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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Déjà Vu All Over Again

When we began contributing crosswords to The Nation, one of the first things we did was to create a spreadsheet to contain every puzzle entry and every clue we wrote. This was the first time either of us had undertaken to create crossword puzzles at an industrial pace, and we wanted to be sure we didn’t start duplicating clues without realizing it.

It’s a massive file now—4,000 clues and counting—and having it around has turned out to be mostly a blessing, but hardly an unmixed one. In its primary goal, which is to keep us from inadvertently repeating ourselves, the clue archive has proven to be indispensable. Neither of us has a particularly infallible memory for such things, and a quick check of the archive has saved us from embarrassment on more than one occasion. It’s especially likely that a witticism or piece of wordplay that appeals to us today may turn out to have held similar appeal two or three years ago, when we first thought of it.

Having a record of our previous efforts also gives us a helpful incentive to try new things that might not have occurred to us otherwise. Often, the first clue we write for a given entry adopts the most obvious strategy—the best-known anagram, say, or the charade that yields a particularly felicitous surface. When we come back to clue that entry a second or third time, we’re compelled to seek out an alternative—a search that is often surprisingly fruitful. For example, Puzzle #3252 included this clue:
    SEMAPHORE  Communication between ships and shore about excellent chart (9)

When the same entry arose again in Puzzle #3315, we took another look at it and found the makings of an &lit. clue:
   SEMAPHORE  Ultimately, communicate with a visual representation, perhaps received by shore! (9)

Finally, having a full roster of old clues on hand makes it easy to dig up examples of a particular type of clue or a specific element of wordplay. Many of our blog posts have been helped by our ability to comb the clue archive for material.

But at the same time, there’s something slightly inhibiting about having to check with our past selves before writing new clues. Sometimes the nagging voice of conscience—“Didn’t you just do something like that eight months ago?”—can become an intrusion, and sometimes worrying too much about the risks of duplication stifles the enjoyment of both constructor and solver. So we try not to be too doctrinaire about any of this (you may have noticed that we’re not especially doctrinaire about anything). We don’t look up each entry in the file before clueing it; that would be ridiculous. More often, we use the spreadsheet to confirm or disconfirm a general sense of déjà vu about a particular word. And there have been occasions, when enough time has passed, when we’ve simply given ourselves permission to write a clue that isn’t too different from an older one. After all, if we didn’t remember, how likely is it that solvers will?

This week’s clueing challenge: Write a clue for ARCHIVE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Oh, Pairs!

In a couple of recent posts we discussed how single letters can be clued. Today we address two-letter strings—not including state abbreviations, which were addressed (heh) in our July 4 post. Just like single letters, letter pairs (also known as bigrams) can be clued as words, as part of words, or as abbreviations.

Two-letter words can be part of a charade, or a container clue, as in the following examples:
  INDIANA  Gary’s place is at home with a goddess (7)
  TANGO  Dance beat with energy (5)
  EVOKE  Call forth the First Lady, securing permission (5)

By convention, when they refer to a word fragment, expressions such as “two of” always refer to the beginning of the word…
  SCENIC  Pretty nice mess after pair of screwups (6)
  MILES DAVIS  Trumpeter deceptively misleads (takes in) a couple of virtuosos (5,5)

…unless, of course, the clue specifies otherwise:
  SNEAKERS  Behaves scornfully about last pair of Slovak shoes (8)

Likewise, tradition dictates that when referring to inside letters, the clue refers to the exact center of the word. Of course, the exact middle bigram only exists in the case of words with an even number of letters:
  SWAHILI  Regressive laws about heart of this island’s first language (7)
  HOTEL  Where to stay very warm? The middle of hell (5)
  JOSHUA  Puzzle constructor to joke over center of square (6)

One useful clueing option that distinguishes bigrams from single letters is the possibility of referring to the beginning and end of a word. For example:
  ENGAGE  Do battle with rioting gang, within the limits of endurance (6)
  GLOSSY  Shrinkage seen between the edges of grimy photo (6)
  DETESTABLE  Abominable drive on the shoulders, with defective seat belt (10)

