Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The quick brown fox...

This is the fourth instalment in a series of posts about crossword grids. Previous entries in the series: grid symmetry, checking, connectivity.

Pangram - Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow 

The term "pangram" is generally used for a sentence that contains each letter of the English alphabet. "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is a well-known example.

In cryptic crosswords, a "pangram" is a grid that has at least one occurrence of each letter of the English alphabet.

Here's an example of a pangrammatic grid:

Pangram in crossword grid - Financial Times 12797 (Monk)    
                   Grid for Financial Times 12797 (Monk)

Pangrams and Solvability

A pangrammatic grid does not usually announce itself [1]. It's an unassuming grid property that the solver, unless alert, can easily miss noticing.

If you find a few unusual letters like Q, Z and J in the grid, it may be a hint that a pangram is on the way. This knowledge could help you fill up faster, as you'd look for the missing letters to cover the alphabet.

The strategy can easily backfire though. It's entirely possible that the grid is an X-lipogram and you've gone on a wild-goose chase looking for a missing X.

The best thing to do is to keep an eye on the letters, but not rely too much on finding a pangram.

Nita Jaggi's so-called pangrams

[1] A pangrammatic grid does not usually announce itself – Exceptions exist, such as the crossword called CODEWORD composed by Nita Jaggi in the paper DNA. This puzzle states openly that it uses each letter of the alphabet. It is another matter that even after this proclamation, many letters are regularly found missing from the grid. Look at this supposedly pangrammatic grid published in DNA on 10th September 09, which has at least a missing J and K:

DNA-CODEWORD-Nita-Jaggi

Thanks to Col. Gopinath for sharing this, as well as a rare triple pangram from the NY Times crossword – here.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Crossword Grid: Connectivity

In a standard cryptic crossword grid, there are no "islands". All the words in the grid connect with each other.

Of the two grids below, the one on the left is a connected grid, the kind you would find in a regular cryptic crossword. Pick any two white squares in the grid and you can find a way through the maze to reach one white from the other, without passing over a black.

The grid on the right is not fully connected; the top-right and bottom-left corners are cut-off from the rest of the puzzle. You'll never really encounter unconnected grids of this kind in cryptic crosswords.

Crossword Grids: Connected, Unconnected  

Degrees of Connectivity

All connected grids are not equal – some have weaker connectivity than others. If different parts of the grid are linked to each other with just one or two whites, then the connectivity is weak.

A weakly connected grid is a flawed grid.

Why is weak connectivity a flaw?

A grid with weak connectivity can create an imbalance in the way the solutions get filled in. You might have solved large parts of the crossword fully, and yet have empty patches on the grid with no checking letters for help.

The next grid illustrates this. The corners of the grid are quite independent of each other. Even when 3/4th of the puzzle is done (as shown by the yellows), you can end up with an empty top-right side - in no better situation than if you hadn't started with the puzzle at all.

Grid-Weak-Connectivity  


Compare it to the next grid with better connectivity, in which the word lengths and arrangement ensure that the grid gets filled up evenly.

 Grid-Strong-Connectivity


Connectivity vs Checking

A crossword can be well-checked but poorly connected. The grid above labelled "weak connectivity", for example, follows rules for fair checking but is not well-connected. Similarly, it is possible for a well-connected grid to be poorly checked.

A good crossword grid will have a combination of all – pleasing symmetry, fair checking, and strong connectivity.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Hindu Crossword 9639: Neyartha

The Hindu Crossword 9639 (Neyartha)

This wasn't one of Neyartha's best, I thought.

Comments on clues of THC 9639 that didn't quite work for me.

4D: Oversight surrounding lab error is subject to misconception (10) MISTAK{ABL*}E
MISTAKABLE comes from the same root as "mistake", using that in the SI is weak wordplay.

7D: *Iguazu aristocrats in hiding (5) ZUARI [T]
This is one of the starred clues without definition. ZUARI is "in hiding" within "Iguazu aristocrats", all right - but that's not what the clue is saying.

19D: The Eskimo is tentative about concealing a sponge (7) MOISTEN [T]
"moisten" is a verb, but "a sponge" can only be a noun. The "a" might improve the surface but it spoils the wordplay.

1A: Mint for the auditor bound by a deadline (4,5) TIME{~thyme} LIMIT
"by" is not fair as connector, it's obtrusive to solving.

