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Listener No 4521, Translate into Spanish: A Setter’s Blog by Cagey

Posted by Listen With Others on 14 October 2018

Look at me Ma – I’m a blogger!

Early last year, I looked up ‘glorious revolution’ on Wikipedia as it had been mentioned on the radio [usually radio 6, and although Stuart Marconie seems to have a massive general knowledge (x-ref Round Britain Quiz. It is a shame they are moving him (and Mark Radcliffe (get well soon)) to Sat morning, when children’s lessons in swimming, guitar and gymnastics preclude much listening (aurally and crosswording), I suspect I hear it on some transient radio 4 listening]. Having virtually no knowledge of history (I stared out the window an awful lot at school, and history was, at its best, shamelessly dull in lessons), I had thought it was in the far East, so surprised it was in England. After reading the Wikipedia article I scanned back up to the top and saw the disambiguation thing mentioning the Spanish one. As I am more a numbers person (enjoying Listener numericals/logic ones as well as Magpie ones and Cross-numbers Quarterly), I saw the similarity of the numbers and wrote the coincidence down on a post-it note for above my desk and for future use…

When I had time I returned to it with a vague notion about exchanging or “revolving” the middle two digits (maybe an exchange of central columns where some answers are part numerical to change the grid between displaying antagonists of one revolution into the other). But when it came to create the grid for this, it was clumsy and complicated, and I was fairly convinced that, whilst people may have heard of the English one (except me!), they may not have heard of the Spanish one, so had to be very careful about which way I moved things around. The participators in the revolutions also seemed to have rather inconvenient lengths of names. Glorious revolution seemed too long for one answer, and was clumsy across two. It was also proving very difficult to create the required number letter mix to give the date. In short it was not working.

Eventually I just thought why not just have Glorious revolution as one big across answer. Once I had it written across the top of my paper, I then wondered how long 1688 was in letters as in my head it seemed about the same length. So I started to write underneath. As I was writing it, I realised that the two dates must be anagrams of each other. (This seems to me obvious on starting to write, but when I have explained this to non-crosswordy people they look at me rather blankly — maybe it is just us who think like that!) I got more excited (and a bit shaky) as I neared the end of writing it as it was amazingly the same length! (Is there a setter’s equivalent of a PDM? (An AM – Aberdonian moment? when we pick up the penny).

The idea was then effectively formed. Go from something that was almost glorious revolution (Glorious Revolt UION, was a very early pick – enough to be very, very noticeable but annoyingly not quite there), and use the unclued date at the top to anagrammatise and correct a different line. Then I looked at grid size, it was very wide so needed to be relatively short (top to bottom), and working on 13×13 = 169 and 180×10 is 180, settled on 10. Using scraps of paper, I wrote down the 3 required letters for each column and moved them about, based on constraints of fixed positions, in order to find a combination that gave me a few words in the initially mixed up row – to disguise what was happening – two rows of unchecked cells would have been very obvious. Found that Nous and Tori could be formed. Aesthetically I wanted the two rows to be next to each other, because I wanted to draw people’s attention to that area. I put all this into the initial grid, 18×10, and put the two rows in just below mid-way down as this put some distance between the top (constrained) row and the other constrained rows (this helps in setting), and avoiding the bottom, as constrained letters at the end of words are difficult too. Even with this set up, once I had put in the existing blocks in a symmetrical pattern there was still an awful lot of constraints on the grid, especially having 2 almost fixed letters right next to each other, and the relatively small height of the grid bring the top row constraints closer. (I am sure there is an interesting study to be made of constraints and distances between and word lengths… I have always used constraints to help solve puzzles as well as approximately place thematic things in other people’s puzzles, as there is often a forced distance expectation between a constraint and a second constraint.)

In order to keep up average word length, I put in a few long words top to bottom and spread out from there. Having a lot of forced blocks in two rows, soaks up a lot of the available unching per word, and also I needed to have some way to distinguish the ambiguity, and initially given the already heavy constraints this had to be a rather short word, or in the row with lots of blocks. Tried using ISABELLA, and a few other thematic words, but simply could not get a grid to work. Eventually settled on the word Pact, as it allowed a reasonably quaint turn of phrase in the blurb, it was short, and could fit it into the grid. I also could not find an 18-letter word or phrase that would fit along the bottom of the grid, that allowed word length to be high enough. There were just too many constraints, so had to break symmetry there (rats!). I was determined to keep as much symmetry as possible, as this was probably going to be a carte blanche as there was so much grid moving so did not want numbers and things, and basically that is playing fair, especially as there is a lot of vertical blocks in two rows, which is something that could make a carte blanche difficult to solve.

