Whale constellation / SUN 3-29-15 / High tech surveillance acronym / Fist bump in slang / Ancient Assyrian foe / Delphine author Madame de / Pub fixture / First name on America's Got Talent panel / Quaint letter opener / British racetrack site / Egyptian king overthrown in 1952 revolution

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Constructor: Alan Arbesfeld

Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging

THEME: "California, Here I Come" — CA added to familiar (-ish) phrases, resulting in wacky phrases:

Theme answers:
  • STREAMING INCA (23A: Ancient Peruvian using Netflix?) 
  • CAST ELSEWHERE (33A: "No fishing here!"?)
  • DEEP SPACE CANINE (51A: Dog whose rocket went off course?) 
  • YOU MAKE ME WANNA CASH OUT (65A: Comment to an annoying blackjack dealer?)
  • REALLY BIG CASHEW (82A: Part of a jumbo trail mix?) (for you youngsters out there, that … is an Ed Sullivan pun … here, this should make it clear:)

  • BACALL HANDLER (97A: Agent for Bogart's partner?) (for you non-sports fans, this is primarily a basketball term, used of whoever's, uh, handling the ball)
  • THE LIFE OF PICA (111A: "12-Point Type: A History"?) (there is no "The" in the title "Life of Pi," so this is an astonishing screw-up)
Word of the Day: NYALAS (59D: Spiral-horned antelopes)
The nyala (Nyala angasii or Tragelaphus angasii), also called inyala, is a spiral-horned antelope native to southern Africa. It is a species of the family Bovidae and genus Nyala, also considered to be in the genus Tragelaphus. It was first described in 1849 by George French Angas. The body length is 135–195 cm (53–77 in), and it weighs 55–140 kg (121–309 lb). The coat is rusty or rufous brown in females and juveniles, but grows a dark brown or slate grey, often tinged with blue, in adult males. Females and young males have ten or more white stripes on their sides. Only males have horns, 60–83 cm (24–33 in) long and yellow-tipped. It exhibits the highest sexual dimorphism among the spiral-horned antelopes. (wikipedia)
• • •

I checked out early with this one. How early? This early.

I'm not kidding. I didn't have good feelings about this one even before starting (title telegraphed the theme, for one thing…) and then, yeah, 1-Across. It's so … something. It's a word. It's a non-terrible word. It's just … dusty, crosswordwise. Today, it's a tone-setter. It made me worry about what this solving experience was going to be like, and my worry was not unjustified. I was not wrong about how I would ultimately feel about the puzzle. Prediction was: humor would be groan-worthy, and fill would be crusty. And I was right and right. I can't even take the time to enumerate all the issues. Too depressing. But the main ones are: theme ridiculously basic and obvious and infinitely replicable, with mostly flat or bizarre theme answers; lots of stale fill; and a cultural center of gravity way way before my time (the last issue being a matter of taste more than quality, admittedly).

Add-a-letter? Really? Again? Man. I mean, yeah, technically it's two letters, but still. The "Funny" bar has to be Very High if the theme's going to be this slight, and today's "Funny" bar doesn't even clear my knees.

Grimace fill:
  • TIRO—Wow. Just wow. I literally LOL'd at 26A: Newbie: Var. Putting "Var." on "Newbie" is like putting a gray wig and mustache on a baby, only much less funny
  • SAD CASE—Ugh x a million. I had SAD SACK, which is an actual, better, phrase. 
  • LETITIA—A spelling adventure!
  • AWACS (34D: High-tech surveillance acronym)
  • INB
That's not even *close* to a full accounting of the mediocre / subpar stuff. Just the "high" lights. CORNIER puzzles, I've rarely seen. Is the Sunday submission pile this shallow? My kingdom for an EDITOR. Etc. Last night, I asked my Twitter followers to tell me what to say about this puzzle, but apparently not everyone does their puzzle at 6:30pm on Saturday night, so I got only a few responses.
"[H]ad to put it away because I was bored silly. Unlike me, but jeez." 
"I am starting to wonder if I am having a stroke while trying to do the puzzle today." 
"Non-slog Sundays are a dying breed." 
"It stopped being interesting, so I stopped solving it."
"Four unforgivable answers in top two rows, including lame themer based on random phrase. Never got better. What's not to like?" 
"Who says BALTO?"
Then Erik Agard told me to play this:

Couple more things:

Brendan Emmett Quigley (named "Constructor of the Year" for 2014 over at "Diary of a Crossword Fiend") is now offering up a subscription to his "Marching Bands" puzzles. 26 puzzles over the course of a year, all fresh, hot and new. To read more about this (awesome) puzzle type and support the project, Go Here.

Lastly, here's a letter to the editor that the NYT didn't publish. I told its author I'd run it, since it's about language use in puzzles (specifically, an acrostic puzzle from a couple weeks back). (Note: my printing the letter does not necessarily indicate my endorsement of the ideas contained therein)
Dear Sir,

I was disappointed to see the offensive acrostic puzzle clues “Kook, Psycho, Lunatic” and answer “Nutcase” in the March 8, 2015, Sunday Magazine. These words are no different than using a similarly demeaning epithet to describe a racial or cultural characteristic. Why then is it acceptable to use such derogatory language to describe a spectrum of brain disorders? Mental illness is a disease, not a joke.

