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Listener No 4541, Doing the Rounds: A Setter’s Blog by eXtent

Posted by Listen With Others on 4 March 2019

 
[eXtent is a collaboration between eXternal and Serpent, each of whom contributes [below]. Ed.]
 
 
[eXternal] Serpent agreed to collaborate on a puzzle with me in 2016. I had an idea for a theme, but I couldn’t work out how to implement it successfully as a puzzle. The puzzle we eventually produced turned out to be quite complex and we decided to submit it to The Listener, using the pseudonym eXtent. It remained in the queue for some time.

I had a conversation with Roger Phillips at last year’s Listener dinner in Paris (March 2018) regarding that puzzle, which had come up for vetting. Roger had some reservations about it, so I offered to withdraw it and supply a replacement. We talked a little about his chrysanthemum-themed puzzle and he mentioned that he would welcome more puzzles using non-standard grids. That conversation was the inspiration which would lead to Doing the Rounds.

Back in England, I let Serpent know what had happened and he was happy for me to suggest an alternative puzzle. To look for potential ‘grids’, I simply did a Google Images search for something like ‘geometric patterns’ or similar. I found the design of ‘The Flower Of Life’ pattern, which seemed to offer possibilities for a fill with cross-checking of entries. Once I realised that the twelve letters of FLOWER OF LIFE could be entered in the 12 cells of an inner circle, I was certain there was potential for a puzzle. I identified that entries could run in straight lines through the lenticular cells and that these could be checked by using the rings of six cells around each circle as entries. The inner cells of the circle could contain 12-letter words, providing cross-checking from overlapping circles, the rings of 6-letter entries and the straight entries.

I printed a few copies of the design to try some manual grid-fills, just to get an idea as to whether it looked possible to completely fill the design in the way that I had envisaged. Pretty much straight away, I knew that the 12-letter answers would need to be entered as jumbles, as a grid-fill with clockwise/anti-clockwise entries would be impossible. However, a central clockwise entry for FLOWER OF LIFE looked appealing and would provide a base from which solvers could work outwards towards the edges of the grid. I thought that the solver would need to fill in the framework from the straight entries and six-letter rings, thereby providing six checking letters for each of the twelve-letter jumbles. I proceeded with a manual grid-fill on this basis, using QAT to offer alternatives for the 12-letter jumbles as I worked outwards. It went surprisingly well and I became more confident that a fill would be possible. I filled about half the grid manually, but knew that we’d need help from a computer to get beyond that stage. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to replicate the design in Qxw (which is the application that I and Serpent always use). Fortunately, I knew Serpent is more adept at this sort of thing than I am, so I contacted him with the proposed puzzle.
 
 
[Serpent] I was very enthusiastic about the grid design and set to work with Qxw. I first had to represent the Flower of Life (FoL) grid in such a way that I could use Qxw, which involved associating each cell in the FoL grid with a number. These numbers were then used to index the cells in a standard rectangular grid. (I was pleasantly surprised to discover the FoL grid contained 144 cells.) The next stage was to define the ‘entries’ in the Qxw grid. Obviously none of the rows and columns (or subdivisions thereof) defined entries in the FoL grid, so I had to encode all the entries in the FoL grid using Qxw’s free light facility.

That, however, was not the end of the story. eXternal pointed out that some 12-letter entries contained two unchecked cells. Given that these entries had to be entered jumbled, I also had to ensure the grid-fill was unambiguous. The inclusion of more free lights (one for each pair of unchecked cells) and the use of a dictionary containing all 26 strings of repeated pairs of letters ensured that the 12-letter entries could be entered without ambiguity (although see below).

eXternal and I try, as far as is feasible, to use relatively familiar words as entries in our puzzles. To this end, I use a fairly restricted dictionary when first attempting to find a grid-fill. However, the constraints imposed on the grid and the existence of so many 12-letter words meant that no fill was possible using entries from this dictionary. The next step was to use my restricted dictionary for shorter entries and a much larger dictionary for the 12-letter words. Still no fill was possible, although Qxw did at least think about it for much longer before deciding! Thereafter it was a matter of confirming that a fill existed and then trying to limit the number of obscurities, especially in the shorter entries because these were to be defined using a single word. (It turned out that there were several entries that we were unable to define with a single word. Reluctantly, we extended the hidden definitions to two words for some entries.) Nevertheless, eXternal and I were very happy with the grid-fill and set to work on the clues. We were ready to submit the puzzle by early May 2018.
 
