Monday, April 18, 2011

Crossword Solving Tool for the Blind

Standard text-to-speech software applications can only do so much for the vision impaired when it comes to solving crosswords: they can read out clues and enumeration, they cannot simulate the interactive filling up of a grid. With Spoonbill Software's Blind Gamers Crossword Puzzle (called 'BG Crossword Puzzle' in short), interactive solving for the blind and partially sighted has become possible.

How BG Crossword Puzzle Works

spoonbillBG Crossword Puzzle uses Microsoft's text-to-speech function to communicate with the solver. The program is self-voicing, you do not need to use your screen reader with it. To start solving, a crossword in compatible format is loaded into the program; the supported formats are Across Lite, XWC (Crossword Compiler format), and Guardian's HTML (a demo of this below). Using keyboard controls, you can traverse the grid, get clues read out, enter answers and validate them against the solution, save partly or fully solved crosswords. Other highlights include an anagram unscrambler, handling of tentative answers, spelling out partly filled answers and navigation through filtered clues (e.g. crossing clues only, unsolved clues only).

Some features like a resizable grid, colour schemes and text in large legible font are provided especially for the partially sighted. A detailed tutorial comes packaged with the software.

There are still gaps between sighted and blind solving when it comes to the overall appearance of the grid rather than single word slots. These seem tricky to resolve and are not showstoppers, but are certainly worth thinking about - how can the tool best convey the grid's shape and symmetry? Can the tool enable the solver to spot a Nina? These details apart, BG Crossword Puzzle is a commendable initiative towards making crossword solving accessible and pleasant for people with vision impairment, who might not have been able to consider crosswords until now.

As per their help files, Spoonbill Software is working with the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) in the UK to get more websites to offer their crosswords in BG Crossword Puzzle-friendly format.

Case Study: Solving Guardian 25296 Crossword using BG Crossword Puzzle

An interesting feature of BG Crossword Puzzle is its compatibility with the Guardian interactive crossword's HTML code. You can take the source code of Guardian interactive crossword's page, save it as .txt in BG Crossword's designated folder "Crosswords\Guardian HTML", specify the software format as "Guardian HTML" and load it into BG Crossword Puzzle just like any .PUZ or .XWC file.

A sample run of Guardian 25296 (Araucaria):

The crossword on the Guardian's website looks as below. Right-click to view and save the source HTML.

guardian-crossword-view-source 
Fig 1: Save page source of the Guardian interactive crossword

Move to BG Crossword's folder, change format to "Guardian HTML" and open the txt file. The crossword will open in interactive mode. The image below shows a partly-solved grid in word entry mode with Down display on.

guardian-crossword-bg-crossword
Fig 2: Partly-solved grid in BG Crossword. Word entry mode for 1D (Down clue display)

Here is the corresponding audio clip of clue 1D being selected, word entry mode being invoked and the solver's answer being entered:

That was the voice of "Microsoft Sam", the default text-to-speech voice in Windows XP. Your computer might have more voice options installed ("Microsoft Mike" and "Microsoft Mary" are the other free voices for XP), which you could select through the Control Panel.

How to get your copy of BG Crossword Puzzle

The best part - Blind Gamers Crossword is freeware. You only need to send an email request to Spoonbill software with your full name and residence, in the format specified on the Blind Gamers website. The zipped installation pack is sent to you within four days.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Soldier Changeovers

soldier-helmet Ambassadors and artists are easy on crossword solvers – they allow only a small set of abbreviations to represent them. An ambassador is HE (=His/Her Excellency), an artist RA (=Royal Academy) or occasionally ARA (=Associate of the Royal Academy).

Soldiers are a lot more trouble - the word "soldier" could lead to a whole range of 2 and 3 letter substitutions.

Take a look at the popular ones:

ANT
The "soldier" ant is a type of ant with a comparatively large head and better fighting abilities. Soldier = ANT is fair in cryptic clues; the word "soldier" may be tagged with "perhaps" to signal a definition-by-example but nowadays it isn't considered mandatory.

Times 24728: One gets fed up with soldier challenging authority (7) DEFIANT
(I FED)< ANT (soldier)

GI
GI is a nickname for an American soldier (remember GI Joe?). GI is used as an initialism for Government Issue but it has an interesting history: an earlier GI (1908) was an abbreviation of galvanized iron, and was used by American soldiers in WW1 as slang for German artillery shells. Read more.

Guardian 25249 (Orlando): Movement uniting female soldier with second-in-command (6) ADAGIO
ADA (female) GI (soldier) [c]O[mmand]

MEN
"Man" stands for "soldier", "men" for "soldiers".

Times 24661: Replacing soldier ahead of time as source of intelligence (9) INFORMANT
IN FOR (replacing) MAN (soldier) T (time)

Everyman 3363: Hear about soldiers with TA stuck inside a drainage basin (9,4) CATCHMENT AREA
MEN (soldiers) TA, inside CATCH (hear) RE (about) A

NEY
Michel Ney was a French soldier during the French Revolutionary wars. He is often described as "soldier" or "old soldier" in cryptic clues.

Guardian 24984 (Araucaria): Place old soldier on Thames (6) PUTNEY
PUT (place) NEY (old soldier)

OR
OR stands for Other Ranks - those personnel in the army who are not commissioned officers. OR is generally used in the plural form.

Times Jumbo 904: Like the start of a speech old soldiers face (8) EXORDIAL
EX (old) OR (soldiers) DIAL (face)

PARA
Para is a member of the Parachute Regiment in the British Army, trained to land in combat areas by parachuting from airplanes.

Times 24808: Soldier on horse overriding (9) PARAMOUNT
PARA (soldier) MOUNT (horse)

RE
RE stands for Royal Engineers, one of the corps of the British army.

Times 24706: Tough soldiers and one protected by mum (9) RESILIENT
RE (soldiers), I (one) in SILENT (mum)

Strictly speaking RE should be used in the plural form, but it isn't unusual to see it as an abbreviation for the singular "soldier".

FT 13660 (Armonie): Command soldier, in a manner of speaking (9) DIRECTION
RE (soldier) in DICTION (a manner of speaking)

TA
TA is the Territorial Army, a volunteer force of the British Army. TA could also be clued as "volunteers" or "reserves".

Times Jumbo 914: Volunteer soldiers in search with soldier possibly fighting (9) COMBATANT
TA (volunteer soldiers), in COMB (search) ANT (soldier possibly)

Solve These

Guardian 25216 (Pasquale): Peril that besets soldiers (6)
Times 24798: Men trapped by river in spate (7)
Sunday Times 4416: Away for time, some soldier potentially dropped (4)
Times Jumbo 914: Soldiers box gunners — they play together (9) __C_E____

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