Friday, February 22, 2013

Halfway There!—and Crossword Compiler's Insert Character Window

We did it—we've now litzed more than half the pre-Shortzian puzzles!  On Monday, I litzed 3 puzzles to put us at exactly 8,000, then Thursday Mark Diehl sent in 16 puzzles to get us to 8,100, and this morning Jeffrey Krasnick sent in 7, which put us over the halfway mark of 8,113!  It hasn't even been 8 months since I began recruiting volunteer litzers, and in that time we've accomplished an amazing amount!  Awesome job, everybody!

Plus, I've just learned about something that may speed up our litzing even more!  A few days ago, Todd Gross wrote to me about a discovery he'd made by accident while in the clue window of Crossword Compiler.  If you type Ctrl-S, a window appears that will let you select special characters to insert into your clue.  He noted that this was a lot faster than looking up Alt codes.  Here's the example he sent me:

After typing Diarist Ana in the clue window (image bottom), I typed Ctrl-S (hold down the Control key while typing S) and got the Insert Character window you see at the the top.  Notice I selected the ï button in the lower right, and that ï appears in the clue now.

As for Alt really don't need to know about this for Macs, but here goes:  to get that ï in this window, I need to type Alt-0239.  Which is a shortcut for the following:

  1. Hold down the Alt key
  2. While the Alt key is depressed, type 0 2 3 9  {yes the 0 is part of the code}
  3. The character ï now appears, and I can release the Alt key

Great discovery, Todd—thanks so much!  I have a Mac and a PC but do all my crossword construction on the PC because I use Crossword Compiler.  Until now, whenever I'd come across a special character in a clue, I'd just look for an example of it online and then copy and paste the character into the clue.  I bookmarked examples that occur frequently, such as é.  Before that, I was copying and pasting them from a Word document I'd created that had just about every special character that exists.  Unfortunately, Word did something weird to the formatting—even though the characters transferred fine into Crossword Compiler, sometimes they didn't when I later exported the files as Across Lites.

Todd wondered how many other people knew about the Insert Character window and whether there was anything else in Crossword Compiler that most people might not be aware of, and I'm wondering the same thing!  This was a very useful discovery—if you know of some other capability Crossword Compiler has that you think most people probably don't know about, please e-mail me or comment below.  I'll post any tips that come in next week.  In the meantime, I've created a poll, which you'll find beneath the litzing thermometer in the righthand column.  I'll be interested to see what percentage of people knew about Crossword Compiler's Insert Character window—results next week!

Today's featured puzzle, "Doing the Scales," was constructed by Jordan S. Lasher.  It was originally published on September 22, 1974, and was recently litzed by Howard Barkin.  Once again, Lasher managed to add a whole new twist to a standard type of theme (repeated word, in this case)—the whole center block arrangement in this 23x looks like a set of staircases!  Also, many of the theme entries feel particularly fresh and lively—I especially like THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS and ROGER BANNISTER.  I also like that the constructor placed the theme entry ESCALATOR DOWN running straight down the center of the puzzle.  The nonthematic fill has a handful of really nice entries, but it also has some that feel particularly contrived and/or obscure.  On the positive side, the grid includes ROPE LADDER (which may or may not have been intended as a theme entry), BASTILLE, IN A FLASH, TORPEDOES, and B COMPLEX.  The weaker entries include IAO (clued as "Wattlebird"), ISHES ("Exits, in Scottish law"), SICES ("Dice numbers"), TESTONES ("Old Italian coins"), and SNELLY ("Chilly, in Scotland").  My least favorite entries, however, are the more-than-five-letter prefixes SINISTRO and GRAECO, partials THREE ON A and ENTER AT, IIOOIO ("Twice 55,005"), and MRS. ASTAIRE ("Fred's wife"—this may have been a homophonic theme entry, especially since it balances ROPE LADDER).  Despite these shortcomings, this is still an exceptional Jordan Lasher puzzle with an innovative visual gimmick!  The answer grid (with highlighted theme entries) can be seen below:

