September 18, 2009

Saturday, 9/19/09

NYT 5:06
LAT 3:32
Newsday tba
CS about 9 minutes (while watching a movie with my kid)

Mel Taub's New York Times crossword

Half-Century Puzzlemakers' Week concludes with a petite 13x13 Puns & Anagrams puzzle by Mel Taub, who contributes the occasional P&A to the Sunday Times. I used to enjoy these, but then I got increasingly hooked on cryptic crosswords, which use some of the same wordplay (and then some) and which I find to be a meatier challenge. If you like the P&A puzzles but feel some trepidation at the idea of wrestling with cryptics, I encourage you to pick up a copy of 101 Cryptic Crosswords: From the New Yorker. That book contains a slew of small cryptics that are on the easy side and serve as a tasty introduction to this cruciverbal art form.

In case you're flummoxed about how the clues work in today's NYT puzzle, let me review 10 of them:

  • 6A. [At least it's a real bargain] clues STEAL, which "is a real bargain" and is an anagram of "least." A true cryptic clue would include another word (e.g., "mixed-up," "disorderly") to signal that "least" is to be anagrammed, and the word "at" wouldn't be included unless it were part of the wordplay or the definition. That's the thing that bugs me about the P&As—they don't follow the cryptic rules of having no extraneous words, so they feel comparatively sloppy to me.
  • 12A. [Job for a Rhine surgeon] is HERNIA. It's a job for a surgeon that's an anagram of "a Rhine." Do rivers have surgeons? I don't think any Mississippi surgeons are found along the Mississippi River.
  • 14A. [Mien of a crapshooter will reduce friction] clues ROLLER BEARING. BEARING = mien, a crapshooter ROLLs dice, and ball/roller bearings reduce friction. The surface meaning of the clue is nonsensical, whereas cryptic clues strive for a surfaces sense that can mislead you into thinking of entirely wrong answers and sounds like a plausible sentence or phrase.
  • 30A. [Except having Republican passage from a book] clues EXCERPT, "except" with an "R" (for Republican) inserted in it.
  • 40A. This clue seems kinda loose. [Fall guy's protection when traveling] is TRIP INSURANCE. Fall = TRIP, but "guy's" seems out of place, and the word INSURANCE isn't signaled by anything. TRIP INSURANCE is "protection when traveling," but the "guy's" and INSURANCE components don't seem to match up.
  • 45A. [Shabby followers of a bee]...what would that even mean? Shabby = SEEDY, which sounds like cee dee, which are the letters after A and B (a bee).
  • 2D. [Companion of Arnold] is Arnold's anagram, ROLAND. The "companion" part is there...why? Because P&As don't have to follow cryptic clueing rules.
  • 4D. [The direction to Hussein's heart] is SSE, the central three letters within "Hussein" and a direction.
  • 6D. [Charlie's luster] is SHEEN. Sheen and luster are synonymous, and Charlie Sheen is famous.
  • 8D. [Kind of ant] clues ERR if you pretend that the word "errant" is actually "err ant."
Congratulations to all of this week's longtime constructors! Many of us will manage to be crossword solvers for 50 years, but to construct for so long? I wish today's younger constructors a long and fruitful career in crosswords, too.

Updated Saturday morning:

Stella Daily & Bruce Venzke's CrosSynergy/Washington Post puzzle, "Eagle Scout"—Janie's review

As the Eagle Scout badge reminds us, the motto of the Boy Scouts is "Be Prepared." Which is something any solver, seasoned or tyro, must be as well. The title of today's puzzle suggests something that may be related to advanced scouting, right? Wrong. Instead, the first word of each theme phrase describes a kind of eagle—not all of the avian variety either. Be prepared, then, for the way:
  • 20A. [Object of Jason's quest] GOLDEN FLEECE gives us golden eagle. I love the way ULEE'S crosses the phrase just after gold—and the way LEAF sits above it. The source of Ulee's Gold puts in an appearance as well (crossing the same theme fill), and that's A BEE...
  • 33A. [Peak in a Mussorgsky composition] BALD MOUNTAIN leads us to our national bird, the majestic ("don't-mess-with-me") bald eagle. The "Mussorgsky composition" link will take you to the animated Fantasia version of "A Night on Bald Mountain." It's still kinda scary.
  • 43A. [Pot used to melt chocolate] DOUBLE BOILER yields the $20 gold coin known as the double eagle. Coincidentally, double eagle was theme fill in Fran and Lou Sabin's Tuesday 9/15 NYT puzzle. It gets its name from the fact that the $10 gold coin was known as an "eagle." Aha! (The link about the coin will take you to a page that's filled with great pix and info about its, uh, glittering history.)
  • 59A. [Thanksgiving or Christmas] LEGAL HOLIDAY renders legal eagle (or, in the plural Legal Eagles...). Now I know Doc Holliday's is a "double l" name, but seeing EARP directly above "single l" holiday still tickled me. Especially with DISARM right there as well. If someone had been able to disarm the good Doc, Wyatt Earp and their combatants, that historic and bloody gunfight at the O.K. Corral might never have occurred. (Can't you just hear all of Hollywood breathing a great big sigh of relief?...)
This puzzle is HIGHLY [___ regarded] by me for reasons besides the lively theme fill and the associations it evoked. First, there's the grid, with its triple 6-columns in the SW and NE. Then there's the lovely assortment of non-theme fill entries (in addition to those words I've already mentioned). In conjunction with that mention of Jason and the golden fleece, there's a little "classic language/civilization" action going on with ERAT/[QED's middle], CICERO/[Enemy of Caesar] and SYBIL [Ancient seeress].

