May 10, 2007

Friday, 5/11

Graphics? Bullets? Uh-oh. I see the rent just went up around this place, and before they send me an eviction notice, let me share one more graphics-free, bullets-free blog post with you.

OK, then. Lots of interesting conversation here the last few days, and I’ve been a little too busy to add any thoughts real-time. I thought Al’s comments Wednesday on the Next Wave™ in crosswords were right on the money. With the New Wave now mainstream and the Ink Wells, Onions & Co. often the ones breaking new ground, it’ll be interesting to see how puzzles evolve in the next few years.

Much about puzzles is a matter of taste, and for my taste I’m happy to see some loosening of the Sunday Breakfast Rule that Al mentions. What’s acceptable for a puzzle? What’s not? Well, it’s an endless debate, but we’re now beginning to see puzzles that go places where puzzles haven’t gone before. I think these new ones appeal to some of the seasoned pros who do a lot of puzzles and are looking for something fresh, and also to people who may be younger, maybe newer to the crossword habit, and like the edgier fare. (That’s not to say they’re puzzles for beginners. I don’t think they are.) Seems to me these new puzzles have a real sense of fun about them, which is welcome anytime (hey, bathroom humor is better than no humor at all). Once a puzzle gets you to laugh, it can get away with just about anything. Even pop cult references that make me feel like the aging late boomer that I am. I don’t know what effect, if any, the Next Wave puzzles will have on those in the daily newspaper. We’ll see. I’d like to see things a little more open in terms of what’s acceptable, but whatever may be in store, the New Wave got to be mainstream by making puzzles fun in ways they weren’t before, and the old days of puzzling are over. It should be a fun ride ahead.

Last night my wife and I had a lot of fun seeing Will Shortz at UCLA. Just us and, I’d guess, 1,200-plus* packing Royce Hall. (No lack of crossword fans in these parts!) As you might imagine, it was an entertaining event. Will talked about some of his favorite puzzles, offered a short history of the crossword, and discussed his role as editor and how N.Y. Times puzzles get made. He seemed to have no shortage of stories to tell, and I’m sure he could have gone on for hours. Will took questions from the audience, then for about a half hour he got to ask the questions, quizzing the audience with some contests he had put together. How to pull that off with a crowd that size I’m not sure, but Will didn’t seem to break a sweat. Everyone had a good time, sometimes shouting out answers, sometimes getting stumped. Pat Creadon joined Will at the end for a few tales about Wordplay. Afterwards, we had a chance to talk with Will and Pat at the book signing, and it was a special treat to meet each of them for the first time. (By the way, a big thank you to Pat for a copy of the book. Somehow the books and the book-signing were on different sides of the hall, and we had been waiting on the book-signing line bookless at the time. Now, if Pat has some free time, we could use his skills here. Maybe some graphics for the daily puzzle just like we saw in Wordplay. A video Q&A with the day’s constuctors. We could score it with some music with Vic. We could really get this place rocking and the Fiend won’t even recognize it when she gets back from vacation.)

* The rough numbers, as I recall: 95% (!) who do crosswords, a third to half who do sudoku, about a half-dozen crossword constructors, 5 to 10 NPLers, 3 to 5 cryptics solvers, and maybe 75% who saw Wordplay.

Need to post this one a little early before we have a little birthday celebration here at the house. Back with an update before bedtime, including the NYT.

Update below: NYT
Update 2 below: LAT, WSJ

Sun Puzzle by Patrick Berry: “Weekend Warrior”

Hey, I get to blog another puzzle by a Patrick. Just lucky, I guess. Pat Berry’s one of the most prolific and accomplished puzzle-makers around. A master of the themeless. Smart, tough, and fair. Not long ago I picked up a Sit & Solve book of Easy Crosswords of his, and two things struck me: one, the quality of the puzzles were all first-rate, and two, Pat’s definition of “Easy” is different than the average mortal’s.

This WW is a 64-worder, with no sign of strain in the word selection. Really good balance in the grid, with plenty of open space in the corners and the center too.

If you are ever looking for examples of “lively fill” (an asset for any puzzle but the meat and potatoes of puzzles without a theme) you could use this puzzle as Exhibit A: TRICK SHOTS, DOOR PRIZE, TIME SAVER, COME ALIVE, RIOT GUN, THE HUB, PRESIDENT-ELECT, and a couple of catchy phrases, I GIVE UP and I SEE DEAD PEOPLE. I liked them all. Each time you find one you get the feeling that it’s exactly right, and that’s what keeps you coming back for more.

My time on this was somewhat quicker than my average Berry (13-flat, I won’t complain). I started off all right. [Two-cup units?], four letters and a question mark, has to be BRAS, right? Yes, it is. All I see in the clue for 9-D is “Comedian” and “1960” so I guess it’s SAHL. Right again. [Cat sound], four letters, looks like “meow” or “purr,” but it’s a Weekend Warrior so I leave it blank. I’m not falling for that one, no sirree. It get it later. It’s HISS.

