Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My Interview!

Shuchi Interview

Colonel Gopinath and readers of his blog The Hindu Crossword Corner, conducted this interview of sorts with me.

Thank you Colonel, and all of you who asked me the questions. It gave me a chance for self-introspection and was good fun.

I really enjoyed participating, and I hope you enjoy reading:

A tête-à-tête with Shuchismita Upadhyay (Shuchi)

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Answers to Quiz: What's unXimenean about it?

spot-non-ximenean-elements Three days ago, we had a "quiz" in which six unXimenean clues were put before us for scrutiny.

Thanks to all who wrote about them, it was enlightening to hear different well-thought out perspectives.

This post announces the answers. Well not exactly answers (there may not be a single correct way of looking at it) - a summary of the responses, my understanding of the Ximenean stance on the subject and my own views.

(To read the readers' responses in full, visit the comments section on Quiz: What's unXimenean about it?)

The Clues & Feedback/Analysis

1. Guardian 24902 (Bronxie): One who thinks about fluid (5) MUSER
    Anagram of SERUM (fluid), with "about" as anagrind.

There were comments from you about the indirect anagram, and the validity and placement of 'about' as anagrind.

My take: I have no quarrel with 'about' as anagrind. 'about' also means 'in motion' (e.g. She was up and about at six), which is a good enough indication for anagrams in my book. I agree that 'about' works better after the fodder.

Maddy does not mind the indirect anagram (as he has said in the past too) and Ramna makes a suggestion for indicating SERUM more strongly in the clue.

I think indirect anagrams should be considered only when the clue is very easy and there is some very persuasive reason for using it. I don't think this clue has such a clever idea going that it absolutely could not do without the indirect anagram.

I'm not sure if Ximenes made any mention of the de/merits of 'about' as anagrind, but he did strongly censure indirect anagrams. The example he quoted - Tough form of monster (5) HARDY (anagram of HYDRA) – is often cited in discussions about the unfairness of this device.

2. Independent 7215 (Radian): Derringer's exploits? (6) PISTOL 
    Anagram of PLOITS. PISTOL is ex-PLOITS.

There were objections to equating exploits with ex-ploits. Most of you aren't keen on 'ex-' as anagrind either.

When this clue appeared in the paper, it had strongly polarized opinions. One commenter "admired his [Radian's] courage", Quixote (Don Manley) called the clue "absolute completely unjustifiable rubbish". The Indy editor Eimi himself stepped in and said:

I didn’t particularly like the clue to PISTOL and advised Radian that it would upset the Ximeneans, as, indeed, it has, but he was happy to stand by it and, as I have explained previously, I’m an enlightened despot.

You can read all the comments here.

My take: If I listen to the logical side of my brain, I will have to say the clue is not good at all. Usages like figurehead=F, pigtail=G, indeed = in DE{..}ED are not grammatically correct, which is what Ximeneans object to. Many Libertarian setters don't follow this rule strictly though, and Alberich who sets for FT and is largely Ximenean seems relaxed about this as well (link).

I really like the idea of using ex- as anagrind. 'ex-' can mean 'used to be', which is a novel way of indicating an anagram. It seems convincing enough to me.

If I were crossword editor, would I have let this clue be published? I'm almost embarrassed to say this, but the answer is Yes.

financial-times-13290-gozo

On a related note, look at the adjacent clue #20 from FT 13290 (Gozo), which cleverly works around the grammatical problem of using 'rainstorm' to indicate (RAIN)*.

The clue splits over two lines. The hyphen in 'rainstorm' makes you think it's because the word is too long, when actually it serves the purpose of deliberately spelling it as 'rain-storm'.


3. Guardian 24070 (Rufus): Madly devouring without end, showing gusto (6) VIGOUR
     Anagram of (DEVOURING – END), with "madly" as anagrind.

As rightly pointed out in the comments, the Ximenean rule is that the letters to be deleted from the anagram fodder must be in the same order as in the anagram fodder. That's not the case with this clue.

My take: I learnt of this rule about anagrams only a few months on Anax's clue-writing forum. Many publications don't follow this; Times does. To me, it seems not such a necessary condition. If I read the anagram fodder and deletion segment as set and not a sequence of letters, then the clue works well enough.

