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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

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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Listener No 4500, What Have We Come To?: A Setter’s Blog by Kea

Posted by Listen With Others on 20 May 2018

Once again, when scheduling Listener puzzles at the end of March, I found myself with a lot of tricky ones and felt the need to insert something straightforward for a bit of relief. I’d already noticed that the round number 4500 was coming up, so I Googled for anything interesting about the number and quickly found the Status Quo song Forty Five Hundred Times (which I’d never heard of). Both forty-five hundred and Times seemed apposite, as well as status quo, in the context of a milestone puzzle.

I set to work on a grid, deciding from the start to include the words as things to be found and highlighted, and the parallel diagonal arrangement seemed feasible and relatively neat. As usual, I started with 90-degree symmetry and 36 entries but it wasn’t possible to fit all the words in, in order, under those constraints, so I relaxed the symmetry to 180-degree. Still, despite trying several different spacings for the thematic material, I couldn’t find a fill with 36 entries that conformed to our standards for average entry length, unchecked letters, connectedness etc, so I allowed myself to go up to 38 entries. After several hours I had a grid that was suitably balanced.

For the clue gimmick, I wanted something other than the usual misprints, extra letters or words etc, for the sake of variety (again). I knew that Forty Five Hundred Times was the last track on the album Hello!, so I was thinking about letters occurring in the clues in the last position before … something. The first idea I had was letters occurring in both the clue and the answer, which morphed into the last letter before any letter in the clue that was shared with the answer (with the necessary adjustment to take the clue’s first letter if the letter I needed for the message was also in the answer).

I see from timestamps on files and emails that it took about 36 hours to create the grid, write the clues and send it to my co-editor for vetting, which surprises me, as it felt longer. I suppose I was in a rush to complete the batch of puzzles and the sense of a deadline resulted in an increase in productivity. It seems to have had the desired effect, receiving the highest number of entries (and the second-lowest number of errors) so far this year.

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Listener No 4499, Silent Movie: A Setter’s Blog by Elfman

Posted by Listen With Others on 13 May 2018

Having been born in England and attracted to Ximenes and Listener crosswords as a teenager, and then emigrating at age 24 to California, it seemed almost inevitable, some 50 years later, for me to create a puzzle with a Hollywood theme.

Here in the USA, there is an organization, founded in 1883, and still going strong today, the National Puzzlers’ League (NPL), which has a monthly magazine, The Enigma, in which all kinds of word puzzles, created by members, are presented for the rest of the membership to solve. Using “National” may be too parochial, since we have members in many other countries besides the US. Listener editor, Roger Phillips is a member. If interested, you can learn more about NPL at Here in Los Angeles, a group of local NPL members and others meet every other month to solve word and trivia puzzles that we create for each other. It was at one of these gatherings that another member presented a puzzle that involved the quotation, “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and find the real tinsel underneath.” That got me thinking about using this quotation as a basis for a Listener puzzle.

With the help of TEA, I proceeded to hunt for words or phrases that had a combination of the letters of TINSEL at the beginning and end, in order to be able to “strip away” an anagram (indicated by “phony”) of TINSEL. In the end, I chose the four phrases that were used for the puzzle. Meanwhile, between sessions at the computer, I thought about possible titles for the puzzle. TINSEL can be anagrammed to SILENT or LISTEN, so after rejecting several possibilities, I thought of Silent Movie. With the etymology of movie being moving pictures, this title could almost be a wordplay clue for tinsel. Having settled upon the title, I had to think of some way for the solver to get to the quotation, and it was this choice of title that led me to think of using silent letters.

I soon found out that silent letters can be tricky! In particular, there is certainly controversy about when and when not the letter r is silent. I had a discussion with my test solver about this, and also with both Listener editors. In fact, Roger claims that the only word in Chambers with a silent r is forecastle (pronounced foksl), although ODE claims the first r in February is silent. In relation to this, I found the following websites, but I don’t know how authoritative they are:

Pronunciation Studio: “In GB English we only pronounce /r/ if it comes before a vowel sound, so it’s silent in CARD, WORK, POUR and MOTHER. In American English, though, all ‘r’s are pronounced CARD, WORK, POUR and MOTHER.” For more see ‘r – the Strangest Sound in English?’

At Easy Pace Learning, I found the claim that R is silent in “butter, finger, surprise”.

Pronunciation can be difficult, especially with regional differences. That is why I thought it a brilliant addition by the editors to include the phrase “some might say” in the preamble!

Other issues that came up:

  • The editors didn’t like using words like might or caught for a silent h, because the g is also silent.
  • My original clue for 5A was: While listening, pay to request silence with a sovereign (6). Since sh is an interjection not a verb, that was changed, and the use of sovereign was nixed because of the red herring of the silent g in sovereign
  • Is the a in enigmatically silent? Roger said he was unable to find the pronunciation for an -ically word in Chambers, but that ODE consistently indicates the pronunciation to be “-ikli”
  • To my horror, both my test-solver and the editors, when Google searching for the quote found different versions. I thought that might have been enough to disqualify the puzzle, but the editors decided to provide the enumeration to forestall any complaints.
  • For the extra words in the down clues, I originally thought of the phrase, “seen but not heard,” which I thought could be indicated by “perceived like silent movie actors,” shortened to “perceived like title actors,” and that’s how I sent it to my test-solver, but she thought “perceived” was unnecessary, and so it became “like title actors.”

I enjoyed the work involved in creating this puzzle, and I hope solvers enjoyed working on it, without too much frustration.

Leon F. Marzillier (Elfman)

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Listener No 4498, Name That Tune: A Setter’s Blog by The Ace of Hearts

Posted by Listen With Others on 6 May 2018

While I like circular grids, my favourite gimmick is letters latent clues, so I thought that with the help of Quinapalus’s crossword construction programme I would try to combine the two. I had thought of the Johnny Cash song “Ring of Fire” previously as the theme but didn’t know how to go about constructing a circular grid. Armed with the Qxw software, I managed to create a circular grid including the letters latent gimmick by inserting the message into the letter’s latent box, writing in the message in the third ring from the perimeter and then working on the radial answers in tandem with the synonyms of fire in the perimeter. This started off easily enough as the programme gave me lots of options. Near the end, cross-checking letters limited the options, and a couple of times left me no options at all. I overcame this by merging and unmerging some cells, thereby creating a non symmetrical grid — sorry solvers! — and juggling the synonyms for fire on the outer ring. Eventually I had a complete grid.

All that was left to do then was the clues (my Achilles heel). I put a lot of effort into the clues, making sure that they were accurate and fair. I then left them for a couple of weeks, reviewed them and made some minor adjustments until (I thought) I had a decent set. Unfortunately I failed miserably again. The editors however liked the idea and the delivery method and so didn’t reject the puzzle, even advising me on how to amend the clues. They weren’t that bad, but lots of small grammatical points needed to be changed. I used to be good at grammar at school but most of my knowledge has long been assigned to the skeleton closet, which I’m afraid to open in case something bad hops out! I eventually got across the finishing line. Although I didn’t understand all of the reasons for the amendments, I did agree that it was essential to have the clues 100% accurate and it is to the credit of Roger and Shane that they are so diligent in this respect.

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