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Listener No 4495 An Exchange of Letters: A Setter’s Blog by Harribobs

Posted by Listen With Others on 15 April 2018

Changing one letter in the grid to another, thereby creating a new word, is a device often employed in themed puzzles, and so a couple of years ago I built a list of words tagged with their possible one-letter changes. The word list can be used by grid filling software to insert desired letter swaps where they’re wanted. My programming skills are pretty rusty and the creation of the word list wasn’t completely straightforward; I was quite pleased with myself when everything eventually came together.

To make best use of the list, and because I have no imagination, I decided to set a puzzle based on the theme of change itself. There are a couple of websites offering dozens of quotes on any subject, and for ‘change’ they suggested:

  • Nought may endure but Mutability — Shelley
  • Omnia mutantur, nihil interit — Ovid
  • Everything flows and nothing abides — Heraclitus
  • The times they are a-changin’ — Bob Dylan

The Keramos quote was chosen not because I’m a big fan of Longfellow but because, excluding the last word, its length was about right for the number of answers in a 13×13 grid.

To be consistent with the theme, letters spelling out the title and author were to be deduced by changing a letter in each of the across clues. This approach proved more troublesome than expected because it was difficult to avoid using words, apart from the intended one, which might also feasibly have a letter changed. Three versions of one across were sent back by the editor because the extra letter was ambiguous.

A couple of months after submitting the puzzle, I discovered that all my ingenious work building the letter-swap word list had been a waste of time, at least for this puzzle. The Qxw software from Quinapulus has a facility to do exactly the same job of filling all entries after changing one letter. The parameters can be set in less than a minute. The software has many brilliant features and is free to download. Any setters not using it already should download a copy now!
 

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Overseas Outing by Chalicea

Posted by shirleycurran on 8 April 2018

‘Overseas Outing’ began for me with a real overseas outing. We were with Irish friends at Kilkee on the Atlantic coast, enjoying Irish hospitality and celebrating the other Numpty’s acquisition of his Irish passport which, as the son of an Irishman, he has the right to. It’s his personal reaction to Brexit. We Europeans wish to stay that way! Enough of that.

We were all happily working our way through Shackleton’s Listener and one of the Irish ladies said, “You should set one on Ireland. You could have St Patrick chasing all the snakes into the sea. That is, of course, the myth that explains why there are no snakes in Ireland”. (Actually, she explained, there are slow worms that were probably introduced into the beautiful Burren area. It was the fact that after the last ice age, Ireland split off from the European mass earlier than the rest of Great Britain and the snakes that recolonised arrived too late to get to Ireland that means that there are no other snakes.)

My early grid attempts, Ireland Mark 1, Ireland Mark 2 and so on, were on symmetrical grids with relatively Ximenean unching (to please the purists who are sure to grumble about that double unch the LANGAHA seems to have swallowed, for example) but I soon realized that symmetry had to be thrown to the winds and a bit of licence allowed, making Donegal rather bulky and square. Ireland is not conveniently symmetrical and there are those jagged bits in the north-east and down by the Skelligs – there are no two-letter snakes to fill those. My first test-solver suggested that I should simply  ask for an irregular grid with those six marked off cells absent, and the first editor didn’t like them much either, but the second editor preferred to have sea almost all round Ireland (as did I).

Saint_Patrick_Catholic_Church_(Junction_City,_Ohio)_-_stained_glass,_Saint_Patrick_-_detail.jpg (2388×2991)Saint Patrick went in next (well, obviously he had to, he could hardly chase out all the snakes if he wasn’t there!) then came the snakes. The key issue here was having them removed leaving only real words. I was already disobeying symmetry and unching rules and my word count was dropping below the required 5.5 mean that is the rule for the Listener. so things were not looking good and real words before and after the expulsion of the snakes were a must.

Then, of course came the message that had to be somehow thematic (that was what Roddy Forman used to advise us). In this case, I was now working with the title ‘Removal’ and it was ‘removed’ letters that spelled out those three instructions. So what happened to the removal?

The test-solvers (thank you to them as always) liked it and suggested some clue tweaks. They found it ‘on the easy side’ – but mine usually are and some solvers are happy for a breather, I know. When I saw that St Patrick’s day, March 17th, 2018 was on a Saturday, I submitted it with some trepidation as a date-related crossword. At that point, it was most unlikely that the Listener setters’ dinner would be on that date – that was arranged later.

