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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener No 4726, Red Applause: A Setter’s Blog by Crash

Posted by Listen With Others on 18 Sep 2022

After 50+ years of attempts at solving The Listener Crosswords (and earlier Azed, Ximenes) I thought I would try my hand at setting. ‘Red Applause’ was my fourth submission to The Listener (the first also being a 50 year anniversary puzzle, for the moon landing in 1969, which admittedly fell far short of The Listener standards) and first published. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Listener vetters, particularly Shane, who has been unbelievably diligent in offering help with my education as a prospective setter for The Listener.

At first some apologies. Requiring solvers to ‘colour’ white on a white background is my ‘faux pas’, not an oversight unfortunately as I was well aware of the requirement I was imposing. Luckily all attempts at differentiating between the ‘black’ and ‘white’ chess pieces have been accepted. A second apology is necessary in that most, if not all, were forced to seek help from Google, not only to confirm the topic, but more specifically to confirm the last move made by Fischer, albeit that the instruction for the move was accessible. As commented by some, precisely how to execute the final move on paper (or cutting and pasting) can lead to ambiguity, another apology needed, but again all attempts at representing the final move have been accepted provided that the wQ is shown at f4. Chess aficionados or not, solvers were anticipated to be aware, or seek out, the chessboard nomenclature such that the square f4 was identifiable. As pointed out by some diligent observers, constraining the ‘circles’ to the 8×8 central portion (within the 12×12 full grid) gave an early clue to the chessboard construct, for which I have no apology merely taking this learning for subsequent puzzle setting. A final apology: as with several other puzzles from time to time, a requirement for solvers to erase most of a filled grid after much hard work at solving clues is unfortunate, albeit necessary to reveal or lead to an endgame task.

After failing miserably with an attempt at a moon landing anniversary puzzle in 2018/2019, in early 2021 I set to find a new memorable anniversary sufficiently far in advance such that I could compile a puzzle and through the vetting process to get it in the queue at just the right time (in this case) for a July/August 2022 publication. I am myself not a chess aficionado, but in 1972 I was very well aware of the historic Reykjavik matches between Fischer and Spassky and this proved ideal given the lead time.

For those who are not familiar with the details of the Fischer-Spassky matches, and the strained US-USSR relationship at the time, it was massively out of character for Spassky (USSR) to have stood and applauded Fischer (US) for his win in game 6, which brought me to the title of ‘Red Applause’. It was not until I started this blog that I found the Youtube video “The Applause” | Fischer vs Spassky | (1972) | Game 6.

There is also this link at World Chess Championship 1972: Game 6 (Fischer vs. Spassky) to play each move or fast-forward to the end of the game and indication of the final move. It occurred to me that I could present solvers with a small endgame task, more than just the static positioning of pieces. What followed proved to be a substantial challenge as a setter.

For those of you who are not familiar with setting crosswords, letters like Q, K, and B are to be avoided like the plague, and in this case an additional 9 P’s all in the confined space of an 8×8 grid (within the larger 12×12 grid) plus the ‘K’ in Spassky forced me to consider entries both forwards and backwards in the grid (which as an aside provides a nice extra challenge for solvers). By happenstance I ended up adding another Q (SQUARE/QUEASIER) so I have only myself to blame!

The challenging tasks I set for myself were:

  1. To compile a grid with the end game clearly represented (including the names Fischer and Spassky – symmetrically and on the correct side of the board), and the only way I saw to do this was to require solvers to delete all filled cells except for the letters/names as shown in the solution
  2. To compile clues in such a way that I could offer instructions, on the one hand to require solvers to erase only those filled cells necessary, and secondly to signal solvers to make the final move – this led to both misprints/corrections in clues and clue endings as signals.

