Friday, September 28, 2012

Interview with the Legendary Manny Nosowsky, T-shirts, Contest, and Puzzazz

I'm delighted to announce that an interview with the legendary Manny Nosowsky is now posted!  To date, Manny has had an incredible 254 crosswords published in The New York Times, making him the most published Shortz-era constructor!  When pre-Shortzian constructors are counted (based on the current incomplete list), only Jack Luzzatto, William Lutwiniak, and Eugene T. Maleska himself have published more than Manny.  Manny published eight pre-Shortzian puzzles, all of which contain minimal obscurity and interesting, solid fill.  Later in this post I'll be highlighting one of Manny's many masterpieces!

In other news, the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project now has its own T-shirt!  The front features a picture of the first New York Times puzzle grid with "I Came, I Litzed, I Conquered" written above it, and the back summarizes the project.  To view the full design and for details about how to order the T-shirt, click on the link above or the new T-shirts tab at the top of this page.

Also, on Monday, October 1, the first Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project contest will begin and is open to everyone!  During the month of October, I'll be tracking how many litzed puzzles come in from anyone who litzes a packet of puzzles (usually six or seven crosswords).  If you haven't litzed before and own construction software and/or know how to litz in text files, this would be a great time to try it out!  At the end of the month, the three people who have litzed the most puzzles in October will receive free Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project T-shirts; the person with the highest total during October will also receive an interview and writeup on the website.  Current litzers will have their October totals added to their regular totals, but previous totals will not count toward the contest, so everyone will start at 0.

One reason for starting everyone at 0 for the contest is because of litzer Mark Diehl's prodigious output!  Mark has now litzed more than 1,000 puzzles and is well on his way to setting an all-time litzing record!  And with everyone else's help too, we have now passed the 4,200 mark on the litzing thermometer and are sending out the first few PDF packets from 1982.  Terrific work, everyone!

I've added a new feature to the righthand column:  puzzle publisher Puzzazz's puzzle of the day (or Puzzazz of the Day, as they call it!).  It's free and lots of fun!  Puzzazz recently launched its very cool new app for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch and released 29 new puzzle ebooks (including mine, which is called Chromatics, and litzer Vic Fleming's, titled I Swear).  The complete list of authors includes many New York Times crossword constructors.

Today's featured pre-Shortzian puzzle was constructed by Manny Nosowsky.  It was originally published on August 27, 1992, and was litzed by Barry Haldiman (or one of his former litzers).  This was Manny's debut New York Times puzzle.  It features the phrase "crossword puzzle" translated into German, Russian, and French, as well as the defining entry CROSSWORD PUZZLE.  It must have been a very lucky coincidence that all these entries fit symmetrically—wow!  The nonthematic fill is very solid and clean, and  the clues have a nice sparkle to them.  Some of my favorite clues are "It can thicken" for PLOT and "Seas or sees lead-in" for OVER.  In sum, this is an excellent construction and a real standout among pre-Shortzian puzzles!  The complete puzzle can be seen on XWord Info; the answer grid (with highlighted theme entries) can be seen below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian entry is ISOHEL.  According to XWord Info, ISOHEL has appeared in just two pre-Shortzian puzzles, one of which was constructed by Manny Nosowsky.  ISOHEL appeared in Manny's December 26, 1992, puzzle, which was litzed by Barry Haldiman (or one of his former litzers).  The clue for ISOHEL was "Map line showing equal hours of sunshine."  Webster defines an isohel as "a line drawn on a map or chart connecting places of equal duration of sunshine."  Since I couldn't find a good picture of an isohel, below is a picture of the shining sun:

Image courtesy of HowStuffWorks.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Poll Results and Teasers

The results of our first poll, which asked litzers how long it took them to litz an individual daily puzzle, are in!  Of the seven litzers who responded, four (57%) take 10–20 minutes to litz a daily puzzle, two (28%) take 20–30 minutes, and one (14%) takes more than 30 minutes.  Although this poll had a small number of respondents, it still produced interesting results.  Thanks to everyone who voted!

A new poll, which asks readers which pre-Shortzian editor they think published the best crosswords, is now up.  So far Will Weng is in the lead—be sure to vote if you have an opinion!

In the next day or two I'll be featuring a short interview I conducted with Manny Nosowsky.  I had fun coming up with questions and reading his answers!

I'm  also working on a Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project T-shirt design, which I'll be posting then as well.  There will be at least two opportunities to win a free T-shirt in the near future—more details soon!

Friday, September 21, 2012

More Than One-Fourth of the Puzzles Litzed, Poll, and Litzing Methods Using OCR

I am thrilled to announce that, as of this week, we reached and passed the 4,000 mark and have now finished more than a quarter of the entire project (4,056 puzzles)!  This is amazing—I never imagined we'd be this far along in the project so early on.  We're also rapidly approaching 1982, with just six more months of puzzles to send out from 1983!

