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Listener No. 4651, That’s Your Lot!: A Setter’s Blog by Ploy

Posted by Listen With Others on 11 Apr 2021

Quite often, I find that the possible themes and treatments for crosswords that spring to mind are, after some initial exploration, put to one side to “mature”. This was definitely not the case for this one, the time between initial idea and the writing of the last clue being unusually short. And from the start, I had a pretty good idea where I’d submit it. It had been some years since I’d made a (solo) Listener appearance, with “Right and Left” in September 2016, also based on a Flanders and Swann song. For those with long memories, this new puzzle would perhaps be seen as a delayed follow-up!

Some of the lyrics in “First and Second Law” lend themselves well to use in a thematic puzzle, and I could see at least three stages for possible changes in the grid: the interchange of HEAT and WORK, the movement of HEAT from HOTTER to COOLER, and the replacement of WORK with PERFECT PEACE. The song’s reference to CONDUCTION, CONVECTION, and RADIATION also looked tempting. But I didn’t know if I could (or indeed should) exploit them all. The presence of pairs of 4- and 6-letter words was certainly a promising indication. And I hoped to include the throwaway line “Yeah – that’s entropy man!” somehow.

In trying out various grid layouts, I found that left-right symmetry worked the best, which coincidentally my previous F&S puzzle had called for. Having decided on the grid “mechanics” for the selected thematic elements, I was faced with the challenge of arranging for two real-word replacements, and eight double real-word replacements. They were mostly for short words, and fortunately the letters cooperated! But I did wonder how solvers might feel about replacing a replacement they’d already made.

“Lot” in the title had the further meaning of “destiny” and, perhaps at a stretch, could also stand for Laws Of Thermodynamics – at least, I hoped so!

Test-solving and subsequent editor vetting produced worthwhile changes in clueing and preamble, and those who helped have my gratitude. All solvers who commented on the puzzle, via whatever channel, also have my sincere thanks.

If you’d like a reminder of the song, with it’s witty spoken introduction, try this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnbiVw_1FNs

Phil Lloyd (Ploy)

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Listener No 4650, Two Names: A Setter’s Blog by Deuce

Posted by Listen With Others on 4 Apr 2021

I find myself, I suppose like any writer of these setter’s blogs, attempting to recollect how I went about something in circa-2019, the strange before-time when one could leave one’s house and CORONAVIRUS just an awkward fill for a 12×12 grid. This task would be easier if I’d kept a real-time journal — perhaps I will next time — but let’s see if I can’t piece it together.

Looking for a scientific theme, I set on Carl Linnaeus — who took on the remarkable task of classifying and naming every living thing, from Orycteropus afer to Bos indicus, inventing a structure that still basically exists today. That linguistic and scientific endeavour has, if nothing else, left a host of genuses and species and what-have-you splayed all over the dictionary.

It seemed neat to include the way a follower of the Linnaean system would refer to themselves, and indeed to every person. But the seven terms for describing the human already take up a lot of grid space, and in a conventional grid, once the solver got the general gist, it would be pretty much a write-in. I hoped the carte blanche format slows down the pace a touch early on, giving an extra kick to proceedings at that tricky midway lull.

I wanted to include a little poetry too to complement the science. And looking for something thematic naturally led me to the Book of Genesis, in which the task of naming the animals is given considerable importance.

Reading on in the relevant passage I found that the hardworking animal-namer craves nothing more to relax in the evenings in the company of a loyal helpmeet. And while the name of Linnaeus’ wife is hardly common knowledge, it seemed easy enough to find out — once you know what you are looking for.

Still more satisfyingly, that gave me a way of fitting a second name, SARA MORAEA, into the grid, exactly the thing I was looking for to justify the title of TWO NAMES — a reference to Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature, in which animals and plants are conventionally referred to by both genus and species.

From what I can tell, some immediately twigged what they were supposed to be looking for;  others indulging in a significant amount of gazing at the grid before figuring it out. As a frequent and often longstanding grid-starer the latter type have my endless sympathy.

 I now see this isn’t our hero’s first reference in the Listener — Verbascum having foregrounded him in his 2013 puzzle, number 4223, also titled Two Names. (I discover this merely as I write this blog: there’s nothing new under the sun, as they say in another part of the Bible).

Anyway, as ever it is a great pleasure to be informed after so many months that the editors have accepted a puzzle for inclusion. After that initial euphoria wore off, came the shock at discovering I couldn’t actually solve any of my own clues, followed by the brief but intense moment of terror — would I pass Shirley’s fiendish oenophile challenge? A sigh of relief as I spotted the clue for BIAS — and praying that zythophilia is enough to get a passing grade.

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Listener No 4649, Get Weaving: A Setter’s Blog by Paddock

Posted by Listen With Others on 28 Mar 2021

Should I ever be called upon to choose a suitable soundtrack for my puzzle setting career, it will certainly not feature Edith Piaf warbling Je ne regrette rien”, my tendency being more towards the Frank Sinatra school of regrets. Oh yes, during that period between submitting a puzzle for editorial consideration and reflecting on its reception by solvers, I’ve had a few — but as you are about to learn, they are not too few to mention (and anyway, Frank, surely the barrier to comprehensive regret-mentioning would be superabundance rather than paucity?).

