Tuesday 29 May 2012

Like space, without the stars

Not much to say this week. Did an overnight cancer fundraiser on Friday, and then came home Saturday morning to learn that cancer had claimed the life of the legendary and estimable Doug Heller. So it goes. I didn't know Doug personally, but to all of you who did, you have my condolences.

Tuesday snuck up pretty fast this week, and I only had time for a 13x13 themeless (I guess you could say it has a mini-theme, as about 1/6 of the letters are within the 2-part long answer, but it plays like a themeless). Maybe next week I'll do something different and make a 15x15 themed puzzle, but no guarantees.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Mini Themeless #12
Rating: XW-14A
Download the PDF file here and the PUZ file here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the embedded app below.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Grids? Where We're Going, We Don't Need Grids

I'll keep it brief in the "miscellaneous crossword happenings and musings" section. Started working on my speed-solving a bit for seemingly no reason at all. I've been posting my times at Dan Feyer's blog, but it's embarrassing so you should also post your times if you're not the greatest speed-solver. Really, though, I'm hoping that posting my times and being embarrassed will help me to get better. I'll keep you posted.

Today's puzzle is the first diagramless of the Cross Nerd series. I actually rarely solve diagramless puzzles these days, truth be told, but I grew up solving the ones in the old Dell magazines during the summers at the lake (if you saw my skin, you wouldn't be surprised that I shunned the beach for puzzles as a kid). Come to think of it, I don't really remember solving any of the regular crosswords. Who made those anyway? None of the constructor bio blurbs I've read have mentioned Dell, if memory serves. I'll have to check out some of the bylines in them the next time I'm out at my parents' cabin. Anyway, I hadn't really intended to make one but I had a neat grid design in mind and I thought it might work if carefully clued. The theme is really loose in this one. Some might say inelegant, but my stated goal was to use the entries to sort of paint a picture of the thematic idea (I'll try to keep the background non-specific so as to not give anything away, but skip this paragraph if you're really spoiler-paranoid). I tried to cram a lot into the grid and imposed a number of constraints to solidify the delivery, but I'm afriad I may have shot too high and eschewed the WWPBD (What Would Patrick Berry Do?) approach a few too many times. This was certainly the most difficult grid I've tried to fill (in the end, though, there's nothing in the grid that makes me cringe - so-so stuff en masse, mind you), and I struggled right till the end with tying the thematic stuff together in the clues and making sure I had satisfied all of the constraints. I caught a few biggies that necessitated substantial rewrites, but in the end was still left with one irreparable and grievous transgression. So, I added another equally grievous one to offset it, and highlighted them in the clues, as a another nudge to the solver. Also, I thought of another layer to add near the very end, but realized that comprehensively executing it was infeasible given the time constraints, if not impossible altogether without a complete do-over. So that's kind of left dangling in the puzzle, but I don't think it will be very evident at all to the solver. Anyway, this is kind of a different one. It's hard for me to know, but as a solver I feel that I would find a good satisfying challenge in this puzzle, but I'm sure some of you will hate it. Let me know!

For tyros:

Solving a diagramless crossword is like solving a regular crossword and a jigsaw puzzle at the same time. Maybe a bit like solving one of those murder mystery jigsaws. I think I had a Sue Grafton one at one point; "P is for Poison" or something like that. You know, one of that series that has given us 26 ready-made entries such as JIS, XIS, IIS, etc. Anyway, here are some tips for working a diagramless:
  • Don't be afraid; deep knowledge of construction or common grid layouts is not required. The grids are often unusual to trip you up, anyway. You will need to know 2 things, though:
    1. The puzzle be symmetric in any number of ways, or not at all. Rotational symmetry (flip your paper 180 degrees and it looks the same) is the most common, but symmetry about either of the diagonals, the N-S axis, or the E-W axis are possible as well. Although you can't always be sure (without using the hint, at least, which is not "cheating" so don't feel bad), it's helpful to watch for it.
    2. You'll also need to understand the numbering scheme. It's easy. If a white square is below and/or to the right of either a black square or the border, it gets a number. The numbering begins with 1 in the upper-left, and proceeds consecutively from left-to-right, top-to-bottom (incrementing only on the squares that should be numbered). If you're still confused, take a look at another puzzle (there are several on this site, for instance) and the scheme should become apparent.
  • Speaking of numbering, the big gimme is the length of 1-Across. Every puzzle has a 1-Across, but the number of the second clue varies depending on the length of 1-A. This is true of every entry, in a way, but here we can know what that length is because every letter in 1-A must be numbered (because we know they all abut the border of the grid). For instance, in this puzzle the 2nd clue is 8-Across, so we know that 1-Across is 7 letters long. As a bonus, we know that the Xth letter in 1-A must be the first letter of X-Down, which will help us get a solid block of letters in place, hopefully.
  • If you do manage to get a block of letters, look at the next few across clues and try to find answers that will cross that block. Beyond 1-A you can't always be sure of the length of any entry based on the numbers alone, so you won't know which should fit, but if you do get a couple of acrosses in place and notice that there are extra acrosses that won't fit in the block, you know that there is another open space at another position on the corresponding row.
  • If you get stuck working outward from 1-A, look for pairs of across and down clues that share a number. You can be sure that they also share first letters, and any crossings are helpful at this point. If you get a bunch of these in one area, you can start connecting some of them.
  • At least in this puzzle, every row and column has at least one entry (i.e. no row or column is entirely blacked-out)
  • At least in this puzzle, the clues are fairly easy to make it fair. Don't be afraid to take your best guess at a clue!

You'll probably want to use some or all of the hints. Knowing the symmetry or lack thereof is par for the course, so check that for sure unless you're hardcore. Often, the first square is offered as well. I figured that knowing the location of the last entry might help as well, so I've given you that (note that me saying this reveals nothing of the symmetry. There is no pair of first and last entries such that you can determine the axis of symmetry (or if the grid is asymmetric) just from their first squares. Think about it. While you're at it, can you think of a case where you could determine the symmetry if you also knew the lengths of the entries? There's at least one)

Hints (highlight the white space after the title to view):

Symmetry: The grid is asymmetrical
Location of 1-Across: Top row, 18th square from the left
Location of 80-Across: Bottom row, 6th square from the left
Grid hint (mild): The grid layout is meaningful and thematic
Grid hint (severe): The grid depicts two well-known and related symbols.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Diagramless #1
Rating: XW-PG13

Print-out only this week, as Across Lite doesn't support diagramlesses, to my knowledge. I'll look into Crossword Solver for the next one, though, as I think it supports these wacky puzzles.
**UPDATE** as of Tuesday morning: stay tuned for the electronic version! As Dan pointed out in the comments, AL V2.0 does indeed support diagramless. I remember seeing that in their documentation as well, but I must've forgotten. I guess my real point is that Crossword Compiler doesn't export diagramless puzzles to PUZ format, but again I could be wrong. Anyway, I'll whip up the PUZ later today (probably after work) and post it for y'all. Thanks Dan!
**ANOTHER UPDATE** I've added a dl link for the PUZ file. See below.

Download the PDF here and get a blank grid here. Or, you can download the Across Lite file here. Note that you won't be able to solve it in AL without revealing the grid, but it does offer a convenient printable format. V2.0 only.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Size Matters Not

In case you haven't noticed, I'm all about the themeless puzzles of unconvential size. In fact, though I've constructed a few, I've yet to run a 15x15 themeless on this site. While I will concede that themes may best be tightened and rendered elegant under certain constraints and adherence to tradition, I feel that themeless grids should be made to fit the entries, as the entries are their raison d'etre. Of course, in general, the placement of black squares in themelesses of any size, conventional or not, is determined at least somewhat by the entries. My point, though, is that with so many great potential entries with 16+ letters (big entries need lovin too), why limit yourself? The only real issue I can see with this is that maybe either the allotted print area or the solving software will not allow for oblong and/or large grids. The print argument I can understand, but it's becoming less and less of an issue as more and more electronic-only puzzle markets are popping up. As for the solving software argument, to my knowledge if you're using any of the common solving programs then you don't have to worry (until you get to ludicrous dimensions like T Campbell's Ubercross C-Spot. As an aside, I had the pleasure of meeting him at the ACPT and having an interesting discussion about the challenges of constructing such a monster. That bitch has NO repeated words!).

