Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interview: Sowmya Ramkumar

Sowmya Ramkumar A talented new setter who began her setting career after her clues were noticed on Facebook - Sowmya Ramkumar's story is a compelling counterpoint to the idea that online social networks are a "waste of time". Today, apart from creating crosswords for The Hindu Business Line (HBL), Sowmya also runs the Facebook group 1ACross, a hub of hobbyist setters who write (some really good!) clues to daily hash-tagged themes.

Sowmya talks about her crossword journey so far, her unusual HBL brand-themed crossword, and her aspirations as a setter.

Q1: Welcome to Crossword Unclued, Sowmya. Tell us about yourself and how you got the crossword bug.

Sowmya: Hi Shuchi. I am honoured to be here. I am a Chartered Financial Analyst, based in the Middle East (Bahrain). I provide financial consultancy services to regional financial institutions, leveraging on my experience in banking and risk management, gained in an international bank.

My love affair with crosswords began when I was in the seventh grade. I recall seeing my brother (who was then at IIT Madras) attempting the Hindu Crossword and that got me curious. Armed with a tattered dictionary and a Roget's thesaurus, I used to spend hours initially trying to finish and understand the clues. In fact, I used to try out the previous day's crossword each day and would beg my sister to give me letter hints looking at the solutions (since I didn't want to look at them). During my learning process, I used to drive nearly everyone at home - particularly mom - crazy since I would want to share every clue that I solved with her.

Soon, I grasped the basics and also picked up speed. At that time, I used to be able to solve the crossword in 15 minutes or so, while simultaneously getting ready for school. At school, my English teacher Ms. Hema Ramanathan, was also a regular solver. So, during school recess, we used to validate answers and discuss clues that made us go wow. After I moved abroad, I didn't have easy access to the daily Hindu crosswords and used to initially print them out online and solve them. Also with my banking career and managing the household, I had very little time to devote to this hobby. About 18 months ago, I serendipitously came across Cryptic Crossword Society (CCS), the online Facebook group and that was when I started setting clues. I learnt a lot about setting and solving from that group and also from various blogs online including your blog and the Colonel's.

Q2: You are the solo setter of the new cryptic - The Hindu Business Line (HBL) crossword. How did that happen?

Sowmya: Once I joined CCS, I enjoyed setting clues so much that I used to post quite a large number of clues each day. Since CCS was an open group, my clues had been flowing into news feeds of people on my contacts list. Meanwhile, The Hindu Business Line was launching a new brand supplement called Cat.a.lyst  - targeted at marketing and advertising. The Cat.a.lyst editor was scouting for a setter who could create themed crosswords and I was introduced to him by my cousin, who is a mutual contact. A crossword based purely on brand names seemed enormously difficult to do, especially using cryptic clues. I am drawn to challenges like a bee to honey (or perhaps a kamikaze pilot to the terra firma) and so, naturally I jumped at it. I was approached in November 2013 and after initial discussions, I sent in a sample crossword. The editor liked the sample crossword I made for them and my first crossword appeared on 24th Jan 2014.

Q3: I’ve been curious why The Hindu publishers have not provided interactive solving for their daily crossword yet, but they have done so for their Business Line crossword. Do you have any idea about it?

Sowmya: In the case of the Cat.a.lyst Brand Crosswords, this was something I had requested from day 1, because I felt it would make it available to a larger audience through this platform. The editorial team was also on-board and got their IT team working hard to provide a custom interface. I think they have done a fantastic job and it works pretty well. Thanks to this, I have also earned a small place in Indian crossword history with the distinction of being the setter of the first Indian crossword that's available for solving interactively online :) Crossword 6, 28th Feb 2014 was the first online interactive crossword.

I really can't say why The Hindu does not provide this, though it would be great if they did. We did have some teething problems and it does require the setter to provide the data files in specific format for upload - maybe when you have a number of setters, it is not as easy to implement a change like this. However, with software available to easily generate the files, that should not be an impediment at all.

Q4: Other crosswords are cautious about using brand names in the grid or clues - many have a policy to exclude them altogether. The HBL crossword, themed on brand names, goes the other extreme :-) How do you pick the brands for use in your crosswords?

