Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ask the readers: What makes a crossword a good collection of clue types?

clue-type-distribution An open question for setters and solvers: what makes a crossword a good collection of clue types?

We may complain about too many anagrams, CDs or DDs, but how many is too many?

Before I put this question to you, I put it to myself and tried to come up with numbers for at least the contentious clue types. I soon realised that while solving, my idea of balance in clue types stems from more than count.

If there are 4 15-letter words in the grid and all of them are anagrams, my senses say "too many" even if those are the only anagrams in the grid.

3 deletions consecutively seem like a lot more than 4 deletions in clues far apart.

Some solvers (famously Colonel Gopinath) dislike CDs/DDs and will probably not miss them if they disappear altogether. I love a good CD and if they're distributed around the grid, I'm happy with half a dozen CDs in a puzzle. At the same time I usually find CDs hard to solve without crossings and will object if 3 of them intersect.

Tim Moorey's How To Master The Times Crossword covers some tips for solvers about the number of clues to expect for certain clue types in the Times crossword: "There may be no hidden clue in any one daily puzzle and rarely more than one" [p64], and similar such for anagrams.

The tips in the book are worded as approximations and not rules.

All in all this looks like a fuzzy area based on taste/perception and I'd like to open the floor for discussion.

Questions for setters:

Do you follow guidelines set by the paper or do you have your own working style in choice of clue types? Do you consciously keep track of the number of clues of each type and make an effort to moderate them?

Questions for solvers:

What is the ideal clue type distribution for you? Does an excess of some clue types invite your wrath more than others?

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Twitter gets a foothold in crosswords

Twitter-in-Crosswords My first sighting of the word Twitter in a cryptic crossword was in 2009. A neologism in those days, any mentions of Twitter and related terms in the grid or clues used to draw comments from solvers. The blogger would explain that Twitter was a "microblogging site", with the understanding that for the typical crossword solver Twitter would be an alien concept.

As the social network has grown in popularity, so has its reach in the crossword fraternity. Crossword setters who use twitter find a new audience for their crosswords, while solvers get to see interesting promos of forthcoming puzzles, interact with setters and listen in on candid thoughts on crossword matters.

With this shift, the increase in frequency of appearance of Twitter-related words in crosswords is but natural.

Here is a set of cryptic clues of which the surface meaning is based on Twitter. Enjoy solving!

Times 24559: Bachelor maybe admitted going on Twitter (9) S_______N

Guardian 25057 (Arachne): Nick phone to make tweet? (4,4) B___ ____

Telegraph Toughie 690: Some upset by extremist in Twitter thread (4) W___

Times Jumbo 961: After church, one bishop posted a tweet (7) C______

THC 10048 (Cryptonyte): Delay surrounding broadcast of tweet essentially about cattle class storage (7) L__R___

…if you're on twitter, you can follow me @ShuchiU.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

First look at the Firstpost Crossword

Firstpost.com has introduced a new daily cryptic crossword: http://www.firstpost.com/crossword.html. A first look at their offering – the good and the bad.

The Good

Interactive grid with timer: No other major news website in India provides interactive solving AFAIK. Great to see this on firstpost.

Prominent display: An eye-catching banner on the homepage sidebar.

Topical India-centric subject matter:

12a, 13a: Aye, majesty, a vat is broken for big show (8,6)
4a: More than a celebrity hosting 12,13a (4,4)

I like the idea of grid fills based on hot topics in the news. It'll probably attract more solvers who don't attempt cryptic crosswords otherwise.

The Bad

The Clues

Many clue surfaces are weak, the wordplay dodgy.

firstpost-crossword
[Screenshot from firstpost Crossword no. 2, 11th May 2012]

Assuming the setter of the Firstpost crossword is new to setting, giving here detailed feedback for some clues from Crossword#2 – hope his helps:

1a: Fixed inside a vegetable for foreign money (6) PESETA
SET (fixed) inside PEA (vegetable) 
A good clue should read like a natural phrase/sentence when you take it outside the context of a crossword. This one does not. For more on good and bad clue surfaces, have a look at Surface Reading, Cryptic Reading.

