November 28, 2009

Sunday, 11/29/09

NYT 23:39
BG 28:08
Reagle 19:31
LAT 20:58
CS 31:35

Team Orange weekend coverage continues. Now, from our Seattle bureau, here's Sam Donaldson.
Happy Sunday, everyone. Orange and her DSL-like solving times will reclaim the throne tomorrow, but today you get the analysis of a dial-up solver for the Sunday crosswords.

Will Nediger's New York Times Crossword, "Cued Up"
As a solver, I'm easy to please. I love wacky, envelope-pushing Krozel-esque puzzles as much as the next guy, but honestly, if you give me a simple theme and execute it really well, I'm just as happy. Today's NYT is a fine example: a simple letter-addition theme that is elegant and enjoyable. Nediger inserts a "QU" somewhere inside seven common phrases and then clues the wackiness that results. Behold the delights that unfold:

  • A [Delighted exclamation?] is a SQUEAL OF APPROVAL (the "QU" is added to "seal of approval"). I wonder if Will had "Navy Squeal" somewhere on his short list when constructing this puzzle.
  • [Part of an Irish playwright's will?] is a WILDE BEQUEST, which is what you get when you add a "QU" to the wildebeest, nature's "before picture." This was the cleverest theme answer, I thought.
  • A [Carsick passenger?] is a QUEASY RIDER, from the infamous film, "Easy Rider." Because of the film reference, I wanted a clue that related to motorcycles, but this one is quite fine.
  • QUALMSGIVING is clued as [Causing uneasiness?]. Until a minute ago, I would have thought that "almsgiving" was forced. I have always heard of "giving alms" but not "almsgiving." But a quick Google search reveals that I have been living in Landbackwards all this time. This is why we do crosswords, right? It's not to stave off ... oh, I forget what they call it. It's about learning new stuff in fun ways.
  • [Carryin' on, in olden times?] is a well-written clue for QUAINT MISBEHAVIN'. "Ain't Misbehavin'" was the first musical I ever saw live. I still remember the song "The Joint is Jumpin'" with fondness. Come in cats and check your hats, I mean this joint is jumpin'! But back to the clue: notice the last letter missin' in "carrying" sends the signal that similar hijinks are lurkin' in the answer. A great hint to a fun answer.
  • [Anger at losing one's flock?] is SHEPHERD'S PIQUE (from shepherd's pie). This bothered me at first since the insertion of the "QU" changes the pronunciation of the altered word, but the same happens with wildebeest so it's technically not inconsistent with the others.
  • Finally, [Subjugation?] is a VANQUISHING ACT (from "vanishing act"). What a terrific answer! The clue itself would be a fun entry in a freestyle puzzle. Hold on a second - I need to write that down.
I have a feeling that QUEASY RIDER was the GERM [Starting point] for this puzzle, but there are so many other good ones here that I can't be sure. Engineering fresh fill around so many Qs is not easy, but Nediger's grid has lots of good stuff. And it appears we're only a "J" shy of a pangram in this grid, for those who care about such things. Highlights include: PLAN A, the [Primary stratagem]; MINI-GOLF, clued as [It may feature a windmill]; BEAVIS, the [TV character often seen in a Metallica T-shirt]; MIST OVER, or [Get fogged up]; UNDIES, clued somewhat deceptively as [Drawers, e.g.]; and BOB SAGET, the [Narrator of "How I Met Your Mother"] and a prominent figure in the movie, "The Aristocrats." Trust me, you'll never look at Bob Saget the same way again after you see that movie (or as much of it as you can stomach, anyway). I loved it, but I have a high tolerance for offensive material.

Those who, like me, enjoy proper names in their puzzles had more than Bob Saget and Beavis on which to feast. There was the Hindu god VISHNU (the clue tells us [Krishna is one of his avatars]), ["Tamerlane" dramatist Nicholas] ROWE, Tom SNYDER of "The Tomorrow Show," the poet James Whitcomb RILEY crossing Mets general manager OMAR Minaya, and Iranian supreme leader ALI Khamenei, among others.

