Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Other Side Of Sinister


A lesser known meaning of SINISTER comes from Latin. The word means "left" or "on the left side".

This is the meaning cryptic crossword setters like to use, while goading you to think of "evil" on the clue's surface.


Guardian 24685 (Chifonie): Snooker player protects sinister conspirator (7) PLOTTER
POTTER (snooker player) around L (short for left i.e. sinister)

One for you to solve:

Times 24652: Abandoned woman's caught with sinister person (4-6)

The opposite of SINISTER – i.e. the word for "right" or "on the right side" - is DEXTER.

Other than cryptic crosswords, terms in heraldry have preserved these meanings of SINISTER and DEXTER. The side of an escutcheon or coat of arms that is to the left of the bearer is called sinister, the side to the right of the bearer is called dexter.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Unriddle The Self-Referencing Setter

me-myself-i-crossword-setter Psychologists say that the tendency to refer to oneself in the third person is a sign of narcissism. As a cryptic crossword solver, you are advised not to reach such a conclusion about the setter who does this in a clue. By making a self-reference, the setter usually just wants to tell you that the corresponding first person pronoun (I, ME, etc.) occurs in the answer.

Here are a few examples:

Guardian 24805 (Boatman): Boatman's got involved in fighting for release (6) WAIVER
I'VE (Boatman has) in WAR (fighting)

THC 9876 (Gridman): Old record is used in Gridman's article to develop stories (11) MYTHOLOGISE
O (old) LOG (record), in MY (Gridman's) THE (article)

FT 13260 (Neo): Neo has no clue for this one! (2,5,2) IT BEATS ME
Cryptic definition, where Neo means ME.

Sometimes the setter will not put in his/her name in the clue but only call oneself "setter", "this writer" or "this person". In anonymously-set puzzles like the Times, this is of course the only way to make a self-reference.

Times 24314: Demure Italian this writer's seen as simple (9) PRIMITIVE
PRIM (demure) IT (Italian) I'VE (this writer's)

Guardian 25067 (Araucaria):  Female crossword setter's language (5) HINDI
HIND (female of the red deer) + I (Araucaria, crossword setter)

FT 13493 (Bradman): Prized English horse enthrals this writer (8) ESTEEMED
E (English) STEED (horse) around ME (this writer)

Once we know this trick, we are tempted to quickly replace the setter's name in the clue with I, ME or similar words. This is when the resourceful setter plays the double bluff.

Look at the next two clues, in which the setter's name is not a self-reference.

Guardian 25051 (Boatman): Sun in shock report! Boatman follows it (7) DAYSTAR
DAYS homophone of 'daze' (shock) TAR (boatman). 'Boatman' is not the setter but one who rides a boat.

Guardian (Paul): Paul's stage opening — there's my cue! (5) SIMON
S[tage] + I'M ON (as an actor might say when hearing his cue). 'Paul' is not the setter but Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel.

Setters occasionally extend the referencing to other setters, especially on the Guardian.

Guardian 24205 (Gordius): Setter or weaver 18down can hear (7) ARACHNE
18down was MODIFY, anagram indicator for (CAN HEAR). ARACHNE is another setter on the Guardian.

Guardian 24805 (Boatman): Another setter holding first in Classics (you'll say that's the plan) (8) SCHEDULE
SHED (another setter on the Guardian) around C[lassics], ULE (sounds like you’ll)

Solving Tips

  • When you see the setter mentioning his/her own self in a clue, check if the corresponding first person pronoun (I, ME, MY, etc.) fits into the answer.
  • How the setter's handle gets used in the clue depends a lot on what the handle is. If it is something like Phssthopk (a setter on FT!), you can be fairly certain it will lead to the first person pronoun. Pseudonyms like Shed or Neo give the setter more opportunities to trip you up; keep yourself open to other possibilities in such cases.
  • The word "setter" in a clue might not be about the crossword compiler, it might instead lead to DOG or a word for "something that sets", like GEL.
  • If you're a Guardian crossword solver, you'll find Boatman and Paul making self-references quite frequently in unusual ways. It is Boatman's signature style to put "Boatman" in every puzzle at least once.

Solve These

THC (Gridman): The setter is back in act: There's something for you to try! (4)
Guardian 25121 (Boatman): Home in north Italy? Sad if Boatman's after it (5)
Guardian 24508 (Boatman): Boatman's craft is tip-top! A groan-up joke first! (4) P___
Guardian 25109 (Puck): Crude, Puck? Not at first, with well-connected people (6) O____N

(Update) Answers here.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Failures In Solving Crosswords: A Statistical Study

hindu-crossword-9564-incomplete Some days we complete the crossword, some days we do not. Is there a pattern to how frequently we are unable to fill the whole grid, and how many clues are left unsolved?

