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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener No 4741, Map: A Setter’s Blog by Pointer

Posted by Listen With Others on 1 Jan 2023

The overnight ferry crossing to Shetland was, thankfully, a calm one. We spent a little time in Lerwick before setting off on our journey to explore the isles, particularly the spectacular coastal views. We joined the D970 and headed for Northmavine, prepared for the narrow, twisty roads and grateful for the passing-places dotted along our route. In less than an hour we reached Brae where we took a short break. The guidebook promised “a magical landscape” and “stunning cliff scenery” were we to continue northwards, and perhaps later we would see the Northern Lights. So we were back in the car, with cameras at the ready, to confront Mavis Grind, where the Atlantic Ocean could be seen cutting through almost to the North Sea.

We pulled in to admire the little strip of land that joins the Northmavine peninsula to the rest of Shetland Mainland. We talked about the opportunities this geographical feature might offer if it were placed at the heart of a Listener crossword; we pictured a strip of white splitting a grid of blue sea, with the words Atlantic and North Sea on either side. The width of the strip is so narrow – a stone’s throw, shall we say? We carried on imagining …

But enough of this pretence! For me, setting the crossword wasn’t at all like this. It was a different kind of journey. For one thing, I work from home nowadays – at my desk. The landscape I explore is Chambers and the internet. The search for a crossword theme often begins with a play on words. Here, isthmus, a curious word containing four consecutive consonants, was my starting point. It was a problem of pronunciation when I was a pupil in school and a term I learnt in geography alongside oxbow lake, tsunami, and glacier. But now I took it to initiate an investigation and to ask where examples were to be found. Scanning the pages of Google, Mavis Grind (a charwoman in a Dickens novel?) caught my eye and the stories about it were interesting. I looked for ideas for the puzzle and homed in on coincidences: “iSTHmus” and “a stone’S THrow” have common elements; Atlantic and North Sea each have an anagram; Mavis and Grind could easily be clued separately. I also wanted to finish with a puzzle that was compact, as a previous submission had turned out too long, and would not fit into the space provided for the Listener. In the event, I managed to arrange my entries to fit inside a 9×10 grid. Normally, Listener grids contain around 155 cells (rectangular grids in the Listener during 2021 had on average 154.7 cells), so would my 90 cells be acceptable? I needn’t have worried. It was given the go-ahead by the editors who also made several helpful suggestions for which I thank them.


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Listener No 4740, Imperial Age: A Setter’s Blog by Stick Insect

Posted by Listen With Others on 29 Dec 2022

Warning is a favourite poem since I came across it many years ago, a view apparently shared by many as it seems to feature highly in lists of favourite poems. I suspect, like me, many people know the first lines without knowing the title or the poet – it was while looking it up for some reason I can’t now remember (it was in early 2019, and a lot seems to have happened since then) that I discovered via Wikipedia that Jenny Joseph was born in Birmingham, my home town, and that the poem was first published in the Listener. Those connections of course immediately suggested a Listener Crossword, and one that could mark the sixtieth anniversary of publication.

My first task was to find the exact publication date, which wasn’t helped by Wikipedia claiming that it was in 1961. Consulting the index to that year’s Listener magazines produced no result, so I tried 1960 and 1962 and found it under the latter. (I then went back and edited the Wikipedia entry to match, not least because I thought many solvers might check there.) That at least gave me a little more time to compose the puzzle, bearing in mind that date-specific puzzles need to be submitted well in advance.

The idea of having Jenny Joseph in purple with a red hat above was my starting point, with the title also being amongst my earliest thoughts. I produced a grid but wasn’t too inspired by it and ended up working on and submitting a few other ideas, including You Don’t Say which appeared as a Listener in 2020. I came back to Imperial Age in 2021 with the date now getting more pressing and came up with the message — Warning which appeared in The Listener sixty years ago — around that time. It was helpful that I thought most solvers wouldn’t know the poem’s title and so the message would seem to be thoroughly unhelpful until the penny dropped and then a clear confirmation, which I always like to see as a solver. I also decided to go for a letters latent grid to generate the message, mostly because I couldn’t see anything more obviously thematic and it’s a device I hadn’t used before. The grid proved easy to generate thanks to QXW: my respect to setters who produce such grids without electronic assistance.

