Scottish hillside / THU 10-31-19 / One-named supermodel of 1970s-'80s / Colorful French cookies / English county that's setting for Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Constructor: Ezra Brauner and Jeff Chen

Relative difficulty: Medium?? (it was Easy but sort of confusing to start...)

THEME: DOUBLE BLIND (59A: Kind of experiment ... or a hint to 10 Down answers in this puzzle) — you have to be "blind" to the "double" letters in the themers if you want to make sense of those 10 Down clues whose answers run through them. Extra feature 1: those 10 Downs make actual (unclued) words when the double letters are in place. Extra feature 2: the double letters, taken singly and in order, spell CLONES, which I guess double ... letters ... are?

Theme answers:
    • The affected Downs: LI(C)E, OR(C)S; MI(L)NE, UN(L)IT; (O)PAL, MACAR(O)ONS; (N)OVA(E), U(N)DON(E); ARE(S), MAR(S)
Word of the Day: "Big Nate" (14A: Lincoln ___, cereator of the comic strip "Big Nate" —> PEIRCE) —
Big Nate is an American comic strip written and illustrated by Lincoln Peirce. Originally launched on January 6, 1991, the comic has since inspired book collections and theatrical performances. // Big Nate follows the adventures and misadventures of Nate Wright, a spirited and rebellious sixth-grader, along with his best friends, Francis and Teddy. Other characters include a variety of teachers at Public School 38 and other people and animals in the fictional town of Rackleff, Maine. Nate is portrayed as a boy with little interest in studies or conforming to standards. The lack of interest leads him into several conflicts with his social studies teacher Mrs. Godfrey, whom he considers his nemesis. Peirce also focuses on Nate's home life and friendships. (wikipedia)
• • •

The construction is impressive, in a way, and definitely thoughtful. That is, it seems carefully crafted (e.g. all Downs are actual answers whether double letters are in place or not, and there are *no* double letters in the grid besides the ones that are in the themers). But for me the theme doesn't snap. That is, it's trying to do so much that it gets a little confusing. Like, is the "double" referring to the double letters, or the fact that those double letters appear *twice* in each themer, or both? And the double letters spell CLONES ... why? Just for fun. I assume that's part of the theme, but I'm not sure. Also, many many people will miss that element. I've seen puzzles like this before, where constructors get real enamored of *all* their ideas for one puzzle, and put them all in rather than construct a puzzle where the concept is tight and the revealer really lands. So this was admirable but not terribly enjoyable for me, largely because it seems messy, and like solver enjoyment and conceptual tightness were ignored as constructors indulged themselves in extra layers of gimmicks.

Had a "how do you spell 'macarons'" moment at 3D: Colorful French cookies (MACAR_ONS). I knew they weren't MACAROONS, but then there seemed to be too many letters ... in the end, this would be the point, but at the beginning, where I was, it was just confusing. Also confusing—and the reason I was quite slow to start—TALE fits at 6D: Whopper (LI_E) and PSST fits at 25D: "Hey there!" ("HIYA!"). Admittedly, the exclamation point in the clue for HIYA shoulda signaled to me that it was being exclaimed, not whispered, but nonetheless, PSST went in and, like TALE before it, really gummed things up. I got my first sense that something was up with the circled letters when ERS or ORS seemed definitely right for 7D: Surgery sites, for short but there were just too many letters. Eventually got almost everything surrounding the circled letters at the front ends of the first two themers, and then ... I honestly don't know how I figured it out. TALE stayed in a long time, as PEARCE looked very right to me for the comic strip guy (never heard of that strip or that guy). Anyway, SOCCER BALLS, HOOTENANNIES, the rest was pretty easy.
    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


    French white sauce / WED 10-30-19 / Fishing basket / Repetition of words at starts of successive phrases in rhetoric / Longtime Apple program whose icon featured camera / Painter of melting pocket watches

    Wednesday, October 30, 2019

    Constructor: David Steinberg

    Relative difficulty: Easy (not for me, I stumbled all over the NW, but everyone else seems to have torn through it) (4:26 on oversized 16x15 grid)

    THEME: CAMOUFLAGE (35A: "Trick" used by the creatures found in rows 3, 5, 11 and 13) — you can find a chameleon, octopus, leaf insect, and leopard "camouflaged" in those rows (by having their names broken across black squares):

    Theme answers:
    Word of the Day: ANAPHORA (14A: Repetition of words at the starts of successive phrases, in rhetoric) —
    1repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect ('s "we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground" is an example of anaphora 
    • • •

