Friend of Gandalf / TUE 9-30-14 / Marbles British Museum display / Canadian comedy show of 1970s-'80s / Mineralogist for whom scale is named

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Constructor: Kyle T. Dolan

Relative difficulty: Easy

THEME: "THE PRICE IS RIGHT" (35A: Long-runninggame show with a feature spelled out clockwise by this puzzle's circled letters) — circles spell out "SHOWCASE SHOWDOWN"; other theme answers are a "modern host" and a "longtime host" of the show:

Theme answers:

Word of the Day: ELGIN Marbles (58A: ___ Marbles (British Museum display)) —
The Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles (/ˈɛlɡɪn/ el-gin), are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures (mostly by Phidias and his assistants), inscriptions and architectural members that originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of AthensThomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin obtained a controversial permit from the Ottoman house to remove pieces from the Parthenon while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.
From 1801 to 1812, Elgin's agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while some critics compared Elgin's actions to vandalism or looting.
Following a public debate in Parliament and the subsequent exoneration of Elgin, the marbles were purchased by the British government in 1816 and placed on display in the British Museum, where they stand now on view in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery. (wikipedia)
• • •

Wait, the ELGIN Marbles aren't … marbles? Like, playing marbles? Little spheres? Aggies or taws or whatever marbles are called? I'm somehow disappointed.

So, the SHOWCASE SHOWDOWN, if you're not familiar with the show, involves the spinning of a giant wheel with number amounts on it; the contestant closest to one dollar without going over gets to be in the SHOWDOWN, which is this bit where you bid on something fancy … I think whichever contestant guesses value of his/her prize most accurately without going over wins said prize … I haven't watched the show in a while. But here's the thing. The wheel spins along an axis perpendicular to the one represented by the circles in this grid. It doesn't spin like the "Wheel of Fortune" wheel—it spins more like a water mill, with the rim facing outward and the numbers printed on the rim itself. Here—"WOF" wheel:


Point is: this circle is a highly inaccurate of the wheel on "THE PRICE IS RIGHT" (if, in fact, that was what the circled letters were going for, which … I'm not 100% sure).

Fill continues to be abysmal, or at least far below where it should be. I've seen rejection letters where the editor claims to be upholding very high standards in the matter of fill, but that claim is belied by the vast majority of puzzles that have come out lately. Not that the trend is new. It's just been highly noticeable in the past week and a half or so. Longer stuff is not bad (LOVE BITES and BREWED UP and BEER CAN will do nicely), but shorter stuff is still manifestly subpar. I'll just highlight that southern region, with TERCE and OKSO (?), but there's also MEI and ARIL and SES and ATA and ONDVD and a bunch of stuff that's just OK. Just getting by. No craft, no attempt at polish. Just … good enough! Apparently "good enough" is the new "gold standard." No idea why the puzzle continues to limp along as it does. But it does. Broken theme, below-average fill … oh, Tuesday. Will you never win?
    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


    Nixon White House chief of staff / MON 9-29-14 / Hit 2002 film with talking sloths / Racking vehicle on small track / Actor stand up comic Foxx

    Monday, September 29, 2014

    Constructor: Eric Sydney Phillips

    Relative difficulty: Challenging (***for a Monday***)

    THEME: HOME TOWN HERO (60A: Local success story) — a series of words / phrases related to a hypothetical "Local success story."

