June 03, 2009

Thursday, 6/4

Tausig 4:32
NYT 4:19
LAT 3:18
CS 6:18 (J―paper)/2:56 (A—Across Lite)

Peter A. Collins and Joe Krozel's New York Times crossword

Oh, these constructor-showing-off puzzles are so polarizing. Maybe three quarters of the people say "Wow, that's so cool! What a feat of crossword engineering!" while the remainder are off grumbling in the corner, "What's the point? It wasn't even fun." Yesterday, I was in the camp that responded to Samuel Donaldson's NYT with a "wow," while questioned why the theme was made at all. And today, we have a constructing tour de force, from a structural standpoint, that leaves me cool. In the middle is PETE / ROSE, the [one who has done the circled things, combined, more often than any other major-league player]. Pete Rose? Who gambled on his own sport? That's strike one, devoting a puzzle to him. The circled answers on the diagonals spell out, along the basepath, SINGLED, DOUBLED, TRIPLED, and HOMERED. Obviously it's tremendously challenging to make that many answers work with three-way checking of squares (across, down, and diagonal answers intermesh). Is it customary to talk about Pete Rose's RECORD number of hits as the number of times he singled, doubled, tripled, and homered? I'm no baseball nut, but I'm thinking no. Maybe that's ball one—it's not a hit. That thematic RECORD isn't part of the symmetry—strike two. (Are TRIS Speaker, LUIS Tiant, HITS AT, or LEGEND thematic? They need to tie in more strongly and symmetrically or get out.) Then the fill necessitated by the diagonals includes too many clunkers—strike three, you're out. Heck, I think we can get three outs with nine strikes of answers that made me scowl:

  • 16A. [Dressed for a white-tie affair] is IN TAILS. Are IN A GOWN and IN PANTS fair game?
  • 21A. ABBIE Hoffman, most of us have heard of. [Old Al Capp strip "___ an' Slats"], I daresay fewer than 5% of solvers know. Capp quit writing the strip in '45 while others continued it through '71, but this strip never ran in the Chicago papers we got.
  • 23A. FSLIC was a [Former org. protecting depositors]. I like to pronounce it "fizz-lick," and I do not like to see it parked in my crossword grid.
  • 27A. The grid-friendly ALIENOR and its cousin ALIENEE show up in some puzzles but don't bring much joy to Mudville. ALIENOR is [One who is no longer entitled].
  • 39A. "I'll take Obscure Small Towns for $200, please, Alex": The [Georgia birthplace of Erskine Caldwell], MORELAND, has 393 people. Bzzzz!
  • 50A. ALAE is hardcore crosswordese, clued here as [Latin wings]. It coordinates nicely with fellow crosswordese TAW, from the game of marbles, which is clued as [Shooter on the playground]—which is a terrible clue. There was a famous case about 20 years ago in suburban Wilmette, where a deranged woman shot children on the playground. Enough with the "playful" evocations of gun violence, hmm?
  • 62A. [Classic brand of liniment], 6 letters...well, that's got to be BENGAY, right? Wrong. It's SLOANS. If Pete Rose wasn't a celebrity spokesperson for this liniment, then it's a definite blot on the puzzle.
  • 10D, 37D, and 51A. It's time for chemistry class: SORBS means [Gathers on a surface, chemically]. IODIDES are iodized [Salt add-ins]. And a PIPET is a [Lab tube]—we spelled it pipette in my chemistry class.
  • 33D. Of all the ways GEL could be clued, we get [Breast enlargement material]? Oy. Silicone's a gel, but saline is just a fluid, so the answer seems both overly specific and overly broad. And making the clue about breast augmentation fairly shouts "Men wrote and edited this crossword," doesn't it?
  • 36D. HEAPED is a perfectly good past-tense verb, but the clue, [Like some spoonfuls], feels out of the language. The phrase I've always heard is "a heaping teaspoonful." It's never "a heaped spoonful." Maybe a lovin' one, but not heaped.

So those ones grated on me, and that's an awful lot of grating in one 15x15 puzzle. If I loved baseball stats or Pete Rose, maybe this puzzle would've knocked my socks off.