15A: Flowers of sulphur behind the cave shrine's internal switch (9) AMAR{A <-> N}TH S
The surface doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker

Question: Who is the most underappreciated member of the crossword design team?
Answer: The crossword inker.

If you haven't heard about crossword inking before, then you must watch this brilliant video in which Garson Hampfield, crossword inker, expounds on the intricacies of this esoteric art. (Run time: 6.45mins)  



Update: In case you’re wondering, this is meant to be a parody, with a lot of fake details. Please view it in that spirit!

Ashok, a big thank you for pointing this video out to me. I've seen it thrice and found new gems each time.

Crossword setters – what do you say? ;)

Interviews with Michael A. Charles, the creator of this video – here and here.

Update 2: Tony, crossword constructor who prefers making grids on the computer to employing a human "Box Team", points out that Chad Bumfry's framed masterpiece doesn't have its checking right! See the grid for yourself:

Grid Inked By Chad Bumfry

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Crossword Grid: Checking

Top-Left Corner Of Crossword Grid In a crossword, the more words you fill in, the more help you have for answering the remaining words. This is possible because of the grid's property of "checking", i.e. the interlocking of letters between the ACROSS and DOWN clues.

Take for example, the adjacent image of the top-left corner of a typical grid. Suppose you begin at 1A and cannot answer the clue: It might bring colour to one's face (8). You move on to attempt the crossing Downs. Each intersecting clue answered in the Down direction contributes a letter for 1A. With three Down clues answered, you have a much easier task, of finding a word that looks like L?P?T???. You also have the pattern N?E? for 12A in place, though you have not yet seen the clue.

The odd letters of 1A/12A are called checked letters (i.e. letters shared with words in the opposite direction). The even letters of 1A/12A are unchecked letters or unches (i.e. letters not shared with any other word).

Rules For Checking

The amount of checking in the crossword grid influences the solvability of the puzzle. Quick crossword grids have 100% checking, so some answers reveal themselves even before their clues have been attempted by the solver. Cryptic crossword grids have a different set of principles for checking. There are minor variations between publications but on the whole the rules are fairly universal.

  • No more than two unchecked letters in a row

  • Roughly half the letters checked in every word. In an 8-letter word, at least 4 letters will be checked. Where the word length is odd, some publications might round down the number of checking letters to just below half; those with stricter standards of fairness like The Times and Gridman's grids in The Hindu round it up. This means that in a 7-letter word, at least surely 3 will be checked.

  • If two unches occur together, the Times grid has an additional rule that they will not be the first two or last two letters of the word.

Long DOWNs, Anyone?

As The Hindu Crossword regulars will be aware, M.Manna has seven crosswords in a row in the paper. Notice this grid that appears during his cycle (e.g. THC 9603, THC 9541):

M Manna's Grid With Unfair Checking!  

Chances are, you find yourself getting stuck at 8D/10D with puzzles based on the grid. Remember SKETCHY MEAL? GREEN KEEPER?

This grid has three unchecked letters in a row, breaking the first rule of fair checking. I know of no other daily crossword that would consider this grid publishable.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Seth Godin Defines Enormity

enormity-versus-enormous A short break from the series about crossword grids. I happened to read something on Seth Godin's blog that made my crossword antenna go beep.

I've mentioned Seth Godin before, he's a powerful author/speaker and writes one of the most widely-read blogs in the world. In a recent blog post, he talks about the human tendency to get drawn towards small, fixable issues than huge ones. His ideas, as always, are very well-expressed (read the piece here) – but for one issue.

He opens with the lines:

Enormity doesn't mean really enormous. It means incredibly horrible.

Does enormity really mean "incredibly horrible"? Not in my lexicon. I mentioned to a fellow Seth Godin admirer that enormity is not "incredibly horrible", it is "the quality of being incredibly horrible". He said "Yeah yeah, same thing".

Fellow Seth Godin admirer is not a cryptic crossword solver.

Enormity is a noun, but "incredibly horrible" can only stand for an adjective. For a crossword enthusiast, the difference between the two is enormous.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

ABC Of The Crossword Grid

crossword-grid In my initial years of solving cryptic crosswords, I concentrated entirely on the clues and did not even notice the grid. I vaguely figured that the quick crossword grid in the evening paper had a higher white:black ratio than the cryptic grid, but thought no more about it.

