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Listener No 4483, A Little Ray of Sunshine: A Setter’s Blog by Jago

Posted by Listen With Others on 22 January 2018

As with most Crossword ideas — especially those involved in the Listener Pipeline, which has once more become extended well beyond a twelvemonth — the exact source of the original inspiration has been long forgotten. But if (possibly faulty) memory serves, then I believe I was dozing in bed one night, trying to drift off to sleep, when I tried my occasional ploy of “thinking of puzzle themes”: when for some reason, into my head popped a dim memory of a BBC Science programme about Sir Isaac Newton and his experiments with prisms and light. I could vividly recall that part of the programme where he was focusing a narrow beam of bright sunlight (from a chink in the window-blind, I think) onto a glass prism; and then producing the visible spectrum, as we know it today. Quite why that vision came into my head, is a mystery: but then, I suppose we all owe our “inspiration” (of whatever weight or magnitude) to some mysterious workings of the subconscious…

Anyway — I then resolved, once I was more alert the next day, to try to develop a puzzle on the theme of the colours of the spectrum (but not just about the rainbow, I might add!). And so I hit upon the idea of using diagonally-spilt squares to use as “focal lines” for my light source onto my “prism”. It so happens that I am a particular devotee of the 15 x 10 grid: I came across it in the late 60’s or early 70’s, when it was used quite a bit by (I think) Jeffec or ffancy — but in any event, I have used that format for about a third of my Listener puzzles over the years. And of course, the letter-count is pretty much the same as with a standard 12 x 12 grid: 150 letters as opposed to 144: thus not so different a challenge — but its merit is that it allows (literally) greater “width” in the grid; and also, 15-letter words, if you are that way inclined, too!

I soon discovered that the consecutive words “white” and “light” added up to 10 letters; which seemed the perfect start to the left-hand side of the grid. And then my split diagonal “focal lines” led naturally to a point about a third of the way in, where I then could place the “prism” which would “split” my “light beam” into its component colours. At first, I simply sought to enter the colours as words in their own right; but I soon realised that that was far too simple and straightforward: and so I hit upon the idea of hiding them amongst “normal” words. And with seven spectrum colours, plus my “white light”, my “focal lines” and my “prism”, I soon needed the additional grid-width that the 15-square grid gave me.

The grid filled fairly readily; but I was forced to use a number of quite short words, in order to retain the grid’s symmetry, whilst also being constrained by the necessity of the entire theme. (I haven’t always used symmetrical grids: but I try to avoid giving them up, if at all possible.) I found “indigo” and “violet” quite hard to divide logically and artfully between pairs of other words; and that probably led to the use of a couple of 3-letter words in the grid.

Once I had finished the grid (and the clues!), I needed a title: and I toyed with “Spectrum” (too obvious) and “Newton’s Discovery” (too clumsy) and a couple of other more leaden efforts. Then I remembered a phrase from my childhood years, which referred (possibly sarcastically) to someone who was always bright and chirpy and never let things get them down: “A little Ray of Sunshine”. That seemed to me the perfect way to mislead solvers into thinking of enthusiasm or bright spirits; whilst being literally true to the origin of Newton’s discovery of the visible spectrum and its colours. You decide!

Then came the submission and the (long, long) wait: almost 2 years from creation to publication. But I was delighted to have it as the final puzzle of 2017: and without any serious editorial changes — apart from a few tweaks to a few clues. (Aren’t there always? Or am I just deluding myself?) One proposed change that I successfully reversed was with the up-word “lad” — where I argued to keep the word “erect” in the clue (they wanted “upright”); but that conflicted with my wordplay about the sexual undertone of a young lad “fancying” anything with a pulse: and of course, “lad” when erect is “dal” — which is a variety of pulse, in its other use. I always like to inject a bit of humour into some of my clues (I hope you’ve noticed!) and indeed, I try not to take the whole world of crosswords too seriously, at any time.

I hope that “A Little Ray of Sunshine” did indeed bring a bit of light and colour to a somewhat cold and drab time of year…



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Listener No 4482, A Paper Construction: A Setter’s Blog by Zero

Posted by Listen With Others on 14 January 2018

It seems impertinent — indeed hypocritical — to say so here, but I’ve never been a fan of the idea of setters’ blogs. Crosswords are like magic tricks: the very best are miracles whose inner workings it would be a sacrilege to reveal, whilst the others are perhaps best not scrutinised too closely.