I have used automatic grid fillers before, which in one Magpie crossword I set left me with a swear word smack bang in the middle of the grid as well as an ass and a vulva in close proximity. Was not happy at all with that and wanted more control. So avoid these if I can and finally only needed help from word wizard to fill the word Glaceing – which I think is the worst bit of the grid. I checked the percentage unching and word lengths as I went along and this was reasonable, even if excluding the top row.

 I thought it was a strong enough idea for The Times, so in consequence I pulled out a lot of stops on the clues (over an hour a clue is what I estimate) to try and give them neat surface readings and some originality. I may have over-complicated them and made a few too difficult for carte blanche setting, but some were deliberately easy to try and make building the grid fair for everyone.

I chose to hide whole words in the clues for the required instructions, as I have already written crosswords with extra single letters and am writing very slowly one with letter substitutions that is proving very difficult. The original message was vaguer, but got great feedback from Artix (thank you very much), who suggested something a little like it now is (and suggested the high and light split- which I thought was great), which I managed to further rearrange to give the current message, keeping one instruction to the across clues and one to the down clues. I wondered if the 180 was actually too well hidden (and not to my mind technically a word), but the Editorial team at the Times cleared that up later with the way they altered the blurb to make it clear about information separated by spaces, which alerts to the solver that it will not all be words, making it fairer. Artix suggested some changes to some of the clues, some whole new clues, (including the ORAN clue) and suggested a second solver before submission, Shark, who provided more excellent feedback (and again much thanks must go to Shark) and more clue feedback. The editors at the Times also did clue editing, rewriting a few, but correcting grammar and tenses in quite a few (x-ref what I have written so far), and they also must receive a huge amount of thanks.

The clue that I am most proud of is RIOTS. I realise that riots and revolutions are not exactly synonymous, but had thought of the clues around about the same time as getting the idea and it evokes the whole theme. It changed format during the process, with some testers wanting it as “Is history filled with such misguided revolutions”, and other wanting it as “History is…”. Those two first words flipped around an amazing amount during the setting! I was also happy with my clue for IDLE [“Fled naked after I had run out of gear?”].

I always send my “preferred version” to editors and of late have started to send clue alternatives when I have these written as well. I note that almost without fail the editors tend to choose the alternative over my preferred. So for a moment might I mourn the loss of:

Maybe E.P. dropped from band on the fringe (4)

… where my alternative was…

Side-splitting cartoonist creates illustration of nobleman (4)

… which became…

Noble cartoonist making sides split (4)

… which I admit improves it, but I have a soft spot for the ropey original.

A few people have complimented the TETRA clue. I have wondered what that type of clue should be called … a DIY run on, like the final one for NEON. The clue used for NEON was actually a variant on a clue in the very first crossword I wrote (unpublished), whose clues all gave answers on a theme and whose clues all lacked definition. That one read “The middle four of 11 (4)”. I used the idea of 11 in a different crossword I did in the Magpie (A Journey from B to A, I think), where the clue was: “My description of 11? (4)”. I like to try and reference previous clues and play with them, although it can be tricky to do. The clue for Neon for this one was originally “Element central to 11?” But that did not get passed Artix (or maybe Shark), and I had to change to “Element central to Pushkin’s novel”, which later (and I cannot remember when) got extended to the final form — “Pushkin’s novel in verse”.

Anyway, finally it all came together and then came out, and seems to have been enjoyed by people, which is the intention. Thanks again to Artix, Shark (test solvers) and the Times editor (Roger Philips) who were essential in making the puzzle come together as well as it has. Thanks also to John Green for tireless marking (and this must have been a scunner to mark, without many real words at the end) and forwarding feedback. And thanks to everyone who has fed back to me.



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Listener No 4518, Game Box: A Setter’s Blog by Poat

Posted by Listen With Others on 23 September 2018

My previous Listener was number 4422 in October 2016, based on a hunt for the golden jewelled hare of Masquerade – solvers were required to ignore various false trails, and highlight the word HARE hidden in the preamble. I’ve set a few crosswords over the years, but none generated such controversy as this one. Personally I remain proud of it and wouldn’t change a thing, but I do acknowledge that a lot of would-be solvers were frustrated and annoyed by the surprise denouement, as indeed many of them expressed quite trenchantly online at the time.