The Will Weng–edited March 3, 1973, puzzle (constructor unknown), which was recently litzed by Todd Gross, contains two very unusual entries, so I'm featuring both of them this week.  According to the Ginsberg database, these entries—PEPSISSEWA and ASAFOETIDA—have never been reused in Shortz-era puzzles.  PEPSISSEWA was clued as "Evergreen shrub"; Todd Gross noted that this shrub is sometimes used as a flavoring in root beer.  Webster defines pepsissewa as "any of a genus (Chimphila, especially C. Umbellata) of evergreen herbs of the wintergreen family with astringent leaves used as a tonic and diuretic."  ASAFOETIDA was clued as "Gum resin used medically"; Todd Gross researched it and reported that it is mainly used for breathing and digestion problems.  Webster lists asafoetida as a variant of asafetida, which it defines as "the dried fetid gum resin of several west Asian plants (genus Ferula) of the carrot family used as a flavoring especially in Indian cooking and formerly used in medicine especially as an antispasmodic and in folk medicine as a general prophylactic against disease."  Below are pictures of pepsissewa and asafoetida:

Image courtesy of VisitRainier.
Image courtesy of

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Over 7,900, Man vs. Machine, in 1972, Daily-Puzzle Authors, Poll Results, and New Feature on Pre-Shortzian Constructors

We've now litzed more than 7,900 litzed puzzles—just a couple hundred more and we'll be at the halfway point!  On Sunday litzer Mark Diehl sent in 15 puzzles, which put us over 7,700, and then on Tuesday, Howard Barkin sent in 28 puzzles, putting us over 7,800, followed by another 21 puzzles this morning, which put us over 7,900!  And all the other packets from everyone have really helped push us along—thanks again, everybody!

Mark and Howard are still taking turns in the litzing contest's first-place position—as I write this, they're tied for the lead!  In a way, this has become a sort of battle between man (manual litzing) versus machine (OCR), not unlike the competition between human solvers and Dr. Fill at the ACPT!  Whatever the final result, it's all good for the project—Mark and Howard have each litzed more than 400 puzzles in the past 6 weeks!

I'm now sending out puzzles from 1972 to be litzed, so it won't be long before we're in the 1960s!  A couple of litzers have been saddened by the lack of authors for the daily puzzles now.  Although I'm hopeful that the authors of most puzzles will ultimately be identified, many will likely never have bylines.  The good news is that daily-puzzle authors will start reappearing in 1967, during the Margaret Farrar era.

The results of last week's poll are in!  The poll asked whether you thought last week's featured puzzle contained a rifle-related theme.  Most readers (55%) voted no, but the remaining respondents were evenly split between yes and unsure.  If you felt certain one way or the other (yes or no), I'd be interested in hearing why.  Please comment below or e-mail me.

I'm starting a new feature on pre-Shortzian constructors, which you'll find by clicking on the Pre-Shortzian Constructors tab above.  Many constructors had profiles written about them or were mentioned in articles in The New York Times and elsewhere, and I've decided to try to track down those publications and link to them from this site.  I'm starting with a few pre-Shortzian constructors whose last names began with L:  Jordan S. Lasher, William Lutwiniak, and Jack Luzzatto; I'll gradually add other constructors as I continue to find articles about them.  If you happen to know of additional links for a particular constructor, please let me know.

Today's featured pre-Shortzian puzzle was constructed by Evelyn B. Rosenthal.  In addition to being a prolific crossword constructor in the 1970s, Evelyn was also the high school math teacher of Crosswords LA director Elissa Grossman's father.  It's amazing how small the crossword puzzle world is!

The puzzle was originally published on November, 14, 1975, and was recently litzed by Alex Vratsanos.  This lovely Will Weng–edited construction features eleven theme entries for which the first part of the entry rhymes with the second (and, as Jim Horne just pointed out, the two parts—and, in one case, three—are also pronounced the same!).  The theme density is amazing—getting three theme entries to stack in each corner and the five other theme entries to interlock so elegantly must have been extremely challenging!  My favorite theme entries are DEAR DEER (clued as "Bambi, e.g."), ROAM ROME ("See the Eternal City"), and PLAIN PLANE ("Ordinary carpenter's tool").  EERY ERIE ("Weird lake") and TWO TO TWO ("1:58") feel weaker, but they're certainly better than nonthematic entries.  The nonthematic fill is a real mix on this one—I love the Scrabbly entries RAJPUT, ZWEI, PONZI, and DAFFY, but RYE OLD ("___-fashioned [cocktail]"), T MOORE ("Signature of an Irish poet"), and ENTEMPLE ("Set up a shrine") certainly aren't the best.  Warts and all, this is an outstanding pre-Shortzian puzzle and a stellar example of pre-Shortzian interlock!  The answer grid, with highlighted theme entries, can be seen below:

As we've continued to work through the Will Weng era, I've been litzing some of the Margaret Farrar–edited Sunday puzzles from 1942.  I find all the clues related to World War II (and that time period in general) fascinating, since they show how the United States felt about certain historical figures and also chronicle specific weeks in history.  The March 1, 1942, crossword alone, which was constructed by Charles Cross (an alias), contained at least eight topical clues:
  • "German field marshal."  (LIST)
  • "He thinks he can do business with Hitler."  (APPEASER)
  • "Our ally in Russia."  (WINTER)
  • "What the Axis is to U.S."  (THREAT)
  • "Kind of battles we used to have."  (SHAM)
  • "German battleship."  (GNEISENAU)
  • "Warning lacking at Pearl Harbor."  (ALERT)
  • "Hitler's 'merest utensil.'"  (DUCE)
The clues for APPEASER and WINTER are particularly amusing—even though our country took World War II very seriously, there was apparently still room for irony and humor in the press.  The clue for DUCE isn't particularly funny, but it's certainly historically significant in that it shows how Hitler felt about Mussolini.  I look forward to seeing what other war-related clues I come across as I continue litzing these puzzles!  In the meantime, below is a picture of the GNEISENAU:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Labels, Over 7,600, Howard Barkin's OCR Method, Funny Typos, and New Poll

Important news:  I've added a new feature to the blog—labels—to make finding posts about particular subjects or people easier.  The labels are at the bottom of the column to your right.  If you want to read all the posts that include the label "XWord Info," for example, click on "XWord Info" in the labels field, and all those posts will appear.

I can hardly believe that we've now litzed more than 7,600 puzzles!  We're rapidly approaching our goal of the halfway point—8,113 litzed puzzles—by the end of February.  Awesome job, everybody!

Some of you have noticed the prodigious number of puzzles Howard Barkin has been litzing lately—nearly 400 since the beginning of January!  Howard has devised a very efficient way of litzing using optical character recognition (OCR) technology.  Back in September, I wrote an OCR post that described the methods of two other litzers—Joe Cabrera and Martin Herbach—who were using this technology to litz.  Now Howard has generously taken the time to present the details of his OCR method in response to some questions I asked him.  Read on:

You've litzed an amazing number of puzzles in a very short period of time using a combination of OCR and manual entry.  With this process, litzing a week of puzzles was taking you about 90 minutes when you started.  Has the process become even faster since then?

First, OCR = "optical character recognition," aka a program designed to analyze printed characters and convert to text, which can then be electronically edited.  (Whew.)

Now, with solving and litzing experience comes more efficiency.  Depending on the quality of the original files, a week of puzzles can be accurately scanned and litzed (converted electronically) in the range of 45–90 minutes.  That depends upon how readable the text is, how big the Sunday puzzle is, whether the baby wakes up, etc.

It's been fun to use my solving and technical experience to figure out the most efficient way to improve the process—remember, improvement is not about speed but about transferring these puzzles accurately.  That is the best way to honor the constructors and editors and ultimately complete the project.

You've mentioned using OCR to scan the PDF clue columns and Word macros to copy and paste individual clue text into Crossword Compiler.  Can you describe this process in detail in case other litzers want to give it a try?

I can try.  Again, this is about getting this project done efficiently and at the best possible quality.

Never sacrifice quality for speed.  Also, this is for PC-compatible use.  Mac users likely have similar apps available.  Use what works.

Have the following stuff (technical term . . .) available:
  • A text editor with macro recording capability.
  • Crossword Compiler or your favorite puzzle editor, of course.
  • You'll need to have previously used your preferred OCR program to have scanned the clues of several PDF or graphic puzzle files to this point.  In each file, look carefully for the patterns in the scans that result in incorrect text.  Each scanner may result in different quirks.  This takes time and experience.  Be patient, grasshopper.

