Archive for the Crosswords Category

Crossword Update

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2016 by telescoper

I haven’t posted anything for a while in the folder marked `Crosswords’ so here’s a quick update on the situation with respect to my adventures in the land of cruciverbalism.

This morning I received the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, and found this on the back page:

tls_winner

I like doing this crossword, as it involves an interesting mixture of literary references and more usual cryptic clues. Also, the prize is not a dictionary but a cheque for £40. I’ve actually won this weekly competition three times this year, which means I’ve netted £120 – more than enough to pay for the subscription. Since the TLS is also very interesting to read (once the crossword has been finished), this seems to be working out rather nicely!

I’ve had a couple of other wins recently. This set of dictionaries courtesy of the Everyman puzzle in the Observer:

dictionaries

And this pair of non-dictionaries courtesy of the Financial Times:

not_dictionaries

This good news aside however I must pass on some very distressing information. It is with great dismay at the accelerating decline of Western civilisation that I have to point out that I think there was a mistake in the latest Azed crossword (No. 2321). The clue at 21 down reads:

Remains of pyre – death of Cleo – packed with African timber? (7)

The checked lights give A-HHE-P, which strongly suggests ASH-HEAP (hyphens are not clued in Azed puzzles). The first part of the clue – `Remains of pyre’ – then parses as the definition. The cryptic part then comprises two parts: ‘death of Cleo’ (suggesting ASP) fits with ASHHEAP if ASP is `packed with African timber’, i.e. if a four-letter word meaning `African timber’ is included within ASP. I can’t find any such word HH-A, but SHEA is a kind of African tree. That, however, would give ASSHEAP which (as well as sounding a bit rude) does not fit with the definition or the checked light at 26 down (HEARTH, i.e. HEART+H).

I’m pretty sure, therefore, that this is a slip by the setter.

Academic Cruciverbalism

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I came across something I’ve never seen before: an academic paper about cryptic crosswords. It’s in an open access journal so feel free to clock – it’s not behind a paywall. Anyway, the abstract reads:

This paper presents a relatively unexplored area of expertise research which focuses on the solving of British-style cryptic crossword puzzles. Unlike its American “straight-definition” counterparts, which are primarily semantically-cued retrieval tasks, the British cryptic crossword is an exercise in code-cracking detection work. Solvers learn to ignore the superficial “surface reading” of the clue, which is phrased to be deliberately misleading, and look instead for a grammatical set of coded instructions which, if executed precisely, will lead to the correct (and only) answer. Sample clues are set out to illustrate the task requirements and demands. Hypothesized aptitudes for the field might include high fluid intelligence, skill at quasi-algebraic puzzles, pattern matching, visuospatial manipulation, divergent thinking and breaking frame abilities. These skills are additional to the crystallized knowledge and word-retrieval demands which are also a feature of American crossword puzzles. The authors present results from an exploratory survey intended to identify the characteristics of the cryptic crossword solving population, and outline the impact of these results on the direction of their subsequent research. Survey results were strongly supportive of a number of hypothesized skill-sets and guided the selection of appropriate test content and research paradigms which formed the basis of an extensive research program to be reported elsewhere. The paper concludes by arguing the case for a more grounded approach to expertise studies, termed the Grounded Expertise Components Approach. In this, the design and scope of the empirical program flows from a detailed and objectively-based characterization of the research population at the very onset of the program.

I still spend quite a lot of my spare time solving these “British-style” cryptic crossword puzzles. In fact I simply can’t put a crossword down until I’ve solved all the clues, behaviour which I admit is bordering on the pathological. Still, I think of it as a kind of mental jogging, forcing your brain to work in unaccustomed ways is probably good to develop mental fitness for other more useful things. I won’t claim to have a “high fluid intelligence” or any other of the attributes described in the abstract, however. As a matter of fact I think in many ways cryptic crosswords are easier than the straight “American-style” definition puzzle. I’ll explain why shortly. I can’t remember when I first started doing cyptic crossword puzzles, or even how I learned to do them. But then people can learn languages simply by picking them up as they go along so that’s probably how I learned to do crosswords. Most people I know who don’t do cryptic crosswords tend to think of them like some sort of occult practice, although I’ve never actually been thrown off a plane for doing one!

If you’ve never done one of these puzzles before, you probably won’t understand the clues at all even if you know the answer and I can’t possibly explain them in a single post. In a nutshell, however, they involve clues that usually give two routes to the word to be entered in the crossword grid. One is a definition of the solution word and the other is a subsidiary cryptic allusion to it. Usually the main problem to be solved involves the identification of the primary definition and secondary cryptic part, which are usually heavily disguised. The reason why I think cryptic puzzles are in some ways easier than the “straight-definition” variety is that they provide two different routes to the solution rather than one definition. The difficulty is just learning to parse the clue and decide what each component means.