In other news, I've added a poll feature to the website.  The first poll asks how long it takes to litz a daily puzzle.  Several responses have already come in; if you'd like to respond before the poll expires next week, you can find the poll under the litzing thermometer to your right.  I'm planning to post a new poll every week in between my longer regular blog posts.

Litzers especially may be interested in the following:  Joe Cabrera and Martin Herbach, two of our litzers, have come up with innovative methods for litzing puzzles with optical character recognition (OCR) software!  Though the final puzzles need to be proofread for obvious mistakes (such as "A Tunrier" instead of "A Turner," for TED), the OCR methods seem to be quite fast and accurate.  Joe reports that it takes about an hour and fifteen minutes for him to litz an entire batch of puzzles, including the Sunday puzzle; Martin estimates that he takes just forty-five minutes (over several sittings) to litz a batch with his method!  I've summarized both methods below, paraphrasing slightly to make them less technical:

Joe Cabrera's Method

1.  Create new Across Lite text file templates based on the dates and authors' names.

2.  Pull each PDF into Photoshop (assuming everything was originally scanned at 300 dots per inch).  Rearrange all the columns [answer grid and clues] into one long one, with the answer grid on top. Delete the lines in the answer grid to leave just the letters.

3.  Run each Photoshop file through the online OCR reader to turn it into plain text.

4.  Run a script to remove all the clue numbers and use them to separate the clues so they're not all one big paragraph.  Also use the script to clean up extra spaces and garbage, format underscores and ellipses properly, make all quotes "dumb," and so on.  Proofread the clues.

5.  Clean up and proofread the answers.

6.  Cut and paste the proofread clues and answers into the Across Lite text files created earlier.

7.  Drag the text files into Across Lite and save them as standard .PUZ files.

Martin Herbach's Method

1.  Use an online OCR reader to convert from PDF to rich text format (RTF).

2.  Copy and paste the clues from the RTF file into a Notepad document.

3.  Manually fix missing numbers, broken lines, accented characters, ellipses, and fill-in-the-blank clues.  Save as a text file.

4.  Read the text file into Microsoft Excel, specifying "Space Delimited" and "No Text Indicator."

5.  Delete Column A (which consists of the clue numbers).  Save the Excel file.

6.  Upload the Excel file to Google Docs and then download the Excel file from Google Docs as a text file (because Excel screws up quoted strings and commas by inserting extra quotes, which Google Docs doesn't).

7.  Read the text file (actually a .tsv file for tab-separated values) into Microsoft Word.

8.  Replace all tabs with spaces.  Select the entire Word document and copy it.

9.  Paste the contents of the Word document into an Across Lite text template.

The only minor flaw in these methods (other than that litzers must be very tech-savvy!) is that the OCR service Joe and Martin use only allows fifteen file conversions per hour.  This isn't a huge problem, though, since each batch only contains seven puzzles.  Another very interesting idea Joe tested was speaking the answer grid into his smartphone, though he found that doing this actually took more time overall.  Nevertheless, the ingenious methods both Joe and Martin have come up with to automate the litzing process are very, very cool!

Today's featured pre-Shortzian New York Times puzzle was constructed by I. Judah Koolyk.  It was originally published on October 8, 1983, and was recently litzed by Mark Diehl.  This amazing daily puzzle contains twelve rebuses of STAR!  My favorite theme entries are **** RATINGS (yes, four rebus squares in a row!) and *** GENERAL.  Even today, stacked rebuses with this many rebus squares are extremely challenging to construct.  Not surprisingly, the nonthematic fill (consisting of fewer entries than usual) has a handful of undesirable entries (ESNES, ITEAS, etc.).  All things considered, though, this is an admirable construction that feels way ahead of its time!  The answer grid (with highlighted theme entries) can be seen below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian entry is NEBEL.  According the the Ginsberg database, NEBEL has never been reused in a Shortz-era puzzle.  NEBEL originally appeared in the June 2, 1985, puzzle by Joy L. Wouk, which was recently litzed by Stephen Edward Anderson.  The original clue for NEBEL was "Ancient stringed instrument."  Webster defines a nebel as a variant of nabla, which it lists as "an ancient stringed instrument, probably like a Hebrew harp of 10 or 12 strings."  Not surprisingly, nebel comes from nÄ“bhel, the Hebrew word for "harp."  Below is one interpretation of what a nebel might have looked like:

Image courtesy of the Potsdam Public Museum.

