September 26, 2009

Sunday, 9/27/09

NYT 41:31 (paper)
Seattle Times 23:35 (paper)
LAT 16:12 (paper)
CS 11:10 (paper)
BG 25:29 (paper)

Happy Sunday, everyone. Sam Donaldson here, spelling Orange and spilling on the Sunday crosswords. I am honored that Orange gave me another shot at guest blogging--I feel like a young stand-up who gets called over to the guest chair by Johnny Carson after a set! "Just don't screw this up...."

It's just now "back to school" time at my place of employment (the University of Washington in Seattle). We use a trimester system with three ten-week terms, meaning fall classes finally start this week. Even though everyone else has been in school for a month or so already, I need to get back into the groove. Accordingly, I'm going to assign grades to today's puzzles. As in real life, final grades will be completely arbitrary and capricious.

Patrick Berry's New York Times crossword, "That is Two Say" (Final Grade = A)

Apologies off the top for the crappy picture of the completed grid. My version of Across Lite (downloaded circa 1620) does not support multiple letters in one box. Not a problem for me since my custom is to print the puzzle and solve by pencil anyway. But since you don't want to decipher my handwriting, I planned to type my solution into the empty grid and snap that picture. Works just fine if there's no rebus. Oops. "No problem," I thought, "I'll just download the updated version of Across Lite and I'll be off to the races." Naturally, for some reason, my computer won't let me download the newer version. So I went MacGyver on y'all and snapped a pdf version of the completed grid. You'll see my chicken-scratch in the rebus squares, but I keyed in all the other letters.

Last month I finally got around to purchasing "Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies," Patrick's guide to crossword construction. Oh, how I wish I would have followed the advice of others and purchased this sooner. Patrick explains the ins and outs of construction so lucidly, I admire his prose almost as much as his puzzles (high praise indeed). If I remember correctly, Patrick endured the frustration of many solvers on the crossword blogs for his last NYT Sunday-sized puzzle, the fraternity rebus. In my view, today's rebus should garner more compliments than scorn. It was a toughie (for me), but a goodie.

The gimmick here was to squeeze two letters into 13 assorted boxes. Read in one direction, the two letters were simply two letters--no big deal. In the other direction, however, they were to be read aloud. It's now been fifteen minutes since I first typed that lame explanation and I still can't do better. Let's look at the entries using the rebus squares so it all makes sense:

  • Insert the letters "CU" to form CUDGEL, the short, heavy [Club], reading across; read them aloud for the down entry and you get C U (see you) LATER, a [Casual farewell]. Hmm, I thought listing the entries would make it all so clear.
  • You need to cram "DK" into a single box so as to get BEDKNOBS, the [Post decorations on four-posters], reading down. Reading across, you have TOOTH D K (decay), a [Dental problem].
  • Better put "SA" at the start of 37-Across, since SALIENT is [Very noticeable]. On the down side, you get the [Life magazine staple], the PHOTO S A (essay).
  • Put "DM" into a single square to make ADMIRABLE, something [Praiseworthy]. That'll give you CARPE D M (diem), a [Latin catchphrase sometimes seen on sundials]. Like most everyone in my generation, I first seized "carpe diem" from "Dead Poets Society."
  • [Chianti and Beaujolais] are REDS, but you'll need to cram the "ED" in one square to make it work. Turns out the [Singer who played herself in "Ocean's Eleven"] is E D (Eydie) GORME.
  • Here's the one that broke it open for me: I knew the ["Married ... With Children" actress] had to be K T (Katey) SAGAL, since the swoon-inducing Christina Applegate was just not going to fit. And sure enough, I had two or three K-TEL records as a kid. It was the [Music compilation maker].
  • KARATS are [Units of fineness], as in the more karats you cram into the jewelry give to your sweetie, the finer you look. The "AT" in KARATS then serves up the "equatorial" AROUND THE WORLD IN A T (eighty) DAYS, the [1873 adventure novel that begins and ends in London].
  • To make the ["Fer-de-Lance" mystery novelist], REX STOUT, work you need "XS" in one box. Reading down, you find that TO X S (excess) is [How drunks drink].
  • I like the clue [Chisel face] for BEZEL. Sounds like a good insult--"Oh, can it, chisel face!" Borrow the middle letters and you will REST E Z (easy), or [Stop worrying].
  • My father would be proud to know that I knew CRANK CASE, the [Dipstick housing], right off the bat. Use the "KC" to make K C JONES, the [Driver of the Cannonball Special], a drag racer shaped like a locomotive. Here's a fun diversion: type "dipstick" in Google's search field right now and watch how it suggests "dipstick housing" as the first suggested search phrase. I wonder if that was the case a few hours ago? The phrase turns up a lot of hits, but I have a hunch today's puzzle might have affected its status on Google.
  • Loved this one: cram "QP" into one square to form JOHN Q. PUBLIC, the [American everyman] reading across and a Q P (kewpie) DOLL reading down. Did you know "kewpie" is German for "creepy?" It's not, but it should be.
  • Act like an R.N. and shove an "IV" into a square so that you send SHIVERS, a [Flu symptom], reading down. It's OK, though, because you're treating POISON I V (ivy), clued as [It's not to be touched].
  • Shove Nevada ("NV") into southeast section of the grid to make CANVAS, the [Sneaker material]. Doing so will make others GREEN WITH N V (envy) when they read across.
The grid offered plenty of toeholds, with easy fill-ins like Jai ALAI, Sierra LEONE, RUBIK'S Cube, SINO-Japanese War, and From A TO Z. Of the 12(!) clues formatted as fill-ins, only one gave me pause, the Abbott and Costello film, "Here Come the CO-EDS." But the extra hint in the clue (that it was set at a girl's school) and the crossings made it easily gettable. Despite the many fair starting points, however, the rebus had me a little on edge and I found it hard to get traction. This being Patrick Berry, I suspected the two letter combinations in the rebus squares would form a secret message when read in some order. So, ever on the lookout for the meta-theme, I lost some time. Please tell me there isn't a secret message in the grid. How embarrassing would that be!

