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Listener No 4646, Life: A Setter’s Blog by Hawk

Posted by Listen With Others on 7 Mar 2021

“Life” was my first published crossword – I’m not connected with another Hawk who set an Enigmatic Variations puzzle in 2018. I was confident the puzzle would be fun to tackle, as it’s the kind I enjoy solving myself, and I’ve since received some very nice comments – notwithstanding what people here might post! I’ve heard that Listen With Others is a tough crowd 🙂

It was based on an unpublished puzzle I devised about 10 years ago. Its 25 clues were pairs of synonyms leading to two words, where the solver had to deduce that one of the answers had a different letter inserted into the middle of the other (eg Tarmac/Fugitive leading to Runway/Runaway). As the final step, the solver had to construct question 26 by reading alternate inserted letters, and then solve that. Well, adapting this was the idea, but the crossword drifted somewhat from this blueprint. I realise now that Listener crosswords, like shopping trollies, develop a mind of their own.

Using different centres as a theme, I thought of Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – a quote that handily appears in the ODQ, so it couldn’t be rejected as ‘cult’. The 29 letters didn’t lend themselves to a grid figure immediately, but the Valentine’s Day heart allowed me to do this neatly inside a 13×13 grid. It was just possible to compile a symmetrical grid, and one attempt handily resulted in 50 entries. I couldn’t avoid the two under-checked five-letter entries, unfortunately.

I initially chose double clues to keep the overall word count down. I’d originally planned to have the extra words in a particular order so clue 26 was derivable in some way from their centres, but this would have been too restrictive. There was however enough freedom in the choice of extra words to have clue 26 hidden elsewhere within their letters. An additional misprint in each paired clue would keep the theme and mechanics hidden for a little longer, and, as I hate long grid searches, I hid the required figure in circled cells.

The preamble instructions for all these gimmicks were eating into my 500-word target, so I tried to be concise with the clues. This may have been to the detriment of their surface readings – “Like James Joyce after a session on the Guinness”, someone later described.

I had just missed a Saturday Valentine’s Day, but thought the one on Sunday in 2021 might be acceptable, and submitted the puzzle in November 2019, well in advance. The vetters’ reports were positive, but they rewrote some of the clues for style, as I had unwittingly placed too many of the extra words at the intersections between the two clues. I love the Pelé and Metamorphoses clues, but we have to thank the Listener editor for those.

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L4645 ‘Fire Alarms’ by Chen

Posted by Encota on 28 Feb 2021

LWO co-blogger Chalicea (Shirley Curran) and I had been musing over creating a joint Listener for several years.  So we were delighted to see ‘Fire Alarms’ finally in print!

As is often the case with thematic crosswords, at least for me, much of the total time is spent choosing a theme.  In my view the ideal themes are those where what has to be adjusted in the puzzle or its endgame has significant thematic relevance.  I had been thinking about some possibilities – perhaps just after a visit to a nearby decommissioned Suffolk airbase, just inland from Bawdsey Manor where much of the WW2 work was done on radar, where friends are working on restoring some interesting aircraft (but that’s another story) – and the idea of deploying CHAFF as part of an endgame to protect military aircraft from detection by enemy radar was born.

So what, in this context, is CHAFF?  In more recent times much use is made of the term ’stealth aircraft’.  In the design of these, much is done to reduce the amount of radar waves reflected from the aircraft back to enemy radar receivers, so making them less detectable.  Surfaces at ‘odd’ angles, energy absorbing layers and more are used to minimise the amount of wave energy returned to the radar.  Now imagine trying to do the opposite – to maximise the power reflected back.  Ignoring why for a moment, what might you do?  Some answers include using a substance that conducts electricity well and making items of a length that maximises reflections – typically half of the wavelength of the signal used by the radar.  In its simplest form CHAFF is huge numbers of such strips deployed from a moving aircraft, so that any radar trying to detect those aircraft gets many more reflections from those strips than from the aircraft themselves, so making the aircraft far harder to spot – i.e. the difficulty of separating the wheat (the aircraft) from the CHAFF (the… umm … chaff).  Of course those reflections are from places in the sky where there aren’t aircraft, so giving the aircraft themselves significant protection.

Now who might I approach to co-author a puzzle about CHAFF, invented by a certain Joan Curran?  Let me think for a moment …

… so, one moment later, I proposed the idea to her daughter-in-law and off we flew.