4. Sunday Times 4356: Secured, however noted error (8) BUTTONED
    BUT (however) + (NOTED)*, with "error" as anagrind.

Nounal anagrinds are not OK by Ximenean rules, unless they occur in the form 'error in noted = (NOTED)*'. I like how dram says "‘incorrectly’ would work, and does not deteriorate the surface much because it is pretty poor already."

My take: I am with Ximenes at least on this particular clue, although "[fodder] organization" seems all right to me. Note that this clue is from the Sunday Times which has different setters/editors from the weekday Times; the clueing in Sunday Times is looser than in the weekday Times.

The Times weekday crossword, too, sometimes allows nounal anagrinds.

5. THC 9566 (Gridman): Engine parts from crate burst or fell apart (12) CARBURETTORS
   (CRATE BURST OR)*, with "fell apart" as anagrind.

This clue seemed to raise the least objections. Commenters are generally happy with the indicator, definition and the rest.

My take: I think that for the grammar to work correctly, the anagrind in this clue needs the participle form and not the simple past form. "Engine parts from crate burst or fallen apart (12)" [Past participle] or, as Vinod suggests, "Engine parts from crate burst or falling apart (12)" [Present participle] are the better variants grammatically. As it stands, the connector "from" does not blend with the wordplay, which it must by Ximenean standards.

(If the words are moved around, then "Crate burst or fell apart to give engine parts (12)" also looks all right to me in wordplay though the surface gets spoilt.)

For further reading: An article on Crossword Unclued which talks of the grammar of anagram indicators, by US-based crossword setter Tony Le.

6. THC 9546 (Neyartha): Half-witted doctor declines aid from the vocal bishop’s neighbour (7,5) TWELFTH NIGHT
    Anagram of (HALFWITTED – AID) with "doctor" as anagrind.
    NIGHT is a homophone of KNIGHT, which is bishop's neighbour in chess. 
   (Ignore the missing definition – this clue was part of a themed puzzle, in which answers were Shakespeare's plays.)

…and this clue raised the most objections!

To quote Vinod's detailed comment:

Whoa! This would certainly have made Ximenes turn in his grave. In this case, it's not even a nounal anagrind. It's a verbal anagrind that occurs after the anagram-fodder! If "doctor" is intended as an imperative verb, i.e. as an advice to the solver, then it should precede the fodder. If it's to follow the fodder, it should be "doctored". The subtraction is Ximenean, since the letters are in order.

"from" is inappropriate as a concatenation connector. Because of "from", it's unclear whether "aid" is to be removed from "the vocal bishop’s neighbour" or from "Half-witted doctor". "vocal bishop" only just manages to convey the homophone, but "the vocal" completely obscures even that.

Yes, there are too many things going on in the clue - first the solver has to come up with "bishop's neighbour=knight", then get the homophone of "knight", then somehow magically ignore "from" (how would the solver know when to ignore/include it?)

My take: Agree with the above mostly, but I'm with maddy in liking bishop's neighbour = KNIGHT.

Closing Thoughts

With Ximenean standards, as with religious texts, it is possible that followers sometimes take a narrow or rigid interpretation of the teachings that might not have been the original intent of the text. Who knows, some of the clues we tear apart for being unXimenean might have been accepted more leniently by Ximenes himself.

I work closely with quality control in the IT industry, and I find that no matter how robust our body of standards are, they will never cater to every possible scenario, and there will be some cases where it makes better sense to bypass the standard. I think that's true not just in IT but anywhere.

Your thoughts? How closely aligned are your own crossword sensibilities with those of Ximenes/Ximeneans?

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quiz: What's unXimenean About It?

spot-non-ximenean-elements As a follow-up to previous posts about Ximenes and Ximenean vs. Libertarian approaches to clueing, here is a little quiz for you.

A list of anagram clues, with their annotated solutions, is given below.

Each clue has some element that will make Ximeneans (i.e. crossword setters/enthusiasts who uphold the standards laid down by Ximenes)  frown.

