Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bar exam II (Puzzle No. 3,263)

Years ago, there was a series of beer ads about the Utica Club Bar Exam.  Three identical mugs, one filled with Utica Club, the other two with some other beer.  If you could tell which of them was the Utica Club, you passed.

Cryptic solvers get a bar exam of their own this week, since Hot and Trazom have given us a bar-style puzzle.  There are two main sub-species of cryptic crosswords: block-style and bar-style, so named obviously because in the latter, words are separated by black bars instead of blocks.

From the constructor's perspective, the two types present different constraints and different challenges.  Bar-style is challenging because nearly every letter has to be checked.  It's tough to fill a bar-style grid without resorting to obscure or crossword-ese words.  On the other hand, block-style is constrained by the rotational symmetry that is convention in English-language crosswords.  Novice constructors often do asymmetric grids as their first puzzles (though sometimes constructors do asymmetric grids to enhance the theme of a puzzle).

For the solver, bar-style cryptics usually mean variety puzzles: the kind where some answers are unclued (like this week's puzzle) or you might have to alter answers before they will fit into the grid.  You usually can't do that with a block cryptic: with so many unchecked letters, there might be several way to make the alteration work.

More to the point, bar-style cryptics are usually more difficult than their block cousins.  But this bar puzzle is not a stumper: it is solvable for the intermediate-level puzzler, but challenging enough to give you a sense of accomplishment when you're through.  And like many variety cryptics, there's a kicker: a little extra reward.  Crossword bloggers like Matt Gaffney call it a "meta."

The tag line on the beer ads: once you passed the bar exam, you could try a case!  So take this exam, pass it, and then try this month's Richard Maltby puzzle in Harper's, or some of Hex's bar-style puzzles for the Wall Street Journal (we're due for one soon, I think).

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty:  Pretty easy, even the unclued answers.

Hozom's comment: The Finishing Steps, in which Hot and Trazom give us an acronym for something we solvers sometimes feel: IGIBIDGI.  They talk about the difference between filling the grid, which is enough for many, and truly solving the puzzle by cracking the wordplay of each clue.  I definitely fall in the latter category (see entry 3,250 for example).  Skipping the wordplay sometimes means missing out on the most clever parts of the puzzle, while working out the finishing steps hones your solving skill and loads the memory bank with little tricks and hints you might see again in a future.

I'd like to hear a little from them about the differences between constructing bar-style puzzles and constructing block-style, since they've had considerable experience with both.  How hard is it to avoid getting caught up in the meta and keep focus on a satisfying grid that doesn't rely on bad entries to make it work?

Solution and annotation posted Monday.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pie for breakfast (Solution No. 3,262)

I have pie for breakfast the morning after Thanksgiving, in memory of my late father in law.  We'd need to buy or make three pies if he was coming to dinner: usually apple, pumpkin, and mince.  Though he was not a large man, he could put away an amazing quantity of that pie.  Then some would go back with him to be devoured over the next few days.  It's indulgent, but not unreasonable to do once or twice a year.  So I was pleased to see two apple pies on the counter next to the coffee machine when I came in to the office this morning.  Of course I had a slice of each...

Did you work on this week's puzzle with a piece of pie and a cup of coffee at hand?  I did: here's the solution.

Difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): easy to moderate–the answers fall in pretty quickly, but working out the wordplay of the long constructions is a challenge.  16d is obscure, but the component words are not.

Musical content: 13a is best known for conducting the NBC Symphony on radio and TV, but also directed La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic.  

Political content: none this week.

Solution and annotation below the fold

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The elves woke up (Sunday brunch: November 25, 2012)

Well it took a while, but the WSJ puzzle blog is updated with the Rows Garden that was published Saturday.  (if you have trouble with the Issuu plugin, try the PDF version instead).  The Rows Gardens are probably the toughest puzzles in the Journal's rotation, and this one is no exception.  Look for some twists in the cluing, and solving will be more fun.  I tried working the one in my print copy of the paper yesterday, got a few words, and managed to put a hole through the paper with my pencil, so I started again today on a fresh copy from the PDF.  Worth the wait.  If you need hints, there's a community of solvers over at the WSJ blog to help.

