"Star Trek" warp drive fuel / MON 9-28-15 / Gershwin composition in United Airlines ads / City south of Utah's Arches National Park / Ascending in economic class
Monday, September 28, 2015
Constructor: Dan Bischof and Jeff Chen
Relative difficulty: Monday if you're over 40, Tuesday otherwise
THEME: AEIOU AND Y — Theme answers use each of the vowels (including "Y") exactly once. A, E, I, O, and U are symmetrically placed* in circles along the top and bottom rows, with ANDY (68A: Toy Story boy ... or, with the circled letters, a hint to 20-, 39-, and 53-Across) in the final across slot to complete the sequence.
* Symmetrically, that is, except for the one missing in the bottom right. Small nit, but for this reason I would probably have circled the "Y" too. Just seems more elegant that way.
- RHAPSODY IN BLUE (20A: Gershwin composition in United Airlines ads)
- SOCIAL BUTTERFLY (39A: Person about town)
- UPWARDLY MOBILE (53A: Ascending in economic class)
Word of the Day: FLEA CIRCUS (3D: Sideshow act that features "the smallest performers in the world") —
A flea circus refers to a circus sideshow attraction in which fleas are attached (or appear to be attached) to miniature carts and other items, and encouraged to perform circus acts within a small housing.
The first records of flea performances were from watchmakers who were demonstrating their metalworking skills. Mark Scaliot in 1578 produced a lock and chain which were attached to a flea. Flea performances were first advertised as early as 1833 in England, and were a major carnival attraction until 1930. Some flea circuses persisted in very small venues in the United States as late as the 1960s. The flea circus at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, Manchester, England, was still operating in 1970. At least one genuine flea circus still performs (at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany) but most flea circuses are a sideline of magicians and clowns, and use electrical or mechanical effects instead of real fleas. (wikipedia)
• • •
Tony Zito here, making my debut spelling for Rex, and mon DIEU — I'm not the only debutant at the ball! This is a NYT debut for constructor Dan Bischof as well, who joins forces with the journeyman (and collaborator-to-many) Jeff Chen. In my experience, an "and" in the byline is generally a good sign for a crossword; collaborations tend to have a higher bar for fill and theme quality. (A "but" in the byline is another story altogether.) This puzzle is no exception to that rule — it's got nice, colloquial theme answers that are easy to get but no less pleasing for it, some good longer answers (e.g. ARM CANDY, VIBRANT, MOLERAT and ANTIMATTER), and hardly any real stinkers. (I'm looking at you, MOAB.) I wish the cultural references could be a little more up-to-date, but that's a criticism of the NYT puzzles in general.
While I liked the theme, it was one of those that you only really see after the puzzle is done. (Which, being a Monday isn't a terribly long wait, but still...) It was only after I finished that I thought "oh right, there were some circles in there" and retroactively figured out how the theme answers fit in. This isn't really a knock, but to many a novice solver — which Mondays are meant to be suited for — it might seem hard to figure out what those themers have in common, and what the circled vowels have to do with it.
That said, those theme answers would be pretty welcome in any puzzle. Limiting them to three (not counting the words with circled vowels) was probably a wise choice — always better to have a little less theme if it means a lot less garbage fill, IMHO. So we get some stuff like ONELB and APO, but it's mercifully rare.
- 24A: City south of Utah's Arches National Park (MOAB) — With a population of about 5,000 can you really call this a "city?" I would've gone for the Mother of all Bombs angle ("Bunker buster, briefly") but that's pretty obscure too, so probably best to avoid this one.
- 17A: Where ships go (ASEA) — Normally one of those "fine, I guess" kind of answers, but crossed with AFAR? A no thank you.
- 62A: Stratford-upon-___ : / 38D: Planet, to Shakespeare (AVON/ORB) Two unforced Shakespeare references. Someone sure likes to "enjoy literature." (Any others I'm missing? Let us know in the comments.)
- 52D: Only U.S. president whose surname is more than 50% vowels (OBAMA) — Cute clue given the theme.
- 13D: With 12-Down, "Gimme that!" (IT'S) — I like this approach to making completely generic short fill like ITS a little more interesting, I'd just prefer it if it scanned better in the grid by putting IT'S before MINE.
- 8D: "Star Trek" warp drive fuel (ANTIMATTER) — At first I was all like "wait wasn't the warp drive powered by dilithium crystals?!" But no, bad nerd! It turns out the dilithium crystal was all about *controlling* the matter/ANTIMATTER reaction. Silly me.
- 48D: Howe'er (THO) — I don't hate this fill, necessarily, given its ubiquity on Twitter and the like. But that clue tho. Has "However" e'er been contracted that way? I think ne'er. Unless this is another Shakespeare reference.
- 33D: Military initiative that seeks to influence the enemy's mind, informally (PSYOP) — I don't think I've ever seen this in the singular form, just as PSYOPS. But apparently that's just me.
- 44A:Classic clown name (BOBO) — Seems like a misdirection for BOZO, which is unusual for a Monday. I'd have liked maybe a David Brooks reference, but that's probably because I'm a Bourgeois Bohemian myself. (That'd be tough for a Monday, anyhow.)
- 34A: ____ of Sandwich (EARL) — Did you know the current (and 11th) Earl of Sandwich started a fast food chain called (you guessed it) "Earl of Sandwich" that has dozens of locations around the U.S., including ones inside Disney World and Disneyland? While the money and land and everything would be nice, I'd have guessed that it'd be kind of a pitiful burden to carry that title around, what with all the jokes, but this guy has really owned it.
|The Earl of Sandwich, embracing his legacy|
- 11D: Baseball's Felipe / 47D: Bobby who won three straight N.H.L. M.V.P. awards (ALOU / ORR)— Oh look, two sporty castaways from Xword Isle, where you'll find Moises and Felipe Alou tossing the ball around with Mel Ott; Yma Súmac and Anaïs Nin trading war stories; and Uma Thurman and Ione Skye wishing it were 1992 again. Just head ASEA and go ESE, you can't miss it.
Signed, Tony Zito, Flight Attendant on CrossWorld Airlines
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