I fell into a few traps, but few of them bogged me down for a long time. I tried NO-HITTER and PERFECT GAME for the [Pitcher's feat] until I came to ONE-HITTER. Then I tried AMOEBA for [One surrounded by cell walls] before tumbling to INMATE. The "A" at the insersection of Pierre de FERMAT, the [French mathematician who pioneered in the theory of probability], and ["Jour de Fete" star, director, and writer] Jacques TATI, was a total guess. Others may have had a hard time in that area too if they did not know CERT, the [Legal writ, in brief] that's short for certiorari. I also had a hard time with the clue for NOUN, [It may be declined]. Apparently, when you change a noun to distinguish the singular from the plural, you "decline" it. Huh, go figure.

Henry Hook's Boston Globe Crossword, "Address Book"
Hook subjects seven different terms commonly found in physical addresses to a little wordplay. Some of the results are stellar; others are a bit--get ready--pedestrian.
  • [Miss Muffet's address?] is HER CURDS AND WAY, playing off Muffet's legendary prowess at eating "her curds and whey" provided she remain undisturbed. The "her" part is awkward, but apparently necessary to make the symmetry work.
  • [New mom's address?] clues UMBILICAL COURT, a variation of the umbilical cord. I love this one, even though I think I said "Eww" aloud as I was writing it down. I suppose Umbilical Court is a one-way street.
  • [J.B. Fletcher's address?] is MURDER SHE ROAD, based on the old "Murder, She Wrote" series on CBS. I've never watched an episode of this show, but I certainly saw enough promos during CBS football games to be aware of the Jessica Fletcher character.
  • HAMMER AND CIRCLE is a [Communist's address?] that draws from the old "hammer and sickle" symbol on the flag of the former Soviet Union. If your knowledge of recent history is limited to what you know from crosswords, let me translate: the flag of the USSR (or CCCP), the collection of SSRs, had a hammer and sickle on it.
  • [Halloween party address?] clues TRICK OR STREET. This one seems a bit dull to me. Nothin wrong with it, of course, but it pales next to many other theme entries in this puzzle.
  • My favorite one of the bunch is the [Cordial host's address?], BEEN NICE AVENUE ("Been nice having you"). This took me a while to uncover since I was slow to see "avenue" as two words and not one. Then, when I had consecutive E's preceding consecutive N's early in the entry, I was sure I had made an error. But when I finally got it, I loved it.
  • Finally, the [Liberator's address?] is SIMON BOULEVARD, a twist on South America's Simon Bolivar.
Check out how Hook manages to place one theme entry directly atop another in both the NW and SE! If a mere mortal attempted this, the fill would be compromised beyond belief. Hook is one of, what, a handful of constructors that can make this look easy? Sure, each of the corners features some less-than-stellar fill: a partial name (!) (LEE DE-Forest, the inventor of the vacuum tube), a partial chorus (the [Kiddie-song ending] EIO, the last 60% of Old McDonald's "E-I-E-I-O"), a strange French word (INCONNUS) clued as [Strangers, in Strasbourg], and LAFEU, the small-fries role of an [Old lord in "All's Well That Ends Well"], come readily to mind. But the rest of those corners were, I think, entirely legit.

There is much to love in this grid. [Scout master?] is a fun clue for TONTO (Scout:Tonto :: Silver:Lone Ranger). Other fun clues included [Some like it hot] for TEA, [First word of "Kokomo"] for ARUBA, and [Take a ride?] for HIJACK. Today's confession = I plunked down OH SHEILA, the [1985 Ready for the World hit song], without a single crossing to help. One need not be proud of everything buried in one's mind. Look for it on YouTube and you'll know my shame.