Canadian Thanksgiving was a few weeks ago, so Falcon's elves were on duty, posting the Cox and Rathvon cryptic in the National Post on time.  Falcon tells us it is "A Family Affair."

In case you missed it, the post on the December Harper's puzzle is below.

And it looks like we will have to say "sayonara" to the New York Times variety puzzles in Sunday Brunch.  The reconfiguration of the Times crossword site that gave us a Java version of last week's acrostic (hooray!) put this week's puzzle (a cryptic by Jeffrey Harris: I assume it is a block cryptic, as that's the Times' usual form) behind the paywall (boooo!).  I don't subscribe to the puzzle site, and I get my paper at the office, so I won't be able to do the puzzle until Mondays now.  Hope the Times reconsiders.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Spiced cranberry and zinfandel sauce

Where'd all the bloggers go?  Or more precisely, where are the elves who post the weekend puzzles?  There's a Rows Garden in my print copy of the Wall Street Journal, and the Times has a cryptic by Jeffrey Harris, but neither of them are posted online yet.

The elves must still be at Grandma's house, or on the train home.  Amtrak expects to carry three quarters of a million passengers this week.  While we wait for the rest of the puzzles to be posted online, you can spend some time cooking.

US solvers might be contemplating their puzzle over a turkey sandwich or some other serving of leftovers.  In my humble opinion, no hot turkey sandwich is complete without a couple spoonfuls of this cranberry sauce, which The Other Doctor Mitchell has been making for a decade or so and got absolutely perfect this time.  Here's how she did it:

2 cups zinfandel wine (inexpensive zin is fine, maybe even better for this recipe)
3/4 cup sugar
5 two-inch strips of orange peel
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
6 whole cloves
4 slices fresh ginger, peeled
2 cinnamon sticks
12 oz fresh cranberries

Make a syrup by combining everything but the cranberries in a medium saucepan.  Bring it to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes or until mixture begins to thicken, stirring occasionally. Strain the mixture into a bowl so you can remove the cloves and other solids.  Return the mixture to the pan and add cranberries.  Cook over high heat 10 minutes or until berries pop.  Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.  Pour into a bowl and let cool.  Best made a day or two before serving: keep refrigerated.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Harper's grid

The December issue of Harpers is out: both on paper and on the web.  Richard Maltby's variety cryptic has a holiday theme, and some red and green rows.  I found that when I printed it out, the colored rows were very dark, so here's a blank grid with lighter shading.  The solution will be posted along with Sunday brunch.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Black Wednesday? (Puzzle No. 3,262)

If the stores can open a day early for Black Friday (I'm not going anywhere near the stores), The Nation can post Hot and Trazom's puzzle early.

Link to puzzle

Hozom's comment: "Lassie, Get Help!" in which Hot and Trazom plug this humble blog and some other tools to bookmark.  Don't be bashful about requesting a hint, or feel you'll get a spoiler.  The usual practice is for first hints on a particular clue to be oblique: maybe a tip that the obvious parsing of that clue happens to be the wrong one or that the definition is not a mainstream one.  If you're still stuck, we'll lead you a little closer but still try and make sure you get the satisfaction of finding the answer and the wordplay.

For what it's worth, I haven't had to resort to the anagram server or crossword helper in the last month or so, which means I haven't been doing very many FT cryptics or other murderous puzzles.  I do sometimes use Google to verify that some odd definition I think I've gotten is correct.

Solution and annotation will be published Monday.  See you this weekend for Sunday brunch.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Another day, another gold (Solution No. 3,261)

Three trips to Wilmington, three gold medals!  Bangle won again on Saturday in the compulsories, while The Other Dr. Mitchell did her part Sunday, skating a very nice program including her new camel spin to win her adult pre-bronze event.

Did you triumph over this week's puzzle?  We've got the answers and explanations here for you.

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): fairly hard.  It took a while to work out some of the wordplay, but I got the most unique clue, 22a, right away.