    Fat-fingered early-morning solve. Time ended up average, which should be good because the grid is oversized, but is comparatively bad, given all the very fast times I'm seeing online. I thought DAB was DAP and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about why I wasn't superfast—French white sauces that start with "P"?? [Crickets] [Tumbleweeds] I also forgot ANAPHORA, which is semi-hilarious, as I teach the concept occasionally (it's a poetic device). My brain was like "ANA- ... ANAPH- ... ANAPEST? ANAPHRASIS? ANAPHRASE? ANAGONYE!?" No no no and no. I was conflating a *lot* of different literary terms in my head. Stupid head. Also weirdly balked at IPHOTO because it seemed to easy given the clue (4D: Longtime Apple program whose icon featured a camera). Then I couldn't remember "COCO" (!???) which is a very popular movie that I definitely know about even if I haven't seen it. But again, all kinds of four-letter C-names came pouring forth, none of them "COCO." This made escaping the NW a lot harder. Sigh. After I got out of there, though, things did get Much easier, with only PROSHOP and my bizarre trouble spelling CAMOUFLAGE slowing me down at all. As for the theme, well, I didn't see it (get it ... 'cause it was CAMOUFLAGEd ... but seriously I didn't see it). It was fun to hunt the animal names, cool seeing them come into view. I thought INSECT was a real letdown of an answer, until I realized it was LEAF INSECT, which is not a category I knew existed and yet feels very much like a category that exists. I've seen insects on leaves, at any rate. Very cool that the animals use *every* word in the rows they occupy as part of their CAMOUFLAGE. Grid isn't loaded with memorable fill, but neither is it a mess. Very solid work.

    Five things:
    • 36D: Girl in a bonnet, maybe (LASS) — I ... don't know what to do with this. Do Irish girls typically wear bonnets? Is this clue from the Walter Scott universe? I don't think of bonnets as specifically Irish. Perhaps they are. Anyway, even with L- and then LA- I had no idea. "LADY?"
    • 43D: Use, as a mattress (LIE ON) — Brain: "Ooh, you *know* the difference between 'lie' and 'lay,' so you've got this!" Fingers: "LAY ON!?!?! YES!?!?! GOOD!??!!" Brain: "No, you idiot."
    • 50A: Org. that recognizes nearly 200 breeds (AKC) — so not KFC then? OK, fine.
    • 57D: Part of Verizon Media (AOL) — hesitated here, even with the "L," as I have a hard time accepting that AOL still exists. The very letters scream "dial-up" to me.
    • 51D: Muse of history (CLIO) — ironically, one of the many four-letter "C" names I wanted for "COCO"!
    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


    Eastern mystic / TUES 10-29-19 / Section of a record store / Stealthy fighter / Mythical city of gold

    Tuesday, October 29, 2019

    Hello! It's Clare, back for another Tuesday. I hope everyone has had a great October; it's always one of my favorite months of the year! The leaves' colors are a-changing here in D.C., which is quite nice. You don't really get too much of fall back in Northern California, where I'm from. Anywho, I've had quite the day with school, work, and a somewhat hard-to-watch Steelers game all piling on, so I'll just get right to the recap!

    Constructor: Evan Mahnken

    Relative difficulty: Average

    THEME: JAY-Z (57D: Rapper whose name hints at the extremities of the answers to the five starred clues)

    Theme answers:

    • JON LOVITZ (20A: "Saturday Night Live" cast member of the late 1980s)
    • JC CHASEZ (12D: Onetime member of 'N Sync)
    • JENNIFER LOPEZ (37A: Singer starring in 2019's "Hustlers")
    • JOAN BAEZ (37D: Singer on the first day of Woodstock)
    • JASON MRAZ (57A: Grammy winner for "Make It Mine," 2010)
    Word of the Day: EL DORADO (38D: Mythical city of gold)
    El Dorado (Spanish for "the golden one"), originally El Hombre Dorado ("The Golden Man") or El Rey Dorado ("The Golden King"), was the term used by the Spanish Empire to describe a mythical tribal chief (zipa) of the Muisca people, an indigenous people of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense of Colombia, who, as an initiation rite, covered himself with gold dust and submerged in Lake Guatavita. The legends surrounding El Dorado changed over time, as it went from being a man, to a city, to a kingdom, and then finally to an empire. (Wikipedia)
    • • •

    Coming off the day I'd had, I was really hoping for a nice, fresh, clever crossword puzzle to solve to counterbalance everything and give me a pleasant break before diving in to prepare for another long day tomorrow, but this... wasn't it!

    I appreciate the attempt by the constructor at relative ingenuity with the theme (J—Z), but I thought it fell flat. My main issue with the theme is that is just doesn't make sense to have four of the theme answers — plus the theme revealer — be singers and then have the fifth theme answer... not be one? It seems like it would have been relatively easy to get uniformity in the puzzle just by switching JON LOVITZ out for someone who, like the others in the puzzle, was known for being a singer. Or, switch things up more and do a wide variety celebrities from all areas.

    The "J" and "Z" gimmick is just so limiting as far as fill goes that I thought the rest of the puzzle suffered as a result, and the fill was pretty blasé. I thought the "Zs" had the potential to lead to some clever fill, but there wasn't much I hadn't seen before with OZONE, KATZ, and SUZIE Q. And, it also feels like the constructor cheated a little bit by having two theme answers cross each other to get a "Z" in there with JENNIFER LOPEZ and JC CHASEZ. It was all just lacking in zest and zeal and pizzazz (see what I did there?).