Roman numerals offer some options, though we no longer use “ninety-nine” for IC, as solvers quite legitimately complained that this is not correct.
  FIVE  One-fourth of four, plus four, on its face, equals …! (4)
  IN VITRO Outside the body’s opening, swallowing six (2,5)

Other ways to clue letter pairs include chemical symbols…
  AGLITTER  Sparkling with silver trash (8)
  CUSHION  Something soft and quiet found in copper atom (7)

…”ten” for IO…
  ETIOLATED  Feeble guess about a takeoff: “Around ten, behind schedule” (9)
  AXIOM  Basic principle: cut ten meters (5)

… and “in the morning” for AM.
  DREAM  Imagine rapping doctor in the morning (5)
  EMMA  Lazarus returned in the morning with me (4)

The following clue combined three bigrams, involving sports and days of the week:
  BATHTUB  A Thursday/Tuesday walk outside, naked? I could get into that (7)

BB is a baseball abbreviation for a walk. Admittedly, not everyone knows that, but we thought it made for a fun clue. Apologies to the non-fans of sports.

This week’s cluing challenge: DEUCE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Solver Bo Curry of Redwood City, CA, recently wrote to remonstrate about Puzzle #3333, and in particular this clue at 9D:

SHARON GLESS Tyne Daly’s costar and lead in Hunter admitted to going naked in Malaysia? (6,5)

His e-mail decried what he called a “troubling trend” exemplified by that grid entry.

There is apparently a growing temptation to include answers which are more and more highly topical, even esoteric. Great care must be taken when clues refer to celebrities, the more ephemeral the more dangerous. All educated readers might be expected to know the name of, e.g. Henry James, but I doubt that all educated solvers will know the name of Sharon Gless (at least one such didn’t know it, fersure). This is especially problematic if, as has been known to happen, the puzzles are later reissued in the magazine or in book form for another generation of solvers.

Mr. Curry raises a number of important points, which are worth pulling apart. One is the issue of celebrities and their ephemeral claim to notability. There are solvers (and constructors) who prefer their grids to be stocked only with timeless names and well-established vocabulary. That isn’t us. We prefer to use a mix of the tried-and-true and the up-to-date—to join Henry James and Britney Spears, as it were, in a cruciverbal pas de deux. That’s the sort of variety that keeps a crossword lively and unpredictable.

Secondly, there’s the more general matter of familiarity, and trying to determine what the average solver might reasonably be expected to know. This applies not only to proper names but to words in general and to a range of knowledge. What one solver regards as esoteric strikes another as utterly rudimentary, and vice versa (we touched on this issue here), and the best we can do is to try to keep things within a golden mean, relying on our test-solvers to let us know if we’ve gone too far into obscurity. But we do not regard it as a flaw if a solver learns a new word or name in the course of solving one of our puzzles.

Also, Mr. Curry cautions us against puzzles whose timeliness might limit their appeal to later generations of solvers, but we gaily spurn his advice. Puzzles, like all forms of entertainment, are meant to be enjoyed in the here and now. Posterity may or may not like what we do, but surely a few TV stars more or less will not make the difference.

In the end, though, the issues Mr. Curry raises are a matter of balance—and in truth we are not in very serious disagreement. Famous names, or indeed words of any kind, can get into the puzzle either because they’re inherently notable, or because they lend themselves to particularly vibrant and interesting wordplay. (Or occasionally because there’s no other word that will fit in the grid, but that’s rare.)

We readily concede that Sharon Gless, the co-star of the ’80s TV series Cagney and Lacey, has a somewhat tenuous claim to notability. She’s a B-list star at best. But on the other hand, we thought the nonce coinage “sarongless” was a keeper—and Mr. Curry, in a P.S., agrees. And that’s why she appeared in the puzzle.