Sowmya: Ha ha Shuchi - guess I'm marching to a different drummer :) Since, this was part of my mandate, I began by compiling a long list of Indian and International brand names. This was then vetted by the Cat.a.lyst Editor, and we agreed that this would be the master database to use in the crosswords.

I have about 10 different grids and I pick the brands based on the grids. I try to minimise any repetitions of brand names or overlaps of industry since the universe is limited. On occasion when I am forced to repeat a brand that I have clued before, I always change the clues, so that it is still fresh.

If I I can't fit the brand name into solutions, I use them in clues. Having completed over 40 brand crosswords, with about 22-25 clues each week, I reckon, I must have set clues for nearly 1000 brands already!

Q5: Are the brands mentioned in the grid/clues getting lucky with free publicity, or are there advertising fees linked to their appearance in the crossword? For example, Crossword 38 features Koutons and Spice Jet – aren't Provogue and Go Air getting shortchanged?

Sowmya: I am not aware of the commercial arrangements in connection with the crossword. Since I have been given the flexibility of choosing the brands I set clues for each week, I do not think they are paying advertising fees for their appearance. In fact, It would be wishful thinking on my part to imagine brands and companies vying for product placement within my cryptic crosswords :)

Given that this is a weekly puzzle, a large number of brands have already figured in the crosswords. As for those feeling shortchanged, I can only say… "Rest assured, your turn will come too:)" The flip side is, whenever I see advertisements on TV these days, I can only think of whether I have set a clue for the brand already or how I could frame a potential clue on it.

Q6: What are the challenges specific to creating a fixed-themed crossword every week? How do you tackle the challenges?

Sowmya: The biggest challenge is in generating the grid. I try to stick to well-known and recognized brands for the grid fills. If I feel that the brand name is a bit obscure, I try to make the word play reasonably simple to be able to get to the answer.

In each grid I try and use at least a few brand names that are commonly used words since that gives me a certain amount of cluing flexibility.

Another challenge, is the limited flexibility on what else I can do with the crosswords. I am happy to say that, in addition to the overarching theme, I have managed to set a few pangrams, a clue acrostic for a personal celebration, a second theme on a couple of occasions etc. I also commemorated the 25th crossword with a lipogram (to match the 25th week) bundled with a clue acrostic that spelt the milestone.

Having said that, I felt that a number of these were just achievements from a setter's perspective and not usually picked up by the average solver. Moreover, these were obviously more time consuming to set than the normal crosswords.

Q7: Tell us about your Facebook group 1ACross – how did it start? What sets it apart from other Facebook groups for cryptic crossword lovers?

Sowmya: After spending a year at the CCS group, I was amazed at how it had grown geometrically in that time. It had maybe 1000 members when I joined and has about 14000 now. As a large group, CCS had started attracting trolls and spammers, which caused a dilution in quality.

Along with two of my CCS friends Lakshmi Vaidyanathan and Martin DeMello, we started out four months ago. Our objective was to have a small group and to focus on the quality of clues than just the quantity. We have a good mix of some fantastic setters and solvers.

We also have daily games related to crosswords on 1 ACross and all the members who participate really enjoy that. There is a general camaraderie and banter that you would only expect from people you have known all your lives – I guess having common interests and a passion for words and crosswords is the great common thread that binds all our lives. We recently celebrated 100 games at 1 Across, with a community grid put-together by 19 setters.

Q8: What are your favorite clues from 1ACross?

Sowmya: There are so many clues that are really good and this is just a sampling.

Provide food to support one who eats, shoots, and leaves? (11) - Heidi Schroeder

Four retarded aliens, sharing a secret (4-1-4) - Brian Dungate

(Twelfth of seventy-eight)+(fourth of five)+(eighth of eighteen) - (3) - Mohsin Ahmed

Italian unable to watch hanging (8,5) - Bash Ashok

yes come back do come back first
yes come on in heartless journey (7)
- Ravan IITM

Sounding board for physicist (6) - Anjali Doney Varghese

[Answers at the end of the post]

Q9: Which crosswords do you solve? How do you fare with them?