    Theme answers:
    • I KNEW YOU WHEN (18A: Words to a local success story)
    • CELEBRITY (24A: What a local success story achieves)
    • HUMBLE BEGINNINGS (39A: What a local success story comes from)
    • MAKES GOOD (49A: What a local success story does)
    Word of the Day: H.R. HALDEMAN (3D: Nixon White House chief of staff) —
    Harry Robbins "Bob" Haldeman (better known as H. R. Haldeman; October 27, 1926 – November 12, 1993) was an American political aide and businessman, best known for his service as White House Chief of Staff to President Richard Nixon and his consequent involvement in the Watergate scandal. His intimate role in the Watergate cover-up precipitated his resignation from government; subsequent to which he was tried on counts of perjury,conspiracy and obstruction of justice; found guilty and imprisoned for 18 months. Upon his release he returned to private life and was a successful businessman until his death from cancer in 1993. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    The grid is 16 wide, so the fact that this played slow is not that big a surprise. But it played Very slow for me. Nearly 4 minutes. That is a Monday-eternity. I don't much care. This feels like it should've been a Tuesday, but close enough for government work. Is that the expression? I'm not sure. That expression feels at least as old as I would've had to have been for H.R. HALDEMAN to have been a gimme. As it was, I needed, no joke, every cross. Of course I've heard of him, but he's one of those "names in the air" that I can't place accurately, and I certainly didn't know (off the top of my head) his first two initials, let alone how to spell his name ("HALDERMAN?"). So my Nixonian ignorance might've played a role in my slowness today as well. I don't really understand themes like this, possibly because you so rarely see them—they're just a loose collection of phrases associated with a very general idea. There's a kind of progression (kind of) from past ("I KNEW YOU WHEN") to present (HOME TOWN HERO), but not really … CELEBRITY appears early, and BEGINNINGS is in the middle. It was all a bit too arbitrary and blah for me. The fill didn't help matters—very generic, except that HRHALDEMAN outlier there. Clue on NINE MONTHS is kind of cute (31D: Pregnant pause?). But I'll take last Monday's puzzle over this any day. I'm sorry I said anything critical about it at all, Ian Livengood. Come back, Ian Livengood, come back! Livengood! … Shane!

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


    Ottoman inns / SUN 9-28-14 / Relative of canary / Chief Justice during Civil War / Synagogue instrument / Flowing glacial feature / Taiwanese computer giant / 2007 purchaser of Applebee's / Shelfmate of Bartlett's / English hymnist / Sparkly topper / Brand with red arrow through its logo / Pituitary gland output briefly

    Sunday, September 28, 2014

    Constructor: Todd Gross

    Relative difficulty: Easy

    THEME: "Four By Four" — theme answers are phrases made out of four four-letter words

    Theme answers:
    • SAME TIME NEXT YEAR (23A: 1975 Tony-nominated play about an extended affair)
    • SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH (46A: The Crossroads of the West)
    • HOLD YOUR HEAD HIGH (16D: "Don't be ashamed")
    • TEAR DOWN THIS WALL (36D: Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev)
    • WITH ARMS WIDE OPEN (92A: Warm way to welcome someone)
    • LESS TALK MORE ROCK (119A: Common slogan for a music radio station)
    Word of the Day: Roger B. TANEY (35A: Chief Justice during the Civil War) —
    Roger Brooke Taney (/ˈtɔːni/; March 17, 1777 – October 12, 1864) was the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, holding that office from 1836 until his death in 1864. He was the eleventh United States Attorney General. He is most remembered for delivering the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), that ruled, among other things, that African-Americans, having been considered inferior at the time the Constitution was drafted, were not part of the original community of citizens and, whether free or slave, could not be considered citizens of the United States. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    I was getting complaints about this one before I'd even opened it, and I can see why. The theme is simply not interesting. You can go to (as one of my friends pointed out) and do a search of 4x4 possibilities; that search gives you all these, plus many others (most of them completely unusable—my favorites are LOCK THAT SH*T DOWN, SHUT YOUR CAKE HOLE, and the truly stellar FIST F**K YOUR FACE). I'm not convinced that LESS TALK MORE ROCK is terribly legit, but even if it were, there's just a big "Who Cares?" miasma hanging over this one. There are exactly two things remarkable about this puzzle: NO-GOODNIK, and the fact that this is possibly the easiest Sunday puzzle I've ever done. Got snagged at the very end in the north—a total outlier, difficulty-wise—but still finished in under 8 (!?!?). Otherwise, everything about this puzzle is deeply forgettable. I just don't understand how this would "tickle" anyone.