The elusive creature is still frequently mentioned in internet forums (usually as “that bloody hare”); it featured regularly in Shirley Curran’s solving blog for over a year; and it was commemorated in chocolate form at the Listener dinner in March 2017. I don’t mind a touch of notoriety, but it did start to get a bit much.

So I thought my next Listener submission should include GOLDEN and HARE prominently as a rueful nod to all that heartache. Playing around with Chambers, I realised the words could both form part of different ducks. A hunting or shooting theme came to mind, so I started the search for apposite quotes to embellish the puzzle. Not much in ODQ, but internet research came up with a very suitable line from Wodehouse. It can also be read as a playful appeal for solvers not to be too harsh on setters (luckily I have a thick skin).

I’m not sure how other crossword setters operate, but I have a spreadsheet listing dozens of sketches for puzzles that may come good, alone or in combination, many years later. This theme seemed to tie in with a long-standing idea, the old Waddingtons game Black Box: entries could at a stretch represent guns taking pot shots from various points at their targets, some ricocheting here and there if not making a direct hit. So I set to work on a grid fill, this time unaided by setting software (which cannot handle the entry method as far as I know).

Earlier attempts included appealing answers like NORMAN BATES, SUGARGLIDER and KAHIKATEA, but they came along with too much short fill, or either insufficient or excessive cross-checking. I decided to allow re-entries, so that shorter grid components like NOS, ERS and HAS could form segments of longer words, and eventually ended up with the final format. Then the habitually laborious process of writing clues, though it seemed harder than ever to come up with coherent surface readings thanks to the combined answer threads.

Research into the quote delivers a cautionary tale about trusting the internet. Virtually everywhere online, it is said to originate from The Adventures of Sally, but a full-text search failed to confirm that. Instead here is a fuller extract from the Wodehouse short story, Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court:

“He had got thus far when he perceived that the young woman was aiming at him something that looked remarkably like an air-gun. Her tongue protruding thoughtfully from the corner of her mouth, she had closed one eye and with the other was squinting tensely along the barrel.

Colonel Sir Francis Pashley-Drake did not linger. In all England there was probably no man more enthusiastic about shooting: but the fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.”

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Listener No 4517, In Transit: A Setter’s Blog by Agricola

Posted by Listen With Others on 16 September 2018

I’d originally planned the publication of this puzzle to coincide with the anniversary of Cook’s arrival here in Aotearoa, but then I realised that back in the Old Country, the commemoration of his journey was more likely to happen on the anniversary of his departure. That meant that I had to stop daydreaming and get something down on paper to send to Roger pdq. It would really help if the Royal Mail could send us puzzle setters details of their commemorative issues a couple of years in advance, but I suppose that just isn’t a priority for them.

I’m still learning to have realistic expectations when planning a puzzle. My original idea was to combine Cook’s voyage with that of Māui, who fished the North Island out of the ocean and left it behind (along with his canoe) for Cook to “discover” many centuries later. Of course there just isn’t enough room to do that in a realistically sized grid. The other constraint, if I wanted my map to be realistic, was that I couldn’t reference too many significant points on the Endeavour’s journey: most of them are all scrunched up in the middle of the grid. That meant that I couldn’t make any reference to Australia — I’m so sorry about that 😉 .

I did spend a long time thinking about the correct form of the code word: HMS Endeavour or HM Bark Endeavour? Perhaps the latter is more correct, but I worried that it was also more obscure. I was finally convinced by re-reading Patrick O’Brien, who assured me that any boat with three masts was entitled to be called a ship, so HMS it was.

Many thanks again to Roger and Shane for all of their help in getting the puzzle up to scratch. They did – quite rightly – rule out one of my clues for using a neologistic anagram indicator: “Prickly Ned’s end on Game of Thrones cut”. If anyone can find a way of making this work then I’d love to hear from them. Also, in case you were wondering, I don’t have any plans for another Playfair puzzle (well, not for a while anyway). Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

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Listener No 4516, A Defter Premier: A Setter’s Blog by Arden

Posted by Listen With Others on 9 September 2018

This is no blog.