Your task is to

  • Say what is unXimenean about the clue.
  • Say whether you like the clue or not.

Put your thinking caps on and have your say. Comments will be held unpublished till Friday 22nd Jan 2010, so that those who visit late also get a fair chance to try.

1. Guardian 24902 (Bronxie): One who thinks about fluid (5) MUSER
    Anagram of SERUM (fluid), with "about" as anagrind.

2. Independent 7215 (Radian): Derringer's exploits? (6) PISTOL 
    Anagram of PLOITS. PISTOL is ex-PLOITS.

3. Guardian 24070 (Rufus): Madly devouring without end, showing gusto (6) VIGOUR
     Anagram of (DEVOURING – END), with "madly" as anagrind.

4. Sunday Times 4356: Secured, however noted error (8) BUTTONED
    BUT (however) + (NOTED)*, with "error" as anagrind.

5. THC 9566 (Gridman): Engine parts from crate burst or fell apart (12) CARBURETTORS
   (CRATE BURST OR)*, with "fell apart" as anagrind.

6. THC 9546 (Neyartha): Half-witted doctor declines aid from the vocal bishop’s neighbour (7,5) TWELFTH NIGHT
    Anagram of (HALFWITTED – AID) with "doctor" as anagrind.
    NIGHT is a homophone of KNIGHT, which is bishop's neighbour in chess. 
   (Ignore the missing definition – this clue was part of a themed puzzle, in which answers were Shakespeare's plays. 
    That's not the error here. Thanks to Ramna for pointing this out.)

Bring on those comments!

Update: Answers to quiz: What's unXimenean About It?

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Of Ximeneans and Libertarians

Chaturvasi commented on The Hindu Crossword Hub, about the Everyman crossword:

One of the original composers of this crossword is Ximenes, who framed some strict conventions for the crossword.

Those who still follow them are known as Ximeneans. Those who don't follow them are libertarians.
(Who can say who among THC setters belong to which school?)

It is hardly such a black-and-white classification, I think. Many setters are Ximenean in varying degrees, and have good reasons why they differ from Ximenes at a few places. Setters who are tagged "Libertarian" can be fair and logical in their own way, which is what Ximenes essentially advocated. Libertarians, too, follow many of Ximenes' principles, if not all of them.

Not every non-Ximenean setter is Libertarian by default. He/she may simply be sloppy. There is a difference between deviating from a Ximenean rule because you're convinced that the rule is flawed or not applicable for your clue, and deviating because you cannot think of a better clue.

No proper setter - Ximenean or Libertarian - will write a clue in which the definition and the answer do not agree in part of speech, or in which "the French" passes off for any French word (THC solvers will know what I'm talking about!).

This calls for a Venn diagram representation.

The picture on the left is not a realistic way of looking at the two camps. Ximenean and Libertarian styles are not wholly disjoint. The diagram on the right is closer to how the styles of setting interrelate: there is overlap, and it shows that the translation Ximenean vs Libertarian=good vs bad may not be true.

Ximenean vs. Libertarian: Venn Diagram

Hindu Crossword Setters: Ximenean or not?

Which brings us to the original question, about which school THC setters belong to.

My thoughts:

Out of Gridman, Neyartha and Sankalak, Sankalak is closest to being purely Ximenean. (I was about to quote a few of his clues that are exceptions, but then decided to set them as an exercise for readers in a follow-up post.)

Over-cautious Ximenean setters can get predictable sometimes. I guess that's true of Sankalak. His clues are technically sound but can be too easy for experienced solvers.

Gridman experiments outside the boundaries of Ximenean-ness, without straying too far. He isn't strictly Ximenean but is fair, and generally has something unexpected to offer the solvers.

Neyartha often crosses the thin line between clever and unfair. Not very Ximenean!

In Closing

Enthusiasts like to analyse styles and place setters into Libertarian and Ximenean camps, but what matters to the normal solver is whether the crossword has been entertaining and fair. Whether that happens by following standards set by Ximenes or anyone else isn't so important. 

What do you think?