I get a few toeholds, and off the ___PLE I have the Sixth Sense quote at 29-A. I have a good guess for the 20th Amendment title at 32-A and I’m making progress. That fixed a problem I had in the SE at 38-D [___ Choice]. It couldn’t be “Sophie’s” without a quote mark in the clue, so I guessed “Hobson’s,” not a bad try considering this is from Patrick Berry of all people. But now I see it’s TASTER’S. I should have had the [“Thank You for Smoking” star] (ECKHART) right off the bat, but I blanked at first. Same with [Togo’s capital]. How could I forget LOME? Right next to the OREO/OLEO crossing. You got a problem with that? (I do not.)

I could go on, but that might leave you less to say. Fun solve. Extremely doable puzzle. Do it. [Ed. note: I see now that would have been better advice before I told you all the answers.]

More to come...

N.Y. Times Puzzle by Patrick Berry

I said earlier that he was prolific and it seems he wants you to know I wasn’t kidding around. Here he is again: Patrick Berry, with another themeless, another beaut.

One of the bigger laughs at last night’s event was during the Q&A. A lady had asked Will why she often sees the same word in two puzzles on the same day. Will confirmed what we all have suspected, that crossword editors get together once a year and plan these seeming coincidences very carefully. Maybe someone should have asked if Patrick Berry attends the meetings too.

The repeat today is UTURN, and it appears in exactly the same spot in the grid, first word of the next-to-bottom row across. After seeing it in the Sun clued [Drastic policy change], I saw [Surprising political move] in the Times and with the first U already there I didn’t hesitate. You don’t always get help quite like that, but it is true that the more puzzles you do, the easier they get.

On the whole, though, this grid was slower filling in. (My time was a shade past 20.) The top didn’t yield much at first, so I jumped down below and found [“Heart of the Tin Man” author]. This is the kind of clue you often see on a Friday. It asks ostensibly for one thing (the name of a writer) but really is pointing in a different direction (the actor who played the Tin Man). The sooner you sniff out what’s really going on, the sooner you’ll get the answer. It also helps if you remember the actor from The Wizard of Oz is JACK HALEY.

Having that juicy J in place led me to its crossing. [City where the Caesar salad was invented, 1924] was hardly automatic. TIJUANA seemed to fit, but I don’t think of Caesar salad as Mexican food. Then I wondered if “St. John’s” is a city but I left it blank and moved on. Well, sometimes it’s best to go with your first thought. One of the tricks of becoming a better solver is developing better hunches. I’m working on it.

Another of those tricky end-of-week clues is [You’ll find a trailer in it]. Where do you find a trailer? A “trailer park,” of course, but that’s no good for obvious reasons. “Truck stop” fits with nine letters, but it won’t lead to any good crossings so you’ll need something else. Maybe it’s a movie trailer. “Multiplex”? Nice try, but try again. I didn’t solve this one till I had about five letters and was pretty sure of the first word. LAST PLACE is a nice payoff, I think, because it’s not obvious and yet a perfect answer for the clue.

Elsewhere, you’ll find some first rate fill (CLASS ACTS, STAPLE GUN, PODUNK, and the whole SE: SICK LEAVE, ODOR EATER, POPPY SEED). There’s not an iffy entry anywhere. One word, though, was new to me, SOURSOP. I sort of look forward to seeing a new word or two in late-week puzzles. The key to a good solve isn’t whether I know all the words or not, but if I learn a new word, Was it worth it?

OT Note: Two things I learned today:
1. Blogger does not like me.
2. A box of chocolates left in a car in 99º heat turns into a box of chocolate soup.

L.A. Times Puzzle by John Greenman

As Al noted, nice academic puns make the theme in the L.A. Times today, a play on the names of some universities. TULANE HIGHWAYS, EMORY BOARDS, and a couple of others. No U-turn here but we do get UIE, which gets spelled so many ways I never know what to put after the U, and UCLA makes a timely appearance [Its Westwood Replacement Hospital was designed by I.M. Pei]. Didn't know that.

WSJ Puzzle by Liz Gorski, "The Nature Channel"

The "nature" of the puns here is a play on the names of animals, seven in all, and my faves are DEER DIARY [Show hosted by Bambi the Blogger?] (there is a, actually; too late, Bambi) and STYLING MOOSE [Wild guy with a hair care show?]. Anything with "moose" in it I find funny. Maybe they're inherently funny animals, or maybe it's from growing up on Bullwinkle. The only theme entry that sounded a little off was FRYER TUCK. Sure, "fryer" is an animal but it didn't seem to fit with the others (TERN, EWE, GNUS, etc.), ones that you might find for example at the Chester Zoo. The puzzle seemed like a breeze, and I also learned that Vermont has another five-letter ski resort to go with Stowe, OKEMO.