Mountain Dew alternative / MON 5-25-15 / Polynesian carvings / Island nation for which distinctive cat is named

Monday, May 25, 2015

Constructor: Jennifer Nutt

Relative difficulty: Medium (normal Monday)

THEME: "I NAILED IT" (57A: Appropriate exclamation upon solving this puzzle?) — last words of theme answers describe a manicure (I think): first CLIP, then FILE, then BUFF, then SHINE, then POLISH. I hope I have this right.

Theme answers:
  • VIDEO CLIP (17A: Excerpt shown on TV)
  • CIRCULAR FILE (23A: Wastebasket, jocularly)
  • TRAIN BUFF (33A: Visitor at a railroad museum, say)
  • MOONSHINE (39A: Product of a backwoods still)
  • SOCIAL POLISH (45A: What a boor sorely lacks)
Word of the Day: BABYLON (9D: Ancient Hanging Gardens city) —
Babylon [...] was a significant city in ancient Mesopotamia, in the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The city was built upon the Euphrates, and divided in equal parts along its left and right banks, with steep embankments to contain the river's seasonal floods. // Babylon was originally a small Semitic Akkadian city dating from the period of the Akkadian Empire c. 2300 BC. The town attained independence as part of a small city state with the rise of the First Amorite Babylonian Dynasty in 1894 BC. Claiming to be the successor of the more ancient Sumero-Akkadian city of Eridu, Babylon eclipsed Nippur as the "holy city" of Mesopotamia around the time Amorite king Hammurabi created the first short lived Babylonian Empire in the 18th century BC. Babylon grew and South Mesopotamia came to be known as Babylonia. // The empire quickly dissolved after Hammurabi's death and Babylon spent long periods under Assyrian, Kassite and Elamite domination. After being destroyed and then rebuilt by the Assyrians, Babylon became the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 609 to 539 BC. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the city came under the rules of the Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman and Sassanid empires. // It has been estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world from c. 1770 to 1670 BC, and again between c. 612 and 320 BC. It was perhaps the first city to reach a population above 200,000. Estimates for the maximum extent of its area range from 890 to 900 hectares (2,200 acres). // The remains of the city are in present-day Hillah, Babil Governorate, Iraq, about 85 kilometres (53 mi) south of Baghdad, comprising a large tell of broken mud-brick buildings and debris. (wikipedia)
• • •
I know nothing about manicures, but this theme strikes me as both clever and tight. I don't think I know what "SHINE" means. I mean, of course I know what that word means, but the difference between "SHINE" and "POLISH" is lost on me. Maybe there's some clear stuff that goes on before the "POLISH." If my daughter were nearby right now, I could ask. But she's not, so I'm 'just going to trust that this puzzle has the whole manicure verb progression right. Speaking of polish—the fill on this thing looks great. It's not what you'd call zippy, but that's understandable, given that the grid's trying to keep *six* long themers in place without having the rest of the grid go to hell. Failing to go to hell is all the non-theme parts of the grid had to do, and they did that admirably. All in all, a promising start to the work week ... only it's Memorial Day, so nobody's working, so ... just "week."

There were a couple things I didn't understand. One is technical—why are there cheater squares* (black squares before 31A and after 41A, respectively? Those sections should've been awfully easy to fill without having to add the cheaters. But I assume the constructor tried that, and just couldn't get the fill to come out clean enough, and so added the cheaters and got the job done. It's a very minor thing. I'm not even complaining—just wondering aloud, from a constructor's standpoint, why one would resort to cheaters *there*. The other thing I don't understand—why TRAIN BUFF?? I mean ... trains? If you needed "train" for your theme to work, OK, but "train" has nothing to do with the theme, so why not go with the much more familiar MOVIE BUFF? There are millions of MOVIE BUFFs and, like, seven TRAIN BUFFs in the world, so ... that choice mystifies me. Again, not complaining. Just standing here, baffled.

I got slowed down a bit by TRAIN BUFF (had TRAIN and had no idea what could come after). I also took a while to come up with SOCIAL POLISH, since it's not a phrase that stands alone that well. "Social graces" googles about 25 times better, for instance. It's an actual phrase, it's just not snappy or self-evident, hence the delay in my figuring it out. I also hesitated at SEIZE because I Swear To God I never know the I/E order there. SIEGE, I then E, SEIZE, E then I. I can tell myself that now, but in the heat of solving, that knowledge just isn't accessible and I end up guessing / checking crosses.

