Tuesday, March 30, 2010

April Fool’s Day Specials

aprilfool When the Guardian published an April Fool's Day themed crossword on 1st April 2009, many of the thematic entries had me stumped. This crossword made references to April Fool pranks from years ago that I was unaware of.

A little digging later, it turned out that these pranks are pretty well-known and often find mention in crosswords. When tackling April Fool's Day crosswords this year and later – be prepared!

Some trivia to equip you to solve April Fool's Day themed clues.

Famous Pranks in Crosswords

Top two Fool's Day hoaxes that make repeat occurrences in cryptic clues:

  • Spaghetti Tree Hoax (1957): A BBC spoof documentary that talked about harvesting spaghetti from the "spaghetti tree", including footage of a family picking spaghetti strands off trees and laying them out to dry in the sun.

    It seems incredible that anyone could fall for this ruse but apparently people did. In 1957 spaghetti was a little-known foreign food in UK and BBC's word was taken without question.

  • San Serriffe (1977): The Guardian carried a seven-page supplement on 1st April 1977, describing an island nation called San Serriffe. The article examined the fictitious nation's history, geography and culture, and was full of puns on typeface names and punctuation symbols. (e.g. "…the dominant group are of European stock, the descendants of colonists, known as colons. There is also a large mixed-race group, known as semi-colons.")

    As this was an in-house joke of the Guardian, San Serriffe is most likely to be used in the Guardian crossword.

See April Fool's Day: Well-Known Pranks for other such pranks.

Solve These

A selection of clues based on April Fool's Day.

Guardian 24604 (Enigmatist): Gowk in springtime, playing polo with flair (5,4)

Guardian 24527 (Gordius): Spaghetti tree hoax was no laughing matter (4,1,4)

Mephisto 2440: If it’s played, one may put Yank on, and see him forgetting 1st of April (6,5)

Guardian 24662 (Puck): Fudge pie’s the target? Fantastic food supplier ...(9,4)

                                   ... had 1/4 of dollar pie sent round! (5,6)

                                   King featuring in naff series about republic (3, 8)

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sankalak Trivia

[Also read Gridman Trivia and Neyartha Trivia]

Sankalak's crosswords are testimony to the fact that a good crossword need not be a complex one. Sankalak appears immediately after Neyartha in the Hindu Crossword setter sequence; his clean unfussy clues make a pleasant contrast with Neyartha's devious ones.

Presenting some interesting findings about Sankalak's puzzles created between July 2008 and June 2009. Many thanks to Sankalak for sharing his database with me.

Clue Volume

sankalak-clues-per-puzzle Sankalak puts in an average of 29.13 clues per puzzle, lower than both Gridman (30.71) and Neyartha (33.37). sankalak-the-hindu-grid

He does "joint" clues (i.e. two slots in the grid with a common clue) more often than Gridman and Neyartha, which contributes to lowering the average. In one specific grid (shown alongside), 12D and 17D at the center share a single clue many a time. Answers like ALL-OUT(3-3), BIG BEN (3,3) and TIPTOP (6) have appeared in that location.

The average clue length is 7.35 words per clue, which falls between Gridman's 6.43 and Neyartha's 7.57.


Longest & Shortest Clues

The longest clue penned by Sankalak in the July 2008 – Jun 2009 window is:
He collects loose grain etc. after the harvest and is more skinny following end of feasting (7)

, with a count of 16 words. (Aside: Shouldn't it be 'skinnier' and not 'more skinny'?) The second longest:
What may not be asked of a witness results in the quiet dean losing out (7,8)

There are many contenders for the shortest clue title, most of them from the occasional non-cryptic clues that Sankalak includes in his puzzles (my pet peeve!). These are 1 and 2 word clues, such as:

Miscarry (5)
Ivan, say (4)

Vocabulary Freshness

For Gridman and Neyartha, you might recall that a few words get repeated with greater regularity than others in their grids. Gridman's word usage has spikes in favour of ERATO, EXTRA and INERTIA, and Neyartha has so far shown a marked affinity for TESLA. thc-setters-word-repetition 

A similar evaluation of Sankalak's word usage threw up a surprise. He seems to have no favourite grid words. It's a nearly flat word distribution in his case, with 97% of the answers used only once, 3% used twice and none used more frequently than that in a year's range of 72 puzzles.