The secondary clue can be of many different types. The most straightforward just exploits multiple meanings. For example, take

Fleeces, things often ordered by men of rank [6]

The answer to this is RIFLES which is defined by “fleeces” in one sense, but “men of rank” (soldiers) also order their arms hence giving a different meaning. Other types include puns, riddles, anagrams, hidden words, and so on. Many of these involve an operative word or phrase instructing the solver to do something with the letters in the clue, e.g.

Port’s apt to make you steer it erratically [7]

has the solution TRIESTE, which is an anagram of STEER+IT, port being the definition.

Most compilers agree however that the very best type of clue is of the style known as “&lit” (short for “and literally what it says”). Such clues are very difficult to construct and are really beautiful when they work because both the definition and cryptic parts comprise the same words read in different ways. Here’s a simple example

The ultimate of turpitide in Lent [5]

which is FEAST. Here we have “e” as the last letter of turpitude in “fast” (lent) giving “feast” but a feast is exactly what the clue says too. Nice.

Some clues involve more than one element of this type and some defy further explanation altogether, but I hope this at least gives you a clue as to what is involved.

Cryptic crosswords like the ones you find in British newspapers were definitely invented in the United Kingdom, although the crossword itself was probably born in the USA. The first great compiler of the cryptic type used the pseudonym Torquemada in the Observer. During the 1930s such puzzles became increasingly popular with many newspapers, including famously The Times, developing their own distinctive style. People tend to assume that The Times crossword is the most difficult, but I’m not sure. I don’t actually buy that paper but whenever I’ve found one lying around I’ve never found the crossword particularly hard or, more importantly, particularly interesting.

With the demise of the Independent, source of many prize dictionaries, I have now returned to the Guardian and Observer puzzles at the weekend as well as the interesting mixture of cryptic and literary clues of the puzzle in the weekly Times Literary Supplement and the “Genius” puzzle in The Oldie. I’ve won both of these a few times, actually, including the TLS prize just last week (£40 cash).

I also like to do the bi-weekly crossword set by Cyclops in Private Eye which has clues which are not only clever but also laced with a liberal helping of lavatorial humour and topical commentary which is right up my street. Many of the answers (“lights” in crossword parlance) are quite rude, such as

Local energy source of stress for Bush [5]

which is PUBES (“pub” from “local”+ E for energy +S for “source of stress”; Bush is the definition).

I send off the answers to the Eye crossword every time but have never won it yet. That one has a cash prize of £100.

Anyway, Torquemada, who I mentioned above, was eventually followed as the Observer’s crossword compiler by the great Ximenes (real name D.S. Macnutt) who wrote a brilliant book called the Art of the Crossword which I heartily recommend if you want to learn more about the subject. One of the nice stories in his book concerns the fact that crossword puzzles of the cryptic type were actually used to select recruits for British Intelligence during the Second World War, but this had a flip side. In late May 1944 the chief crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph was paid a visit by some heavies from MI5. It turned out that in a recent puzzle he had used the words MULBERRY, PLUTO, NEPTUNE and OVERLORD all of which were highly confidential code words to be used for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. The full background to this curious story is given here.

 

Farewell, Independent, and thanks for all the dictionaries..

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2016 by telescoper

I thought I’d resume blogging activity rather gently with a short post to mark the end of an era. Both the Independent and the Independent on Sunday have ceased to exist, at least in their print editions.  It was about three years ago that I switched from the Observer to the Independent on Sunday, which involved switching from the Azed cryptic crossword to Beelzebub for my most testing weekly crossword challenge. I stopped doing the Saturday Prize Cryptic puzzle in the Saturday Guardian too, in favour of the Independent Saturday Prize crossword in the Independent which immediately paid dividends in terms of prizes!

For crossword aficianados both the Azed and Beelzebub crosswords are composed by strict adherents of the rules set by the great Ximenes and both feature grids with no black squares, in contrast to the more normal Everyman puzzle. Jonathan Crowther, who sets the Azed puzzles is the successor to Ximenes in the Observer; he’s been setting puzzles there since 1971.

Anyway, the last Independent on Sunday was published on Sunday 20th March and it included a list of the winners of the last two Beelzebub puzzles; the very final one was No. 1,358:

Beelzebub

It’s a nice way to mark the end of an era! One last dictionary to add to the collection. I’ve completely lost track of the number of books of words I’ve won from the weekly puzzles in the Independent, but it’s certainly more than 50. I’ve given many away but there’s still a large stack in Dorothy’s office.

Anyway, I spent some of my Easter weekend off doing the Guardian  prize crossword (extra-large size, but quite easy) followed by Everyman and Azed in the Observer. I guess that’s my diet from now on…

 

Lucky Dictionaries

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , on November 17, 2015 by telescoper

Here’s a funny thing.