Overseas Outing

Some time later, both editors solved the puzzle in an embarrassingly short time and the Paris dinner had now been arranged and was unusually early, falling on St Patrick’s day. One editor entertainingly suggested that a more imaginative title might be thought up, that would, perhaps, be a red herring related to the fact that so many Listener people would be enjoying their overseas outing to Paris, courtesy of Sylvie Vanston, on the day the puzzle appeared in The Times. “Outing” has, of course, in Chambers, that meaning “ejection” so ‘Overseas Outing’ it became and I hope all the participants thoroughly enjoyed the overseas outing – and this one.

There had to be a Numpty illustration but, as usual in such questions, we were at odds. (He’s the one who sent the Poat hare off on his hols when I was intent on burying him.) I was all for just having St Patrick drive them into the sea but the other Numpty has a soft spot for them. We have some beautiful natrix natrix (the ring-necked grass snake) in the ponds and they are superb swimmers but he is convinced they wouldn’t manage the long swim to the nearest islands (that’s Jura in the background where the west coast has an astonishing number of snakes). So a raft it was for their Overseas Outing.

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Listener 4492, Mad Tom’s Traps: A Setter’s Blog by Hedge-sparrow

Posted by Listen With Others on 26 March 2018

When I was a lad (a long time ago!) I was given an I Spy Butterflies and Moths book (still available, I’m pleased to say, though now with super colour photos and words like “funky” used to describe the creatures). Armed with this tome, I spent many enjoyable hours, both in the garden and also exploring the chalk landscape of the Chiltern Hills near to my home, looking for all sorts of caterpillars and butterflies and moths described within its pages, and scoring points based on the rarity of the particular examples found.

I didn’t realise then, of course, that, nearly fifty years later, this early fascination would eventually lead to the compiling of a crossword puzzle based on these beautiful creatures: for my love of searching for and observing butterflies has never left me. Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I awarded myself 50 I-spy points for observing for the first time a swallowtail butterfly in the Norfolk Broads!

Enough reminiscing. I had in mind that the subject of butterflies and moths could make a nice puzzle for the Listener series but, as is often the way, I wasn’t sure how to implement it. Then, in 2015, there appeared in The Magpie crossword magazine a puzzle – Fair Game by Mr Magoo – whose “mechanics” seemed to lend themselves perfectly to the butterfly theme. The idea that immediately came to mind was to introduce a LEPIDOPTERIST through the resolution of clashes in the initial grid, and then to produce a collection of butterflies and moths through further changes brought about by introducing the letters of BUTTERFLY NET. Rather unusually, this initial concept worked exactly as originally conceived.

I was rather concerned that my basing the “mechanics” of Mad Tom’s Traps on Mr Magoo’s earlier puzzle might be considered unacceptable, even though the content is, of course, entirely original. I certainly didn’t want to be accused of plagiarism, so in my submission, I did indicate that I had done this. However, nothing was said about it, so I hope it is alright.

To give solvers some help in identifying the “hunter”, I wanted the letters of the word LEPIDOPTERIST to replace those of another word or phrase that could be indicated in the preamble. Butterfly hunting being predominately a summertime activity, I chose SUMMER FLOWERS as the second phrase, with enough letters different from LEPIDOPTERIST hopefully to make the identification of the hunter fairly straightforward. I assumed that, once the hunter was identified, the identification of her or his equipment as BUTTERFLY NET would be obvious.

The main work of the puzzle’s compilation was to choose a selection of butterflies and moths each of whose names could be changed to another word by replacement of one of the letters of BUTTERFLY NET. This term having twelve letters, I therefore needed twelve butterflies and moths. Some, such as gatekeeper (→ game-keeper) and orange tip (→ orange pip) suggested themselves immediately, but to generate a list of possibilities took quite a while, even armed with the internet and various other reference works (including dear old I Spy Butterflies and Moths!) A further constraint was that I wanted all the names to be verifiable by Chambers, so in the end, my list was not very long, and I didn’t have much flexibility in the choice of names to include in the puzzle. I must admit that there are one or two – bugong, for example – that I’d not heard of before.

The next problem was to fit an appropriate selection of the words derived from the names into a symmetrical grid, ensuring that, when the appropriate letters were changed to give the names of butterflies and moths, real words still remained. I am a setter who does not use any tools (other than a dictionary and other reference works) to assist in the compiling of puzzles – I enjoy the process of creating a filled thematic grid, and like to do it using my own little grey cells alone. For this step, I deliberately developed the grid so that most of the changes to create the names occurred at unchecked cells. The idea was that, again to give solvers a bit of help in the final step, the letters to be replaced could be indicated by a word or phrase mentioned in the preamble. At this stage, I had no idea what that word or phrase might be, but when I had eventually managed to create a filled grid, I discovered that the letters that needed to be replaced to form the names could be arranged into the phrase MAD TOM’S TRAPS, and I felt that was good enough for the purpose. This also, of course, became the name of the puzzle.