The table on the right shows a comparison of the extent of word repetitions, in a sample set of 1963[1] consecutive clues by THC setters.

And a look at the Freshness Quotient (%age of words clued only once by the setter in the sample set)


Clue Text Wordle

Which words does Sankalak use most in his clue text? The wordle below has the answer. The more a word is used in the text of a clue, the larger it appears in the wordle.

*For meaningful results, common words like articles & prepositions have not been included in the visualization.

  • Sankalak's wordle is very similar to Gridman's, with the words "one" and "may" taking the maximum prominence.

  • The third-most used word by Sankalak is "time", usually to get T or ERA in charade clues.

  • The word "beginning" is fairly large on the wordle. A major share of it comes from "beginning of", which Sankalak uses often to get the initial letter of the following word.

[1] Why 1963 clues in the sample set? That number was chosen to match the size of Neyartha's complete database available for this study.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

What’s wrong with this clue?

In November 2009, the word for the Times Clue Challenge was HAND OVER.

I sent this in:

Clue: To suspend, Enter + Shift Control (4,4) HAND OVER

Explanation: The surface refers to keys on a computer keyboard. 'Shift Control' is commonly used in combination with other keys, as application shortcuts to perform operations like resuming/suspending a transaction.

Definition: Shift control

Wordplay: H(AND)OVER

suspend = HOVER 
To…enter = c/c indicator 
+ = AND

When the contest result was announced, the judge's comments caught me by surprise. A flaw in my clue had slipped me entirely.

So, tell me cluenatics - what's wrong with the clue?

Update (24 March 2010): Thanks everyone for your feedback about the clue. Many of you sensed that there was something amiss in the definition – you were on the right track. Vinod hit bull's-eye, he points out the same error in his comment as the Times Challenge judge.

This is exactly what the Times Challenge judge had to say:

The definition is "shift control" but for the transitive-verb answer it needs to be "shift control of". That's unfortunate, because this is otherwise a nice clue, instructing the solver to enter AND (+) in HOVER (even if the phrasing "X, enter Y" is a bit stilted) while presenting on the surface a plausible suggestion for using a computer keyboard.

'of' is so often an innocuous connector that it is easy to overlook it. Yet it can make or mar a clue, as it did in this case.

Lesson learnt: To verify that the definition 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.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Clue-Writing Contests

crossword-clue-writing-contests Clue writing contests (CWCs) provide a great way to polish clueing skills and improve crossword knowledge.

Here are some recommendations for CWCs on the web. Check them out, participate and have fun.

DIY COW Clue-Writing Contests
Anax's DIY COW Clue-Writing Contests

A weekly contest on the site owned by Anax, a setter with the Times UK. Anyone can register to participate.

Link: http://www.ukpuzzle.com/phpBB3/index.php

How It Works:

  • Each week (generally on a Sunday), the judge for the current round sets a word.
  • Participants post their clues for the word with an explanation.
  • Judging happens over the weekend. The judge evaluations the clues and picks the best clues. The winner goes on to become the judge for the next round.

The Rules:

  • The clue should preferably be Times-style; for more look at their Basic Rules page.
  • Multiple entries are allowed.
  • Revisions to old entries are allowed.
  • Entries are open for around a week; the exact duration/dates may vary. See the judge's opening notes for the round.

The Winner Gets: A chance to set the word for and evaluate the next round, and an entry into The Winners archive.

My Comments/Tips: The friendliest clue-writing forum that I know of. You'll find here a wealth of clue-writing talent, some brilliant evaluation of clues (sample 1, sample 2) and a cheerful atmosphere. For a new setter, this is a great place to start and learn.

As all entries are visible publicly, it works out better (at least for me) to avoid looking at others’ clues before writing your own.

In-jokes develop rapidly on this forum. If you keep away for a stretch, you might be mystified by some of the jargon when you return. (e.g. an "otter" = a bad clue, I haven't figured why!)

Times Clue Challenge
Times Crossword Club Clue Challenge 
A monthly clue writing contest open for members of the Times Crossword Club. Judged by a Times setter, currently Richard Rogan.