Sowmya: I do the Hindu Crossword and the Guardian Crosswords. I usually complete the Hindu Crossword without much difficulty. It's quite different with the Guardian crosswords and on some days I finish it while on other days, I don't get very far at all. I also solve the Independent cryptics, which are reasonably easy.

On some days, I just solve the stand alone clues on 1 ACross or on CCS and when I get to beat some of the super solvers in speed solving, it gives me an unparalleled adrenalin surge :)

Q10: If you could change one thing about crosswords in India, what would it be?

Sowmya: I feel that there is not enough awareness about crosswords or setters. In fact, before I came across the blogs such as yours and Colonel's, I really did not know what a fantastic job some of our setters have been doing, in terms of innovation and quality of cluing. I think cryptic crosswords is one of the most mentally stimulating hobbies any one could have and yet, they are not given their due.

More Indian publications should give importance to this feature by using home grown talent than outsourcing with syndicated crosswords, because, frankly, the talent is available and there is quite a large following in India. For ensuring quality and standardisation of published crosswords, they could have crossword editors to check crosswords before they are published.

Q11: Is there a crossword culture in Bahrain or neighbouring regions? Are there crosswords of any kind created/published locally?

Sowmya: Bahrain has an active scrabble league and in fact, pioneered the Gulf Scrabble Championships (GSC) in 1991. The first 19 editions were in Bahrain, with Oman hosting the 20th. Dubai has hosted it since 2011. A number of word mavens of different nationalities live in Bahrain and it is quite likely that many of them also do solve cryptic crosswords.

However, there is no active interaction or forum for regional crossword enthusiasts that I am aware of. The newspapers in Bahrain do carry cryptic crosswords but these are usually syndicated. Interestingly enough, several years ago, one of the local magazines had run a  cryptic crossword contest. I had sent in my entry and was pleasantly surprised to win the first prize - a DVD cum VCR player, which I still treasure. While I had not really thought about it in all these years, that crossword had been set locally.

Q12: As a crossword setter, what are your aspirations?

Sowmya: When I started setting, I had never imagined getting this kind of acceptance in the crossword community. I was extremely thrilled that Gridman, for whom I have a lot of respect, took time to provide a blog post on one of my earliest crosswords. He had also taken pains to help me improve my crosswords with suggestions through email or in the Colonel's blog. I would also like to set regular crosswords in one of the leading dailies, and would probably do it when I have more time on my hands.

Q13: What is your process of setting?

Sowmya: I usually prepare the grid first in Crossword Compiler. As I do the grid fill, I pick brand names, keeping in mind possible cluing options. I usually keep the latest grid on my iPad and write out clues, over 3-4 days, as I get ideas. The actual time spent on a grid is approximately 5-10 hours, from start to finish.

Sowmya Ramkumar. setting a crossword
Sowmya in her lounge, with her setting "tools and equipment".

I use a number of resources on the net and also try and understand what the brands are about, especially while coining the definitions. I usually eschew letter abbreviations, and even when I use them, I try to use ones that seem intuitive than off a list on the net. I like to strike a balance between various clue types and love including uncommon clue types such as Spoonerisms or reverse wordplay, whenever I get the chance to do so.

Q14: Which crossword setters do you most admire?

Sowmya: Among the Indian setters, I admire Buzzer, Arden and of course Gridman. I have a lot of respect for Sankalak's ability to keep the crosswords simple and do-able. Among the international setters, I admire Araucaria, Rufus and Arachne.

I admire the simplicity of Sankalak's clues and the deviousness of Araucaria and frankly, I would like to be known as a setter who has a combination of both.

Q15: If you had to pick clues of your own that you are proud of, which would they be?

Sowmya: Here are some that I like, from my brand crosswords:

Spider-man's dictionary? (8)
Ms. Woolf diets and smokes (8,5)
Spooner's spoilt spicy dishes with chocolate (8)
Back issue of magazine (4)

[Answers at the end of the post]

Q16: Is there a clue type you find tricky to use, or one that you have to make an effort to avoid?

Sowmya: I usually hesitate to do homophones. Since pronunciations are vastly different across geographies, I find homophone clues somewhat dicey and they don't turn out entirely satisfactory to me.

