Saturday, December 21, 2019

Acrostic for Christmas and New Year

Like the last one, this has no holiday theme to it, but it's from a hilarious new book by a brilliant entertainer.

MC and HNY to all readers...

Solution to the December acrostic

"Growing up in Los Angeles, my best friend in grade school was this girl named Penny. She was an extrovert, a great kisser, and as I recall, a pretty good gymnast. At recess, she would drag me to the restroom just to watch her take a dump right next to the toilet."

Jen Beagin, Vacuum in the Dark

A. Jessica
B. Espionage
C. New York
D. Bosworth
E. Encampments
F. Asterwort
G. Gammer Gurton's needle
H. Index
I. No story
J. Vortex
K. Asgard
L. Camille Paglia
M. Utterly
N. Ushant
O. Megaflop
P. Into that good night
Q. Nest egg
R. Thursday
S. Heathrow
T. Erstwhile
U. Didact
V. Atheists
W. Rader
X. Kestrels

This book is good fun, telling the story of a house cleaner in Taos.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Acrostic for December

I've put this up so that American readers have it in time for Thanksgiving. It doesn't have a turkey theme, but it's good fun anyway.

Solution to the November acrostic

"The unfortunate truth is, rudeness is the human condition. We modern humans are a bunch of grasping, self-involved jerks, same as generations of humans before us. It's just that there are suddenly fewer constraints on our graspy, self-involved jerkhood than ever before."

Amy Alkon, I see rude people

A. Adjutant
B. Minor fifth
C. Young Sheldon
D. Andrew Johnson
E. Lubitsch
F. Kissing off
G. Observant
H. No future
I. Islets of Langerhans
J. Sheriff
K. Eunice Kennedy Shriver
L. Eurostar
M. Redgraves
N. Under threat
O. Drum majorette

P. Enhancement
Q. Possessives
R. Ever so
S. Out West
T. Phantom
U. Labour head
V. Eau

Amy Alkon styles herself "The Advice Goddess" and has a very active daily blog.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Acrostic for November

The quote this month is from a syndicated columnist who offers relationship advice based on ev. psych.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Solution to the October acrostic

"Allen's attitude toward sex always managed to raise my Puritan hackles, and I suspect he knew it. Deep in my heart I still yearned for a monogamous relationship with Neal, but if it wasn't possible, perhaps this arrangement held possibilities hitherto unknown in conventional patterns."

Carolyn Cassady, Off The Road

A. Canterbury tales
B. A nod's as good as a wink
C. Rapid
D. Oil paint
E. Le Corbusier
F. Yellow peril
G. Natty Bumppo
H. Campanile
I. Alain
J. Saint Stephen
K. Swelter
L. At the hop
M. Dealt
N. You wish
O. Orpington
P. Foxhunting
Q. Fahrenheit
R. Taskmaster
S. Heaviside
T. Estaminet
U. Run with it
V. Own kisses sin
W. Amnestied
X. Disenthrallment

In the quote, "Allen" is of course the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who had a loose homosexual relationship with Carolyn Cassady's famous husband Neal. Her title, "Off The Road", is a contrast to Jack Kerouac's classic "On The Road".

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Acrostic for October

This slightly racy quote is from a woman reluctantly but bravely coping with her famous husband's bisexuality, somewhat rolling the eyes in a wifely way, I think.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Solution to the September acrostic

"The people in Europe all had new cars and watches. And green woods and forests. The labels on the clothes had been put on by who they claimed to be, not knocked off in China like ours. The girls were blond and wore short dresses, showing their legs."

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo

A. Speech
B. Elbow
C. Bad debt
D. Alpha Blondy
E. Southwest face
F. The kindness of strangers
G. Ingenue
H. Angel
I. No-hitter
J. Forgery
K. Ashdown
L. Underwear
M. Lockwood
N. Knotted
O. Showboat
P. Pina Pellicer
Q. Ash
R. Rest home
S. Indo-chinese
T. Shelled
U. E-News
V. Cloister
W. Hearth
X. On hold

The narrator of this quote is Tariq, an adolescent in Tangier who dreams of a better life in Europe. His adventures when he makes it to Paris are the backbone of this excellent story, weaving historical fact into the fictional lives of Tariq and the feminist historian he comes across.

Summer's all gone, welcome Autumn or Fall, whatever you call it. Look for a new puzzle in October.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Acrostic for September

This one is from a 2018 book that I really enjoyed.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Solution to the August acrostic

"In the daily round, it no longer amazed me that I could pass the time of day with a manufactured human, or that it could wash the dishes and converse like anyone else. As Adam blossomed and made me rich, I had ceased to think about him."

Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me

A. Ithaca
B. Aldermaston marches
C. Need you
D. Mahatma
E. Cold duck
F. Eisteddfod
G. Wizened
H. Avonmouth
I. No dice
J. Mellors
K. Anne Hathaway
L. Cathouse
M. Humidor
N. In the south
O. Nothing to it
P. Epithet
Q. Salad Days
R. Liers
S. If...
T. Kindred
U. Euthanasia
V. Mammals
W. Ebbed

"Adam" is a human-appearing robot, who acts with impeccable logic but ultimately disastrous consequences. McEwan seems to be warning of the dangers of AI.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Acrostic puzzle for August

The quote is from a book by a well-known British author, published just this year. The theme is artificial intelligence. Happy puzzling!

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Solution to the July acrostic

"On Monday, the meetings were closed, so we all got on with maintaining the Biosphere. On Tuesday morning I was putting extra fodder in the animal bay when Gaie walked over to me. I watched as she collected a big wad of saliva in her mouth and spat in my face. She turned and walked away without a word."

[Jane] Poynter, The Human Experiment

A. Padawan
B. Own goaled
C. Yawning chasm
D. Nottingham
E. Trewsbury Mead
F. Eaten away
G. Ravaged
H. Take in
I. Howling wind
J. Established
K. How doth the little crocodile
L. Undecided
M. Murgatroyd
N. Aedes
O. New Moon
P. Edie
Q. Xanthelasma
R. Potter Heigham
S. Eiffel
T. Rain shower
U. In focus
V. Mainstay
W. Eastview
X. News pool
Y. Think about it

Conflict between Jane Poynter and Abigail Alling in Biosphere 2. I very occasionally cheat to make an acrostic work, and this is one of those occasions. I had to add the word "extra" in order to get an X, needed because of "experiment" in the title.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The three phases of acrostic compilation

        As I've now compiled 26 puzzles using computer-assist, I've come to recognize three distinct phases in the process, which generally takes about 8 to 10 (non-continuous) hours.

        I like to start with the average target length of clue words at 10, or thereabouts. Since the ideal length of the author/title string is 26 (A-Z) that means an ideal quote length is 260, obviously. I have a bank of interesting words or expressions that I'd like to use some time, and PHASE ONE consists of looking for 2 or 3 long ones from that bank that would be suitable. By "long", I mean 20 characters or even more. I've used The kindness of strangers which is 22. One day I'll find a place for Much Binding in the Marsh, 21.

        So having put in, say, 60 characters in three clue words, that reduces the average target length to (260-60)/(26-3) = 8.3 characters. So begins PHASE TWO.

        In this phase I pay very close attention to the letter frequency tables, telling me what letters I'm short of and, much more important, what letters I really must use if I don't want to be left with an impossible number of them in the end-game. I can still use my word bank but I'm very unlikely to find words longer than 10 that meet the requirements. So the task here is to think up another 18 or so words that a) preferentially use the letters my tables say I have a surplus of, and b) gradually reduce the target word length from 8.3 to 6 or 7. Letters in surplus are almost always H and T, sometimes A and E, but I'm cautious about using lots of vowels at this point.

        PHASE THREE is the end game, typically with six short words to create from about 40 letters. At this point my word bank is useless. I sometimes get help from an online anagram-maker, but it only deals in single words and I can't specify a starting letter. The technique is to try anything that comes to mind, and never be afraid of deleting words created during phase two if by so doing I farm useful letters. The long ones from phase one are pretty well set in stone now, because deleting one would increase the target word length too much.

        Useful things can be done to get rid of single letters if that helps. Of course I can use Ss to pluralize, and Ds to make past tenses, but it gets more subtle than that. For example, I had a pesky R I didn't want, so I changed IN FACT to INFARCT. Problem solved. One thing's for sure—if at this point I'm left with only as many vowels as words to create, I can't win. In practice at least 10 of the phase three letters need to be vowels.

        In the July acrostic, the phase one words are E, H, R. Phase 3 words H, P, W. Some late tweaking happened to B.

Monday, July 1, 2019

An acrostic for July

This 238-letter quote is from a book written in 2006. I had to do a slight cheat, adding a word to the quote in order to provide a letter (a Scrabble 8-pointer) that was required by the author/title but was nowhere in the quote as written. I excuse myself because this is such a super quote, revealing a situation not many people are aware of.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Solution to acrostic #2

«  Putting a flaccid penis in a condom is like shoving toothpaste back in the tube. I finally managed to corral the beast and did a few jiggles to see if the rubber would stay on. It fell to the floor. My testicles might as well have joined it. Clearly, I wasnt going to place first in this competition. »

Mike Mullane, Riding Rockets

A. Miles away
B. Iciest
C. Killing me softly
D. Ed Mitchell
E. Mavrodaphne
F. Ultimis
G. Laffer curve
H. Law students
I. Androscoggin
J. Nayeff
K. Enlightening
L. Rejoice
M. Itty-bittyiest
N. Dashwood
O. Iliac
P. Not if I can help it
Q. Gutta percha
R. Right foot
S. Opposals
T. Cowden Beath
U. Kit job
V. Ebb tides
W. Too little too late
X. Shenanigans

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Acrostic #2

This one has a spaceflight theme.

