July 24, 2009

Saturday, 7/25

NYT 5:59
Newsday 5:23
LAT 4:00—fantastic themeless, don't miss it (Across Lite at Cruciverb.com, applet at latimes.com)
CS 7:16 (J—paper)

Guess what? When there's an outdated crossword clue about nurses, they notice. And they don't like it. Must reading for crossword constructors and editors.

Edited to add: Writer Dean Olsher (his book, From Square One, is in bookstores now) will be blogging the Sunday puzzles for us.

Vic Fleming's New York Times crossword

Vic's puzzle is anchored by a 15-letter answer running down the middle and criss-crossed by three more 15s as well as two 11s and four 10s. It's an unusual grid layout. The fill isn't very Scrabbly, perhaps because of the constraints of this layout. Overall, the cluing was more lively than the fill, I thought. Highlights:

  • 15A. [Cover-up during a shower] is the TARP on a ballfield. Anyone else let that P talk them into SOAP here?
  • 17A. [Inquire about a union contract?] clues PROPOSE MARRIAGE. I suspected the answer would have something to do with prenuptial agreements, but PROPOSE MARRIAGE is much sweeter.
  • 28A. [Trumpeter with a prominent neck] is, of course, the most popular trumpet player in crosswords, Al HIRT. He is known for his fabulously prominent neck, which is the secret of his musical success. No, actually, the answer is a SWAN, such as a trumpeter swan.
  • 35A. [Quarter master?] is sort of a weird clue for NUMISMATIST because I don't know that a coin collector/expert would consider herself a "master." But the clue definitely did its job in getting me to think of entirely different possible meanings for "quarter master."
  • 46A, 50A. I'll excuse a pesky [Kind of ___] clue if it's part of something bigger. Here, [Certain joe] is DECAF and [Kind of joe] is SLOPPY. Really, 50A should be [___ joe], but then nobody would be misled into thinking about coffee.
  • 63A. [Something often written under] is a deadline more than, say, the table. But the puzzle's looking for NOM DE PLUME this time.
  • 7D. The anchor 15 kept me guessing for far too long, because those two razor-aisle clues made me think of peach fuzz whiskers. And then I thought of eluding the police. But no. [Losing the fuzz?] clues COMING INTO FOCUS. Amazing how long it took for that answer to come into focus.
  • 18D. OFTENER. I don't think I've ever used that word. It's clued as [Not so rarely]. It looks like it's missing an introductor FABRIC S-.
  • 29D. WISC.! "On, Wisconsin!" The state is clued as [Superior setting: Abbr.] because Superior is a Wisconsin town way up yonder next to Duluth, Minnesota.
  • 30D. [Hairy clue-sniffer] clues the whodunit dog, ASTA. My god, what a horrid clue! It's grotesque. Hairy + sniffer? Rhymes with "glue-sniffer"? It's almost surreal. And then the answer is just our stalwart detective dog ASTA. When's the last time an ASTA clue made you laugh? +10 points!
  • 47D. [One working on the side?] is an EATER still working on that side dish. Icky odd-job answer, sure, but the clue and the initial E lured me into entering EXTRA, working on the...side...of a movie set? Yeah, that doesn't make much sense. So sue me.
  • 49D. Crosswordese ARILS come to life when clued as [Edible pomegranate parts]. Most of us know what ARILS look like if we get a colorful example like this.
What I don't quite get or didn't much care for:
  • 39A. VESTED INTERESTS is clued [They benefit personally]. Say what? "Personally" suggests that this is about people who benefit, but people have VESTED INTERESTS rather than being VESTED INTERESTS. Can somebody explain this one to me?
  • 54A. [Seek change?] clues BEG. Hmm, can we not be jokey about the destitute? Beg pardon, beg for forgiveness, teach a dog to beg—those connotations would be better.
  • 57A. [Father of Eleazar, in the Bible]? Ouch. It's AARON. He's Moses's brother, right? Can we expect MOSES to be clued as [Eleazar's uncle}? Meh.
  • 38D. AREOLAS has such handy vowels, so it keeps showing up in crosswords. "Oh! Excuse me! Your dress is so low-cut, I fear your [Biological interstices] are peeking out!" But the word never gets clued with reference to what everyone thinks of when they hear it. The nipples and environs get no love in the crossword puzzle.
Updated Saturday morning:

Randall J. Hartman's CrosSynergy/Washington Post puzzle, "Ow, Ow—That Hurts!"—Janie's review