Q17: Tell us about your memorable crossword-related experiences.

Sowmya: During my last vacation, in April this year, I was delighted to be invited by Gridman to his residence. It was wonderful to meet him and his family. We had an impromptu get-together, also attended by THC setters Afterdark and xChequer. We all had a great time discussing crosswords, setting styles, idiosyncrasies of setters, etc. There was a lot of laughter and I was completely at ease, as though I had known them for years. It was also a very informative meeting and I learnt a lot about the history of the Hindu crosswords.

Sowmya-Bhala-Shrikanth-CV
At Gridman's residence. L to R: Sowmya, Bhala (xChequer), Shrikanth (Afterdark), Rishikesh (Gridman)

Another unforgettable, recent experience was a surprise birthday cake that my husband had ordered for me. Although the entire family is somewhat resigned to how crazy I am about crosswords, I was bowled over to see a lovely crossword cake, complete with 1 ACross (literally, the "icing" on my cake :))

Sowmya-Crossword-Cake 
Q18: When you're not setting/solving crosswords, what do you do?

Sowmya: Other than my consultancy work, I also teach students of the Chartered Financial Analyst Program, various topics related to Investment banking. It's a pretty rigorous program and almost all my students are bankers themselves, so it is quite challenging but I enjoy it.

I'm also a founding member of the CFA Society of Bahrain and have been one of the board members of the Society.

I run a couple of blogs Gitaaonline and Mantraaonline that cover a range of topics related to the Hindu religion and philosophy. On occasion I lecture on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures, tailored for today's world with thoughts on management and self-improvement.

I have conducted several quiz programs in the island, including a couple of biz-quizzes for banks and financial institutions, which were well-received. I have also organised treasure hunts / scavenger hunts, complete with cryptic clues and all, that has had people running all over the island.

Whenever I get the time, I love listening to music, reading and playing scrabble.

Q19: Parting words:

Sowmya: Shuchi, I think you have done a fantastic job with your blog and I am a great fan. While it's still very early days in my journey as a setter, I am enjoying the ride, taking in the view and having a load of fun. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to interact with your readers.

The inimitable PGW said, “Everything in life that's any fun, as somebody wisely observed, is either immoral, illegal or fattening.” – We can safely say, with crosswords, we found a loophole.

Answers to Q8 clues: CATERPILLAR, TETE-A-TETE, TEN, VENETIAN BLIND, ODYSSEY, PLANCK
Answers to Q15 clues: WEBSTERS, VIRGINIA SLIMS, CADBURY'S, TIME

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Crossword Bloggers' Jargon – Decoded!

crossword-bloggers-jargon-decoded New to crossword blogs and forums? Some of the conversation happening there might appear more cryptic than the clues. This post will help you interpret what the regulars are saying. Enjoy participating!

Anagrind, Anagrist

Anagrind stands for anagram indicator. The letters that get jumbled to give the solution in an anagram clue are called anagram fodder, or anagrist.

Usage examples:
"Last in was ANGOSTURA, perhaps the cleverest clue in the crossword; it was ingenious to use 'turns' as anagrist rather than anagrind." [source]
"I never heard of it either, and I'd also have spelt THINGAMABOB differently but for the anagrist." [source]

For further reading: But Which is the Anagrind?

Anno

A term popular among Indian solvers, anno is short for "annotation" i.e. the explanation of wordplay in a cryptic clue. A solver who blogs about a puzzle's solution presents the anno along with each answer.

Usage examples:
"Though I got through this one in a jiffy I'm unable to get some of the annos." [source]
"Anno pending" [source] - typically put next to a clue's solution on the blog, if the clue has been answered but the parsing is unclear. This is an invitation for the commenters to provided the parsing.

For further reading: Clue Annotation Shortcodes

Checkers or Crossers

Short for checking letters or crossing letters – those letters that are revealed in a clue's answer because of the filled cells from intersecting clues in the grid.

Usage examples:
"A very pleasant puzzle with two excellent fifteen letter anagrams to give you a lot of checkers!" [source]
"5 and 26 were last in, new to me but gettable with crossers." [source]

For further reading: Crossword Grid: Checking, Cold Solving

COD or COTD

"Clue Of The Day" – what the solver hails as the best clue of a crossword.

