Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ice-Proof Scotch

Double issue last week: no puzzle this week (no Word Salad either).  So today I'm tackling "Code Format," one of Stephen Sondheim's original puzzles for New York Magazine.

I noted this along the way, as I was looking through old magazines.  It's a 1975 ad for Famous Grouse scotch whisky, making the somewhat scientific case that since it was bottled at 90 proof instead of 86 or  80 proof, it wouldn't be diluted as much when you drank it on the rocks.  Looks like a fun experiment to replicate.

I enjoy a wee dram once in a while: Glenmorangie in particular (a wine-drinker's malt).  Since my grad school days, I've ordered my whisky with one ice cube.  Order your whisky neat, and it's served in a shot glass.  Order it on the rocks, and you get more ice than whisky.  Ordering it with one ice cube meant you got the most whisky for your money, a key concern when I was living on a grad student salary.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Taps (Solution No. 3,285)

If you've solved these puzzles before, this one was easy.  If you only solve block puzzles Hex and other   "by the book" cryptics, you probably had trouble.  This one was full of rule-bending wordplay.

Themework: none that I noticed

Musical content: 1a

Political content: 8d

Solution and annotation below the fold.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Salt potatoes (Sunday brunch: May 26, 2013)

Most Memorial Day weekends will find me watching the Syracuse University lacrosse team in the NCAA final four, and this year is no exception.  Their former coach, Roy Simmons, is a friend of our family.  I was nowhere near good enough to play for SU, but I did have the honor of playing a little summer ball for him and I have one of his artworks in my home.  

I'll say I'm surprised that this year's team not only made it this far, but they're the number one seed.  When I saw them play at Villanova earlier this season, they were destroyed at the X, losing 23 of 25 face-offs.  Very few teams are able to survive giving their opponents twenty extra possessions, and sure enough, the Wildcats pulled off an 11-10 win.

The 'Cuse got their revenge in the Big East tournament, coming close to even in the face-off department and winning the game 13-9, but their Achilles heel is exposed.  In the first round of the NCAA tournament, they ran into the best face-off man in the nation, and Kevin Massa won 22 of 23 to allow a below-.500 team to hold a lead over the #1 team for most of the first half.  But SU played a ball control game the rest of the way, forced turnovers, tied it by halftime, and won 12-7.  Orange vs. Denver, today at 5:00, after the Cornell-Duke semifinal.

So in honor of the team, I made a batch of salt potatoes to go with dinner last night.  Syracuse is known as the Salt City for one of its early industries, and legend has it that workers who harvested salt from the briny springs surrounding the city used the salty water to cook potatoes for a cheap meal.  They eventually became a clambake and barbecue staple in Central New York, and a popular snack at the New York State Fair.  My adaptation of the recipe has the potatoes finished in the oven for a few minutes to highlight  the salty crust.

3 pounds small new potatoes, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter
1/2 pound salt
4 tbsp butter

Add salt to 2 quarts of water and bring to a rolling boil.  Scrub the potatoes and gently pierce the skin of each one with a fork.  Boil the potatoes for about 30 minutes.  Fish them out of the water and place them in a shallow baking dish.  Bake for 5 minutes in a 350° oven.  Serve with little dishes of melted butter and plenty of cans of beer.  Serves 6 to 8.

I've got a connection to the other traditional Memorial Day sporting event: the Indianapolis 500.  My mother is from Terre Haute, and went to school with Mari Hulman, matriarch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  I've been to the Speedway, but never watched a race there (nor have I played golf there: Brickyard Crossing is reputed to be an excellent course).  While I'll cook up a Syracuse-themed meal in honor of the lacrosse team this weekend, I don't really know what would qualify as Hoosier cooking.

Long weekend: after pausing to recognize fallen heroes, you'll still have time for some extra puzzles.

Trip Payne posted a 1995 variety cryptic of his called Indeed!, originally published in the magazine "Tough Cryptics."

The Wall Street Journal has a Boom Boxes by Patrick Berry this week.  If you have trouble with the issu content, go to and download the PDF.  If you have trouble with the puzzle, you can request a hint on the comment side of the post or you can look at the hint file below the fold, which gives you the enumerations in each row.

Nathan Curtis has given us a Some Assembly Required.  In other news, his blog now has a feature where users can rate the difficulty of his puzzles, so if you want to bang your head against a wall, you can pick out one of the difficult ones.  [update: this one is easier than most Some Assembly Required, so if you haven't tried one before, this is the one to start with]

Puzzazz users: update your app: version 2.4 has some of the promised improvements, including a new virtual shelving system that labels the shelves and includes a separate shelf for your purchased puzzle books.  If you have purchased The Year of Puzzles ($19.99), they have added a Rows Garden by Patrick Berry.  It is appropriately dedicated to the Rose City: Portland.  