Coming soon: List of clues by a variety of setters. You have to tell what's unXimenean about them.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Themed Crossword Variations

As the outcome of the Neyartha vocabulary poll suggests, many of us are not too happy with Neyartha's themed puzzles in The Hindu Crossword.

themed-crossword

To summarize our objections:

  • the themes are dry, academic, lack humour
  • the answers are obscure words, unlikely to be known to those who have no interest in those specialized areas. Since the wordplay is complex too, the crossword requires heavy use of external aids for solving.
  • the entire set of answers is easily obtained with one Google search, after which the game is over – it's just a matter of matching the words with the grid.

I have some suggestions that would retain the concept of thematic grids but also keep non-scholarly solvers entertained. Here goes.

Unstated Themes

Neyartha does unstated themes even now but that's hardly a change from the starred clues without definition style, because the definitions are the same in all clues, like "dance" (THC 9515) or "a pattern in the sky" (THC 9733). The theme is obvious even before we start solving.

How much more enjoyable the crossword will be if the theme unfolds slowly as the grid fills up. This can happen if the commonality depends on the answers and not their definitions.

If we find words in the grid like CACAPHONY, VITAL STATISTICS, IMPEDIMENT, GET A FIX, we'd exclaim - "Hold on, these are words on which names of Asterix characters are based." Knowing the theme might help to fill up the slots for OBELISK and FULLY AUTOMATIC, but we'll need to solve some before that can happen.

Open-Ended Themes

Themes in which all the answers aren't from a fixed, definite set and cannot be looked up at one place on the internet.

The setter can challenge the solver to think of related words in various, unexpected directions. A list like WAVE, RAPUNZEL, SHOCK TREATMENT, HAIR-SPLITTING, SPRAY, CHAETOPHOBIA, FRINGE are all linked to the theme 'HAIR', but it's not a list you'll find on a single Wikipedia page.

Subtle Themes

Themes can be made difficult to discover, and will provide a lot of satisfaction to solvers who do work them out.

For example, words like GENTLEMAN, INDIAN, JEANS, BOYS, STRANGER, ROBOT have no obvious link, but the Tamil movie buff will see that they're names, or translations of names, of movies directed by S. Shankar.

===

In all the above examples, solving does not suffer if the theme is undiscovered, and gives a thrill when it is.

I'll be happy to see The Hindu Crossword do something like this for a change.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Poll Result: Should Neyartha use fewer “GK words”?

Thanks to all who voted and spread the word about the poll: Should Neyartha use fewer "GK words" in The Hindu Crossword grid?

For those who came in late, this poll was set up on 7th Jan 2010 for Hindu Crossword solvers to say what they think of compiler Neyartha's use of scholarly themes and obscure words.

It's now time to declare the much-awaited result.

Result Announcement

A total of 90 votes were cast. The findings:

neyartha-hindu-crossword-vocabulary-poll-result  

  • 80% want Neyartha to use more accessible words
  • 18% do not mind the specialist trivia, but want fair clues
  • 2% are happy with status quo

neyartha-vocabulary-poll-result-2

View the poll result online here.

This may or may not be an accurate representation of the opinion of all The Hindu Crossword solvers, but like all such studies, we extrapolate the results from a subsection to reach an estimate.

What Next?

Neyartha has responded on the blog in the past (link: THC 9639), and comes across as a compiler who cares about solvers' feedback, so I hope he reads this and takes our views into consideration.

Neyartha clearly has a flair for themed grid fills; it'd be great if he would choose themes more entertaining to the ordinary solver. A detailed post tomorrow with further thoughts on crossword themes.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Poll: Should Neyartha use fewer “GK words”?

The Hindu Crossword solvers are all too familiar with Neyartha's heavy use of specialist vocabulary. Yesterday's puzzle (THC 9733) had so many obscure words that I didn't even have enough crossings for guesswork.

If a crossword themed on patterns in the sky appeared in a magazine on astronomy, I wouldn't object. But is this crossword really appropriate for a general newspaper, that many of us (like me) do on our commute without access to any internet-enabled device?

I'd like to know how many of us feel the same way. Maybe if a majority says one thing, Neyartha might listen!

Answer this poll. Please spread the word to other Hindu crossword solvers. Entries close on Monday 11th Jan 2010, 10AM IST. Results that evening.