9a: Listen to polish coming out of organ (3,3) EAR WAX
EAR (listen) WAX (polish); defn = coming out of organ.
Other than the weak surface, there are grammatical issues here.
listen = give EAR, not EAR. 
The definition 'coming out of organ' does not match EAR WAX.

To verify that the wordplay is accurate, try the substitution test. A sentence containing the answer should be unaltered in grammar and meaning when the answer is replaced with its definition.

Can you construct a sentence in which 'listen' can be replaced with EAR, 'coming out of organ' replaced with EAR WAX? If you can't, your wordplay needs a change. Have a look at What's wrong with this clue? for a less obvious example of a similar error.

23d: Deserters rise for ruler (4) TSAR
RATS (deserters) reversed
RATS reversed is STAR, not TSAR.

Things to remember

The right of the grid has this curiously detailed set of instructions:

firstpost-crossword-instructions

The first two instructions seem to be meant for a person who has never seen a crossword clue before and needs to be told with an example that seven = 7. If that is the target audience of this puzzle then they will require a lot more than this set of instructions to be able to solve the crossword.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Q&A With Six New Hindu Crossword Setters: Part II

HinduCrosswordNewSetters In the first instalment of Q&A With Six New Hindu Crossword Setters, our setters gave us fascinating glimpses into their approach to crossword setting - their tools, the time they spend crafting each puzzle, what they find hardest and what they like best about creating crosswords.

It was lovely to see the response to Part I of the Q&A. The post has become one of the top shared articles on Crossword Unclued. Thank you for all the tweets, likes, bookmarks and stumbles.

Here comes what you've been waiting for – the second half of the Q&A with Arden, Cryptonyte, Buzzer, Mover, Scintillator and Textrous.

Q7: Do you participate in online discussions about your puzzles?

Arden Arden: No. Once my puzzle is out in the public domain, it is for the solvers to air their opinion. I leave it to them and try to learn from my mistakes.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: Not too much, only if I feel that my cryptic grammar has been completely misunderstood. I feel discussions about the published clues are highly subjective and it's best to let the solvers' community enjoy it the way they see it.

Scintillator Scintillator: I do, but I rue the absence of a huge or a diverse online crossword community in India.

Buzzer Buzzer: Yes. It is hard enough to get any feedback before publication so why would I keep away from the very few who have something to say about my clues.

Mover Mover: I do not participate in online discussions about my own puzzles. As I am using a pseudonym as a setter, I do not feel comfortable about participating in discussions about my puzzles pseudonymously/anonymously.

Textrous Textrous: Not yet, but I am not averse to it.

Q8: Which crosswords do you solve?

Arden Arden: The Guardian daily cryptic and the weekly prize crossword.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: This is a little embarrassing – I do not solve any crossword regularly at the moment. But I used to solve The Daily Mail and The Hindu crosswords.

Scintillator Scintillator: Not much these days, rarely I spend a relaxed Friday afternoon with the day's Guardian or FT.

Buzzer Buzzer: Daily - THC, HT, FT, The Guardian and USA Today;
Occasionally - Independent, Times;
Whenever they appear - Mint, CrOZworld.

Mover Mover: Rufus's puzzles in the New Indian Express regularly; The Times crosswords and puzzles by Araucaria in The Guardian, occasionally.

Textrous Textrous: The Guardian and occasionally FT.

Q9: Favourite setters:

Arden Arden: Araucaria, Paul, Rufus, Boatman...et al.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: From the limited number of crosswords I've solved – Anax, Textrous and Spiffytrix.

Scintillator Scintillator: John Halpern, Don Manley, Neil Shepherd and Dean Mayer - setters characterised by extraordinarily clever and perfectly fair clues. In THC, Spiffytrix was very impressive as long as he was there. (Come back soon, buddy!)