Representing short metal Aluminium strips as AL (fully capitalised here to avoid confusion with Is) gave us much scope to design clues with words with and without ALs in them.  It seemed fun to design clues where the definition gave the answer and the wordplay the letters without those ALs, such as in 14d’s Stale beer (7, two words). Here the wordplay ‘Stale’ encouraged the solver to PEE (oh dear.  BRB2), whereas the beer was P[AL]E [AL]E (which had much the same effect).

Our logic for the thematic part went as follows: 1) Initially the four famous WW2 bombers, the Handley Page HALIFAX, the Avro LANCASTER, the Short STIRLING and the Vickers WELLINGTON are made clearly visible by the reflected radar waves, highlighting them in the sky. 2) Then they deploy CHAFF and suddenly lots of small AL(uminium) strips are floating about in the air.  These are then equally highlighted by the radar’s waves, resulting in a very confused final image for the radar operator.

In summary, four loaded bombers traversed the grid and, using ECHO of RADAR WAVES were highly visible. Solvers were informed that CHAFF was DEPLOYED (the Al – aluminium – strips that confused enemy radar) and were instructed to SHADE ADDED AL GREY. With the four aircraft and the 14 examples of AL in the grid, this required the shading of 55 letters (grey, for the convenience of solvers, though silver in reality).

At one stage we considered asking solvers to highlight every AL in the grid, whether reversed or diagonally placed, or…  However, this ended up a bit too confused even for us.  I did also quietly propose that we use ICANN, the Internet naming and numbering corporation in place of ICENI in the endgame to allow CURRAN to appear in the final grid but I was overruled by the modesty of (Joan’s son) Charles and Shirley. 

We worked as a real team on this and it was a delight – co-developing and refining the grid, with Shirley demonstrating, as ever, her superb skills in this area, plus jointly working on the clues.  We used a shared online spreadsheet (if you are thinking of co-creation of a puzzle and haven’t tried it then I can’t recommend this highly enough) for the clue development, keeping track of changes etc.  An excellent setter helped us with a test-solve and we were ready to submit.

A fabulous feat of engineering which can’t get enough ‘airplay’, in my mind.  If you are interested in reading more then you may find this link interesting:

Tim / Encota

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Listener No 4644, Symbols: A Setter’s Blog by Aedites

Posted by Listen With Others on 21 Feb 2021

I like grids which portray symmetrical themes and twelve is a nice number. It is pure chance that this puzzle follows CHAT. This is because CHAT was held back several years by the editors since a puzzle on the same theme had been published in 2012.

The number twelve immediately suggested the signs of the Zodiac in a circle placed around the Earth. The puzzle was constructed in June 2016 a few months after Mynot’s “Stomach” (4380) which had the sun and the planets on a diagonal with their names replaced by symbols, and I could implement the signs of the Zodiac in a similar manner in an unnumbered grid so that the locations of the symbols would not be revealed. Because the names were more complex, they could not be split into two parts and would need to be anagrammed. My submitted preamble was much longer than the published version and contained an example of two crossing answers producing the word ASTERISK; in particular it said that there was at most one thematic cell in each entry.

Normally in an unnumbered puzzle the solver will try and fit the longest words in the grid in order to make a start, but this would not work in this case. The grid with 180⁰ symmetry was constructed so that only just over a third of the cells were both checked and had 90⁰ symmetry and could therefore contain a thematic entry (see shaded cells in the diagram). The grid contained four 3-long entries, but only two 3-long answers were clued, so at least two of these entries must contain a thematic cell. Checking possible 8-long answers intersecting with 3-long answers would show that none of the thematic cells were in the perimeter and lead to the discovery of PISCES and VIRGO, after which completion of the grid is straightforward.

The original grid had a vertical bar-line to the right of LIBRA [at 6 o’clock] which forced the down entry to be ALBIAN, a word which is not in Chambers. When I reviewed the puzzle before submission, I realised that this bar-line could be moved to the left of LIBRA and the down entry changed to ARABIA leading to small changes in the SE corner. The opposite word SERIES would still work with a few changes in the NE corner. I have often found that it is worthwhile to tweak a grid by moving a few bar-lines, or, even omitting some, to produce a grid with “nicer” words.