One day I chanced upon a freeform crossword in a magazine. The grid was awkward, unsightly. It struck me then that the crosswords I solve look way better than that.

As a "wiser" solver today, I respect the grid much more. Coming up is a series of posts, starting with this one, about different properties of the cryptic crossword grid, good and bad attributes, and ways in which setters do clever stuff with the grid.

The most visible grid property first – its appearance. If you're unfamiliar with grid terminology (checking? unches? blocked grid?) read through this to start with: Link.

Shape And Size

A typical cryptic crossword grid is square, and 15 x 15 in size. Grids used by The Hindu, Economic Times and most daily publications from UK fit that description. There could be different-sized grids too - the New Indian Express crossword is a smaller 13 x 13, while the Times Jumbo as large as 23 x 23. Smaller grids tend to be used for easier puzzles (I'm not sure why!).

The standard cryptic grid is a blocked grid – that is, within the grid there is a pattern of black-and-white squares. Each square is called a cell. Series of white squares into which answers are entered are called lights; the black squares are called darks, blacks, or blocks.

Rotational Symmetry

All mainstream crossword grids have 180° rotational symmetry, also called two-way symmetry or half-turn symmetry. This means that when the grid is turned upside down, the black squares and white squares are in the same locations. Some grids also have 90° symmetry, which is four-way symmetry or quarter-turn symmetry.

The rotational symmetry doesn't affect the solving in any way, just adds to visual appeal (except if you have a Poirot-esque obsession with order then it will help by not distracting you from the solving). It does help the setter in keeping other aspects of the grid consistent across the puzzle.

Black Space Distribution

Good cryptic crossword grids have balanced spread of dark vs lights. There will be no huge black shapes or clusters of white within the grid.

This does impact solving in a way. More on this in the coming posts.

See It For Yourself!

freeform-crossword-grid Freeform Grid

        - No internal symmetry
        - Big black shapes
american-crossword-grid American (Quick) Crossword Grid

        - Square, 15 x 15 
        - Half-turn rotational symmetry 
        - Higher white:black ratio
        - Clusters of white
guardian-24648-rufus-grid Cryptic Crossword Grid

        - Square, 15 x 15
        - Half-turn rotational symmetry 
        - Lower white:black ratio 
        - No clusters of white or black

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose (8)

Sandy Balfour's Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose (8) Sandy Balfour writes in his book "Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose (8)":

A setter can only set the clue. It takes the solver to complete its meanings, and the meanings are different for each of us. The clue itself will have only one answer, but the associations that each solver can bring to that answer are as many and varied as there are solvers.

Most writings about crosswords look at the game from a standpoint of logic. "Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose (8)" stands apart for its philosophical, almost poetic view of cryptic crosswords.

The book isn't absolutely about crosswords. It is about Balfour's life, his relationships, his travels across the world, his sense of exile. He picks up the skill of solving cryptic crosswords along the way, and finds his experiences resonate through clues. Sometimes they reflect the turmoil he is going through, sometimes they trigger memories, sometimes deliver profound lessons.

The story of his life enmeshes with anecdotes about crosswords, and it's creditable that the dual narrative flows without seeming bumpy or forced.

I can see the low blue shapes of the Swartberg mountain range. It seems to me that all there is between us is distance. It is very familiar. I have been here before. I have travelled both ways along this road.

What happens in a reversal is this. Somewhere in the clue there will be an indicator…

Spread across the story are remarkable cryptic clues, some of which have acquired cult status of sorts today. A feeler:

        The real reason for the meeting of Volkswagen and Daimler (6, 6)
        Archer triumphant as storyteller (11)

You also get to know a bit about crossword setters from the UK, such as the very well-organized catalogue of clues maintained by Rufus, or Pasquale's not-too-high opinion of Araucaria's clueing technique. Conversations with setters are most entertaining, like one in a pub in which Paul and Enigmatist talk in puns.

A very unusual, beautifully written book. For crossword regulars it is one to keep.

Check out Sandy Balfour's website and the book reviews on Amazon.

A Nitpick

Sandy Balfour says:

In this respect I am a good traveller. I can discuss baseball with Americans in much the same way as I can discuss kabadi with the citizens of Bangalore, or cricket with the Australians.

Unfortunately, bringing up kabadi in a conversation with the citizens of Bangalore will only draw blank stares. To bond with people of this city, choose the same sport that you would with the Australians. Talk cricket.

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