Usage examples:
"DISPATCH is my COD for the devious surface that had nothing to do with the final answer." [source]
"I do find that my last-in (or nearly) is so often my COD." [source]

COD can also stand for Concise Oxford Dictionary, as in "rare isn’t apparently given in Chambers or the COD but is no doubt somewhere" [source]

CRS

Clue annotation shortcode for "Cockney Rhyming Slang", usually seen in the solution explanation on British crossword blogs.

Usage examples:
"PRATFALL = TAR rev + F all in PAL (china - CRS) + L" [source]
"We are usually given the CRS and expected to use the literal meaning, rather than the other way around as here." [source]

For further reading: Demystifying Clue Annotation Shortcodes

DBE

"Definition By Example" - a type of wordplay in which the clue contains not a synonym, but an example or sub-type, of the answer.

Usage examples:
"Presumably the question mark is intended to cover the DBE." [source]
"...I considered and rejected early on the possibility that "bowler" might give HAT: I was sure such a clear DBE would have to be indicated in the Times." [source]

In clue wordplay, DBE can also mean Dame of the British Empire.

DNF

The situation of not having completed the crossword. Acronym of "Did Not Finish".

Usage examples:
"Failed on 'neodymium' and 'algonkin', so a DNF for me today. If anyone complains that the puzzle was too easy, I’ll consider taking up knitting." [source]
"Is it still a technical DNF if you resort to aids and the aids don't help and then you get the answer anyway?" [source]

Enu

Another term popular among Indian solvers, enu is short for "enumeration" i.e. the length of a clue's solution. When the solution is a phrase or contains hyphenated words, the enu indicates the word breakup too e.g. (6-4) for ANIMAL-LIKE, (2,3,4,2) for AS YOU LIKE IT.

Usage examples:
"I don’t go with the thinking that giving the enu as (2-7) would be a dead giveaway." [source]
"When it is an acronym such as Nato, pronounceable as a word, the enu might be 4. But when it is say, NDTV, where every letter is pronounced the enu must be 1,1,1,1." [source]

FIB or FITB

"Fill In the Blank(s)", a clue type in which a sentence/phrase - usually a line of poetry or a famous quote - acts as the clue, with word(s) blanked out to indicate the answer. The acronym is mostly used by The Hindu Crossword solvers, perhaps because this clue type is rarely seen in other crosswords nowadays.

Usage examples:
"A FITB clue to complete a quote from Shakespeare or Chaucer might be easy for those into them, but horribly hard for people like me." [source]
"Not a single CD in sight! (Barring the FITB.)" [source]

LOI

"Last One In" - refers to the final answer that a solver entered into the grid. LOI is usually mentioned when there was a special struggle involved in solving that last clue. As you'd guess, the opposite of LOI is FOI (First One In).

Usage examples:
"LOI was 10A - the shortest words can be the hardest, if there isn't too much to work with on the surface!" [source]
"For some reason I needed all the checkers for my LOI…" [source]

Nina

A hidden message within a pattern of cells in the completed crossword grid. Read more at What is a Nina?

Usage examples:
"No theme, but there is a devilishly clever Nina hiding where you wouldn’t expect it." [source]
"I suspected a Nina from the start from the shape of the grid and esp as some answers had less than 50% checking." [source]

For further reading: Possibly the oldest Nina

"n" Magoos, "x" Tonies, etc.

On the Times for the Times (T4tT) blog, it is customary for solvers to mention the time they took to finish the crossword. The Times Crossword Club leaderboard lists the stats for each puzzle, which means that any solver can benchmark their play against the fastest solvers.

T4tT bloggers have come up with nifty units to measure relative solving speed: the most popularly used is a Magoo – the time taken by Times crossword champion  Mark Goodliffe to finish the crossword. Instead of quoting absolute time as, say, "26 minutes 55 seconds", a solver could say "2.4 Magoos". Similarly, a tony is the time taken by Tony Sever to finish the crossword, a keriothe the time taken by Keriothe.

