I just finished today’s Listener puzzle, “Ups and Downs”, at about 6:00 pm after less than two hours’ solving time — just part of my lunch break and the first half hour of my commute home. Very satisfying puzzle, too, even if it turned out to be a relatively easy one. The references in most of the clues to either music, especially Handel works, or the Bible are a sweet touch (and of course a teaser to the nature of the theme), and I found gradually piecing together the theme of the puzzle to be a lot of fun.
Friday was an excellent day both for chamber concerts and for cryptic crosswords. In the evening Dave and I went to hear the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra at Herbst Hall. The first half of the program was pleasant and charming but not terribly exciting — a Vivaldi concerto for guitar and viola d’amore, a set of variations on “Là ci darem” by Beethoven, and a new piece by Gabriela Lena Frank called Inca Dances — all of it played with spirit and delight but none of it very powerful stuff.
But then the second half was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, reorchestrated for a chamber orchestra of 14 players. That turned out to be an astonishing and thrilling experience. The Rite of Spring is a piece I’ve known since studying it in college a quarter of a century ago, but this performance made it all very fresh again, as well as harsh and shocking and brutal and potentially riot-inciting. It was like hearing the piece again for the first time, and I heard a lot in the transparent textures and harmonies that I don’t remember noticing before.
Plus, for those who like their ballet scores accompanied by some choreography, you could watch the two percussionists doing their obviously well-rehearsed dance as they scurried around the back of the stage managing the drums and marimba and all the rest.
All in all, this may have been the most exciting concert I’ve been to in quite a few months.
Friday’s Listener puzzle, called “Carte Blanche en Tore”, is also my favorite in a while. It’s essentially what in America is called a diagramless puzzle. I love this kind of puzzle, love the process of finding how the words fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, though it’s also true that this sort of puzzle also tends to be pretty hard, as you have to solve a fair number of the clues before you can start figuring out how the answers fit together in the grid.
This one is made even trickier because words can go beyond the right and bottom edges of the grid and continue at the left and top (always in the same row or column), which makes the grid topologically equivalent to a torus (doughnut shape).
Around 1:00 in the morning I was thinking that I really should get to bed and continue it in the morning, when I found a way to interlock four entries in such a way that, if they were right, a particular as-yet-unsolved entry would have to include a particular two-letter combination. I looked at the clue and was able to solve it now with the help of the two letters. Now I had five entries interlocking, and with a little more experimenting I got it up to eight. Knowing I had broken into the grid at last, I stayed up to keep chipping away at it and finally finished the grid about 2:00 am. A very satisfying challenge.
It’s 6:45 pm, I’m still on my commute home, and I just finished today’s Listener puzzle, “Rattle” by Augeas. Not nearly as hard as it looks at first — I had solved maybe nine clues when I figured out what the quotation and the theme were. (Still haven’t figured out what the title means, but I’m sure it’ll come.)
It’s an amusing theme, but it ends unsatisfyingly, to my taste anyway, because of the amount of extra information that has to be given so that there’s a unique answer. Seems like an aesthetic flaw in the construction to me. Given the freedom the constructor had, I’m not sure why there couldn’t have been enough more crossings with the unclued, thematic entries to eliminate alternatives.
Oh well. Cute theme, anyway.
This past Friday’s Listener puzzle, “Arthurian Legend”, is a very nice puzzle, not too easy and not too hard. I finished on Saturday morning. The theme is hard to say anything about without giving something away — I’ll just say that I think it will be unfamiliar to many, but that it looks to me like the way the puzzle is constructed, you don’t have to know anything about the theme to finish the puzzle. Nor does it look to me like figuring out the theme early would help much help in solving.
A nice touch that’s worth mentioning: When you’ve solved the puzzle and figured out the theme, some online research may lead you to a list of nine relevant titles that may now look a little familiar.
Today’s Listener crossword is “Travel Guide” by Aedites. Some clues contain misprints, others contain extra words that can be grouped and anagrammed into 15 place names. Despite the daunting instructions, I worked at the puzzle for about half an hour over lunch break, and I’ve now solved about half the clues. I haven’t figured out any of the place names yet, but I haven’t tried very hard to, either.
