pure curiosity, to see in how many different ways words could be fitted into a 4×4×4 cube, but it wasn’t necessarily for a puzzle. A 3×3×3 word cube would be too small to be interesting and a 5×5×5 one too large to have any chance of even one way of filling it. I produced a list of just over 3000 words from TEA, and graded each from 0 to 8, 0 being an ordinary, common word, and 8 being used only by Shakespeare, Spenser etc.

In the first version of the word-fitting program it soon became apparent that there were hundreds of millions of ways of filling the grids and so I restricted the words to grades 0 and 1 (i.e. no foreign, obsolete, archaic, Shakespearean words etc). The program still produced millions of filled grids and so I put in a condition that the four diagonals from the top grid through to the opposite corner of the bottom grid should also form words.

I ran the program for a couple of hours and then had another idea: what about grids which contain only ten or fewer letters? Each letter could then represent a digit. This could be the basis for a numerical puzzle with the grid ending up full of words after each digit had been replaced by its corresponding letter. A 4×4×4 cube would have 48 words, and this was about the right number of cells for a numerical puzzle. I had to disable the diagonals checks because it was very unlikely that the program would find any filled grids at all — I could always check for diagonal words afterwards (it turned out to be too restrictive).

By now it had become apparent that certain letters only occasionally appeared in any of the ‘solutions’ and so I decided to use only those words which were formed from combinations of A, C, D, E, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S and T. The final dictionary contained 1115 words.

The program now had a sensible running time, taking just over six days to generate 370 grids. It fitted words at the rate of 50 million per second, filled grids being written to a text file. During the processing, as soon as there were more than ten different letters the program backtracked so that no time was wasted producing unacceptable grids. A second program scanned this file and analysed the grids to find what was considered to be the best one for a puzzle.

The main criterion was that at least one of the ten different letters must not appear anywhere in the first across and down words of any layer, because then a zero would have appeared there somewhere, and this would have been inelegant. The next criterion was that, just for my satisfaction, no filled grid should be similar to another one – I wanted at least ten letters different between the chosen four-layer grid and any other one. A further criterion was that no two words should have the same root, e.g. ‘alma’ and ‘alme’. The final criterion was that there must be a single-word anagram of the ten letters. Three grids were found which satisfied these criteria.

It was time to decide how one of them could form the basis for a puzzle but I forget now why I chose the one I did!

Since a word cube is involved, it seemed appropriate to use perfect cubes for the clues. The anagram of the letters was DEPILATORS – how could this be used as part a theme? In the end I decided that the letter values in the clues would be cubes with their first digit trimmed (it looked like ‘hair’ was going to be the theme) but Roger, having removed ‘trimmed’ from the preamble because the connection was not strong enough, came up with the much better term ‘shaved off’. I managed to get the letters of ‘razor’ in one of the clues and that led me to call the puzzle ‘Bearskin’. I was very tempted to call it ‘Hare’, but I thought that that in-joke had been worked to death! (Did I miss a trick here?)

The entries needed to overflow from one layer to another so that there were some decent-length numbers in the grids and not too many clues. I wanted the number of different letters in the clues to be a perfect cube, and so there had to be 27 of them. I originally had 27 clues, but that created unwanted redundancy.

The letters, when sorted, needed to include DEPILATORS and I thought it would be nice to have A WORD CUBE as well. That left eight letters with only the vowels I and U available which was quite a restriction. The only word which could have had any link to a puzzle was, fortunately, PUZZLING.

Presumably some solvers will now know that those little slits between the treads on their car tyres are called sipes!

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Listener No 4568 Howsat!: A Setter’s Blog By Skylark

Posted by Listen With Others on 8 September 2019

Though my husband introduced me to cryptic crosswords in the Times, and we used to tackle – and sometimes complete – the Jumbo Cryptic on Saturdays, I had always considered the Listener as far too hard to solve, except occasionally when I noticed a numerical, which were great fun, when I could (very occasionally) finish them.

But when working away, my husband moved on to the Guardian cryptics with a colleague, and raved about many setters, but in particular about Nimrod. Having discovered Nimrod was one of the pseudonyms of John Henderson, I then petitioned John for a bespoke crossword to celebrate a significant birthday for my husband. I was delighted when he accepted (and produced a delightful crossword we treasure) and started attempting the Inquisitor with my husband. It took us about a week to solve.

But after a few weeks, it clicked – and I was hooked, making the Inquisitor and the Listener, and occasionally the Enigmatist too, a delightful part of my week. After a year or so, I started trying to set a few puzzles, and after encouraging feedback from test solvers, sent a couple out. But I would never have dared submit one to the Listener if John and Jane Henderson hadn’t kindly invited Neil and I to the 2019 Listener Setters’ dinner. I thought I’d be a charlatan if I hadn’t at least tried to be a Listener setter, so the night before we left for York, I submitted Howsat!

I’d been looking at significant anniversaries for my musical and literary loves, and discovered Miles Davis’s wonderful Kind of Blue was published almost 60 years ago, with the anniversary approaching in August 2019. It was reassuring to read that it was probably the best-selling jazz album of all time. Envisaging mainly blue grids, I’d been playing with grids for weeks, challenging myself to get as many cells as possible to be blue themed. At that stage, I enjoyed creating grids more than clueing. Now, I enjoy both.

Wondering about the title, I noticed that an Ashes series would also be occurring during August, so took the first track, So What, and anagrammed it into Howsat!

I was stunned and delighted when I got the acceptance email – though couldn’t help a smidgen of disappointment that Shane and Roger considered colouring so much of the grid rather tedious – but made up for it by creating spaces for Kind of Blue and Miles Davis underneath the grid. They were so helpful on editing clues. Hardly any of mine slipped through untweaked.

Also, Roger mentioned that he was disappointed my extra letters, which initially read: Evans, Chambers, Adderley, Coltrane, Cobb recording, didn’t mention pianist Wynton Kelly, who had been substituted with Bill Evans for this recording, though Davis gave Kelly one perhaps consolation track, Freddie Freeloader. I had been disappointed by this too, but had thought using DISC might be unfair, because people have bought Kind of Blue in other formats too.

I asked if it was too late to reclue the last nine down answers with extra letters: KELLY DISC rather than RECORDING, was told that it wasn’t, and that because it was originally a record, they considered KELLY DISC fine. I used Shane and Roger’s feedback to help me write hopefully improved clues for the 6 clues that needed changing. I loved exchanging ideas with Roger, emails pinging back and forth between us that day.

So thanks to all the setters who regularly delight me, Shane and Roger for their huge support and all the solvers who have taken the trouble to give me feedback. It was lovely to hear that some people had enjoyed it and that I’d inspired a few others to play Kind of Blue again, as I was doing on August 17th.

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