    I guess if I'm going to focus on any part of this grid, it should probably be that north area, which stands out only because the rest of the grid was So Dang Easy. I started entering answers and just kept going, barely even pausing, tearing up the grid until I hit the far north. There I encountered a whole bunch of things I either didn't know or couldn't see, all in one place. First, ICEFALL (9D: Flowing glacial feature). Then MAXILLA, which I sort of knew and sort of doubted—I know very well that AXILLA is armpit, so even though MAXILLA sounded right for 10D: Mandible's counterpart, I couldn't help thinking that I was confusing the real answer with axilla. MAXILLA sounds like an extreme armpit. "Take your axilla to the max, with MAXILLA!" The clue for ALT is just bizarre (11D: Not the main rte.). ALT corresponds to "main"—it's not the main rte., it's the ALT. rte. ALT by itself suggesting nothing about rtes. I know it as a prefix meaning alternative, as in "alt-country." I was half-expecting DET. (as in "detour"?). Then there was the very last thing I got—the absurd SERIN / TANEY cross. Both of those are obscure, and they cross at a not-too-guessable letter. Even if you think "those aren't obscure," they certain are compared to All The Other Answers In This Grid. Not well-known bird crossing not well-known Supreme Court Chief Justice at a Wheel-Of-Fortune letter? Odd.

    Reluctant to do a Puzzle of the Week this week, for a couple of reasons. First, I didn't do as many puzzles this week as I normally do, so it's highly probable I haven't even solved some good candidates. Also, I'm still struggling with the Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Puzzle metapuzzle, which I'm told is great, but which I can't yet confirm (no "aha" moment for me yet). So I'll just say that the best puzzle I did this week was Patrick Berry's Friday themeless (NYT), though Byron Walden's "Mismatched Socks" (AV Club Crossword) (solution) is also worth a look. Best themed puzzle I did, for sure.

    [Update: Just figured out the meta for this week's MGWCC puzzle ("Repeat Offenders," by Francis Heaney). It is indeed amazing, though I have this small quibble that I can't discuss because the contest deadline hasn't passed … gah! Anyway, the puzzle is pretty epic, and definitely POTW-worthy]

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


    Deep-sea explorer William / SAT 9-27-14 / Name in 2000 headlines / One-man Broadway hit of 1989 / Who said I have wonderful psychiatrist that I see maybe once year because I don't need it It all comes out onstage

    Saturday, September 27, 2014

    Constructor: Martin Ashwood-Smith and George Barany

    Relative difficulty: Medium

    THEME: none

    Word of the Day: William BEEBE (2D: Deep-sea explorer William) —
    William Beebe /ˈbbi/, born Charles William Beebe (July 29, 1877 – June 4, 1962) was an American naturalistornithologistmarine biologist,entomologistexplorer, and author. He is remembered for the numerous expeditions he conducted for the New York Zoological Society, his deep dives in the Bathysphere, and his prolific scientific writing for both academic and popular audiences. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    Seems like I've seen this exact grid, or something very close to it, for many central quad-stack puzzles. I guess the heavy segmentation, which results in a puzzle that plays like three separate puzzles, is kind of inevitable when you have a giant stack in the center. It all felt very familiar. A bit deja vu. I was less surprised or bothered by anything relating to the quad-stack than I was surprised and (mildly) bothered by the less-than-great short stuff up top and down below. I think TAWS OREN PACA TBAR TROP and PICAS are, as a group, worse than the short stuff holding the center together. They're certainly no better, and (the main point) they're far less explicable, since they come (down below) in much easier-to-fill areas of the grid. I enjoyed (and got thrown by) E-CIGARETTE (I had the back end and kept getting frustrated that CIGARETTE wasn't long enough…), but nothing else up top or down below was very remarkable. The quad-stack, on the other hand, has two wonderful entries ("I CALL 'EM AS I SEE 'EM" and "BREAKER ONE-NINER!"), and while ALOP and AMERE and "ERI TU" are no one's idea of a good time, they're certainly reasonable in a quad-stack situation. The strangest thing about my reaction to this grid is that I've grown oddly fond of the seemingly requisite ONE'S answer (today, IN ONE'S SPARE TIME). Some part of me feels like I should ding it, since it's kind of a cliché, but I find myself just nodding at it in acknowledgment, like "Hey, what's up?" or perhaps, even more enthusiastically, "There he is—up top!" [high five]. Perhaps this is because, as ONE'S answers go, IN ONE'S SPARE TIME is pretty dang solid.