I have now received a large number of comments from solvers, which were, in almost all cases, very positive. Thank you everybody for sending them. Two things stood out – most people solved almost all the clues before making any entries and people were impressed by the construction of the grid.

Only one solver counted the length of the answers before solving any clues and found that there were 53 letters absorbed by the symbols in addition to the letters which would normally have been in the cells. The number of symbols was either 4n or 4n+1, and a guess of twelve symbols would produce 77 letters for 12 words with a very plausible average length of 6.4 letters. (I would normally tabulate the lengths in puzzles where the answer lengths differ from the entry lengths and I would have expected other solvers to do this sort of analysis.) This solver also noticed that the total number of letters in the twelve signs of the Zodiac was 77 letters. The other thing that I expected an alert solver to do was to shade cells which show 90⁰ symmetry and were checked – this gives a clear suggestion of a circular shape.

 The other property that was designed into the grid was four 3-long entries, but only two 3-long answers; hence at least two (and in fact all four) 3-long entries had to contain thematic cells. The clues for the 3-long answers were easy and three of the four longest answers were anagrams, so that most solvers should have recovered these answers fairly quickly. After solving half the clues, an alert solver should have been able to place LAP with INACCESSIBLE to produce PISCES and VAN with RADIOGRAPHY to produce VIRGO, which would have revealed the theme. Most solvers solved virtually all the clues before attempting to start to fill the grid.

The construction of the grid took less than two hours. An initial grid was constructed so that only a third of the cells could be thematic; in particular there were only four possible positions in the perimeter. Seven of the Zodiac signs could be split into one letter and the remaining letters; the remaining signs were split into two roughly equal halves and TEA was used to expand them into possible words. Seventeen “words” were fitted into the correct places in the grid with the seven single letters replacing the clashes. I then used Qxw to obtain an initial grid which was then improved by making some small changes to get rid of some awkward words.

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Listener No 4642, Music Box: A Setter’s Blog by tnap

Posted by Listen With Others on 7 Feb 2021

I guess the normal setter’s blog would go about explaining how the theme emerged and how the setter cunningly compiled the elements of the theme into the grid and clues. Unfortunately, this blog is more of an apology.

I produced Music Box nearly 3 years ago in a burst of creative energy that included my previous Listener submission as well (Triumvirate; No 4599). But such is the pipeline of Listeners these days that it has taken this long firstly to get submitted and then to get published. As a result, I have virtually no memory of ever producing it (hopefully the result of a busy life rather than dementia), and my notes (no pun intended) from the time have long gone. Of course I should have thought about the Listen With Others setter’s blog back then, but I prevaricated and never got round to writing anything.

It was actually quite a shock to receive Roger’s e-mail last Saturday (yes, I got one week’s notice of publication), and it took me nearly 2 hours to re-solve my own crossword to check the proof! And that was with knowing the theme and hence the discarded letters. So I’m guessing that Music Box is going to be on the hard side even by Listener standards. So good luck to all those who embark on that journey.

The vetters enquired about the provenance of the tune that I used. There are a great many musical versions and variations of the ‘Ring-a-ring o’ Roses’ tune. Again, my memory is cloudy, but I do recall using Wikipedia. Looking at it now, I can see that there is a version called ‘Marlborough’ which looks like the basis for my version. However, for the purposes of the crossword, it clearly needed to be transposed to C (no sharps or flats); have syncopation removed; and have additional notes added so that it scanned with the usual lyrics (eg as in Brewer’s). I must also have modified the final cadence slightly to make it more familiar (to me at least). Whilst there is therefore no authoritative source for my version of the tune, I hope that wouldn’t have been too much of an issue: the nursery rhyme is so well-known, and the letters C, B, A and G are exclusively used for the ‘pegs’.

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Listener No 4641, Continental Drift: A Setter‘s Blog by Opsimath

Posted by Listen With Others on 31 Jan 2021

My interest in the Lewis & Clark Expedition goes back about 6 years (before I even thought of setting a puzzle) to when my American neighbours went away for a month and I would pop into their house for a check now and then. I picked a book at random from their shelves, and was instantly hooked.