I began with the final grid and worked backwards. I had to reach beyond Chambers for PEQUOTS, RIMPLE, and PAIR UP and whereas the latter two were known to me and probably most, I learnt some interesting history when researching PEQUOTS (these folks originated in Connecticut, not too far from where I live)

Clueing eventually proved more difficult than filling the grid. Misprints/corrections proved to be relatively easy to manage, however as I had chosen to compile an instruction using clue end letters I realized that I set myself the task of clueing 4 A’s, 3 I’s, 2 F’s 1 V and 1 Q as last letters in clues. Here again an apology and some words of gratitude. The clues in Red Applause include more than the usual number of place names (driven largely by the clue end letter requirements), to those whose saw this as atypical and strained, my apologies. During the vetting process wherever Shane/Roger edited my initial clue submissions, they too were constrained with these same clue end (and misprint) requirements (e.g. QUM where I had used WUM – both obscure although QUM less so). Kudos to Shane/Roger for their exemplary editing, particularly to help with the surface sense of my efforts. STARTRAP proved quite tricky to define (particularly with a needed misprint MEALS for MEANS), and yet I am particularly happy with the clue to 9. down and the inclusion of Popeye/Spinach eater. I tucked away for future use Q = a drug (trichosanthin), and E = a person on the dole.

A big thank you for those who took the trouble to send letters, e-mails etc + comments on and, not only offering kind words but many with constructive commentary (+ some criticism hopefully addressed above).

A final observation/learning. Those more experienced and/or diligent solvers clearly scan the puzzle/preamble/clues at first looking for macro signals (here the 8×8 grid where the circles are located was admittedly a dead giveaway). I will not only be more diligent myself as I tackle the weekly puzzles but bear this in mind for my next offering, which coincidently is about to filed!.

Crash was an affectionate nickname for my mother who passed in 1992.


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Listener No 4724, Envy: A Setter’s Blog by Quinapalus

Posted by Listen With Others on 4 Sep 2022

Research shows that there is a significant contingent of solvers who enjoy a bit of colouring-in, and using the song ‘Joseph’s Coat’ in a puzzle seemed an ideal way to play to that audience. The song rattles off 29 colours in all: on the one hand not a very convenient number for laying out on a grid, but on the other hand large enough to set a challenge to all but the most fervent fan of felt-tips. I experimented with a few ideas but nothing came of them; and I also wasn’t happy that there was enough substance to make it a satisfying solve. I put it to one side for a while.

The serendipitous discovery that the five colours listed the first time they appear in the song coincide with the five lowest-scoring colours in snooker—even in the correct order!—solved both the above problems. I had a nice red (and yellow and green and brown and blue) herring, and a nicely composite number of colours remained. Was there an anniversary of the première coming up? Thanks to very helpful staff at the National Library of Scotland, I established that the musical was first performed as part of the Edinburgh International Festival at Haymarket Ice Rink at 8pm on Monday 21st August 1972. I tried to have the puzzle scheduled for a weekend close to the fiftieth anniversary.

When I checked the original Bible verse I was surprised to see a wide variety of translations. You can compare for yourself here. Many versions do not mention colours at all, characterising the coat as ‘long-sleeved’ or just ‘long’ (RSV). There is plenty of discussion on the topic (see for example here and here). Linguistically there seems to be no realistic basis for the ‘of many colours’ translation, and it looks like a simple error on the part of the translators of the KJV, who trusted the erroneous Septuagint and Vulgate translations rather than checking the original. As a sometime professional translator with deadlines to meet (but sadly no godly hand to guide mine) I can sympathise.

Most inexplicable is the rendering of the adjective in question as ‘ornate’, for example in the NIV. It is almost as if the translators of this version could not quite bring themselves to admit the error in the KJV and tried to find an adjective half-way between ‘multi-coloured’ and ‘long-sleeved’. Eagle-eyed solvers may have noticed that in the clues where corrected misprints yielded ‘KJ’ the incorrect forms of the misprints gave ‘RS’: an early version of the preamble used this to warn solvers explicitly against using the RSV translation.

Thanks to all who took the time to comment on the puzzle after publication: feedback is much appreciated. A few wondered about the construction of the clue to MORAG (25d):

Game connected with Glasgow postcode?

