August 10, 2007

Saturday, 8/11

Newsday 5:11
LAT 5:05
NYT 4:50
CS 3:02

(updated at 10:15 a.m. Saturday)

Rejoice! A Saturday New York Times puzzle by Karen Tracey! And it's so thoroughly enjoyable! Well, I liked it, anyway. Karen's style does appeal to me. What in particular pleased me? First off, there's all the Scrabbly deliciousness: FLORENZ ZIEGFELD ([Biographical subject of the Best Picture of 1936]), EZIO PINZA ([Co-star of Broadway's "Fanny"]), [Mideastern news source] AL-JAZEERA, and [Fictional salesman of '80s ads] JOE ISUZU all have a couple uncommon letters. Then there's the smidgen of world geography, ADDIS ABABA, [Where the African Union is headquartered], and the shoe brand ADIDAS (pardon me, the [Sportswear company whose logo is three parallel stripes]) that sounds related. Adidas Ababa? Then there are great words like SYMBIOSIS ([Mutualism]), WOLFSBANE ([Monkshood]—read up on it and see if you think it will turn you into a werewolf or fend off werewolves), and the nutty SPEEDEE, the [McDonald's mascot before Ronald]. Favorite clues: [Whole ___] for SHEBANG; [What goes around] for ROTATOR; [Gain or loss] for football YARDAGE; the verb [Shrink], not the noun, for COWER; [Place for a clown] for RODEO; [Jambalaya] for both GRAB BAG and OLIO; [Some defenders: Abbr.] for ATTS (lawyers, not athletes); [Number of wives for Enrique VIII] for SEIS (Enrique = Henry, seis = six); [Sex therapist's suggestion] for VIAGRA; [One held in an orbit] for EYE; [Patrick with a Tony] for Patrick MAGEE; and [It may follow convention] for GOER (as in convention-goer). One name I didn't know at all: [Science fiction author Greg] EGAN. And I'd never heard of SPEEDEE, who looks like this:

Well done, Karen (and Will)! A most enjoyable crossword.


Patrick Jordan's CrosSynergy puzzle has a "Bar Exam" quip: WHAT BEVERAGE DID / THE ATTORNEY / GET AT THE PUB? Answer: A SUBPOENA COLADA. Does that put you in the mood to listen to "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)"?

Myles Callum's LA Times themeless puzzle includes my tag within ORANGE PEELS...directly opposite WICKED WITCH, clued Ozzishly with [Western villain?]. EMO PHILIPS gets promoted to the first/last name combo, with one of his jokes in the clue: "The other day my nephew's computer beat me at chess. But it was no match for me at kickboxing." DARLING LILI and NO, NO, NANETTE make a nice mini-theme of musicals that end with women's names and include doubled letter pairs (NO NO and LILI).

Daniel Stark's Newsday Saturday Stumper contains plenty of straightforward words with blah clues. INTENTS, ENTAILS, CEREALS, ENDINGS, ENSURED, CONFERS, HOOTING, HINTING, WHITER, SHARPER—what do these words have in common? Very few uncommon letters, lots of -ING, -S, and -ER endings, lots of IN- and EN- prefixes. In a standard themeless puzzle, 72 answers is the upper limit for word count. That means the grid ought to be less difficult to fill than a lower-word-count puzzle is, which should mean there's more flexibility for colloquial phrases, fun words, and words with high-Scrabble-value letters.

One of the most interesting chapters in Matt Gaffney's Gridlock is "Are Humans Necessary?" There, Matt writes about the sort of crossword-entry databases Peter Gordon and Frank Longo have, and the way those constructors will have a computer fill the grid. It's easy to let software fill a grid, but more control and more tweaking are required to make a computer-generated grid include livelier words—and Peter and Frank generally do insist on higher-quality words in the fill. In that chapter, Matt and Byron Walden produce similar crossword grids with interesting and unusual (but not obscure) words, but relying on their brains rather than finely honed databases.

What sorts of entries spice up a crossword? Last week's Stumper by "Anna Stiga" ("Stan again" Newman) had entries like "YES INDEED," TWERP, MASON JAR, and "IS IT ME?"—but not a ton of other zestiness in the grid. The July 21 one by Doug Peterson featured a pair of 15s (including MANDARIN ORANGES), POSTDOC, NANCY DREW, PREPPIES, a GREASY SPOON diner, and TRIX and SNAPPLE brand names—see, now that sort of grid fairly shouts "I started with a couple 15s and then put some fun stuff in there." The July 21 LA Times puzzle by Karen Tracey had SIT BACK AND RELAX crossing MASQUERADE PARTY—that says "Here's where I started, and how fun is it to build a puzzle about phrases with Xs and Qs in them?" Last weekend's CrosSynergy Sunday Challenge by Martin Ashwood-Smith had two triple-stacks of 15s—the obvious starting point for the constructor is those triple-stacks—and the July 29 offering from Bob Klahn (he of the swoon-inducing cluing) threw in DIXIE CUPS, SHE LOVES YOU, and the P-packed PINEAPPLE/PLATYPUS/PARK PLACE corner. Today's Stumper has no obvious seed entries that the constructor thought it'd be fun to see in a grid.

Memo to Stan Newman and his team: More question-marked tricky clues and clever misleads in your themeless puzzles, please! In today's Saturday Stumper, ENDINGS is clued as [Denouements]; why not something like [Parts that may be spoiled]? SNIPE is [Marsh bird] here; why not play around with the verb? For CEREALS, throw in a manufacturer name and clue it [Post boxes?] rather than [Supermarket displays]. Dull words can often be pepped up with oblique clues that bend the solver's brain.

There may be solvers who prefer to contend with more ordinary words and more straightforward clues, but the world of easy crosswords is keyed to that preference already. When it comes to a crossword that is presumably intended to stump the solver, though—and it is called Newsday's "Saturday Stumper"—it'd be nice to see more adventurous grids with zestier fill and more inventive cluing.