FRIDAY, Apr. 20, 2007 - David Quarfoot

Friday, April 20, 2007

Relative difficulty: medium

THEME: none

Another solid outing from Señor Quarfoot. I have a few quibbles with some of the clues and fill, but my standards are Very High for a Quarfoot puzzle, AND I solved this puzzle in the throes of the worst head cold I've had in years, so ... that should put any criticism I have in context. In general, I think that would-be constructors should study Quarfoot puzzles as models of contemporary themeless construction art.

So I'm going to look at this puzzle in somewhat more formal terms than I do most puzzles in order to demonstrate (somewhat) precisely what features I believe make a contemporary themeless puzzle great. In the end, there is no strict formula - sometimes there's just a kind of alchemical magic that happens when you juxtapose words or clue an answer a certain way. But there are general principles. Here are some of them.

1. Compound phrases - themeless puzzles will inevitably (in the best publications, anyway) have stacks and parallel columns of fairly long answers - this puzzle has SIX different 3x7 columns and two 3x10 stacks. Notice how many of the answers in said columns / stacks are compound (that is, involve multiple words): ALL SIX of the stacked 10-letter answers (as well as one of the two unstacked 10-letter answers), and twelve of the eighteen vertical seven-letter answers. It's probably the latter number that I find more impressive, because there are so many more 7-letter words in the language than there are 10-letter words, so while you expect to see a good degree of compoundness in the 10s, to see that high a degree in the 7s is remarkable. What makes compoundness good? It's all about parsing - trying to figure out what the answer is, how many words are involved, where words break, whether there are hyphens involved, etc. Having lots of compound answers adds a level of excitement and variety to the puzzle, so that the difficulty resides not (just) in the obscurity of the answer, but in getting your brain to be supple enough to tease out an answer. Compound answers can simply be way more tricky to see than single-word answers during the course of solving because even if you have some crosses, you can't be sure what relation those letters will have to one other. Take ONE-MAN ARMY (15A: Versatile combatant). I had --E-AN ARMY for a bit and all I could think was that "--E-AN" was one word, like, I don't know, CRETAN. I think your brain instinctively wants to see the answer as a single unit, and you have to will it into seeing / considering breaks and disjunctures. This is how it is for me, anyway. Compound answers add an extra facet to the challenge of solving, one that takes you beyond the question of whether or not you know something to the question of whether or not you can see something.

2. Breadth of vision - part of what makes fill "fresh" or "lively" (words I've used often) is the imaginative exploitation of the space in a long answer. The closer you stick to one-word fill, the more limited you are in your options, so every constructor's going to have to go compound to a certain extent; but the best puzzles have a certain fearlessness about the multiple-word phrase and its ability to take you into the language of the everyday world (contemporary, in-the-language phrases and ideas and names that are not necessarily dictionary-worthy). I have this ridiculous urge to compare Quarfoot (and I would say Shortz, insofar as he fosters and encourages this kind of thing) to the poet William Wordsworth, particularly where Wordsworth's commitment to the "language of men" is concerned. The following is from Wordsworth's very famous "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" (1798):

There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction; I have taken as much pains to avoid it as others ordinarily take to produce it; this I have done for the reason already alleged, to bring my language near to the language of men, and further, because the pleasure which I have proposed to myself to impart is of a kind very different from that which is supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry.
Now Wordsworth, when talking about "the language of men," most likely did not have something like TOYS 'R' US KID (1A: One who doesn't want to grow up, in a jingle) in mind. Too crassly commercial for one who worshipped at the altar of Nature. But still - the rejection of a certain formal, staid, self-consciously erudite aesthetic in favor of a more populist aesthetic strikes me as admirably democratic, and a wonderful way of isolating and bringing out the beauty in words and phrases we see and utter every day:

UPC CODE - 34D: Bars from a store
FLU SHOT - 12D: Seasonal safeguard
SAT IN ON - 7D: Audited
PET NAME - 37D: Muffin, for one
AIR WAVE - 13D: Broadcasting unit?
ON BOARD - 2D: Participating in a group

That said, the best puzzles will still reserve the right to Get Medieval (45D: "Le Morte d'Arthur" author (Malory)), or even Ancient Roman (60A: Berlioz opera based on Virgil's "Aeneid" ("Les Troyens") and 52A: Golden Age writer (Ovid)), on your ass. That's why I say "breadth of vision" is important - you don't ditch the old for the new, you just mix them up in unexpected ways.