This is an ‘&lit’ clue, i.e., one where the entire clue forms both the definition and the wordplay. Now the clue also needs a misprint in its definition (but not in its wordplay): I think the only sensible way that can work is for the entire clue, with misprint corrected, to provide the definition, and for the entire clue, with misprint not corrected, to provide the wordplay. Hence the wordplay gives MORA (a guessing game) + G; and the definition reads “Name connected with Glasgow postcode?”, i.e., a possibly Scottish name.

Many thanks also to the test solver and to the vetters for all the changes and improvements they made, and to John Green for deploying his skill and judgement in deciding exactly what range of shades is covered by the term ‘azure’. Thanks too for the Listener team’s extraordinary efforts in the face of postal strikes to deliver solvers’ feedback to me in time to write this blog. And apologies to anyone left with a Chas’n’Dave earworm.

Why ‘Envy’? As one of the bloggers here has mentioned, it just refers to the green cloth of a snooker table as well as to Joseph’s brothers’ envy of his, probably monochromatic I’m sorry to say, coat.


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Listener No 4723, Faux Pas: A Setter’s Blog by Tringa

Posted by Listen With Others on 28 Aug 2022

I am impressed by how other setters’ blogs describe in a very orderly and logical manner how they came to construct their puzzles. In this case, once I had the idea, the process consisted mainly of just a lot of trial and error with pencil and eraser. There were actually not many choices for the thematic entries. MOUSEHOLE was initially a favourite, but proved too difficult to accommodate. In any case, it would have introduced the need for some additional explanation, since recent editions of Chambers insist on it being two words rather than one. HAYLE was also attractive, being a Spenserian word for “welfare”, but lost out to BUGLE, which fitted first. OTTER and CAMEL seemed to hint at a nice idea involving rivers, but again, more explanation would have been required. 

The three middle columns pretty much fixed the size of the grid as 13 x 13, which is generally the maximum, and the aim of getting in seven thematic entries meant a lot of short words to make everything fit. The average entry length came to exactly 5.5, which is the minimum normally acceptable. I could have increased it fractionally, but only by introducing a couple of very obscure spellings, which I always dislike. As a result, the puzzle needed a particularly large number of clues.

The ‘double’ clues were a bit of a challenge. I generally found it was best to start by trying to think how two suitable definitions could be worked into the same sentence. 

The final result had more clashes than I would have liked, with the rule about which letter to discard becoming a bit inelegant. I blame the letter J for this: it is hard enough to work one into a puzzle, but to have two moving around was very awkward. On the plus side, the unwanted letters spelling out “A GRAVE AND MONSTROUS ERROR” seemed particularly appropriate, even justifying adding two clashes that were not essential. The device of using the asterisks, to give some indication of where the clashes were, added to the length and complexity of the preamble. However, I think that without it, solvers trying to tie up the final grid might well have given up in frustration. 

With a complicated preamble and large number of clues, it all became a tight squeeze to fit into the space available. I am grateful to the editors for slimming down my rather wordy original version of the preamble. In the process, it was necessary to cut out the point that recognising the thematic entries would guide solvers as to their location in the grid, but I hope that this was self-evident. I did originally want to end by simply saying “Tringa trusts that a final instruction is unnecessary”, but perhaps this was a bit too cheeky. 

Some solvers have commented that the theme is similar to that of a puzzle published elsewhere about a year ago. This is a result of the time it can take between submission of a puzzle and its appearance; I submitted Faux Pas in March 2021. 

I am glad that many solvers seem to have enjoyed the puzzle, even if it did end up feeling a little bloated (perhaps appropriately, given the subject). Future puzzles will definitely be put on a diet!

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Listener No 4717, Unruly Characters: A Setter’s Blog by Somniloquist

Posted by Listen With Others on 18 Aug 2022

After literary subjects in my two previous Listeners (The Green Knight and Albert Angelo), I was intent on coming up with something different for the third. After a few weeks of dead-ends and impossible ideas, I decided it was easier to rely on others’ creativity than my own, specifically Flann O’Brien’s. Two of his novels stood out as possible themes: The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds. I failed to turn the former’s footnotes from a fictional science book and policemen gradually morphing into the bicycles they ride into a coherent theme, so I settled on ASTB, which included a lot of potential source material.