 
[eXternal] I heard from Roger in January that the puzzle had been accepted for publication. The main changes were to rotate the grid for a better fit on the page, addition of numbers for ease of reference and some tweaks to preamble and clues. Roger also identified that the fill was ambiguous, if the solver did not follow the premise that unchecked cells within the same circle should both contain the same letter. He changed our original entry of MENSTRUATION to METATHEORIES to avoid this.

Feedback from solvers was very positive on the whole. Solvers seemed to appreciate the novel design and gained a great deal of satisfaction from the fill, albeit with a lot of effort!

And finally, thanks to our test-solvers: David, Norman and Paul (Apt).
 

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Listener No 4538, Joint Conditions: A Setter’s Blog by Awinger

Posted by Listen With Others on 10 February 2019

Minnesota Blues

For about 6 years I had a job which involved many transatlantic flights each year. It was during one of these flights in about 2014 that, having finished the Times jumbo cryptic, I turned my attention to the Listener. I had looked at it briefly before and always been somewhat overwhelmed, but this was a relatively gentle offering (Agatha Christie was the theme) and I managed to complete it. From that point I started to have a go on a fairly regular basis, bought Chambers (hard copy and app) and, from the start of 2016, I tried to solve each week.

It was on one of these transatlantic flights in early 2016 that I viewed the on-screen flight-path and saw a map of the US states, with the sea in blue around the edge, and the idea for this puzzle was born. Initially it was a personal challenge to see if I could construct a grid that included all of the States and conformed to the Listener grid requirements. I split the grid into 6 sections and tried to construct the more clash-dense regions first, in particular the north-east and south-central. I found I could make reasonably good progress in each section but then fitting them together always proved tricky. The main problems were keeping the symmetry and keeping the average word length up.

I came up with ‘–pdance’ to pick up the Southern Atlantic coastal states quite early. The J in New Jersey and the X in Texas were always problems, eventually solved with Haj and Exuls. The idea of the framing entities was included from the start, and I liked ‘Americana’ at 1 across as being thematic, providing half of Alaska and the first four letters for Canada. Isomeric and Homeric were the two option for bottom left to pick up Hawaii and most of Mexico. I initially wanted to put Pacific in the left column (‘fichi’ was pencilled in for a while) but I couldn’t get the top part to work. Moving it to the second column gave me ‘Pacifier’ to match against ‘Nargiles’, and with ‘Mediatize’ and ‘Stepdance’ also pencilled in that gave me just enough longer words to get by. I was disappointed to have to take out ‘Seismism’, which was in the middle of row 3 and covered SD, MN, WI and MI, but I couldn’t get the bottom half to work with an 8 letter word there.

By the summer of 2017, after many, many hours of tinkering on many, many flights, I had a grid with just Minnesota missing. I decided I had four options — try to rework the grid to get it in, abandon the symmetry, include it in the wrong place or leave it out.

I tried to rework for a while but I couldn’t get it in, and I was always very attached to the symmetry. Maybe it’s my mathematical background but I do value symmetry in a grid and my original challenge to myself had been to construct a symmetric grid. I could have fitted it in near Arizona, and asked the solver to identify which item was in completely the wrong place, but I decided against this as being too artificial. So I went with leaving it out, with the missing state to be written below the grid.

I foolishly thought that with the grid settled I was just about done. I hadn’t previously appreciated the effort that goes into coming up with the clues, especially when there are more than 60 of them. I knew with the large grid and 60+ clues that space was going to be tight, so I had to keep the clues short. I wanted a number of them to be straightforward, partly as I always appreciate a number of easy clues to get in to a puzzle and partly because of the high number of clues and clashes – I didn’t want it to become too much of a slog. The idea was that the theme would reveal itself quite early and then the states would gradually fall in to place and that would help with the more difficult clues. I took my time, coming up with at most a few per day, and by November 2017 I had a full set. I sent the puzzle off to the editors in early December 2017.

They did say they had a large number of puzzles to review so it would be a while before I heard anything. After nearly a year with no further contact I assumed that it hadn’t made the grade. I was delighted to receive an email in November saying it would be published in January. However space was a problem. Quite a few clues had to be shortened, and there was no room for the line to write ‘Mn’ below the grid. It would have to be written inside the grid instead. Also the editors added the number of internal cell boundaries for the shading, to hopefully eliminate any ambiguity. I am extremely grateful to the editors for their improvements on various clues and the work they put in to fit the puzzle into the available space.

And so on the 19th January I became a published Listener setter, a great thrill for me. The feedback on the forums was generally positive, which I appreciated. There were a few comments suggesting the finish was a bit untidy, with one state missing, the replacement letters required for the framing items and Minnesota having to be squeezed in, all of which I accept entirely. I was pleased with how close I got, but in the end the grid difficulty and space constraints did leave the finish slightly untidy. I have just started work on a second puzzle, which will be a less ambitious grid and hopefully as a result a more polished finish.