    In general, there wasn't much about the fill that jumped out at me and had me saying, "Aha!" Or, "Ooh." There was a *lot* of fill that was just very boring, like: LEA, HAL, LAMA, AKA, ORC, NSA, NCO, CDS, EEK, ASA, AUDI, REMO. (I might have missed some because, like I said, there was a lot of it!) And, there were two crosswordese-y French terms — AMOI and MAIS — that were clued right next to each other at 58D and 59D. Then, there was more thematic repetition with 15A: Tibetan spiritual guide (LAMA) and 64A: Eastern mystic (YOGI). The only thing I somewhat enjoyed were the question mark clues that led to SPCA (36D: Watchdog org.?) and IMACS (16A: Ones not part of PC culture?), which I got a small chuckle out of it.

    My first "Huh" moment came at 3D, because I've never heard of AMANAS before. I gather the singular form, at least, is known crosswordese, but a Google search shows Amana is a not-that-popular kitchen brand. I had another moment of confusion at 55A: Christian school in Tulsa, Okla. with ORU. Again, huh? Maybe this, too, is just crosswordese, but Google tells me this private evangelical liberal arts school has 4,000 students, has some pretty futuristic architecture on campus, and has a basketball team that reached three-straight NCAA tournaments from 2006-08.

    • So, HAL (35A: Movie villain who says "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that") is always popping up in crossword fill, and, for the longest time, I had no idea who he (well, it) was. But, I recently watched "2001: A Space Odyssey," and HAL is legitimately one of the creepiest villains I've ever seen in a movie. I had nightmares of his voice (and potential!) for a week. So it's fun to see something Halloween-related, as it is indeed *spooky season*!
    • I am guilty of saying "NO RUSH" way too much. It's my go-to move when waitressing; I'll drop off someone's check and tell them that there's absolutely "NO RUSH."
    • One last note (I promise!) on the fill: Why was JASON MRAZ clued with his song "Make It Mine?" Sure, it won for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the Grammys, but I feel like a much more obvious (and better) clue would have been for his very successful song, "I'm Yours." Or his duet, "Lucky."
    As I was writing this, my Steelers came back from down 14-0 to win. So, that has improved my mood considerably! Maybe Pittsburgh winning is a sign of good things ahead for me this week. I hope you all have a great week yourselves!

    Just about to catch some ZZZ(s), Clare Carroll

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


    Locale for London's Royal Opera House / MON 10-28-19 / Salivating animal in classic conditioning study / Barnyard honker

    Monday, October 28, 2019

    Constructor: Zhouqin Burnikel

    Relative difficulty: Easy (2:45)

    THEME: OUT OF DANGERS (59A: Safe ... or how the last words of 16-, 23- and 49-Across are made?) — last words of themers are anagrams of DANGER:

    Theme answers:
    • TAKE A GANDER (16A: Look (at))
    • ARIANA GRANDE (23A: Singer with the 2018 #1 hit "Thank U, Next")
    • COVENT GARDEN (49A: Locale for London's Royal Opera House)
    Word of the Day: COVENT GARDEN (49A) —
    Covent Garden is a district in London, on the eastern fringes of the West End, between St Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. It is associated with the former fruit-and-vegetable market in the central square, now a popular shopping and tourist site, and with the Royal Opera House, which itself may be referred to as "Covent Garden". The district is divided by the main thoroughfare of Long Acre, north of which is given over to independent shops centred on Neal's Yard and Seven Dials, while the south contains the central square with its street performers and most of the historical buildings, theatres and entertainment facilities, including the London Transport Museumand the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    This is one of the best NYTXW puzzles I've done in a while, and I'm only just realizing today how much seeing Zhouqin Burnikel's name on a puzzles feels with that increasingly rare feeling of hope. She has a long track record of solid puzzles, and lately, in the past year or two, I feel like the quality of her work has ticked up significantly. Maybe even more than the word "ticked" suggests. If it's a Monday or a Tuesday, I want her on the job. This puzzle is simple and elegant, and it's the latter bit that people might not notice, given how easy the puzzle is, and how basic the theme concept seems. I mean, anagrams ... I've seen "last-words-anagrammed"-type puzzle before. But there are a couple of features to this puzzle that I want to highlight, because they are the difference between this puzzle's being adequate and boring, and this puzzle's being what it is, which is delightful. First, the theme is light. That is, there are just four answers. Now, with this theme, the number of themers is kinda locked in, but still, there is something to be said for a very tight theme in just three or four theme answers. If every one of them hits the mark, then you've got the pleasure of a satisfying, complete-feeling theme *and* you've got breathing room to make a clean, even enjoyable grid. Next, look at those themers—all real things. All good phrases / names. COVENT GARDEN is especially nice. There's nothing wobbly about any answer in this set. It. All. Works. Bing bing bang. Further, the cluing on the themer makes it perfect. We don't get just DANGER as our revealer, we don't get some other phrase ending in DANGER with some other weird revealer pointing to the anagramminess of it all. Instead, we get the a solid stand-alone phrase with a clue that ties everything together Perfectly. Burnikel's work reminds me of Lynn Lempel's: prolific, disciplined, artful, playful. Just what I want to begin my solving week.

