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Listener 4752: A Few (Asteroids) Far Between by Nutmeg

Posted by vaganslistener on 17 Mar 2023

A strange title… I wanted to pencil in “and” before “far”, so why wasn’t it there? I tried Googling the phrase as it stood but that got me nowhere. When the theme turned out to be THE ASTEROID BELT (arrowed: top left to bottom right) the drift of it made sense as (contra those exciting Sci-Fi films) the average distance between them is about a million kilometres, but I am awaiting further elucidation as it may well be more subtle than that.

Since the clashes were the only “gimmick” the plan was to dive in and find them. Pencilling lines along the entries where the stated word-length was longer than the entry (thankyou for that Nutmeg!) gave an indication of where some where going to be, and seeing that 1a was amongst that set of entries, the top left was the place to make a start. “Hawk caught and beheaded songbird in maple tree (9)” sent me scurrying to Bradford’s to look at the longish list of words for hawk and falcon etc, with one of those likely to be the definition, with the wordplay being a word for a songbird without its leading letter inside one for a maple tree. ACCIPTER and ACER, with (P)IPIT in the middle met the bill nicely. 

Then on to the down crossing with 1a, with 5d marked as thematic. “Only provider of coating for former magistrate (8)” propelled me to Bradford’s again to look at the equally long list of magistrates, and JUSTICER made up of JUST (“only”) + ICER “providing of coating”. Nutmeg can be relied on for neat and interesting clueing, which often uses a turn of phrase rather than a simple dictionary definition, which makes the clues classy and rather more difficult than I making them sound.

Anyway, looking at where the two words met we had JU starting 5d and PITER ending 1a, so JUPITER it was. (Incidentally another classy feature was that the emerging words were always built from the fragments without anagramming. Nice.) So – heavenly bodies, Greek gods, or some other more abstruse set? HERA emerging from HERoes and AHORSE in 11d made me think it was gods and goddesses, and the full set proved to be JUPITER, HEBE, HERA, IRIS, IDA, VESTA, DORIS, CERES, METIS, EUROPA, EROS and MARS. As the list grew the divinities idea started to look awkward – what a strange selection – so I turned to heavenly bodies. At first the presence of both planets and minor bodies threw me, until I remembered that THE ASTEROID BELT lay between JUPITER (at the top in the grid and MARS at the bottom. The asteroids hardly have a fixed pattern so as far as I can see the arrangement of the grid is perhaps better described as “representative” than “approximate”.

The only one of the asteroids to lie on the diagonal was VESTA. 22+5+19+20+1 = 67 =2 6+26+15, with O as the 15th letter in the alphabet replacing all the heavenly bodies, and the puzzle was complete.

The hardest part of the solving for me was in fact keeping my head clear as to whether I was looking for the letters to make up an entry, or the letters to make up the asteroid. Often the key to entry was deciding on the correct element of the clue that was the definition (so “battle” in 31a or “on the continent” in 32d), which the clueing style often disguised well. The only one that proved resistant to parsing was 13d “On reflection, forward virtually weightless rock (6)” where TEETER “rock” is surely the answer required by the crossing letters but the wordplay eludes me.

Many thanks indeed to Nutmeg for another fine puzzle.


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A Few and Far Between by Nutmeg

Posted by shirleycurran on 17 Mar 2023

We download a Nutmeg puzzle with great pleasure. It is over three years since we last solved one of her Listener puzzles and we know we will have an uncomplicated but imaginative theme with beautifully crafted clues – and so it is.

We don’t solve for long before a probable theme appears. “A hawk is an ACCIPUT isn’t it?” says the other Numpty. ‘Hawk caught and beheaded songbird in maple tree (9)’ That’s C and a beheaded PIPIT in an ACER’ and we guess that ‘Only provider of coating for former magistrate (8)’ will give us JUST + ICER, so we have JUPITER in cell 5.

ADONIS and MIMETITES give us a clashing METIS, CHOMPS and ODORISE give us DORIS, and MARENGO uses the S of MIMETITES to give us MARS. A quick check on the Internet confirms that METIS and DORIS are asteroids in the ASTEROID BELT between JUPITER and MARS so we know what we are looking for – another eight asteroids – and they obligingly appear: HEBE, HERA, IRIS, IDA, VESTA, CERES, EUROPA and EROS. At first, I wondered whether Nutmeg was selecting only the asteroids with female names (with those Fs in the title – A Few Far Between – like the puzles by Listener Female setters) but EROS put paid to that theory. It does seem, though, doesn’t, it that astronomers have favoured female names for these smaller celestial bodies?

