Tuesday 10 January 2012

Another themeless double-header

Thursday was back-to-school here in Saskatchewan. I'm still on a workterm, though, so I'm relatively unaffected. However, what that does mean to me is new guerrilla crosswording opportunities. Since last time was such a success and because those giant sudoko boards are just begging to be hijacked, I'll be engaging in a little more bananarchy again this semester. Why stop there, though? If you know of any good guerrilla crosswording locations, let me know. If they're accessible to me (i.e. in the GRA - Greater Regina Area) I'll fill 'em in. If not, just send me the dimensions of the grid and the audience demographics, and I'll send you your very own, customized guerrilla puzzle, on the house. Just print and post the clue sheet, get out your chalk or other non-permanent medium (crossnerd.blogspot.com does not officially endorse destructive vandalism, but then again I can't stop you...), and go to town. In related musings, I'm thinking of bringing guerrilla crosswording to Burning Man. I've been wanting to go for a few years, but never felt like I had anything to offer to the Black Rock community. This might be the thing.

On to today's puzzles. Although 3 are posted, there are technically 2 (or 2 and a 1/2, maybe). Let me explain. Mini-Themeless #3 is actually a puzzle I made for my friends and family pre-crossnerd era. Since they're all Canadian, I slapped a badass bit of cancon in 3-down (and was quite proud of myself for filling around it). Well, I liked the puzzle so much that I wanted to share it with y'all, but my site stats tell me that about 3/5 of you are Yanks. What to do? Believe it or not, only 3 letter swaps were needed to transmogrify the entry into something gettable by my friends south of the border, and with one more swap in the NW-most square all of the crossings worked (they're not ideal, but totally legit)! So, two versions of MT#3 are on the menu today; both are pretty easy solves. MT#4, however, is genuinely difficult, and fairly offensive at times. It's got some showstopping long entries, but overall I wasn't thrilled about the final product. There's nothing horrible about the fill (except the clunker at 16-across), but a grid like this just ends up being a bunch of boring-at-best, questionable-at-worst fill supporting the grid spanners. Anyway, in case you hadn't figured it out 10-across was the seed entry, which seemed like a great idea until I had to clue it. I realized in doing this that although I'm comfortable putting just about anything "in the language" into a grid, it seems somehow less ok when I write the clue. I guess it's because the grid is empirical - simply a snapshot of the language I hear around me - whereas a clue is a subjective thing which will inevitably betray my own feelings about the topic itself. Not to worry, though, I'm not going to be shying away from salty language anytime soon. Just something I'll need to be aware of.

As for more pedestrian matters, the grids today are somewhat unusual. The irregular 11x13 is the same layout as the themeless from a fortnight ago (solve it here), but the other is rather unconventional indeed. It's a 12x12 (even with dimensions other than 15x or 21x, puzzles usually have an odd number of rows and columns, so that there is a center square), and looks somewhat bizarre. It is, in fact, symmetric, but it exhibits folding symmetry about the diagonal, rather than the standard 180 rotational symmetry. I got the idea from Joe Krozel's Aug 7, 2010 NYT puzzle, which is the only completely themeless grid with diagonal symmetry in the Shortz era (an earlier grid, from Feb 21, 2009, by Nothnagel and Walden was a Saturday "themeless," but had a mini-theme related to the grid's symmetry. Also, this quirky old puzzle has two types of coexisting symmetry: the inner formation is diagonally symmetric, while the outer fingers have the typical rotational symmetry. Yes, people actually take a great interest in this shit). Also noteworthy about Krozel's aformentioned grid is that it tied the black-square count record with 18, a record held for nearly 2 years by Kevin G. Der. Now, I'm certainly more curious than a normal person should be about what the practical and absolute theoretical lower limits for black-square and word counts are, but I highly doubt I'll ever be the one pushing those limits. At least not the practical ones (the theoretical limit depends directly on your wordlist, and I'm pretty sure finding it is an NP-Hard problem. I'm not wizardly enough to prove it, though). As much as I appreciate the insane constraint-heavy approach of guys like Krozel and Der, their puzzles are often an unsatisfying solve. Things tend to feel a little forced and inelegant, even if the compromised fill is minimal (there are always a few "ouch"s, of course). However, I do acknowledge that as a grid connossieur I'm somewhat biased by my awareness of the constraints while solving, and I often end up trying to figure out what entry the constructor would have fit in a given slot than mulling over the clues. Some of the runner-up puzzles on the record sheets, though, are quite smooth, and likely came about as a byproduct of the awesomeness of their constructors rather than concerted stabs at hall-of-fame grids. I feel we're at the point now where only the strained efforts are going to make it into the books. The current word-count record (52!?!! - my 12x12 has 48) was set in '05, and none of the titans - Berry, Longo, Estes, Blackard, Nosowsky, etc. - has had a record setter in years. It's only a matter of time before the Krozels and Ders take over. I just hope the puzzles are still fun.

tl;dr - new guerrilla xwords soon, American and Canadian versions of Themeless #3, Themeless #4 has diagonal symmetry, discussion of same

Share and enjoy the puzzles, and I'll see you next Tuesday.

Puzzles: Mini-Themeless nos. 3 (easy) and 4 (hard)
Rating: XW-PG and XW-MA, respectively
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

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