There absolutely were things I liked a lot, though. Such as these: [Whence Elaine, in Arthurian lore] is ASTOLAT. That's just a cool word to look at. ROBOTICS and TEMPURA are good—though I wish Japanese restaurants would batter and fry up the foods I want in TEMPURA. Nice clue echo, with that being [Japanese restaurant offering] and then a MENU being a plain ol' [Restaurant offering]. [Bank controller] is a terrific clue for AILERON, controlling the banking of a plane. DREADS the noun, [Rastafarian's do, for short], is far superior to the verb. [Pythagoras' square] sounds like something from geometry, but it's just an ancient Greek town square/marketplace, an AGORA. And GIL, the [Apt name for an ichthyologist?], is cute—it reminds me of two-L Gill, Willem Dafoe's badass fish character in Finding Nemo.

I predict that about three fourths of you will think I'm nuts to gripe about this puzzle and will acclaim it as one of the year's most memorable, and the rest of you will see it my way. What say you?

Updated Thursday morning:

Patrick Blindauer's CrosSynergy puzzle, "Lessons at ELON University"—Janie's review

Poor, maligned ELON—relegated as it so often is to the category of crosswordese, second-rate or strictly utilitarian fill—takes center stage at last and shines as the basis of the five anagrammed "lessons" that make up today's theme fill. And they are:
  • 1A. ONEL [Lesson #1: Scott Turow book]. This fill has appeared in major puzzles more than a hundred times in the time that Cruciverb has been keeping count ('97 - '08)—and some half of those appearances have been clued in conjunction with Turow's tome. A very good lesson indeed.
  • 18A. LONE RANGER [Lesson #2: Masked man of early TV]. That he was.
  • 38A. LEON TROTSKY [Lesson #3: Russian leader played by Geoffrey Rush in "Frida"]. Today Mr. Rush is starring on Broadway in Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King. If the gods of theatre are smiling this Sunday, they'll be awarding him a Tony to keep company with his Oscar. This is LT's CS debut, btw.
  • NOEL COWARD [Lesson #4: "Blithe Spirit" playwright]. Hmm. Another Tony connection: agile octogenarian Angela Lansbury has been nominated for her performance as Madame Arcati in the revival now playing on Broadway. Sir NOEL would be proud indeed!
  • LENO [Lesson #5: O'Brien's predecessor]. This seems to be the lesson of the week. No excuses for not knowin' this one! Also, I do like the way Patrick utilized the first and last across squares to accommodate the 4-letter theme fill. They balance the longer fill and literally mirror one another, creating palindromic "book ends" to the grid. Nice.

Nice, too―really nice―is so much of the non-theme fill:
  • ENDLESS LOVE in a CS debut.
  • LOSE TIME clued as [Experience a delay]. This is a major-puzzle first and is a real fave for me. There's something poetic, too, about its running right beside ENDLESS LOVE.
  • SYNTAX. Another CS first and a great, concise word. Not to be confused with "sin tax..."
  • KIDS MEAL (in its CS debut). And saving the best for last, CS first:

With the inclusion today of ["Smooth move, EXLAX !"], I feel quite comfortable in asserting that as a constructor, Mr. Blindauer is not someone who PLAYS IT SAFE! And yes, this is yet another CS first.

Fill that raised a flag: RETOSS, or [Mix over, as a salad whose walnuts have sunk to the bottom]. A vivid clue—but a long way to go to get to that less than felicitous fill. (Part of me wanted the clue to relate to anagrams and the requirement today to RETOSS the letters. [Or not.....]) I was also less than thrilled with MNO, but we do see it quite a bit and if not the most exciting fill, those alphabet-strings have to be the constructor's friend. The clues for these do tend to be the lively component. What with Tuesday's "Broken Records" theme, the use of [L-P filler] today was a timely one.

And on the subject of clues, there are a slew of other terrific ones:
  • [Web site?] for ATTIC. Now this has been around since at least 1998 when Harvey Estes used it in the WSJ, but I tell ya, it always seems to work. The Cruciverb data base cites ATTIC in almost 150 puzzles. "Web site" is the second most-published clue (14 times). Number one? With five more citations, the equally uncertain "Room at the top."
  • ["That's right, Aunt Polly"] for Tom Sawyer's grudgingly delivered YES'M.
  • [Point to the right] for EAST. Excellent. "Point" is a noun here and not a verb.
  • [Deity whose favorite song is "If I Had a Hammer"?] for THOR—and he does! Great smile factor with this one.
  • [Mudslide locale] for BAR. Huh? Here's why. Sounds pretty lethal. Imbibe/enjoy at your own risk!!

