Friday, November 1, 2013

Interview: Geoff Moss (Gaufrid)

Gaufrid I'm pleased to share with you today the interview of someone whose crossword-solving expertise never ceases to amaze me – Geoff Moss aka "Gaufrid", a familiar name in the online world of cryptic crosswords. While blogging for the FT on Fifteensquared, there were days when I was faced with a couple of clues unexplained or a theme outside my comfort zone. Each time I could count on Geoff to fill in the blanks with ease.

Perhaps more than his dexterity with crosswords, Geoff's claim to fame is his management of Fifteensquared, the reputed crossword blog that solvers from the world over congregate at for analysis of some of UK's most popular/toughest cryptic crosswords. Today (1st November 2013) is the 7th anniversary of Fifteensquared. How has the blog's journey been through these years, how did Geoff Moss become a part of it, what is he like outside of his persona as Gaufrid? Geoff answers these questions and more in this candid interview.

Q1. We’d like to know more about you, the man behind the name Gaufrid.

Geoff: There’s not a lot to say as I’m no one special. I’m now fast approaching the state retirement age and so have been solving cryptic puzzles, on and off, for over fifty years.

By nature, training and experience I am/was an engineer and I spent 25 years as an engineering manager with BT (nothing to do with phones, my sphere of activity was planning, and supervising the installation of, the various mechanical and electrical services that go into a building).

After leaving BT I became self-employed and managed a public house and restaurant business (very long hours but most enjoyable), as a tenant for the brewery making my favourite real ale, before moving on to semi-retirement (read ‘job seeking’) and a lot of DIY activity.

Q2. How did you get interested in crosswords?

Geoff: I don’t really know, it just sort of happened. My father used to read his daily paper, The Telegraph, at the breakfast table and I used to scan the back page whilst he was doing so. One day, in my early/mid teens, my eye was drawn to the collection of black and white squares towards the bottom of the page and I began to read the associated clues. After my father had gone to work I read the clues in more detail and even managed to solve a couple of them. The next day I looked at the solution and worked out the parsing for a few more of the clues.

I must have become addicted to this activity because it became a regular occurrence and over the following weeks and months I gradually became able to solve, or retrospectively parse, more and more clues until that great day arrived when I completed my first cryptic puzzle. Of course in those days there were no electronic aids, and I only had a small pocket dictionary, so progress was slower than it would have been today, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

After a while I became able to solve the Telegraph cryptic, without aids, nearly every day. I was well and truly hooked and eventually had to move on to the likes of the Times to get my daily fix.

Unfortunately, in my younger days, there was a period of restricted solving activity due to family/work commitments but I still attempted various cryptics each week depending on which paper had been left on the train or in the office. However, since retiring I have had the time to solve a selection of puzzles each day from all the broadsheets, at one time or another, and have also had spells of attempting, and completing in the majority of cases, barred-grid/themed puzzles such as the Listener, Enigmatic Variations and their ilk.

Q3. Why “Gaufrid”?

Geoff: Because it is one of the derivations, according to Chambers, of my forename (the other being Walahfrid). When I first started blogging at Fifteensquared I had to quickly choose a pseudonym and this was the first thing that came to mind. As it turns out, it is quite apt since it means ‘peaceful ruler’ (Walahfrid being ‘peaceful traveller’).

Only my mother, when she was cross, called me by my full name, Geoffrey, apart from a former next door neighbour who continues to use it to this day. I prefer the abbreviation.

Q4. How and when was Fifteensquared founded and how did you become involved?

Geoff: The site was founded by Neil Wellard who posted the first blog (Guardian 23,910 / Janus) on 1st November 2006. The idea for starting it came from the Times for the Times site and initially only the Guardian and Independent cryptics were covered. However, it wasn’t long before Azed, Everyman and the Inquisitor were added to the portfolio, followed by the Financial Times about six months later. Since then further puzzles have been included in our coverage.