I struggled mostly in the far east section of the grid. I nearly got a migraine from IGRAINE, [King Arthur's mother], and it did not help to be unfamiliar with the [Lupin of whodunits], ARSENE. Any time I see the name "Lupin" I think of the Harry Potter novels. The [Pacific republic] of NAURU required every single crossing to get, and even then I was unsure whether I had it right. Below all of that, you had to grapple with four intersecting proper names, BARA, BELA, JEREZ, and JOLENE. I was lucky to know three of the four (only Jerez eluded me), but other solvers may have hit a wall here. The only other entry to stay hidden for a long time was PONIARD, the [Thin-bladed dagger].

Finally, if I had a vote, I would nominate the clue for MASON-DIXON, [Their line was in real estate], for a 2009 Oryx. That's just a thing of beauty. OK, so far Oryxes have only been given to entire crosswords and not to individual fill or clues, but if the Oscars can award supporting cast members separately and expand the Best Picture field from five to ten films, there should be some room to give special recognition to great clues that almost single-handedly make the solving experience a delight.

Merl Reagle's Syndicated Crossword, "The Furry Thought of You"
Reagle proves once again that when it comes to puns, he is the cat's meow. This puzzle offers seven purr-fect phrases with a feline touch. Okay, retract your claws--I'll leave the cat puns to the master.
  • [Cat's new "I've chased my last rodent" attitude?] is NO MORE MR. MICE GUY (a play on the common "no more Mr. Nice Guy" phrase).
  • [Washed oneself thoroughly?] is LICKED HIGH AND LOW ("looked high and low"). Sometimes a puzzle needs a title. This theme entry is a case in point: it was the first theme entry to fall for me, and if it weren't for the puzzle's title, my mind would have shot straight to the gutter. Well, maybe it did anyway.
  • The [All-natural cat drink from Celestial Seasonings?] is HAIRBALL TEA. I kept wanting this to be FURBALL TEA and I'm not sure why I was so resistant to the correct answer.
  • It takes two entries to uncover the place [Where cats dream of living?], DOWN BY THE / OLD MILK STREAM (from the song, "Down by the Old Mill Stream").
  • Likewise here, we need two entries for the [Cat's singalong instruction], FOLLOW THE / POUNCING PAW ("follow the bouncing ball").
  • A [Cat's favorite Ingmar Bergman film?] might be CRIES AND WHISKERS ("Cries and Whispers"). The title is familiar enough to me that I could discern the pun, but I haven't seen it and know nothing about it.
  • Reagle knows how to save the best for last: the [Cat's favorite play?] is RO-MEOW AND JULIET.
Despite the relatively quick solving time (for me), there were some thorny entries that slowed me down. I don't think I have ever seen VIANDS, a supply of [Food], and it didn't help that it intersected with ODALISQUE, a [Harem girl]. Fortunately I was familiar enough with YAQUI, an [Indian of Sonora, Mex.]. If not, that corner might have become unsolvable. Nearby sit Nabisco's UNEEDA biscuits from 1898. Biscuits from 1898? Merl, seriously - uneeda clean out your pantry. Up in the north, INGLE, the [Brit's fireplace], didn't make me tingle, but all of the crossings were fair. In the SE, TOY SALES, the [Post-Christmas events], struck me as a little forced.

The hardest intersection for me was where PULI, the [Hungarian sheepdog], met [Actress Joanne] DRU. Part of the problem was that I was sure "POUNCING PAW" was supposed to be "BOUNCING PAW," and BULI seemed just as right to me as PULI. And for some reason, I wanted the [Cheery word?] to be TAH instead of RAH. I was thinking "Ta-Ta," as in "Cheerio, chap." Then I was sure it was AAH, since the second letter in Joanne's name just had to be a vowel. And c'mon, a cheery person would be inclined to say "aah," right? Now that I write this out, of course, I see how silly that is, but in the heat of the solve I can get pretty stubborn with myself.

Always happy to see MR. BILL, the [Victimized clay guy on "SNL" reruns], and ERNST, [007 foe's first name]. Blofeld, Ernst Blofeld. And how appropriate for this puzzle that Blofeld was often featured with a white cat in his arms. Even though I tend to prefer dogs to cats (I have a mild allergy to cat fur and I find most cats a little aloof), I had a good time with this puzzle. And it didn't make me itch.

