Kathryn Friedlander at the University of Buckingham has released another paper around her work on cryptic crossword solving and what it says about expertise and thinking processes. The paper is here. There’s also a summary for a more general readership on the createpsy site here. I haven’t had a page on the site referenced in a peer-reviewed document before! The crossword itself is here, with a brief commentary about the work, while the solution has a sort of blog attached.
I am hoping to put up a puzzle today, but might not get round to it. I can at least point you at my puzzles during what is a fairly busy opening to July. There’s a Telegraph Toughie from Kcit on July 2 (nice they remembered my birthday), followed by a Times Quick Cryptic from Pedro and a Church Times puzzle under my own name on July 3. With the usual Friday Independent puzzle that makes three in a day, which is always a bit of a surprise. And if I’m slow off the mark updating the site in a fortnight, the Times Saturday competition puzzle on July 11 is from me as well.
More immediately, the Enigmatic Variations puzzle of 28 June is Extracts by Kcit (nip out and get it now!). The Enigmatic Variations has been the subject of a short but intense campaign this past few weeks. I first heard about it when the EV editor circulated all setters announcing the demise of the series and encouraging us to place our pipelined puzzles elsewhere. It struck me then that this was going to set a hare running and a mill producing rumours and – well, you wouldn’t want to guess where that might end up.
Of course, when a series ends you want to go out with some sort of a flourish, and plans were afoot for a couple of puzzles to end the series. I felt this rather hamstrung me in terms of commenting on the situation, but I was glad to put up Hedge-Sparrow’s comment a week or so ago. But of course the process of pacing puzzles elsewhere gets the other editors asking and, yes, I may have said something or other to someone or other. And eventually Alberich and fifteensquared pushed it further above the parapet – and very quickly the decision was reversed.
One thing this highlights is the unsuitability of entry numbers to determine interest in a crossword. Over the history of The Listener crossword (in The Listener magazine, not in its Times incarnation) there were attempts to stop publication, and there was always a groundswell of support in the mailbag from people who wouldn’t dream of entering and who thus weren’t being counted. A few years ago one of my Inquisitor puzzles appeared with the wrong grid and the Independent switchboard got more calls than the puzzle ever got entries (though I wouldn’t recommend this as a regular way of testing how many people do the crossword). The fact remains that the bean-counting mentality that dominates business is going to want something to count, and entries are the most obvious one to hand. The Inquisitor was doing all right, I was once told, if they got half a binful.
These days, of course, you can also look at blogs and (dare I say it?) some of the sites offering assistance to see whether puzzles are gaining attention. It may be better than entries, in fact. Entries are solicited via the prizes offered and, oddly enough, I don’t want another fountain pen (and nor do my family members), and my e-Chambers isn’t showing much sign of wearing out. Sponsorship has its place, but it also limits incentives as well as affording them. The IQ had boxes of chocolates (until lockdown) and previously Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin and those are more repeatable. (Mind you, I wouldn’t mind a new Brewer’s but I still haven’t received the Listener prize I won back in 2018 – just sayin’. Not that I’m bitter, or anything…)
Then there is the mode of entry. Postal entries are rather limiting unless you have a closing date that is some way in the future – not the 10-20 days that pertain. While the current circumstances are clearly unique, I was nonetheless amused to note that four of my Listener entries – posted at weekly intervals – arrived in Hertfordshire on the same day. Once again, measuring by entry numbers alone is going to underestimate the potential worldwide interest in your product (I understand the EV is even solved by people in New Zealand). I put my hand up here to note that I haven’t taken advantage of the EV e-entry option, and from now on I shall (even if they re-introduce the pen…). Well, maybe not today, of course.
It would be useful to know how prizes are chosen where the puzzle does have this mixed entry system – how do you choose when you have a dead-tree binful and an e-binful? That would go some way to reassuring would-be entrants. Similarly prizes should be more e-friendly. I can do very little with a book token (except send it to my brother-in-law) – I could do something with an e-voucher for some form of online shopping.
There has been a great expansion in puzzle solving during the present crisis which suggests an untapped market (and makes the EV decision even more unusual) – but the present approaches to publishing puzzles remain rather set in the past. It is not that we should throw out postal entries – that is years away – but new ways need to be brought in alongside the old.
This isn’t getting my next Times Jumbo gridded…excuse me while I open up my crossword program.
Things are not quite back to normal – no external holidaymakers for a while – but New Zealand is now very close to that. There is still some track-and-tracing (though the plethora of apps probably means that never got consistently off the ground) and some bottles of hand sanitiser at shop doorways, but there have been no new cases for three weeks, and there is now no-one in hospital.
