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Listener No 4513, Lost in Translation: A Setter’s Blog by Ottorino

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 August 2018

I set a weekly general knowledge at my local golf club and a couple of years ago, I asked the question, “Which major European country uses the same alphabet as we do but without 5 letters”? I hadn’t known the answer but it surprised me that none of the 47 quizzers did either. It also seemed odd that one of the missing letters is X, so common in Latin.

A few weeks later, it occurred to me that there might just be a crossword in this piece of trivia and as my mind is usually a desert when it comes to original ideas for crosswords, I started to write down some ideas before I lost confidence in the theme. At the very least, I reasoned, Listener solvers usually appreciate learning something new and if my quizzers were typical, this was something new.

The first idea that came to me was to make the answer to 21 (either across or down) “Letters”. That led me to decide that there would be 40 clues, 20 across and 20 down so that whatever treatment I gave the clues, all 20 acrosses or all 20 downs would be affected and the 21 would be made up by adding 1 of the others. 20 fitted neatly as I could then use each of J,K,W,X and Y 4 times.

I experimented by adding each of these letters to potential clue words but at about that time I thought of “Lost in Translation” as a decent title so it was sensible to have removals rather than additions. It resulted in some rather clumsy clues and the Js were particularly troublesome. I eventually had to settle for all 4 Js being the initial letter. I then realised that the clue for 21 (which turned out to be a down clue) must contain an example of each of the 5 letters to be excluded. This seemed daunting so I was pleased to come up fairly quickly with “eg, Jess and Ken, Ruby Wax off tele…star cast!” for LETTERS.

I toyed with the idea of presenting all clues in alphabetical order of their answers but I couldn’t justify it except to make the puzzle more difficult. I compromised by presenting the down clues in alphabetical order of answers to allow me to incorporate the instruction to solvers to insert only one number: 21 for the answer LETTERS. In line with this, only the bars would be provided in the grid.

I was aware that the successful solver at this point would know the 5 letters to be omitted and might realise that 21 was the number required but could submit without having made the Italian language connection. I decided to have ITALIA as an answer as well as ITALY. Of course, ITALY has one of the discarded letters but I could see no way to get over that so I inserted the other 4 discards as clashes.

Finally, I felt that there should be no incidences of JKWXY in the clues except for the ones that solvers were instructed to remove.

Having completed the grid and most of the clues, it struck me that it would be a nice touch if all 21 letters of the Italian alphabet appeared at least once in the final grid. I tried for some time to achieve this but without an almost total rewrite, I couldn’t manage it and I resolved never again to ask a quiz question to which I didn’t know the answer!


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Listener No. 4512, Putting The World To Rights: A Setter’s blog by Charybdis

Posted by Listen With Others on 12 August 2018

Given the chaotic nature of the intermediate solving gridfill, you might not be surprised to learn that this puzzle’s setting was equally chaotic — if not more so. If, on the other hand, you fondly imagine things proceeded with insight and logic on a straight path towards completion, prepare to be shocked!

I set this puzzle in August 2016 during a 10-day let halfway up a small mountain outside Grazalema in Andalucia. The wonders of no internet distraction!

For no obvious reason I decided to make something (if I could) of all four opening lines of Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming. Nothing less would do. What that something would be I had little idea beyond some sort of spiral of the first line and vaguely some other ‘stuff’. But possibilities brewed, festered and fermented at all hours of the day and (more often) night as I tried to make something workable out of what I soon came to realise was an unfeasibly complicated text. Not once but twice, major sessions began by waking at 3am and making slow caffeine-fuelled progress on some new possibility having already, yet again, abandoned the puzzle for good.

The Second Coming by W.B.Yeats is one of those poems that I almost, but not quite, know by heart. At one time I found it simply powerful and disturbing but I now think it’s all a bit portentous, to be honest. Written in 1919, Yeats wasn’t in fact predicting Hitler or Stalin or ISIS or Trump or… but merely more of the Irish ‘troubles’. Which arguably makes it just a superior version of Private Fraser’s “We’re all doomed”.

Anyway, maybe inspired by the vultures that wheel around in Andalucia, those opening lines gyred around endlessly in my head day after day:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

The final puzzle hardly resembles any of my first thoughts beyond line 1 appearing in a [square-cornered!] spiral.