WARNING: If you have not yet completed today's NYT puzzle, this part of the posting will make reference to that puzzle so STOP RIGHT NOW (or skip to the CrosSynergy discussion below).
Peter Wentz's Los Angeles Times Crossword, "Right on Cue"
Oh no! Two newspapers have come to the party in the same outfit! A constructor's second-worse nightmare! (The worst, I think, would be seeing a paper run the same theme just a few days before your puzzle is scheduled to appear in a different paper.) I feel badly for both Will and Peter. I can't help but compare the two puzzles, just as Us Weekly does with its "Who Wore It Best?" feature. The good news in all of this is that the two puzzles were sufficiently distinct that I enjoyed them both. Don't make me pick one, a la "Sophie's Choice." I can love them both equally.

In this puzzle, Wentz *ahem* adds a "QU" to the start of seven common phrases and then clues the wackiness that results. Unlike the Nediger puzzle, all of the "QU"s this time come at the front. In that regard, the theme entries here are a little tighter. Fortunately, only one of the theme entries in Wentz's puzzle overlaps with those from Nediger's puzzle:
  • [Charmin' way of actin' up?] leads to the overlapper, QUAINT MISBEHAVIN'. In case you have forgotten, "Ain't Misbehavin'" was the first musical I ever saw live, and yes, I still dig "The Joint is Jumpin'." Oh, and this too is a well-written clue for the reasons described above. Let's just move along to the never-before-seen theme entries.
  • To [Annul in the middle of the week] is to QUASH WEDNESDAY, a play on "Ash Wednesday." I'm not sure "in" is appropriate for the clue; to me that makes sense only if the entry read QUASH ON WEDNESDAY. I think I would prefer [Suppress the middle of the week?] as a clue for QUASH WEDNESDAY.
  • [Calculation for an express delivery?] is a QUICK FACTOR. I like the base phrase "ick factor," a measure of gore or grossness. Here's a case where the wacky phrase is actually duller than the base phrase, and that's not usually the way you want to go.
  • [Ends it, to one's subsequent regret] is QUITS A GOOD THING. Since Martha Stewart is famous for saying, "It's a good thing," it would have been fun to see her used as part of the clue.
  • A [Sick feeling on campus?] is QUAD NAUSEAM, building off the common phrase "ad nauseam." I liked this one, perhaps because it hits home. Like many campuses across the country, my school has been at DEFCON 2 since the start of school with worry over the H1N1 virus. We now have hand sanitizer dispensers installed throughout campus, and some restrooms even have signs reminding folks to wash their hands. What does it say about society when an institution of higher education has to install reminders about basic sanitation practices?
  • [Wasn't quite ready to accuse?] clues QUASI-SUSPECTED (from "as I suspected," the phrase everyone uses at the end of a murder mystery party).
  • Finally, QURAN IN THE FAMILY (from "ran in the family") is clued as a [Muslim household's holy book?]. Not as good a punchline as some of the others, but if QUAINT MISBEHAVIN' had been the punchline here too the awkwardness between the two puzzles would have been magnified.
So yes, the puzzles wore the same outfit, but they had different accessories, and that often makes all the difference. Some of my favorite entries in Wentz's version included ABOVE ZERO, BYZANTIUM, HOLD TIGHT, JAM UP, TEPIDNESS, BLOT OUT, QUICHES, DR. KATZ, SILK TIES, and, of course, FREE FALLIN', the classic [1989 Tom Petty hit]. Wentz scored a pangram with the fill, but some of it felt a bit strained. Google verifies that AGENDA BOOK is a valid enough term, I suppose, but it still kinda hurts my eyes and ears. NOT VALID, clued as [Like an expired license], also made me wince. I think most of us would say "invalid" instead of "not valid," and I'm not sure many solvers want a rather arbitrary "not" thrown in before most ADJS [Fast and furious, e.g.: Abbr.]. And UNLAX [Chill out, slangily]? Really? Chillax, sure, but unlax? I think that will bug me until I "untire" to bed tonight.