I am still hoping to work from home more frequently if only to avoid the joys of commuting – I often feel perfectly happy to work, but feel too ill to catch the train – this is now less of an issue. Yet the many who were predicting that the ‘new normal’ would see a revolution in the way people worked are already having second thoughts about it happening on their watch. But if the ‘back to normal’ train I caught on Thursday is anything to go by, there remains considerable reluctance to go back to the old way. We can but see.
Meanwhile I have agreed to undertake collaborative work this weekend, which leaves me with little time to write a lot (especially as I have scarcely started today’s Listener yet). Another Inquisitor has gone up – this one has been overtaken by events to some extent, but unusually it has two solution grids. I can’t now recall how The Independent coped with that novelty when it appeared. There’s a blog, too, at fifteensquared, which I will link to from the solution page.
There is a Times puzzle from me on Monday 15 June. I had expected to announce an Enigmatic Variations puzzle for 21 June, but a last-minute change in scheduling has seen that deferred a week. But still worth announcing as I don’t quite know when I’ll get the blog up in a fortnight.
For the past week or so it has been possible to get out and about a little more, and I have even driven a few score kilometres one day. This has rather distracted me from the blog. It looks as though we will be at this level for a few weeks yet, as it is ascertained that the virus has been eradicated. Things already look good, which means we have the siren voices already demanding a return to full economic activity. It remains to be seen whether there will be a flurry of new infections after this holiday weekend (which shows every likelihood of the resumption of widespread travel) and thus whether, like France and South Korea, some further restrictions will need to be reimposed. Personally I will try to remain at Level 2 economic activity if not Level 3) – it’s just good economics.
Though it has its oddities. I think I have already mentioned the sudden reactivation of the remote control to my garage door which had not worked properly for some 18 months or so, only to burst into life under lockdown during levels 4 and 3, and stop again the day Level 2 was announced. Marjorie’s remote has worked perfectly throughout, so the smart suggestion proffered me (that there was a local business resuming activity and hence also resuming emitting a blocking frequency) has to remain moot.
The crisis also prompted my employers to scurry round and find ways for people to work at home (much overdue, but also done at remarkable speed when it did occur). I now have a second laptop connected to my work computer. It is most provoking that the keyboard on that machine has the ‘Ctrl’ and ‘Fn’ keys swapped in comparison to my own laptop. I mean, really?
It looks as though post may be resuming – I gather my last four Listener entries, posted at weekly intervals, arrived all at once on the same day last week. I resumed posting as we can now buy stamps – remarkably the Post Office is still happily selling the 2019 Christmas stamps, of which clearly far too many were printed. But I get 10 for the price of 9…
Level 2 also means ‘track and trace’ – every shop you enter requires you to sign in and sanitise your hands. In that order, in my case, as my hands seem to be getting resistant to the sanitiser and it takes more and more rubbing. My hands turn pink, and I start counting my fingerprints. It’s not much better trying to do it electronically (unless you like dropping and then wiping your phone). There are about six or seven different systems using QR codes you point your smartphone camera at. But who wants six or seven apps doing the same thing on your phone – I’ve already lost track of one. It’s very hard to see how this wonder of economic competition supports the delivery of comprehensive tracing.
I also ended up with an album called Covid-19 on my iPad. One of my guilty pleasures is the group called The Tiger Lillies, who hark back to the sort of savage satirical singing associated with Weimar Berlin, only with a lead singer, Martin Jacques, who has an extraordinary voice, part wheedling, part threatening, generally falsetto. Their back catalogue includes discs relating to Struwwelpeter, Edward Gorey and Wozzeck, so they’re an eclectic bunch. They have been unable to tour and sell CDs so have resorted to at-home recording and online marketing (in this case, Bandcamp). It is worth remembering that many performers will be in the same boat, so you may want to support your favourites via online purchases.
Six hundred words and not a mention of crosswords, so I’d better remedy that. I recently read the astonishing novel The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, which tells of the struggles of a child prodigy to identify his father. It ranges over astronomy, aerodynamics, linguistics and maths, and there are pages in Inuit and Japanese. At one point, the hero goes round the Circle Line to complete the Independent crossword – I assumed that was one of mine… Not the one I put up today (which postdates the events of the novel) but it is one that has been mentioned in a book. The puzzle is from late 2012.
Meanwhile my puzzles in early June are simply the regular Independent Friday appearances, though it remains possible that Kcit may appear in the Toughie series before I reappear in a couple of weeks.