A genuine reminiscence of the setting process would almost certainly read “It took a long time to produce the grid.” Hardly the riveting read of the beautifully anecdotal accounts that normally litter these pages. Instead the following could best be described as an invention cobbled together through the haze of history. Looking back I think this might be how it was done – probably.

The chief difficulty in devising A Defter Premier was undoubtedly filling the grid in an acceptable way. It would not have been fair to solvers to ask them to check the primality of large numbers unless many of those that needed checking were obviously composite or were of the form 4N-1, which cannot be split. Multiples of 2, 3 and 5 can easily be spotted so the idea was to include as many of these as possible to eliminate rows and columns.

As solvers would be searching the grid for candidates it was necessary to consider rows and columns both forwards and backwards and attempt to guarantee at least one of each symmetrical pair could be ruled out with relative ease. This would then force the solver to look at the diagonals and probably trust that these are truly primes of the form 4N+1.

It was a deliberate decision to have the 9-digit primes that required splitting ending with a 7, as this forces their square parts to end with 1 and 6. Keeping the 4s and 6s in the grid to a minimum would therefore also assist solvers in the final hunt.

As it was unnecessary to the solving process I wrote a computer program to examine whether a particular number could be split into two perfect squares which allowed checking of every row and column. After a great deal of trial and error this finally produced a grid where virtually every row and column, forwards and backwards, is obviously composite and none can be split into two constituent squares.

Having arrived at a suitable grid cluing was relatively easy. By Fermat’s 4N+1 Theorem each entry has a unique division into squares. Clues, therefore, would combine the appropriate square roots to celebrate that unlikely fact.

Entirely using products for the clues would have been both tedious and simple, whereas using sums would give too many ambiguities, so a mixture was chosen. Some products that needed working out were included to get the solver started and then sums for a bit of variety. Having sussed out what is going on the solver can use the size of the clue and whether it is odd or even to decide if it is a sum or product.

The ultimate aim of the puzzle was a hope that some solvers would discover this extraordinary theorem.

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Listener No 4515, Way Out: A Setter’s Blog by Verbascum

Posted by Listen With Others on 2 September 2018

I find the hardest part of creating a Listener Crossword is coming up with a suitable theme. As someone who is science-orientated, I’d had black holes at the back of my mind as a possibility for some time. Perhaps I could have a final stage where the solver has to cut out the centre of the grid, but I hadn’t really come up with anything concrete.

In 2016 I listened to The Life Scientific on Radio 4 featuring Roger Penrose (who incidently originates from Colchester where I have lived for nearly 50 years). I had read his books and been to a talk he had given in a pub in London, attended by about 15 people, where he spoke about the ideas in his book Cycles of Time.

After hearing the radio programme I decided I should reread this book and in doing so came across the term Schwarzschild radius. It struck me as the kind of phrase which might be suitable for corrected misprints in clue definitions, as it wouldn’t jump out at the solver until most of the letters were discovered.

Penny Drop Moments are often talked about in relation to solving Listener Crosswords, but they are also important for the setter. I knew that the Schwarzschild radius is that of the Event Horizon and I noticed that Event Horizon has 12 letters and so could be represented in a ‘circle’ of cells in the grid. At this point I started to look for other phrases which I could hide in the grid. I thought of Hawking Radiation, perhaps radiating out along diagonals from the centre, but again the penny dropped. Hawking Radiation is 16 characters long, so it could fit in the next ring out from Event Horizon.

Creating the grid was very much trial and error. However, whichever positions I chose as the starting points for the two phrases I couldn’t complete the grid. This led to me to consider using clashing entries in some cells, giving me more choice for grid entries and eventually it all came together.

Writing the clues is the least arduous task, I just love playing with words letting the mind drift whilst thinking of ideas. I know from feedback from my previous Listeners that my clues are not the hardest. I tend to sacrifice difficulty for surface reading and hope that I can occasionally bring a smile or even a chuckle to the solver. I think my favourite clue was Edmund’s time as king – the middle part of one year, roughly. The Edmund referred to is, of course, Spencer, but it was especially pleasing to Google ‘King Edmund’ after I had written the clue, only to discover that he reigned from April to November 1016.

It is almost a year since I submitted the puzzle, during which time Stephen Hawking died. A great man, who I also saw giving a lecture, this time to a packed house at the Albert Hall. RIP.

Alf Mullins (Verbascum)

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