3. Supple Joints - big stacks and columns are of course the bread-and-butter of a themeless puzzle. They're showy, ostentatious, impressive. But what about the answers that move you from quadrant to quadrant, from showcase to showcase - the three- and four-letter answers that connect the wide-open spaces that we know and love? In the best themeless puzzles, these answers will be both tricky and colorful, not throwaway answers or tired standards. Now not every answer in a puzzle can be scintillating, so I can forgive some blandness in the joints, but a perfect puzzle does not treat the joints as unimp0rtant way-stations. In today's puzzle, for instance, we even get some Scrabbly letters (another key ingredient in a stellar themeless) in the joints:

DR. X (33A: Bogart's only horror film title role, 1939) crosses
CRUX (25D: Meat) and
OJOS (24D: Optometría concern) crosses
JOIN (27A: Make one).

The worst answer in today's joints was MUS. (32A: Where hangings are witnessed: Abbr.) both because it's a bad abbreviation (i.e. one you are not likely ever to see) and because that "hangings" clue, which was probably once tricky, is getting old. But that's one of only a few duds in this puzzle. Take your short answers seriously! They're part of the puzzle too. If you look at the short answers in the SW of today's puzzle ... not much to love, but if you look at the SE: MOME (45A: "And the _____ raths outgrabe" ("Jabberwocky" line)) over APIA (48A: Capital on Upolu island) over LTDS (51A: Old Fords)? Nice. Also, in the NW, SOIR (19A: Matin's opposite) over TATE (Larry or Louise on "Bewitched") over ERIS (26A: Harmonia's antithesis)? Lovely, especially given the "Bewitched"-oriented cluing for TATE (so much better than a MUSeum- or Manson-oriented clue).

Which reminds me: I have left cluing out of today's discussion for the most part, focusing mainly on the composition of the grid. Cluing is of course important - vital, even - to the quality of the puzzle-solving experience. But I find I have far fewer specific opinions about what a clue should be than I do about how a grid should look.

I have never constructed a puzzle in my life, so feel free to throw all my opinions straight out the window.

A few final notes:
  • 17A: Popular '90s workout video ("Abs of Steel") - Genius. Wordsworth would be proud.
  • 24A: Modern communication (on-line chat) - you'd think I'd like this, but I don't; clue seems stale, and the answer strikes me as ... unsnappy. It doesn't trip off the tongue the way, say, "CHAT ROOM" does. I know, this is a lame criticism, but I'm just telling you how I feel.
  • 44A: Starting point? (Eden) - The latest entry into the "What's the craziest @#$#-ing way we can clue EDEN" sweepstakes. Perhaps someone can tell me how many different clues there have been for EDEN in even just the past year. I feel the number is large, and the number of "?"-containing clues must be high as well.
  • 20A: Interpretation of a dog's growl ("I'm mad") - I'm deeply ambivalent about this answer, which strikes me as borderline insane (imagined dog thoughts are fair game now?), but also clever and somewhat hilarious. Reminded me of the Amazing comic We3 (Grant Morrison / Frank Quitely), which I just finished teaching in my Comics course. It features three domestic animals (dog, cat, bunny) who have been programmed by the government not only to be very efficient killing machines, but also to speak in a very, very rudimentary, computer-ese kind of way. That invented language is alternately hilarious and touching, and one of the book's great charms. Highly recommended.
  • 54A: Home of Southern University (Baton Rouge) - wife used to teach at LSU, also in Baton Rouge; I had no idea there was another major University there.
  • 9D: Song on the Beatles' "Let It Be" ("I, Me, Mine") - I've now seen this answer at least three times since I started blogging puzzles over six months ago. I know this because I learned it from the puzzle, and now it's my go-to 7-letter Beatles' song answer.
  • 35D: Birthplace of René Coty (Le Havre) - no idea who this dude is, but the -EH- combo at the beginning of this answer made it very easy to guess.
  • 39D: Monopoly avenue (Vermont) - One of the greatest traps I've ever fallen into. I had "VENTNOR" for a good long while, severely delaying my solution of the SE.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

[Late addendum: Since there is so much talk in the Comments about TOASTER (1D: Wedding reception figure) - the wrong answers people had for it, the difficulty of cluing it well, and the place of the word in the "Battlestar Galactica" universe - I thought I would show you a picture of my prize "Battlestar Galactica" "Frakkin' Toaster" T-shirt. In fact, my wife and Andrew and I all own these. (This is the part where you say "Nerds!")


