Archive for Times Literary Supplement

‘Stephen Hawking RIP’ by Ella Baron

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 5, 2018 by telescoper

I just saw this lovely illustration (by Ella Baron) and thought I would share it here.

It appears in the March 23 of the Times Literary Supplement which arrived in Maynooth while I was away and I’ve just found time to read it. I subscribe to the TLS primarily because I like the crossword..

The ‘cartoon’ is accompanied by an excerpt from A Brief History of Time:

If a pulse of light is emitted… then as time goes on it will spread out… like ripples on the surface of a pond when a stone is thrown in…

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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.

 

Dublin Back

Posted in Art, Books, Talks and Reviews, Crosswords, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 28, 2009 by telescoper

I’m just back from a flying visit to Dublin, where I gave a talk yesterday at a meeting of the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland (ASGI), an organization which promotes scientific collaborations between individuals and institutions on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Eire. The venue for the twice-yearly meetings moves around both countries, but this time it was held in the splendid environment of Trinity College, Dublin.

It turned out to be an easy trip from Cardiff to Dublin and my first opportunity to try out Cardiff’s fine little airport. A small airline called Air Arann operates the route to Dublin from there, and it all went to schedule despite the plane having to struggle against a 70 mph head wind across the Irish sea. For our small propeller-driven plane, that made a signficant difference to the flying time.

Arriving in Dublin on Thursday I had time to have a nice dinner before settling in to my hotel in the Temple Bar region of the city. There’s a huge concentration of bars and nightclubs there and it’s a traditional area for Stag and Hen Parties. There was plenty of evidence of drunken debauchery going on into the early hours of the morning, which remind me of the way the Irish rugby fans carried on last weekend in Cardiff.

Anyway, the meeting itself was interesting with a wide range of talks most of which were given by PhD students. I enjoy meetings where the younger scientists are encouraged to speak; too many conferences involve the same people giving the same talk time after time. Solar Physics was particularly  well represented, and I learned quite a bit about about things that are far from my own province. 

There isn’t much actual cosmology done in Ireland (North or South) so my brief as invited speaker was to give an overview of the current state of the field for astronomers who are not  experts in cosmological matters. I therefore gave a summary of the concordance model which I’ve blogged about before and then made some comments about things that might point to a more complete theory of the Universe. I also mentioned some of the anomalies in the cosmic microwave background that I’ve also blogged about on here.

I usually use this piece of Hieronymus Bosch The Last Judgement to illustrate my feelings about the concordance model:

das_letzte_gericht

 

 
The top part represents the concordance cosmology. It clearly features an eminent cosmologist surrounded by postdoctoral researchers. Everything appears to be in heavenly harmony, surrounded by a radiant glow of self-satisfaction. The trumpets represent various forms of exaggerated press coverage.

But if you step back from it, and get the whole thing in a proper perspective, you realise that there’s an awful lot going on underneath that’s not so pleasant or easy to interptet. I don’t know what’s going down below there although the unfortunate figures slaving away in miserable conditions and suffering unimaginable torments are obviously supposed to represent graduate students.

The main point is that the concordance model is based on rather strange foundations: nobody understands what the dark matter and dark energy are, for example. Even more fundamentally, the whole thing is based on a shotgun marriage between general relativity and quantum field theory which is doomed to fail somewhere along the line.

Far from being a final theory of the Universe I think we should treat our standard model as a working hypothesis and actively look for departures from it. I’m not at all against the model. As models go, it’s very successful. It’s a good one, but it’s still just a model.

That reminds me of the school report I got after my first year at the Royal Grammar School. The summary at the bottom described me as a “model student”. I was so thrilled I went and looked up the word model in a dictionary and found it said “a small imitation of the real thing.”

Anyway, the talk went down pretty well (I think) and after a quick glass of Guinness (which definitely went down well) I was back to Dublin airport and home to Cardiff soon after that: Cardiff airport to my house was less than twenty minutes. I greatly enjoyed my short visit and was delighted to be asked to do a couple of seminars back there in the near future.

I was in a  good mood when I got home, which got even better when I found out that I won the latest Crossword competition in the Times Literary Supplement. And the prize isn’t even a dictionary. It’s cash!