This week’s clueing challenge: Write a clue for TYNE DALY that would justify its inclusion in a puzzle grid. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Introducing Our Assistants

In a previous post, we discussed the use of technological aids in solving crossword puzzles, and even went as far as suggesting a few possibly useful tools. One of our regular solvers expressed shock at this, and declared that he would never stoop to such measures. We respect his choice, but as for us, we do not see this as a matter of principle: while we rarely use software to solve a standard American cryptic, we have no qualms about seeking digital help when struggling with a British puzzle.

This is because we have little experience with those puzzles, they use a fair amount of British knowledge we lack and they encompass a much greater variety of cluing styles. The alternative (admittedly not the end of the world) would be to leave many such puzzles unfinished, and thus to miss an opportunity to learn something. Yes, we could just look up the answers, but for some reason that does not seem to be as fun as using technology to generate possible solutions.

In any case, the subject of this post is the use of computers in crossword construction. We know and admire constructors (Trip Payne, for one) who create their diagrams mostly by hand. Perhaps we could do so too, but we have not tried. Instead, we use software to help us.

Our process is more or less as follows. First, we decide on some seed entries. These are entries that are necessary to the theme of the puzzle, or just words or phrases for which we have a good idea, or the germ of an idea, for a clue. We enter these in an empty diagram. In the case of a themed puzzle, we try to place these entries symmetrically. This determines the placement of several black squares. We then choose the location of the remaining black squares, keeping these criteria in mind: the diagram should be well connected, average word length should not drop too far below seven, there should not be huge black islands, and every word should have about half its letters checked, never less. The software helps ensure that the resulting diagram is symmetric.

The final step is of course to fill the rest of the diagram. Up to this point, the software was merely a way to record our ideas, but from here on out, it becomes a participant in the process. The application makes suggestions for what words fit in each location, while taking into account possibilities for the crossing words and in fact the filling of the whole diagram. The words are rated by the program as more or less desirable, based on various criteria. Virtuoso users of the software keep enlarging their word lists, and adjusting the ratings of words. We are not virtuosi.

We usually add one word at a time into the grid. This often involves backtracking, for example if a decision we made earlier led to overly obscure entries, or too many plurals, or words we have used in a recent puzzle. Sometimes the software fails us, and access to other word lists gets us out of a tight spot. This machine-human collaboration eventually leads to a filled grid, and we can start writing clues. Needless to say, our cryptic clues are written entirely by human beings and we have zero interest in outsourcing this to a machine!

What applications do we use, you ask? Crossword Compiler for half of our puzzles, and CrossFire for the other half. They each have their strengths. The former seems to be the standard among many crossword constructors, and includes the ability to create bar diagrams. Unfortunately, it is only available for Windows. The latter is not as full-featured, but it can be used on a Mac.

Have you lost all respect for us? Let us know in the comments. This week’s cluing challenge: SOFTWARE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Puzzling Women

Why is the world of crossword puzzles such a damn boy’s club? This question was raised a couple of weeks ago—a bit less bluntly and far more eloquently—in a splendidly impassioned essay at The American Reader by Anna Schechtman. Schechtman can speak with some authority on the subject—at 23, she has already established herself as one of the more inventive figures in the wave of young constructors that have helped revitalize the field.

And Schechtman’s critique of the field in which she is making her mark pulls no punches. Citing data compiled by her fellow wunderkind, the 17-year-old puzzle whiz David Steinberg, about the authorship of the New York Times puzzle over the decades, she lays out the problem with convincing fervor. Not only are women hugely underrepresented among Times constructors, but the gap has steadily widened over the years.

In our little corner of the puzzle world, that of cryptic crosswords, the gender imbalance is even more pronounced. The only woman publishing cryptics on a regular basis in North America is Emily Cox, one half of the pre-eminent constructing team known as Hex. In the UK, the predominance of male voices is no less striking.

There are a number of possible explanations for this situation, all of them unsatisfactory to varying degrees. Steinberg, in a talk at the most recent American Crossword Puzzle Tournament that prompted Schechtman’s article, evidently proposed that the growing use of computer software to construct crosswords may have tipped the field further toward the male-heavy gender breakdown seen in the world of tech.