Falcon said the National Post puzzle this week was the easiest he's seen in a while.  Props to Hex for even putting their theme answers in order--just the kind of attention to detail you expect them to show.

The Times has a Split Decisions by Fred Piscop behind the paywall.  Deb Amlen reports that this is the first one Piscop has written since the death of his mentor, George Bredehorn, and shares some of Piscop's comments on picking up Bredehorn's pencil.  That said, Bredehorn's work will live on for a while, as he left behind a database of word pairs he liked and wanted to use sometime.

hints for Wall Street Journal puzzle below the fold

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Congratulations, Erica! (Puzzle No. 3,285)

Well, now we know where Erica was last week when we were expecting her to post her solution and snark on this month's Harpers': she was off on a toot celebrating her being a winner of their monthly contest!    Maybe she'll tell us next month about all the barflies in all the gin mills of Chicago who toasted her success, or maybe put a reference to the victory in the next episode of Blogjob.

I never bothered to put a stamp on a solution and mail it in since I already have access to the magazine at Penn, but now we learn that not only do winners get a one-year subscription to Harpers', they also get a note from Richard Maltby himself!  Or at least I think that's Maltby's signature there... with that kind of penmanship, I can't really be sure.

It makes you wonder what the handwriting of other constructors is like.  Do any of them write one letter on top of another hoping for serendipitous acrostics?  Do they look for opportunities to write a whole note without the use of the letter 'a'?  Which leads to the more philosophical question: are constructors the same in person as they are in a grid, or is the grid their alter ego?

Muse more in the comments if you like: here's 3,285.  It's not the easiest puzzle The Nation has published recently, but I didn't find any stumpers here.  Started it on the El going off to lunch, and finished it just before going back to the office.  I hopped and skipped around rather than knocking out a whole quadrant at a time.

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): Easy to moderate

Hozom's comment: "Definitely!" in which Hot and Trazom debate how specific the definition part of a clue ought to be, and share some of the things that go through their minds as they construct their clues.  Since they try to balance tricky definitions with easier wordplay and vice versa, I'd like to know how often they start with the definition and how often they start with the wordplay.  I think a memorable definition can redeem a mushy piece of fill.

Solution and annotation published Monday—join us this weekend for Sunday brunch!

Monday, May 20, 2013

is it midnight yet? (Solution No. 3,284)

If you want a puzzle typifying Hot and Trazom's cluing, as distinguished from Hex or Patrick Berry or some other constructor, this is the one.  Some misdirection, and rules bent gently but not unfairly.

Solution and annotation below the fold.

Anyone have an A string? (Sunday Brunch: May 19, 2013)

Yeah, I realize it’s Monday brunch.  I'm catching up.  Sometimes I even have a breakfast burrito for dinner (though that's not necessarily because I didn't have breakfast).

Here are the week’s new puzzles.

The Wall Street Journal have a moderately difficult variety cryptic by Hex called Pyramid Scheme.  Groaner warning for the solution phrase at the bottom of the puzzle, and props to Hex for the pyramid reference in the first clue. If time permits, I might post a hint.

For some reason, I didn’t really like the grid of that puzzle.  The concept was fine: acrosses are normal but downs either go diagonally left or diagonally right, in straight lines where some puzzles of this shape might veer back and forth.  But some of the acrosses were unchecked, so while the first row had six letters, there were only four downs starting in the row. Also, diagonals that didn’t spell out words didn’t have heavy bars.  I can see why, since adding the bars would have made the puzzle much easier as well as spoiling the symmetry of the blank grid.

It’s also the time of the month for a new Harpers (subscriber page): this one referencing (at least in the title) Rogers and Hammerstein instead of Stephen Sondheim).  It’s called “June is Busting Out All Over.”  The clues were not too difficult, but I’m still grappling with the unclued central letter.  For what it’s worth, Erica doesn’t have her commentary on the May Maltby posted yet at Tacky Harpers Cryptic Clues.  Post here or at her blog in in the meantime and I'll explain the solution.

The Hex straight cryptic in the National Post is themed on some of the longer place names in Canada.  I can rattle off names like Swift Current (Saskatchewan) and Chicoutimi (Quebec) since they’re home to teams in the major junior leagues of hockey.  Some of the nicknames are pretty good too, like the Brandon (Manitoba) Wheat Kings, the Windsor Spitfires, and the Shawninigan Cataractes.  The best hockey players in Canada (and increasingly from the USA) don’t play college hockey: they go to the Ontario League, the Quebec League, and the Western League, while the second-tier players go to the NCAA.   Players can be drafted by NHL teams once they turn 18, and some of them go to training camp and possibly play a few games for the NHL team before being returned to their junior team for the rest of the season.