I would have thought that my second experience with the same theme would have resulted in a noticeably shorter solving time, but such was not the case (in my glacial world, two-and-a-half minutes ain't much faster). Despite the overlapping theme, the only noticeable overlap in the fill comes in the SW of both grids: 112D in Wentz's grid, QBS, is the same as 113D in Nediger's grid. The clue for HOLD TIGHT, [2008 Harlan Coben thriller], slowed me down more than would have a direct clue like [Clutch firmly]. I wanted BAJA for BAHA, [Island band The ___ Men], but I finally figured it out once the crossing [Old Testament prophet] HOSEA fell. Even that proved a little elusive since I had FEAT instead of GEST as the [Daring exploit]. I was also mired at the instersection of LA PLATA, the [City near Buenos Aires], and BRETON, the [Celtic language spoken in France]. Apparently I am not very cosmopolitan. It's true: I have never ventured outside of North America. I've seen much of Canada, the States, and Mexico, but nothing beyond. Even Sarah Palin has seen Russia, albeit from a distance. And yet I finished second to President Obama in voting for the Nobel Peace Prize (we had identical accomplishments, but he photographs better). (It's important to make offsetting political jokes whenever possible.)

Bob Klahn’s freestyle CrosSynergy “Sunday Challenge”
Go figure - my slowest time comes not with the 21x Sunday-sized puzzles but the innocuous little 15x freestyle offering from the master of deception, Bob Klahn. I felt like an IGNORAMUS [Ding-a-ling] throughout much of the solve, but I'm proud to have survived and I admire the construction a great deal. This 70-worder offers four triple-stacked 9s and a grid full of fun entries and knotty clues. In no particular order, here are my ten favorites:
  • [Something hard to make for Easter] is a BOILED EGG. I managed to get the "egg" first but then struggled to figure out exactly what kind of egg would be so difficult to make. Without the usual "?" to signal wordplay, this proved an uphill battle. Of course, we're supposed to apply a different meaning to "hard." (For fans of "The Office," that's what she said.)
  • [Turkey portion] is ASIA MINOR, since a part of Turkey lies in Asia Minor. I had little problem with this, as I have tackled enough Klahnian puzzles in my day to know right away that this had nothing to do with the bird many of us feasted upon a few days ago. And yet I couldn't do the same with the flippin' boiled egg. Again, the lack of a question mark here might have thrown off several solvers.
  • A VEGAN is [One not likely to bring home the bacon]. Easy enough clue (it gave me my entry into the grid), but highly entertaining.
  • Controversial radio personality DON IMUS also has a great clue, ["My goal is to goad people into saying something that ruins their life" speaker]. When I first read the clue, I had only the N and I in place. I thought that the speaker was likely a trial attorney, but none of the usual names of famous trial attorneys seemed to work. When I later had --NIMUS, I then convinced myself that the speaker was a Roman philosopher. Maybe someone modest named Minimus. Then, I got to -ONIMUS and I was still stuck. Finally (true story), once I got the D from the crossing, I wondered who the Roman Donimus might be. Only after I thought to myself, "What an unfair entry to place in an otherwise nice grid," did the light bulb come on. This confession may cause me to lose authorship privileges on this blog. If so, it was fun while it lasted.
  • [Wimpy bud] is POPEYE. Sure enough, I tried to squeeze in the name of some lame flower. At first glance, PEONE looked good with the crossings I had in place, but that extra square got in the way. I'm a little mad at myself for not getting this one sooner, especially since Wimpy was only one of my favorite characters in all of cartoons. "For a hamburger today, I will gladly repay you Tuesday."
  • CALL ME MADAM is a [Musical title all of whose consonants are Roman numerals]. And even though they are out of order, they add to 3,700. I had the first M in place when I came to this clue, so my first thought was MADAME BOVARY until I realized the B and the R wouldn't work. Then I wondered if MAME had a longer title. With a few more letters down I tried the famous palindrome, MADAM I'M ADAM, thinking maybe someone made a musical by that name (a great opening number would be "Able Was I, Ere I Saw Elba"). Eventually I got it, though really I could not have told you before the solve that there was a musical by this name.
  • [Tang, e.g.] clues ORANGEADE. Not sure why I could plunk this down without any crossings, but I did. Got lucky, I guess.
  • To [Focus directly] is to TAKE DEAD AIM, just a great, lively phrase.
  • [Took a flying leap] clues VAULTED. I spent a decent chunk of time trying to come up with a synonym for "beat it" or "am-scrayed."
  • Finally, [Boston and Chicago aides] are ROADIES. Of course, I don't think of the bands, I think of the baseball teams. There's the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox, so I was sure the answer had something to do with socks. As with most of my hunches in this puzzle, I could not have been more wrong.
A really terrific grid and clues that worked to mire me in the ooze of stuck for a long time. The SE was especially deadly. I have seen the SAMPAN before (it's a [Mat-roofed, flat-bottomed boat]) but it felt completely foreign to me during the solve. The clue for ADAGE, [Sampler sentence], still eludes me, so anyone who wants to help me out should please explain in the comments. I had never heard of Roger Ebert's book, "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie," so the clue for HATED left me empty. And I couldn't figure out AMORY, ["The Proper Bostonians" writer Cleveland]. Even with the first three letters of these words in place from the crossing downs, I was befuddled for a long time. The NW corner also took a while, but once I figured out that the LLAMA was the [Animal on Peru's coat of arms], the rest fell fairly quickly.