Usage examples:
"Five tonies for me (or three keriothes), and in my terms that's very good." [source]
"…clock stopped at 18:17, which was well outside my daily target of 2 Magoos" [source]

PB

Short for "Personal Best" – the fastest time/highest score achieved by a solver.

Usage examples:
"This was perhaps the easiest daily crossword I have ever done…I expect a lot of fast times, several PBs and not a few less than gruntled regulars." [source]
"my time was 11:48. I'm sure this must be a PB if measured in Magoos." [source]

Note: sometimes PB can stand for the initials of another person on the forum e.g. when the Sunday Times blogger says "Many thanks, first of all, to PB for letting me have an advance copy of this puzzle" – the thanks are meant for the Sunday Times crossword editor.

PDM

The beautiful "Penny-Drop Moment" when the workings of an elusive clue or theme suddenly become clear to the solver. Often used in the context of crosswords with interlinked clues, in which the PDM gives the key to the theme.

Usage examples:
"I was struggling to see how it worked, and it was only on coming to write up the blog that I had the pdm" [source]
"I proceeded through the puzzle with increasing incredulity at the seemingly lost opportunity until the huge PDM at my penultimate entry at 14ac." [source]

Samosa

A metaphor for the joy a solver (especially a new solver) experiences in finishing the crossword. Used on The Hindu Crossword Corner (THCC), ever since solver Gayathri Sreekanth celebrated a completed grid by eating samosas.

Also conveys that the crossword was easy - where a blogger on T4tT would say "I expect several PBs today", one on THCC might say "A samosa feast today!".

Usage examples:
"No samosa for me today as I'm stumped for some annos :-(" [source] - technically, DNF = No samosa
"I have lost 3 samosas in the last few days for being careless" [source]

Unch

An unchecked letter in the crossword grid. Read more at Crossword Grid: Checking.

Usage examples:
"Read round the unches from the bottom left in the two ways to the top right to get the Nina." [source]
"I can't see any message in the unches or the diagonal, but I have this nagging feeling that I've missed something." [source]

Xim

Short for Ximenean. The terms comes up in discussions on the accuracy or fairness of a clue.

Usage examples:
"The perception is that Xims and Libs stand in opposite trenches which, to me, is a shame." [source]
"As well as being an Indyist he’s also in the Times, and you can’t get away with too many ‘in-deedisms’ on that pro-Xim panel." [source]

For further reading: in-deedism, Of Ximeneans and Libertarians

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Spooner Camouflage

Spooner TwistedFor a crossword setter, spoonerisms are extremely hard to hide – the telltale indicator "Spooner" gives the game away. A direct reference to Reverend Spooner, to whom this wordplay device owes its name, cannot be avoided in this clue type.

And so the wily setter uses a different ruse to confuse the solver. Since the word "Spooner" in a clue primes the solver to think of the spoonerism clue type,  the setter turns that expectation on its head by placing the word in clues that do not contain spoonerisms.

Enjoy a few examples of "Spooner" used in deceptive ways.

Times 24992: Spooner's helping in hospital circles, to make us well (3,6) ___ __R___

Times 24894: Spooner’s confused about one term for an insidious killer (8) _O______

Guardian 25962 (Boatman): Spooner's starting to say joints are a problem with cold (6) _N____

A puzzle by Radler on Alberich's site, in which Across clues employ the word "Spooner" in a variety of devices.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to Excel at IXL

indian-crossword-league-logo If you are (or aspire to be) a participant in the Indian Crossword League (IXL), the annual crossword-solving contest in India, then this post will give you strategies to improve your rank/score in the online rounds leading to the finals. You have to be good at cracking cryptic clues of course, but you can do a bit more to maximize your chances of acing the competition.

All the best!

1 Respect the clock

Rank in the online rounds of IXL depends on the absolute time of submission, NOT the elapsed time of your solving session. All-correct entries are ranked first, then submissions with 1 error, then those with 2 errors. Since the IXL crosswords happen to be generally easy, many others will be finishing with no errors, clocking similar solving times as yours - even a few seconds here or there can affect your rank.