I ‘discovered’ Fifteensquared in June 2008 (I can’t remember how) and began to comment. Towards the end of July I wrote to Neil offering my services as a stand-in blogger to cover for holiday absences. Two days later I posted my first blog (for a Cinephile in the FT), having been given a permanent slot in the FT schedule. After about three months, Neil asked me to become his deputy so that there would be some admin cover for periods when he was away and I gladly agreed to help out, little knowing that in April 2009 Neil would decide that, due to other commitments, he could no longer devote sufficient time to administering the site. This resulted in my becoming the sole administrator.

Q5. What is Fifteensquared’s blogging team like?

Geoff: That is a difficult question for me to answer since in the majority of cases I know little more than has been already published on the Fifteensquared 'Bloggers' page. What I can say is that there is a cross-section of ages (early 20s to 70+) and several different nationalities (though not quite as many as in the past – I’m thinking of you and Rishi ;-) ) Some team members work full time and so have limited time available for blogging and responding to comments, others are retired and have the luxury of being able to devote more time to their participation.

If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all participants at Fifteensquared, those who take time out of their busy schedules to solve and blog a puzzle, those who add comments as these regularly give further insight into a puzzle and, of course, the setters because without their output Fifteensquared would have no raison d’être.

Q6. What does it take to manage the site?

Geoff: Patience, diplomacy and plenty of spare time. As well as the obvious love of cryptic puzzles, one needs to be reasonably competent with software, databases etc and have the time to be able to undertake the necessary updates whilst also taking steps to try and minimize the effect that spam and other bots have on the server resources so that the site response times do not deteriorate.

Then there is the need to be able to ‘manage’ those, fortunately few, people who seem determined to disrupt the site if they possibly can. This is a widespread problem around the web which, touch wood, has not seriously affected Fifteensquared as yet.

There are of course the more mundane issues such as generating the blogging schedule, arranging cover for those away on holiday or business, checking that comments do not infringe the Site Policy, checking that valid comments have not been incorrectly intercepted by the spam filter, checking the stats and the error logs … the list goes on. Some activities can be carried out daily but others have to be done more frequently.

Q7. How many blog posts go up per day? How many comments/visits does the site receive?

Geoff: During the last seven years there have been over 8,700 posts by 57 different bloggers. More than 102,500 comments have been added to these posts. In addition to the genuine comments, the site has also received in excess of 2,360,000 spam comments. Fortunately Akismet, the spam filter, has intercepted 99.95% of these and so they have not appeared on the site.

Currently a total of 26 posts are published each week so that is an average of just under four a day. The number of comments added varies widely between the different publications with the Guardian receiving the most, presumably due to its wider readership. So far this year there has been an average of just under 2,000 comments each month which equates to an average of 65 per day.

As for visits, that’s what I would like to know! There are stats available for the number of unique visitors each month, and the number of page views etc., but I don’t believe them. Why? Because of the large number of bots that trawl the site (and the rest of the web) each day. Those that identify themselves (mainly search engine bots such as Googlebot, MSNbot, Bingbot etc) are excluded from the visitor/view stats but the anonymous rest, for example spambots, cannot be differentiated from real traffic and so the stats become slewed. Then there is the case of many visitors who, like me, don’t have a static IP address so if they switch off their router/modem every night they could have a different IP address each day of the week and thus generate seven unique visits whereas there was only one visitor.

The final nail in the coffin is the stat that shows that over 70% of visits last less than 30 seconds which obviously means that they were made by bots and people arriving at the site by accident, for example as the result of using a search engine.

Q8. Which are the most popular blogposts on Fifteensquared?

Geoff: I mentioned earlier that the Guardian blogs invariably receive the most comments each day and the same is true of the number of page views. I estimate that, on average, a Guardian blog is viewed about five times more often than any of the others. Of course, I don’t know if this means a fivefold increase in readership or if it is just a case of the same people returning more often to catch up with the latest comments because more comments are added to the Guardian blogs.