Later: I finished filling in the grid on my commute home, did a Google search for the 15 place names, and had just enough time to place the first few in the grid by the time I reached Dave’s bookstore, where I was meeting him for dinner with a few others. On the ride home after dinner, I placed the rest of the place names in the grid. The last step is to draw a straight line through exactly 13 squares to “trace a significant geographic feature” — it was clear from the place names what the line represented, but at first it looked like there was more than one way to draw the line so that it passed through exactly the right number of squares; however, there’s a nice discovery to be made at the end that tells you which is the right line to draw. So I was done with the puzzle by the end of Friday — something that doesn’t happen often with the Listener.
Just finished this Friday’s Listener puzzle, “Heart”. Whew. It’s essentially a diagramless crossword, with some additional quirks that have to be discovered. The clues are given in the correct order but with no other information, not even where the across clues end and the down clues begin. We’re told that the grid has 180-degree symmetry, though, which turned out to be very helpful.
At first the thing looked just about impossible, and by Friday night I had solved only 12 of the 42 clues and had put nothing into the grid. I didn’t get much puzzle time in on Saturday, but this morning I figured out where the break was between the acrosses and downs, which helped me make it to maybe 17 or 18 answers. At that point I found four answers that could plausibly interlock, and solving got much easier after that. There are some further instructions to apply to the filled-in grid in order to get the final grid, but they didn’t take me long — the difficulty in this puzzle was all at the beginning.
I just now finally finished last weekend’s Listener puzzle — “Cross-Country”, by MynoT — over lunch, with some help from Dave via text messages. I’d finished the grid on Monday morning, but there’s one last step: Solving all the clues gives a final instruction that has to be followed, and you can’t follow the instruction until you know what the theme of the puzzle is, and the only information given about the theme is that it’s a two-word, 21-letter phrase.
I spent all sorts of time trying to find a phrase of the right length running or snaking through the completed grid in some way, with no success. Today over lunch, though, I noticed something curious about the grid of letters that didn’t have any meaning that I could see but that seemed way too unlikely to have occurred by chance. I texted Dave about it, asking if he could see any significance in it. He couldn’t, but he made a suggestion that started me thinking in an opposite direction, and a minute or two later I’d figured out the theme and how to carry out the instruction. Whew! Talk about tough, though — there’s really very little in the puzzle to point you in the right direction, and even having spotted what I’d spotted, I wonder if I’d ever have gotten from there to the answer without Dave’s idea.
It may be too late now for my entry to get to England by next Friday anyway, but at least the puzzle is solved.
Generally with a Listener crossword, you solve clues and put the answers into the grid, and gradually figure out what the theme of the puzzle is, sometimes not figuring it out until the very end when it suddenly flashes on you with a great aha! moment what the heck is going on here and what you have to do to get the final pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.
With this weekend’s puzzle, though — Mass Production by Hedge-Sparrow — I think it has to be the other way ’round. I cannot imagine how you could get much of the grid filled in until you’ve figured out what the theme is, so you pretty much have to tumble to it without any help from the grid. There are just too damn many uncertainties until you know what the thematic words and phrases running through the grid are going to be, and then those help you fix the location of the letters of the regular words.
If you take the right approach, you could probably tumble to the theme quickly. I didn’t take the right approach, though, and it was a while before it even occurred to me to try to suss out the theme while the grid was still mostly empty. Once I did, though, I figured out all but one-half of the other thematic entries fairly quickly.
There was a nice little aha! moment for me near the end, though. I had only figured out what one-half of one of the thematic rings of letters was going to spell. It gave me a nice little aha! moment and a chuckle when I got close to finishing the grid and saw what the rest of that ring was going to be.
I finally finished this weekend’s Listener puzzle, “Three-Square” by Elap, during my commute to work this morning. It’s a cross-number puzzle this time — four times a year the Listener puzzle is a numerical puzzle of some sort. Some of the clues in this one involve finding Pythagorean triples and Heronian triangles — the former are sets of three whole numbers such that x2 + y2 = z2 (thus being the sides of a right triangle whose sides are all whole numbers, like 3-4-5) and the latter are triangles, not necessary right triangles, whose sides are all whole numbers and whose area is a whole number.
