Thursday, August 30, 2012

Comprehension exam (Puzzle No. 3,250)

Update (Monday): In annotating the solution, I was impressed at how neatly this puzzle breaks the normal (American) rules of constructing and solving cryptic crosswords.  Read through the annotation to see all the examples.  

Be warned, this is a hard one.  Fortunately, there's no obscure fill (nice work there!), so you can use the crossing letters to get some of the answers.  But don't cheat yourself; if you figure out an answer that way, go back and work out the wordplay.  By my count, there were a dozen or so tough clues.  Some are the kinds of non-standard clues Hot and Trazom have been talking about in their blog the last month or two, others are a bit of a stretch in one indicator or another, and others rely on unusual definitions or divisions in the clue (shades of Hex).

If you have trouble with a clue, read back through Hot and Trazom's blog posts to see if you recognize the type of clue and how to deconstruct it.  Then post a comment here if you need further help.  One of us will steer you in the right direction.

If you can solve and explain all these: congratulations, you've passed the test and can call yourself a cryptic expert!

Link to puzzle

Difficulty: very hard--challenging cluing, but all the fill is common.

Hozom's comment: "Collaboration," in which Hot and Trazom walk us through the process where two constructors create one puzzle: must-read for anyone who's more than a casual cryptic fan.

Solution and explanation below the fold

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hello, Uncle Milton! (Sunday brunch: August 26, 2012)

Two cryptics and two acrostics for you this weekend.

After you read and comment here, go do Mike Shenk's acrostic in the Wall Street Journal.  There's one word in it which so far everyone commenting has gotten wrong the first time (and it wasn't an unfair clue either).  Solve the puzzle (it's easy, thanks to the disappointing amount of repetition) and then let Mike know whether you got fooled as well.

Hex have an acrostic in the New York Times this weekend.  I'd be much more inclined to solve them right away rather than put them aside if the Times were to publish their acrostics in Java like the WSJ does.

Back on the cryptic front, Richard Maltby has a "Lost and Found" for you in the September Harper's.  Haven't gotten started on it yet, so I can't tell you whether it's hard or easy

And Falcon will have the National Post cryptic by Hex for you over on his blog.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Music to eat by? (Puzzle No. 3,249)

Link to puzzle:

Hozom’s comment: "In the Mail," in which a solver declares victory in a way much more meaningful than the crass "brag posts" over at the WSJ and NYT puzzle blogs.

Themework: I’m not finding a theme here: did I miss something?  If so, then post it in the comments.

Difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): Easy

Political content: Maybe we should keep track of Trazom’s musical content instead…

Solvers’ note from Braze: Craig in Adelaide now has a note up at his site telling us that his Crossword Helper had to be shut down because he needed the server for work purposes.  I’ll let you know if there is any further news.  Got a good alternative?  Share it with me in the comments.

Solution below the fold.  Need hints?  Ask in the comments.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Welcome NYT diagramless solvers

I see from the stats that a lot of you came over to Sunday brunch looking for answers or hints for the New York Times diagramless.  That's not normally my territory, but I like diagramless too, and I got through it pretty quickly.

Feel free to use the comments to post your requests and answers.  If I can locate my copy of the puzzle, I'll post a solution below the fold.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Good morning, Irene (Sunday brunch: August 19, 2012)

[UPDATE:  Welcome NYT diagramless fans.  See the post above for a place to post comments and requests for hints.]

Are you OK working without blocks or bars to tell you where to place words?  This weekend's New York Times variety puzzle is a Fred Piscop diagramless.  If you've never tried a diagramless before, this is a good one to start with, since the top section is pretty easy.  Take the starting space hint below the fold (there's another useful piece of information there too), fill in 1 across, and continue from there.  Orange has some more diagramless tips over at Diary of a Crossword Fiend.  Just in time for this puzzle, a new version of Diagnil has been released.  Diagnil is a software tool for working diagramless crosswords.  I found the interface somewhat confusing, but it might help you get through your first puzzle or three by doing the symmetric black squares for you, keeping track of numbers and quickly turning the diagramless into a diagrammed crossword.