    Puzzle is redeemed in its weaker parts by some pretty nice cluing. IBEFOREE does not amuse me, but that clue, 1A: Start of a weird infraction?, is clever (note: "weird" violates the IBEFOREE rule…). Lots of "?" clues today (I count nine)—pushed but did not exceed my tolerance limit for that mode of cluing.  Hardest "?" clue for me was 18A: Mideast pops? (ABBA), as I had no idea ABBA meant "father" in Hebrew, and Really had no idea who William BEEBE was. In the end, I went with the "B" at that crossing because a. no other letters made sense, and b. ABBA Eban is a thing. A crossword thing. Person, actually. Not 'thing.' And he was Israeli, which explained the "Mideast" part of the clue. BEEBE looked hella wrong, but "B" was the best option I had there, and it was the right one.

    Happy 11th anniversary to my remarkable wife. (And thus the crazy week of daughter's birthday / blog's birthday / wedding anniversary comes to an end…)

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    P.S. [Country standard] is a great trick clue for NATIONAL AVERAGE. I was thinking "Country" = music. Then I was thinking "standard" = flag ...


    Ninotchka setting / FRI 9-26-14 / Brewer of Schlitz nowadays / Fad dance of 1930s / Asian tourist magnet / Like Tik-Tok in Land of Oz / Philosopher who wrote superstition is religion of feeble minds / Banned items at Wimbledon

    Friday, September 26, 2014

    Constructor: Patrick Berry

    Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

    THEME: none

    Word of the Day: PABST (1D: Brewer of Schlitz, nowadays) —
    The Pabst Brewing Company is an American company that dates its origins to a brewing company founded in 1844 by Jacob Best and by 1889 named after Frederick Pabst. It is currently the holding company contracting for the brewing of over two dozen brands of beer and malt liquor from defunct companies including G. Heileman Brewing CompanyLone Star Brewing CompanyPearl Brewing CompanyPiels Bros.National Brewing Company,Olympia Brewing CompanyPrimo Brewing & Malting CompanyRainier Brewing CompanyF & M Schaefer Brewing CompanyJoseph Schlitz Brewing CompanyJacob Schmidt Brewing Company and Stroh Brewery Company.
    The company is also responsible for the brewing of Ice Man Malt LiquorSt. Ides High Gravity Malt Liquor, and retail versions of beers from McSorley's Old Ale House and Southampton Publick House (of Southampton, New York).
    Pabst is headquartered in Los Angeles, California. On September 18, Oasis Beverages, backed by TSG Consumer Partners, announced an agreement to acquire Pabst Brewing Company from C. Dean Metropoulos & Co for $700 million. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    Please, constructors, print out this grid and stick it on your damned wall near wherever it is that you construct puzzles. This is the ideal you're chasing when pursuing "clean fill." You won't attain this ideal, but keeping it in mind might ensure that you don't fall embarrassingly short. 66 words, huge slant-stack in the middle, zinging fill all over the place, and there's hardly a clunker in the Whole Thing. C'EST. That might be the weakest link. AGRA and OMAN and INGE are common, but they are very much real things *and* please say hello to their little friends AIRHORNS ARGONAUTS BACKTALKS BINGONIGHT and SLEEPER HIT. The gap between the quality of this puzzle and the quality of the average puzzle this week is stunning. It's an education, actually. A friend of mine looked at the data from another crossword website, where all major and many minor puzzles are rated by users on a star system. Now I've never put too much store in this system, for a variety of reasons, but the numbers are nonetheless compelling: out of roughly 750 puzzles rated this calendar year, three of the lowest-rated eleven puzzles were from this week's NYT. The NYT had seven puzzles in the top 40 for the year, and three of those were made by ... [drum roll] … yeah, Patrick Berry. So if you line up the NYT puzzles from this week so far, you can see how great Patrick Berry is, or you can see how far the NYT's standards have fallen away from the ideal. Or both. Or neither, I guess, but "neither" is gonna be a tough one to defend.

    Here's something I can fault this puzzle for—I can't believe there are so many "-ING"s. And all interlocking! Is the NYT not embarrassed by such redundancy, such cheap trickery, such shoddy constructionship!? I mean SPIRITING, BUMMING, UMPING, ROCKING … where will it end!? OK, it ends there, but my fake-outrage stands.

    I got thrown a bit by 1D: Brewer of Schlitz, nowadays (PABST), because my first thought was PABST, but then I thought, "Oh, wait, no, it's that damned Russian company that just bought PABST and all the other old beer imprints, the one mentioned on the "Colbert Report" the other day … What Is Their Name!?" But they weren't relevant to the clue. PABST still brews Schlitz, despite the change in parent company. Ap-parent-ly.