O.K.  Here we go:

1.  Find the common issues resulting from your OCR scans.  For the OCR app I use, each clue is often separated by extra blank lines, fill-in blanks may scan as "---", letter T as 'I' surrounded by single-quotes, etc.

2.  Once you see such patterns, record macros in your editor to find and replace each instance of the wrong scans with the right ones.  I then save these macros.
  • Use the macro editor (in Word, this is the Visual Basic macro editor) to combine the macros into one master macro, and assign this macro to a keyboard shortcut key.

3.  Ensure that the patterns you are finding and replacing do not create "false positives"—so if you see that lowercase Ls are sometimes scanned as number 1s, don't simply replace all the lowercase Ls.  You'll create as many problems as you fix.  Care is the key word here in selecting which text to replace.  Wildcards can be helpful as well.

4.  To save extra time, create some additional macros for other frequent data-entry tasks.  I use other macros to enter fill-in blanks "___" where missing and to create end-of-clue ellipses in the New York Times style (. . . ").  It doesn't sound like much, but over the course of many puzzles it saves time (and your wrists!).

5.  After scanning all of your puzzle clues (this may take one or multiple scans, depending on the file), run your master cleanup macro on the file.

  • At this point you have a cleaner text file with many of the common scan errors corrected.

6.  You still need to manually compare and edit each clue to match the actual clues.  Some manual tasks:
  • Add those fill-in blanks, missing letters, words, ellipses, incorrect letters, etc.
  • Style corrections:  missing spaces, ensuring that words that break in the middle to a new line with a dash (such as "dis- [new line] enchanted") are removed; the Times puzzles used dashes with impunity, so you have to make some judgment calls on these, but usually it is clear.
  • I also use a handy list of Alt+<number> shortcut codes to type in special accented characters (é, à, etc).  In Windows, the "charmap" program lets you copy these as well.  This helps with those pesky foreign word and name entries.

7.  While editing, manually right-justify all clue numbers (or remove manually).  If you right-justify the numbers as shown below, you can then use the editor's block-select feature to highlight only the number columns on the left and delete them in one action:

8.  In the crossword editor, use the Import function and select the text file.  (CC8: Clue->Import.)
  • If the file contains exactly one line per clue, all clues should import nicely into the clue review window.
  • If not, an error message will display; then you must edit the text file again and compare to the clues.  Sometimes the initial scan will omit a clue, which you must add in manually.

9.  Review each clue one more time manually and edit as needed.  Sometimes a lowercase L will scan as the number 1, or zero as letter O, which is easy to miss.

10.  Save the file.  You're done!

This is actually a bit easier once you have a rhythm.  With an hour I have before sleeping, I can often finish a set of puzzles in this way, if the files are clean.  I have had to manually enter a full Sunday puzzle occasionally, though.  Not every file will scan cleanly.

Any questions on details here, feel free to ask.

Thanks so much, Howard—this is a very impressive system that has proved to be exceptionally accurate!  If anyone has questions or comments about Howard's OCR method, use the Comment feature below or send me an e-mail, which I'll forward along to Howard.

Speaking of finding mistakes, it's been a while since I've posted funny litzing typos, and my list is now several pages long!  So here are ten of the more humorous ones our proofreaders have caught lately:
  • A clue for DIG was typed as "Verbal trust" instead of "Verbal thrust"
  • A clue for ALFA should have been entered as "Esparto grass" rather than "Esperanto grass"
  • A clue for OPA was accidentally typed as "W.W. III agency" instead of "W.W. II agency"
  • A clue for TOE was supposed to read "Foot digit" instead of "Foot delight"
  • A clue for ALAR should have read "Pteriod" but was accidentally entered as "Period"
  • A clue for BIRDS OF A FEATHER, which was supposed to be "Group in a flock," was erroneously typed as "Group in a frock"
  • A clue for ARNE was typed as "'Rue Britannia' composer" instead of "'Rule, Britannia' composer"
  • The grid entry LET ONE'S HAIR DOWN was mistakenly entered as LET ONE'S TEAR DOWN
  • A clue for ARE was accidentally entered as "Modem art" rather than "Modern art"
  • Last, but certainly not least, a clue for FRED was supposed to read "An Allen who wrote 'Treadmill to Oblivion'" instead of "An Alien who wrote 'Treadmill to Oblivion'"

