Brachyodont perissodactyls / SUN 8-8-10 / Jazz great nicknamed Jumbo / God who killed the dragon Python four days after his birth
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Constructor: Pam Klawitter (which anagrams to Time Warp Talk)
Relative difficulty: MODERATE
THEME: 3x8 — Eight circled 3-letter terms are scattered throughout the grid, each cluing a theme answer
Word of the Day: LETT (46A: Dweller on the Baltic) —
1. n. A member of a Baltic people constituting the main population of Latvia. [German Lette, from Latvian Latvi.] —The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, via thefreedictionary.com
2. n. A knuckleheaded football player whose premature celebration of a fumble runback cost the Dallas Cowboys a touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII, a play voted #1 by fans in ESPN's "25 Biggest Sports Blunders" poll according to Wikipedia.
Now he's invited me back to cover the Sunday puzzle, which is a little weird for me since I rarely do Sunday crosswords; I prefer Friday and Saturday puzzles. Plus I like to remain Sunday-ignorant because my parents often give me their leftover Sunday New York Times Magazine, where I solve the KenKens, variety puzzles and, from time to time, the crosswords.
In this case, my concern was not solving the puzzle or writing about it, but rather the timing of it all. In May, when I wrote about a tough Saturday puzzle, I couldn't get my hands on the puzzle until it hit the NYT site at 9 p.m. Chicago time. It was my first time sitting in here, I wanted to do a good job, I didn't know how long it would take to write it up, I knew the puzzle would be hard, and Rex wanted the writeup posted first thing Saturday morning.
Thus I cleared my Friday evening to write about the puzzle, skipping my Friday night restaurant club and giving up a pair of primo seats to see the Venezualan conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead his Los Angeles Philharmonic at Chicago's Symphony Center. (We bourgeois, how we struggle.) Sure enough, I ended up writing and editing until the wee hours.
So this time, when Rex asked me to write up the Sunday puzzle, my initial reaction was one of mild panic. Solving and writing something semi-coherent about a 15x15 in eleven overnight hours was hard enough, but a 21x21 (probably)? Yikes!
Last May I wrote the following:
... So the next time I do this, if there is a next time, it would be nice if I could somehow get an early look at the puzzle (cue "Mission: Impossible" theme).Little did I know at the time how serendipity would strike, though sadly not in the form of Kate Beckinsale.
When I got the call from Rex, all I could think was, I have to get that thing before 9 p.m. Saturday Chicago time (or even 5 p.m., when it turns out the Sunday puzzle is released) so I don't have to skip another night out and pull an all-nighter writing about a big puzzle.
Yes, I happen to know Will Shortz and could have asked him for a copy, but I didn't want to bother him and that felt like cheating. This was my Devil Wears Prada "get the new unpublished Harry Potter book" moment.
As we learned in that book/movie, Northwestern alums are nothing if not resourceful, or maybe just lucky. Last weekend I had dinner with an old NU law school classmate who was visiting with his girlfriend, a ranking Hollywood executive based in New York City. They mentioned that they were in the habit of solving the Sunday New York Times crossword together on Fridays or Saturdays; she gets it midweek because the NYT distributes advance copies of the Sunday features sections to colleagues in the media industry as a professional courtesy.
Suddenly it occurred to me: I didn't have to pester Will Shortz. I could pester my friends, which I did with an email on Wednesday, and they immediately came through (thanks again). So I've had this puzzle since Wednesday afternoon, which by the way has felt like walking around with contraband. With that much lead time, only my lack of writing ability will take the blame for the mediocrity of this writeup.
But you didn't come here to read about my life, you came here to find out what a brachyodont perissodactyl is, so Lett's do this thing.
Like I said, I usually just do the Friday and Saturday puzzle; I also do Peter Gordon's Fireball Crossword. So I live in a world of mostly themeless puzzles and I'm not in the best position to judge one theme, or its execution, against another.
Still, I've solved a themed crossword or two, and I thought this one was reasonably elegant. I'll defer to the many people who will know better than I whether the "circled letters cluing the themed answers" thing has been done before, but I've never seen it.