    Please enjoy your Friday. I'm gonna do this puzzle again, from scratch, just for fun.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    P.S. I have mentally reclued 24D: Hard-to-escape situation. It's now [What yesterday's puzzle could've used?]


    Villain in Indiana Jones Kingdom of Crystal Skull / THU 9-25-14 / Rapper who co-starred in 2002's half past dead / Russian composer Arensky / Literally northern capital / Series of watering troughs / Czech playwright who coined word robot

    Thursday, September 25, 2014

    Constructor: Alex Vratsanos

    Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging

    THEME: Ten 3-letter body parts — Puzzle note reads: "The human body is said to have 10 three-letter body parts. All 10 of these are hidden in side Across answers in this puzzle. Can you find them all? The body parts, from left to right, top to bottom: GUM, TOE, JAW, RIB, EAR, ARM, HIP, LIP, EYE, LEG."

    Word of the Day: SPALKO (46D: Villain in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") —
    Colonel Doctor Irina Spalko was an agent of the KGB, as well as a scientist and military officer, working for the Soviet Union. She was a psychic, as well as a very skilled fencer and combatant. Spalko desired the use of the Crystal Skull of Akator to brainwash and manipulate the minds of American forces, giving the Soviets a tactical advantage in the Cold War. Her weapon of choice was a rapier. Spalko was an infamous leader, with a cruel disregard for innocent casualities and harboring a secret, selfish motivation. However, she did all this in the name of her country, and not out of pure maliciousness. As a soldier, she did only what was needed to complete the mission at hand. (Indiana Jones Wiki)
    • • •

    I was really, really hoping for something good today, as it is the 8th anniversary of this blog. I was psyching myself up, telling myself I was gonna enjoy it no matter what. But this puzzle … I don't even know where to start. First, it appears one's solving experience will be different depending on the medium one uses. I don't know what the "Note" looks like in the paper (I won't see that til tomorrow). I know that on the NYT website, if you just press "Play" and solve on the applet, you get the first part of the note, but have to click on "Reveal Answer" to see what the ten body parts are. But in Across Lite, the software I and many others use to solve the puzzle on our computers, the bright yellow Note symbol appears right away when you open the puzzle. And clicking on it revealed the *entire* note. So, right away, all the answers, as well as the order in which they appear (!), are revealed. The puzzle has no revealer. No title. Nothing to figure out. No surprise. We're just handed a complete explanation of everything about the structure of the puzzle—before we've even solved a single answer. But here's the thing—I can't pretend I was *that* disappointed at having the puzzle spoiled for me up front because it turns out There's Nothing To Spoil.

    Let's be very clear about this. This puzzle (once completed) is a word find … with only three-letter words in it … where the answers all run Across … and we are told the order in which they appear. As I am not five years old, I have a very, very hard time seeing how this is interesting or compelling in any way, especially on a Thursday, *especially* in "the best puzzle in the world" (per the NYT's own promotional material). Even if the answers *and* their order hadn't been revealed right up front, this would've still been insultingly dull. It is a word search for morons, and the word search part is *completely and utterly* separate from the content of the grid. So you get this mediocre themeless puzzle, and then the world's simplest word find.

    I'm struggling to understand how any human being involved in this puzzle's creation could've thought this would be fun (for adults) to solve. There's no cleverness. No trickery. No playfulness. Nothing required of the solver at all—well, there's filling the grid itself, which was tough, but, again, that part has Nothing to do with the theme. The puzzle is utterly meaningless without the note, and with the note it's not much better. And I retract the "mediocre themeless" comment. It's worse than mediocre. Themelesses tend to have Way more interesting answers and Way fewer SLOES and OTOES and STETs and omg it just goes on and on.  I will give this puzzle "PEACE OUT!" and that is all I will give it (4D: "Later, bro!"). It's a non-puzzle. Someone I know suggested to me just now that the childishly easy word find was a "sop" to the people who were so livid about Patrick Blindauer's "Change of Heart" puzzle two weeks ago. But I can't buy that. Just because you hated Ulysses doesn't mean you'll be appeased by Where's Waldo?.