I wore this T-shirt on ACPT Sunday ... and ended up leaving a square blank. Frakkin' Toaster!]

30 comments:

Linda G 11:01 AM  

When I saw today's puzzle was a DQ, I knew you'd be in heaven. Excellent commentary.

kratsman 11:23 AM  

Ecellent column today. You've set the bar pretty high for yourself now.

I agree with your "medium" difficulty rating for today's puzzle. But I did get hung up with a few mistaken first entries, one being VENTNOR instead of VERMONT. Others being DIGS instead of DONS at 33d "Gets into" also IMAGINE for the Beatles song and also SIREN instead of PERIL for the Scylla or Charybdis clue.

Terrific puzzle, great write-up. It's why we keep coming back.

mmpo 11:35 AM  

Yes, I nominate today's column for the "Important Posts" section. Very meaty. Laughed out loud at the commentary on dog thoughts AND the cartoon.
Amen to your commentary on compound words, AMEN CORNER being the one that gave me the most trouble and, consequently, the most satisfaction.
I enjoyed this puzzle much more than Wednesday's and Thursday's puzzles.
I have always hated the name Toys [backwards R] Us, and, well, I guess this gave me more trouble than AMEN CORNER, come to think of it, but for different reasons. Jingle made me assume it was something from the age of Burma Shave, and goodness knows if I ever saw a Toys R Us ad coming on, I'd immediately zap to another channel...so that resisted solving for awhile. The other point that sidetracked me was K-RATION in the place of C-RATION. I could not for the life of me think of a "sore spot" spelled _LKER...and if I've heard bar codes referred to as UPC codes, it hasn't been often. I'm also dubious about "Pendant" for "DROP." Shouldn't there be an e.g. here?
Finally, how many people tried to see how Tricky Dick would fit into a four-letter box? (Raise your hands.)

Anonymous 12:15 PM  

I'm glad to look at this BLOG in somewhat more formal terms than I do most BLOGS in order to enjoy precisely what features I believe make a contemporary BLOG great.

Alex 12:29 PM  

Too hard for me to finish without assistance but only minor quibbles from:

1. I assume Matin and Soir are French but I have no idea what they mean. I'm not big on cluing of purely foreign words because it is just too random knowledge. The only reason I knew ojos (is because I've the original movie on wihch Vanilla Sky was based). This puzzle required four foreign words (matin, soir, ojos, bonne) and they just feel like a bit of a cheat for when a constructor backs themselves into a corner (kind of like every three letter combination is an abbreviation for something and any letter sequence is probably found in some foreign language). I'll exclude Les Troyens since that is a title. Just a personal preference, I'm sure some people love seeing lots of foreign words.

2. I loved TOYS R US KID but I thought the clue was too explicit and didn't need the "in a jingle" part. Kind of took away from what could have been a pretty nice a ha moment.

3. The C in UPC is code so UPC CODE doean't really make any sense. Though that could be a good theme for a puzzle of abbreviations where people repeat part of it (UPC code, PIN number, NAFTA agreement, ATM machine, etc.).

4. Very, very minor nitpicky but the character of the Bogart movie is Doctor X in the title, not Dr. X and there was no indication of abbreviation. One year earlier in 1938, Bogart was associated with another Dr. movie that I would like to see in a puzzle [The Amazing] Dr. Clitterhouse. But that is just because I'm juvenile.

5. What section of a church is Amen Corner? Is this a specific denominational thing. And with the Masters just being two weekends ago, wouldn't that have been a good clue source?