The submission duly went off and I was pleased to see it accepted for the anniversary date with the editors’ customary improvements and corrections. My thanks to them and to all who have provided feedback — I’m glad that it generally seems to have been enjoyed, obviously helped by the affection many have to Warning and that others were glad to have been reminded of it. So a final thanks to Jenny Joseph for the poem and the inspiration.

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Listener No 4738, Even Odder: A Setter’s Blog by Ploy

Posted by Listen With Others on 18 Dec 2022

From time to time during the 19 years I’ve been setting thematic cryptic crosswords, I’ve asked myself whether I should try creating a numerical puzzle. Apart from the need for a suitable idea for the theme, I had some concerns about ensuring that there would be a unique solution, and that it would be reachable by a sequence of logical steps with a minimum of trial-and-error calculation. My first introduction to numericals was in October 2019 with the Magpie puzzle “HexaFlex”, a base-16 puzzle Tim King (Encota) and I co-set under the pseudonym EP. For that, Tim was the driving force on the numerical side, in a puzzle where digits became letters on the faces of eight connected cubes. This gave me confidence in venturing into the world of numerical puzzles, with my first solo effort, “Pathfinder”, published in the Magpie in September 2022.

Having submitted that one, I immediately started work on another as I had a theme in mind which promised to provide a novel, and hopefully interesting, numerical puzzle. The theme was quantum mechanics, especially the concept of the collapse of superposed states. With its strangeness, for me this branch of physics has always had its own charm. My target was the Listener series.

From the start, the plan was a numerical of the type where integer values have to be assigned to a set of letters. The twist would be that each letter would exist in a superposition of “states” (values) and would “collapse” into one of them, depending on which clue was being “observed”. Moreover, two different letters might assume the same value if they were in different clues. Initial explorations using a superposition of three states per letter showed how intractable such a puzzle would be to set (never mind to solve!), even with some constraint placed on each letter, such as possible values being consecutive. So a rethink was needed.

What I arrived at was two consecutive values for each letter, with across and down clues each using consistent values, with no repetition of values. I felt this to be much fairer to the solver, and the intention wasn’t to set a puzzle of horrendous difficulty. But there’d still be plenty of scope for a solver to make a slip! At that point, the title “Even Odder” suggested itself, given the nature of the number pairs, and the fact that quantum mechanics is just that!

I decided that every clue would be a “formula” using a thematic word. With some help from online resources, I was able to assemble a list of nearly 100 words (excluding plurals etc.) relating to quantum theory and particle physics. At that point, I introduced the feature of digit-triple sums in the grid’s columns leading to some relevant wording below the grid, using A=1, B=2, etc. I thought of quantum physicists’ surnames, but that looked too obvious, and so I decided to use a paraphrased quotation. This gave me a feel for what the grid dimensions would be. The setting process then evolved into a non-linear one, with several requirements having to be met simultaneously. These included how many, and which, letters to use to give me a workable subset from my thematic word list, and that answer lengths were to be no more than 6 digits (to avoid solvers facing overlong calculations) yet maintaining a reasonable overall average. Also, each triplet in the grid would need to add up to a number in the range 1 to 26. My final choices were 16 letters representing 32 values (leaving around 70 thematic words to choose from) in a 10×9 grid with 48 clues, and no entry longer than 5 digits.

So after much head-scratching, and over 30 A4 pages of closely-written notes, I had a completed puzzle which I had some confidence in. Happily, my feelings were confirmed by my two, much appreciated, test-solvers — sincere thanks guys, you know who you are! — and I was able to submit the puzzle to the Listener.

In any numerical, there has to be at least one clue, or a combination of clues, acting as an “entry point” for the solver. I decided to use factorials for this purpose, allowing the answer for 11a to be directly entered in the grid as the only 5-digit factorial (8! = 40320). In conjunction with 12a, it was then possible to discover four letter values. Consideration of 8d, another “factorial clue”, allowed a further six values to be tied down. So ten found, twenty-two to go! The process could be readily continued until all letter assignments had been found, and the paraphrased quotation discovered. Other variations on the entry point exist, of course.