Cluing, as always, took ages, but the puzzle was rather unusual in having entirely normal clues, which helped. There was a bit of additional pre-publication editing of the clues, with the puzzle finally being published on 3rd March 2018. This was a puzzle that I really enjoyed compiling: I hope that it was also an enjoyable one to solve.

As ever, thanks are due to Shane and Roger, the Listener Crossword editors, for their unstinting efforts and support in getting Mad Tom’s Traps ready for publication.
 

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Listener No 4491, A Dreadful Puzzle: A Setter’s Blog by Dysart

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 March 2018

I’m not one of those people lucky enough to be nihilophobes (a Dysart coinage for this blog). I have a few pet aversions (one being selfies) and one phobia – that of heights. I feel distinctly uncomfortable venturing onto the balcony of my friends’ thirteenth-floor apartment to admire the sea view (if I suffered from triskaidekaphobia I probably wouldn’t even venture into the apartment). A few years back I climbed around one hundred very steep steps to the top of a temple in Ayutthaya only to find that I froze when I turned round to start the near vertical descent. The only way I can cope in such situations is by the somewhat inelegant technique of going down backwards. And when I toured Zion National Park in the US two years ago nothing would have induced me to climb up to the dizzy heights of Angel’s Landing. Just watching bits of that video makes my stomach churn.

Over the years I’ve come across some odd phobias, in one case of the colour red (though there doesn’t appear to be a word for that). I’ve yet to meet someone suffering from dromophobia, a morbid fear of crossing streets, which must make life somewhat of a trial. In some cases it was the word rather than the condition that intrigued me, such as astrapophobia (thunder and lightning) or taphophobia (being buried alive).

On to the puzzle. The main idea was to exploit the fact that many of the prefixes are anagrams of other words. When I checked the text search in the 2005 Chambers CD ROM I found 91 phobias, the prefixes of twenty-two of them making real words when jumbled. I like thematic items to be placed symmetrically if at all possible, and the 23 options available made this possible. The breakdown was nine four-letter choices, ten of five letters, three of six and one of seven. Five couldn’t be accurately conveyed by a single word, so had to be discounted. The singleton (ORNITHO-) dictated the start of the grid, a seven-letter word in the centre of a row or column. The six-letter option I didn’t use was SCOPTO- (fear of being looked at – problematic for someone in an identity parade). Four five-letter prefixes and two four-letter ones would make a good balance of word lengths. Besides the aesthetic appeal of symmetry there was the bonus that it could help solvers identify the thematic clues if they noticed the symmetry early enough.

My grid requirements were a perfectly Ximenean symmetrical grid, preferably no three-letter words and a respectable average word length. Constructing the grid was easier than expected. My first attempt to place the thematic entries resulted in a useable grid using Sympathy’s autofill. It was at that point I thought of ANDY CAPP. I’m not an avid cartoon fan but I see him every day on one page of the English-language newspaper in my foreign domicile, and he seemed an apt figure for ergophobia. That entailed a bit of shifting around of thematic entries. The other two endgame elements emerged in the course of experimenting with different grids. I could see I could get FEAR in the final grid, and the P of PANTO seemed a good starting point for PAIN. On reflection it would have been neater if WORK, not PAIN, had been the thematic word excluded from clues, to match the comic character. I rather regret not doing that.

I often spend longer on the clues than on the grid construction, and that was certainly the case here. I made a conscious decision to provide Shirley with some boozy material for her blog, so the puzzle would definitely not be an alcohol-free zone, but there were plenty of opportunities. The main difficulty was neatly camouflaging the extra words in clues, dividing them equally between across clues and down (to extend the puzzle’s symmetry).‘Heights’ and ‘crowds’ were particularly difficult, and ‘work’ and ‘everything’ moved homes several times before eventually becoming permanently settled. It was also important that there were no intruders, and I’m grateful to test solvers for identifying the odd word or two that could have been seen as an extra.

The title I used was more or less the first that occurred to me. I realized that it was an invitation to anyone who didn’t like the puzzle respond with “Yes, it was,” but I was prepared to risk it, and so far I’ve seen only one such comment.