Friday, September 14, 2012

1990 Puzzles All Proofread, Nearly 4,000 Litzed Puzzles, and BAC Fill

Great news:  All the 1990 puzzles have now been proofread and will soon be posted on XWord Info!  Thanks to everyone who litzed and proofread for making this happen—and, of course, to Jim Horne.  In addition, nearly 4,000 puzzles have been litzed!  We're well on our way to being a quarter done with the entire project and are now litzing puzzles from 1983—more than ten years' worth of pre-Shortzian New York Times puzzles have been litzed!

Last weekend I was out of town at the Fifth Annual Bay Area Crossword Puzzle Tournament, aka BAC Fill, which was in Oakland this year.  BAC Fill was a super fun event, organized once again by our very own Andrew Laurence.  It was great being able to get together with so many puzzle people, quite a few of whom were litzers!  What made this event even more special, though, was the surprise guest:  Manny Nosowsky!  I've always wanted to meet Manny, a constructor who has had 254 New York Times puzzles published in the Shortz and Maleska eras.  It was truly an honor, and Elissa Grossman, director of Crosswords LA, was kind enough to take this photo of fellow constructor Andrea Carla Michaels and me with Manny:

After the tournament, I went to Berkeley for a few hours.  At a local bookstore I happened to find a copy of a Margaret Petherbridge–edited pocket book of daily puzzles printed in April 1943!  Though the book won't be useful for the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, because the puzzles weren't reprinted from The New York Times, the book is still fascinating!  The clue headers read Horizontal and Vertical rather than Across and Down.  In addition, the book has a very interesting note at the beginning:  "In order to cooperate with the government's war effort, this book has been made in strict conformity with WPB [War Production Board, an organization established by Roosevelt in 1942] restricting the use of certain materials."  But perhaps the biggest surprise of all was discovering an asymmetrical double tri-stack from this early in crossword history!  The puzzle, constructed by Norton Curtis, is filled with obscurity and two-letter words but is nevertheless way ahead of its time.  The answer grid (which I litzed) can be seen below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian New York Times puzzle was constructed by Ernst Theimer.  It was originally published on January 12, 1990, and was recently litzed by Alex Vratsanos.  This ingenious construction contains six symmetrically placed theme entries in which the second half of a word or phrase beginning with the word TURN is reversed.  In addition, the puzzle has a witty cluing twist:  TURN TURTLE, for example, is clued as "How to make a tortoise capsize," and TURNCOAT is clued as "How to make a jacket for a traitor."  The nonthematic fill is very solid—I especially like the entries SPANGLES and SECRETS.  I'm not particularly fond of ORNERIER, though it's certainly a legitimate entry.  Overall, this is another beautiful Ernst Theimer puzzle that goes above and beyond the traditional Maleska-era construction.  The answer grid (with highlighted theme entries) appears below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian entry is MOLL-BUZZER.  According to the Ginsberg database, MOLL-BUZZER has never been reused in a Shortzian puzzle.  MOLL-BUZZER originally appeared in the August 16, 1984, puzzle by Tap Osborn, which was recently litzed by Mark Diehl.  The original clue for MOLL-BUZZER was "Certain pickpocket."  Webster defines a moll-buzzer as slang for "a pickpocket whose victims are women."  I doubt moll-buzzer is used much today—I didn't even know there was a word for a pickpocket who targets women!  Below is a picture of an avian moll-buzzer:

Image courtesy of An American Living and Traveling in the Philippines.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Interview with Pre-Shortzian Constructor (and Youngest New York Times Published Constructor Ever) Artie Bennett

I'm very excited to announce a new section of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project website:  Pre-Shortzian Constructor Interviews!  Over the next few years, I'm going to try to interview as many living pre-Shortzian constructors as possible to get a better sense of what pre-Shortzian construction and editing were like.  I'll be posting the interviews on this new page.  I'm even more delighted to report that the first interview is with Artie Bennett, the youngest crossword constructor ever published by The New York Times.  Artie was just thirteen (and ten months, to be exact) when his record-breaking first daily puzzle appeared (and fifteen when his first Sunday crossword was published).  Artie's reflections on crossword construction and the pre-Shortzian world are a fascinating read!

I first heard about Artie in an e-mail Will Shortz forwarded to me this past January.  Artie had written to Will about the youngest-constructor records.  Artie thought he might have been the youngest constructor ever published by the Times, but he didn't have a copy of his daily puzzle and didn't remember when exactly it was published.  Will told Artie about my efforts to build a database of pre-Shortzian puzzles (the beginning of what was to become the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project) and suggested that Artie and I might be able to work together to find the date of Artie's debut puzzle.

With the help of some details Artie was able to remember about the puzzle and the approximate time it might have appeared, I began downloading PDFs of crosswords from those years, looking for particular entries as the puzzles downloaded and then sending the files in monthly batches to Artie so he could look through them in more detail.  After searching through months of PDFs, Artie found what he was looking for—just five days after I'd received the initial forwarded e-mail from Will!  His puzzle had been published on May 22, 1969, making him the youngest constructor ever to be published in The New York Times!  Congratulations again, Artie—that was an amazing achievement!