- 22A: TELEPATHSGIFT (ESP)
- 39A: WEBGIGGLE (LOL)
- 61A: LOSTNETWORK (ABC)
- 70A: RNSPECIALTY (TLC)
- 88A: CASHCACHE (ATM)
- 111A: CRIMEFIGHTERS (FBI)
- 16D: PROMISSORYNOTE (IOU)
- 50D: ESPIONAGEGROUP (CIA)
If I were in a mood to quibble, I might point out that CIA and FBI are probably too similar, or complain that the inclusion of both of them depressingly brings to mind Lawrence Wright's New Yorker article about how the CIA might have stopped an FBI detective from preventing 9/11.
I could also bemoan that PROMISSORYNOTE is giving me chilling flashbacks to wrestling with Article 7 of the Uniform Commercial Code as a law student, or that RNSPECIALTY intersects its clue, TLC, which seems slightly impure.
But I am in no mood to quibble. It's 8:23 a.m. on a gorgeous Saturday morning, the humidity that has strangled Chicago for weeks has finally disappeared, I'm playing tennis today and tomorrow, and life is good. I found this theme fresh and enjoyable. Nice work, Ms. Klawitter.
As for the puzzle itself, as Will Shortz has said, the Sunday puzzle is written at about a Thursday-plus difficulty level. It plays to a wider audience than the daily crossword and generally includes easy, medium and difficult clues so there's something for everyone. That was true in this case.
There was also stuff I liked and stuff I didn't...
Stuff I liked:
A trivia clue is a quiz question. If you don't know it you have to puzzle it out, then you learn something about the answer. Examples here include 19A: God who killed the dragon Python four days after his birth (APOLLO), 3D: 1928 musical composition originally called "Fandango" (BOLERO) and 59D: Jazz great nicknamed Jumbo (ALHIRT).
Incidentally, why is ALHIRT in so many crossword puzzles? I have nothing against the guy, and I'm no jazz expert, but I consider BIRD, TRANE, DUKE, LADYDAY, MILES, SATCH et al. at least as big in jazz as ALHIRT. Yet it seems like ALHIRT's platter gets a lot more plays.
There are of course practical reasons for the inclusion of certain names (Chris ROCK is funnier but ARTE Johnson's in all the puzzles), but this one isn't like ELLA or ETTA, double-vowel-ended and four letters long. It's ALHIRT!
An open-ended clue is a phrase like 116D: One of the Kennedys (EUNICE) or 74D: It has a bottom but no top (SANDAL), where the answer could be a lot of different things. After pondering it for a minute you usually have to get at least a letter or two before you can deduce it. In the latter case I had S_____ and I was like, um, STERNO? This open-ended clue happened to have an open-toed answer.
Relatedly, 8D: Drink from a bowl (EGGNOG) took me a little while, in part because it wasn't clear whether "drink" was a noun or a verb, and in part because I couldn't think of a drink in a bowl since I have a brain the size of a brontosaurus' (that apostrophe makes a key distinction).
I also like when clues are repeated in a puzzle, as in 46A: Dweller on the Baltic (LETT) and 51A: Dwellers on the Baltic (POLES). Repeating answers is a crossword no-no but you can reuse clues. This is a more benign form of many solvers' bane, the dreaded cross-reference ("46-Down attachment" and "See 19-Across").
72D: Jason who plays Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter films (ISAACS) — I like seeing Harry Potter stuff in crosswords. ISAACS is good in this role, by the way.
21A: Heads (OBVERSE) — I like that the front side of a coin is the obverse side, and I like that I knew it.
I liked 54D: Candy giant, informally (NESTLES) because this is a rare case where the informal version of a name is longer than the actual name.
Also liked LAPTOPS next to IMACS, as they are in the Apple store.
Stuff I didn't like:
119A: Tot tender (SITTER). If the answer has -ER meaning "someone who does something" then the clue should not.