Nuthin' like a fine array of percussive sounds to generate a headache, is there? BANG! BOOM! KNOCK!—and what's the upshot? "Ow!" Double the cacophony and "Ow, ow!" Randy plays with these sounds in today's puzzle, but I don't imagine you'll need to take two aspirin once you've solved it. Additionally, he's given us three grid-spanning theme fills of the very fresh variety: the first two appear to be major-publication firsts, the third a CS debut:
  • 20A. BANG-BANG CHICKEN [Szechuan dish]. Looks veeeery tasty. And unless you use one to prep the chicken itself, it looks like this dish can be made without a WOK [Chinese cooker].
  • 41A. BOOM BOOM MANCINI [Lightweight boxing champ of the '80s]. Boy, does that fill look good in the grid! The consonant combos make it a little tricky to parse. (And I love that the puzzle includes BOO [Halloween holler] as well, like sort of boom partial...). While I'm not much of a boxing fan, somewhere I knew that as a younger fighter, Mancini, who delivered his share of KO'S [Some boxing victories, briefly] in his day, played a title bout that ultimately resulted in his opponent's death. This was in the days of 14-round title-bouts. Wisely, the tragedy led to the boxing organizations' decisions to reduce by two the number of rounds in a title bout.
  • 56A. KNOCK-KNOCK JOKES [Gags that usually involve puns]. I know what a p. in the a. the links here are. They don't bring you back to what you've been reading. But please, when you're finished reading, go back for this one. It's an excellent time-capsule look at the form. A more current one can be found by listening to Garrison Keillor's annual "joke show" that's part of A Prairie Home Companion. Segment 3 contains the "Knock-knock Song." Not known so much for punning, but for his well-observed complaints about daily life, ALAN KING did once say of an early Catskills gig that he was fired because he opened by saying: “When you work for Gradus, you work for gratis!” [Rimshot.]
In the STAT department, I loved seeing today's one J, two Vs, three Zs and six Ks. Back to comedy... I'm reminded that in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, funny-man Willy Clark ZINGS:
"Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say "Alka Seltzer" you get a laugh . . . Words with "k" in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland . . . Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny."
We get two references today to the changes we've seen in automobile manufacture over the years: OLDS [Automaker until 2004] and NASH [Bygone auto]. The last of these rolled off the Kenosha, WI line in 1969. [It's a gas] is neither a way of describing a particularly funny experience nor something along the lines of neon or nitrous oxide. No, ARCO is a brand of gasoline to put into your auto of choice. Glad it's summer in the Northern Hemisphere, where there's little chance that a leisurely Sunday spin will lead to an encounter with BLACK ICE [Winter driving hazard].

The [First name in mausoleums] is TAJ and two crossword-friendly last names (because of their constructor-friendly vowel sequence] are CAAN and KAEL. (And funny, too!) There's some fine slang in the fill GONZO, here clued as [Eccentric] (but which I think of more often as meaning extreme as in the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson); and SHAG, here clued as [Catch fungoes]. "Fungoes" (great word in itself!) are fly balls "hit for fielding practice by a player who tosses the ball up and hits it on its way down with a long, thin, light bat," so in sports jargon, SHAG=catch. In BritSpeak, SHAG=have sex with.

Yesterday, BLONDIE appeared in the puzzle as a [Chic Young creation]. Today, the wife of her husband Dagwood's boss (Mr. Withers) joins the party. Hello, CORA. You're in excellent company with RAVI [Sitarist Shankar] OLEG and IVAN. Glad to see this last one clued in reference to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's ["One Day in the Life of ___ Denisovich"]. It woulda been really easy to clue him as [Tennis great Lendl], partnering him with ILIE [Tennis bad boy Nastase].

Brad Wilber's Los Angeles Times crossword

This one's been short-listed for the annual Oryx honors for the awards panel's favorite themeless crossword. It's got an abundance of fresh fill that really crackles with liveliness, plus Scrabbly letters up the wazoo. Holy frijoles, did I ever like this puzzle. Here's what I like best in a themeless puzzle:
  • Lots of long answers, especially in the 9- to 11-letter range and all stacked together like intellectual Oreos.
  • Surprising phrases, titles, names, and words—things that are decidedly not a dime a dozen in crosswords.
  • Uncommon letters, which I like to call "Scrabbly" because they earn a lot of points in Scrabble.
The edges of Brad's crossword feature a dozen long answers, stacked three deep in each corner. There are all sorts of nutty entries I've never seen in a crossword before. And once I got MALT LIQUOR at 1-Across (clued with a brand of malt liquor, Colt 45, e.g.), I began to suspect there'd be all sorts of Scrabbly goodness lurking throughout.