Buzzer Buzzer: There are several whose clues I take pleasure in unravelling. Anax with his ingenious wordplay is one. Boatman's puzzles are hugely rewarding. But for the great skill of keeping things simple in puzzle after puzzle, year after year, I admire Sankalak and Rufus the most.

Mover Mover: Rufus and Araucaria.

Textrous Textrous: Anax, Rufus.

Q10: Crossword-solving aids are ...

Arden Arden: ...not for me. If people use them to solve crosswords, it is their business.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: ...to be used only when you've exhausted all possible angles of looking at a clue. They sometimes cannot be done without and have to be used to prevent excessive hair loss.

Scintillator Scintillator: ...fine, as long as you use them for anagrams and not for text search patterns.



Buzzer Buzzer: ...there for those who want to use them. If you look at crossword solving as an examination, then they might seem like cheating tools. If all you are after is how answers are derived, it doesn’t matter if you use a tool or ask a friend or look it up in a blog or press the cheat button.

Mover Mover: I have no issues with solvers using crossword-solving aids for completing puzzles. I do not normally use aids while solving. I use the internet to confirm a solution and to get background information relating to the clue solution.

Textrous Textrous: Don't use any. I look up Fifteensquared for clues I don't get.

Q11: Crossword-setting rules are ...

Arden Arden: ...a way of trying to be fair. (Presently there seems to be a gap between trying to be fair and being fair, but one keeps trying...)

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: ...what makes cryptic crosswords so enjoyable – because the solver has a fair chance to get to the answer and the setter has a good chance to entertain. The reason I stopped attempting things like Klueless is because there are no rules and it became very random and groan-inducing.

Scintillator Scintillator: ...welcome, as they bring orderliness to an esoteric trade.

Buzzer Buzzer: ...too many :) some are good to know, some good to follow, and the rest good to ignore.

Mover Mover: ...only means to an end and not to be considered as writ in stone.

Textrous Textrous: ...excellent guidelines to follow, especially when one is starting out as a setter. But over time, one evolves one's own style, and this may entail the occasional bending or relaxation of a rule, albeit without overly impacting the clues' fairness.

Q12: One thing you wish to change about the way you set crosswords:

Arden Arden: Spend more time on the clues – overcome the lack of doggedness in me to keep my nose to the grinding wheel till I get it just right.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: The last minute rush. I think I could do a lot better if I set a few clues every day instead of finishing them off at the eleventh hour.

Scintillator Scintillator: The way itself: if I had more time, I would love to forsake all software resources and return to the simple pencil-and-paper mode of setting. It is tough to do thematics that way, but I am sure it will certainly bring a charming simplicity to the clues and the puzzle.

Buzzer Buzzer: I feel I tend to be too brief with my definitions. They might be correct in the dictionary sense, but of not enough help for a solver.

Mover Mover: Nothing really. Maybe use fewer anagrams :).

Textrous Textrous: I hope to be able to throw in more CDs, DDs and Composite Anagrams than I do.


Q13: Favourite clue of your own:

Arden Arden: I have no favourites.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte:
Clean without water (4)
A tower which leads ships? (7) [CD]

Scintillator Scintillator: Just one? That's unfair! I have a few here...

When bud gets new life (10) [semi &lit]
One could be a Java expert (7) [CD]
Foremost thing arranged for newly-weds? (5,5) [semi &lit]
You’re very perverse and I'm no less (6) [anag]

Buzzer Buzzer: Keeps changing, but for the time being:

ABCDEF are set in bold (9)

Mover Mover:
Are transvestites angry with furniture items? (5-8)

Textrous Textrous:
Flying pigs off cue here? On the contrary (6,2,6) [anag semi-&lit]


[Answers available here. - Shuchi]

Q14: What is more important - a great surface or flawless cryptic grammar?

Arden Arden: A great surface.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: A great surface. The primary job of the setter is to entertain his solvers and he must try his best to give the solver a fair chance to solve the clue. This is why the balance becomes critical – because the solver is entertained only if he gets the answer or when he sees it, is able to think that he had a fair chance.

Mover Mover: I prefer a great surface.

Textrous Textrous: A great surface.