But I loved pretty much all of the big fill. Only exception is AIRWAVE since I don't think of that as a unit so much as the medium.

profphil 12:39 PM  

mmpo,

I too had k-rations instead of c-rations and digs instead of dons. Did not even understand how dons could be the answer until I read your comment and had my own aha moment.

mmpo 1:04 PM  

One other thing...was "("Jabberwocky" line)" really necessary? Either you know Jabberwocky and that line is instantly familiar to you or you don't, in which case, knowing that this line is from Jabberwocky doesn't really help, does it? And if you have to google it, you'll find it easily without the title. The clue just seems uncharacteristically and unnecessarily explicit. Why not also add "rhymes with foamy?" :]

JC66 1:29 PM  

Rex- You & DQ deserve each other. I've been reading your blog for about 3 months & today's was the best, by far. I hope it has nothing to do with your being sick.

Wendy 1:55 PM  

Echo all the "great blog today" comments. Do appreciate all the effort you put into this!

Beatles answer could have been (and on my puzzle, was) TWO OF US or even GET BACK. Interestingly, with all of the various iterations of that album, I ME MINE wasn't even part of some of the earlier recordings, if you look at the history.

I was also screwed by having NUIT instead of SOIR for a long time which was exacerbated by having PLANNER for TOASTER. Well, you do have to plan a reception, don't you?

SMIDGEN was my favorite word of the day. Along with CRUX and CABAL. In general, I've come to realize that a DQ puzzle will be a capital experience! (I didn't know any of these people before the blog, just knew Will and that's it.)

klochner 2:32 PM  

i agree with your criticism of "mus", could have been clued a few different ways that all would have been more satisfying. Interesting that we all seemed to like ventnor with "ve" for the monopoly ave. Maybe ventnor was more unique and just stuck with us.

Evad 3:06 PM  

Luckily for me, I haven't seen a Monopoloy board in ages, so VENTNOR never was an option for me. I ended up getting most of VERMONT from the crossers, threw VERMONT in, and thought, "Hmmm...I don't remember a VERMONT Ave. in Monopoly, but it works."

Big "wow" value in today's puzzle and your cogent write up matched the feat. Bravo!

Anonymous 3:37 PM  

The trap I fell into but eventually crawled out of was "PIQUE" for CABAL, feeling pretty smug that I'd read (here) that DQ often uses Q words. Pretty hard to think of a southern university town beginning with Q..

Who were the Tates on Bewitched?

Trish in OP

Anonymous 4:03 PM  

Rexy,

Amazing post today. You truly are the king of crossworld. A few thought about the puzz:

1) Some grids are very nice to fill and flow naturally - this, however, was not one of those. It was painful and endless. Just too many stacked 3x7s all over the place - especially those crossing the 3x10s.
2) In the SE, there was the tough choice of using MOME/MALORY or COME/CALORY. Mome is certainly not a pretty word (one usage in one line of literature!), but obscure variant spellings are even worse.
3) The original clue for FLUSHOT, which I thought probably wouldn't fly, was: "Prick at the office?" Damn that Sunday morning breakfast table thing.
4) The clue for 1-Down was surprising hard. Try and write a clue for TOASTER (the kitchen implement) that is creative and non-obvious. My submitted clue was the terrible "Cafeteria sight". I simply gave up and wrote that. It appears the wedding idea is the more natural way to clue the entry (in a Friday fashion), even though it is the more unnatural usage of the word.

Got my fingers crossed that tomorrow is a Nothnagel. That would be sick.

DQ

mmpo 4:53 PM  

Who were the Tates? Larry and Louise, silly; it says so right in the clue. :) ...Larry Tate was Darren's boss.
I also liked that TOASTER could just have well been clued as a wedding *gift*.
Ventnor was also the first thing I thought of, without even counting the letters. But I only scribbled it in faintly, and as soon as Les Troyens eliminated it, went looking for something else.
I also loved "Muffin, for one" (PET NAME).
Still wondering what RDs are
(or what RDS is). Oh. (This always happens. Must be the process of writing down the comment.) Roads. Clever. I was still thinking in terms of what you might include in a profile for an online dating Website. "If you're into RDs, don't bother!"

Gary S 4:54 PM  

Excellent commentary (and puzzle as well).

I glad to see you've upped the comic book quotient. Excellent OMAC, WE3 and MOME references. You could have also added Airwave (a fairly obscure DC hero). I know of a Professor X and a Mr. X but I'm not sure if there has ever been a comic book Dr. X

Mome isn't as obscure as some may think. Disney's Alice in Wonderland used some of Jabberwocky in a song, the tune of which has been stuck in my head ever since I was traumatized by the film as a small child.