Link: (Login required) http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/games_and_puzzles/crossword/club/specials/ 

How It Works:

  • At the start of the month, the word for the clue challenge is announced.
  • Participants send in their clues by email.
  • Results are announced when the month is over. All the clues with the judge's comments are published. The top-3 winners and the runners-up are named. Along with the results, the word for the next challenge is also set.

The Rules:

  • The clue must be in the style of the Times daily crossword. Look at the page on ‘Clue Challenge Rules’ for more.
  • Only one entry per person is allowed.
  • Only the first entry is considered. No revisions are allowed.
  • The entry needs to carry a separate explanation of the clue's workings, else it might be disqualified.

The Winner Gets: An award of £50, and entry into the Clue Challenge Hall of Fame.

My Comments/Tips: This contest is pretty strict about admissible indicators, connectors and abbreviations. I have been submitting clues in this contest for a few months now and each time find out something new about what Times does not consider valid. Lesson learnt: When your wordplay looks questionable, it's wiser to err on the side of caution. Double-check abbreviations or obscure words with the COED and the Collins English Dictionary. Make sure that your clue satisfies all the listed Clue Challenge Rules.

Since only the first entry by a participant is considered and no revisions are allowed, send in your clue only when you're sure it is your best effort. There is a month's time - hold on to that impulsively written clue, you might think of something nicer soon.

CCCWC by &lit
The Crossword Centre Clue-Writing Competition
A monthly clue-writing competition open to all members of The Crossword Centre (crossword.org.uk) mailing list.

Link: http://www.andlit.org.uk/cccwc/main.php

How It Works:

  • The organizers set a word for clueing each month. Some contests come with special instructions such as Printer's Devilry or Wrong Number.
  • Participants put in their entries through the Entry Page (login required) on the site.
  • After entries are closed, the clues are displayed for voting. Any registered member can vote, even if they have not entered a clue in the contest.
  • Clues can be awarded points on a scale of 0-5. The voter can give a maximum of 5 points to any clue, and up to 15 points in total. Comments can be included, too.
  • After voting closes, the result is announced. The clue that gathers the highest points during voting is declared winner. The clue-writer’s name is shown if the clue features in the top ten. All comments are linked along with the relevant clues.

To understand the process better, see the competition help page, and a competition result page.

The Rules:

  • Only one entry per person is allowed.
  • Clues can be edited any number of times or withdrawn, up to the entry closing date. When voting begins, the latest version of the clue is considered.
  • The entry can carry a separate explanation of the clue's workings.

The Winner Gets: The top clue each month gets a prize donated by Collins. The top ten clues are awarded Annual Honours points, which go towards the Annual results.

My Comments/Tips:

A very well-organized forum. The best setting talents, including professional setters from reputed publications, participate on this CWC. The hidden voting system (only the clues are shown during voting, not the clue-writers' names) ensures that there's no elitism.

The Ximenean style of clueing is preferred, though the contest sometimes throws up surprises (e.g. in the Jan 2010 contest, an unXimenean clue was third). Some voters leave detailed and well-thought out feedback (sample). Note: Not all clues get feedback, only the ones the voters choose to comment on.

For the newbie setter, it helps to be mentally tough while participating here as the comments can sometimes be harsh. It can also be unsettling to see your clue languish at the bottom of the result table with near-zero points. For all that, it's worth the experience as you learn a lot by participating alongside very talented setters. Popular voting gives a real-world simulation of how your clue would be taken by solvers in print.

[Thanks to Vinod Raman, an active participant on CWCs, for his inputs.]

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Attention film-makers: Crossworders are not oddballs!

cruciverbalists-oddballs Have you seen the film No Reservations (2007)? A by-the-book rom com, except for a significant fact.

The leading lady is a crossword solver.

Each day she sits with her colleagues at the lunch table, armed with a pen and crossword grid. While the others laugh and chat, she is immersed in the crossword with a glum expression. She is also unkempt, unfriendly, has no "life" and no boyfriend. She is in therapy.

Along comes the hero. As it happens in such films, they spar then become friends. The lady grows cheerful and beautiful. After predictable twists, the movie moves towards the inevitable happy end.