Political content: 7d: I suspect Ed Asner subscribes to The Nation.

Composer reference: I was hoping for a performer in 12a, but can't complain about Picasso.
solution and annotation below the fold

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Another day at the office (Sunday brunch: November 18, 2012)

Sometimes a game or competition is like a day at the office.  For Bangle on Friday, it was more of a business trip.  Fight the traffic down to Wilmington, skate the program, land the doubles, come home with a gold medal (barely edging out a skater from the U of D club who also skated very well: the judges got it right: the two were clearly better than all the others, and the barest of margins between them).  Click here for the video.

There are real pain in the tail days at the office too, and I had one of them earlier this week.  At least I didn't get hurt.  A weeknight single game at 10:45 is bad to start with, D-league is worse, but I took it as a favor to my assigner.  When I got to the rink, I had to kick a player out of the officials' dressing room, and a few minutes later came an example of why we need our privacy there.  A second referee showed up five minutes before game time, thinking he had been assigned the game (D games we usually work solo).  A brief discussion ensued, he checked his iPhone again, thought about the prospect of a D game at 10:45, and decided to go home.  The game had eight penalties (two or three is a lot for a D game), bad skating (I had to call tripping when a player who had fallen down took out another player while swinging his legs around to try and get up), bad thinking (players who panic when the puck lands on their stick so they shoot it down the ice and get called for icing), bad arguments (I don't care how or why it happened--if your stick makes any contact with an opponent's helmet, I'm calling a high stick), and bad coaching as well.  I've refereed almost twenty years, and I'd never seen a coach try and pull his goalie on a delayed offside!  It was comical to watch the goalie hurry back to his crease after the opponents regained the puck in the neutral zone and tried to get a shot on the empty net.  And that coach wanted to argue a too many men call because he knows those shouldn't get called when there's a minute and a half to go in a 1-0 game?  And how many times did I have to straighten him out on a line change before a faceoff?  But there's a game check afterwards for putting up with all that stuff, and sometimes, getting that check is the only redeeming part of the night.

On to the puzzles:

The Wall Street Journal has an acrostic which happens to hit the theme not only in the quote, but in the word "A" and the first name of the source.  Fairly easy, particularly with the Journal's Java-enabled puzzle.

I don't know what happened to the New York Times variety puzzle this week.  It didn't change over on Friday as usual to the new week's puzzle, and is still showing last week's diagramless.  I happened to find an old Times diagramless on my clipboard and am working that instead.  Check back and I'll update the post if I can find the puzzle for you.

We solvers can always count on Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon though.  This week's cryptic in the National Post is something of a spelling test.  Falcon will be up to the challenge though: visit his blog for the puzzle and solution.

UPDATE: Well!  There's our explanation!  The Times must have heard my moaning about how the Wall Street Journal had overtaken them with their Java acrostics.  This week's Cox and Rathvon acrostic is now in Java instead of PDF!  The same app, right down to the applause when you complete the puzzle.  It's being hosted on the other side of the Times paywall, but there's no block on the puzzle.  Go over and solve it and then let Deb Amlen know how you liked it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Choice specimen (Puzzle No. 3,261)

A particularly nice mix of words and phrases in this grid: a few unusual ones, but nothing obscure (am I repeating myself?).   A pair of 14 letter entries, a phrase split across the first and last acrosses, and some novel approaches that emphasize the "play" in wordplay (especially 22a) or make you stop and think how to parse the clue.  Yep–this puzzle pretty much typifies Hot and Trazom's work.

While I started this one on a morning walk over to get a coffee, the last word (25a) escaped me until this evening.  A fresh look after dinner (and a martini), and I had it in a snap.

Link to puzzle

Hozom's comment: The Big Four.  How many Js, Qs, Xs, and Zs are too many? (and no, this puzzle does not use all four: the blog posts shouldn't be taken as hints to that week's puzzle).  We learn that those letters often make cluing a challenge, so Hot and Trazom don't use too many of them (theme puzzles are another story, of course).  I'm on the 'fewer' side of the fence too: many of the clues require phrase anagrams or anagrams plus a single letter, and they end up being too easy.  Like I said a few weeks ago: easy clues are OK (and necessary), but they ought to be entertaining.