    I want to say something also about the way the grid is built, because it is actually a bit bold and daring. In an alternate universe, there's a grid with these same themers but with a more conventional staircase of 5-letter answers through the heart of the grid. Imagine the initial "E" in ESTREET and the the second "A" in GALA turned black, and the adjacent black squares turned white ... and then do the same on the other side of the grid for symmetry's sake. Something like this:

    In that universe, the grid is probably somewhat easier to fill. It's also almost certainly more boring, because the center is self-contained, cut off from the NW and SE corners, and full only of 3-, 4-, and 5-letter words. Here, however, we get ROADRACE to ESTREET to TIMELAGS, 8, to 7 to 8, which not only gives us a nice interconnected set of answers, but gives a more open overall feel to the grid. It's a 78-worder (the max) but it *feels* more open because in addition to the (nifty) long Downs in the NE and SW (PAVLOV'S DOG is especially great), you've got this 8-7-8 combo linking the NW to the SE. And, on top of this, there's no apparent compromise in the fill. It's clean. Everywhere. Theme tight and clever, fill clean overall, with augmented sparkly long stuff. Give this constructor some f***ing credit, because she deserves it, and she especially deserves it on a Monday, when the easiness of the solve probably leads most of us to underrate the complexity and craftsmanship of the endeavor. The End.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    P.S. special thanks to Mike Nothnagel, a veteran constructor who is also currently my house guest and with whom I just had a long conversation about this grid. We got into the weeds about stuff like themer spacing, the difficulty of handling 12s, etc. He's very smart and nerdy in the best way. Anyway, he's the one who specifically brought up the issue of how the center of the grid is constructed and how unusual (and bold) it actually is.

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


    Protagonist in Toni Morrison's Beloved / SUN 10-27-19 / Ricochet like hockey puck / US island owned almost entirely by billionaire Larry Ellison / Display for tchotchkes / New Guinea port that was Amelia Earhart's last known point of departure

    Sunday, October 27, 2019

    Constructor: Michael Paleos

    Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium (10:02)

    THEME: CANDY STRIPE (68A: Pattern once used for hospital volunteer uniforms, with a hint to this puzzle's theme) — "candy stripe"s are formed by having six different Downs columns be made up of candy names:

    Theme answers:
    Word of the Day: EUBIE Blake (16D: Jazzman Blake) —
    James Hubert "EubieBlake (1887–1983), was an American composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtimejazz, and popular music. In 1921, he and his long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans.[1] Blake's compositions included such hits as "Bandana Days", "Charleston Rag", "Love Will Find a Way", "Memories of You" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry". The musical Eubie!, which opened on Broadway in 1978, featured his works. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    First reaction to this was "those are candy names ... and so ... what?" Then I saw the revealer, which I must have missed during the solve. The revealer makes it somewhat cute, though I really wanted it to be CANDY STRIPES, plural, as there are, in fact, six stripes (plural!) in this grid. But whatever, the pattern is CANDY STRIPE, it's OK. All the candy names can be (and are) clued in non-candy fashion, yes, good, OK. It's adequate. It's a shrug. Again. When the theme is a shrug, the fill better be sparkly, and while the grid has its moments ("FEEL ME?") there were some absolute atrocities in here as well. Too many. First, what in the world is ACI!?!?? (93A: Handel's "___, Galatea e Polifemo"). I don't know what ... I mean, is that Italian? Is ACI a name??? This answer appeared once in 2015 and before that, it hadn't appeared in 20 years! 1995! Oof. Hilariously, the only other appearance in the Shortz era came in 1994, and the '94 and '95 puzzles were made By The Same Guy (Bryant White, who, I'm assuming, really really liked Handel). Fun fact about ACI: before the Shortz era, there were Handel clues going back to 1985. Before that, it's *all* variations on [Chemical prefix] (!?) and before *that* it's exclusively [Seaport in Sicily]. Like, cluing for ACI doesn't toggle back and forth between types. It was all Sicily, then all chemical, and now all Handel. Anyway, it sucks, please never put it in your grid. See also LAE, which is more quintessential crosswordese garbage. That LAE and ACI are in the same damn grid is really damning. That MASSE / ULNAR / MMIII (!) stack is very rough, and it crosses ERI, Queen of the Crosswordese Ball. Also, why are you cluing ORE as ÖRE? (95D: Cent : euro :: ___ : krona) That is such bad decision-making. It combines unnecessary obscurantizing with the puzzle's always annoying diacritical blindness. Foreign currencies are like foreign rivers in that they are what crossword caricatures are made of. Stop stop stop.