I guess maybe if you're a speed solver you want puzzle formats to be consistent so that you can meaningfully compare times. Then again, themelesses run the gamut from around 72 to 52 words anyway (which is a huge difference if you're just considering the number of clues to parse), and solving a puzzle with 3 triple-stacks is quite different from solving a clover-leaf-style grid with mostly 6-7 letter entries, even if their word counts are identical. Plus, the speed demons will still solve each one in 5 minutes and the universe will be at peace. In a similar vein, since the typical metrics of block and word count kind of go out the window when dealing with grids of strange dimensions, editors would have to come up with new limits for acceptable grids. That's the nice thing about this site, though: I don't have an editor (which admittedly sucks sometimes), and I can construct whatever I want. I don't really have any extra time to prepare submissions for major markets, but having this sort of freedom does make up for it. By the same token, I've played around a bit with asymmetrical themelesses. Again, it's nice to have the freedom to be able to make the grid accommodate the seed entries you want, but on the other hand, as any artist will tell you, working with fewer constraints requires more creativity. I have a hard enough time deciding on the best possible fill as it is, so in the interests of actually completing a puzzle every week I tend to favour having symmetry constrain my entries somewhat. Plus, I do actually value grids that are pleasing to the eye (which mine rarely are, but anyway...), and though asymmetrical grids can obviously be nice to look at (recall Liz Gorski's Guggenheim gem from 2009), a good asymmetrical grid therefore still imposes constraints.

Today's themeless is, true to form, a 19x13. Had a few 19-letter entries laying around that needed a home (although I ended up scrapping most of them and finding new ones during the construction process), and 13 was a nice height that didn't force the layout too much (smaller puzzles are actually tougher sometimes, since forbidding 3-letter entries and grid partitioning really limits your black square placement as the grid shrinks), but also kept the number of clues I had to write at a manageable number. I would have liked to have a couple fewer black squares and short answers (there are a bunch of 9s and a handful of 6-8s, but there are 40 4-letter entries!), but at the same time I'm sure the fill wouldn't have turned out so clean were that the case. It's not outstanding as it is, but there's nothing too atrocious in there. I was happy that at least one of the four corner stacks has a CAP quotient (Crosswordese, abbrevs., and partials - thanks to pannonica for that) of exactly zero. Enjoy!

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Themeless #11
Rating: XW-PG
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

Monday 7 May 2012

Running Back to Saskatoon

Up in Toon Town for the second time in three days. Drove up on Saturday night with a few friends for a Ghost/Mastodon/Opeth show. Ghost's bizarre stage show blew me away, and their compositions were tight. Mastodon was solid, but not as good as when I saw them last (granted, they were headlining that night). Had never seen Opeth before, and they were every bit as astonishing as I had imagined they would be.

After returning home basically just to sleep off Saturday night and watch Game of Thrones, I drove back up to 'stoon at 5 this morning for a work-related conference. Spent the day attending talks and fielding the tough questions, and then hit the town for some boozing and schmoozing with the coworkers and various auxiliary personnel. Needless to say, I'm completely bushed, and unmotivated to write much more than I already have. Alls I'll say is that this week's puzzle is another 15x themed. It was originally intended to be the final Campus Crosswords puzzle, but due to a scheduling snafu it won't be run as part of the CC series, so here it is! I thought it was a bit easier than the usual Cross Nerd fare, but my test solvers told me otherwise. Either way, I hope that you enjoy it.

***Update on Wednesday morning***
Errata: (SPOILER ALERT - highlight the following text to read about the last theme entry)
A few of you have pointed out a couple of weaknesses with the last theme entry, POUND'S GRAVE.  Before the puzzle was published, a few people expressed uncertainty about pound being a unit of mass.  In fact, it seems that "pound" has a complicated history of usage, and can be used as a unit of either mass or weight/force.  See the wikipedia entry for more elaboration.  I do stand by the usage in the theme answer, however, as an unqualified "pound" is assumed to be the mass pound.  Nevertheless, in hindsight this was a poor choice for a theme entry because of the ambiguity.