Full grid and the theme appears in the non-dominant diagonal, and we see that one item, VESTA, lies within the diagonal. I add its letter values and get 67. (There was no need, really, to do the maths was there? The answer to that little sum had to be 15 which would give us an O – a rather regular asteroid – and the two planets could be slightly bigger Os – ‘an approximate representation of the theme’. Delightful!

Oh yes. The Listener setters’ oenophile elite! Well, of course Nutmeg is in it with her BAR(athea), ‘Woman having a drink after returning home …’ and a ‘boozer’ serving up carbohydrate … then ‘I’m off sausage of kiwi’ – CHEERIO Nutmeg!

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Listener No 4751, Instruction: A Setter’s Blog by Oyler

Posted by Listen With Others on 12 Mar 2023

Solve One Get Another One Free

It’s spring-time 2018 and one of our cats — Tango, he of EV1118 fame, had been put to sleep a few weeks earlier. I was coming to terms of life without him, he was almost 18 and been part of the family since he was about 8 weeks old. So, to keep myself occupied I had launched into a bout of puzzle setting. They were short puzzles and most of them weren’t up to much. I needed something that would be really taxing, time demanding and require a lot of concentration.

I’d always been impressed by the way setters could get a message into a puzzle and as I hadn’t set one like that for some time, I revisited the idea. I decided to use the old mod10 trick whereby a digit can be one of two or three letters. Then came the message — what would it be? There were various possibilities — leaving a pretty pattern with ERASE ALL ODD DIGITS or ERASE ALL EVEN DIGITS or to give John Green a week off, ERASE ALL ENTERED DIGITS.

Eventually I opted for REVERSE ACROSS ENTRIES. At this stage it had never crossed my mind to have the clues still hold true when the entries were reversed. I set to work finding a suitable grid which meant that the zero which would appear for T would have to be an unched cell or a cell which wasn’t the first or last cell of an entry before and after it was reversed. It was easier to do the former. This didn’t take too long and I entered the relevant digits for the message in their correct cells and got to work

One thing I like to try and do is to introduce solvers to a variety of different sets of numbers other than the usual suspects square, prime, triangular, Fibonacci, Lucas etc. To this end I decided to use Happy numbers and Lucky numbers as well as the multiplicative persistence. To make things easier for the solver I decided that the Happy and Lucky sets would be restricted to 2-digit numbers and to list them in the preamble. Calculating the 2-digit and 3-digit Happy numbers as well as the 2-digit Lucky numbers isn’t that hard by hand. It is a different matter entirely though for the 3-digit Lucky numbers as the method is akin to the Sieve of Eratosthenes for finding primes and requires a clear head.

Setting was going well and I had a few entries in place when I took a step back and began to wonder what the comments would be like on the various forums. I reckoned they would be along the lines of “yeah and”, ”so what” or worse still “why?”. It was just a random set of numbers that were being reversed. There was nothing special about them.

I looked at my entries again and noticed that I’d put in 169 for 3ac which when reversed remains a square and there was another entry that when it was reversed had the clue still hold. However, the rest of what was entered didn’t. My subconscience was telling me something. So, I removed those offending entries and continued with the new idea that the clue would still hold when the entries were reversed. This would make it more difficult for me but also more interesting and the end result more pleasing for the solver as well. I took the opportunity of re-clueing some of what was already in place by adding digit sums and digit products to some. This had the effect of cutting down some of the numbers in the sets as well as making my life a bit easier in that the digit sums and products don’t change when they are reversed. I had used Σ for digit sum and Π for digit product however it seems that The Times can’t handle Greek letters in puzzles!

I had another few entries in place when a devious thought struck me — could I have the same holding true for the down entries as well? That would surely have a PDM and/or wow factor.

This would require careful checking and be far more difficult for me to set but as that was what I wanted; I went for it. If I failed then I’d still have a puzzle where all the clues for the across entries would still hold. So, I made two copies of the grid side by side with a clue list underneath and painstakingly went through what was already in place. This necessitated a few changes to what was already in but thankfully nothing major.