    The worst thing about this puzzle, though, is the clue on SUGAR DADDY (14D: Gold digger's goldmine). The concept of SUGAR DADDY is already pretty grossly sexist, and then when you throw in that clue, which imputes stereotypically avaricious motivations to the woman, it makes the answer that much worse. And over HOT TAMALES!? I dunno, man. There's just so much dudes making puzzles for dudes, chosen by dudes, edited by dudes, ad infinitum. Male gaze, all the way down.

    Do people really use EHOW? (66D: Popular D.I.Y. site) It looks so bad in the grid, and sounds bad to say, and just adds to the seemingly endless array of E-prefixed words that pollute the grid daily. Dupes (i.e. repeated words) today are pretty egregious, in that they are bad and there are at least two of them. Repeating SEE is maybe not *so* bad ("I SEE" and SEES RED), but duping EYE (CRAZY-EYED and EYES UP), that hurt a little. I balked at EYES UP (107A: Regards covetously) because I'd already entered CRAZY-EYED in the grid. Figured it had to be EATS UP. But, no. So what do we have, really? A simple concept with a cute revealer, and then an occasionally interesting but too often clunky and stale grid. And some sexist cluing thrown in for "good" measure. Sunday!

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


    Arcade game spinoff of 1983 / SAT 10-26-19 / Spiritual realms in religious cosmology / Riddle in Zen Buddhism / Girlfriend on Orange is New Black / Ballroom alternatives to foxtrot

    Saturday, October 26, 2019

    Constructor: Sam Trabucco

    Relative difficulty: Easy or Easy-Medium (untimed, clipboard solve)

    THEME: none

    Word of the Day: ACHATES (44A: Loyal friend to Aeneas) —
    In the AeneidAchates (Ancient Greek: Ἀχάτης, "good, faithful Achates", fidus Achates as he was called) was a close friend of Aeneas; his name became a by-word for an intimate companion. // Achates accompanied Aeneas throughout his adventures, reaching Carthage with him in disguise when the pair were scouting the area, and leading him to the Sibyl of Cumae.  Virgil represents him as remarkable for his fidelity, and a perennial type of that virtue. However, despite being Aeneas's most important Trojan, he is notable for his lack of character development. In fact, he has only four spoken lines in the entire epic. Aeneas, surrounded by only a shadowy cast of allies, is thus emphasised as the lone protagonist and at the same time cut off from help on his quest. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    I had so many nice things to say about this puzzle. I still have, I guess. But my considerable feelings of good will, built up over solving the top and middle of the grid, all went pffft with a single answer in the SW. No, not ACHATES (although dang, that is pretty in-the-weeds ... I teach Aeneid every year and even I was like "o man what is that dude's name!?"). No, the mood ruiner today was ASSANGE (35D: Author of the 2012 book "Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet). Specifically, the clue, which so narrowly and vaguely refers to him that you (if you're me) have to spend time waiting for the name to come into view, building up anticipation. "Ooh, who will it be!?!?! Let's see .... Wait ... Wait, what? Ugh, that guy? That Guy!? He's just ... 'Author'!? Oh ... *&$^% you!" I honestly think that it's not so much the dude's name (which I have endured and can endure in grids) as the coy, evasive, enormity-skirting "Author..." clue. Nothing about his being a patsy of Russian intelligence agencies (allegedly...) or his being a sexual assailant (allegedly...) but, just, an author of a book about freedom! And the future! With a wacky, kind of punny name! What fun! Ugh. Absolute Mood Killer. The neutrality of the clue was bad, and the fact that the neutrality caused me to have to puzzle it out, i.e. spend more time with it, anticipating what it would be ... yeah, that made it all so much worse. [Wikileaks founder], fine, that's true enough, and you're not teasingly hiding him from me, so ... I can deal. But this way, with this clue? I could hear the joy balloon deflating in my mind as soon as I figured out ASSANGE. You made me play "What's My Line?" and the Mystery Guest was ASSANGE, which is just rude. Yuck and barf. How can you not ... understand ... that certain names are toxic and that you have to handle (i.e. clue) them carefully or don't touch them at all?! Puzzle editing!!! (Side note: I know METOOISM has nothing to do with the #MeToo movement, but still, putting ASSANGE and METOO in the same grid, yeeeeeeesh)

    This puzzle is weirdly overreliant on unlikely plurals, like ASTRAL PLANES plural and ONE-STEPS plural, but other than that, I liked most of the grid, for sure. METOOISM was a great weird answer to uncover (13A: Imitative practice). I had the back end first and was like "whaaaat ends -OOISM?" Great clue on LEOPARD PRINT (27A: Hot spots?) and METRIC SYSTEM (18D: Many of the world's rulers use it) and even PÈRE (28D: Champagne pop) ('cause pop = father and Champagne is a place in France). I would've said IT'S A GIRL is "often" associated with the color pink, not "typically"—it's a fine distinction, but kind of steers it away from normativity in a way I like better (51A: Message typically associated with the color pink). Actually, I wouldn't have touched "pink" at all, probably, but whatever. Not so keen on ANGE (esp. crossing ASS ... ANGE). IBI is another mildly icky foreignism (51D: There: Lat.). But the irksome stuff was pretty small and infrequent. I was more into the LEOPARD PRINT-wearing BREAK DANCERS at the center of it all. ALL RISE!