In discussing how to fill grids with familiar terms in his book, Patrick says he knows a lot about movies but little about television, politics, and opera. Save for television, I'm right there with him. But even I can get AIDA, the [Opera set in Egypt]. I like seeing LIAM NEESON, the [Ethan Frome portrayer, 1993], in the grid, and for some reason I like that TART abuts TROLLOPE, even though the latter has an "E" on the end so it refers to the [Author of the Barsetshire novels].

Here are some confessions from solving this puzzle (abridged since this has to be posted before Tuesday): (1) still don't know how [Leopard's home?] clues IMAC; (2) needed lots of crossings to tease out COSTA BRAVA, the [Resort region near Barcelona]; (3) never knew GRAHAM as a [Car make of the 1930s]; (4) am blushing a little that I could throw TATIANA Romanova, the ["From Russia With Love" Bond girl], into the grid with only one letter crossing; (5) never heard of a TULIP TREE, the [Yellow poplar]; (6) thought I was better in science than I really am, for both MARKER GENE (a [Key sequence in a chromosome]) and MIDRIB (the [Leaf vein]) were new to me; and (7) while I normally have an allergic reaction to variant spellings in crosswords, somehow I was fine with two of them in this grid (PATINES for [Surface films] and IKON for a [Venerated image]). Oddly, I'm significantly more freaked out about Jacob RIIS, the ["How the Other Half Lives"] writer.

So this proved to be a workout for me, but I enjoyed it. I feel smarter for having solved this puzzle (and dumber for confessing all of my ignorance here). So it gets an "A." As does "Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies." And, for that matter, so does "Puzzle Masterpieces."

Merl Reagle’s Seattle Times crossword, "O Punnish Me” (Final Grade = B+)