About two years ago I stopped buying the Observer on Sundays and switched to the Independent on Sunday. That decision was largely based on the cost of the paper rather than the quality of the crossword, but I ended up trading the Observer’s Azed and (easier) Everyman for the Sunday Independent’s Beelzebub and (easier) OUP Prize Cryptic. It’s paid off in terms of prizes – I’ve completely lost count of the number of dictionaries I’ve won from the Independent competitions.

However, two weeks ago I wasn’t feeling very well so I decided to stock up with diversions and for a change bought both the Independent on Sunday and the Observer. And so it came to pass that I did the Everyman crossword for the first time in more than two years. Today I received these:

Dictionaries

And a £15 book token to boot. All of which told me that I’d won the prize! Now what’s the probability of that? Maybe I’ll try again in a couple of years…

The Law of Averages

Posted in Bad Statistics, Crosswords with tags , , on March 4, 2015 by telescoper

Just a couple of weeks ago I found myself bemoaning my bad luck in the following terms

A few months have passed since I last won a dictionary as a prize in the Independent Crossword competition. That’s nothing remarkable in itself, but since my average rate of dictionary accumulation has been about one a month over the last few years, it seems a bit of a lull.  Have I forgotten how to do crosswords and keep sending in wrong solutions? Is the Royal Mail intercepting my post? Has the number of correct entries per week suddenly increased, reducing my odds of winning? Have the competition organizers turned against me?

In fact, statistically speaking, there’s nothing significant in this gap. Even if my grids are all correct, the number of correct grids has remained constant, and the winner is pulled at random  from those submitted (i.e. in such a way that all correct entries are equally likely to be drawn) , then a relatively long unsuccessful period such as I am experiencing at the moment is not at all improbable. The point is that such runs are far more likely in a truly random process than most people imagine, as indeed are runs of successes. Chance coincidence happen more often than you think.

Well, as I suspected would happen soon my run of ill fortune came to an end today with the arrival of this splendid item in the mail:

dictionary_beel

It’s the prize for winning Beelzebub 1303, the rather devilish prize cryptic in the Independent on Sunday Magazine. It’s nice to get back to winning ways. Now what’s the betting I’ll now get a run of successes?

P.S. I used the title “Law of Averages” just so I could point out in a footnote that there’s actually no such thing.

When random doesn’t seem random..

Posted in Crosswords, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 21, 2015 by telescoper

A few months have passed since I last won a dictionary as a prize in the Independent Crossword competition. That’s nothing remarkable in itself, but since my average rate of dictionary accumulation has been about one a month over the last few years, it seems a bit of a lull.  Have I forgotten how to do crosswords and keep sending in wrong solutions? Is the Royal Mail intercepting my post? Has the number of correct entries per week suddenly increased, reducing my odds of winning? Have the competition organizers turned against me?

In fact, statistically speaking, there’s nothing significant in this gap. Even if my grids are all correct, the number of correct grids has remained constant, and the winner is pulled at random  from those submitted (i.e. in such a way that all correct entries are equally likely to be drawn) , then a relatively long unsuccessful period such as I am experiencing at the moment is not at all improbable. The point is that such runs are far more likely in a truly random process than most people imagine, as indeed are runs of successes. Chance coincidences happen more often than you think.

I try this out in lectures sometimes, by asking a member of the audience to generate a random sequence of noughts and ones in their head. It seems people are very conscious that the number of ones should be roughly equal to the number of noughts that they impose that as they go along. Almost universally, the supposedly random sequences people produce only have very short runs of 1s or 0s because, say, a run like ‘00000’ just seems too unlikely. Well, it is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. In a truly random binary sequence like this (i.e. one in which 1 and 0 both have a probability of 0.5 and each selection is independent of the others), coincidental runs of consecutive 0s and 1s happen with surprising frequency. Try it yourself, with a coin.

Coincidentally, the subject of randomness was suggested to me independently yesterday by an anonymous email correspondent by the name of John Peacock as I have blogged about it before; one particular post on this topic is actually one of this blog’s most popular articles).  What triggered this was a piece about music players such as Spotify (whatever that is) which have a “random play” feature. Apparently people don’t accept that it is “really random” because of the number of times the same track comes up. To deal with this “problem”, experts are working at algorithms that don’t actually play things randomly but in such a way that accords with what people think randomness means.

I think this fiddling is a very bad idea. People understand probability so poorly anyway that attempting to redefine the word’s meaning is just going to add confusion. You wouldn’t accept a casino that used loaded dice, so why allow cheating in another context? Far better for all concerned for the general public to understand what randomness is and, perhaps more importantly, what it looks like.