The most vexing of them fall into three broad categories. Worst of all, perhaps, are the times when it has become clear from the online forums (which I check repeatedly on publication day with hope and trepidation in unequal measure) either that the endgame required a mental leap which was inadequately signposted or that the finishing line could not be confidently identified. Regardless of the merits of the rest of the puzzle, such faults inevitably leave solver dissatisfied and setter rueful.

Next on the list come those instances where, upon solving the initial proof, I have discovered issues (usually manifested as some form of ambiguity) which seemed to me to render the puzzle unsatisfactory. In my early days of setting, I would tell myself “It’ll be all right, no-one else will notice.” Experience has taught me that if the only reason I can sidestep the hole is because I dug it myself, others will undoubtedly fall into it, and they won’t enjoy the experience; now, if there’s time to fix the problem I will, but sometimes the proximity of the publication date means that it just isn’t feasible (I guess that using test solvers might help here, but I’m too set in my ways to start now). Result: self-flagellation of the mental kind.

Lastly there are those puzzles which at a late stage I realise simply don’t do justice to the theme — “I should have included that name in the grid, or done the thing as a Carte Blanche, or spent longer developing the idea.” Even if the puzzle is reasonably well received, it still feels like a good opportunity wasted. And when you struggle like I do to come up with original themes, that is a cause for considerable regret.

If I manage to avoid these pitfalls, the resulting puzzle may still not be up to much but at least I will look upon it with a degree of authorial affection.

With Get Weaving, my starting point was the idea of intertwining two normal (but meaningless) clues to produce a composite with a relatively sensible surface reading. I then looked for a theme with a weaving connection, and the Arachne/Minerva story seemed to fit the bill perfectly, in particular the potential ARACHNE->A SPIDER transformation. Using interwoven answers to make up the weft would allow me (I hoped) to introduce the combatants into the grid without their names needing to span bars. I realised that the grid-fill for the solver would not be trivial, so I wanted the endgame to be simple and unambiguous.

The challenge of populating the grid was compounded by the need to include in a single block six pairs of words which varied only in their third letter, as required for the RACHNE/SPIDER change. Half of the 24 across solutions ended up being words which I would describe as ‘unfamiliar’ (to normal people, if not to those of us with multiple editions of Chambers on our shelves), but I didn’t feel that I was going to be able to reduce the ratio without jeopardising my last lingering trace of sanity.

For the interwoven clues there could be no redundant words, while the down clues needed to be readily blind-solvable. In an attempt to make things slightly easier for the solver, I determined that the first letter entered in a column would always belong to the first solution, and that where two across solutions were the same length the first word in the clue would belong to the first entry. Ultimately it was decided not to include this information in the preamble, although some solvers apparently worked it out for themselves.

An extra (self-imposed) requirement was that the unwoven across clues had to be made as sound as possible: I couldn’t see the editors wanting to rewrite them, and I certainly had no wish to do it myself! In the event, writing these clues didn’t in itself prove inordinately difficult; the main issue was that producing half-decent surface readings meant that the separated clues were quite a bit trickier than I would have ideally liked. The high proportion of uncommon words contributed significantly to that problem, a pair such as ESSENE and TEASEL being unlikely bedfellows.

I knew that the finished puzzle wasn’t easy, and I was concerned that the down solutions might be of very little help in the solving process. I was reassured by the fact that both vetters managed to battle their way through it, and when I came to tackle the proof myself I found that solving the down clues was in fact the key to cracking the puzzle. I can’t recall ever completing a barred crossword without doing a certain amount of ‘reverse engineering’ (and I see no reason why a clue cannot legitimately support a hypothesis as well as give rise to one), but it was clear that the across clues here were going to require an unusually generous dollop of it.

I wasn’t surprised that the response on the forums was mixed – those who see the grid-fill essentially as the means to reach the endgame were always going to be disappointed, and on top of that the solving process here could be viewed as either an exacting challenge or a disagreeable slog. Those who described the puzzle as ‘an old-fashioned Listener’ didn’t venture to add whether that was a good or a bad thing!

And as for regrets? None on the three counts listed at the start, though I do wish that I had been able to make the individual interwoven clues easier to solve, or at least to parse. But hey, I did it my way…

Paddock, March 2021

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Listener No 4648, Not One: A Setter’s Blog by Nudd

Posted by Listen With Others on 21 Mar 2021

Having been asked for a setter’s blog, I tried to recall something enlightening about the setting mechanics, but sadly I can’t offer anything particularly original. Maybe I’ll concentrate first on the inspiration for the puzzle.

