Archive for Azed

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…

 

Goodbye to Azed

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on November 3, 2013 by telescoper

Having a bit of a tidy up on the blog earlier today, I noticed today that it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything in the category marked “crosswords”.

The reason for this is that the responsibilities I acquired with my current position have made it quite difficult to find the time to indulge my passion for cruciverbalism if I’m also going to keep this blog going. In fact, I’ve recently made a decision to ditch a puzzle that has been a favourite for some time, Azed in the Observer.

Some time ago I stopped getting the Guardian on Saturday and switched to the Independent. That has been quite rewarding because I’ve taken to the Indy crossword and have won the prize a number of times. I’ve lost count how many, actually, but it’s probably about twenty. The prize on each occasion was a dictionary, the same dictionary, and I’ve given most of them away.

I persevered with the Observer, chiefly because of Azed, but I’m afraid the quality of the paper has deteriorated as quickly as its price has increased. I therefore decided, with some regret, to switch to the Independent on Sunday. I find this is a much more compact and better written newspaper with, as a friend of mine accurately summed it up, “much less shite in it” than the Observer.

The Independent on Sunday has a normal prize cryptic (similar to the Saturday one) in the paper and another one, Beelzebub, in the magazine, which is similar in style of both grid and clues to Azed, nicely done but perhaps a little less challenging. There isn’t a monthly clue-writing competition either; since I always struggled to find the time and inspiration to offer decent clues I think it’s just as well that I admit defeat and withdraw from that competition. Perhaps I’ll return to it when I’ve got more spare time, which is only likely to happen when I’m retired..

P.S. Incidentally you can find the circulation figures of UK newspapers here. The Observer and the Independent on Sunday have both fallen precipitously since ~ 2007.

Crossed Words

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , on October 28, 2012 by telescoper

I’m still a bit fragile after a sudden bout of illness. Judging by my symptoms – and the fact that the worst of it seems to have passed in about 24 hours – I think it must have been this (i.e. the dreaded “Winter Vomiting Bug”). You’ll be relieved that I don’t intend to go into the details on here.

Anyway, being out of action all day yesterday has put me behind on a number of important things, including the weekend’s crosswords which also reminded me that it’s been a while since I posted anything in that particular file on here.  I did manage to get out to buy yesterday’s Independent, but haven’t started the puzzle yet. Incidentally, I should mention that I recently won the Independent Crossword Prize for the NINTH time. That means I’ve accumulated nine copies of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus in little over a year. I keep getting envious comments from people who’ve been entering this competition for years and have never won, but I seem to win it regularly every few weeks.  I have one copy of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus at home, one in my office at work. I gave one to my mum and the rest I’ve distributed to colleagues at work. I’ve even started a waiting list, although I may move on from Cardiff before I can fulfil all the requests…

Anyway, I was cheered this morning when I discovered that I’d won a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) in the Observer’s Azed Crossword Puzzle No. 2105. This puzzle was a “special” with the theme “Collisions”, introduced with the following rubric:

Down clues are normal. Each across entry consists of two answers which ‘collide’,  i.e. they overlap by one or more letters, the overlapping letters always appearing in  their correct order. Across clues consist of definitions of each of the full overlapping  answers and subsidiary indications of each minus the overlapping letters. Definition and subsidiary indication for one answer precede those for the other, but either  may come first. Numbers in brackets indicate the lengths of complete entries. One  across answer consists of two words. Competitors should submit with their entries  a clue in the style of the other acrosses to the unclued ‘collision’ at 1 Across, which  must be deduced.

I’m always very wary of unclued lights, but in this case it was quite easy to deduce TITANIC/ICEBERG was the combination that went with the overall theme as well as fitting with the other clues. I didn’t think that, for a “special”, the puzzle was all that difficult to solve but I did find it a mighty struggle to come up with a clue in which the join between the two separate parts was reasonably well disguised and which had a reasonable surface reading. My attempt was

Showing sex appeal in leather, very large bird knocked back cold fish

I’ll leave it to the reader to parse the clue and see how it fits with the instructions.

Anyway, with that I’m up to 10th place in the Annual Honours Table, but with only 3 out of 13 puzzles completed there’s plenty of time to fall back to my usual position!

Now, time to see if I can eat something without unwanted special effects….

Crosswords and Prizes

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on June 24, 2012 by telescoper

It has been a while since I last posted anything in the box marked Crosswords, so I thought I’d while away a bit of this dreary Sunday morning with a few thoughts on that topic.

Less than a year ago, I switched my Saturday newspaper from the Guardian to the Independent (see here for the reason). I’ve been doing the Independent Prize Cryptic every week since then, except when I’ve been away. I find it significantly more satisfying than the Guardian puzzle. I’m not sure the Independent‘s crossword is harder – although some of my friends think so –  but there seems to be better quality control there than at the Guardian.

I still occasionally do the Guardian puzzle at weekends by downloading it from the web. Yesterday’s celebrated a centenary – not difficult to guess whose! – but it wasn’t a particularly interesting puzzle, and I thought some of the clues were very clumsy.

Anyway, somewhat amazingly, I’ve actually won the Independent crossword prize no less than six times in the nine months or so since I starting doing it. An immediate inference from this is that there must be many fewer entrants than for the Guardian weekly puzzle, which I only won once every few years. The other side of this is that I’m accumulating dictionaries at an alarming rate. The prize for the Indy cryptic competition is The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, a substantial tome that retails for about £20. I now have one in my study at home, one in the sitting room, and one in my office at work. I gave one to my mum a while ago, and the other two I’ve given to colleagues at work. I’ll probably be disposing of a few more copies like that if things carry on the way they have in past months. I’ve even started taking advance orders…

I haven’t been doing so well this year in my favourite crossword competition, the Azed puzzle in the Observer. I started well enough, but then drew a blank on a number of occasions and slipped back down the table. However, this week I got another score with a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) in Azed 2087, and am currently in equal 24th place. There’s only one competition puzzle left, and I’m a long way off the pace set by the leaders, so I’m not going to finish much higher than that even if I do well in the last competition.