Monday, May 13, 2019


        It so happens that I'm reasonably proficient in the computer language perl, although I'm stuck at the perl 4 version while real pros all moved on to perl 5 many years ago. No matter, perl 4 does everything I need. Perl is now considered a bit dated but originally it was the #1 choice for interfacing web pages with binary data resident on the web server.

        So I've created an online assist for acrostic compilation. Since the amount of data involved in a literary acrostic is trivial by comparison with most online databases, the program works very rapidly and all operations appear instantaneous. As I compile a puzzle clue word by clue word, the program keeps track of the statistics, tells me the number of words I have yet to invent and what their average length needs to be. Most important, it compares the letter frequencies in the unassigned letters with frequencies in standard English text. So at any point during the compile, I can see at a glance which letters I most need to use, and which I'm out of or almost out of.

Part of my compile assist program: Too many Gs and Ys, too few Ls, no Ps

        There's a trap there, actually. In writing the algorithm, I used the standard frequency tables in which E, T and A dominate with 12.2%, 9.1% and 8.12% . Obviously, that's because THE and A occur very often in normal text. However, in a set of clue words such as an acrostic needs, THE and A will occur far less frequently. So there is usually a surplus of those letters, and getting rid of all the Ts and Hs can be a problem. A and E are less of a problem since it's generally easy to find a place for vowels. In Acrostic #1 on this blog, "kitty litter" is an example of resolving a surplus of Ts.

        The other thing my little program does for me is to assign the binding of word list letters to diagram letters automatically. Doing that the old-fashioned way is highly error-prone, believe me. In the early stages of compilation, there are usually many possible ways to bind a word list letter to a diagram letter, so I arranged for a random choice rather than a "first available" assignation.

        Transforming the product of my program into a Word™ file, then a .pdf, is not automated, so I still have some manual work doing that part and rigorously proof-reading. But computerization has unquestionably made acrostic compilation faster and inherently more accurate.

Solution to acrostic #1

"The function of music is to liberate in the soul those feelings that normally we keep locked up in the heart. The great composers of the past were able to do this, but the musicians of today are satisfied with four notes in a line you can sell at the street corner."

Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong

A. Sumptuously
B. Echoic
C. Bees' knees
D. Awesome
E. South Uist
F. The way forward
G. If the shoe fits
H. Alliteration
I. Nacelle
J. Fluff
K. Albee
L. Urtication
M. Lighten
N. Kitty litter
O. Sheerness
P. Brotherhood of Man
Q. Intermittent
R. Roach hotel
S. Deep State
T. Soup spoons
U. Occitania
V. Nether
W. Gated

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Acrostics in the Google era

        Gone are the days when a clue such as "WBO heavyweight champion June 2007-February 2008" would be thought unfairly difficult. Google or Wikipedia can come up with the answer to that in seconds.

        As a compiler, I live with that obvious fact (having no choice!) but I try to think of a few Google-proof clues if I can. Acrostic #1, that I published today, is not a particularly good example, but Googling has its problems for words B, G and R.

        I also do the converse—that is, provide a few write-in clues that don't even need Google, just to give my solvers confidence. I consider words D, H, M, N and maybe W to be in that category but others may disagree. General Knowledge is a tricky thing, and depends a lot on one's origins, interests and memory-power.

        The "middling" clues yield quickly to Google/Wikipedia if that's what you fancy. Word U is a good example. If solvers wish to have a personal "No-Google" rule, I say "Good idea". As a solver, as opposed to compiler, I generally start off with a No-Google rule but often succumb to the temptation when I'm stuck.

Welcome to the acrostics blog, Here's acrostic #1

On this blog I aim to provide new acrostic puzzle challenges roughly monthly, with the solutions to be posted two weeks after the puzzle. Here's the first acrostic:

Instructions for those new to acrostic puzzles

An acrostic comes in two parts—a diagram and a word list. The cells in the diagram are numbered sequentially from 1 to (in this case) 211, reading left-to-right line by line just like a book. When solved, the diagram and the word list will contain exactly the same set of 211 letters, but arranged differently.

The diagram will contain a quote from a certain book, with black cells delineating the words. The first letters of the words in the word list, reading top-to-bottom, will spell out the author and title of the book quoted.

Write in what words you can from the clues given. Transfer each letter into the diagram, using the number under each letter as the cell number. Make a few guesses, such as that plural words end in S (usually), and single-letter words are either A or I (again, usually). After a while, you should start to guess at words in the diagram. Complete these words and transfer the new letters backwards into the word list, using the letter in each cell as a guide to the word they belong to.

Success at acrostics depends on inspired guesswork, and liberal use of the eraser. Have fun.