Favorite answers and clues: I'll pick and choose and leave out some of my favorites, because dangit, there are just too many today.
  • 17A: Emmy-winning 1972 TV concert film (LIZA WITH A Z). Wow, this one took me a long time to piece together. I had L*Z*WIT*AZ and was mystified. Two Zs! Total pop culture—but pop culture that is likely familiar to people from a wide range of ages. For a long moment, I wondered who this "A.Z." person was who was in concert with Liza.
  • 28A: Brief turndown ('FRAID NOT). 100% colloquial spoken English, 100% familiar, less than 1% likely to appear in a crossword. My dad liked to tell the old joke about the piece of string who kept getting thrown out of a bar. He tied himself in a knot and roughed up his ends on the sidewalk and tried ordering a drink again. "Say, aren't you the piece of string I just threw out of here?" asked the bartender. "No, I'm a frayed knot," the string replied.
  • 37A: Bismarck's realm (PRUSSIA). I think some of my ancestors came to America from what was then labeled Prussia on the map. I should start telling people I'm part Prussian.
  • 44A: Military brass? (BUGLES). Usually "military brass" means the generals in charge; here it means the brass instruments used to play "Taps."
  • 61A: Prescription that might give you shakes? (LIQUID DIET). As in the milkshakes, the protein shakes, etc.
  • 64A: Head turner, at times (REIN). Usually "head turner" means "good-looking person," but here it refers to the REINs that turn a horse's head. Excellent mislead—the sort of misleading clue that's right at home in a Saturday crossword.
  • 65A: 1988 winner of seven Olympic swimming medals (MATT BIONDI). I'm a sucker for first/last name combos as crossword fill. Poor Matt Biondi, eclipsed by Ian Thorpe and especially Michael Phelps. Speaking of full names, we also have LEW AYRES (5D: "Johnny Belinda" Oscar nominee).
  • 6D: Where a pupil sits? (IRIS). I'll bet a lot of you wanted to put DESK here, didn't you? Saturday clues like to mess with our heads. Pupil = student, pupil = the black spot in your eye.
  • 32D: You'll need one for your flat (SPARE TIRE). The clue wants you to think of English apartments and be misled, doesn't it?
  • 34D: North American Francophone (QUEBECOIS). I like geographical names and I like the letter Q.
  • 40D: Kipling's "limpin' lump o' brick-dust" (GUNGA DIN). I didn't know the colorful quote, but there aren't many Kipling characters' names that (a) I know and (b) are 8 letters long.
  • 63D: Semi-colon? (DOT). A colon has two dots (:) so half a colon is one DOT.
Overall, this crossword really wasn't too tough, not as themeless Saturday puzzles go. There were a couple short answers that kept me waiting for crossings, though. There's 2D: Hypothetical particle (AXION), which I've never heard of. (Physics is not my forte.) And the abbreviation DAU. was kinda painful; it's clued as 31A: Abbr. in a genealogy volume, so I surmise that it's short for "daughter." You really have to expect to see some things you simply have no way of knowing in a Saturday puzzle, so you really can't call foul on these. And their crossings were rock-solid—it's not as if we had to guess a letter in DAU that crossed an Armenian river, you know? This puzzle is eminently fair in addition to being a sparkly marvel of yumminess.

(Writeup adapted from my post at L.A. Crossword Confidential.)

Adam Cohen's Newsday "Saturday Stumper"

(PDF solution here.)

I think Adam Cohen's new to Stumper constructing, though his work has been published in the NYT every day from Monday through Saturday. This Stumper was decidedly non-stumpogenic as Stumpers go—I finished in a Friday to easy Saturday NYT amount of time. He's a promising addition to the Saturday Newsday crew.

Things that made me go "ooh":
  • 1A. [Piquant hodgepodge] clues JAMBALAYA. First thought was POTPOURRI, but 2D: [Fictional talking lion] had to be ASLAN so POTPOURRI was out.
  • 17A. PLAYED OUT is a great, colloquial phrase. It means [Exhausted], in a way. "The word ESNE is played out in crosswords."
  • 43A. [Poorer than poor] clues BAD. We're not talking destitution, we're talking quality.
  • 50A, 55A. Stacked trade names: AIR CANADA is the [Publisher of "enRoute"] and CLEARASIL was/is an ["American Bandstand" sponsor]
  • 57A. KANYE WEST is clued as the [2009 Grammy winner for "Swagga Like Us"]. Chicago, represent!
  • 8D. "YOU'RE ON!" is indeed an [Enthusiastic assent].
  • 11D. The ROAD is a [Place setting for forks]. Great clue.
  • 24A. A cathedral APSE is clued as [Where icons may be seen], but crossword clues much more often refer to icons on your computer's screen so it felt like a Saturday-grade mislead.
  • 40D. BARACK is a [Name from the Swahili for "blessed"]. I looked askance at the clue until I had enough crossings and remembered reading this. Definitely a few cuts above the typical [Name that means "___"] clue because it's been in the news.

Things that made me go "huh?" or "meh":
  • 9D. ARTELS were [Communal collectives] in prerevolutionary Russia, and it's the second time I've seen this word in a puzzle this week. It is officially PLAYED OUT.
  • 12D. Is there a doctor or biologist in the house? Can an ANTITOXIN properly be described as a [Germ fighter]? This feels wrong to me. I know some bacteria produce toxins, but is an antitoxin prescribed for that?
  • 13D. [Careless] clues UNHEEDING. Raise your hand if you have never spoken, written, or heard that word. "Heedless," sure. (Siegfried Sassoon fans, sit down.)
  • 34D. SARA is clued as ["CSI" character]. Uh, that character left the show a couple years ago. Is there really no zippier way to clue SARA today?