Roger Ebert may have hated, hated, hated some movie, but I liked, liked, liked this puzzle even though it nearly defeated me. Thank you, Sir Klahn. May I have another?

My Trip to Atlanta
Before I hand the baton back to Orange, allow me to share a slightly off-topic anecdote that readers of this blog will appreciate. In my job I am lucky (?) enough to travel around the country a fair amount for various conferences. I am a slave to my frequent flyer miles, so I almost always fly on the same airline when I can (I won't mention the name of the airline, but it seems to have an awfully high number of flights to Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks). Anyway, one of the first things I often do after taking my seat on a plane is to pull out the airline's magazine and see if it has crosswords. Sure enough, my frequent-flyer airline has a 23x puzzle every month, but I'm pretty sure the grid and the clues are computer-generated because it's never much fun and the clues violate many of the standard clue conventions.

But earlier this month I had to fly on a partner airline (and for reasons that will soon be apparent, I have no problem disclosing that this partner airline was Delta). When I checked the back of Delta's Sky Magazine, I discovered that they run an old NYT 15x crossword and a couple of Sudoku puzzles. I was pleased to see that Delta sprung for a good puzzle, so I pulled out my trusty solving pencil (aka The Death Wand) and set to work. When I read the clue for 1-Across, I actually dropped the Death Wand. It was my debut puzzle from October 2008! Sure enough, my name was printed alongside the grid near the fold. I have only had two puzzles in the NYT (so far - there are some in the queue), so the odds of this happening are, by my precise computations, remote. I was completely floored. For the first time ever, I took the magazine off the plane with me.

By the way, at one point I needed to stand during the flight and stretch my legs (it was a long flight to Atlanta). Rather than stay by my seat near the front, I decided to walk to the back of the cabin just so I could see whether anyone was working the puzzle. It has always been my white whale - I have never seen someone actually solving one of my puzzles (not that I have had many of them out there to see people solve, mind you, but still). I saw two people working the Sudoku puzzles and no one working the crossword. Sigh. But that's just a small hiccup in what was otherwise the coolest flight I have taken in years.

Well, that's the story. Again, I thought that if anyone would appreciate the thrill I had it would be this group. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.