After a week I had the puzzle completed and cold-solved. I was concerned that my solution had involved having to find the letters or potential letters of the message about half-way through. However, I decided to go with it as I thought that that is what solvers would try and do anyway and sent it off to my test solvers. Both testers solved and enjoyed the challenge. All that was left was to decide where to send it, Listener or Magpie? I felt that it deserved the widest audience possible and so, with apologies to the bird, this tribute to the sadly missed Tango who I’m sure would have approved of the deviousness of the puzzle, went to The Listener.

Thank you for all the kind comments about the puzzle which are much appreciated. A number commented regarding why they didn’t get the reverse grid instead as their first solution. The answer is that the message would have been gobbledegook. According to one poster there are 3432 different grid-fills that satisfy all the clues! I presume that there’s only one of them that gives the message though.

PS. I note from The Listener site that the reverse puzzle number 1574 appeared in July 1960 with the title Auto-suggestion-II set by Fudge. The grid was car-shaped and each entry was a word from which three consecutive letters had been omitted; the clue was a “number plate” showing the discarded letters, the entry length and sum of the letter-values of the entry. Looks interesting!

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Listener 4751 Instruction by Oyler

Posted by gillwinchcombe on 10 Mar 2023

Well, I’m totally in awe of Oyler’s ability to produce a puzzle like this. What an amazing feat of construction, even allowing for the unchanging digital sums and products, and the palindromes. I think that whatever talents we solvers must call upon to reach a solution pale into insignificance when set against the skills Oyler must have employed to set it.

Instruction for me is among the very best of the numerical puzzles that I’ve encountered since I embarked on my Listener journey – which started with numericals. It provided a steady solve, with no slog; even 20ac, which looked as though it could be tedious, was easily resolved with the help of 9ac, which enabled me to get 18dn.

I even impressed myself by finding an error at 13ac when I reversed the entry; another error at 3dn showed me I had written in the original entry for 3ac incorrectly. I was pleased that I could diagnose and correct the error without starting again!

Thanks Oyler for a great puzzle

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Listener 4751: (Reverse Engineering an) Instruction by Oyler

Posted by vaganslistener on 10 Mar 2023

Despite their brilliance, I can’t say I look forward to the quarterly numericals. Words are my métier, and numbers are a struggle, requiring me to overcome a slight number/date dyslexia and also engage the detail/calculation half of my brain, which strongly prefers a snooze to a workout. But they are part of the deal, and I’ll believe they’re good for me, so here we go.

Not, however, with a moment of intuiting first, and in the mysterious way these things work, I formed the opinion that a reversal of the grid would be the last step, as indeed it proved. Had I been more of a mathematician I would have noted at that point that the heavy use of digit sums and products, and indeed palindromes, was going to make that an easier miracle of construction that it might otherwise have been , but it’s still enormously clever of Oyler to pull it off.

The issue this time wasn’t finding a way in – there were plenty – but keeping track of all the cross-referencing and mutually checking options, which made it rather like a Sudoku, and indeed I made plenty of use of the trick of writing all the possible numbers in the squares and erasing them when they didn’t work. 

Happily (sic) the Happy and Lucky numbers were listed, and the necessary lists of options of cubes, primes and so on weren’t too long or complicated to scribble down the side of the page.

I got about half-way doing this and then felt I was slowing down, so looked for a back door. Setting up a chart of the possible letters that might appear in the message for the entry squares I already had proved instructive. There emerging at the beginning was RE… I couldn’t resist putting in REVERSE and indeed reverse-engineering those ‘down’s’ using the result. And looking at the other letters I had and the likely word patterns, REVERSE ACROSS ANSWERS fitted nicely, and worked a treat in the grid.

The only real trap I saw (there may have been more…) was that I had put 88 in for 26a, which didn’t work when reversed, while 81 did in both reflections. And if I’m honest, the dyslexia meant I made a total pig’s ear the first time round when trying to write in the reversals. At least I noticed.

The only moment of amusement was when I got fed up with 6d “Has 8 factors including 1 and itself”. I decided to ask ChatGPT. I’m pleased to say the result was gobbledygook.

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