Do you tend to complete the IXL crossword but don't time it closely? Then you can easily improve your rank by tightening your approach. Don't waste a moment once the contest puzzle is made available. Be logged in to the IXL site, poised to start solving as soon as the grid is up. Don't let go till you have cracked the last clue and submitted the puzzle.

While solving, keep distractions at bay. Enlist the help of family/housemates to attend to pressing non-IXL matters. Turn the phone silent. If there is any chance that your internet connection can get disrupted, have a backup within easy reach.

Do what it takes for you to start solving at the earliest, and finish without interruptions.

2 Understand the IXL house style

Reconnoitre before you battle! Browse through the past IXL puzzles if you haven't attempted them before – those of 2014 rounds are available here for registered members. A short summary/guide from my observations:

  • The puzzles are easy – solvers who can finish The Hindu crossword should be able to glide through an IXL crossword faster.

  • Your knowledge about India – its geography, famous people, popular culture – has to be sound. Rita Faria, NIT, Irula, Dalma, Narasimha, Una are some of the references that have shown up in the IXL puzzles. 

  • If your solving experience has been with Ximenean crosswords, you'll have to cast aside a few expectations while you solve for the IXL. You can find here instances of false lowercasing, non-standard connectors and anagrinds, elisions of the "indeed" sort. Whether these devices are right or not is a topic for another discussion, but if your aim is to score well with an IXL puzzle, it's better to be open to the possibility of such "transgressions" than to find yourself unable to solve a clue.

  • Don't set so much store by house style that a sudden change upsets your balance. In the 2013 IXL finals, none of the top 10 finalists could complete the crossword in 30 minutes. With hindsight, I think part of the reason was that the online rounds had conditioned us to simpler puzzles – a moderately difficult one in a different style caught us off guard.

3 Review your answers before you submit

The most gut-wrenching – and also the most prevalent - way to lose points in the IXL is through typos. Guess why I lost rank in 2013: R5, why Kishore M is not near the top in 2014: R6? Yes – typos.

In a timed contest, it is natural to want to hit "Submit" the instant one has finished. Resist that urge. A single minute spent on post-solving review might perhaps cause rank drop, but a single error can throw you right off the leaderboard.

4 Practice solving on the computer

Many experts are used to solving with pen/pencil and paper. They whiz through the crossword when they have it in print form, but are out of their comfort zone when it comes to interactive online crosswords.

If the lines above describe you, and are you keen on the IXL, you have to roll up your sleeves now and master the basic skill of solving online. Don't let the process of finding where the letters on the keyboard are, and how to navigate through the grid, eat into your precious solving time.

Practice with the interactive solving option of other free crosswords online, such as the Hindu Business Line crossword or the Guardian cryptic.

A few other online solving tips specifically for the IXL:

  • Unlike other online solving platforms, in the IXL grid, the cursor does not move automatically to the next cell after a cell is filled. Using the arrow keys to move to the next cell can be faster than using mouse clicks.

  • Use the "Save" button judiciously. Every save-refresh cycle can take up to a few seconds: if you overuse it, you delay your submission time. If you underuse it, you risk losing much of your work if something untoward (such as a power-cut that disconnects your internet) happens. I use the "Save" button about 4-5 times during my solving session.

  • Check that the IXL grid works on more than one browser, so that you can switch to another browser in case of a technical glitch. It has happened with me in one of the IXL rounds that keystrokes did not work on Firefox, and I had to switch to Chrome to enter my solution.

5 Aim for overall score, not for top rank

The scores of each round are totalled for the overall leaderboard. Observe the stats of 2013 and also the in-progress leaderboard of 2014 - you'll find that the top rankers did not have the best ranks in every round, but they had good scores throughout the contest.

For example, the current leader Mohsin's ranks in 2014 in the first seven rounds: 2, 1, 1, 5, 3, 7, 3. So he was #1 on the leaderboard "only" about 29% of the time. Now check his overall score after seven rounds: 685, which is so solid that even if he had skipped an online round in which he ranked #1, he'd still have been among the top 10.

2013 champion Deepak Gopinath was not #1 in any online round last year (a fact he modestly reminds us of in his video message).