I wanted to tell the story chronologically, rather than just include thematic words, which meant, broadly: the three characters and their openings, meeting at The Red Swan Hotel, their ultimate demise and the author’s escape. The characters turning against their author led me to unruly characters and the idea that “characters” could move between clues and entries, something I’d not seen before (possibly because it makes the clues extremely difficult). As this approach often did not produce real words in the grid, I hit upon changing letters to make real words to reveal the characters leading to the hotel – although this made constructing the grid a challenge. As a (possibly too subtle) hint to the solver, the characters started at the end of three words that mean “opening”: start, gap and proem. I would have preferred three different senses of the word (start, gap and job, say) and to avoid an obscure word like proem, but neither I nor the crossword software could make that work.

The Red Swan Hotel could be written in a convenient square in the centre of the grid, with each character entering or touching it. Then I “simply” had to work out how to get the solver to represent the characters within that square being destroyed “as the paper that sustains them is burnt”. The wording for this changed at every stage in test solving and vetting and it still seems it was a little too ambiguous as published, judging by the feedback. My original intention was that the characters were simply deleted, but that evolved into a more literal graphical depiction of their fate. Both it seems were impossible to express in a way that didn’t give too much away but provided a single unambiguous instruction.

The final step was fitting in an escaping Dermot Trellis, the characters’ author, into the grid. This was only feasible as DER was already there from Red Swan and, by chance, I could trace his name to the edge by changing seven letters – and there were seven remaining untreated clues. Given these changes didn’t produce real words (an unfortunate inconsistency), it needed more of a hint to the solver, hence using the start and end of extra words to indicate what should be changed.

In the midst of setting, it’s hard to judge how difficult a crossword will be to solve. Probably I could have foreseen that a fiendish clue treatment followed by a complex multi-stage endgame on an obscure subject would be on the trickier end. I hope it still proved enjoyable for most. Lessons learned for my next definitely non-literary effort…

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Listener No 4719, What’s My Line?: A Setter’s Blog by Hawk

Posted by Listen With Others on 31 Jul 2022

I don’t remember where I first read about the Bézier curve, but it rang bells as an ideal construction for a crossword. All that was needed was some logic for the lines, and linking identical cells seemed to be appropriate. I had the option of using horizontal and vertical locations, but figured I could hide the theme better if I used a diagonal. It also resulted in a more pleasing curve.

I needed to avoid any duplicate letters in each location, and also had to accommodate clashes. I started with the bottom row, which forced the letters along the diagonal, then tackled each clash in turn, which drove most of the bar locations. I was lucky to find the 11-letter words, as these helped boost the average entry length.

I tried to make the clues moderately challenging, as there were many over-checked entries, particularly in the NW corner, where there were no clashes. My favourite was  4 Down, Having uncovered nostrils, restored lung harmony (11), as it gave a good surface reading for a real stinker of a word. This clue made it past the vetters unscathed, but some were amended, largely for concision.

I’ve seen feedback from solvers who thought it was unnecessary to include the computer applications. I’m generally not a fan of additional twiddles myself, but I was keen to add something here to highlight the curve’s practical significance. If you’ve ever appreciated the beauty of car body shapes, or indeed anything manufactured during the computer era, then thanks are in no small part due to Pierre Bézier, who helped develop the automated design and manufacturing tools and techniques during his 40 years working for Renault. He was not the first to discover this curve, however. He independently created an algorithm first devised by Paul de Casteljau, who worked at Citroën. Bézier died in 1999 at the age of 89, and de Casteljau died in March 2022, at 91 years.

To me, the Listener Crossword is all about revealing a theme of interest. Without its practical applications, the Bézier curve, like many other topics in pure mathematics, would be little more than a pretty abstraction.

Both vetters mentioned that the construction reminded them of string art from the 1970s. Although aware of the toy, I hadn’t really considered this in the context of the puzzle, and in retrospect, I could have hinted at it somewhere. One vetter also remarked that all those lines might make it difficult for the marker to check the letters underneath. I hope everyone left their letters legible, otherwise I’ll have to change my setter name to Mud.

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