Only one vote per person, please! Duplicate votes can be tracked and will be deleted.

Update: Poll result announced.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What are Ximenean clues?

A few years ago, I came across the word 'Ximenean' in an esoteric discussion on a crossword forum. A clue was being scoffed at for being devoid of this quality. Having never read a book about cryptics or known anyone who could explain that, I was awestruck. (There is something about the word 'Ximenean' that has that effect.) A frantic search online followed, which led to my introduction to the art and precision that lies behind cryptic crosswords.

If this is the first time you're hearing the word 'Ximenean', I hope to make the experience less nerve-racking for you :) Read on…

Origin of the word 'Ximenean'

The word comes from 'Ximenes', the pseudonym of compiler Derrick Somerset Macnutt who set crosswords for The Observer from 1939 until his death in 1971.

Ximenes is regarded the finest compiler ever, and is often called the "father of the modern cryptic crossword".

Ximenes' repute is not just for his puzzles, but for the standards he laid down for creating good crosswords. His principles of crossword composition were gradually recognized and adopted as a kind of model for setting by other daily puzzles too.

So when people say that a clue, crossword grid or setter is Ximenean, they mean that the clue/grid/setter abides by the standards set by Ximenes. Likewise, an unXimenean (or non-Ximenean) clue/grid is one that violates Ximenes' principles.

An overview of Ximenean principles

The essence of Ximenes' canons is to be fair to the solver at all times. His guidelines cover various aspects of crossword design – from making and populating the grid, to writing scrupulously fair clues.

Some of the important clue-writing standards are:

  • Appropriate indicators for all clue types
  • No indirect anagrams
  • No misleading connectors or punctuation
  • Unambiguous, unique answer to every clue

For a full understanding of Ximenean standards, I'll refer you directly to the master himself. Read:

Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword, D S MacnuttThe Book: Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword 

This 1966 book - Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (reissued 2001) – is Ximenes' comprehensive work about cryptic crosswords. The book is a must-read for any crossword enthusiast, with information of interest to solvers and setters alike.

Look here for an excerpt from the book, and reader reviews.

(Residents of India - beg, borrow, steal from friends overseas - the book is not available in the country. If you find any online bookstore that delivers to an Indian address, please leave a comment about it on this post.)

For Further Reading

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Friday, January 1, 2010

THC 9729 Has A Hidden Message!

The Hindu Crossword 9729 appeared in the paper today with the by-line of Gridman, out of turn as M.Manna's sequence of 7 grids is not yet over.

The Hindu doesn't generally shuffle its setter sequence, so this was curious. More so because the grid did not look like Gridman's at all. It isn't one of his standard grids, and it isn't a particularly pretty grid either. Black patches at the top-right/bottom-left? Two consecutive unches at the start of words? What's happened to Gridman, was my first reaction.

With the puzzle solved, all of it made sense. It's a special puzzle, with a message encoded in the grid. Did you see it while solving? If not, do you see it now?

The filled-in grid is below. A few hours later, I'll replace it with another that highlights the message. Look for the message meanwhile, and leave a comment about it. Update: Grid replaced!
hindu-crossword-9729-gridman-nina 
Hidden Message Deciphered

The perimeter spells out, starting from the bottom-right in clockwise direction:

WISH YOU A HAPPY NEW YEAR

Congrats to Ganesh, sriks7, Bhavan, Col Gopinath, Musical Scientist, raghunath – you got it right!

To accommodate the message around the entire perimeter, perhaps, Gridman chose a grid with unusually high blacks/unches. A better option might have been to hide in a longer message to avoid blacks in the perimeter. Or to put the message in other parts of the grid, such as the circle spanning the 2nd row-column. The special grid would have also retained its fairness/aesthetic value that way.

Of course, the clues are uniformly sound so the grid does not cause difficulty in solving.

A secret message of this kind is called a Nina, which I wrote about a couple of months ago over here: What is a Nina? 

This was a treat, a promising cruciverbal beginning to the New Year 2010. Thank you, The Hindu and Gridman, for giving us solvers an unexpected New Year gift.

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