Once again I'm re-branding Merl's syndicated crossword--you know it on this blog as the "Philadelphia Inquirer" crossword. And to celebrate the re-branding, it looks like Merl's trying something entirely new for him: puns. I thought about listing the theme entries in order of "groaniness," but check it out: the puns actually get groanier from top to bottom!
  • [Western-style wieners?] are PRAIRIE DOGS. I sort of shrugged at this one. Cute (because c'mon, what's cuter than a prairie dog?) but not a groaner.
  • Fittingly, it takes two long entries to contain the [tubby executive's last resort if he doesn't get his way?]: SITTING ON THE / BOARD OF DIRECTORS. I smiled when I caught on to this one--but no groan.
  • THAT WAS CLOSE would be how one could say ["Glenn just went by," in other words?]. That is, if one wanted to refer to the actress Glenn Close without using both her first and last names. An audible "Mmm" here (think Marge Simpson when she's mildly exasperated)--close to a groan but no cigar.
  • [What your dog keeps doing that prevents you from filing on time? (suuure)] is LYING ON YOUR TAX RETURNS. As one who teaches tax law, I like almost all references to taxes in my crosswords. This one elicited a light chuckle.
  • [The door prize at a zombie party?] is a DEAD GIVEAWAY. Ding ding ding! We have our first groan.
  • HAPPY ON THE INSIDE is a [Sad result of "The Seven Dwarfs Meet Godzilla"?]. Maybe others thought this was gross, but I loved the creativity of the clue. It reminds me of the classic "Bambi Meets Godzilla" short film.
  • And the [result of trying to sew on a zipper with the lights off?] is a FLY BY THE SEAT / OF YOUR PANTS. I groaned! I laughed! I loved!
Do you agree that the puns get better (or worse, if you're a pun-hater) as you progress down the grid? I know Merl likes to save his best "punch line" for the bottom, and in my view he chose wisely here. The order of the theme entries here is just perfect, even if serendipitous.

Sure, there are only seven puns in the grid, but two of them are long enough to span two lines, so I feel there is plenty of theme here to enjoy. We're treated to a couple of Qs and Xs in the grid, and some clever clues to boot: [It's witnessed by seconds] for DUEL and [Sushi candidates] for EELS.

I liked that the clues for two consecutive down entries were related: John Henry EATON was the [Secretary of War, 1829] and William Howard TAFT was the [Secretary of War, 1904]. At last, the payoff for memorizing the list of former War Secretaries back in fifth grade!

I breezed through the solve until I came to a screeching halt in the far east. I was befuddled by Hosni MUBARAK, the [Cairo VIP], since I kept thinking I was supposed to come up with a term like "pharaoh." I had ROW A for the [Good seat site], but alas it was ROW I (I take it the I is for "one" and not the letter "I"). Kept wanting ADAM'S as the [Rib adjective] when it was PRIME, and that precluded me from getting EPH, the [Galatians follower: abbr.] (short for Ephesians), for a long time. Didn't help that SASHA being a [Nickname for "Alexandra"] was new to me. Getting stuck on this many entries in such close proximity created the perfect storm, so my relatively slow time comes as no surprise.

So why just a B+ and not a higher mark? Well, there were a few sour notes. Case in point: NARR, short for "narration," or [Voice-over]. Odd to see WSW and SSE (both clued as a [Compass pt.]) in the same grid. Also odd to see QE-II, the [Noted liner, briefly] together with the aforementioned ROW I. But I guess two odds make it even, so all is well. I'm sure more than a handful of solvers got stumped with the [Gary Cooper film, "They Came to ___"] CORDURA. Cordura's a nylon fabric originally made by DuPont so sayeth the Holder of All Truth). So they came to Cordura ... after trying burlap? Because cotton was bad and wool was even "worsted?" OK, we need to move on....

Alan Arbesfeld’s Los Angeles Times crossword, "Put the Finger On” (Final Grade = CREDIT)

We interrupt this blog for some late-breaking news:

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Publishers of the Los Angeles Times announced today that the newspaper will be renamed the Los Angeles Plus. "Multiplication proved too difficult for our readers," said one editor who wished to remain anonymous. "We felt that having the 'Times' in our name dissuaded potential readers. The 'Plus' tells readers they won't have to do anything harder than addition."

Now back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

Well, in light of this news, the increasing ease of the LA Times puzzles makes sense! If you haven't noticed, this and other crossword blogs (there are other crossword blogs?) have bemoaned the easy puzzles of late. Word on the street is that papers still relatively new in carrying the syndicated puzzle have put pressure on the editors to ease up on the puzzles. So instead of a Monday-to-Friday progression of difficulty, we get a Monday-to-soft-Tuesday progression. I can join the chorus in disliking the effect this has on the puzzles, but I can't take it out on the editors or the constructors. When a student in class submits a late paper because of extenuating circumstances, I usually grade the paper on a pass-fail basis instead of assigning a letter grade. I think it's right to do the same thing here, too. If the clues had been a little more challenging, this would have been a really enjoyable solve. As it was, it was a pleasant (albeit brief), breezy stroll. We have established that I'm not a competitive speed solver, but when I finish a 21x grid in under 17 minutes, it's easy.