    Had most trouble with the NE, where both BIG LIE (16A: Propagandist's technique) and MORDANT (18A: Sharply sarcastic) were not quick to cut across. Once I got MIR, though, MORDANT followed pretty quick, and then lucky guess of MOTHY (off the "M") set the rest of the corner straight in no time. I thought the video game was PAC-MAN, JR, so really waited to see what that first letter was (30D: Arcade game spinoff of 1983). Me: "Wait ... they made ... a MR. PAC-MAN? I thought ... PAC-MAN ... was MR. PAC-MAN." Now I'm imagining Pac-Man saying "MR. PAC-MAN was my father, call me 'Steve', please..." Anyway, that was weird. Loved SAKE CUP (46A: Vessel at a Japanese restaurant). Less keen on the single THIN MINT, and how do you know it doesn't "help with weight loss"? (11D: Snack that, despite its name, doesn't help with weight loss) Maybe I eat a THIN MINT or six and I feel sated and am less inclined to eat substantially between meals. You don't know me! Now I just want to go defiantly gorge on THIN MINTs and then lose weight, just to prove this puzzle wrong. Where was I? Oh, yeah, I liked this puzzle, very much, until I didn't, which is tragic, really.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


    Logic game with matchsticks / FRI 10-25-19 / Eponym of cathedral in Red Square / Object of some fantasy quests / What Scarlett saved

    Friday, October 25, 2019

    Constructor: John Guzzetta

    Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging (I had just been napping, it's true, but I think this was a wavelength problem) (7-something)

    THEME: none

    Word of the Day: LEITMOTI...V? (10D: Recurrent musical theme) —
    leitmotif [YAY!] or leitmotiv /ˌltmˈtf/ is a "short, constantly recurring musical phraseassociated with a particular person, place, or idea. It is closely related to the musical concepts of idée fixe or motto-theme. The spelling leitmotif is an anglicization of the German Leitmotiv (IPA: [ˈlaɪtmoˌtiːf]), literally meaning "leading motif", or "guiding motif". A musical motif has been defined as a "short musical idea ... melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three", a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    I'm often not quite my solving self when I try to take on a puzzle just after waking up, and waking up from a nap is generally worse, solving-wise, than waking up after a night's sleep, and waking up from a weird, unplanned, nearly 3-hour nap on the couch with Hallmark Christmas promos running non-stop on the TV ... apparently worse still. Nothing about this puzzle resonated. The NW felt like torture. GULP? Am I being sent to the principal's office in a comic book!? L-BOMB?! (3D: Something that might be "dropped" prematurely in a relationship, in slang) This is truly, horribly bad, in that it's an attempt to be hip and current but it's forced and terrible. I've never heard this stupid term in my life. My. Life. If you call "love" the L-BOMB, wow, I don't know what to tell you. There's the F-BOMB and then everything else can gtfo. Could not see PAC. Really couldn't see UNHIT. Zero idea about ST. BASIL (23A: Eponym of a cathedral in Red Square). No idea why a Chem major would take the MCAT any more than an English major would—all kinds of people go to med school, and "Chem" hardly seems like a classic pre-med major. Don't think of ON BALANCE as being "After" anything (13A: After weighing both sides). Clues on PLATEAU (20A: Reach a point of diminishing returns) and WHO CAN SAY? (17A: Question suggesting "Beats me!") felt very hard. My god, why wasn't the clue just ["Beats me!"]!? It's perfect just like that. Truly a wreck up there. NE not that hard, SW easy, but more issues in the SE with the horrible STABLED (??) (54A: Sheltered, as stock) (which I'm only just now realizing refers to farm stock and not Wall Street stock) and the to-me unrecognizable clue on WRIT LARGE (59A: Painfully obvious). I use the phrase a lot, but never in the sense of "Painfully obvious." Why "painful?" Using that phrase suggests that someone's trying to hide something, or disputing the actuality of something. WRIT LARGE is a neutral term. I just don't get the cluing voice. This has been true more and more and more with the NYT. This is an editing issue.