A Paper Construction is, of course, in the second category, and I can’t remember much about how the setting went anyway, so that aspect of a setter’s blog is ruled out. However, the space constraints for the solution notes didn’t allow me to witter on about the geometry at much as I would have liked, so many thanks indeed to the LWO folks for giving me the chance to do that now.

I don’t know whether the designer of the printed grid was aiming for a 12:17 rectangle or a 1:√2 one (it would be hard to detect the difference). In the first case, the constructed shape is only approximately a kite; in the second, an exact kite is possible, but the designated cells don’t coincide perfectly on folding.

Chambers doesn’t provide the geometrical definition of a kite, which is a quadrilateral in which a diagonal is a line of symmetry. The kite shape in this case did not have the perfect angles for a traditional kite toy, though hopefully the family resemblance was strong enough for solvers not to worry too much.

To see that, in the exact case, the construction leads to a geometrical kite…

… it is really only necessary to observe that angle WQR = angle WXR = 90° and that if WY = 1, then WQ = √2 (via Pythagoras in triangle WYQ), so that the right-angled triangles WQR and and WXR share a common hypotenuse WR and have WQ = WX = √2, so they are therefore congruent. Thus WXRQ is a kite with symmetry line WR.

People who enjoy playing with square roots may find it satisfying to note that QZ = ZR = √2 – 1, so that XR = 1 – ZR = 1 – (√2 – 1) = 2 – √2, and (by Pythagoras in triangle QRZ), QR = (√2)(ZR) = √2(√2 – 1) which also multiplies out to 2 – √2, thus verifying directly that QR = XR.

Many, many thanks to all who have helped with and commented on this puzzle. I have not gone back to check which of the clues that people have kindly complimented were actually the work of my wonderful test solvers or of the equally wonderful Listener vetters, but I do know that the final preamble (there were many drafts) was infinitely clearer and more concise than anything I could have come up with on my own.

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Listener No 4481, Jury: A Setter’s Blog by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 7 January 2018

I was fortunate enough to be the second ever winner of the Radix Auditorium Jug, awarded to the newcomer with the most correct Listener submissions, so I’ve had the pleasure of attending the last couple of Listener dinners as a humble solver. It was absolutely fascinating to talk to setters about their setting process and to learn more about the inner workings of my favourite crossword, and several of them encouraged me to try my hand at clue-writing. They’re all a lovely bunch (well, apart from one chap who cheated on the quiz, but I won’t name names – mostly because I can’t remember what his was). The following year, having very much enjoyed entering clue-writing competitions in the interim, I was further encouraged to try my hand at creating a whole puzzle. So I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The theme of Murder on the Orient Express came to mind fairly quickly, perhaps because I was a devotee of Agatha Christie in my youth, and this was the first of her books that I read – appropriately enough, it was given to me by my late grandfather, who also got me interested in crossword-solving. My first idea was to get solvers to change ‘RATCHETT’ to ‘CASSETTI’ in the grid (minor spoilers for the book, although it is fairly early on that it is revealed they are the same person), as I liked the notion of one hiding as the other. However, that felt like a fairly weak theme that needed expanding, so I also wanted to put ‘TWELVE STABS’ (further minor spoilers) in the grid, as well as HERCULE POIROT / ORIENT EXPRESS on the diagonal. On this one I got lucky that the two phrases were the same length. As you’ll know, all but the last of these three ideas was jettisoned along the way, mainly because I found it impossible to create a grid that worked with these restrictions – and also because I realised I was over-complicating the puzzle for little benefit.

Creating a grid where HERCULE POIROT and ORIENT EXPRESS on the diagonal would both give legitimate entries throughout was not easy – it was only when I was partway through trying to do it that I realised that it’s actually surprisingly rare to see that in the endgame – but it always appeals to me, so I persevered. One of the problems was the 180 degree symmetry, which meant that a neatly constructed top-left would then prove impossible to replicate in the bottom-right (at one point I had the words in a chevron, from top-left to centre to bottom-left, which was easier but much less elegant). Another problem was that the two phrases only had one letter in common, but by happy chance it was the middle E, and it struck me – eventually – that I could isolate that cell. In my draft of the solution notes I even made the bold claim that the E was in fact a way to ‘express Orient’.