Early thoughts were:

  1. Bring the falcon home to the middle of the grid? Maybe somehow use substitution between GYRe and GYRfalcon (not etymologically connected, incidentally).
  2. “THINGs fall apart”. line 1 contains a cryptic example of itself: “turning and turninG IN THe …”.
  3. Put a jumble of ‘mere anarchy’ (loosed) upon the letters THE WORLD in the grid.
  4. My Chambers ROM reminded me that a GENTLE is a trained falcon; and it sits nicely in the centre of the gyre (the G.NT.. being already in place from my gyre of line1 as part of the word TurNinG). Which would undo the situation in line 2 as things start to hold together again.
  5. Solvers having to correct that G IN TH to THING and that G.NT. to a second THING?? (already the germ of the idea of undoing all the doom in Yeats’s poem and putting ‘the world’ (the grid) to rights is growing in strength).
  6. I reduced my 13×13 grid to 13×12 at this point so a 3×2 block for GENTLE could fit the exact centre.

It was days later (at 3am!) that I realised the ‘obvious’ fact that GentLe and CentRe took such a similar form and could be exploited, so the falcon returns to the centre once more where it belongs.

As for “Mere anarchy is loosed”, this obviously begged for a suitable anagram treatment. Using the Clue Workshop Wordplay Wizard function on Sympathy, the apt ARCANE RHYME jumps out at you at #6 in an endlessly long list. I knew this had to go in the puzzle. If I was debunking Yeats’s gloom (if that was going to be the entire theme), then this dismissive description of it fitted the bill again. Lacking Wifi connections, what I didn’t know until my observant puzzle-tester (Ploy) pointed it out a month later, was that Ifor, in Best Way Round (Magpie 147, March 2015) had used the identical anagram to illustrate the same line. I still feel mortified by that coincidence and offer my humble apologies to Ifor. I’m glad that in other respects our thematic paths diverged.

Meanwhile, with GENTLE/CENTRE in the middle, I couldn’t make the letters of THING (‘falling’ apart) work there any more. But ‘Gentle’ took me on a wild goose chase into Dylan Thomas country and not going gentle into that good NIGHT (a second THING to fall apart). Indeed, if the title became “No Good”, for instance, and GENTLE flies to the middle, you might find yourself left with “DO NOT GO (…) INTO THAT (…) THING” (anag. ‘night’). A temptingly admonitory addition to the grid perimeter?

This idea and variants came and went repeatedly and in the end they went since too complicated and tangential.

Alas, already at this stage the grid looked too stuffed with uncooperative letters for a conventional gridfill and, given the ‘MERE ANARCHY’ as justification, I only now considered getting out of the hole I’d dug myself by the extreme ‘resort’ (ahem) of using jumbles. What I didn’t appreciate was the new layers of chaos that decision would bring.

But, if playing with jumbles, I had new freedom in the grid. Why not bring Dylan back after all?: TONDO (do not) TOOTHING (go into th) HATTING (at night) LADY (dyla) MONTH (n thom) and something with AS in it, giving the Dylan quote. But that didn’t survive long either. And it would mean real words, so no longer an anarchic grid.

Oh! And a minor detail — solvers still had no way of discovering what poem and lines were the theme!

Then, toying with the letters of W.B.YEATS, I realised it contained a ‘rough’ form of BEAST. Nice! (“And what ROUGH BEAST, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” I don’t know. Donald Trump? But I digress.) An internet search of ‘Rough beast’ would reveal the theme poem to the solver. (Wouldn’t it, I hoped? And fortunately, Yes). ROUGH BEAST, WHY NO HEART? was short enough to confirm W.B.YEATS via ‘extra letters’, somehow ‘Coming Second’ for thematic consistency. Sorted.

Except not at all sorted. I got in a right old tangle in fact. I still wanted the whole grid to be jumbled at this point (mere anarchy) but I wanted G IN TH to resolve itself to THING, and I wanted MERE ANARCHY to appear, unjumbled, And to transform itself somehow into ARCANE RHYME. So I wanted everything to be jumbled, but some parts not jumbled all at the same time. Might as well square the circle and have the moon on a stick while I was at it.

I tried various things but finally realised I’d end with a complete dog’s breakfast of jumbles/real words. So I abandoned the ‘THING’ idea. Definitely go for jumbles throughout the grid! This turned out to be ridiculously easy for the setter, would be horribly hard for the solver, and would have no redeeming payoff beyond highlighting the gyre.

So, a rubbish ending, and a job half done. The text of line 1 was there in a gyre, and I could undo Yeats image by making GENTLE appear in the middle, but the mere anarchy is still depicted and not undone and we haven’t even got ‘arcane rhyme’ appearing anywhere. How do we deal with that?

Well, I came up with ideas, but on inspection they all crashed and burned. I even had a thought, at one point, entailing every jumbled entry having two different anagrams. Eg clue → SPRITE → jumble (eg PRITSE) → eg RIPEST in final (all-real-word) grid. Somehow this clearly impossible idea was meant to reveal first ‘mere anarchy’ and then (‘coming second’) ‘arcane rhyme’. I think I was in a fever of delirium by this point!!!

