June 02, 2009


crossword 23:10, with two googles
puzzle 35:00 (approx.)

hey, folks. this week's puzzle, "Signing Bonus," is the 52nd episode of matt gaffney's weekly crossword contest, marking the end of one year's worth of weekly puzzles. as befitting its status as the first 5th-week-of-the-month puzzle since matt switched over to the increasing-difficulty-throughout-the-month puzzles, this puzzle was an absolute killer. when all was said and done, the 5-part riddle in the grid spelled out: NAME THREE STATES / WHOSE QUARTERS, IF / COUNTED TOGETHER, / STATES SIDES ONLY, / ARE PANGRAMMATIC.

seems straightforward enough, and definitely a more contained problem than the killer pangram search back in mgwcc #35, featuring aged historian jacques barzun, country singer dwight yoakam, and ex-NHL all-star félix potvin. there are only 50 state quarters to look at, right? so i duly found this website at the US mint and started poking through. as with any pangram search, the key is to figure out how to work in the rare letters: J, Q, X, and Z. (and in this particular case, every state has E PLURIBUS UNUM on the back, so we don't even need to worry about BEILMNPRSU.) without further ado:

  • several state quarters have a J: new Jersey (crossroads of the revolution), georgia (wisdom Justice moderation), virginia (Jamestown quadricentennial), and california (John muir, yosemite valley).
  • the X choices are limited to the two states with X in their name: new meXico (land of enchantment) and teXas (the lone star state).
  • there's only one Z: ariZona (grand canyon state).
  • there are two Qs: wyoming (the eQuality state) and virginia (jamestown Quadricentennial).

okay, so two things are clear: one, the solution has to include arizona, as it's got the only Z in the entire set. and two, the solution has to include virginia, as it's the only coin with more than one of the four rare letters (J and Q). putting arizona and virginia together (along with E PLURIBUS UNUM) knocks out all the letters except for F, H, K, and X. so we just look at the two choices for X: new meXico (land oF encHantment) has everything but the K... but there's no K. and evidently, there's no solution.

what's going on here? i checked and re-checked every state quarter numerous times to make sure i hadn't missed any rare letters. nope. as usual, the contest instructions and title can help when you're stuck on the meta. i didn't think i needed them, because the riddle statement was straightforward enough, but let's have a look anyway. the instructions say: This week's contest answer is the answer to the five-part riddle contained in the grid. well then. not much to it, is there? there's also this, which i hadn't noticed the first time i read through the instructions: Note: there are four possible answers to this riddle, and any of the four is acceptable. Once you get one of the four, the other three will quickly follow anyway. four, really? i count zero.

okay, but what about the title? "Signing Bonus" seems to have little to do with the riddle ... unless ... hmm. just to triple-check myself, i found this wikipedia page with all of the state quarter designs and captions in searchable text format, and went through them looking for J, Q, X, and Z. i didn't find anything outside of what i had already discovered, but i did note that the engraver of the virginia quarter has the curious name edgar Z steever. was matt counting that Z? should i be counting that Z? i clicked on the quarter design and didn't find any extra Z, until i examined this enlargement to discover something that was completely invisible from the images on the US mint site. holy crap:

there it is, in super-tiny print nestled among the waves of the james river: the engraver's monogram, EZS. that's the "signing bonus" of the title. (afterward, matt pointed out that he had tacked on "--MCG" to his usual "Solve well, and be not led astray by words intended to deceive" message at the end of his blog post.) the E and the S don't make any difference, of course, but that Z is huge. now we don't need arizona, because virginia has the J, Q, and Z, making it the jacques barzun of state quarters.

well, there's plenty of solutions now. "virginia jamestown quadricentennial EZS" + "new mexico land of enchantment DE" + "E PLURIBUS UNUM" knocks out all of the letters except for K and Y. lots of things can round out the set:

  • new YorK: gateway to freedom
  • KentuckY: my old kentucky home (this was my choice, simply because KY = kentucky)
  • nebrasKa: chimneY rock
  • montana: big sKY country

i believe these were the four that matt had in mind, but there are a couple of others. virginia alone covers the entire alphabet except for F, H, K, X, and Y, so virginia + texas (H, X) + new york (F, K, Y) is pangrammatic. so is virginia + texas + kentucky, since the kentucky quarter was engraved by T. james ferrell (TJF), for an extra signing bonus. i'm 99% sure those are the only six solutions, since i don't think there are any more Xs even if you include all of the engraver monograms. it's possible to get all four rare letters without using virginia (arizona JFM + wyoming + texas/new mexico), but you're still missing a K.

at first i didn't like this meta at all, but i've softened somewhat. there are definitely hints (the title, MCG) that i didn't see/use until after i had worked it out that would have made it more of an "aha" moment and less of an "OMG he expected us to see those tiny f***ing letters?" moment when i did finally work it out. how did you like it?

enough about the meta. the crossword itself kicked my ass, and it reminded me more of a saturday stumper than any puzzle i've ever done aside from an actual saturday stumper. lots of really short ambiguous clues along with trivia i did not know. that combined with 75 squares' worth of theme material which wasn't really guessable until you had a bunch of crossings made it a real bear. eventually i googled [Seat of Shawnee county] (TOPEKA) and [Carlsbad's river] (PECOS, which i might have been able to guess) and broke it open that way. there was tons of other geography:

  • [Second word of a U.S. city] is RATON, of boca raton, florida. i had (coeur d') ALENE here for a long while, as it's more commonly seen in crossword fill. however, i'm not sure how the d' affects the word count, so i'm glad ALENE wasn't actually the answer.
  • speaking of d', [Paris's Quai d'___] ORSAY was a gimme for me. it's the quai right by the train-station-turned-modern-art-museum of the same name. when i was in paris back in 2003, i went to the ORSAY again and again (god bless 10-day museum passes!); the density of masterpieces in there is pretty well unmatched, especially if you dig the impressionists.
  • [Tall tribe] is the OSAGE. are they particularly tall? i have no idea. i was thinking it was going to be either the HUTU or TUTSI, but neither of them fit.
  • there's already lots of midwestern geography, but HANOI, not fargo, is the five-letter [Red River city]. HANOI is in NAM, which was cross-referenced in the grid, making this one easier to crack than usual.
  • [Island named for a nymph] is CORFU, in the ionian sea. i've heard of this island, but i certainly didn't know that it was named for the nymph korkyra in greek mythology.
  • UTOPIA also sort of falls into the category of mythological geography. it's clued quite trickily as [More society], which sounds like it might be cluing something like ARTIER, but is actually a reference to thomas more, who wrote utopia.

non-geographical stuff i did not know:

  • ORKUT is apparently [Google's answer to Facebook]. mrr?
  • [Ice, in Ixtapa], is HIELO. was not happening.
  • speaking of romance languages i don't know, [Posta ___ (kind of mail, in Milan)] is AEREA. lots of vowels, palindromic... hmm, maybe i should learn that one. anyway, because of all the foreign clues, i thought [Nice places] was also going to be a foreign clue for LIEUX or something, but no, it's just EDENS.
  • ["The Wire" star ___ Elba] is IDRIS. i've heard of various historical figures named IDRIS (an early arab ruler and a 20th-century libyan king), but not this guy. between matt and BEQ, i feel like i've been seeing entirely too many "the wire" clues in crossword puzzles.

favorite clue: [Ransom once paid in Michigan] is ransom eli OLDS. least favorite clue: the infuriatingly ambiguous [Roman prime] for CIII, or 103. (but it could have been XIII, XVII, XXIX, XXXI, LIII, LXXI, CVII, CXCI, CCXI, CCLI, CDIX, DIII, DXXI, DXLI, DCCI, CMXI, MXIX, MXXI, MLXI, MXCI, MCIX, MCLI, MCCI, MDXI, MDCI, MCMI, MMXI, or MMMI.) inside joke of the week: the last across word is VENAL, clued (correctly, this time) as [Like some politicians]. illinois governors, say.

that's all for this week. next week it gets easy again.