Elsewhere on the unguided front, the "Boxing Rings" puzzle by Patrick Berry may scare you at first, but it's not too difficult.  Once you solve a clue, you can enter its first letter at the numbered space, and its second and last letters in the spaces denoted by the shaded box for each clue that tells you where in its respective ring it starts.  If you get a few of these close together, then you can probably rule out at least one configuration for one of those answers, or maybe get something that looks like an obvious fit. Pencil it in (and do use pencil, since you may have to relocate that answer) and see if that steers the direction of another nearby answer.  Need more help?  Stop by the WSJ puzzle blog forum.

Once you're "warmed up," you can take on the National Post cryptic by Hex.  Falcon will have solution and analysis for you over at his forum.

By the way, Craig Kloeden's Crossword Helper (over in the toolbox at your right) is down.  I've checked with Craig to see if it can be fixed.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Three-letter words about four-letter words

[No issue of The Nation this week, so no new puzzle.]

Hot and Trazom offer a discussion of heteronyms this week over at Word Salad.  Go over and offer your opinions.  I'll usually note them as "pun" in my solutions, and they do show up frequently in some of the puzzles.  With all the wordplay they get into with the National Puzzlers' League, it's no surprise they want to share the good ones.  

Rather than carry on with that topic, I'd rather turn last week's theme around and address the issue of vulgarity, profanity, and innuendo in the crossword world.  Solvers tend to be pretty civilized people, and publishers don't want to make their customers upset at them, so any language that could be interpreted as offensive either gets self-censored by the constructors or edited out by the editors (that's part of their job).

There are a few exceptions though, most notably The Onion.  For a few months last year, they published a print edition here in Philly, and since one of their boxes was at the trolley stop outside my office, it was easy to pick up a copy and do the puzzle if I had to ride the trolley to Center City or walk somewhere on campus.  Between the pop culture references and the sometimes-weak fill, it was a pretty low-priority puzzle in my life; but the themework is usually clever, so I'd solve enough to get all the theme answers.

Keeping with the whole irreverent theme of the paper, you could usually count on at least one clue or entry in The Onion's puzzle that wouldn't pass muster with the Times.  It usually wasn't too rude, especially in comparison to the ads that usually appear in that section of The Onion.  I figure that if you can read the rest of that paper without getting yourself to a fainting couch, you can take a few sexual references in the crossword, most of them reasonably funny or clever in their cluing.

With a comic tradition exemplified by Benny Hill and Monthy Python, and a whole lot of Cockney rhyming slang as raw material, British constructors seem to slip a little more innuendo into their puzzles.

I imagine that most red-blooded constructors have come up with a few such clues of their own: private jokes that they know won't ever see print, except maybe in a run of a few copies made for friends and passed around under the table like "party records" (think of a vaudeville show made about three times as vulgar).

And it works the other way too: I hear a lot of four-letter words around the hockey rink, particularly in late night mens' league games, and we refs are strongly discouraged from replying in kind.  Thanks to my crossword habit, I can change words on the fly and use something more articulate instead of using the same old profanities.

Do you do the same?  Maybe if we get more people into crosswords, we can turn the culture back from Madonna and gangster rap back to Cole Porter and Ella Fitzgerald (who if you listen closely were definitely not innocents)....

Saturday, August 11, 2012

At the carnival (Sunday brunch: August 11, 2012)

Well if you keep guessing the same thing, eventually you'll be right.  Hex got their "Finish Line" variety cryptic format back into training, and it qualified for the Wall Street Journal Saturday puzzle.  They also contribute an appropriate acrostic to your weekend's puzzling, over at the New York Times.   Don't miss the extended quotes Hex shared with Deb Amlen.  No Olympic theme in Hex's block cryptic for the National Post: Falcon will tell you more at his blog.

The title of this week's brunch came to mind since I spent the last couple of days at Hersheypark where Bangle was in a skating competition (she won her compulsory moves event and was sixth in the free skate).  If you're a Mac user, that title might bring back great memories.  "At the Carnival" was the second of Cliff Johnson's word game/puzzle packages designed for the Macintosh, following the groundbreaking "The Fool's Errand" and preceding "3 in Three."