Today's featured Will Weng–edited puzzle was constructed by Shipp (probably Dorothea E.).  It was originally published on June 22, 1974, and was recently litzed by Mark Diehl.  The first thing that struck me about this puzzle was the shape of its grid, which reminded me of the crosshairs of a rifle.  I didn't think much of it until I noticed the entries SNIPERS and REVENGE in the grid!  I wonder if this was just a coincidence or if the shape/fill was intentional.  Will Weng mentioned somewhere that he published several puzzles constructed by prison inmates (shudder!). . . .  I've just posted a new poll, which asks you to vote on whether you think the puzzle has a rifle-related theme or not.  I'll post a recap next week!

Anyway, the rest of the fill is a mix of great entries and not-so-great ones.  HOBOKEN, LOZENGE, FANATIC, STAUNCH, and CADENCE are fantastic, but SCR (clued as "Movie scenario: Abbr."), API ("Nepal mountain"), and NPS ("Certifiers: Abbr.") are pretty bad.  Nevertheless, this is a remarkably clean "themeless" puzzle!  The solution (with highlighted "theme entries") can be seen below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian entry, SESQUIDUPLICATE, originally appeared in the July 7, 1976, puzzle by Sidney Nelson, which was recently litzed by Nancy Kavanaugh.  Not surprisingly, according to the Ginsberg database, SESQUIDUPLICATE has yet to be reused in the Shortz era.  The clue for SESQUIDUPLICATE was "Having a ratio of 5 to 2."  This word is so obscure that it isn't even listed in Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary!, however, notes that the word was listed in the 1996 and 1998 unabridged editions of Webster's.  The definition was "Twice and a half as great (as another thing); having the ratio of two and a half to one."  Sesquiduplicate sounds awesome, but I don't think I'll ever be able to use it in a sentence!  Below are some pictures of a sesquiduplicate ratio:

Images courtesy of and Wikipedia, respectively.

Friday, February 1, 2013

1986 Puzzles on XWord Info, Sending 1973 Puzzles, Over 7,400 at Halfway Point in Contest, Mark Diehl Hits 2,000, New Litzer of the Month Denny Baker, and David Astle's Call for Crossword Stories

Great news:  The 1986 puzzles are now up on XWord Info, and we've begun proofreading puzzles from 1985!  We're also now sending out puzzles from 1973 to be litzed—it won't be long before we're in the Margaret Farrar era!

We're also now at the halfway point in the litzing contest, and I'm delighted to report that we've litzed more than 7,400 puzzles!  At the beginning of January, we'd litzed 6,198 puzzles, and we're now at 7,441.  So in just one month, we've litzed 1,243 puzzles—a phenomenal achievement, surpassing even the first litzing contest in terms of number of puzzles litzed!  Our goal is the halfway point—8,113—by the end of February, so we only have 672 more to go in the next four weeks.  Awesome job, everybody!

Some of you have commented on what appears to be a neck-and-neck race between longtime litzing legend Mark Diehl and already-astounding Howard Barkin.  Mark put us over the 7,300 mark on Sunday and then over the 7,400 mark yesterday, and he has now litzed more than 2,000 puzzles—another all-time litzing record!  Congratulations, Mark!  And Howard, who just started litzing at the beginning of January, has already litzed more than 300 puzzles—that's approximately 10 per day.  Great job, Howard!  Here at Litzing Central, I never know what's going to come in or when:  Last night at 8:18, I received 23 litzed puzzles from Mark; just three minutes later, at 8:21, an e-mail with 19 litzed puzzles came in from Howard!  Then, a couple of hours later—at 10:06, to be precise—5 more puzzles arrived from Mark, putting Mark and Howard in a tie, with 308 litzed puzzles each during the contest!

The 616 puzzles from Mark and Howard comprise slightly less than half of the 1,243 that have been litzed so far this month, so all the other puzzles from everyone else are helping an enormous amount too!  Thanks so much, everybody—I think we'll be over the Halfway Hump in just a few weeks, if not sooner!