Oh, the theme? Pretty conventional, but it had a fun feel to it. Alan takes eight phrases and adds an "ID" to end of one of the words, then gives the resulting wacky phrase a suitable clue:
  • Add an "ID" to a rap singer and you get a RAPID SINGER, clued as [Ella while scatting?].
  • A [Bow-wielding Southern god?] would be Charlie Daniels. But here it's a DIXIE CUPID.
  • LIPID SERVICE is a fun name for a [Cholesterol check?].
  • My favorite clue-answer pair is the [Possible reply to a dentist's "Where does it hurt?"]--ON THE CUSPID.
  • A [Twisty hair style for active people?] is a SPORTS BRAID.
  • ASIATIC FLUID is the answer for [Japanese sake, e.g.?]. As a base term, Asiatic flu felt forced to me, but a quick Google search convinces me it's legit.
  • Liked KID RATIONS, clued as [Candy, cookies, and soda?], as a fun play off of K-rations.
  • [What Depp did, over and over, to acquire the auction item he so badly wanted?] clues JOHNNY REBID. Maybe not my choice for the final, "punch line" entry, but it's solid.
Six of the eight theme entries were in the top six and bottom six rows, so those sections are relatively dense with theme. The middle nine rows have only two theme entries, and neither is impressively long for a 21x grid. Consequently, the midsection feels a little thin to me. Still, I liked a lot of the long downs, including BAR AND GRILL, QUIT COLD, ACT NOW, and SUPERPOWER. The rest of the fill may not have blinded me with sparkle, but I felt it was solid. Yes, I muttered a little when I saw STR, the [Orch. section], and SER, the [Rev.'s talk]. In fact, I'll go on record that SER may be my least favorite abbreviation in crosswords. If I ever have to use that entry, I'm cluing it as the Spanish verb (and then watching the editor change it to the abbreviation, probably). Of course, if I have to use that entry in the first place, editors will likely pass on the puzzle anyway. But the point is that the puzzle was quite solid overall. Just think how much better it could have been if the constructor and editors were free to make it a normal Sunday puzzle. Sigh.

William I. Johnston's CrosSynergy "Sunday Challenge" (Final Grade = B)

Accountants will like this 70-word themeless puzzle because its assets evenly match its liabilities. Consider first the assets: the best entry in the grid, NUDIST CAMP, gets matched with the puzzle's best clue, [Place where nothing is going on?]. The grid features four 15-letter entries, and two of them are lively: LOVE ME, LOVE MY DOG, clued as ["Fido is part of the package"], and SNAKE IN THE GRASS, a [Backstabber]. The clue [Like Vera Wang and Anna Sui] rescues the third 15-letter entry, CHINESE-AMERICAN, from mediocrity. Sure enough, I took the bait, trying to see where "DESIGNER" would fit in the answer. ARMENIAN may be a ho-hum entry, but it's jazzed up through a celebrity reference in the clue, [Cher's heritage, in part]. In the northwest, MINT TEAS looks nice atop I'VE HAD IT.

But there are also some liabilities. The ugliest is TCHR, the [N.E.A. member]. I might have to rethink the hatred for SER. Then the [Glamorous Gardner], AVA, crosses the [Old greeting], AVE, right in the center of the grid. AIR PASSAGE feels clunky, and the clue, [Ventilation duct], does little to make it dance. I know RAPID TRANSIT MAP isn't forced, and yet it still looks and feels that way to me. It cried for some zip, but the clue, [Guide for commuters], offered no help. The proper number of European rivers to appear in any one grid is 0.6; this one has two, the NEVA and the ARNO. There were some missed cluing opportunities, as ABSTRACT ART seemed to deserve better than [Nonfigurative creation], and BRAIN TEASER appeared underserved by [Poser]. I get that "poser" can serve as misdirection, but what about something like ["How many times can you take away 2 from 21?," e.g.]? Finally, consider the following four consecutive down entries in the southeast: ARNO, MAIS, ESAI, SSNS. Show that corner to your non-solver partner or friends and watch them shake their heads. They'd have a point--it's probably too much concentrated crosswordese.

Every asset in the puzzle is offset by a liability. Perfect balance for the accountant, but hard to grade for me. In the end, I chose a "B" on the strength of the NUDIST CAMP.