    Felt like DRAGON EGG should be in the possessive (32D: Object of some fantasy quests). It's a dragon's egg. Dragon's egg. I keep saying it to hear how it sounds, and it's dragon's egg. [Weeks off] is a wicked clue for BYES as I read it as [Happening a few weeks from now]. Gah! My chilly person was super-fancy, wearing a STOLE instead of a SCARF. Absolutely undone by the "V" at the end of LEITMOTIV. Never ever reconsidered the "F," and then the cross, "WHAT GIVES?," wouldn't come into view and thus was no help (42A: "Seriously?"). Had EATS UP before LAPS UP—or, rather, considered LAPS UP, thought "EATS UP has more common letters, go with that" .... and then ended up back at LAPS UP (14D: Greedily consumes). The grid overall isn't great, but I've seen much worse. I'd be happy never to see NIM again (19A: Logic game with matchsticks), but there wasn't much else that made me want to shut down. Not a lot of GLITZ, but smooth enough. Not sparkly or lively enough for a NYT Friday (which are often my favorite puzzles of the week). As with sooooo many NYT grids of late, the fill is passable. Adequate. Fair. I feel like software has largely minimized if not eliminated the truly low-end grid, but software can't make good choices for you—can't give you good taste, or an eye for good fill let alone an ear for good cluing. So the bottom has been raised, but mediocrity is more abundant than ever. Which ... I guess is improvement, but with so few puzzles on the high end, so few puzzles making you go "dang, nice!," it's hard to be happy with this "improvement."


    • TARA is a "Gone With the Wind" reference (36A: What Scarlett saved) (Scarlett O'Hara)
    • TOM is from the cartoon "TOM & Jerry" (5A: Cartoon cat)
    • SALEM is a city in both Oregon and Massachusetts (8A: City name in both East and West Coast states)

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


    Bridge scorecard heading / THU 10-24-19 / Heiress of Hartfield in 1816 novel / Totally dope in dated slang

    Thursday, October 24, 2019

    Constructor: Matt Ginsberg

    Relative difficulty: Easy

    THEME: "Nothing" — the word is absent from the front end of ten answers ... so I guess it's represented literally in the grid:

    Theme answers:
    • BUT THE BEST (18A: When prefixed with 72-Across, what a friend wishes for you)
    • TO SNEEZE AT (20A: ... A matter worth considering)
    • TO WEAR (24A: ... Plaint upon going through one's closet)
    • MUCH (38A: ... A small amount)
    • TO IT (42A: ... "Piece of cake!")
    • BURGER (52A: ... Dud)
    • UP MY SLEEVE (57A: ... Magician's claim)
    • LEFT BEHIND (63A: ... Surgeon's goal) ("left behind" as in "instruments or other foreign matter left behind inside the patient")
    • BUT NET (4D: ... "Swish")
    • IS EASY (51D: ... "Keep at it!")
    Word of the Day: ALTA (8D: Ski area in the Wasatch Mountains)
    Alta is a ski area in the western United States, located in the town of Alta in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, in Salt Lake County. With a skiable area of 2,614 acres (10.58 km2), Alta's base elevation is 8,530 ft (2,600 m) and rises to 11,068 ft (3,374 m) for a vertical gain of 2,538 ft (774 m). One of the oldest ski resorts in the country, it opened its first lift in early 1939. Alta is known for receiving more snow than most Utah resorts, with an average annual snowfall of 545 inches (13.8 m). Alta is one of three remaining ski resorts in the U.S. that prohibits snowboarders, along with nearby competitor Deer Valleyand Vermont's Mad River Glen. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    This was very easy, and I can see how a solver might be thrilled to get the gimmick easily and then have that EDGE of knowing the first word heading into every theme clue. So there's the pleasure of "Ha, got it!" I don't see what other pleasure there is, though, and I'm once again stunned that anyone thought that the best thing to do with a bland, one-note theme was to make it Super Dense, thereby ruining the possibility that the non-theme stuff might be interesting. Constructors often get up in their own heads, setting challenges for themselves that have absolutely [...] to do with solver enjoyment. In fact, theme density often works directly against grid sparkle. Here, nothing goes terribly wrong, but we endure a ton of dry old short stuff so that all those "nothing" phrases can get in there. If the theme was inherently delightful, it might be worth it to have nothing terribly interesting going on outside the theme, and to have to slog through your typical slate of crosswordese: ELAL AGRA MINH VIOL STENO etc. Even the slang is musty (PHAT, ROFL). But whatever whimsical delight one might've felt at uncovering a few on-the-money "nothing" phrases is undone by the cramming in of less delightful, merely plausible ones. Good possibilities like ___ DOING and ___ IN COMMON and, I don't know, "___ COMPARES 2 U" are absent while "___ IS EASY" (!?!?) and "___ TO WEAR" somehow make the cut. The cluing concept is messed up, too. If I read the clues like a damn menu, then yeah, I guess I'd see the first Across clue first. But like most humans I start in the NW, where A. I saw the first Down themer first (___ BUT NET), and B. even if I had seen the Across themer in that section first, it wouldn't have been the first one, since the first Across themer—the initial clue that introduces all the other ellipsis-fronted theme clues—actually occupies the upper right part of the grid. Anyway, I got ___ BUT NET within a few seconds, then ___ TO SNEEZE AT, then just filled in most of the rest of them. Got every one of them with no additional help except ___ LEFT BEHIND and "___ IS EASY."