For the clues, I tried to think of a way of indicating letters that I hadn’t seen in the Listener before. I won’t reveal the first idea I tried, because I’ve repurposed it for my next Listener submission (I’m hooked now!); the second idea – which I ended up using – was to have jumbles of suspects’ names plus an additional letter. I was then a bit annoyed to see this method come up in a puzzle earlier this year, but never mind, I’m sure it’s been done before anyway.

The next thing to do was make a list of all the possible letters that could be added to a jumble of each of the suspects’ names to give a real word, and then work out what useful phrase I could construct from them – I soon discounted surnames as being impossible to work with, and unnecessarily difficult for the solver, but forenames looked much more hopeful. I was limited to S (Natalia / Alsatian) and E (Rudolph / upholder) for two of them, several others gave lots of options, but Hildegarde unsurprisingly gave me nothing. Working manually I came up with a few ideas of words that could be feasibly hyphenated without sounding too many alarms: herd-leading, large-dished and dear-delight amongst them, but griddle-heat was the winner for me – and ended up working nicely in the oven-based clue for LEAR.

My initial idea was to give clues to both what needed to be removed and what needed to be added to the diagonal – BELGIAN TRAIN was on the cards until I realised I needed an S in there somewhere, based on that Natalia / Alsatian pair-up – but eventually I enjoyed ‘Eastern state’ too much as a misleading clue to ‘Orient express’, especially if I referred to the latter as a location. A slightly woolly claim, perhaps, but since the train is stationary (as it were) for most of the book, I thought it was legitimate enough.

For the finishing touches to the grid, the unclued entries of AGATHA CHRISTIE happened fairly organically when I realised that AGATHA fit one of the spaces I had left, and a bit of re-working would allow CHRISTIE too. Finally, it struck me as amusing to circle letters that I would describe as identifying “useful cells”, and then having that phrase spell out ‘little grey cells’. In the end that particular wording in the preamble was lost in editing and I forgot to ask why – presumably because the word ‘cells’ in that context was either inappropriate terminology, or gave away too much. Still, the bit about proving useful to the solver remained, and one of the circled letters helped (I think) with the fact that 1 down was over-unched.

Speaking of which, the first comment I got from Shane was to point out (very kindly!) that my average grid length was too low and two of my entries were over-unched, but that he’d reserve further comment on this until he’d test-solved the grid. This showed two elements of naivety on my part – firstly that I hadn’t appreciated that these were a little bit more than merely recommendations, and secondly that I had thought it was a strength rather than a weakness to have entries with no unches (and this was bringing down my average word length). Keen-eyed solvers might have noted that the words TIAN, HALT, ESSEN & SASSE were all in the grid, but got barred off – and rightly so – during the editing process. The majority of the other edits were for things like Scottish words that hadn’t been identified as such, or the fact that I had used ‘about’ in the same way in multiple clues.

When writing clues my first priority tends to be a good surface, and while not all the clues were perfect in that respect – ‘ergate’ is difficult to conceal – I was happy with how most of them turned out, and particularly glad that the cheeky ‘tired riders’ in 9 down seemed to go down well. Speaking of going down well, it did strike me that Shirley would be displeased by the relative paucity of alcoholic allusions in the clues (what can I say, I’m teetotal myself), but I honestly didn’t think about that poor hare until his fate was brought to my attention following publication.

I’m absolutely delighted to have joined the ranks of the Listener setters (only my second ever published crossword, the first coming when I deputised for a friend in my university’s newspaper over a decade ago), and I have to thank Shane & Roger for their assistance in making the puzzle publishable, as well as all the setters who encouraged me to have a stab at submitting something. Let me pass on the favour by encouraging any solvers reading this who are thinking about trying their hand at setting – go for it!

Posted in Setting Blogs | 2 Comments »

Listener No 4477, Word Squares: A Setter’s Blog by Elap

Posted by Listen With Others on 10 December 2017

The Theme

I started by creating a file containing all of the five-letter words from TEA 2.11. There were 12,125 words including proper nouns.