Bernard de Voto’s edition of “the Journals”, I still find un-put-downable. Bear in mind that the “Captains” wrote these diaries every evening at their latest campsite — and encouraged a number of Sergeants and men to keep their own journals too, on the assumption that they were all likely to die, yet at least some written records might survive. Turn a page and you read how they find a mangled pile of buffalo carcasses that have been stampeded over a cliff by the Indians who send a fit young man in skin and buffalo horns to lure them. A few pages later we read of the first encounter of Europeans with a grizzly bear. The men’s curiosity about this animal “was soon satisfied”, and they sincerely hoped not to meet one again.

They set off up the Missouri river in 1805 and were not heard of again for two years, by which time the President and the public had given them up for lost. In fact, due to their extraordinary discipline and co-operation – amongst themselves, but also with the Native Tribes they encountered and lived with — they all survived (apart from Sgt Floyd who died early on of appendicitis).

Indeed, more of them came back than set out, since the famous Sacagawea (native Shoshone, taken from her tribe by the more aggressive Hidatsa and sold to the trapper / guide Charboneau, gave birth to a little boy who was already a toddler when they returned to “civilisation”. [Clark later adopted him – as soon as he was “old enough to leave his mother”, and gave him an education. Later, as a speaker of native languages as well as French, English, and German, Jean Baptiste became a guide and companion to the Emperor of Austria.]

I have huge admiration for the two Captains. Meriwether Lewis was personally selected by Thomas Jefferson, and trained for the project in many disciplines. Lewis then chose Lt Clark — an expert navigator and cartographer – and requested he be granted equal rank. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Army decided this was inappropriate for a military expedition. Lewis never revealed to the men of the “Corps of Discovery”, that his colleague “Captain” Clark was in fact his subordinate in rank.

This spirit of democracy went further: when the group held a meeting to decide how to manage the approaching winter beyond the Rockies, a vote was held. The opinions of 17-year old native Sacagawea and Clark’s black servant York were given equal weight in the ballot.

Of the setting process I remember little beyond the desire to share this interest with some Brits who may know less of this story than our friends over the Atlantic possibly do.

Many of my clues were tweaked, improved or completely changed by the editors, to whom many thanks of course. Thanks also to John Nicholson (Wan) who cast an eye over the puzzle early on and quickly spotted that the position of two Rs at the head of the mountain range made for an ambiguity, dammit.

As I write this, in late 2020, there is so much dreadful news swirling around that I find it difficult to focus, despite avoiding as much exposure to “the news” as I can. When the editors sent me their proof, I found I was unable to solve my own puzzle, and had to rely on You-Know-Who for proof-reading. I suspect that any mention of festive drinks has disappeared from the clues, and the puzzle may not even have my trademark mention of Turkey, my adopted home. Fingers crossed it may still be a pangram, but I’m not even sure of that!

I thought to look at what happened with the Corps of Discovery on any anniversary of the publication date of my puzzle: January 9th. So here goes…

9th of January 1805

…Several Indians call at the fort nearly frosed,

10th of January 1805

…last night was excessively Cold the Murckery this morning Stood at 40° below 0 which is 72° below the freesing point, we had one man out last night, who returned about 8 oClock this morning. The Indians of the lower Village turned out to hunt for a man & a boy who had not returned from the hunt of yesterday, and borrow’d a Slay to bring them in expecting to find them frosed to death about 10 oClock the boy about 13 years of age Came to the fort with his feet frosed and had layed out last night without fire with only a Buffalo Robe to Cover him, ….

… we had his feet put in cold water and they are Comeing too. Soon after the arrival of the Boy, a Man Came in who had also Stayed out without fire, and verry thinly Clothed, this man was not the least injured. Customs & the habits of those people has anured [them] to bare more Cold than I thought it possible for man to endure.

[A year later the Corps have crossed the Rockies and settled for the winter on the Pacific shore. Capt. Lewis discovers from the native “Clatsops Chinnooks and others” that white traders have in the past visited by ship to trade with them and hunt for beaver, elk etc. ]

Friday January 9th 1806

The persons who usually visit the entrance to this river for the purpose of traffic or hunting I believe are either English or Americans; the Indians inform us that they speak the same language with ourselves, and give us proof of their varacity by repeating many words of English, as musquit, powder, shot, nife, file, damned rascal, sun of a bitch &c.…

I’ll sign off from this setter’s blog now, at the very start of a New Year, hoping that by the time this is published we will have said goodbye to the worst of Anno Domini MMXX: Trump, Brexit, Aegean earthquakes — oh, and yes, that freaking Virus.

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