Sunday, 31 March 2013

Interview: Greg Parker aka The Puzzle Wizard

The Puzzle Wizard, Greg Parker, and me, Jan 2007.
The Wizard is standing on a chair.

Greg Parker has been a friend and colleague of mine for many years. He single-handedly produces The Puzzle Wizard series of crossword books, which are available in newsagencies throughout Australia and New Zealand, and on subscription. They are excellent crossword magazines, and some of the few independent crossword publications out there.

I designed Greg's web site, and I also design the covers of his World of Crosswords and Crossword Magic publications. In recent times I have started writing the cryptic in his World of Crosswords mag, too. 

I thought you might like to get to know Greg better, so here is my interview for your enjoyment!

Puzzling: How long have you been writing crosswords?
Greg: Since about six years of age — so 43 years.

Puzzling: What got you started on writing them?
Greg: I was fascinated by words (and numbers for that matter) from a young age.  Books which featured simple crosswords such as the 'Across and Down' puzzles — crosswords consisting of a 4x4 grid with no black squares where the four across words were the same as the four down words — captured my imagination.  Then a book called the Sun Book of Games and Puzzles had a section on how to compile crosswords — and from there I was hooked.

Puzzling: What sort of process do you go through to write your crosswords and

Greg: The process is partly automated and partly manual.  Any software that I use I've written myself to emulate what I would've done manually anyway.  With the crosswords, the grids are designed first, then the words inserted into the grids, then the clues are written.  The systems I have to produce the crosswords and magazines have been gradually improved over time. Planning and preparation to produce the crossword magazines started in 1990 — nine years before the first magazine was published.

Puzzling: Are there any subjects that you tend to include or avoid in your

Greg: I try to include subjects which are representative of what Australians take an interest in; this provides plenty of scope for material. There are certain subjects that may offend, and these are avoided or treated cautiously.  Disease and sex come to mind.  I don't consider religion and politics amongst these, as long as common sense is used of course.

Puzzling: What is the best part of your work?
Greg: Being my own boss is very good.  As is working from home, hence avoiding the frustration and loss of time from a daily commute.

Puzzling: What is the most annoying part of your work?
Greg: Two words — Australia Post.  They've let me down so many times over the years it isn't funny.  If you asked me the hardest part of my work, I'd say the continuous schedule of meeting deadlines.

Puzzling: How do you see The Puzzle Wizard developing over the coming years?
Greg:  I have some big plans for The Puzzle Wizard but I'd rather keep them under the wizard's hat for the moment  :)

Puzzling: Do you play any word games to relax, or have you had enough of them
by the end of the day? What do you like to do to relax?

Greg: I tend to avoid word games when I'm not working and just try to give the mind a break, as producing the books can get pretty intense in a mental sense.  To relax I have coffee with my wife, watch AFL and AFL discussion shows.

Puzzling: So you're keen on AFL are you?
Greg: Yes - I've followed Morningside in the local comp for as long as I've been making crosswords.

Puzzling: What's something most of your readers wouldn't know about you?
Greg: Like Laurie Lawrence and the new pope, I have only one lung.

Thank you Greg!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Blankity blanks

Wiley produced two editions of Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies. A paper book, and an eBook. The big downside of an eBook crossword book, however, is that (so far) you can't solve the crosswords on your eBook reader!

To counteract this failing, I put together all the blank crossword grids from the book (sans clues — you need the book for them!). Wiley have 'Dummified' the layout, and put them up online.  So, if you have the eBook edition (or want to tackle the crosswords in your paper book a second time), download the free PDF, print the grids out, and solve to your heart's content!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

ANZSI Conference

My apologies for being rather invisible for a while, I've had two overseas trips in the past month! Anyway, I'm back again, and will try to heed my daughter's command to "Stay, Mummy, STAY!" for the rest of the year (although New York is beckoning).

Last week I attended my first indexing conference, the biennial conference of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers (ANZSI). Wow, that sounds so exciting, I hear you mutter sarcastically.

Well, let me tell you, it was awesome. I met so many fabulous, intelligent, funny, and generous people (there were around 80 of us at the conference), learnt so many interesting things, found out how to expand my indexing business and improve my skills — and all in the delightful environs of Wellington, New Zealand.

Wellington is similar to Canberra — the national capital that no-one is aware of. No, Sydney's not the capital of Australia, my hometown Canberra is. And Auckland isn't capital of New Zealand, it's Wellington. About the same population too (~400,000), with spectacular scenery.

These are some of the views from our conference venue, out across the Wellington Harbour.

View to the Wellington Harbour

Customhouse Quay from above
Customhouse Quay street view
An early morning gathering of indexers, in the nomming area
Wellington is a delightful city, one might even risk calling it quaint. It's much older than Canberra, established in 1839. There are a lot of beautiful wooden buildings. If it wasn't for the risk of earthquakes, which is a bit too worrying for me, I would happily live here.

The General Practitioner pub, Willis St, Wellington
So, what on earth are indexers, and what do they talk about at a whole three day conference?

Indexers are the redoubtable souls who create the indexes at the back of non-fiction books. They also index things like journals, magazines, collections of papers, annual reports, and so on. A good index is the main 'finding aid' for a book, a way to find your way around the content. It is a creative and skilled art. The indexer gets the manuscript close to the end of the whole publication process (so usually on a tight deadline), reads through the whole thing, and writes the index as they go. The index requires a lot of editing and structure work to get it working well. There are a bunch of conventions to remember to follow, too. We work with authors, editors, and publishers.