The Times has an acrostic this week (behind the paywall).  Deb Amlen has some comments on the puzzle from Hex over at Wordplay

Nathan Curtis's weekly variety crossword is a Snake Charmer.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Naan (Puzzle No. 3,284)

I enjoy Indian food, and we have some pretty good places to get it in the Philadelphia area.  Note however that none of them are on the Penn campus where I work, and none of the trucks offering Indian food are particularly good.

It may not be how everyone else does it, but my first criterion for judging an Indian restaurant is the breads.  If you don't like the first curry you try, maybe another one will be better, but if the bread is dry or tough or burnt, there really isn't a substitute.  Onion kulchas are my favorite, but naan is essential.

Link to puzzle

Hozom's comment: "Coming and Going" in which Hot and Trazom field the slings and arrows that came their way after this clue:

Bread, upon reflection, is bread (4)

I didn't like it either (and I love naan).  I got the reversal part, but I was trying to find something relating to money in the backward bread.  Maybe it's that I've done too many Hex cryptics: Hex are partial to those kind of second definitions.    But reading the column and thinking more carefully about the clue, I can't fault it, like I could with last week's 12d.  The indicator is just fine: it's on me to remember that a reversal with the same definition as the straight definition could be a palindrome, and a cigar is just a cigar.

Solution and annotation on Monday (I think).  I wasn't stuck this time.

Catching up (Solution No. 3,283)

I had my hands full this week, in more ways than one.  While I might not finish solving the The Nation cryptic on the first crack at it, I usually get the remaining bits by the weekend for the usual Monday solution post.  That didn't happen this week.  Not with 12d.  So it got tied up in the work week, and I went on to some less-frustrating solves before finally giving in and going to the computer to figure out 12d.

On the other hand, the theme was pretty easy to find, especially if you know someone who went to Iowa State, in Ames.

Solution and annotation below the fold.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bach Sunday (Sunday brunch: May 12, 2013)

This weekend, TODM and the church choir sing Bach's Cantata #37Wer da gläubet und getauft wird (He that believeth and is baptized...shall become blessed).  It's an Ascension Day cantata.  To get the full effect of Bach, I think one should be open to the spiritual as well as the architectural constructions. Much of his work was composed to illumine the church year or riff on the hymn of the day, and if you're aware of that influence, things make even more sense.  Kind of like recognizing the nods Hot and Trazom make to the political preferences of most The Nation readers.

From the sacred to the profane?  Not quite.  Patrick Berry has another of his Seven Sages puzzles: this one with a quote from George Carlin.  I tried the obvious quote, but it fell (appropriately) four letters short.  Next time they publish one of these, I do it in pencil.  By the time I finished, my grid was about as messy as Bangle's room, thanks to the two or three times I put answers in the wrong locations.  Just sloppy solving: when I had the common letters for 21 and 22, I would put them in the 20/21 spaces.

Nathan Curtis offers a Snake Charmer this week.  I thought it was a breeze.  The first few letters of most of the answers were enough to clear up anything I was unsure about.

Behind the NYT paywall is a Mel Taub Puns and Anagrams puzzle.  I might have said this before, but Puns and Anagrams is good batting practice for cryptic solvers.  The key difference is that indicators are left out of many clues.  If at first you can't parse the clue, assume it's an anagram.  Anyone want to solve it for time?  Post your times in the comments.

UPDATE: The solution is below the fold.  Once you're done with that one, why not browse the rest of our Sunday brunch and pick out a few more puzzles to solve?  The Hex puzzle immediately below is a good intermediate-level cryptic that Puns and Anagrams solvers should be able to get through, while the Tom Toce variety puzzles I featured in a couple of recent posts are an easy introduction to variety cryptics.   

And of course there's the Hex cryptic in the National Post.  Of course it's themed.  Solve it and then call your mother.

Mark Halpin's Sondheim-inspired puzzle is a really polished work.  I don't know if he edits his own work or has someone else do it, but the grids are tight and symmetric, and the clues are well-written.  Halpin also manages to find the "difficult but not impossible" sweet spot a lot of constructors try for.  You think you'll never get the meta, but soon there's a toehold, and a couple more pieces, and then the "aha" moment where the whole theme comes together.  Like a Bach fugue.

And speaking of music, happy birthday to Raydoc, who's not a musician himself but has a good ear and particularly enjoys the work of Soviet era and post-Communist composers like Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki.