Two more points and then I am out of here. Number one, the two clues that made me stop and think: 48A. [One-fourth of this clue's number] for TWELVE (eek! arithmetic!); and [Digit in the center of all three zip codes in Beverly Hills]. There are three?! Thank goodness I knew one: nine-oh-TWO-one-oh.

Point number two, the cookware combo: TINS for [Pie pans] and STEWPOT for [Dutch oven]. Knowing that our constructor holds a place in his heart for all things theatrical, I kept imagining that he'd really wanted to clue the latter as "Comic relief in South Pacific."

Dan Naddor's Los Angeles Times crossword

You know how on rare occasions, Tiger Woods doesn't make the cut at a golf tournament and is sent home at the halfway point? I feel like Dan Naddor didn't bring his "A game" today, as the theme wasn't as deft as I expect from him and the fill had a few clunkers. The theme answers are phrases that end with slangy synonyms for "failure":
  • 18A. [1963 international treaty subjects] were ATOMIC BOMBS.
  • 23A. [Politicians' dilemmas] are FLIP-FLOPS. When I was a kid, we called the cheap rubber sandals thongs instead of flip-flops, but now the word thong has been commandeered by the butt-floss troops.
  • 37A. [Heavy gamebirds] are WILD TURKEYS.
  • 51A. [They usually involve undercover work] clues DRUG BUSTS.
  • 57A. [Cowboy boots and Stetson hats] are WESTERN DUDS. This answer isn't quite in the language. I Googled it inside quotation marks and got fewer than 10,000 hits.

The fill isn't up to the usual Naddorian heights. The abbreviation CMD crosses the Roman numeral MLV. The hardcore crosswordese ISTLES, clued as [Agave fibers], is seldom seen in contemporary crosswords. ESSENE is another old-school answer that lends little oomph. Then there's [Antipoverty agcy.] OEO, plural ROTES and YEAS. I do like ISOLDE, GYPSUM, DAMASCUS, WRITES UP, and ZOOM OUT, though.

More LAT puzzle talk with PuzzleGirl today at L.A. Crossword Confidential. Dan N., I look forward to your next crossword, which I am sure to appreciate more than today's. You're still batting about .900.

Ben Tausig's Ink Well/Chicago Reader crossword, "In Circulation"

I didn't test-solve this one, so I did it for the first time this morning without needing to make note of anything. Those black squares that set off the three longest theme answers bump up the black square count to 44, but I didn't notice that at all while solving. Each of the seven (!) themers is a familiar phrase (or word) clued as if the first word (or part thereof) refers to the magazine with that one-word title:
  • 1A. Photojournalism magazine Life figures into LIFER, clued with [In response to declining sales, the photojournalism magazine launched a campaign to turn the short-term subscriber into a ___]. In Across Lite, I couldn't read anything past "photojournalism ma..."
  • 18A. SELF-AWARE is clued [...the health magazine launched a campaign to make people more ___].
  • 23A. [...the indie music magazine opened a ___ to indoctrinate readers]. My kid attends a magnet school, sure, but I had no idea there was a magazine called Magnet.
  • 38A. Likewise with VICE PRINCIPAL. [...the hipster magazine hired a ___ to discipline its employees]. I started out with the nonsensical VIBE PRINCIPAL because I've heard of Vibe.
  • 53A. [...the fitness magazine hired a ___ to rebuild its brand] clues SHAPE-SHIFTER. I love that term, and enjoy the assorted shape-shifters on Heroes—and on the last episode of Lost.
  • 61A. LUCKY DUCK is clued with [...the shopping magazine introduced a new mascot, the ___].
  • 73A. O RING is clued [...and the personality magazine created a new category of elite subscribers, the ___].

In the fill, I'm not wild about E-LEARNING ([Digital pedagogy]), but I am enthused about KVELL ([Burst with pride, as a Yiddish grandparent]—though can anyone be said to be Yiddish?), the wedding of MARRIES UP ([Takes a classy mate]) and SPOUSE ([Union member?]), [Chocolate lady] GODIVA, the double V in REVVED ([Gunned]), and the colloquial "OH, HI" (["Didn't see you there..."]—I prefer the LOLcats spelling, "o hai").