One solver commented that I could have had a tenth item, CYNOPHOBIA (dogs) if 34 had been CYNO (which I could have clued as CONY) I deliberately avoided that because it would spoil the symmetry and would have meant one short thematic entry crossing two others , leaving only one cell from a normal entry. If I’d managed to maintain symmetry by squeezing in a symmetrical partner there would have been two such entries, breaching a principle I observed throughout the grid construction that none of the nine jumbled entries should intersect.

I’ll leave you now with one more phobia I discovered today that may affect some people next month and again later this year– paraskavedekatriaphobia. It’s not in the mainstream dictionaries but can be found in online non-standard ones. Greek scholars will be able to work it out.

Dysart

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Listener No 4490, REJOB: A Setters’ Blog by Botox

Posted by Listen With Others on 12 March 2018

Picture the scene: two setters catching up over a drink in a London hotel bar, October 2013.

S: Times crossword championship tomorrow.

A: What did you think of Sabre’s Listener last week?

S: Mash’s Magpie this month is one for those setters who enjoy both word-based puzzles and number ones.
A: Mathematics twice in a month! Good puzzle though. Much prefer the non-numericals.
S: Me too, but wouldn’t it be ironic if two numerophobes set a numerical together.
A: Could be based on a hotel with the room numbers as entries.
S: Certain letters could code into parts of a hotel.
A: RECEPTION on the ground floor, PENTHOUSE on the top floor, they are the same number of letters.
S: Perhaps a LIFT joining them…
A: … and STAIRS too. No room 13 as most hotels tend to be triskaidekaphobic.
S: Nice touch!

The evening progressed without another word on the subject, but A’s idea never left S’s mind. Two days later S puts the room numbers missing the number 13 and relevant words into an 11×6 grid. Coincidentally, also in the October Magpie, the numerical by Oyler uses the A=1, B=2 … J=0, K=1 etc conversion. He put in his preamble “by a code that associates each letter of the alphabet with a single digit”. It didn’t take long to add the symmetrical bar pattern to create unique entries. But what about the clues? An email exchange started as S sent A the grid:

S: What one does with the clues is anyone’s guess. I like it when the clues are real words … crikey knows how setters make every clue thematic e.g. names of famous hotels.
A: Maybe using some examples of NATO alphabet (ZULU, TANGO, etc) since HOTEL is one too?
S: Your NATO might work. There will be more clues than 26 even with deleting a few bars and so some will have to be doubled up.

A few days later:

S: I did pick away at our numerical this week and have made a start. A to Z using 1 to 26. Tried to get the NATO alphabet in order but turned out too difficult.

If you look at the clues you can see that ALPHA to ECHO and PAPA to ZULU are in order.

A: Another idle thought:
HOTEL = 8 / 15 / 20 / 5 / 12  =   8 5 0 5 2.
85052 can also represent  18 / 5 / 10 / 15 / 2.
That spells out REJOB (could be used in title?), which leads me very prematurely to suggest a preamble…

After a little to-ing and fro-ing of clues and just over a week after the puzzle was conceived:

S: Here is the puzzle so far. All the alphabet are doubled up (except HOTEL where it is only used once).
A: You mentioned in London that Nod is a whizz at numericals… do you want to try it out on him? (And have you worked out yet the famed “logical solution path”).
S: I cannot solve it, but that is no surprise!

Then misfortune struck. A mistake in the HOTEL clue. Despite that and no obvious way in, Nod still managed to solve the puzzle and lived up to his reputation. Whilst correcting the HOTEL clue it became apparent that it could be made with two HOTELs in the same clue and it so happened that HO could be removed to get the same equivalence. At that point the two DELTAs were in different clues, but by bringing one across to the same clue, a “way in” started to appear.

S. Now we know there are no errors we need to find another maths wizard to test it on.

Oyler would be a perfect choice and thankfully cracked the numerical part steadily enough. Endgame was somewhat tricky even though Oyler (and Nod for that matter) worked out the substitution code readily enough.

A few more tweaks to the preamble and some debate whether to send it to the Magpie or Listener ended up with this:

A: Given Oyler’s use of the same alphanumeric code so recently, what do we do now? Send it to the Listener and wait three years by which time everyone’s forgotten? Ha ha!

Indeed A’s prediction was an underestimation as it took 4 years to see the light. Reading feedback from JEG it seems as if it was a brute to get into, but everyone who finished it enjoyed the puzzle and therefore it was worth the wait.

I wonder what will happen next time we meet over a bottle or two in a hotel… Paris is looming.
 

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