Anyway, my clue for the word ROCKET was:

Dicky ticker – love might make this one race!

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to parse, although it involves a “comp. anag.” It goes without saying that the prize-winning clues are much better than my effort!

Incidentally, I noticed yesterday that my post about the Azed 2000 lunch a couple of years ago was getting a bit of traffic. I don’t really know why, but in the course of looking around I saw that there’s a nice collection of photographs of the event here. I couldn’t embed any of them here as they’re protected.

The general reaction of people I work with to all this cruciverbalism is that it’s a waste of time. I actually don’t agree, except insofar as everything is a waste of time when you think about it. Crosswords for me are a form of mental jogging. They exercise a brain in a way that’s different from the usual things it is faced with. In my case, a lot of my work involves puzzles of various kinds. Some are mathematical, connected with my research, but the most difficult ones are bureaucratical: trying to work out what all the paperwork is for and how to fill it in without losing my rag. Despite a complete lack of empirical evidence to support this assertion, I think doing crosswords keeps my brain from ossifying and enables it to think more flexibly. Or maybe I protest too much. Perhaps I just enjoy them.

Setters and Solvers

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by telescoper

I realise that yesterday I said I only had time for a quick post, and then proceeded to write >1000 words on the subject of Masters degrees. Today I really only have time for a quick post, as I have to finish writing my examination paper (amongst other things).

Anyway, I haven’t blogged about crosswords for a while so I just thought mention a few things. Some time ago I switched from the Guardian to the Independent on Saturdays. The Guardian is a sad case. As its circulation falls, the price continues to rise. It is now getting more expensive virtually by the week. It comes with stacks of tedious supplements which go straight into the recycling bin anyway. There’s much less of the Independent and it’s both higher quality and cheaper. There’s a lesson there for the Grauniad, I think.

More importantly (for me) the Guardian’s crosswords have gone rapidly downhill and I much prefer the Independent’s setters nowadays. I do occasionally do the Grauniad prize one by downloading it from the net, especially if it’s Araucaria, but most of the other setters are nowhere near as good. Since I started doing the Indy crossword last year I’ve won the prize, a rather splendid dictionary, three times. I’ve got one in my study at home and one in my office. The other I gave to my mum. If I win any more I’m not sure how I’ll dispose of them. Perhaps I could open a shop?

The magazine bit of the Independent has a more difficult crossword called Inquisitor. I’m not sure about these at all. Sometimes they’re really good, but too often they require so many modifications to be made to each solution before entry into the grid that they become completely tedious, and the completed puzzle just looks like a random jumble of letters. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my crosswords to have words in them. Last week’s (Inquisitor 1217) was an extreme example, with “thematic modifications” all over the place and some parts of the puzzle completely unclued. It turned out that you had to remove every third letter of each solution before entering it into the grid, the theme being an obscure and entirely unclued reference to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “And he stoppeth one of three”. I got there in the end – I find I can’t leave a puzzle incomplete once I’ve started – but I didn’t post it off in protest at how unsatisfying it was.  I don’t mind difficult puzzles, but they have to be fair: leaving huge parts of the puzzle unclued means that it’s just guesswork rather than logic.

My favourite crossword is still Azed in the Observer. I got off to a good start in this year’s clue setting competition with a run of VHCs (“Very Highly Commended”). However, I didn’t have time to do the Christmas Azed and have therefore slipped down the league table a bit.

I got an HC in the last competition, No. 2070, in which the word to be clued was MISTREATMENT. My clue was

Kinky “Master” welcoming one into pain or wanting abuse

i.e. anagram of MASTER including I running into TORMENT with OR missing (wanting); abuse is the definition. It’s OK I suppose but admittedly not as good as the prize-winning entries.

This word is tailor-made for an &lit type of clue, which Azed seems to like. The winning entry for this one was of this type

Abuse T. Emin’s art met?

So you can read this as “abuse” (an anagram indicator) of the subsequent letters to make MISTREATMENT or the whole clue itself as a definition. Azed seems to allow a lot of slack in the definition part of such clues, but I’m not at all convinced that “T. Emin’s art” has ever been actually mistreated so I don’t like this as much as some of the other clues. It’s not my decision, however, and I have to say some of the clues in the list are really superb, much better than my mundane effort.

I love solving crossword puzzles, but I find setting the clues extremely difficult. I think I’m the same way with physics too. I like solving – or trying to solve – problems of various kinds, but I find setting them very hard work. That’s why it takes me so long to write examination papers, and why I consequently have to go into the office on a lovely spring sunday. It would be much easier to set exactly the same paper as last year, but of course no self-respecting university teacher would ever even dream of doing that….

Another Crossword Competition

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , on October 24, 2011 by telescoper

Flushed with success after winning a prize in the Saturday Independent crossword competition (even if it is yet another dictionary) and flying high at No. 6 in the Azed Annual Honours List I thought I’d have another go at setting a puzzle for my readers. There were some complaints that my last crossword was too difficult, so here is a slightly simpler one for you:

Across                                                       Down

1  Current symbol for ego?                    1  One visual organ, we hear

 

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