John Occleshaw (Awinger)
 

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Listener No 4537, Rollerball: A Setter’s Blog by The Ace of Hearts

Posted by Listen With Others on 3 February 2019

I got the idea for this crossword while looking up four-wheeled carriages for a previous Listener crossword (The Evolution of East Perry) and discovered a wonderful definition for a wagon was “A movable piece of furniture with shelves”. So I (or rather Qxw) created a circular grid with 35 (seven letter) radials. I chose 7 letters radials as I thought it would give me better selection of words to choose from while also including the letters latent gimmick. The idea was to fill the perimeter ring with types of wagon to form a defensive ring, cryptically indicating a definition of CORRAL with the latent letters giving the other 35 letter (an enclosure to drive hunted animals into) definition. The grid fill didn’t take half as long as I thought it would as the Qxw programme is quite powerful (and I am becoming more familiar with it) and it only needed a bit of jockeying around with perimeter wagons to make it all fit.

And so to the clues. I put a lot of time into these and left them, then re-checked them a couple of times for errors, accuracy and fairness until everything was to my satisfaction. However, from previous experience I knew that this would not be enough, but this time I had enlisted the help of a checker (Shirley Curran AKA Chalicea) and was about to send it to her when I suddenly realised that grid (with 7-letter radials) was probably too large to fit the space allowed by the The Times for the puzzle. Because of the amount of time I put into it I sent it anyway, more in hope that expectation.

Shortly after that I got the report from Shirley (who did a comprehensive review of the puzzle, Thanks Shirley) pointing out some errors that I made in the clueing, but also adding that I should also clue some of the words in the fifth ring to make things fairer for the solver. She did also say that this would use up more valuable space and because of that the puzzle might be rejected by the Listener vetters. I sent it off anyway; again more in hope that expectation.

Some time later I got The Times vetters’ (Roger and Shane) reports and neither of them mentioned that it wouldn’t fit into the paper (though I noticed that the paper’s edition of the puzzle, did not have ANY spare space at all and COMPLETELY filled an A4 sheet when printed), so it must have been a tight fit. The vetters did modify a few clues, but not nearly as many as my previous submissions (thanks again, Shirley) and changed the title from “Old Black Pen” referring to a pen (Corral) for cattle (Black being an old name for a type of cattle) to “Rollerball” also a type of pen but with circular intonation. They also asterisked the letters of CORRAL to make the solution unique as some solvers might justifiably put in LAAGER, RAT-PIT or KEDDAH, eventually getting the puzzle over the line.
 

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Listener No 4534, A Secret Unlocked: A Setter’s Blog by Harribobs

Posted by Listen With Others on 13 January 2019

Back in the olden days, before computer games and even before colour TV, one of the more popular entertainments in our house was the comic. At various times we subscribed not only to the ubiquitous Beano and Dandy, but also to Buster, Cor!, Sparky, Whizzer and Chips, Bunty, Jackie, Mandy, and the more educational choice of our parents, Look and Learn. Sometimes, as a bonus, a comic would include a free gift, such as the noisy ‘Flying Fizzer’ in the Beano and the even noisier ‘Banger’ in Buster. But on one occasion the free insert was a card with holes in it which, when placed over a text inside the comic, revealed a secret message. Such was the inspiration for A Secret Unlocked.

The Wikipedia entry for cryptography leads eventually to the subject of steganography. It makes interesting reading: for example, during WWII the UK government was so anxious about messages being hidden in knitting patterns that it banned people from posting them overseas. But my favourite story was that from Herodotus in Histories, where Aristagoras has to cut the hair from the head of Histiaeus’s servant to reveal the secret message.

The trickiest part of the puzzle’s construction was coming up with the preamble template. It needed to provide an introduction, not too stilted, while containing the right number of occurrences of the letters H,A,I,R, reasonably spaced. The slightly awkward ‘popped up’ in the preamble was a late replacement, needed because I had overlooked the ‘R’ in ‘turned up’.

Some solvers were mystified by the instruction ‘USE TEMPLATE AND NOTE WHAT HAIR CONCEALS.’ It could have been clearer, but I reasoned that solvers could act as cryptanalysts, and deduce what the template was.

I can’t remember seeing steganography used in a Listener crossword before, and was surprised to see the excellent puzzle Telling Lies by Somniloquist, published just the previous Saturday, using a similar technique – cutting out some words and folding to reveal others.

Thanks, as ever, to Roger and Shane for their rigorous vetting.
 