Eventually I realised an obvious solution: “Abandon the puzzle entirely, delete all traces of it! Have a jug of sangria!”

And then another 3am awakening as it hit me — just maybe not impossible.

I’ve discovered that filling a grid with jumbled words is very easy indeed. (But it clearly breaks a rule of setting that I hold dear and try to observe: The setter should always have to work harder than the solver.) But suppose I managed after all to create a ‘normal’ real word grid that included ARCANE RHYME down the side and the letters in the gyre in their correct places?

Suppose then that I created the same grid but with MERE ANARCHY down the side, and the unchecked letters in across words unaltered. Down entries could be entered in a flexible number of jumbled ways. Was it possible to arrange them so that across words could also all represent jumbles of words? And for you to have ARCANE RHYME replacing MERE ANARCHY?

And would that really work, if it could be done? Would the jumbled “merely anarchic” Yeatsian grid which solvers managed to reproduce really change into the (ahem) ‘gentle-hearted’ and orderly one I desired?

As you’ll know if you solved it, yes. The idea works. I finally had a lucid logical insight! Suddenly I knew my destination. But could I get there? I can never trumpet the wonders of Sympathy software highly enough. Suffice to say that this grid would have been impossible without it. It was still a close-run thing. I see that I saved 34 files at different stages of gridfill on that last day alone and it took me from 04:19 to success at 22:04 and, until the last couple of minutes, I was completely unsure whether it was possible — there were quite a few dodgy almost-dead-ends — but we got there.

Even so, as successful solvers will know, there are ambiguities in the interim jumbled gridfill. To be honest, I tried at length later on to remove them but I could not. And then I thought: “Well, that really IS anarchic!” And so long as solvers genuinely go as far as is possible (which turns out to be essential, although you can use the hidden message carefully as a guide to see what’s happening) then the important thing is that an unambiguous ‘proper’ final grid emerges in the end.

As I never did manage to show “Mere Anarchy” loosed upon the letters of “THE WORLD” in the grid, the last step before clue-writing was actually the title “Putting THE WORLD to rights”, making a sort of equation between the world and the contents of the grid.

So there we are. Simple really. I did also have lots of tapas and tinto de verano and read and went places so this isn’t quite such a sad and geeky life I lead as it sounds! Anyway, my “What I did on my holidays” homework is now finished. (I wonder if anybody has read this far! :-D)

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Setter’s Blog: ‘Moon’ by Encota

Posted by Encota on 15 July 2018

  • It was Midsummer 2016 and Sir Trevor Nunn had returned to his home town of Ipswich to (complete the set and) direct his 37th out of the 37 Shakespeare’s plays.  Whilst watching his production of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, I noticed that the character ‘Bully’ Bottom’s first name was actually Nick.  ‘Nick Bottom’ sounded (to me, anyway) like an instruction to steal (remove) the last letter – and so the germ of an idea was born.
  • The theme – perhaps like the one used in the delightful puzzle ‘horn’ by Mr E in this month’s excellent Magpie magazine – once thought of, was nigh-on impossible to resist!  I managed finally to submit it to the Listener a year or so later, for publication on or close to a following Midsummer.
  • I double-checked that I had the Title of the Play exactly right – especially where that apostrophe sat …
  • Seeing the puzzle a year later during the proof-reading phase I did feel that, even though I had kept the average word length above 5.5, I had settled for rather too many 3-letter words.  I’ll try and do better next time!
  • The clue I was perhaps most pleased with was: Around 31.4 North this (and nine others) could be triangulated? (6), with the ’around 31.4 N’ wordplay being for TENPIN (TEN PI + N).  I am sure it’s been done before (hasn’t everything?) but I’ve never seen it.  [And examples include Israel, Texas or Tibet, just in case you were wondering.]
  • My thanks as ever to all at The Listener, especially Roger who helped tighten up several of my clues
  • And the title? To Moon = to show one’s Bottom.  That’s enough lowering of the tone for one blog 🙂
  • Finally, several people have asked me about my pseudonym, ‘Why Encota?’  Apart from it sounding vaguely like ‘encoder’ when pronounced in a mid-Atlantic drawl, which seemed faintly logical for a puzzle creator, perhaps this CD cover from probably my favourite band ‘Porcupine Tree’ hints at its true source.  If you like sometimes loud yet often melodic rock music and haven’t heard them, then perhaps give them a try.  If not, then look away now …


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Listener No 4504, Milky: A Setter’s Blog by Malva

Posted by Listen With Others on 17 June 2018

I dare say a good many solvers will view Milky as lowering the 2018 standard a notch or seven, but I’ll always remember it as the first and only time I’ve actually seen someone doing one of my crosswords.