    I did find CUM and BOSOM and ANUS, though, so I'm managing to amuse myself at least. What else have we got?:

    • 17A: Golden girl? (SACAJAWEA) — this was one of the highlights of the grid. I especially liked the clue (she appears on the golden $1 coin. I'm a bit concerned that some people will have messed up the JA RULE / CAPEK crossing. Maybe JORULE / COPEK? You don't see "R.U.R." in crosswords *nearly* as much as you used to, and thus aren't reminded nearly so much of CAPEK's name, so you'd be forgiven for forgetting (as I did). You'd also be forgiven for forgetting JA RULE, if you ever knew him in the first place. He hasn't been popular for a while. Oh, and since the U.S. Mint and all sites describing the dollar coin seem to think the "Golden girl" in question is spelled with a "G" and not a "J," you'd perhaps also be forgiven for having gone with GA RULE (or even GO RULE) as well.
    • 27A: Series of watering troughs? (AEIOU) — well, if you have to have such a terrible answer in your grid, I guess the best thing you can do is give it a cool, weird-ass clue. (The letters AEIOU appear in order, and each just once, inside the phrase "watering troughs")
    • 32D: Russian composer Arensky (ANTON) — never heard of him. Let's listen:

    I look forward to the return of crosswords, and my enthusiasm for them, tomorrow. It's been a mostly enjoyable eight years. I think I got at least two left in me. Thanks for your readership.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


    Battery containing liquid electrolyte / WED 9-24-14 / First family of Germany 1969-74 / Collaborator with Disney on film Destino / Acronym for linked computers / Actress with iconic line what dump / Like bass voice hairy chest

    Wednesday, September 24, 2014

    Constructor: Andy Kravis

    Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging

    THEME: X replaces a letter in a movie title, creating a wacky title:

    Theme answers:
    • "MARX ATTACKS" (17A: Film about a Communist invasion? (1996))
    • "A BEAUTIFUL MINX" (26A: Film about the woman most likely to catch men's attention? (2001))
    • "THE LOVELY BOXES" (46A: Film about an elegantly made crossword? (2009))
    • "EAT XRAY LOVE" (63A: Film about a romantic dentist's daily routine? (2010))
    Word of the Day: BRANDTS (53A: First family of Germany, 1969-74) —
    Willy Brandt (German pronunciation: [ˈvɪli ˈbʁant]; born Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm; 18 December 1913 – 8 October 1992) was a German statesman and politician, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD) from 1964 to 1987 and chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1969 to 1974. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his efforts to achieve reconciliation between West Germany and the countries of the Soviet bloc. He was the first Social Democrat chancellor since 1930.
    Though controversial in West Germany, Brandt's policy of Ostpolitik can be considered his most significant legacy and it aimed at improving relations with East Germany,Poland, and the Soviet Union. Of similar importance, the Brandt Report became a recognised measure for describing the general North-South divide in world economics and politics between an affluent North and a poor South.
    Brandt resigned as Chancellor in 1974, after Günter Guillaume, one of his closest aides, was exposed as an agent of the Stasi, the East German secret service. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    The new titles are delightful but there's no rationale for the letter changes. None. You just change whatever letter you like to get something funny. That doesn't seem enough. Nothing substantial links the movies. There's no rhyme or reason to the letter replacement. I mean … "WAX HORSE." There's one. Presumably you could go on for days. "THE WIZARD OF OX." "STAX WARS." "ONE FLEX OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEXT." Etc. Also, "The Lovely Bones" and "Eat Pray Love" are primarily books (to me). I know they were movies, and I also know "A Beautiful Mind" was a book, but the latter was a major Oscar contender as a movie, while I feel like the others are better known as books than movies. This is neither here nor there, but neither is the reason for the X-switching in this puzzle, so I don't feel too bad.