Schechtman retails a suggestion by the crossword editor and blogger Amy Reynaldo that crossword construction was once a pursuit for stay-at-home moms who have long since entered the workforce. And Schechtman puts the spotlight directly and uncomfortably on the editors—the Times’s Will Shortz chief among them—who act as gatekeepers to the nation’s puzzle pages.

The cause of the imbalance is probably some combination of these factors, and others yet undetermined. But one way or another, it’s past time to see it corrected.

This week’s clueing challenge: GENDER GAP. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
* The current puzzle
* Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
* Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
* A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Try It, You'll Like It

A couple of issues back, the Nation puzzle temporarily took on an unfamiliar look. In place of the standard grids that have been the norm for nearly all of our puzzles and those of our predecessor, Frank Lewis—a 15-by-15 diagram with alternating black and white squares—we did something different.

Just for the sake of variety, we ran a puzzle with a bar diagram, in which heavy lines rather than black squares separate the grid entries. And as is traditional with such grids, we included a little extra gimmick in the puzzle—seven of the entries were clued using wordplay only, with the definitions indicated elsewhere in the puzzle. (If that description sounds a little vague, it’s because we’re trying to avoid spoiling the puzzle for anyone who hasn’t solved it yet.)

This wasn’t the first time we’ve varied the shape of things in this way. We used a bar diagram for a puzzle thematically linked to the release of the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, another one to celebrate our 100th contribution to the magazine, and one or two others for no timely reason at all. And each time we do it, we hear a few complaints from solvers who seem put out that the puzzle doesn’t look just like all the others.

Look, we get it. For crossword lovers, solving the puzzle is one of the most comforting routines there is. And it can be disconcerting to encounter something in a different shape or format than what you’ve come to expect.

But the truth is that these variety puzzles using bar diagrams aren’t all that far afield from the usual Nation fare. The clueing techniques are identical, or nearly so (the no-definition gimmick in the most recent puzzle is really only a minor wrinkle in the traditional formula). And although a bar diagram may look daunting at first glance, the mechanics of solving turn out not to be hugely different from a black-square diagram—you’re still writing letters into squares one at a time.

So consider this a plea to solvers who may have been put off by the new format—which, fair warning, is going to keep popping up here from time to time—to give bar diagrams a shot. You might be surprised at how easily they work.

This week’s clueing challenge: NOVELTY. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

In Brief

In our last post, we discussed different ways to reference single letters, but we did not address what may be the most common way to refer to a single letter: as an abbreviation.

There are many ultra-standard abbreviations in cryptic clues, such as “club” for Y, “time” for T, “love” for O (zero in tennis,) “quietly” and “loud” for P and F (in music), “university” for U. We try to minimize our use of those clichés, but we often break down:
   BYLAW  Bawl uncontrollably about club’s rule (5)
   HOT SPOT  Photos distorted by time in radioactive location (3,4)
   IDIOM  I’d love to go inside—I’m getting a foot in the door, for instance (5)
   PAVERS  Quietly maintains street crews (6)
   STUFFY  Filthy locale outside university, very loud and poorly ventilated (6)

Many cryptic constructors use name for N, but we don’t think we’ve seen this outside of cryptics. Another abbreviation that seems to be common, but only within cryptic puzzles, is “new” for N. One could conceivably justify that because it is common in state abbreviations, but in that case why not use J for Jersey or M for Mexico?