In addition to the flights of eagles, we get a couple of airlines in the mix: EL AL/[Transport to Tel Aviv] and AER/[Start of an Irish flier] (or Aer Lingus). There's also T-BIRD, the ["Fun, Fun, Fun" ride] that's named not for a less-than-vintage wine, but for a bird with a rich mythology.

Oh—and if you need a beverage to accompany the olla podrida Martin offered on Monday, you might want to have a go at [Café de] OLLA [(drink brewed in a clay pot)]. ¡Salud!

Merle Baker's Los Angeles Times crossword

(Cross-posted at L.A. Crossword Confidential.)

Well, this one was a little harder than last Saturday's but still easier than the Saturday L.A. Times crossword was six months ago. A standard New York Times Saturday puzzle may take 50% to 100% longer than this one, but hey, at least the tougher one's out there for those who want it, and those who are cutting their teeth on the themeless format have a more pliable puzzle to contend with here.

The word count (the total number of answers in the puzzle) is rather low: 64. The maximum for a themeless puzzle is customarily 72, and it becomes increasingly difficult to get interlocking fill to work out the lower the word count goes. If you're an all-star constructing deity like Patrick Berry, you crank out 64-worders without any compromises in the fill, but mere mortals usually have some uninspiring answers in such puzzles.

What do I mean? Well, look at the mini-theme (a mini-theme is a symmetric pair of related answers in a themeless puzzle). The 27D: Oscar winners' winnings are STATUETTES—that's eminently reasonable. But its partner is PRESENTEES (6D: Oscar winners, e.g.). Wha...? There are presenters, but does anyone ever call the award recipients PRESENTEES? This is ringing zero bells for me. There's an ugly abbreviation, SURG. (46A: OR activity). 35D: Royal office clues KINGSHIP, which is not a -ship word we see often (though it is indeed an inflected form listed under king in my dictionary).

A 64-worder tends to have less aggressive sparkle than 70- or 72-worders do. Nothing really zippy like a BAZOOKA JOE here, but the livelier answers include:
  • 20A: Like expensive fight seats (RINGSIDE). I do not like the hitting-people sports, personally, but RINGSIDE is a cool answer.
  • 40A: Winter Olympics contestants (SKI JUMPERS). Both the K and J are Scrabbly letters.
  • 54A: Small and unimportant, as a town (ONE-HORSE). The more modern equivalent is the one-stoplight town, but "one-horse" is here to stay.
  • 7D: Have a wild time (GO CRAZY).
  • 36D: Magic charm (MOJO). Mojo! Key word from a favorite scene in an Austin Powers movie. The Scottish Fat Bastard was, as I recall, willing to give Austin Powers' mojo to Dr. Evil in exchange for an edible baby, though I believe said "baby" was Verne Troyer.

Crosswordese 101: There's a new twist on the seldom-welcome 32D: Playground retort, this time DOES SO. While each individual "playground retort" phrase doesn't exactly meet the usual loose criteria for what constitutes crosswordese, there are so many of them, and their primary purpose is to help a constructor finish up a section of the grid. From the database (database function available only to gold members), I gathered a partial list of the other "playground retorts" that have appeared in crosswords. You never know which one it's gonna be, so you have to work through the crossings to see if it's AM NOT, AM SO, ARE TOO, CAN SO, DID TOO, I DO TOO, IS NOT, or IS TOO—among others. What they all have in common is that they're two or three short words and the last word is NOT, SO, or TOO. Are you tired of these answers? If not, have no fear! You will be soon enough.

Doug Peterson's Newsday "Saturday Stumper"

(PDF solution here.)

Well, if you've been looking for a standard Saturday level of challenge in the themeless department, Newsday is your best bet today. Doug Peterson's is not too difficult but not too easy. Not a ton of sparkling entries, but definitely some cool stuff:
  • 60A. What on earth is an answer like JUXTAPOSE ([Put together]) doing in the bottom row?? That's kinda show-offy. The J is the end of LBJ (clued as [Austin's ___ School of Public Affairs]) and the U is the tail of GERARD DEPARDIEU, the ["Cyrano de Bergerac" Oscar nominee].
  • 36D. Like 60A, JURY BOX has a JU and an X. It's a [Court feature].
Among the trickier or tougher clues:
  • 1A. [City whose motto is "Big Wild Life"] is ANCHORAGE, Alaska.
  • 20A. [Valle del Bove locale] is Mt. ETNA. Is anybody looking for harder clues for ETNA, or maybe for less ETNA in crosswords?
  • 21A. With famous real STEELEs (RNC chairman Michael, writer Shelby), why on earth use the outdated [Small-screen sleuth's surname]? Remington Steele ended its run 22 years ago and is hardly an ageless classic.
  • 48A. Were you looking for a name for the [October 24th honoree]? It's THE U.N.
  • 48D. ["The Constant Gardener" role] is TESSA. Never read the le Carre book, nor did I see the movie version.