    The baffling lack of rationale added considerably to the difficulty level (for me), as it took me forever even to notice the "X" thing. I had written in "MARS ATTACKS" … because it's a movie and I thought the answers were going to be real movies that were simply clued wackily … and then couldn't get 4D: Guileful to work. "What is FOSY?"  Wasn't until I was trying to figure out what abbreviated holiday started with DM- (answer: none)—in fact, after I put together ELF—that I realized, oh, change to X. Oh, MARX. Oh … OK. And then I finished. And then I didn't get it, and figured I was missing something. Andy has his own puzzle site, "Andy Kravis, Cruciverbalist at Law," and his puzzles are often very clever—so I figured I was missing something. Only after asking for help (from a friend) did I realize that I wasn't missing anything. Random letters become Xs and wackiness ensues. Again, the wordplay has a certain delightful quality, but this theme is just too loose for me.

    Grid is mostly clean. BRANDTS is an odd plural name, and I don't know what EEC is …oh, no, wait, it's the thing that preceded the E.U., right? OK. Yeah, I never liked that as fill. But I'd say with minimal exceptions, the fill is general solid throughout. "SIGMUND AND THE SEX MONSTERS!" — OK, that's a TV show, and way too long, but you see how this random "X" switch thing can go on and on and on … maybe the cutesy / meta crossword clue (46A) is what put it over the top. Sometimes tough to know what will "tickle" the editor and what won't.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


    Snowman in Disney's Frozen / TUE 9-23-14 / Jazz great named after Egyptian god / Everett player of Mr Bernstein in Citizen Kane / Lawrence who co-wrote two of Star Wars films / Roone who created Nightline 20/20

    Tuesday, September 23, 2014

    Constructor: Gerry Wildenberg

    Relative difficulty: Challenging

    THEME: GOLD NUGGETS (38A: Valuable finds suggested by the circled letters) — circled letters spell out gold if you read them … well, it looks like sometimes clockwise, sometimes counterclockwise …)

    Word of the Day: "AGON" (65A: Stravinsky ballet) —
    Agon (1957) is a ballet for twelve dancers, with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by George Balanchine. Composition began in December 1953 but was interrupted the next year; work was resumed in 1956 and concluded on April 27, 1957; the music was first performed on June 17, 1957 in Los Angeles conducted by Robert Craft, while the first stage performance was given by the New York City Ballet on December 1, 1957 at the City Center of Music and Drama, New York (White 1979, 490). The composition's long gestation period covers an interesting juncture in Stravinsky's composing career, in which he moved from a diatonic musical language to one based ontwelve-tone technique; the music of the ballet thus demonstrates a unique symbiosis of musical idioms. The ballet has no story, but consists of a series of dance movements in which various groups of dancers interact in pairs, trios, quartets etc. A number of the movements are based on 17th-century French court dances – sarabandgalliard and bransle. It was danced as part of City Ballet's 1982 Stravinsky Centennial Celebration. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    Coincidentally, I was reading about Charlie Chaplin just before starting this puzzle.

    There are a host of problems here. With the exception of SOBE, the puzzle feels about a million years old, with crosswordese (NLERS RIATA AAR … those are consecutive!) and olde-timey names (MAGDA, AKINS, SLOANE, etc.) and then stuff like HE-GOAT and SLIPSLOP (!?) that I just didn't know what to make of. The puzzle was not well slotted on a Tuesday—too wide-open, too tough. But the main problem was that the grid-filling was not up to the challenge posed by the ambitious theme. That NLERS RIATA AAR line alone tells you, first, that the grid was hand-filled (you can malign computers all you like, but they help keep less expert constructors out of Junk City), and second, that it was hand-filled according to OLD-LINE standards. UNSTOW? BLATS? This is very, very rough. The core concept is OK—it would've been more elegant if the nuggets all read in one direction or the other, I think, but the theme isn't the problem. It's what the theme does to the fill that's the problem. The grid is just too demanding. The limitations imposed by the nuggets coupled with dauntingly wide-open corners just set the bar too high, and the puzzle couldn't get over.