In other news, we have a new Litzer of the Month for February:  Denny Baker, who, as I've written before, is a constructor and was a litzer back in the day when Barry Haldiman was litzing his favorite puzzles!  To read more about Denny, click on his photo on the right or the Litzer of the Month tab above.

Also, I recently received an e-mail from Amy Reynaldo (Diary of a Crossword Fiend), who forwarded an e-mail she'd received from David Astle ("DA").  DA is putting together what sounds like a fascinating book that will celebrate the first 100 years of crossword puzzles.  The Great Clue Chase will contain 100 mini-chapters containing different stories linked to each of the 100 years.  DA is interested in "good stories, remarkable puzzles, flukes, backfires, Russian, Ninas, firsts and lasts" to fill out his timeline.  He comments that the "best stuff has a year attached—the further back the better often—as well as neat story."  He's not reproducing puzzles—just providing a clue or two and telling the story.  If you have any ideas or stories for this book—there are probably many about puzzles from the pre-Shortzian era!—contact DA through his web site.  Anyone who sends a "zinger" will receive a copy of DA's Puzzles and Words, a new book of word origins and connected word puzzles!

Today's featured pre-Shortzian puzzle, "Living It Up,"  was constructed by Frances Hansen.  It was originally published on December 29, 1974, and was recently litzed by Mark Diehl.  This is one of several Will Weng–era quote puzzles I've seen that doesn't work the same way as a modern quote puzzle.  Instead of dividing the quote by natural word breaks, the constructor broke the quote at every twenty-third letter; the quote simply continues from line to line in an acrosticlike fashion!  Nowadays this puzzle probably wouldn't fly because of the word-break issue, even though the constructor's original verse is very clever.  Interestingly, Maleska probably would have rejected this puzzle as well.  In all the many Maleska-edited quote puzzles I've looked at (some of which were constructed by Frances Hansen), I have yet to encounter a straight quote puzzle with this kind of word breakage (though I have seen several step quotes).

Back to the puzzle.  The ingenious verse reads:  A DEFIANT OLD MAID, PRAY FORGIVE HER, REMARKED WITH A HABIT OF A QUIVER: "TONIGHT I SHALL SMOKE AND DRINK TIL I CHOKE AND NUTS TO MY LUNGS AND MY LIVER."  It's amazing that the verse, in addition to being exactly 115 letters long, makes perfect sense (even with the word-break issue)!  Also, the fill, in addition to being pangrammatic, feels more polished and clean than the average Will Weng–edited Sunday.  I especially like the entries ROOF JOBS, RAFFISH, and TABASCO!  I can do without AANI (clued as "Dog-headed ape"), ADMIS ("African gazelles"), DHAVA ("East Indian gum tree"), NABO ("P. I. shrub: Var."), and TONDO ("Circular painting"); nevertheless, this is a remarkably small number of flat-out obscurities for a hand-constructed 23x.  Is anyone else surprised that Will Weng allowed the entry HOMICIDAL into the grid?  To me, this seems to violate the breakfast test. . . .

Even though it has its weaknesses, this crossword provides insight into what quote/verse puzzles looked like before the Maleska and Shortz eras.  I look forward to seeing how other types of themes evolve as we continue to litz through the Weng era and further back into the Farrar era!  This puzzle's answer grid (with highlighted theme entries) can be seen below:

Today's featured pre-Shortzian clue appeared in the November 28, 1950, puzzle by Thomas Meekin, which was edited by Margaret Farrar and recently litzed by yours truly.  The clue, which led to EXTRACURRICULAR, read: "Describing activities now lacking in N.Y.'s public schools."  Apparently in 1950 and 1951, New York teachers were dissatisfied with their salaries and decided to boycott extracurricular activities until their pay rates were increased!  I find this kind of historically significant clue fascinating—there's hardly any information about the boycott anymore.  Each pre-Shortzian puzzle (particularly those edited by Margaret Farrar) is a snapshot of major events occurring when it was published!  Below is a picture of children in a classroom from the 1949–50 school year:

Image courtesy of Artswipe.