Frank Lewis, our predecessor at The Nation, was fond of using “point” for “cardinal point”: N, E, W or S. However, we usually specify which one we are talking about:
   SMIDGEN  Between south and north, fly a little bit (7)
   EERIE  Spooky Eastern lake (5)

He also frequently used “number” to refer to Roman numerals. Again, we try to be more specific:
   BLACK LUNG  Fifty in rear, fifty in front of retreating antelope with disease (5,4)

As a policy, we prefer everyday abbreviations such as these:
   • cold for C, hot for H (on faucets)
   • salt for S, pepper for P (on shakers)
   • left for L, right for R (on earphones)
   • ace for A, king for K, queen for Q, jack for J (on playing cards)

However, for variety, we sometimes resort to more specialized and less well-known abbreviations:
   • bishop for B, knight for N (chess)
   • losses for L, error for E (sports)
   • variable for x or y, irrational for e (math)

Alas, while the latter bring some variety to the puzzle, they are guaranteed to irritate some solvers who are not familiar with them. Our apologies: one person’s familiar is another person’s obscure. There’s nothing we can do about that.

Finally, somewhere in between familiar and specialized are many abbreviations we feel ambivalent about, such as the ROY G BIV abbreviations for the colors of the rainbow. And sometimes we disagree between ourselves: one of us looks askance at Y or N for “yes” or “no,” while the other thinks they’re perfectly fine.

As a solver, what abbreviations do you feel are acceptable?

This week’s cluing challenge: INITIALS. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Writing a Letter

When writing clues, we often need to refer to a single letter as part of the wordplay. Unfortunately, English only has two one-letter words.

Cluing “I” is awkward for a two-person team, so we sometimes use the word right there in the clue:
   IAGO I back the man who plays Othello (4)

The other one-letter word, “a,” can conceivably be clued as “article”, but “an article” would be weird. So we sometimes use it as is:
   ACROSS  A hybrid alternative to down (6)

However, this in turn raises its own issues, bnecause there is a certain amount of looseness around the question of whether clues need articles for smooth surface or can use “headlinese.” So a solver can often be uncertain about whether “a” is contributing to the wordplay or merely the surface.

Another way to get single letters into a clue is by referring to their position in a word. “Fourth of July” is a classic way to indicate Y, and “fifth of whiskey” can be K.
   BEETHOVEN’S THIRD  E is for “Eroica” (10,5)

Since there are only so many natural-sounding phrases in that format, the references are usually to first or last letters of words:
   SPINAL  Originally, Sarah Palin edited a certain column (6)
   BERET  Hat wearer finally cuts into vegetable (5)

That trick can be pretty transparent when it uses standbys like “originally” or “finally.” So we often strive to find indicators for first or last letters that sound more natural in context:
   PRESIDIO  Fort Pulaski’s chief dies, or I fail (8)
   IMAX  I can take in premiere of Moonraker in huge movie format (4)

Goofiness can also put solvers off the scent:
   UNEARTHED  Vishnu’s foot—where the E might be dug up? (9)

One last technique for this post: a well-established cryptic convention is to refer to a letter by its shape. Here are a couple of examples using O:
   AVOCADO  Fruit and eggs returned by rotter along with bagel (7)
   GORILLA  Having eaten a donut, interrogate a thug (7)

In our next post, we’ll discuss abbreviations.

This week’s cluing challenge: HORSESHOE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And now, four links:
* The current puzzle
* Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
* Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
* A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

States of Play

Around Independence Day, an American cryptic puzzler’s fancy naturally turns to thoughts of the US. It isn’t always easy: the crossword puzzle is a home-grown American invention, but the cryptic—or, ahem, “British-style” puzzle—is an import from across the Atlantic.

But one slice of Americana that does recur throughout cryptic puzzledom—both in The Nation and elsewhere—is the roster of the fifty state names. With its wide range of etymological flavors (English, Spanish, Native American and more) and variety of lengths and letter patterns, these constitute a little gold mine of cryptic resources for puzzlers.

We’ve made good use of them, too. A quick survey of our files shows that only twelve states have yet to put in an appearance (and one or two are waiting in the wings, in puzzles that are written but haven’t appeared yet).