I broke into the grid with STOLI, the [Vodka brand], not because I really know the brand but because I noticed that 1-Across was a plural. That meant the answer to 8-Down likely started with an "S," and Stoli's the only vodka brand I know starting with "S." Then came Mauna LOA, good ol' Max VON Sydow, and from there LOVE ME, LOVE MY DOG came immediately. TAMABLE, something [Subject to breaking?], took me way too long because I kept seeing "tam," as in the hat. Sometimes Scottish ancestry works against you (it also works against you when you try to get a tan). The northeast came next, then down to the southeast and then the southwest. I kept wanting BINDI for BONDI, the [Popular beach near Sydney]. I know Bindi is the name of the late Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin's daughter (she wasn't the one who, as an infant, was held perilously close to a gator by her dad in a ballyhooed incident--that was her brother). I figured maybe she was named for the beach, but PIS was not working as a [Terminal abbr.].

Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon's Boston Globe Crossword, "Doubleheaders" (Final Grade = B-)

THE THEME entries here consist of wacky two-word phrases where the first word is repeated at the start of the second word (just like the first two words in this sentence):
  • A [Little underling?] is a MINI MINION. One entering an adit would be a MINI MINION MINING.
  • GALA GALAXIES are [Where stars are festive?]. One suspects some stars would be GALAVANTING at such events.
  • [Kitty borchures?] are CAT CATALOGS. They feature the latest trends in the cat's pajamas.
  • [What makes me puzzling?] is MY MYSTERY. Two years into therapy and it's still not solved.
  • A [Queen's party for Solomon?] is a SHEBA SHEBANG. Easily the liveliest theme entry and the highlight of the puzzle. Shebang! Shebang! (Good grief, I just referenced a Ricky Martin song.)
  • A COMMA COMMAND is a [Grammarian's rule?].
  • [Where only men act?] is a STAG STAGE. For some reason I think I would have liked [Chippendale's platform?] better for a clue, but maybe that's what happens when a Ricky Martin earworm takes hold.
  • APE APERITIF is a [Banana daiquiri?]. Most apes I know prefer hard alcohol to other intoxicants. Offer them barrels of wine and they'll just kidnap your friend and throw the barrels at you so fast you have to keep jumping over them.
  • MISS MISSOURI is a [Midwestern beauty queen?] Tweet! Foul! Inconsistent theme entry! Five yard penalty! See below.
  • [Where hunks pose?] is a STUD STUDIO. Geez, this and a STAG STAGE in the same grid? Where's the MAN MANSION?
Look, I was absolutely 100% sure-fire confident that MISS MISSOURI had to be MISS MISSOULA. For one thing, I love Missoula, Montana. It's home to the University of Montana (Go Griz!), breathtaking scenery (especially now as it stretches into fall), and some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. But more importantly, all of the other theme entries are contrived phrases (unless "stag stage" is in the language and I'm just too sheltered). There may be "cat catalogs" peddling trinkets or pet-care supplies to felinophiles, but I don't think the phrase could be considered common or real. Miss Missouri, on the other hand, is real--a real title held by a real person (currently Tara Osseck, an absolute sweetheart, based on her blog). We're not supposed to see a real phrase mixed in with nine other wacky ones. (Peter Gordon taught me that lesson when I submitted a theme query to the New York Sun in my very early days of constructing.) Even if we can let the inconsistency slip, the clue should not have signaled wackiness with the "?" at the end. The puzzle was fun overall, but this bugged me enough to affect the final grade. Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm missing something here, but that often happens in grading exams too.

My refusal to let go of MISSOULA really slowed me down. But there were other little bits of knotty fill. I had no idea that CHORINE, clued as [Rockette, for one], was an informal name for a woman in a chorus line. And I was lucky to get ARDEN, [The Bard's wood], through crossings. Apparently, it's prominent in "As You Like It," but I haven't read (the Cliff's Notes for) that one yet.

I was surprised to see TEA at 108-Down when ALICE is clued at 110-Across as "Girl at a tea party." Ditto with MENS, a [Clothing store line], given that "men" appears in the clue to STAG STAGE. I feel that I should have finished this puzzle about 4 or 5 minutes faster than I did, as most of the fill and the clues were sufficiently straight-forward.

Oh, and the [Canadian skating great], Brian ORSER, makes yet another appearance in our crosswords this week. Orser's been a trendy entry of late. I'm pretty sure Crosscan is to blame for this, but I'm not sure how.