Solution and annotation posted Monday.  Use the comments for hint requests.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Solution No. 3,260

Heeding the suggestion of a sage e-mailer, I'm going to try putting the weekly solutions into their own posts, so they'll be at the top of the blog.  However, they'll still be below a fold (i.e. click to see them), so readers who haven't worked on the puzzle yet won't see them accidentally.

3,260 was a breeze, as I said, with a theme that was probably as much fun for the constructors as for the solvers.  The theme simplified cluing enough to let them put some things in the grid which otherwise would have been either too hard or too obvious to make a good clue.

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): easy.  5d is not a construction I'd seen before, but perfectly legit.

Political content: 1a.

Composer reference: No composers, but a pretty diverse lineup of performers referenced in 15a, 24a, 8d, 17d, and 24d

solution and annotation below the fold

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remembrance Day (Sunday brunch: November 11, 2012)

No particular words of wit or wisdom here today, just a moment of silence in the middle of what's been a tough month for a lot of people.

The New York Times has a diagramless this week, constructed by Paula Gamache (is that the best headshot of a constructor or what?) with an obvious theme and a few words of crosswordese needed to fit it together.    But in keeping with the The Nation puzzle this week, it's a breezy solve too.  Just what I needed after slogging my way through a particularly bad manuscript I had to review Friday.  Deb Amlen enjoys Paula's work too.  The solution is below the fold.

Those of you who came for the solution, come have a look around.  We have several interesting crosswords for you each weekend in Sunday Brunch, plus solutions and commentary on the weekly cryptic crosswords in The Nation, posted each Thursday.  Bookmark us and share your thoughts in the comments.

Over at the Wall Street Journal, puzzle editor Mike Shenk makes his own contribution: one of his Labyrinth variety puzzles.  Initial reports are it's a breeze too.  That is to say, once you get the full puzzle displayed and printed.  While the Journal has a wonderful Java app for their acrostics, the crosswords get posted using the service, which just doesn't get along with some browsers.  Click up to the main WSJ puzzle link and select the PDF version if you're having trouble.breeze

Will the Cox and Rathvon cryptic in the National Post be a breeze?  I'd bet a cup of coffee it will.  Falcon will tell us whether you can finish the puzzle before you finish that coffee.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Breezin' (Puzzle No. 3,260)

This one's a good puzzle to hand to your friends who have gotten the idea of a cryptic crossword, but aren't quite fully hooked yet.  You jump in, and something doesn't feel quite right.  You can't put your finger on it just yet, but you're making progress.  Then there's another clue where you've got the answer but something again isn't quite right....  Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action....  By gosh, I've found the theme!

And that, my fellow solvers, is how you get that person hooked.  For us veterans, this week is an easy, breezy solve (literally in my case: it was plenty windy while I was on my way to lunch), but for others, this is the puzzle that tells you: "I can really do this."

Link to puzzle

Hozom's comment: What Do You Know, in which Hot and Trazom remind us that while different solvers have different strengths and weaknesses in knowledge of pop culture, classical composers, and other sources of clue definitions(*), the wordplay in cryptic crosswords is a great equalizer.

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): easy

Political reference: 29a (did Hot and Trazom know something the rest of us didn't?), 1a (clue)

Composer reference: no composers, but performers in 24a (a Curtis alum) and 8d (clue)

Solution and annotation Monday: use the comments for hint requests

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Grateful (Sunday brunch: November 4, 2012)

[Updated: WSJ solution below the fold]

We're safe here in Glenside, our power didn't go out, and we didn't get any flooding.  House and trees suffered minor damage from Sandy, but all of us are OK, and for me, it was mostly an opportunity to clean and organize my workshop while keeping an eye on the water level in the sump, then watch the barometer here sink to 27.14, an all-time low.  I hope all of you made out no worse than just having an opportunity to solve last weekend's puzzles on paper by candlelight instead of on a computer.

