Wordplay: Crowd-solving - where many hands make lightbulbs work

Wordplay: Crowd-solving - where many hands make lightbulbs work

Nine clues, a dozen tangents. That was my plight last week: a mirror maze of blind corridors and secret panels, all in the name of seeking crossword closure.

Regular Wordplay readers will know I was stumped by nine nasty clues. Umpteen readers in fact rejoiced in the news. The clues hailed from an old Times collection, published in 1998. Over December I'd managed to unravel the book, excepting those nasty leftovers that unravelled me.

Illustration: Simon Letch.

Illustration: Simon Letch.

Shameless, I turned to the crowd, posting the stumpers online. Who could solve the brain-curlers? Good news: the crowd could. Better news: I learnt about apples and carpentry and other allusions. Best news: all our brains are better for it.

First, the clues. I won't have room to parse all nine below, but I can share the rarities. Stone frigate (8) is one. The phrase is slang for a naval base, where a stronghold on terra firma is the equivalent of a seaborne warship.

My guess was SAPPHIRE, clueless despite having a clue. Many times smarter, the crowd said AMETHYST, as HMS Amethyst was an anti-sub sloop deployed in the Yangtze Incident of 1949. Call me mortal, but how can solvers know this arcana? Simple. You enlist the crowd and ordinary solvers become extraordinary as one.


No cooker for a consumer (5). This time the answer was EATER, but why? The key lay in the clue's other end: no cooker. Turns out the reference was apples since the fruit can be halved into cookers and eaters. Again the crowd helped me see the apples for the trees.

Last was a carpentry hurdle: The drone of woodworking (6-2). My grasp of bees is as loose as my hold on cabinetry – the danger of some little learning. Was the answer RUNNER-UP? PASSER-BY? EITHER-OR? I was stabbing with a claw hammer.

Try HANGER-ON, went the crowd. Because? Because hanger is an Anglo-Saxon term for a hillside forest, due to its precarious existence. Drones on the other hand are non-workers in both the hive and office sense, creatures who cling to others, just as I'd piggybacked the crowd.

To see all nine clues, visit my website below. Since now we need to visit a crossword class in Melbourne. Part of the University of the Third Age, the group assembles every second Friday to solve my puzzle. As a crowd, they flourish, whereas the same 14 may struggle as individuals.

That's the alchemy of crowd-solving. Perspectives pluralise, an apiarist as helpful as a naval historian. One inkling can cascade into several, the solution arriving as a collective aha. The gatherings are amiable, supportive, and getting shrewder by degrees.

Furthermore, the same powwows do a power of good, evidenced by a long-term study in Chicago. There the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Centre observed some 1100 people for more than a decade, measuring their lifestyle against their brain health. Together the subjects had an average age of 79, none with dementia at the trial's outset.

Social markers were critical, where volunteers earned a credit for every communal pastime they observed, be that bingo or clubs or church or crossword classes. Bryan James, the study's overseer, put it this way: "We were able to look at not just changes in cognition, but changes in social activity. That way we were able to see which preceded the other."

Succinctly, the greater a subject's social engagement, the stronger their defences against cognitive decline. For every one-point boost on the social scorecard, there was a 47 per cent drop in that person's rate of cognitive deterioration. Indeed, the more gregarious outliers enjoyed a 70 per cent reduction. Echoing what you and I already know: multitudes come with multiple benefits.

Twitter @dontattempt

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