Rex Parker 5:04 PM  

It is this blogger's obnoxious opinion that the perfect clue for TOASTER would be something like [Cylon, colloquially].

Of course you would have to watch "Battlestar Galactica" to have any clue what that clue means.

RP

Andrew 5:13 PM  

Even more obnoxious: Actually on Bat Gal, "toaster" refers to just the non-humanoid Cylon models. So how about "Galactica's chromejob" or "Centurion (pejorative)."

Rex Parker 5:23 PM  

Point taken.

O how I'd love to see SKIN JOB in the grid.

Andrew 5:30 PM  

Well now that you say that, my first suggestion was going to be "Frakkin' __________" but then I realized there is some kind of breakfast table decorum thing going on.

Jack 8:00 PM  

So basically you're saying that Quarfoot, as the inheritor of Wordsworth's aesthetic veracity, is a realist puzzle constructor...there's probably a paper to be written on just that topic.

Kitt 8:05 PM  

First to say -- 1D "should" have been "caterer" or "Bestman" (who as far as I know usually does the first toast)!

OK, so I was wrong. Boy did that mess up the NW. Yikes!

I got the NE first and then struggled with SE too!

Needed a little nudges of help here from Mr.G (not Dr. X!).

But, loved the puzzle.

Great write-up Rex. Very helpful!

I find I am getting more astute at solving the Friday/Saturday puzzles. I know last weeks' were a bit easier but, still getting better at F/S solving.

Love the blog~

Thanks DQ and RP

mellocat 8:08 PM  

Oh my, there are Battlestar Galactica fans in this blog? I once submitted a BG-related clue for VIPER but it didn't survive editing. That Centurion clue would be wicked and probably set records for hits on all the crossword blogs searching for the answer/explanation. But I'd like it!

Someone asked about the Jabberwocky clue, and as someone who didn't know the line the Jabberwocky reference in the clue was helpful to the extent that it made me figure the entry was not going to be a word I recognized. ('Tis true I might have been able to figure that out just based on some of the other words in the clue also.)

Linda G 12:55 AM  

Nice shirt...

I can't wait until you design the RPDTNYTCP shirts. As I recall, each of your guest bloggers will receive one ; )

Ultra Vi 1:09 AM  

Brilliant write-up, Rex!

I remember well your Frakkin' Toaster t-shirt. One just doesn't forget that kind of thing.

Anonymous 10:26 AM  

A+

(Just what were you taking for that head cold? If it does that good for you, what might it do for DQ? The two of you are irresistable.) ;-)

Anonymous 10:47 AM  

Q = 0

Nothnagel 6:45 PM  

Well, I'm day late, but I can't pass up the opportunity to gush about DQ. (I mean, really, who can?)

I love DQ's puzzles as a rule, but I think this one is one of his best. Fantastic grid, fantastic entries, and soooo many could-be-this-could-be-that entries. (VENTNOR, anyone?)

And, since it's now Saturday, we know that today's puzzle wasn't mine (sorry, DQ) but I'll take a Byron Walden just as fast as I'll take a DQ.

MN

Anonymous 3:35 PM  

does anyone remember the "Johnny Seven O.M.A."? One Man Army, coolest toy I ever had with 7 different weapons from grenade launcher to hidden dagger. 6 weeks later as usual. Love the blog. I am getting better every week. Thx, Rex. - - Robert

WWPierre 7:53 PM  

Into afternoon coffee before I finished this one today. I loved it. Three or four times I came this close to googling, and I would have before I discovered this blog, but it pains me to have to admit to "cheating" when I come here.

The north/east was the last to fall for me.

The clue to 1d could have been, "One almost always seen at a wedding reception"

I also wondered what kind of sore a ULKER was. Seems there were both "C" and "K" RATIONS.

My red herrings were CUPCAKE for PET NAME, BUMP for BURP, and the above mentioned K RATIONS.

AMEN CORNER seems a bit thin, but the rest of the puzzle makes up for that in spades. I can imagine formula one racing drivers referring to the last curve thusly.

Bravo DQ!!!!

DR X 8:58 PM  

NW went down fast for me, but i had to claw for almost everything (except EENS) in the SW.
I liked the TEASERS TOASTER symmetry

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