Out of curiosity I wrote a program to see how many ways ten of these words could be fitted into a 5×5 grid. It took three hours to find that there were 1,152,602,603 different filled grids (excluding reflections).

I then decided to see how many grids there were where the two diagonals were also words, and the answer was 575,560. This took 163 seconds.

I was unhappy with the number of unacceptable words in these, and so I produced a set of 10,508 words which did not contain any proper nouns. There would obviously be other unacceptable words, but it was easier to ignore grids which contained these than to go through the list deleting them (it was easy to remove the proper nouns because they began with a capital letter).

I reran my programs. There were now 229,858,145 grids (the run took 70 minutes) and 115,265 with the diagonals too (taking 71 seconds).

Since there were so many ways of fitting words into the grid, and since I wanted my final grid to be special in some way, it struck me that there was scope to see whether two of the grids could be anagrams of each other.

I decided that the grids should contain ten or fewer different letters so that they could be replaced by digits, thus forming the basis for a mathematical puzzle.

For each filled grid, I wrote the 25 letters (in alphabetical order), followed by the words in the grid, to a file. I then wrote a wee program which sorted the records into ascending order and which then scanned the file to see whether two adjacent records had the first 25 characters the same.

It turned out that there were six possible pairs of grids. Two of them contained similar words somewhere and three contained mildly rude words, but there was one pair which was acceptable. This was very satisfying.

Nature of the Clues

Since I was dealing with word squares, it seemed appropriate to use squares in the clues. The clues would consist of expressions in terms of letters whose values had to be deduced.

I wrote a program which determined which substitution of digits would produce the largest number of perfect squares in the grids. The idea was that some clue values could be squares or square roots – but how would the other clues work? After a lot of dithering, I decided to have some clue values as square roots of the entries, and some consisting of the required answer which was equal to the sum of the squares of two other values. The advantage of this is that the roots could be negative, which might fool some solvers (it fooled me too, because the first vetter spotted that I had two letters round the wrong way in one of the clues which led to a negative answer!).

In line with the theme of two squares, I decided that appropriate letter values could be numbers which could be expressed as the sum of two different squares.

The Hint

I needed a hint, though, which would appear when the letters were sorted by their values. Part of the hint would be the ten letters, in order, by which the digits 0 to 9 were to be replaced. Another part needed to indicate that the grids were anagrams of each other. But how? – there were not enough letters to convey the message. I then hit upon the idea of using lower- and upper-case letters in the clues so that a better hint could be constructed.

The ten letters, represented by 0 to 9, were ILAPCREMST. For the anagramming hint, I first thought of BYJUMBLING to indicate how the second grid was to be derived from the first, but I had also to indicate that the diagonals were words too. I was quickly using too many letters for the clues to be solvable without there being too many of them, and anyway I didn’t want an L in lower case because it would look like the digit 1.

I needed to say that there were TWENTY-FOUR words in the grids, but with ILAPCREMST that used three Ts already! Wait! What about TWO DOZEN?

The hint could then be ILAPCREMST……TWO DOZEN…… with some of the letters in lower case.

Some solvers, though, would assume that there were twenty words in the grids, and so a Y was needed to reinforce this. The word which contained the Y would have to indicate that the grids were anagrams of each other. Hmmm…

What have we got so far?


What word, containing Y, could indicate an anagram? If the word had more than, say, six letters we would again be heading for too many letter values for comfort. I needed a short word.

It was a few days later that VARY suddenly sprang to mind. It could be the positions of the letters in the first grid that would have to VARY to arrive at the second grid.

Our hint was now looking like one of these (some of the letters will be in lower case):


The chortle that my wife heard from the study was when I looked at the third option, ILAPCREMST VARY TWODOZEN, and a mean streak in me began to surface.

If there were at least four available letter values between the first T and the Y, wouldn’t some solvers assume that they were the first and last letters of TWENTY? Tee hee!

I changed the case of one of each of the duplicated letters to arrive at this hint:

I L A P C R E M S T V a r Y t W o D O Z e N

The trap was about to be set.