Lastly, sadly, Anne Meara died yesterday. I should say Anne MEARA, since her last name has been common crossword fare for decades now. She was also a crossword buff (!) herself, and a nice person to boot. Oh, and a comedy legend, obviously, but I just took it for granted that you all knew that. I hope someone's making a (good) tribute puzzle for her right now. She deserves it.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

*cheater squares = black squares that don't add to the word count (generally added by constructors solely for the purpose of making the grid easier to fill)

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Kyrgyz province / SUN 5-24-15 / PBS craft show for 21 seasons / Sci-fi narcotic / AI woman in 2015's Ex Machina / Bariton in Mikado / Local theater slangily / Warrior in Discworld fantasy books / Former Jets coach Ewbank / Speed-skating champion Kramer / Sun's 10th planet once /

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Constructor: Kevin G. Der

Relative difficulty: Medium

THEME: "A Tale of Many Cities" — celebrating the 142nd anniversary of the publication of JULES / VERNE's "Around the World in Eighty Days"; puzzle note reads:

 Circled letters form a circuitous path around the grid ("world") starting at the "A" in KCAR (93A) and going east, off the grid, and back around to the west side of the grid, ending almost exactly where we began (at the "S" in RAYS (79A)). The circles spell out "AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS"; further, each long Down clue has an appended clue—a country, followed by word lengths for the city you're supposed to find hidden (in not-always-consecutive letters) in that answer; thus, in the clue 3D: Brooklyn Heights school [U.S.; 3, 9], the [U.S.; 3, 9] part indicates that the hidden city in SAINT FRANCIS COLLEGE is in the US and is two words, 3 and 9 letters long, respectively (i.e. SAN FRANCISCO)

Theme answers:
  • BORN TO BE MY BABY (Bombay)
  • YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYING? (Yokohama)
Word of the Day: "THE NEW YANKEE WORKSHOP" (31D: PBS craft show for 21 seasons [U.S. 3, 4]) —
The New Yankee Workshop is a woodworking program produced by WGBH Boston, which aired on PBS. Created in 1989 by Russell Morash, the program is hosted by Norm Abram, a regular fixture on Morash's This Old House. The series aired for 21 seasons before broadcasting its final episode on June 27, 2009. (wikipedia)
• • •


I got the gist of the theme very early—if you get 1D, you get 141D, and very quickly you're down to a finite number of books this puzzle can be about. Here's what my grid looked like less than a minute in:

 [So ... Journey to the Center of the Earth?]

My philosophy on puzzles with "Notes" is "Ignore Them." I like the challenge of figuring out what's going on for myself. So I just plowed forward and had faith that the gimmick would reveal itself to me. And quickly I could see that the letters were spelling out "Around the World in Eighty Days." I didn't stop to see how, exactly, or what the pattern was, but I could tell that's the book I was dealing with. The only question that nagged at the back of my mind for the entirety of the solve was "What do those secondary clues mean?" But I didn't stop to think about it much, because the puzzle seemed to be coming together just fine without my knowing. And indeed, I finished the whole thing and got the Happy Pencil sign and everything and still didn't know what the secondary clues were all about. But shortly after I started thinking about it in earnest, I got it. The numbers had to be word lengths, and the countries had to be places that Phileas Fogg visited ... so, cities. Aha, there's NEW YORK, there's SAN FRANCISCO ... got it. Pretty dang cool. And of course the path of the circled letters, like Fogg's journey, starts and ends in "London" (i.e. 6D), and follows Fogg's globe-circling itinerary—an eastward voyage through SUEZ, BOMBAY, CALCUTTA, HONG KONG, YOKOHAMA, SAN FRANCISCO, NEW YORK, in order—precisely.

It's an oversized grid, so if it seemed to take you longer than usual, that could have something to do with it. Also, perhaps you're like me and you've Never Heard Of several of the theme answers. SAINT FRANCIS COLLEGE? Mystery. Inferable mystery, but still, mystery. "THE NEW YANKEE WORKSHOP"? This is literally the first I'm hearing of it. I know a lot of Bon Jovi songs, but not "BORN TO BE MY BABY." As for SPECIAL COURT MARTIAL ... I'm sure it's a thing, but it's an adjective attached to COURT MARTIAL, as far as I know. And "THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT" ... well, I confess I knew that one. But I don't know how. In my mind, it co-starred Chow Yun-Fat, but that's "The Replacement Killers," a 1998 movie with Mira Sorvino. "THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT" co-starred Samuel L. Jackson. I don't think I've seen it, despite the fact that the title is so close to the title of my favorite novel I probably should've seen it now, if only by accident.

Ambition and cleverness will get you everywhere, and it will certainly excuse some infelicities in the fill (ATRI is comically crosswordesish, and a few other things are less than lovely, but they just don't seem that significant when the Big Picture is this grand. Wait, what's an UDE ??? (60A: Ulan-___ (capital of a Russian republic)).  That and OSH and EROO and TEA OR and the like are of course unideal, but I still say those hiccups are too small to significantly diminish my enjoyment and admiration today. Sundays have been ... not great, of late. This, *this*, is the level of artistry and complexity the Sunday should be aiming for most if not all of the time. Haven't seen much from Kevin Der lately. If he can make one of these fantastic Sundays only about once per year ... fine. I can wait. Now we just need 51 more like-minded, like-talented constructors to step up.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

P.S. we're just one week away from the inaugural Indie 500 Crossword Tournament in lovely downtown Washington, D.C.  Solve six puzzles by some of the top young constructors in the country! Hang out with dorks just like you! Realize you have no hope of winning and realize also that you don't care because that's not why you go to crossword tournaments! (That last one applies especially to me). Also, there will be pie. I have been promised. The puzzles will be good and the vibe will be loose and fun and if you've ever been tourney-curious, this will be a good place to start. All the info you need is here. Hope to see you there: Saturday, May 30, D.C.

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