At the Carnival was released in 1989, at a time when computing power was limited, and graphics bit-mapped.  Johnson had a unique style with those graphics, and combined it with a variety of cryptograms and other word puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and action games.  We learn that Johnson worked at amusement parks as a teenager, and looks back at those days with a rather cynical eye (like I look at working public sessions on Saturday nights at the Penn rink, where all the boys were named Vinny and the girls were talented enough to smoke and chew gum at the same time).   So we see rides with names like "The Rabid Rat," and it helps to know the spelling of various agents that can cause food poisoning.  

At the Carnival and The Fool's Errand are available for free download at Cliff Johnson's site, as a means of promoting his long-in-gestation sequel "The Fool and His Money."  For that fame, Johnson  is now promising a release date of September 24.  (I checked, and it's 2012, not 2011 or 2013).  The old games are really old.  You'll need a Mac running Classic Mode (system 10.4 or earlier on PowerPC, not Intel) and/or an emulator to visit Hazard Park or go on The Fool's Errand; but once you get in, plan on spending a whole weekend there!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Four-letter words about three-letter words? (Puzzle No. 3,248)

Link to puzzle

Hozom’s comment: A discourse on the role of three-letter words in block cryptics.  They’re considered weak construction here in America, but not so much in Great Britain, because (as Hot and Trazom point out) you can include the three-letter word in a solution spanning multiple lights (as 6a/5d do here).  Frank Lewis did that a lot, and it’s very common in the Financial Times.  I like multi-part answers since you can do some very clever things with them, especially if you’re willing to bend the rules and do puns instead of ‘by the book’ wordplay and definition. 

Themework: Straightforward: I imagine some other setters have worked with this theme before.  Might have been better if they could have used the theme words for definitions in each case instead of two of them going in the wordplay, but there aren’t many words you can define by 26a

Difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): Medium

Political content: 1a, 3a

Solution and comments below the fold

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sleeping in (Sunday brunch: August 5, 2012)

A good weekend to stay in bed a little longer: puzzling is lighter than usual.  Not only is there no new issue of The Nation this week, Willz at the New York Times gave us a missing letters word game that Deb Amlen didn't care for.

So did Hex do an Olympic theme?  Nope, they're still at the beach.

Thankfully, Patrick Berry saves our weekend.  He has a new free variety cryptic at his site: "A-Frame Games."  Also, the Wall Street Journal has a new Rows Garden.  If you haven't tried one of these before, do so.  They're a delight to solve because of Berry's skill in 100% checked construction, and if you're a cryptic solver, this will give you practice in fitting answers into an unnumbered grid.

See you Thursday for a new puzzle from Hot and Trazom.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Too tight or too loose?

[Note: actually posted Monday, but backdated for sequencing purposes]

Even though there's no issue of The Nation this week, Hot and Trazom do have some observations over at Word Salad: looking at the age-old question: are our puzzles too hard or too easy?  With a weekly gig, especially one filling the shoes of a man who set nearly 3,000 puzzles, it's important to get that right.  Fortunately, Hot and Trazom have constructed many puzzles, curated more, and solved still more than that, so they have a pretty good idea of the range of difficulty and how to create puzzles that are more or less difficult.

I have to answer a similar question when I go out on the ice: "too hard or too easy?"  Ref the game tightly or loose?  There may not be a right answer to that question, but there are plenty of wrong ones: especially if you let too much go early and the game gets out of hand, or if you call a marginal first penalty and leave the players guessing if you'll penalize them for just leaning on the other guy.  Go by the book, or let 'em play, but always be consistent.

If you solve enough puzzles, you get into a mind-meld with the constructors, and start recognizing their styles and tricks in cluing.  Meanwhile, the constructors are finding their own sweet spot (hence the recent foci of Hozom commentaries).   I've solved so many Hex puzzles (both regular and cryptic) that I naturally look for a secondary definition first.

Also, they've made some edits to the commenting system over at The Nation, so if you've had difficulties posting comments in the past, you might want to try again.