July 29, 2009


crossword 8:50
meta about 15 minutes, with a break for ice cream

hi, folks. the 60th episode of matt gaffney's weekly crossword contest, "Can't Get There From Here," was a challenging but not killer crossword combined with a cool meta. let's take a look at the "theme" answers (the four 11-letter entries in the grid):

  • [What wild goose chases do] is LEAD NOWHERE.
  • [Misstep in a labyrinth] is HIT A DEAD END. tricky use of "misstep" as a verb.
  • [Join] is PUT TOGETHER.
  • and [Straight crusher] is FOUR OF A KIND. i nailed this one with a couple of well-placed crossings. "straight" is a noun here—the poker hand. and yes, FOUR OF A KIND crushes a straight.

i stared at these theme answers for a while. the first two tie in pretty clearly to the puzzle's title, but what are PUT TOGETHER and FOUR OF A KIND trying to tell us? the puzzle's instructions are, at first blush, pretty unhelpful: This week's contest answer is of no specific length. hmm. and, oddly, there's no across lite file this week (matt says, "I'll tell you why in next week's post"). why is that? there's nothing particularly unusual about the grid that across lite wouldn't be able to handle. could it be that there are multiple correct solutions, like in the famous NYT clinton-dole election puzzle? across lite wouldn't be able to handle that, and it could explain why there's no specific length for the answer to the meta. but everything seemed pretty straightforward, so that line of thinking was ... yep, a dead end.

the other big possibility i thought of for something across lite can't handle is futzing with clue numbering. could that be it? so i went through the clue lists and looked for anything fishy. lo and behold, there are four clues that don't correspond to any answer in the grid: 33- and 45-across, and 28- and 47-down. solving a puzzle on paper, it's easy to miss an extraneous clue in the clue list. (this one time, patrick merrell ... yeah, you know what i'm talking about. and if you don't, i'm not going to spoil it for you.) you might even say that those clues LEAD NOWHERE, or that starting at one of those squares and going in the indicated direction, you'd HIT A DEAD END. what happens when we PUT TOGETHER those FOUR OF A KIND?

  • 33a: [Enter (by)]. the 33 is the L in 32a, ALI [Lindsay Lohan's sister].
  • 45a: [Submitting]. the 45 is the K in 44a, SKEWERS [Kebab shop supply].
  • 28d: [Any]. the 28 is the E in 23d, HEDGE [Fence alternative]. this one is almost interesting in its own right, as you might interpret "23-down" as the EDGE of HEDGE. but that's not where this is going.
  • 47d: [Large island]. the 47 is the W in 44d, SWANK [Oscar winner whose surname is also the name of a pornographic magazine]. and no, i'm not going to say anything about pornography, or even bring attention to the fact that "47-down" could be interpreted as WANK. i've got a squeaky-clean image to maintain, you know.

it's spelled out for you right there in the clues: enter by submitting any large island. so that's why there's no specific answer length! well, you can pick whichever your favorite large island is. me, i went with sumatra, because it's got a cool name that reminds me of star control II. it's also big (the 6th largest in the world, if you don't count australia).

i thought it was a really cool meta. i'm not sure the "clue" meta will ever be topped, but this is up there with any of the others. but what can i say: i'm a sucker for meta anything. this was a very meta meta, and i appreciated that.

okay, the crossword. it wasn't all that tough: 9 minutes on paper is actually reasonably fast for me. i haven't timed myself on a paper crossword in quite some time, so maybe the fact that i've gotten faster overall is coloring my perception of things, but last week's crossword was certainly tougher. but there was, as usual, a smattering of tricky clues, outright traps, and things i just plain didn't know:

  • right out of the gate, i face-planted at 1a: ["Lili" actress, 1953]. isn't that leslie CARON? yeah, it is... but not this time. apparently zsa zsa GABOR is also in it. at least the two vowels were right, and the others weren't too hard to fix.
  • there was only one totally unfamiliar name in the grid: [Longtime NBC News correspondent] is KUR. any idea who this guy is? i was able to figure out by googling that his first name is bob. that's about it.
  • wait, make that two. [U.S.S. John C. ___ (one of America's 12 active aircraft carriers)] is STENNIS, which i actually thought might be ST. ENNIS but isn't. apparently this guy was a mississippi senator for 40 years.
  • high-end latin: [In ___ (submerged in water)] is AQUAM. sure, it had to be AQU__, but damned if i know the declensions. or even if "declensions" is the right word.
  • ["Your Code Name Is ___" (classic Choose Your Own Adventure book)] is JONAH. um, yeah. i read some of those books when i was 8 or 10, but i certainly don't remember any of their titles. still, i liked this clue because it reminded me of my name is jonas, a great track from weezer's blue album. ==W==!
  • speaking of ==W==, matt indulges his penchant for somewhat pejorative clues for EMO by cluing it this time as [Given to brooding]. i guess that's fair.
  • fun pair of cross-referenced clues: 45d is [54-down, in reality--but what is reality?], and 54d is [45-down, in fantasy -- or is it reality?]. the answers are KEANU (reeves) and NEO (anderson) of the matrix (and i'm exercising my right to pretend the sequels never happened).
  • great clue for a crosswordese repeater: [Upright, so to speak: abbr.] is NNE. i love it.
  • an odd pair of crossing answers: [You and me and no one else] is WE TWO. shouldn't it be "you and i"? i tried US TWO first. but i changed that when i noticed that one of the crossing answers was ONE OF US, clued as [Not with the enemy]. tangentially, "enemy" is an anagram of YEMEN. i was flipping through a book of will shortz's NPR puzzlers, and there was a fun one with words that anagram to countries. the best find in the bunch was ANEURISM/SURINAME. how awesome is that?

and on that note (is it really a tangent if we never get back to the main thread?), i'll stop. see you next week; i don't know if it will count as the fifth week of july or the first of august. if it's the fifth week of july, gird your loins for a titanic struggle.