A more convincing indication is that, out of the all-time top 100 most viewed posts, 99 of them are Guardian blogs, the only exception being, at No. 5, a particularly difficult Nimrod which appeared in the Independent back in September 2010.

The No. 1 post, by a big margin, is the blog for an Araucaria puzzle (Guardian 25,842, 11/1/2013) in which he announced, by way of a preamble, "Araucaria has 18 down of the 19, which is being treated with 13 15". This was sad news indeed.

Q9. In your role as site administrator, what do you enjoy the most, what do you like the least, and what do you find the most challenging?

Geoff: I was about to say that the same answer would apply to all three questions but further thought brings me round to only two. What I find most rewarding is when someone comments or emails to say how much they enjoy the site or how they have found it useful or how it has helped them to improve their solving abilities. This makes effort put in by all the bloggers, and my own meagre input, seem all the more worthwhile.

What I dislike most (or like the least) are the occasional spats that break out between two or more contributors to the site. These present the challenge of resolving, or at least damping down, the dispute without alienating/losing the participants, or other visitors, and without having to place someone under moderation (only done very rarely) or banning them completely.

Q10. Fifteensquared has a rather strict "no off-topic banter" policy, which tends to irk some commenters at times. Have you ever considered relaxing the rule?

Geoff: I wouldn’t say that the off-topic policy is strictly applied, it is there mainly to prevent a recurrence of a situation that prevailed a number of years ago, namely genuine comments becoming lost in a mire of trivial asides, something several of the more serious contributors complained about at the time. For example, I can remember one particular Araucaria blog where the number of comments rose to over 125 but less than 40% of them contained anything relevant to the puzzle being discussed.

It is all a matter of trying to maintain a balance between a warm, friendly atmosphere where people can comment on, and chat about, a particular puzzle and/or its ramifications and a no-holds-barred free-for-all, something which is sadly the case in many places elsewhere on the web. If people wish to discuss football or the weather or whatever there are other forums around more suited to these topics. Anything vaguely crossword related, though not puzzle specific, can always be posted in General Discussion.

Q11. How many crosswords do you tackle in a day? How long does it take you to solve a 15x15?

Geoff: It varies depending on what else I have to do and/or my ability to do other things. Sometimes I am selective as to which setters’ puzzles I solve and at other times I am glad of as many cryptics as I can find in order to occupy the day. Currently I am solving the Guardian, Independent, Times and Financial Times most days, along with the occasional barred-grid puzzle.

As for solving times, I seldom know exactly because invariably there is an interruption or two during the solve (if only to check the latest comments on Fifteensquared). Obviously the time taken depends on how hard, or otherwise, a puzzle is (and my mood at the time). My quickest solves are in the region of 10-15 minutes, the longest probably 45 minutes, with an average of around 20-25 minutes.

Q12. A recent research indicates that solving prowess depends on talent more than practice. What’s your take on it?

Geoff: I can only speak from my own experience but I think it is a combination of several factors. Practice certainly helped me to improve my solving abilities but I needed an analytical mind in order make progress because, as well as a good vocabulary, there is the need to be able to parse the cryptic clues. Stubbornness and a desire not to be beaten also play a part otherwise it is all too easy to put a difficult puzzle to one side. Then comes patience and perseverance and a willingness to spend time looking up previously unknown words or thematic material. Most of all though, you need to enjoy the mental challenge.

Q13. Which are your favourite crosswords and clues? Which crossword setters do you most admire?

Geoff: Difficult ones! Seriously though, I don’t think I have a favourite series as there are good and less good cryptics in all the publications and in any case I like variety. If pushed, I would say that, on balance, I prefer barred-grid puzzles to blocked-grid though, of course, it all depends on the setter, theme and degree of difficulty.

I have a mental list of setters who are ‘must do’ and one for ‘skip if short of time’. It would not be right for me to say who is on which list because in my role as administrator of Fifteensquared I try to remain impartial when it comes to commenting on puzzles. There is much to be admired in the majority of setters, but even the best can have an off-day so I prefer to judge the puzzle rather than the setter.