Buzzer Buzzer: As a solver I want both (managed to insert that answer you didn't want to hear :-) ). But as a setter I'm happy to sacrifice the grammar for surface (that statement might come handy defending future clues...or the ones like I mentioned above as my current favourite).

Scintillator Scintillator: Flawless cryptic grammar. A cricketing analogy will be splendid shots versus solid technique. A player with a solid technique will play splendid shots once in a while. People who play splendid shots without having a proper technique lose their way (or interest) in the game in due course of time. Moreover, 'great surface' is an ideal concept. 30 great surfaces can win you 30 clue-writing competitions, but may not group together to form one brilliant puzzle. You need to mix and match between great, good and easy clues in a daily puzzle.

Q15: Should The Hindu have a crossword editor?

Arden Arden: Yes, and enough has been said about this. It is for the people at The Hindu to do something about it. The sad truth is that the crosswords per se do not figure high in the list of priorities among the Indian dailies. For many it is just a space-filling exercise.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: I've never really worked with a crossword editor per se, but the clues I set on The I-do-it Box with Vinod were more refined because it passed through the Vinod filter (and Vinod's clues through mine) before they got published. It certainly helps, but we can live without an editor as well.

Scintillator Scintillator: Absolutely yes, as basic grammatical and phonetic flaws often crop up in the puzzles. The feature needs someone to choose the right puzzles to publish and also time them appropriately. No one wants to solve a toughie on a Monday morning (personal experience!) or a glut of amateur puzzles full of bland, software-generated anagrams or clues plumbing deplorable depths under the pretext of libertarianism. There is a lot of scope and responsibility for that to-be editor. If THC's to attain the high levels of standard set by British dailies, then having an editor is a good place to begin with.

Buzzer Buzzer: Should The Hindu have one?
Yes.

Will it have one?
Given the indifference with which the online puzzle is treated - no direct link on the main page unlike Sudoku, no space between clue numbers and clue text, previous day solutions are titled "related photos" – I could go on but the point is, if there is no intent to address such minor issues, talking about a crossword editor is moot.

Mover Mover: Mixed feelings about this one. A really good editor would be nice but a mediocre or opinionated editor may not be a great idea.

Textrous Textrous: If I understand it correctly, they already have a "listings editor" who is kind enough to go through enumerations, consistency between clues and solutions etc. But yes, it would certainly help to have someone dedicated to vetting our crosswords.

Q16: When you are not creating crosswords, you are...

Arden Arden: ...busy with other things. There is always something to do.

Buzzer Buzzer: ...surfing, snorkeling, sailing, paragliding, preparing for my helicopter license...no that didn't come out right :)

Out trekking or bushwalking or at badminton/tennis/golf depending on the day of the week.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: ...doing all sorts of things – I just finished my MBA from IIM Kozhikode and will be joining TAS shortly. I used to tweet and blog a bit, I like reading humour, love sports and at the moment I'm looking forward to a nice honeymoon.

Scintillator Scintillator: ...playing other roles in life: the fraction of time I spend on crosswords is very minimal.

Mover Mover: ...a senior bureaucrat belonging to the Indian Administrative Service. My other passion is playing Scrabble. I was the national Scrabble Champion for several years and was the first Indian to represent India in the World Scrabble Championship Tournament in 1999 in Melbourne. Since then I have been on the Indian WSC team in 2001 and 2007.

My other interests include wildlife and nature photography. I recently published a book Nature Rambles dealing with urban biodiversity.

Textrous Textrous: ...heading a software development team, singing, playing the harmonica, doodling caricatures, helping the missus with the cooking and most of all, playing with my daughter.

---
Hope you all enjoyed the interviews. Though I had read the answers before individually, putting the post together with six different perspectives laid out alongside was like seeing them with new eyes. Diversity, such a wonderful thing!

Many thanks to Arden, Buzzer, Cryptonyte, Mover, Scintillator and Textrous.

Have a go at the setters' favourite clues (Q13). Do post your answers and your thoughts in the comments section.

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