The words we use to describe things inform our perception of them. Even in the seemingly benign guise of a word puzzle they are powerful tools. Will Shortz has devoted his career to using them with flair and style but unfortunately last week his editing missed the mark.
As the mother of someone with schizophrenia I am sensitive to the stigma embedded in the language used to describe it. People suffering from mental illness deserve our compassion and respect, not being reduced to pejorative stereotypes. You can do better. It is time for a more enlightened approach to idle entertainment.

Creighton Taylor
National Alliance on Mental Illness – Maine chapter member
Maine Behavioral Healthcare Board of Trustee
Chairperson of Maine Behavioral Healthcare Advisory Committee
Member of Spring Harbor Hospital “Linking Families” Committee 
    That's all. See you tomorrow.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

    P.S. This:
    "Coining a term: Nor'wester: n., a Sunday NYT xword where you solve the NW corner, see the lame gimmick, sadly go away. Today's, for example."—Gene Weingarten


    Hyperrealist sculptor Hanson / SAT 3-28-15 / composer of opera fiesque / He worked with illustrator phiz / Jeweler of kings king of jewelers / Spring-blooming bush / Musandam Peninsula populace / Modern lead-in to cat

    Saturday, March 28, 2015

    Constructor: David Steinberg

    Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

    THEME: none

    Word of the Day: SNAPCHAT (34D: Disappearing communication system?) —
    Snapchat is a photo messaging application developed by Evan SpiegelBobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown, then Stanford University students. Using the application, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. These sent photographs and videos are known as "Snaps". Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps (as of April 2014, the range is from 1 to 10 seconds), after which they will be hidden from the recipient's device and deleted from Snapchat's servers.
    According to Snapchat in May 2014, the app's users were sending 700 million photos and videos per day, while Snapchat Stories content was being viewed 500 million times per day. The company has a valuation of $10–$20 billion depending on various sources. (wikipedia)
    • • •

    Wow, this is just ridiculously good. I think Steinberg is quickly turning himself into one of the great themeless constructors. Heir apparent to Patrick Berry. This puzzle doesn't have many weak spots at all, and its strong spots are everywhere. All over. All the stacks. All the columns. They are chock full of life and wit and (LEMON) ZEST. Let's see ... SCARUM—that, I don't like. But holy moly you'd need like six more SCARUMs (scara?) to make this thing less than good. I want to scream to all themeless constructs and would-be themeless constructors: aim for This. It's not just good in places; it's good Everywhere. The NYT has become somewhat schizophrenic of late, serving up mediocre fare better than half the time, but then dropping GEMs here and there by the great constructors who still regularly submit to them. I've said it before, and I'm saying it again now: Steinberg is one of a handful of constructors keeping the NYT's overall quality passable. A lot of talent has been syphoned off to other places. Speaking of, you should really check out David Steinberg's *other* current puzzle—the latest American Values Club Crossword. It's called "Inside Dope," which, as I told editor Ben Tausig, is the Same Title as a crossword puzzle I once made, and with a very similar theme. But, as I also told him, David's is better. Get it here for a $1, or just become a AVCX subscriber already: they're thick with constructing talent over there.

    I knew I was in for a fun ride pretty quickly when NOH IMSET WITSEND and XER gave me BIKINI WAX. That was the first answer in a killer 3-stack: BIKINI WAX / ECONOMIZE / DEATH STAR. Conjures images of Vader having some personal grooming done, because, well, he had a coupon, so why not? Calling a BIKINI WAX "hair-raising" seems a bit tenuous, but it allows for a clever misdirection, so I'll allow it.

    [Kid who had an original Rubik's cube, e.g.] => REXPARKER

    The cluing was pretty tough throughout, with lots of initially annoying but ultimately mostly pretty good "?" clues. Also, some clues were vague enough to throw me off, at least for a bit. NE was pretty tough, with two not-terribly-famous names one over the other (DUANE Hanson / ERICA Hill). Luckily, after getting ODEON, I pulled the trigger on both names, with just their first letters in place. I figured that starting "E" in five letters, that name was gonna be ERICA (or ERIKA). Also, I know the name DIANE Hanson, so I just went with that. Fortuitous! Turns out Dian Hanson spells her name without an "E." She's a porn editor and historian. She's done a lot of Taschen books on pin-up / girly mag art. She was interviewed in the (great) film "Crumb." So of course her name was in my head. Anyway, DIANE to DUANE, not a big leap. As you can see here, I got into that corner and down YEAR ZERO, with just a little error there are the top (later fixed, obviously):

    As someone with a vendetta against the Charmin Bears (they're the only animal I want hunted to extinction), I wasn't exactly excited about 57A: They're taken to go (LAXATIVES), but it's nice to see the NYT … I'm gonna say "loosen up" a little. Yes, I'm gonna say it, alright. The exclamation point on this thing, for me, was SNAPCHAT. Gives the grid a nice, youthful glow. Nobody who uses SNAPCHAT would say "CRIPES!" but that's what I love about crosswords—words that normally wouldn't have anything to do with each other get to hang out, mix it up. Diversity! It's a legitimate value.

    OK then, see you tomorrow.

    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


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