I have to confess that I don’t really like the word “randomness”, but I haven’t got time right now for a rant about it. There are, however, useful mathematical definitions of randomness and it is also (sometimes) useful to make mathematical models that display random behaviour in a well-defined sense, especially in situations where one has to take into account the effects of noise.

I thought it would be fun to illustrate one such model. In a point process, the random element is a “dot” that occurs at some location in time or space. Such processes can be defined in one or more dimensions and relate to a wide range of situations: arrivals of buses at a bus stop, photons in a detector, darts on a dartboard, and so on.

The statistical description of clustered point patterns is a fascinating subject, because it makes contact with the way in which our eyes and brain perceive pattern. I’ve spent a large part of my research career trying to figure out efficient ways of quantifying pattern in an objective way and I can tell you it’s not easy, especially when the data are prone to systematic errors and glitches. I can only touch on the subject here, but to see what I am talking about look at the two patterns below:

pointbpointa

You will have to take my word for it that one of these is a realization of a two-dimensional Poisson point process and the other contains correlations between the points. One therefore has a real pattern to it, and one is a realization of a completely unstructured random process.

I show this example in popular talks and get the audience to vote on which one is the random one. In fact, I did this just a few weeks ago during a lecture in our module Quarks to Cosmos, which attempts to explain scientific concepts to non-science students. As usual when I do this, I found that the vast majority thought  that the top one is random and the bottom one is the one with structure to it. It is not hard to see why. The top pattern is very smooth (what one would naively expect for a constant probability of finding a point at any position in the two-dimensional space) , whereas the bottom one seems to offer a profusion of linear, filamentary features and densely concentrated clusters.

In fact, it’s the bottom  picture that was generated by a Poisson process using a  Monte Carlo random number generator. All the structure that is visually apparent in the second example is imposed by our own sensory apparatus, which has evolved to be so good at discerning patterns that it finds them when they’re not even there!

The top  process is also generated by a Monte Carlo technique, but the algorithm is more complicated. In this case the presence of a point at some location suppresses the probability of having other points in the vicinity. Each event has a zone of avoidance around it; the points are therefore anticorrelated. The result of this is that the pattern is much smoother than a truly random process should be. In fact, this simulation has nothing to do with galaxy clustering really. The algorithm used to generate it was meant to mimic the behaviour of glow-worms which tend to eat each other if they get  too close. That’s why they spread themselves out in space more uniformly than in the “really” random pattern.

I assume that Spotify’s non-random play algorithm will have the effect of producing a one-dimensional version of the top pattern, i.e. one with far too few coincidences to be genuinely random.

Incidentally, I got both pictures from Stephen Jay Gould’s collection of essays Bully for Brontosaurus and used them, with appropriate credit and copyright permission, in my own book From Cosmos to Chaos.

The tendency to find things that are not there is quite well known to astronomers. The constellations which we all recognize so easily are not physical associations of stars, but are just chance alignments on the sky of things at vastly different distances in space. That is not to say that they are random, but the pattern they form is not caused by direct correlations between the stars. Galaxies form real three-dimensional physical associations through their direct gravitational effect on one another.

People are actually pretty hopeless at understanding what “really” random processes look like, probably because the word random is used so often in very imprecise ways and they don’t know what it means in a specific context like this.  The point about random processes, even simpler ones like repeated tossing of a coin, is that coincidences happen much more frequently than one might suppose.

I suppose there is an evolutionary reason why our brains like to impose order on things in a general way. More specifically scientists often use perceived patterns in order to construct hypotheses. However these hypotheses must be tested objectively and often the initial impressions turn out to be figments of the imagination, like the canals on Mars.

Perhaps I should complain to WordPress about the widget that links pages to a “random blog post”. I’m sure it’s not really random….

In Praise Of The Oldie

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords with tags on December 9, 2014 by telescoper

Feeling the effects of advancing years, and ahead of another weekend out of circulation, I purchased a copy of the December edition of The Oldie last week to help pass the time. I heartily recommend this magazine to readers of a certain age for its eclectic mixture of articles, cartoons and, best of all from my point of view, a splendid crossword (set by Antico). In fact there are two crosswords, a tricky thematic cryptic puzzle called Genius, and a straightforward definition puzzle, namely, a little harshly, Moron. For the December edition there was a bumper-sized Genius puzzle which took me a good hour to solve, a distraction that I found most welcome. I’ve posted off my solution already in the hope that I can win another dictionary to add to my collection.

The Christmas OLdie also included a calendar which is already hanging on my office wall. Here is a cartoon from the calendar, which tickled me because of its topicality and operatic connection:

 

oldie

I’ve decided to take out a year’s subscription, so I hope they’ll forgive any copyright infringement involved in including that cartoon!