The Clues

I won’t go into details of the derivation of the clues (mainly because I have forgotten now), but the letter values were these:

I L A P C R E M S T V a r Y t W o D O Z e N
5 10 13 20 25 26 37 40 41 50 52 53 58 65 68 73 74 80 82 85 89 97

Intentionally, amongst the first values deducible were T = 50 and Y = 65, encouraging some solvers to jump to this conclusion:

…… T W E N t Y ……
50 52 53 58 61 65

If this assumption is made, the values of e, L and O would be incorrect, as well as the values of W, E, N and t.

Solvers would most likely end up with these incorrect values:

Letter Correct
E 37 53
e 89 68
L 10 17
N 97 58
O 82 89
t 68 61
W 73 52

All the clues except for 7ac and 18ac (the most complex, and likely to be solved relatively late) would still work. Whether or not the correct or incorrect values are used, we have:

In 5ac, 13dn and 14dn O + t is 150
In 6ac and 10ac O – L is 72
In 6ac |N + R – C – e| is 9
In 15ac L + t is 78
In 19ac L + L + t – O is 6
In 2dn |A + t – N| is 16
In 3dn and 13dn e – W is 16
In 13dn |E – C – P| is 8
In 4dn |C + W – e| is 9

As a retired programmer, one of the lessons I learned early in my career was not to unnecessarily assume anything, and maybe this is a lesson to some of the solvers!

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Listener No 4476, His: A Setter’s Blog by Nebuchadnezzar

Posted by Listen With Others on 3 December 2017

This crossword all started after a long day’s travelling to Croatia, and I remember trying to merge ‘Thinking Outside The Box’ with the 9 dots on a piece of scrap paper. It was approached with the mindset of a doodler, as opposed to “right, I’m going to sit down and write a Listener Crossword”, accompanied by a loud cracking of the knuckles. It was only when I realised the TH could do double-duty that I suspected this was a goer (although, in the interests of my relationship, I postponed the gridfill until my partner and I returned from our holiday).

The puzzle-within-a-puzzle theme is a well-trodden path, but I wanted to pay tribute to what I think is a particularly ingenious challenge of one’s lateral thinking. I was also careful to find a way of citing my references, hence DUDENEY and LOYD down the side — I didn’t want anyone thinking I was trying to pass this off as my own work! I was pleased that there wasn’t too much head-scratching in actually cracking Dudeney/Loyd’s puzzle, I think — I didn’t want to give those who already knew the solution too much of an advantage.

Finally, I needed to create a box outside of which one could think. A bit of research led me to the EGG OF COLUMBUS, and that old ‘letters omitted from wordplay’ trope enabled the square to complete what I felt was quite an aesthetically pleasing final grid.

The gridfill came next, which was achieved using Quinapalus’s magnificent Qxw software. In retrospect, I would have preferred fewer 3/4 letter words with wordplay leading to 2/3 letters, but I was generally pleased with the unching and average length. For the record, the ambiguity of the clue for BULB was recognised by myself, testers and editors prior to publication. I apologise to anyone who felt it affected the overall quality of the puzzle, but I’m of the opinion that, since the endgame removed any ambiguity, all should be forgiven? Perhaps I’m opening a can of worms — please feel free to argue against in the comments!

With my apologies, I don’t remember a great deal of the cluing process. My rule of thumb with these matters is to find a ‘hook’, around which I can build the rest of the clue. To use 25a as a case in point, my mindset will have been something along the lines of: enderon = skin; hen and heron are birds… birds and skin… ah, there’s some sort of surface there about dirty magazines! Then fill in the gaps, whilst trying not to be too clunky when fitting it all together. Those who were kind enough to test the puzzle, and of course the editors, were merciless with some clues. Any that I tried to ‘get away with’ – usually on the grounds that the surface made good sense, but the wordplay was unsound — were rooted out without hesitation, and I’m very grateful for that!

Last and very much least in the process was the title (His = •••• •• ••• in Morse = 9 dots), probably the least satisfying aspect of the puzzle. In my defence, I did feel as though a theme like this justified something that required a bit of lateral thinking. However, I soon realised it was perhaps a tad unfair, and I can only apologise if it detracted from the satisfaction of completing the puzzle. A small part of me still quite likes it, but then again I never had to figure it out.

Finally, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who contributed to the puzzle’s testing/editing. I know everyone says it in these blogs, but the level of expertise on display when it comes to proofing a Listener crossword is remarkable. I’ll stop gushing now for fear of appearing sycophantic, but I could go on! 

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