A big issue in the indexing world at the moment is how eBooks can still retain working indexes, especially as eBooks don't always have page numbers. The text flows around, depending on the reading device's screen size, and the reader's settings (bigger font, smaller font, typeface etc). No fixed page numbers to link index entries to!

It is possible to create a 'clickable' interactive index, but most eBook publishers, when converting a paper book to an eBook, simply delete the index, or leave it in, but without any interactivity or way of finding the content. A search function doesn't cut it — it throws up every single occurrence of a particular word, and can't tell you which are the locations with the best quality information. So a lot of our discussions focussed on the world of eBooks and the EPUB book standard. Basically, the tools to help us do this task easily just haven't been developed, so this is very much bleeding edge stuff. We can create these interactive indexes, but it's not easy (yet).

The intrepid American indexer Jan Wright and my delightful Aussie indexing teacher Glenda Browne gave a great presentation about EPUBs and different ways of creating interactive eBook indexes in a range of file formats and outputs. Their talk was entitled The Matrix, so naturally, they both dressed up as Trinity. It had to be done. American programmer David K. Ream gave several presentations on EPUB and eBook indexing. I attended Jan's workshop about embedded and hyperlinked indexing using Adobe InDesign.
Jan Wright (L) and Glenda Browne (R) cleverly disguised as Trinity

A Japanese academic indexer also attended, and astonished us all with stories about how Japanese indexes are written : entirely by hand. The indexer works through the book, writes their entries into a sheet such as this one, then cuts up the strips, and puts them in order by hand. They have bags of strips for a single book, and the process takes months if not years. This was rather flabbergasting to us spoilt non-Asian indexers who use indexing software to help us create and organise our work. 

Japanese index
A Japanese index worksheet

I attended a session on using Regular Expressions / grep in Cindex (the indexing software I use), run by the elegant and lovely Frances Lennie, who is one of the founders and owners of Cindex. I also attended workshops on typesetting dilemmas in indexes, indexer accreditation, setting up an indexing business, how you deal with numerical entries in an index, and working with editors and publishers, amongst others. 

View from Mt Victoria across the Wellington Harbour
View from Mt Victoria to Wellington
Apart from all these interesting sessions, I loved meeting so many indexers in one place! They are really splendid people. I especially enjoyed meeting the Americans Jan WrightPilar Wyman, David K. Ream, and Kay Schlembach, as well as many New Zealand indexers, and meeting up again with my Aussie colleagues (such as Sherrey Quinn)!

We had a brilliant conference dinner at the Roxy Cinema, delicious meal, with unexpected and hilarious entertainment by The Improvisers. Jan and I were called up to participate too – we had to 'work' the actors as puppets, making them move while they told a story about Vivacious Denise and Intrepid Jan. Nearly died laughing.

The New Zealand branch did a fabulous job organising the conference – they'll be a hard act to follow (and I'm on the organising committee of the next one, Canberra 2015!). It was hard to say good bye to so many friends, both new and old, but I'm sure our paths will cross again!

Jan Wright (L) and me - an intrepidly vivacious pair!
All too soon, the conference was over. I had Saturday free to look around Wellington a little more. I naturally gravitated to the nearest wool shop, Knit World, and bought some merino possum yarn (Aussie possums are an out-of-control introduced pest in NZ, so hunting is permitted, and their fur is turned into a very soft yarn).

The Satay Kingdom Café was a little hole-in-the-wall place just down from the yarn shop. Sitting outside on a warm sunny day, eating Malaysian Roti Chanai with Curry Chicken Soup was perfect.

My friend Jane and I were sharing an apartment room, and were amused by this local yoghurt we bought for breakfast : Mammoth Yoghurt for men. It was heartily delicious, but I was a bit alarmed that after eating it, I suddenly became very interested in all the nice men's fashion and shoe shops around Wellington, and had a hankering for aftershave. It must have been a bit too strong for me!

I visited Ninjaflower a few times, as it was only a few doors down from our hotel. I bought two pairs of gorgeous spiral earrings, one black horn pair, and one in shell. 

Wellington is famous, of course, as the home of the Weta Workshop, and the locale for many scenes in  the Lord of the Rings movies. On our half day off, we went for a bus tour around some of the locations — Helm's Deep and Rivendell mainly. It was amazing how there was nothing left of the movie sets, you could only tell from various signs around the place. The scenery was stunning, very green and majestic.

We also went to the Weta Workshop. The visit was a bit of a disappointment, as you can't actually go in and see the workshops at all (all hush hush), and the gift shop was very small with very expensive merchandise. There was a filmed 'tour' for visitors, which was interesting, though.

The quarry that was once Helm's Deep

A Rivendell scene

River ford, Kaitoke Regional Park, Upper Hutt
Mt Victoria, where the 'hobbits hiding from the
Nazgul under the tree roots' scene was filmed

Gollum at the Weta Cave shop

On our last day in Wellington, Jane and I went to the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa. The giant squid was one of my favourite exhibits ... I was just relieved that it was safely behind a very thick glass (and dead ... but you can never be too careful when it comes to giant squids!).