48A: People holding signs at airports (MEETERS). This wasn't hard to figure out, and yes, these are people who meet people, but if they're called anything it's GREETERS. The only time I have ever heard the word MEETER is as a nickname for my poker buddy AMEET. This didn't bother me that much, but I know some people are sticklers for answers being "in the language."
Speaking of which, I was not crazy about all the -ER words (SITTER, PLATER, MEETERS, LOSER), not to be confused with the more acceptable ones (INNER, CATERS, CASTER, ASNERS, KYSER, CAPERS). Overuse of -ERs makes for blah fill. Mike Nothnagel does not do this, enough said.
83D: Shepherd of "The View"(SHERRI) is in the New York Times crossword puzzle? Ugh. This is a woman who not only did not know whether the Earth was round or flat, but testily defended her own ignorance on the grounds that she was busy raising her child. Wow. Next up: Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
As long as I'm offering gratuitous criticism of media celebrities, I have no crossword issue with 24A: Dow Jones publication (BARRONS), but politics aside, and on behalf of all who appreciate good journalism, I must register my disappointment with the Bancroft family for selling out to Rupert Murdoch.
- 36A: New York subway inits. (IRT) — Wanted MTA and also thought of the too-long PATH, which is more of a New York-New Jersey subway, and LIRR, which is a Long Island railroad, which is why they call it the Long Island Railroad. (By the way, PATH is an acronym for Port Authority Trans-Hudson, which is the kind of thing you learn by reading the fine print on PATH signage as you ride beneath the Hudson River en route to Sheridan Square, Christopher Street in the West Village.)
- 102D: Part of Q.E.D. (ERAT) — When I see Q.E.D., I smell ERAT.
- 44A: Like some proverbial milk (SPILT) — This is a vaguely British, old-timey past participle and adjective form of the verb "spill," the proverb of course referring to milk not worth crying over. A casual Google search barely reveals its existence, and then only in the context of milk or blood. I submit that it would also be excellent shorthand for the band name Built to Spill.
- 58A: Stephen of "The Musketeer" (REA) — "Oh my God, that's not an EPEE!"
- 5D: River in "Kubla Khan" (ALPH) — Wanted STYX but knew it was in Xanadu, not Hades, that Kubla Khan did a stately pleasure-dome decree. I read this great poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as I embarked on English majorhood in the fall of my junior year at the University of Michigan, in Prof. Ralph Williams' broad survey of Western literature from 1600 to the present. Guess who was a first-year PhD candidate at the time and a TA in that class, though not my TA? Our own Rex Parker.
- 96D: Prevent (ESTOP) — Speaking of law school, this is a common legal term. So is its noun form, ESTOPPEL. I seem to recall that you are not estopped from doing something, you are estopped to do it.
- 112D: Pronunciation guide std. (IPA) — India Pale Ale? No, it's the International Phonetic Alphabet.
- 78A: Flatware finisher (PLATER) —Wanted LUSTER, which made little sense, and PEWTER, which made no sense since the entire flatware, not just the finish, would be made of pewter. Brontosaurus brain, remember?
- 87A: Row of stables, in Britain (MEWS) — Could anything be more pleasant than a row of stables in Britain? (Answer: a row of stables in Britain with a line of ducklings walking by.)
- 115A: Brachyodont perissodactyls (TAPIRS) — Come on, give us something we don't know.
When not pinch-hitting here, I write a blog called Ben Bass and Beyond. Please stop by and check it out some time.
Actually, there are some recent puzzle stories on the bottom half of the main page. Will Shortz used a puzzle of mine as the weekly NPR listener challenge a few weeks ago, and I write about giving him the puzzle over breakfast at the National Puzzlers League convention in Seattle. I also explain how he edited it for the air. (Syndication solvers will have to scroll down to the bottom and click Older Posts, or just click on July in the timetable of recent posts.)
Since you read Rex Parker, you might also check out the Puzzles section at the top of the page. And Rex is a "follower," so you should be too.
I seem to recall that Rex will return on Tuesday. I hope he's enjoying his trip and getting over his cold. Not sure who's writing here tomorrow, but I'm sure it will be someone good.
Ben Bass, Dauphin Prince
for Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld
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