Based on ten patient years of crossword "failure" data collection and analysis, retired cosmic-ray physicist and astronomer S. Naranan suggests there is. His analysis reveals a surprising statistical regularity in crossword failures (i.e. unsolved clues) - the occurrence of failures follows the Negative Binomial Distribution (NBD), the same distribution used by the car insurance industry to predict the probability of accidents, or by marketing teams to forecast purchase patterns for a product.

Dr. Naranan's research paper has been published in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics (published by Routledge) and is available online to subscribers. The abstract is available free.

The Model's Universality

When I heard about Dr. Naranan's research, a couple of questions came to mind:

  1. Since cryptic crosswords are of widely different complexity and styles, is it possible for a generic model to apply to all crosswords? This analysis is based on crosswords of The Hindu and The Times Of India. Will the result not change if we consider, say, The Guardian or The Times (UK)?
  2. The study relies on one solver's data only – Dr. Naranan's. Even if his data of unsolved clues fits the NBD curve, is it reasonable to suppose that this will be so for every solver?

Both questions are addressed in the article.

Puzzle Variations

The article first explores the Poisson Distribution (PD) which is based on Bernoulli trials – this fits the scenario of large sample size of data (n), independent nature of trials with only two possible outcomes (success or failure), and low probability of failure (u). It then goes on to say:

It is clear that PD is inadequate for our data because […] the probability of failure u is not the same for all puzzles because of their in-built diversity, e.g. different composers, styles of cluing, deliberate introduction of variation in the complexity of a puzzle. Such variability is reflected in the real world of crossword puzzles and the observed data will include a mixture of numerous PD’s with different characteristic parameters (say λ1, λ2, λ3, λ4, . . . ).

(JQL, 2010,  Vol 17, Number 3, p197-198)

The Poisson distribution depends on one parameter only (λ), and it is interpreted as the average number of errors. Because of the variation in λ due to diversity in crosswords, a generalization of PD is needed. This leads to a "mixture" distribution, which is the Negative Binomial Distribution. NBD depends on two parameters (p,k).

What are p and k? They are parameters that quantify the gap between the setter and solver. These parameters are related to the average and standard deviation of the distribution of failures.

In mathematical terms, if the average is m and the standard deviation is s, then p is (m/s*s), the ratio of average to variance and k = mp/(1-p). Another way to look at p and k: The number of puzzles with no errors is p^k. The ratio of puzzles with errors x = 1 and x = 0 is k (1-p).

This means if a solver tells how many of his puzzles have x = 0 (no errors) and how many have x = 1 (one error) from a known sample of puzzles, this model can predict the entire distribution, i.e. how many will have 2, 3, 4, etc. number of errors.

Solver Skill Variations

NBD can effectively model the (p,k) for solvers with different solving expertise.

According to the model described, the complexity of crossword puzzles and their variability will depend both on the solver and the composer(s). There is no reason to suppose the NBD will not apply universally to all crossword puzzles and solvers. So, for each solver of crossword puzzles, one can expect NBD to apply, each with a characteristic pair of parameters (p, k) that quantifies the gap between the skills of the composer and solver. For the author (p, k) = (0.455,0.869).

(JQL, 2010,  Vol 17, Number 3, pp 200)

The perfect solver, who never makes an error in the puzzle, has x = 0 always. So Prob (x = 0) = 1 and Prob (x) = 0 for all other x. For such a solver, p = 1 and k = anything.

Theory Of Proportional Effect

The paper also examines the multiplicative effect of missed answers in the grid. The first failure (x = 1) happens at a random position in the grid, but it increases the chance of the second failure (x = 2) occurring at an intersecting location. This could be represented by a 3-parameter lognormal distribution LND2, says Dr. Naranan, though he calls this model "semi-quantitative at best". He observes that his data fits both the NBD and LND2 models but adds that the correspondence of NBD and LND2 may not hold for other solvers and/or puzzles.

Extending The Study

Dr. Naranan wishes to extend his work to an organized group of solvers who tackle many puzzles. This will not only generate a large sample size crucial for statistical analysis of data with long tails, but also confirm the robustness of the NBD model for crossword-solving errors. The study indicates that NBD can accommodate variations in solver habits and composer vagaries, and a group project of recording count of errors per puzzle can confirm the findings.