We were down in Cornwall and we’d done the Two Valleys Walk from St Neot, which takes you across the edge of the moor, along the River Fowey and, in our case, through a field of belligerent bullocks who mirrored our every move in a strange cross-species version of one of those elegantly soporific dances they have in Pride and Prejudice and resolutely refused to let us anywhere near the stile we needed to use. It added about 40 minutes to the walk, but eventually we got back to the pub and took our drinks out to the courtyard at the back. There were only a couple of people there – a woman hoovering up a seafood platter the size of the Isle of Wight and a middle-aged bloke wearing a ZZ Top T-shirt. And, lo and behold, he had The Times on the table in front of him and was pulling intently on an e-cigarette while flicking away half-eaten prawns that had escaped from his companion’s fork.

“Ah … you do the Listener, then?” I said and he looked at me as though I’d just accused him of something really shameful and offensive.

“Sometimes,” he said defensively and the platter gobbler paused over a winkle and added,

“He does it every week. With a fountain pen.”

“Keeps the old noddle ship-shape,” he said. “Most weeks, anyway.” A sliver of whiting landed on the preamble. “This bloke, though,” and he pointed at my name “he’s not really up to it. They’re all about birds. Sparrows … and stuff. Not that I’ve got anything against birds.”

“Per se,” added the platter cleaner.

“Avoirdupois,” he said and they giggled gleefully at what I assumed was some arcane private joke. Thankfully though, their moment of merriment gave us the chance to skedaddle to the furthest corner of the courtyard, but no sooner had we sat down than The Times dropped onto our table and the bloke said,

“You can finish it if you like,” and just to confuse matters, he also handed me what was left of the seafood platter, which was a puddle of pink gloop, two slices of radish and a microdot of crab.

I didn’t eat any of it. I didn’t check his answers either. But we did see a dipper at Golitha Falls.

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Listener No 4501, Two Solutions: A Setter’s Blog by Quinapalus

Posted by Listen With Others on 27 May 2018

I first encountered the riddle used in Two Solutions in one of the books in Martin Gardner’s excellent Mathematical Diversions series. Its rhythm had stuck in my mind, and I had been thinking for a while that it might be possible to use it as the basis for a puzzle. Also, I’d been experimenting with ways to make it easier to construct grids where lights have two solutions in Qxw — with the current version it is possible but fiddly — and thought this might make a good test case.

I could see that the quadratic equation would have two distinct solutions, and on determining that they were complex, the idea of using the grid as an Argand diagram came naturally enough. Given that the coefficients were, I assume, chosen purely for metrical reasons it was good fortune that the roots can be plotted in a reasonable-sized grid with the side of a cell representing one unit. It was also fortunate that the real part of the roots is an odd multiple of one half so that they lie in the middle of a square horizontally, which makes the grid neater and the entries easier to check. In combination with the word ‘vertically’ in the instruction message it also gave some solvers some confidence that they were on the right track.

The complex roots of a polynomial with real coefficients always come in conjugate pairs: that is, pairs differing only in the sign of the imaginary part. This is because if you replace i with –i throughout a polynomial equation it will still be true; or as someone put it ‘how do you know that i is the positive square root of –1?’. It was therefore thematic for the grid to have up-down mirror symmetry. To avoid ambiguity it was important that there were no Xs in the grid other than those marking the roots; with a bit of work it also proved possible to make the grid pangrammatic.

Many solvers seem to like puzzles that have a little maths dust sprinkled on them, though I’m sure there are some—not too many I hope—for whom the endgame came as a slightly unpleasant surprise. To them I apologise (but only a bit). For the mathematical puzzles in the Listener series the editors use GCSE level as the reference for an acceptable level of difficulty. (Presumably if the same threshold were applied to the expected level of familiarity with, for example, English literature, setters would only be allowed to draw themes from Macbeth.) As far as I can establish this puzzle probably only just slips below the GCSE bar. Complex numbers are taught at that level, and so is the method of ‘completing the square’ for solving quadratics, which is convenient to use in this case as the coefficient of x² is 1. What is less clear is whether the combination of these two ideas falls within the syllabus.

It is unfortunate that ‘Argand diagram’ is not defined in Chambers but on the other hand there is an excellent explanation in Collins and of course in many online sources. All in all I was a bit apprehensive when I submitted the puzzle that the editors might reject it as demanding too much mathematics but in the end they let me get away with it. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side I arranged to be out of the country when the puzzle was published.

My thanks to the test solvers and the vetters for all the improvements they suggested, to the checker, and to the many solvers who gave feedback either online or along with their postal entries. Thankfully the response was mostly positive and there was no angry posse lying in wait for me at Heathrow. Your comments are all greatly appreciated.


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