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Listener No 4532 How?: by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 7 January 2019

On my laptop at work I keep a spreadsheet called ‘Ideas’, where I sketch out possible themes for crosswords, most of which never see the light of day, either because I can’t get them to work or because someone else has already done them. When I thought up the idea of a grid with a TARDIS in it, and double letters for the cells within the TARDIS, I assumed it must already have been done in the Listener — after all, double letters crop up every now and then, and Doctor Who is a popular topic — but an online check suggested otherwise.

This check must not have been very thorough, as it was only later that I discovered Ilver had written Journey to the Centre in 2013 (and, as the setter’s blog here revealed, How? had in fact been the working title of that one), shortly before I began solving in earnest. Curiously, it turned out that Ilver had also had Detective Work published in the same year, with a Hercule Poirot theme; my only other Listener crossword to date was based on Murder on the Orient Express. Great minds?

The basis for the puzzle thus set, I set out trying to construct a grid. The words TIME AND RELATIVE DIMENSION IN SPACE (I’ll come back to that) were slightly restrictive, as the lack of symmetrical words that could be formed within them meant that I had to bar off most of the phrase. At first I thought I could use DEMI-DEVIL across the bottom — coinciding with RELAT(IVEDIME)NSION — but I couldn’t get that to work; in the end only ADEMI or ELEMI would work in the bottom left of the grid, and I allowed myself the abbreviation EMEA at the top right. I thought that, being fully checked, this wasn’t too much of an issue.

In my brief setting career so far I have set myself rather difficult grids to create (I don’t use proper crossword software to complete the grids — which presumably wouldn’t work with double-letter cells anyhow — but I do make liberal use of the searching facility on my Chambers Dictionary app). This means that I’ve tended to end up with a few under-unched words and relatively low average word lengths, although I managed to scrape over the recommended minimum (5.51!) in this one. Completing the grid took many attempts, but I got to something I was happy with in the end.

Back to that TARDIS acronym. I became a keen Doctor Who fan in the Matt Smith era, so I was aware that DIMENSION was the preferred expansion of the D these days, and — even though Chambers has it as DIMENSIONS — I couldn’t bring myself to add in that S. Unfortunately that meant that I needed an extra letter to complete the picture (it only occurred to me very late in the day to put it in the place of the light on top, actually, rather than just completing the rectangle). This was the weakest part of the puzzle I submitted, I think, as I just claimed it was a seven word phrase — i.e. A TIME AND RELATIVE DIMENSION IN SPACE — and it was Roger Phillips’ suggestion to go with ‘article on top’. The neatest possible solution to the problem, I think.

The idea of using synonyms for doctor with misprints was a reworking of an idea I’d left out of my previous puzzle (which would have used synonyms of ‘stab’). Fortunately there are a lot of synonyms for doctor in its various meanings, including words like ‘breeze’ that might set people off down the wrong track. I ransacked my Chambers Crossword Dictionary (a tome I must admit I prefer to Bradford’s, although I also dug into that) and came up with 70 synonyms. Playing around with these, I managed to get all the words I needed except a synonym that could generate the W of TWO HEARTS; in the end I went for WHO, which I think worked well enough. The overall technique was one I don’t remember seeing before — although I’m sure it’s been used many times — and I think that, particularly with ‘jawbones’ and ‘burgeon’ to set people on their way, it will have helped people onto the right track.

The final part of the puzzle was entering GALLIFREY, albeit misspelled, in the centre. It was rather early on in proceedings that I rather organically came across GALL- at the start of a word, and thought it would be a neat bit of thematic content to include the Doctor’s home planet. But it was an odd number of letters — how to get around this? Well, double-entering the central letter of the word (also the central letter of the TARDIS and the grid) seemed very neat to me, given that the Doctor himself (well, ‘himself’ when I wrote the puzzle — ‘herself’, now) has two hearts. From the comments I’ve dared to read online, this part of the puzzle doesn’t seem to have been universally popular — the word ‘pointless’ has been used — and my only answer is that I always enjoy it when Listener puzzles have multiple bits of thematic content, so I aim to do as much as I can in mine.

Thanks as ever to Shane & Roger for their excellent editing. A lot of clues needed changing for one reason or another — two were rejected as being fanciful! — and, as I’d got a lot of rather long words to clue, several adjustments were needed for space-saving purposes, including a fairly dramatic rewrite of the preamble. We had quite a few emails back and forth, and there were one or two clues that I rewrote entirely, but I didn’t lose anything too close to my heart.

I didn’t use test solvers for this puzzle (I do now), but I should thank John & Simon, who gave me ideas for SOLSTITIALLY and STONE SAW respectively. And, of course, thanks to John Green for his excellent services — and apologies that he had 27% more letters to mark than usual!
 

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