Artie and I finally got to meet each other in person at this year's ACPT—below is a picture of us there:

Today's featured puzzle is Artie Bennett's record-breaker!  As stated above, it was originally published on May 22, 1969, and was recently litzed by yours truly.  The grid has lots of Scrabbly letters—I especially like the entries TWEEZER, NOSEGAY, and SAVED UP!  My favorite entry in the puzzle, though, is definitely OSCULATE (clued as "Kiss."), because it is such a cool word.  Artie even mentioned that he wasn't very into osculating at the time he submitted this puzzle to Will Weng!  I also really like how 1-Across and 1-Down are homophones.  Overall, this puzzle is a very nice Will Weng–era themeless and a stellar debut for such a young constructor!  The answer grid can be seen below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian entry is STUM.  According to the Ginsberg database, STUM has appeared in just two Shortzian puzzles.  STUM originally appeared in Artie's puzzle (the puzzle of the day) and was clued as "Unfermented grape juice."  Britannica's definition of stum is as follows:  "STUM, in the wine trade, is a name for the unfermented juice of the grape, when it has been several times racked off and separated from the sediment.  The casks are, for this purpose, well fumigated with brimstone, in order to prevent fermentation, through which the juice would become wine."  Below is a picture of some unfermented grape juice:

Image courtesy of Olive Garden Soup Recipes.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Thanks to Jim Horne and Everyone Who Donated on XWord Info

As many of you know, Jim Horne of XWord Info generously decided to give all of August's donations on his site to the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.  Many thanks again, Jim!  And thanks so much to everyone who donated in support of this project!  We are moving forward quickly, and I'm hoping that, in addition to continuing efforts to identify and match up more constructors with their pre-Shortzian puzzles, I'll also be able to incorporate new, expanded features on this site.  So keep checking in—and thanks again, everybody!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

3,500 Puzzles Litzed, Posting Frequency, and a New Litzer of the Month

I'm thrilled to announce that we've now passed the 3,500 mark on our litzing thermometer!  This is a major achievement—soon we'll be at 4,000 litzed puzzles and almost one-quarter of the way through the whole project!  We're also just finishing up sending out 1985 puzzle packets—in a few days, we'll be into 1984!

Things have gotten much busier at "Litzing Headquarters" since I started school on Tuesday.  Unfortunately, I probably won't be posting as frequently now, though I'll try to put out a new one every week or so—most likely over the weekends.

We have a new Litzer of the Month:  Mark Diehl, who has litzed an incredible 653 puzzles since the end of June!  This is an amazing accomplishment—I suspect Barry Haldiman's long-standing record might be in danger!  Be sure to check out Mark's interview, which is a really enjoyable read.  (For a clickable list of all the Litzer of the Month interviews, please see the new Litzers of the Month gadget beneath the Blog Archive list on the right-hand side of the page.)

Today's featured puzzle was constructed by Virginia L. Yates.  It originally appeared on June 9, 1986, and was recently litzed by Todd McClary.  This puzzle is far superior to the typical pre-Shortzian Monday offering, both in the number of theme entries and in the complexity of the theme.  Almost every pre-Shortzian Monday puzzle I've seen so far has a repeated word theme gimmick with three or four theme entries.  Shockingly (pun intended), this puzzle has six beautifully interlocking theme entries that relate to electricity!  In addition, almost all the theme entries are clued in a nonelectrical sense.  For example, SPARK PLUG is clued as "Motivator" and POWERHOUSES is clued as "Fireballs."  Finally, the fill is very clean and brimming with Scrabbly entries like FOXY and ZANY.  I also really like that SISSY and SASSY cross each other!  Admittedly, ITEA, OGEES, and ERNE aren't great, though just three questionable entries is very unusual for a pre-Shortzian puzzle.  All in all, this is a tour-de-force Monday crossword, and I hope to see many more like it as litzing continues!  The answer grid (with highlighted theme entries) can be seen below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian entry is ATTAI.  According to the Ginsberg database, ATTAI has never been reused in a Shortzian puzzle.  ATTAI originally appeared in the October 26, 1985, puzzle by Jeffrey A. Mercer, which was recently litzed by Tom Pepper.  The original clue for ATTAI was "Lion-faced warrior of Gad."  According to Smith's Bible Dictionary, Attai was "one of the lion-faced warriors of Gad, captains of the host, who forded Jordan at the time of its overflow and joined David in the wilderness (1 Chronicles 12:11)."  Since I couldn't find a picture of Attai (perhaps because he wasn't a major Biblical character), below is an awesome picture of an angry lion:

Image courtesy of Business Insider.