Constructors usually submit their work weeks in advance (so editors and test solvers can have a go), so there was no interruption in our puzzle supply this week.  That's good since Hex contributed three, and their home out in Amish country was right in Sandy's path.  We'll hope they got through safely too.

The Wall Street Journal offers "Missing Links": a variety cryptic by Hex.  Sounds like they took note of solvers' comments (the more cynical might call them "brags") that the puzzles were too easy, as they omitted answer lengths: typical practice for harder variety puzzles like Richard Maltby's or NPL.  That said, most of the clues are pretty easy, which one can expect in a widely-read publication like the WSJ.  On the other hand, some of the words are on the obscure side, but if you think you've got it, you've got it. The solution is below the fold.

The New York Times has a Hex acrostic, while the National Post has a Hex block cryptic.   Falcon took a while, but he figured out the theme of the latter.  Can you?

WSJ puzzle solution below.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Evangelists Like You (Puzzle No. 3,259)

This week's installment of Word Salad is about getting started in the cryptic pastime.  Hot and Trazom authored a primer on clue types and how to solve them shortly after they were appointed to their present office.  But there's more needed to get a novice over the hump and to a successful solving (or partial solving) of their first puzzle.  It helps to have a few obvious clues to use as a starting point: and it's important for constructors to spread those easy ones around the grid instead of placing them randomly and leaving one quadrant with no reasonable way in.

The Word Salad post explains the tactics of finding those clues, and of finding the essential parts of the clue: the definition, the indicator, and the wordplay.  It's the same thing I experienced when I taught physics to x-ray technologist students.  I found that many of my students were actually decent at math, but they froze up when confronted with a word problem since they didn't know where to start.  So I developed a couple of lectures where we would learn to disassemble one of those problems and make it into an equation problem like they had seen in their previous math classes.  For most of the students, the tools they got from those lectures were enough to overcome their math anxiety.

Now you who are experienced solvers and do that clue dissection without a second thought ought to read that post and apply it to a few of the clues in the next puzzle you solve.  I suggest this so you can  see and explain what you're doing, become a teacher yourself, and bring a few friends into the hobby like I did last week.  I sent an e-mail to the fencers who were watching me solve last weekend, pointing them to a few good starting points (including Kegler's beginner puzzles: there's a special place in heaven for constructors who are willing to create puzzles that are easy and not just puzzles that show off their wit and their knowledge of obscure words).  With many of us shut in for a few days due to the storm (which passed right over us, but fortunately spared us any flash floods or power outages), it was an ideal time to do something quiet and peaceful like solving a cryptic.  I'll let you know how they made out next time I see them.  

In the early days of Apple Computer, they had a job title called "Software Evangelist."  This person's mission was to convince programmers to write software for the Macintosh, and to act as their advocate within the company.  Guy Kawasaki thrived in this role so much that he wrote several great books about the concept of evangelism and what it could mean to people who might never have darkened a church door, but have some cause or another they believe passionately in.

You are one of those people, since you've gotten to the point of solving harder puzzles like the ones in The Nation, and reading a blog about it.  Here's your Great Commission: go forth and tell the smart people you know that cryptics stretch your language skills to make you a better writer, plus they're more entertaining than ordinary crosswords.  Share your successes with us.

After all that, I have to say that this is not a puzzle you want to hand to a novice solver, especially after you've given a tutorial in parsing and solving a clue.  There are a few clues here that definitely bend the rules.  Hot and Trazom warned us about this a few weeks ago, noting that sometimes the most satisfying results come from bending the rules.  There's a visual pun, a couple of exclamation points (which do follow the rules), a cross reference, and a unique creation in 1a.  You'll get the grid filled in, without too much head-scratching but don't shortchange yourself by skipping the wordplay.

Link to puzzle

Hozom's comments: see above

Degree of difficulty: hard.  More cultural references than usual, so it's likely you'll need to check one or more of your answers online.  Hints if you need them--use the comments

Political content: 7d

Solution and annotation posted below the fold.