I’m very grateful to the two Listener vetters for their careful appraisal of the puzzle, including some tightening up of the preamble wording. All those solvers who commented on the puzzle, using whatever means, also have my thanks.

Phil Lloyd (Ploy)

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Listener No 4737, D2: A Setters’ Blog by Eclogue

Posted by Listen With Others on 4 Dec 2022

D2 is the 140th published puzzle from the setting duo Eclogue, but the first to make it into the Listener.    Following a rejection some time back of a puzzle that subsequently saw the light of day elsewhere, this was our second attempt.  We can’t speak for the average Listener setter, but having originally submitted this puzzle on 21 June 2021, it is going to be a challenge to fill these paragraphs with anything meaningful some 17 months later (17 minutes would be challenge enough!)

So, what do we remember.  Well, we do recall that Shane said our original submission might fall foul of the average entry length guidance, so we poked and prodded the NW/SE corners to generate alternative entries which nudged that to a more acceptable level.  The constraints of having before/after words being the main challenge of construction.

What else?  OK, the middle cell is effectively unchecked, so the title was added to give solvers something to use by way of confirmation.  Neither editor got the connection, which never bodes well, but a few of the message boards have, with comments ranging from ‘vaguely connected’ to ‘LOL’.  And yes, it is designed to reference the Star Wars Droid after consideration of the central cell before and after that lunar eclipse: ART+OO+D2.

We recall also that some clues needed replacing as the message was changed from …EACH PLANET… to …ALL PLANETS….  Other than that, not much to report.

Tick one more off the crossword bucket list, now for that tricky second puzzle….

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Listener No 4736, New Arrivals: A Setters’ Blog by Avian

Posted by Listen With Others on 27 Nov 2022

[Avian is a collaboration between Brock (Andrew Varney) and Hedge-sparrow (Rob Pinnock)]

AV: When vetting my debut Listener puzzle, Not a Black and White Decision (NABAWD), Derek Arthur commented that it looked like the first of a series. This puzzle was originally going to be NABAWD2. My notes from November 2018 suggest a similar arrangement, with clashes in a R/L format leading to WATERSHIP (Down) and some of the characters from the book appearing, along with SANDLEFORD and/or WARREN being destroyed. A second note refines this to show HOUSING CRISIS as a central band. At the very end of 2019, I approached Hedge-sparrow, a setter whose puzzles on not dissimilar themes I much admired.

RP: Andrew’s approach to me was the first time I had been offered the opportunity of participating in creating a collaborative puzzle. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and, although Andrew explained what he had in mind and pointed me towards his original NABAWD puzzle, it took a while for me to begin to get the hang of collaborative puzzle creation. I remember I quickly created a “draft” puzzle which was not quite in line with Andrew’s concept, but we soon began to work very constructively (even though Andrew had to put up with my “pencil and paper” approach to puzzle construction and deal with lots of photographs of trial grids I sent him!) One of two relevant dates we had in mind for publication of the puzzle was the 50th anniversary of the original publication of Watership Down (November 1972): we hoped that we would be successful in creating a suitable puzzle in time to “reserve” that.

AV: I was impressed that Rob had come up with a grid in about a week after almost 18 months of me sitting on it! His greater experience in setting showed through and he introduced some ideas that I’d not considered, which ultimately shaped the direction the puzzle took. That included the primary concept of “characters” being displaced from the left-hand side of the grid to the right-hand side, thereby overcoming the “housing crisis” rather than necessarily focussing on clashes.