    Five things:
    • 70A: Bridge scorecard heading (THEY) — honestly thought I had an error. Never played bridge. Not once. Never. Never seen a bridge scorecard. Thought maybe people played bridge at THE "Y" ??? So apparently the headings on the scorecard are "WE" and "THEY," which ... seems precious and strange. But it's your game, not my game, so enjoy it. THEY!
    • 2D: "Little ___ in Slumberland" (early comic) (NEMO) — easily my favorite part of the puzzle, just because I enjoy remembering how stunning this comic is. Winsor McCay's epic dreamscapes were just about the best thing that's ever appeared in the brightly-colored Sunday comics section. Kid falls asleep and has fantastical, often frightening dreams, and then (usually) ends up waking up in a heap on the floor in the final panel. For example... 
    • 52D: Comforts (BALMS) — had the "B" and wanted "BABY...S?" Maybe BOONS. Definitely not BALMS, which are for lips (though this clue is perfectly accurate, of course).
    • 60D: Heiress of Hartfield, in an 1816 novel (EMMA) — me, with "E" In place: "EYRE!" (Those who have read both novels will realize how incredibly bad a guess this is)
    • 61D: Popular Renaissance instrument (VIOL) — "Popular?" I mean ... you'd think [Renaissance instrument] would be enough. I mean, really, what do you mean by "popular"? How many people actually played VIOL? I demand statistics! Anyway, I wrote in LYRE at first, I think.
    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


    Horizontal line on chessboard / WED 10-23-19 / Petite Grande / MacKenize beer mascot of 1980s / Cassady traveling companion of Jack Kerouac

    Wednesday, October 23, 2019

    Constructor: Jennifer Nutt

    Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging (4:44 on oversized 16x15 grid)

    THEME: something about PLINY THE ELDER approaching MOUNT VESUVIUS while saying "FORTUNE / FAVORS / THE BOLD" — all of this is news to me, so ... I guess this all happened ... allegedly ... a long time ago?

    Word of the Day: ANIMATRONS (4D: The T. rex in "Jurassic Park" and others) —
    a puppet or similar figure that is animated by means of electromechanical devices an animatronic figure (
    • • •

    Couldn't have cared less. Even if I had ever heard of this ... event? ... I don't think I'd have cared. It's some kind of ADAGE (67A: Maxim), and then a Roman dude and a volcano. I do not care. There is no interest level here. There is no wordplay or trick or nothin'. Lots of 3-, 4-, and 5-letter answers, though, so woo hoo! I feel like people are out here making puzzle just to make them, just because they seem adequate, or like something they can imagine being in a paper, instead of making puzzles that might bring *them* joy, one's they can imagine *themselves* really loving. Just ... so much adequacy lately. So much mediocrity. Things haven't even been *interestingly* bad lately. Just meh. This puzzle has "ERASERHEAD," so that's cool, but that's all that's cool. TUNA BURGER!? I'm sure they exist, but not anywhere I've eaten lately. Tuna steak, sure. Tuna salad, of course. I dunno. Awkward adjectives like PUPAL and PAPUAN and then stupid archaisms like AFORE :/ and classic crosswordese like "IS IT I?" It was all a little exhausting. Big Shrug Energy, overall.

    I drink coffee. Like, a lot. It is the most important ritual of my day. The happiest moment of my day. Literally nothing brings me greater joy that brewing that first pot of coffee just before dawn. I love everything about it. I've been drinking coffee for ~30 years. So ... what the hell is "Jitter juice" (JAVA)? Stop it. Stop with your dumb slang from some wannabe hipster, Daddy-O. JAVA is an actual coffee-producing island, you could go with that. There are lots of other slang terms of real merit. "Jitter juice"? This dumb clue has me borderline angry. I would love a cool coffee clue, but this really ain't it. I wrote in SLAV at 53A: Speaker of a language that has both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets because for the life of me I cannot keep SERB and SLAV straight ... and then bam, there's SLAV just waiting for me at 10D: Many a person once trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Always weird when your wrong answer one place becomes your right answer somewhere else. Only answer that was a total "???" to me was RENÉ Caovilla, but "high-end women's shoes," no surprise that's a little beyond me. "High-end" is such a bad euphemism. They're expensive. It's OK to say that. Cool to see ELENA clued as Ferrante this time. I feel like Kagan gets most of the ELENA glory. I had SCAM instead of SPAM at first, which seemed very plausible (10A: Many a phone call from one's own area code, nowadays). No real hang-ups or wrong turns in this one. Some wrestling with vague clues, and a tad slow overall, but nothing noteworthily difficult here. Time for bed.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    [Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


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