July 04, 2009

Sunday, 7/5—New York Times crossword

Guest post by The Shark

Tony Orbach and Amy Reynaldo's New York Times crossword, "M N O P"

[140 words, 9 theme entries, 107 theme letters, 72 blocks]

The Sunday NYT puzzle by Tony Orbach and Amy Reynaldo has a letter-substitution theme where the letter M is replaced by the letter P in nine familiar phrases.

This is a construction debut for Amy Reynaldo and a blogging debut for yours truly, The Shark.

Letter addition, deletion, or substitution themes have long been a staple of constructors and I enjoy such themes. When done well.

Editors tend to give short shrift to this genre, maybe because the bar is high and most alphabet combos have been exhausted. In short, if you attempt this theme, you better have some real doozies to get the editor excited and satisfy the discriminating solver.

So, does Team Orbaldo deliver the goods on this patriotic weekend?


How well?

On my rigorous 9-point rating system for crosswords, the puzzle scores an 8! Why 8? Read on....


The shining stars of the puzzle are STUD PUFFIN [Strutting bird on an ice floe?], THE POD SQUAD [Pea farmers?], and FULL PETAL JACKET [Floral Technicolor dreamcoat?]. These three phrases made me smile when the lightbulb went on. To take a fresh word (STUDMUFFIN) and convert it to a strutting bird is zany (zany is good), while transforming an old TV show (THE MOD SQUAD) and giving it a new twist is delightful! And FULL PETAL JACKET was clued perfectly.

Right on the tail of these three wonderful entries are two phrases that are solid and provide great satisfaction when the code is cracked. PORTAL DANGER [Tripping over a threshold, perhaps?] and NEW YORK PETS [Residents at a Manhattan A.S.P.C.A?] deliver, although visions of my favorite team being toyed around (and swept) in the recent subway series bring back bad memories.

Rounding out the theme are BOILING PAD [Summer apartment with no air-conditioning?], PAN ABOUT TOWN [Move a movie camera around a community?] and PASS CONFUSION [Explanation for an interception?]. During construction, these entries usually follow the brilliancies that seed a puzzle. Reasonable entries, none juicy or sexy, but “Heck,” the constructors say to one another as they collaborate via email, “... we have five great entries, and we need at least seven for a Sunday, so let’s find a few more.” Nothing wrong with this approach, since we don't expect (and rarely get) an aha from every theme answer.


I start the puzzle in the SE corner. Why SE? As a medium-level solver (my Sundays take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours and I usually have a couple of wrong crossings), I tend to start in the bottom-right for Sunday puzzles because a) I find the clues in this corner to be slightly easier—some gimmes, some repeats. I am convinced that the constructors have gotten tired of concocting clever clues as they approach, say, 129 Across (Clue: Twos for DEUCES), and b) I hope to find some forced plurals because the constructor has focused a lot on lively fill elsewhere in the puzzle.

I am sure some constructors will be offended by this insightful peek into their lazy approach to cluing, but I must say I have overheard a constructor call cluing a 21x21 “a dreadfully boring task, which I wish could be outsourced.”

Back to the puzzle: I spot the clue: “Hi-__” and quickly fill in RES (Didn’t I just see this clue in last Sunday’s puzzle? Is Mr. Shortz recycling clues so blatantly, so frequently? And thinks I won’t notice?), proceed to RHINE [River straddled by Basel, Switzerland], STOIC [Impassive (the most common clue in the database for STOIC)] and INCA [Cuzco inhabitant (Cuzco having appeared in an INCA clue over 25 times)], crack open the theme (I get it, "M? No, P!" is how you parse the title) and enter PASS INTRUSION.

Wait. So the original phrase is MASS INTRUSION? What’s that? This puzzle sucks, I say to myself, and I have to blog it on Crossword Fiend's blog?

Of course, I have fallen into a trap. This week the answer to Hi-__ is FIS (I knew there would be a plural, darn it!); DEUCES [Twos] (plural), and ETHERS [Early anesthetics] (plural) lead me to DROSS [Chaff] and I correct my theme answer to PASS CONFUSION! OK, now this makes sense. (I feel better about blogging for the Fiend. And I take back my Shortz-recycling outburst.)

In addition to the RES/FIS confusion, the puzzle sets traps at HONEY/QUILT [What a bee produces] and DRAWS/DRAGS [Pulls], which I sidestep.

The solving process goes really smoothly from there—SE to central to NE to NW to SW and the puzzle is solved in 25-30 minutes—one of my faster times! So, I rate this an easy puzzle on my personal difficulty scale.


The grid is fairly clean with two crossings that confound me. First, the HARING/ARAM intersection [1980s street artist Keith/Saroyan’s “My Name is __”]. OK, I should have known ARAM—it has appeared several times in puzzles, usually clued as “Composer Khachaturian.” But street artist who? Never heard of him, sorry. Tough crossing. I know I usually have a crossing or two wrong, so I make an educated guess and move on.