RP: Early trials focused on trying different arrangements and positions for the phrases HOUSING CRISIS, SANDLEFORD WARREN, and WATERSHIP DOWN, as well as considering how to include the names of at least some of the rabbits. In kicking around various anagrams of SANDLEFORD WARREN between us, I discovered LAND FOR WANDERERS, which suggested the idea that the “characters” of SANDLEFORD WARREN could be expunged from the LHS (representing the destruction of Sandleford Warren) and relocated on the RHS (representing the creation of the new warren on Watership Down): in this concept, the term “characters” could then suggest either the actual letters of the phrases, or the rabbits in the story. After further discussion we concluded that, to make the puzzle solvable, the letters LAND FOR WANDERERS appearing in entries on the RHS should: (i) be clearly indicated by the wordplay of clues for those entries; (ii) if possible, appear in clue order. With 16 letters in the phrase, point (ii) seemed to be very difficult to achieve in half a grid: however, Andrew had the brainwave of splitting the phrase into LAND FOR appearing in across entries, and WANDERERS appearing in down entries, and “doubling up” the use of the letters AND appearing in both parts of the phrase. This trick enabled him to come up with a viable RHS with the letters of the phrase appearing in the right order. I had the rather easier task of creating a LHS with the letters of the phrase randomly removed from answers before entry: however, in creating both these grid-halves, we also had to consider the names of the rabbits – which to include, and how.

AV: As Rob mentions, I noticed that AND was repeated in LAND and WANDERERS, which finally enabled us to overcome the “gridlock” by allowing them to do double-duty. Even so, it was still a significant challenge to keep the grid symmetrical apart from the central band. At this point we had the four names HAZEL, ACORN, SILVER and FIVER in the bag, but having re-acquainted ourselves thoroughly with the book in preparation, it felt inadequate not to include BIGWIG and PIPKIN. While I use compiling software as a tool, it was primarily a guide in seeing what was possible. Rob’s coup was working in THERB[L]IG and TH[E] PIP with his pencil and paper to be able to include PIPKIN and BIGWIG in the final grid. Which brings us onto the clues.

AV: We allocated the clues alternately to one or the other of us, then discussing further refinements via SMS, email and a couple of Zoom calls. Writing good right/left clues is not easy, one secret (as per Don Manley) being to disguise the join between the two halves while maintaining a viable surface reading. Much time was spent on this and almost as much on trimming them. We competed to see who could achieve the shortest average clue length, neither of us being renowned for our concision. We had given ourselves an additional constraint: in Rob’s words “we did not want to leave any of the characters behind”, yet of the original eleven who left Sandleford to arrive at Watership, only six were in the grid.

RP: The five escapees not included were HAWKBIT, BLACKBERRY, DANDELION, BUCKTHORN and SPEEDWELL. Since these names could not realistically be incorporated in the grid, we considered ways to include them as part of the clues. With the exception of DANDELION, all the names split into two real words, which suggested that we could try to fit half of a name in each half of a double clue. Using “extra” words to be removed before solving would be too obvious, losing the PDM of finding the names in the grid, so we decided to incorporate them as essential parts of the wordplay. The most problematic name was DANDELION, but Andrew noticed the possibility of splitting it as “D AND E” and “LION”, and this trick enabled us to create a (somewhat convoluted) clue for the entry STEAK DIANE. We gave no hint that these extra names were “hidden” in the clues: they were there as an “Easter egg” for solvers to spot, though we’re not sure if anyone did.

AV: I mooted asking solvers to highlight all eleven characters, but Rob advised against it, bearing in mind some prior controversy related to leporine extra-grid highlighting. The editors kindly allowed us to keep the feature in the puzzle, despite it not being needed for the solution. The final editing stage seemed more involved than usual as we worked with the editors to balance surface reading, accuracy and concision in many of the clues. The title also changed at this point, since the puzzle was no longer obviously a NABAWD sequel. I suggested NEW ARRANGEMENTS, i.e. ‘NEW ARRS.’ (see Grove), reflecting puzzle mechanisms, story plot and leading to WARRENS with N, E removed from the left half and replaced on the right in a different order. To align better with Chambers, Rob recommended the improvement NEW ARRIVALS. As in the Watership Down story itself, the puzzle construction was quite an adventure, involving close collaboration between us and with gratefully-received help from others on the journey. Thank you particularly to the editors for this assistance and solvers for kind words of welcome following the puzzle’s publication.

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