Once Love enters the lady's life, she is never again to be seen solving the crossword.

In All About Steve (2009), the heroine is a crossword compiler for the (fictional) paper Sacramento Herald. She is also socially inept, clingy and spouts random facts to anyone within hearing range.

She gets so besotted with a man Steve (whom she has barely met) that she writes her next crossword themed entirely on him, titled "All About Steve". The crossword when printed frustrates the readers. (The paper obviously follows The Hindu's model of allowing anything by the setter to get published without checks.) She is fired from her job for this crossword.

Now unemployed, the lady stalks the man all across the country and gives him the creeps.

Any cruciverbalists up for a dharna against such unflattering stereotyping?

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Have No Enemy But Time

Time is the enemy "The innocent and the beautiful, Have no enemy but time", wrote W B Yeats.

Innocent and beautiful or not, crossword solvers must treat "time" as their foremost enemy. TIME = The Enemy is the cryptic setter's favoured device.

Example: a clue from yesterday's Hindustan Times 21777:
Left with this, as the enemy hasn't caught up? (4,2,4,5) TIME ON ONE'S HANDS

Some trivia about the expression "time is the enemy" -

  • Brewer's online dictionary of Phrase and Fable lists this phrase: "Time is the enemy of man, especially of those who are behind time."

  • "How goes the enemy?", "What says the enemy" were popular ways of asking "What time is it?" in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The catchphrase apparently originates from a dialogue of the play The Dramatist (1789) by Frederick Reynolds.

    Ennui. I've an idea, I don't like this Lady Waitfor't—she wishes to trick me out of my match with Miss Courtney, and if I could trick her in return—[Takes out his Watch.] How goes the enemy?—only one o'clock!—I thought it had been that an hour ago!

    In the play, the character Ennui who speaks these lines is described as "the time-killer, whose only business in life is to murder the hour".

  • There are various references in popular culture, such as a music album titled "Time is the Enemy" (1997) and an SFF novel called "No Enemy But Time" (1982).

Solve These

Have fun with these clues that use the time=enemy connection:

Sunday Times 4326: Having the enemy in to complete a quartet? (4-11)
Times 23947: Shrub the enemy talked of (5)
Times 23480: Opportunity to overcome the enemy when the first orders come (7,4)
Guardian 24814 (Enigmatist): So the enemy's winning nothing - area's within limit (7)

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Not Quite Homophones To The Indian Ear

homophone-dialectHomophone clues in crosswords set by British compilers can be confounding to the Indian solver.

Take this one:
ET 4392: Listened to you vulgarly speaking the language (4) URDU {~heard you}

For me, 'heard you' sounds nothing like 'Urdu'.

On solving blogs of UK crosswords, homophones often spur debate. Someone or the other protests that the words don't sound identical. Issues are brought forward about rhotic and non-rhotic accents. Strict crossworders expect the pronunciation as well as emphasis to correspond exactly. Slight digressions are put under the scanner.

But for Indian solvers, even the homophones that go without question can be tricky.


Guardian 24705 (Pasquale): Asian drunk, reported office worker (6) TYPIST {~Thai pissed}
'Thai' is supposed to be pronounced as 'tie', but most Indians pronounce it with a sound that isn't even present in the English alphabet.

If your accent differs from that of the crossword's primary audience, homophone clues in the crossword can be tough to resolve.

How should you approach these intractable homophones?

To start with, it is easy to identify that we have a homophone clue on hand. The homophone indicator can be spotted quickly, what remains is to discover the words that share pronunciation. Keep in mind that the words need not sound identical in your accent and work from there. When in doubt, looking up the dictionary for pronunciation and checking the audio online helps. That, plus the crossing letters make it not so formidable a challenge.

Solve These

Have a go at these clues, meant to be homophones:

Times Jumbo 672: Author pronounced Indian food good as side-dish (5)
Everyman 3298: A hardy grass from an Indonesian island, reportedly (6)
Guardian 24932 (Gordius): Plant confusingly spoken of for some time to come? (7)
FT 13290 (Gozo): Backstreet hair-dresser suggested as pantomime character (3,4)

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