In Closing

The study is significant in understanding the nature of crossword solving. To me the most fascinating part of the research is its suggestion that crossword solving, a game of pure skill and not chance, has the same pattern of randomness as accidents.

If you are interested in reading the paper, it is available to subscribers of JQL here:

.           Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, 17 (3), 191-211.
            S. Naranan.  (2010).  A Statistical Study of Failures in Solving Crossword Puzzles

The author's manuscript is also available on his website here.

Thanks a lot to Dr. Naranan for answering my back-and-forth questions with immense patience. He had said to me at first: “If you have background in undergrad maths, the maths should be quite easy.” It turned out that my rusty recollection of undergrad maths was inadequate and I needed all his detailed explanations to make some sense of his work. Thank you!

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Clue Challenge: Annotate These Answers!

annotate-clues The clues below are from my weekly blog at fifteensquared, in which my parsing was off the mark and had to be set right by the commenters (the brilliant Gaufrid, most often).

The clues are reproduced here with their answers. Your challenge is to work out how to get the answer from the clue. Enjoy!

[Update (17 Sep 2010): Annotations added.]

1. FT 13203 (Falcon): What may appeal to a diner with love for eastern cooking? (8) TANDOORI
Annotation: Anagram of (TO A DINER) with O (love) substituted for E (eastern), an almost &lit.
…and I had too quickly assumed this was a weak cryptic definition.

2. FT 13119 (Bradman): Whisky island ditching litres? Gosh! (1,3) I SAY
Annotation: ISLAY (a Scottish island, famous for producing malt whisky) – L (litres)
…and I had thought: Is this really “Whisk YISLA ‘nd ditching L?”

3. FT 13415 (Viking): Italy provided backing to most of financial centre making loss (7) DEFICIT
Annotation: I (Italy) provided (FED) reversed, CIT[y] (most of 'financial centre')
…and I had been bent upon equating 'provided' with IF and said to myself - if only the clue had Germany (country code DE) instead of Italy, I wouldn’t still be scratching my head.

4. FT 13361 (Viking): It's irritating when letter H is ignored at start (4) ITCH
Annotation: AITCH (the letter H) – the start removed.
Many of you fell into the same trap as I did! I had read this as HITCH (start) – H, and added that the clue is ambiguous since it doesn't clarify which H to remove from the two in HITCH. Turned out the clue was perfect, the parsing was wrong.

5. FT 13355 (Falcon): Key article about prisoner finally appearing in dock (6) MARINA
Annotation: [prisone]R in MAIN (key) A (article)
I was in a hurry when I had solved this puzzle. MAIN = key didn't strike me at all, I kept thinking of musical keys.

6. FT 13308 (Viking): Retaliation turning fray into a bit of a laugh? (3,3,3) TIT FOR TAT
Annotation: TATTER (fray) becomes TITTER (bit of a laugh) when you have TIT FOR TAT
I had been close! I took this as TIT[ter] (bit of a laugh) FOR TAT (fray).

7. FT 13233 (Bradman): GP dealt with kindred but not 4 (6,6) FAMILY DOCTOR
   (The answer to clue#4 was LIMITED EDITION)
Annotation: Remove ED (limited 'edition') from KINDRED and you are left with KIN DR, or FAMILY DOCTOR.
…one of those clues that make you want to kick yourself for not being able to understand!

8. FT 13143 (Bradman): This centre of government may be noxious at the outset (6,3) NUMBER TEN
Annotation: 'noxious' at the outset = NO X or NUMBER TEN, the centre of British government (10 Downing Street).
…and here I'd been unsuccessfully trying to fit in the old agent noun trick: noxious = something that numbs, so NUMBER!

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Limericks For M Manna

One for The Hindu Crossword solvers. Limericks dedicated to our Jekyll and Hyde setter. [In case you missed this: Limericks for NJ]

  Amid his dodgy clues there sit
A gem or two shining with wit
We say that's rum
And wonder how come
His brilliant clues are so Brit.

Our 'captain' is not DHONI, instead
It's LAMB - so Manna said.
And LEH you thought
was 'in the north'?
Think again - it's GATESHEAD.

AYAHs are African in a Manna clue
And his pack of POLICEMEN too
Defy the norm
Of khaki uniform
They're rather 'men in blue'.

His anagrams may miss a letter
Or worse, skip the indicator
Cryptic definitions
Defy explanations
And most charades are no better.

But here's what's truly funny
You can bet a pile of money
The clue'll be all right
If the word's STALACTITE,

How about TAR? TINKLE? TORE?
There you can't be sure.
For a fine clue you see,
The word length must be
Nine characters or more.