In the IXL, a solver who completes every round correctly in 30 minutes has a higher chance of reaching the finals than a solver who submits in 15 minutes, but with an error sometimes.

6 Deal with "iffy" clues cleverly

Once in a while in the IXL, you will be faced with this situation: a last unsolved clue seems to be plain wrong. Since a solving error in the contest has huge costs, you don't want to submit with a mistake in your entry. So you stare at the clue interminably, unsure whether the crossword has a mistake or your answers do. I guess all seasoned IXL players would have experienced this sometime or the other – hands up for LTI of Round 4! 

There is no easy way out of this dilemma, and the best solvers can trip up in this situation despite all caution. Still, here's a checklist to minimize the chance of error at your end.

  • Scrutinize all the intersecting answers, against the definition as well as wordplay. Is it possible that a checking letter you've entered needs revision? If in doubt, try answering the clue without that intersecting answer.

  • If the crossings are fine, ignore the enumeration given for the unsolved clue – take only the total length into account, assume that the answer might break up into smaller words differently. It can so happen that the setter missed changing the default single-number length provided by the crossword compiling software to multi-word length - an error that's been found in newspaper crosswords too.

    This was the problem with the clue for LTI – the length had been specified as (3) at first, and changed to (1,1,1) later. [which reminds me of a post by the Guardian crossword editor Hugh Stephenson: Has the time come to change the BBC from (1,1,1) to (3)?]

  • Abide by the Holmesian dictum: "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"

    For example, no answer fits this clue from 2014:R1 - "Channel shades (7) C_L_U_S", but COLOURS seems like the least improbable choice. It defines "shades", and one can safely deduce that the setter, while crafting a double-definition, missed the fact that the TV channel's name is spelled Colors.

    We can argue that the IXL puzzles should not have errors at all. Such a lapse is not fair to the solver - but we don't live in an ideal world, and errors can creep in despite the setter's best efforts.

  • Don't submit with the intractable clue unanswered - put in the most likely answer you can think of. The penalty for a blank cell is the same as that for a wrongly entered cell.

7 "Don't quit before you quit"

Sheryl Sandberg's words from Lean In apply well to solvers who make small mistakes in the early rounds, and give up on participating further while the contest is still in progress. A low overall rank/score midway through the contest might persuade you to think that you've lost your position irredeemably, but the fact is: you are not the only one who can make those mistakes. Others in the top 10 of the in-progress leaderboard can have out-of-form days, make typos, skip rounds due to other commitments – just like you. See the contest through till the end, keep giving it your best shot, and you never know - the tables can turn.

8 Connect with the community

Interact with other crossword solvers who are participating in the IXL, learn from their experiences. Two places to find fellow participants are The Hindu Crossword Corner blog (which is run by the IXL 2013 Champion) and the FB group IXL'14 Players.

Above all else, enjoy the contest!

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Really Well Hidden Long Answers

telescopic-clue-type-long-answers Cryptic clues with hidden answers are perhaps the trickiest for the crossword setter to disguise. Since all the letters of the answer have to be given out to the solver, in the sequence expected, the clue can end up being too easy. And so, most often, setters reserve the use of this clue type for short words as they are more convenient to conceal in the clue.

Embedding long answers in a clue is quite a feat – the fodder tends to cut across multiple words but it has to be inconspicuous, the clue surface has to be meaningful, the hidden word indicator has to be fair without letting out instantly that the solution is stashed inside the clue.

Sharing some exceptional clues using the hidden clue type, in which long answers span across multiple words of the fodder.

Times 25538: Academic rose, condemning boxing in an instant (11)

THC 11161 (Buzzer): Burst and tore as one keeping fit (5,2,6)

Times 25900: Henceforth, ATM at terminal — at the centre, indeed  (3,4,6)

Guardian 25260 (Boatman): Railhead activity leads to accident — rain mention­ed in covering letters (11)

Guardian 26158 (Paul): Nevadan died in Montana, dog buried there (6,7)

Tim Moorey's How To Master The Times Crossword quotes this as possibly the longest hidden clue ever:

Times: As seen in jab, reach of pro miserably failing to meet expectations (6,2,7)

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