Back In the days when I had to work for a living, my reward for a twelve hour day was the fact that my commuting time tended to be conveniently shunted outside of the worst of the rush hours. Consequently I could normally find a seat and spend a fairly comfortable 90 minutes reading. One book I remember tackling then was “So much blood” by Simon Brett (not my usual fare but I think we had acquired it free with a jar of coffee or some such promotion and I thought I’d give it a try). It actually proved to be an entertaining read. The hero was a thespian performing his one man show about Thomas Hood on the Edinburgh Festival fringe. The text / chapter headings were littered with quotes from his poems and assorted writings, and that was enough to have me hooked. Before then — despite the fact that we share a surname — I only vaguely knew the writer’s “I remember I remember the house where I was born…”.

In fact I found that he proved to be a master of the play on words, and humorous linguistic twists creep into many of his works…

“The best of friends fall out, and so his teeth had done some years ago”

“Some minds improve by travel, others, rather, resemble copper wire, or brass, which get the narrower by going farther”

“Frost is the greatest artist in our clime — he paints in nature and describes in rime”

“His death, which happen’d in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll’d the bell”

To give him his full due, he also wrote a number of more serious pieces, some of which highlighted social injustice and deprivation as in “The song of the shirt”:

“Oh! God that bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap…”

When I eventually started setting, I decided I’d like to generate something to acknowledge the enjoyment he had given me, but I couldn’t see a way to build a crossword around his array of puns. It consequently took me a long while to home in on the final subject, though on reflection I could have got there much sooner — the closing lines of “No” are surely an absolute gift to the crossword setter.

“No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November!”

Anyway, having finally arrived at the theme, I just had to put together a grid to accommodate all those removals — the radio communications alphabet conveniently provided me with the final shape I wanted to display.

It was not exactly plain sailing as there was a lot to accommodate. I initially came up with a symmetrical grid but that had a pitifully low average word length — even my final version fell far short of my target length, but I could not find a way to improve it significantly. I also reluctantly had to allow an imbalance in the examples of each item, feeling quite sorry for that solitary bee amongst the abundance of birds. Despite those misgivings, I did finish and submit it.

Anyway, that’s about all I can offer. I’d just like to add my thanks to those who have already taken the trouble to give feedback in a variety of ways. I have yet to see the John Green package and doubtless there will be more in there so thanks to all for the invaluable comments.

Stay safe everyone.

Nudd.
 

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Listener No 4647, Roundabout Sums: A Setter’s Blog by Oyler

Posted by Listen With Others on 14 Mar 2021

The inspiration for this puzzle came from a problem that appeared in Mathematical Pie which is a Mathematical Association publication aimed at secondary school pupils. Issue 186 which appeared in the summer of 2012 contained a problem set by one of their regular contributors Wil Ransome. There were two concentric circles and the area in between the two circles had been divided into 15 parts. Solvers had to use all of the numbers 1 to 15 inclusive, placing each number into a different part such that the sum of the numbers in any two adjacent parts was a triangular number. To give solvers a start five of the numbers had already been entered. I ignored those and started from scratch and about 10 minutes later had it solved.

I found it a very nice puzzle and it reminded me of the puzzle where you had to place the numbers 1 to 23 in a line such that the sum of each adjacent pair was a square number. I used this in my Martin Gardner tribute puzzle in The Magpie and Sabre used it in a crossword also in The Magpie.

I reckoned that I could set a crossnumber puzzle that used this sequence of numbers. It was about 5 years later that I got around to it (see below) having let it ferment away in the back of my mind.

I decided to use a triangular grid as that would be in keeping with the theme. I had set one other puzzle that had a triangular grid and used triangular numbers called Triangular Torment and that appeared in issue 6 of Tough Crosswords. So, an equilateral triangle with 6 rows would have 15 perimeter cells which was perfect. I decided to have letter/number assignment clues as I wanted to have some message in the perimeter cells. Helpfully, the word triangle has 8 different letters that don’t appear in the word sum. I played around with the remaining letters and eventually decided on the word joy along with a letter z added to the end of sum to make sumz which is reasonably homophonic.

The nice thing about a triangular grid is that there are three directions and a cell can contribute to three entries as opposed to two. I barred off the grid and got to work. I assigned the letters to the numbers first and entered them in the relevant perimeter cells. After a few days the puzzle was set. However, there was something not quite right. I had another think then decided to have the corner cells empty and have solvers fill them in in order to get the full message.

This meant starting again from scratch and this time the barring pattern sadly resulted in the grid being split into three separate portions which is not ideal. There have been some crossnumber puzzles that have had distinct separate areas before but they are not as pretty in my view.

In the revamp I ensured that there would be some clues which were of an alcoholic nature in order to appease one blogger, so we had grog and rums. Once again it only took a couple of days to set and I did the cold solve. I sent it off to two test solvers both of whom solved and enjoyed it. One tester greatly improved on my preamble and the editors even managed to improve on that! So, thanks go to the editors Kea and Tiburon, test solvers Nod and Zag and of course Wil Ransome and Mathematical Pie.

 
 

 

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