Second crossing that causes problems: GOUACHE/ONO [Watercolor technique/Plastic __ Band]. Didn't know GOUACHE and the ONO clue is probably from the musically inclined Torbach. Come on, Torbach! Can’t you give us a simpler ONO clue to make this an easier crossing? (Of course, die-hard Beatles/Lennon/Ono fans will disagree on this point.)

Some non-thematic fill that I like:

• BALD EAGLE [Quarter back] intersecting GASBAG [Wind source]—both great entries, and nice clues!
• ETIOLATE [Bleach]—I love this word. Why? Because. No reason. Just. Sounds like titillate? Maybe that’s why.
• The BERLIOZ, LAVERNE, ORESTES [“Symphonie Fantastique” composer/One of the Andrews sisters/Electra’s brother] stack in the SW—usually I don’t like too many proper nouns together, but the crossing, PABLO [Literature Nobelist Neruda], is a gimme and I quite like how these three stack up (although I now notice the ARLES [Bizet suite “The Girl From __”] crossing—probably would have given me pause, but didn’t need that clue!)
• KLUTZES [China shop personae non gratae]—didn't know there were two e's in the plural.
• HINDI, NEHRU, TOMB [Language that gave us "pajamas"/Co-founder of the Nonaligned Movement/Taj Mahal, e.g.]: This is clearly a fill designed to give someone with an Indian heritage a huge leg-up in solving. What's up, Team Orbaldo? Got some Indian friends you are trying to help?

Some complaints that will not be entertained by the Shark Complaints Department. (Why? Because the constructors need some levers to create a good puzzle, that’s why!)

Crosswordese: ATOI, ELOI, APER, AARE, ODIE, ALEUT—we just need to memorize these words. The grid has 140 words, the constructors have to make sure there are no repeats, they have only used 6 or 7 of these, and we did get some good fill to compensate for this crosswordese, so let's hold those complaints for a 15x15 later in the week.

Awkward plurals: OK, I agree, LLDs, RNAs and PDAs are awkward, but so what? The clues clearly indicated they were plurals and abbreviations. What else do we want?

Partials: IS IT, AT AN, I LOST, A PEAR, A PEEP are partials, but gimmes, of the easiest kind: fill-in-the-blanks (FITBs). FITBs give us a toehold (or is it a foothold?). I thank the constructors for the partials.


So, Shark, you ask, why deduct 1 point for this puzzle? Why not a perfect score?

The answer: SPELL THE ROSES [Give Axl and Pete a break?], the ninth theme entry. This theme phrase creates an inconsistency and doesn't quite sparkle for me, for two reasons: a) an M that's replaced is the second letter in a word, as opposed to the eight other phrases where M was the first letter in a word (not the phrase), and b) a tertiary meaning of “spell” is clued (spell: relieve, as for a break). Maybe a clue like “A-X-L, P-E-T-E” would have made this entry more palatable? Probably. Is this inconsistency a killer? Maybe not.

Usually, one entry doesn’t affect a puzzle much, but we have a very clean puzzle in the making with eight solid-to-great phrases and, surely, the theme is simple enough to have offered some alternatives? Phrases like MIDDLE SCHOOLS, THE MARRYING KIND, PITCHER'S MOUND, AMERICAS MOST WANTED could have found a home somewhere, no? WILL YOU MARRY ME? Hmm, don't want another M word (ME) in the phrase, or WILL YOU PARRY ME? would be cool. MISSING IN ACTION? Breakfast test!

Substituting a zingy alternative for this theme entry would have raised the rating to a 9.

Sidebar: This offer of alternative theme entries from the Shark highlights another problem with simple deletion/substitution/addition themes—the hard-working constructors have to suffer the ramblings of a smart-aleck blogger who thinks he can do better. Especially since he doesn't bother to count the number of letters in his alternative theme entries!

But forget the ratings and the score. This was an easy, breezy fun puzzle for the long weekend with several aha-inducing moments. I can't ask for more from my solving experience. And what brought a bigger smile to my face was Team Orbaldo's amazing prowess to launch commercial merchandise on Amazon.com (I kid you not, go ahead and enter "STUD PUFFIN" and buy one of these boxers for only $13.99). And don't forget to check out what people who bought these boxers also bought. If I see GLUTEUS MAXIMOOSE in the next puzzle, I know where the inspiration came from!


Overall, "M N O P" is a wonderful debut (a Sunday New York Times debut, no less) for Amy Reynaldo and another delightful collaboration for Tony Orbach.

Kudos to veteran constructors who collaborate—and more power to accomplished solvers and bloggers who wish to enter the construction zone! And to all the new constructors, "Wear your hard hats, for ye know not what we, the critics, will throw at you in the blogosphere!"