Not surprisingly, the main use for state names is as the shortest path to their two-letter postal abbreviations; in fact, practiced solvers have learned to try those first on seeing the name of a US state. For instance:
   SCYLLA  South Carolina partner brought back a terrifying monster (6)
   FLOUNCE  Ribbon in Florida with little weight (7)
   CLOSET  Secrecy concerning sexual orientation to face defeat in Connecticut (6)
   MARTIAN  Alien in Massachusetts train wreck (7)

Sometimes, though, a state name can appear in a clue just as itself, since it’s the easiest way to specify an American city or town, either in the definition:
   CHICO  Marx in a California city (5)
   SAGINAW  Detected a trap inside Michigan city (7)
…or the wordplay:
   ANTIPODES  Hiking mineshaft in Arizona town leads to the other side of the world (9)
   BILLINGSGATE  Abusive language in Montana scandal? (12)

And once in a while, the postal abbreviation can combine with a direct reference, as in this &lit. clue:
   NASHUA  It’s, like, in New Hampshire, near the edges of USA! (6)

Here’s another combination strategy:
   A LA MODE  Fashionable mission in Texas and Delaware (1,2,4)

State names also make good grid entries:
   INDIANA  Gary’s place is at home with a goddess (7)
   UTAH  Hesitation to bear thanks where Mormons are plentiful (4)

And so do their derivative forms:
   CONNECTICUTER  Associate with one better-looking New England resident (13)
   IOWAN One that hurts an American from the Midwest (5)
   OKLAHOMAN  Sooner or later, boy chases after perverse LA hook (9)

Probably the apotheosis of state-naming in our puzzles so far was this pair of entries from Puzzle #3308, based on a bit of wordplay we borrowed the puzzler Mark Oshin (a k a Mr. E):
   VIRGINIA SLIMS  State: “Video-game family getting last of menthol cigarettes” (8,5)
   MINNESOTA FATS  State: “Workers mostly returning for pool hustler” (9,4)

Happy Y to all our friends and solvers! (That’s Fourth of July, of course.)

This week’s clueing challenge: WYOMING

To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

The Spice of Life

Some time ago we discussed a style of cryptic crosswords in which the words are separated by bars between the squares, instead of black squares. About once or twice a year, we use this format in The Nation. As we mentioned back then, bar-diagram puzzles offer more intersections between across and down entries, and are usually accompanied by a title and some written instructions. Thus they provide a good environment for trickery beyond mere cryptic cluing. Such puzzles are often called variety cryptic crosswords.

We occasionally engage in variety cryptic trickery in some of our themed puzzles. When we do, we reveal the nature of the gimmick in one of the clues. Because of the greater number of unchecked letters in a block diagram, we must keep the complexity of the gimmick manageable. If you thirst for greater challenges along these lines, here are some sources of variety cryptics:

• The Enigma, the monthly publication of the National Puzzlers’ League (NPL), includes one or two cryptics in each issue, most of them variety cryptics. They are edited by Guy Jacobson (Xemu), who took over from us when we got the Nation job. For a selection of the best cryptics from our fifteen years as Enigma cryptic editors, download this book.

The Wall Street Journal features a monthly variety cryptic of unparalleled wit and creativity by the royal couple of US cryptics, Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon.

Harper’s includes a monthly variety cryptic by veteran constructor Richard Maltby.

If you like the idea of always having cryptics to solve, wherever and whenever, and if you also own an iOS device, you would enjoy the Puzzazz app. In a past post, we discussed the ways in which it is an ideal platform for electronic cryptic solving, as it provides extraordinary hints to beginner solvers, and it allows hand-written input. Since then, the app has improved dramatically from an already impressive start. Puzzazz supports all kinds of variety cryptic quirks, including bar diagrams, solver-entered bars, a wide geometric range (concentric circles, hexagons, multiple grids, etc.), pictures in clues, numbers instead of letters, drawings on the completed puzzle, and much, much more.

This flexibility is demonstrated dramatically in the new e-book Cryptic All-Stars, a collection of forty-five variety cryptics by thirteen constructors (including Roger Wolff, Mark Halpin, and nine other members of the NPL, including, ahem, Joshua Kosman). In addition, the third e-book of 20 Nation cryptics just came out on Puzzazz—another reason to get the app!

This week’s clueing challenge: DEVICE

To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

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