That good-bad hangs on factors so tenuous
Raises niggling doubts in us
The question rings emphatic:
Is his genius erratic,
Or is the reality of his duality more ominous?

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Why Financial Times gets free publicity in crosswords of other papers

crossword-newspapers The standard abbreviation for Financial Times is FT, an extremely wordplay-friendly acronym. So it follows that some other papers have more references to Financial Times in their crosswords than their own selves. The same good fortune does not fall to the lot of publications with acronyms like NYT, or with names that do not have multiple meanings.

Here are a few clues from other papers that, when they say 'paper' or 'newspaper', mean FT:

Times 24446: Article printed by newspaper about tax aimed against criminals (9) ANTITHEFT
AN (article) FT (newspaper), about TITHE (tax)

Independent 7355 (Anax): Shuffle papers, say, back into paper (6) FIDGET
papers (ID) + EG (say) reversed, in FT (paper)

Guardian 25056 (Paul): Paperback in row which comes to a head? (6) TITFER
FT (paper) reversed, in TIER (row). TITFER is rhyming slang for 'hat', from 'tit-for-tat'.

THC (Gridman): Meaning, the doctor has one U.K. newspaper (5) DRIFT
DR (doctor) I (one) FT (U.K. newspaper)

Indian newspapers have wordplay-amenable acronyms too - ET, HT, TOI. Strangely, these aren't made as much use of even in THC. I have only seen Gridman refer to other Indian papers in his clues. Some of Gridman's clues with other paper references:

Party got together by two Indian newspapers back to back (4) FETE
The woman is with The Economic Times, the paper (5) SHEET
Wire a Kolkata newspaper (9) TELEGRAPH
Diversions in old man's newspaper (8) PASTIMES

In the entire set of Gridman's clues, ET, Telegraph and Times have been used more often than The Hindu.

The Pink Link

Financial Times is pink in colour. This attribute is put to play too in cryptic clues.

Times 24219: Provider of bouquet primate wrapped in pink paper (7) FLORIST
LORIS (primate) in FT (pink paper)

Times 24309: Sort of official report that’s eschewed by the FT (5,5)  WHITE PAPER d&cd
A white paper is a type of official report, and is eschewed by the FT since FT is a pink paper, not a white one.

Times 23969: Notice girl's dressed in pink daily, being a follower of fashion (7) FADDIST
AD (notice) DI'S (girl's), in FT (pink daily) 

Solve These

Two clues, one easy the other tough, both using the paper = FT connection.

Times 24444: Paper's entertaining star feature (5)
From Times Crossword Championship 2008: Close this works daily? Not if this is used (5-5) N _ _ _ _ – _ _ _ _ T


In a nice case of reversal, Financial Times carried this clue once:

FT 13322 (Crux): Guardian's leading story Times initially rejected (9) C _ _ _ _ _ _ _ E

Answer, anyone?
Update (11-Sep-2010): See the comments for answers.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Ten Fishy Clues

Each of the clues below has a different type of fish in it. They are all short words, cryptic clue regulars. Enjoy fishing out the solutions. [Answers updated.]

fish Times 24449: Ship stores fish in jars (6) SHAKES
SS (ship) around HAKE (fish)

Guardian 24506 (Logodaedalus): Imagine a fish about to swallow (6) IDEATE
IDE (fish) around EAT (to swallow)

Times 25104: Channel Islands fish that’s meant to be smoked (5) CIGAR
CI (Channel Islands) GAR (fish)

Guardian 25104 (Brendan): Pope interrupting good saint, most abrupt in manner (8) GRUFFEST
RUFFE (pope), in G (good) ST (saint). POPE is another name for RUFFE, the freshwater fish.

Guardian 25103 (Paul): Imagine fish shop (6) BETRAY
BET (imagine) RAY (fish)

Times 24506: Landing a fish without battle? Not at first (9) ALIGHTING
A LING (fish), around [f]IGHT (battle, without first letter)

Guardian 25073 (Paul): Live to eat fish, about to stuff what's used on green and brown food (6,6) PEANUT BUTTER
BE (live) around TUNA (fish), inside PUTTER (what's used on green)

FT 13429 (Dante): Go in for chips without fish (5) ENTER
CARPENTER (chips) – CARP (fish)

Guardian 24918 (Logodaedalus): Forgive sailor catching fish — about five (7) ABSOLVE
AB (sailor), SOLE (fish) around V (five)

Times 24562: Fish after not many hours round about coast (9) FREEWHEEL
EEL (fish) after FEW (not many) H (hours), around RE (about)

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