    • 28A: Jazz great named after an Egyptian god (SUN RA) — the names were just *tough* on me today. I know who SUN RA is, but off the "S" I had no idea, and that corner also has SLOANE (unknown to me) and ALDO (also, weirdly, unknown to me), and an YSER clue that I didn't find easy at all (10A: W.W. I's Battle of the ___). Proper nouns beyond my ken really gummed things up.
    • 43D: Roone who created "Nightline" and "20/20" (ARLEDGE) — a name I know, but just screwed up badly today. For some reason I wanted "ALRIDGE" … "L" before "R" at any rate. And with SLIPSLOP next door (again I say "???"), and uncertainty about whether EASES or ALL'S were even right, well, proper names strike again. I wouldn't have minded so much if the fill had been (much) better.
    • 65A: Stravinsky ballet ("AGON") — stunning to me a. that this word is even in a Tuesday puzzle, and b. that this clue is considered Tuesday-appropriate. Proper nouns here aren't just beyond me—they're dated, marginal, and (most importantly) unnecessary. I'll take "AGON" as a a Stravinsky ballet on, say, a Friday or Saturday, if it's helping hold up a lovely stack or corner. Otherwise, pass. Especially on Tuesday, pass.
    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


    Dadaist artist Jean / MON 9-22-14 / Appurtenance for Santa Sherlock Holmes / Coastal land south of Congo / Sweet rum component / Bank heist group / Company downsizings

    Monday, September 22, 2014

    Constructor: Ian Livengood

    Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging (**for a Monday**)

    THEME: Picket line — first words are all narrow, stiff implements

    Theme answers:
    • STICK-UP MEN (17A: Bank heist group)
    • CANE SUGAR (24A: Sweet rum component)
    • POLE CAR (37A: Indy 500 leader)
    • STAFF CUTS (47A: Company downsizings)
    • ROD STEWART (57A: British rocker with the 1979 #1 hit "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?")
    Word of the Day: Bobby RIGGS (27D: Bobby who lost 1973's Battle of the Sexes tennis match) —
    Robert Larimore "Bobby" Riggs (February 25, 1918 – October 25, 1995) was an American tennis player who was the World No. 1 or the World co-No. 1 player for three years, first as an amateur in 1939, then as a professional in 1946 and 1947. He played his first professional tennis match on December 26, 1941.
    At the age of 55 he competed in a challenge match against Billie Jean King, one of the top female players in the world. "The Battle of the Sexes" match was one of the most famous tennis events of all time, with a $100,000 winner-take-all prize. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    So I looked up "rod" in my giant J.I. Rodale Synonym Finder, and sure enough, there were "cane," "pole," "staff," and "stick" all listed as possibilities. Still, somehow "stick" and "cane" feel like different animals to me, the former redolent with the aroma of tree-ness, the latter inseparable from its specific status as a walking aid. "Pole" and "rod" seem less organic, more generic. "Staff" seems somewhere in between—probably wooden, but not as arboreal or sculpted as "stick" and "cane," respectively. Am I over thinking this? Of course. It's not like I noticed a theme at all when I was solving. I'm just saying I've seen tighter themes. I mean, why not have a series of answers that start "alpenstock," "quirt," "crosier," "stanchion," and "caduceus"? I mean, aside from the practical consideration that there are no phrases that start with any of those words? Rodale says it's OK! Quirt! Do it!

    Why was this measurably harder than your average Monday? I finished in 3:20 (about half a minute slower than average) and noticed that my time would have put me near the top of the leader board at the NYT puzzle site—not a place I should be anywhere near with that time on a Monday. Both the long Downs (the 9s, I mean) were tough for me to get, the first  ("COME GET ME") because of the unusualness of the clue phrase—11D: "I'm stranded and need a ride"—as well as the SPAM / SCAM trap I can't be the only one to have fallen into (10A: Almost any "Get rich quick!" offer); the second (PUTS ASIDE) because the clue carries the suggestion of moving something to the "back burner," and ASIDE is a fundamentally different direction than "back." I get that we're working in figurative language here, but try telling that to my brain.

    Do not like the OLE-over-OLE (from POLECAR) in the middle of the grid. STAFF CUTS strikes me as a real thing, but not a very lovely, clean, or tight thing. A [Fight between late-night hosts, e.g.] is, in modern parlance, a BEEF. A FEUD involves Hatfields, McCoys, Clampitts, or Families. I have no idea what "late-night hosts" could have to do with FEUDs, since it's no longer the early '90s. Cross-referenced STATE clue slowed me down, as did the "Where's my dang globe?" quality of 54A: Coastal land south of Congo (ANGOLA). Side note, and true story: my wife bought a globe today. "I saw it at Target … it was $14." Not the strongest rationale, but countries have been invaded for flimsier reasons, so we left it there.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


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