The bigger problem, though, which I only learned this morning (give it up one time for Jeffrey Harris, who brought it to my attention), is that Ezra Pound did not write "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," contrary to what the clue implies.  I had come up with the wording and format of the clue, and then quickly skimmed the Wikipedia article on Ezra Pound for a recognizable title.  In my haste, it seems I overlooked the part that said that Pound was merely responsible for the publication of the T.S. Eliot poem.  The clue still sort of works, but it's not ideal, especially considering the ambiguity resulting from the substitution of POUNDS for MASS.

Alas, I'm at work (and therefore without the means to change the puzzle) until the end of the day.  Therefore, the puzzle will remain on the site for at least a little while as a symbol of my lack of rigour.

***Update on Wednesday night***
The online puzzle has been corrected.
More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Measuring Schtick
Rating: XW-14A
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Infer a Treat

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with cluing. When I have the time and am feeling sharp I love it - I love free-associating, discovering interesting uses and contexts for familiar words, researching arcane trivia, and generally getting creative. On the other hand, when I've got an impending deadline and/or I'm not feeling all that inspired, a list of 70+ empty lines is a dreadful sight. At times like that, it can just seem like a real slog (mind you, even when I'm in the mood to clue I usually only get through about 30 or 40 in one sitting). Designing a grid is different - although I may proceed one corner or section at a time, I always have a sense that it's a single, unified thing that I'm working on, and my progress is always immediately apparent. Cluing, though, is just one word after another, each one entirely independent of the others (excluding theme entries, of course, but I usually work out how I'm going to clue them before even designing the grid), and at times it seems to never end.

In an effort to become better and more consistent at it, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the art of cluing lately. And there is an art to it. Elegant grids tend to get all the credit, but to me an eclectic, playful, and evocative set of clues is just as beautiful. Plus, since the same words pop up all the time in grids, it can require real creativity and artistry to take a word places its never been before in search of that new clue for ERA or ENO. Looking at the big picture, a set of clues seems more balanced and refined when it covers many disparate subject areas, uses many types of wordplay (alliteration, puns, etc), and is comprised of clues of varying lengths and forms. To top it all off, the cluing is a major factor in the difficulty of a puzzle, and it can even be employed to control the solver's flow around the puzzle, to ensure that longer answers, theme answers, and revealers or punchlines are not discovered too soon. A far cry from simply looking up definitions in the dictionary, no? At the end of the day, though, even if you ignore all of this you can't ignore one simple fact: the grid is just the solution; the clues make it a puzzle. Which is another reason why I've taken an interest in the finer points of cluing. My grids may have a few fun answers but they're nothing to write home about. However, if I can dress them up with great clues, they might have a chance at being great puzzles. Plus, there are so many constraints on grids that it can be frustrating to not be able to put everything I'd like in there. With clues, though, there really aren't any constraints (so long as they're fair), so I can let my voice come through and hopefully make the puzzle into something unique and different. More than ever before I'm taking note of what makes good clues work, what sort of clues I like, and how my clues have fallen short. For instance, I've noticed that I'm very fond of the Peter Gordon-style "she blinded me with science" trivia misdirection clue. These are clues that seem to ask you for an unreasonably obscure piece of trivia but in fact require you to identify one or two operative terms and use them and a few crossings to infer a fairly well-known answer. For example, getting a 3-letter answer for "He built Threepio" doesn't really require deep knowledge of "Star Wars" lore, but rather that you know that both Threepio and ANI are informal names for characters in the "Star Wars" universe. Plus, you learn something along the way. Now, I've really latched on to this style, and you'll see a number of clues like this in today's puzzle. In fact, I've been so stoked on "inferrence over knowledge" type clues that I've put a few long marquee answers in there that you'll likely have never heard of, but I think you'll have fun piecing together from the clues.

Speaking of today's puzzle, it's a 14x15 themeless. Nothing noteworthy on the construction front (69/32 in a 14x15 probably corresponds to a 70 or 72 word 15x15 puzzle, which is generally the upper limit in an American-style themeless, and there are unfortunately 20 3-letter answers in there. Plus, I cheated and made the grid 14 blocks wide to accommodate the long answers), but I definitely had fun with the cluing. It's a bit tougher than usual, but I am thinking of making "tough themeless/moderate themed" the rule around here, a la BEQ. Hopefully (btw, this is now a perfectly legit usage of "hopefully") you like it.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Themeless #10 (not really a mini-themeless, but I've continued the numbering scheme)
Rating: XW-14A

Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.