As for clues, again there are good and bad examples of each type. I’m less keen on cryptic and double definitions, unless they are particularly good, because I enjoy the challenge of deciphering the wordplay, which better suits my analytical way of thinking. I much prefer clues where the surface reading makes sense, and/or tells a story, and where there is a high degree of misdirection.

Q14. Have you tried your hand at setting?

Geoff: No, not as yet. I have thought about it on several occasions when I have been looking for something to do but my thought process is analytical rather than creative and it always has been. For example, at school I struggled to write an English essay, or similar, but had no problems at all with science based subjects. This means that I am suited far more to solving than to setting.

Q15. How do you tackle crossword themes that are outside your area of knowledge? For example, you mentioned once that you haven't watched a movie in 45 years - how would you solve a movie-themed crossword in that case?

Geoff: I think what I said was that I had only been to the cinema once in the last 45+ years (Chariots of Fire, which my partner at the time insisted she had to see). Over the years I have picked up a lot of eclectic trivia, predominantly from crosswords and pub quizzes, but if the theme is unfamiliar (for example popular music from the late 60’s onwards) I have no hesitation in resorting to Wikipedia once I have an idea as to what the theme might be. What I like about themed puzzles is that there is a chance to learn something new (or remember something long forgotten). I think it is fair to say that I have learnt more about history, art, composers, Shakespeare etc from cryptic puzzles than I ever did at school.

Q16. What are your interests apart from crosswords?

Geoff: Over the years, many and varied. I’ve already mentioned pub quizzes but my other interests have been/are mainly of a technical nature (if you don’t count hedonistic interests such as real ale and whisky ;-) ) – computers and computing, high quality sound reproduction, electronics (particularly audio amplifiers) – or practical such as various DIY activities.

Q17. Please share with us some of your memorable crossword-related experiences.

Geoff: My memory is not what it used to be (I blame advancing years and an excess of whisky each day ;-) ) so it is difficult to remember specifics but they are all likely to be ‘firsts’. For example, the first time I was able to finish, in my mid teens, the cryptic in my father’s preferred paper, The Telegraph. My first completed Listener, my first Araubetical jigsaw solved, etc etc.

There is one ‘first’ that I remember more clearly. In my first blog on Fifteensquared (a Cinephile in the FT), one of the clues was a triple definition (unfortunately I cannot recollect the exact clue) and the answer was TIFFANIES. My comment/analysis was “tiffany is a silk-like gauze and it is also a breed of cat (alternative name ‘chantilly’). Then we have the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s with ‘say?’ indicating both the location and the homophone”. Two of the tiffanies (first and third) were obvious at the time of solving but the cat reference had to be added several hours after posting the blog as it took me some time to determine that it was also the name of a breed of cat.

Q18. Your message to your friends in crosswordland:

Geoff: I’m pretty useless when it comes to having to write something creative, answering your questions was easy by comparison!

I have learnt a lot from cryptic crosswords over the years, particularly regarding subjects that I had no interest in, or were not on the syllabus, when I was at school so they are educational as well as a source of entertainment.

I would therefore strongly urge those just starting out in, and recent newcomers to, this (at times) weird world of cryptic puzzles to persevere and to continue with this enjoyable and informative pastime.

For those with more experience, I would recommend moving on to progressively harder puzzles so as to continue to challenge and exercise the brain. Finally, for those, like me, who have many years’ solving experience you know what they say (to mimic a well-known adage) “a crossword a day keeps dementia at bay”.

The image at the top is a print of a painting titled 'Edge of Night', from which Gaufrid's Fifteensquared avatar was generated. The painting is by Morten E. Solberg, an American artist who specialises in combining wild life with abstract. It is a favourite with Geoff - he has a limited edition full size print of it on his lounge wall. - Shuchi

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