It took me a while just to find a place to break into the puzzle, and then once I did I put off dealing with the clues involving Heronian triangles as long as I could. Everything else I could work on easily enough with just a calculator, but the Heronian triangles would be too tedious to attack without heavier guns. Still, once I’d solved all the other clues but those, there was nothing else to do but tackle them. So I opened up a spreadsheet program (I use Numbers on the Mac) and set it up so that if I put the sides of a square into the first three cells of a row, the fourth would give me half the perimeter (the sum of the three sides divided by two), and the fifth would give me the area (if s is half the perimeter, and a, b, and c are the three sides, then the area = s × (s−a) × (s−b) × (s−c)). That made it easy to try out lots of different possibilities without having to calculate that terrible formula over and over and over again.
I finished all that on Saturday evening, but there is one last step. There are still some empty squares in the grid, which we have to complete so that all the rows and columns are “thematically consistent”. Ten rows and columns are completed at this point, each containing either nine or eleven digits, so we have to figure out what these sequences have in common and then complete the grid so that all the rest of the rows and columns have that in common, too. I had fun solving the puzzle up to this last step, but really, trying out various ideas on a bunch of nine-digit and eleven-digit sequences to see if any of them worked out was kind of tedious. We don’t even know whether they’re to be interpreted as single nine- and eleven-digit numbers, or as series of two or more shorter numbers — more Pythagorean triples? more Heronian triangles? — or what.
When I finally found the pattern that all ten rows and columns fit, it looked at first like it was going to be impossibly tedious to do the calculations needed to fill in the rest of the grid, but I worked out a shortcut with the spreadsheet program and it wasn’t too bad. Still, that last step seemed more of a slog than a nice surprise.
Fun but tough puzzle other than that, though.
This morning, a little before noon, I finally finished this weekend’s Listener puzzle, “Liberty Bell”, by Pieman. A fun puzzle but a bit of a workout, as it’s not easy to fill the grid and then there’s still more to figure out after you have.
Part of the puzzle is that only a small number of the bars that separate words are given. We have to fill in the rest of the bars as we solve. This part is not difficult, as the word lengths are given as usual with the clues. But then, once we’ve filled the grid, we need to erase as many of these bars as we can (but not any of the bars that are given at the start) to make new, longer words.
So if you had SPORT in the grid, and the next letter after it were a Y, you’d erase the bar separating SPORT from Y to make it SPORTY. You also do this with whole words: If you had TAPES next to TRY, say, you’d erase the bar between them to make TAPESTRY. We have to do this wherever possible, and it’s possible in quite a lot of places. When we’ve done all that, we get a short quotation out of it, and then we have to make a few more changes to the grid to reveal a “refrain”. Took me a while to figure out that last step, but when I finally did, the result was a nice, silly surprise.
Now that I’ve solved the whole puzzle and know that the final result is, I can see why the constructor had us fill in the grid and then erase some of the bars. There was a puzzle by a well-known constructor from, I think, the ’70s, in which a similar gimmick was used, but it was possible, with a little imagination, to figure out what the final answer was going to be long before you’d filled in the whole grid. With this puzzle, there’s just about no chance of that. I think you really do have to work through the whole thing, solving all the clues and then erasing bars to create longer words and so on, to reach the final answer.
However, this also has the disadvantage of giving us an abundance of three- and four-letter words to actually solve, with the longer words only to be revealed later as the bars go away. More longer words and fewer short words in the first place would have made for more interesting solving. Ah well, I guess you can’t have everything. It’s certainly a remarkable piece of construction.
Two odd little points: There isn’t anywhere on the entry to write down the short quotation; I suppose you could in theory solve the puzzle and submit your entry without ever knowing what the quotation is. (Unlikely, as the quotation isn’t hard to figure out when you’ve removed all the right bars, and you have to remove all the right bars anyway or you’re not going to end up with the right answer at the end.)
And I believe the horizontal bar across the top of the square containing the number 44 shouldn’t have been given to us; it looks to me like it should have been one of the bars we have to fill in for ourselves. It doesn’t affect the result, though.