JS Bach: Cantata #37

New York Times Puns and Anagrams solution for May 12, 2013 is below the fold: keep scrolling!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

When a cryptic is not a crossword (Puzzle No. 3,283)

Tom Toce's "Golf"
Continuing a week devoted to Tom Toce's puzzles, I solved the 2010s, and one of them was called "Golf."  Like the others, it was not too difficult, yet quite creative.  But it didn't have a grid: not a grid of squares, and not an arrangement of hexagons or triangles or a spiral either.  There were 18 sets of lines on a "scorecard" and a theme answer to be derived from one column, so at least there was something connecting the answers to each other.

I imagine this might bother some of the purists: those of you who find comfort and security in knowing the rules of cryptic crosswords.  Others get their kicks marveling at grids where words are knit together so as to be almost watertight (they worship Patrick Berry).

Is ignoring the "cross word" requirement of a crossword a constructor's copout or is it a fun change of pace?  Is a non-gridded a line you don't want constructors to cross, or would you rather let the standards be loose enough to make room for creative ideas?  Leave a comment so the constructors who read the blog will know what the sense of the solving community is.

This week we definitely have a theme to the The Nation puzzle, as 27a will tell you.  Work the other acrosses first though and see if you can figure out the theme without the hint.  If you can, go brag over at Word Salad.

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): mostly easy, part of the SE is hard though

Hozom's comment: Mixing It Up Even More, in which Hot and Trazom explain what a compound anagram clue is.  It's a clue where there may be some extra words breaking up the anagram fodder.  We have one of those in this week's puzzle: to avoid a spoiler, the clue with the compound anagram is in white text: drag the cursor over this --->  (13d) <---  to see which one.

Solution and full annotation posted Monday.  Join us this weekend for Sunday Brunch: there's a new Mark Halpin to solve.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Editing (Solution No. 3,282)

Over the weekend I solved several more of Tom Toce's puzzles (see last weekend's Sunday brunch).  I'll share some observations from the experience this week.  First, there were sometimes errors in the grids like a number in the wrong place, or errors in the instructions, such as a count of the number of proper nouns or other non-standard entries.  There were also some clues which weren't quite right.

What I realized was that Toce is a pretty creative constructor (he admits he's partial to unusual grids): he  just needs a good editor.  He's got test solvers who catch the big errors and make suggestions for improvements, but that's not the same as editing.  A good puzzle editor picks at all the details and spruces up clues as necessary.  From what I've read, Will Shortz as an editor is more inclined to change constructors' clues, particularly when editing the New York Times crossword.  

As long as the editor respects the constructor's style, it doesn't matter to me whether an editor is heavy-handed or just makes gentle suggestions, but it can be jarring to read an article written in two distinct voices.  Maybe Toce can assemble a collection of puzzles to sell through Puzzazz.  If he does, he'd be wise to engage Hot and Trazom (who edited the NPL cryptic collection) or some other editor to go over his puzzles first.  

On to the solution of this week's The Nation cryptic.     

Themework:  I don't know if Hot and Trazom intended it this way, but they paid tribute to the solvers in 1a, 19a, 28a.

Difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle):  Moderate

Political content:  Not 18a! 

Musical content: 10a

Solution and annotation below the fold.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Actuaries have more fun? (Sunday brunch: May 5, 2013)

Most people wouldn't associate the world of actuaries with something fun to do (though frankly, most people wouldn't know what an actuary is to start with).  Now could I expect an actuary to be a whiz at sudoku?  Absolutely!  But they're supposed to work with numbers, not words.

Well along comes Tom Toce to bust up all those preconceptions about the life of actuaries.  He contributes a variety cryptic to each issue of Contingencies, the magazine published by the American Academy of Actuaries.  From what I can tell, Tom comes from the Stephen Sondheim/Richard Maltby school.  The giveaway is the Sondheim quote in his instructions: "Ignore punctuation, which is designed to confuse."

I found a few inside references like "Rocky Mountain insurance company" in the sample of puzzles I solved, but they're either in the final meta or mostly Googleable so they don't get in the way of us laypeople.  The grids come in great variety, though they're not as interlocked as the very best can manage (like Maltby or Hex or Patrick Berry).  Cluing is pretty much by the book, and not too difficult.  These are good puzzles for people who've gotten the hang of cryptics and are ready for a new challenge.  If you're an experienced solver, here's a good place to go for a quick solve that's lots more interesting than the average block cryptic.

So we'll put Contingencies on the menu.  This really is a good time to be a crossword fan: there are more and more puzzles available to us every month.

The weekend's blue plate special is acrostics.  The Wall Street Journal has a Mike Shenk puzzle while
the New York Times has the regular Hex acrostic behind the paywall and Deb Amlen's column with comments from Hex.  The NYT bonus puzzle (online subscribers only) by Fred Piscop is also posted.

More comfort food?  A block cryptic by Hex in the National Post ought to hit the spot.  Falcon serves that one up for you.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

By the book? (Puzzle No. 3,282)

There was a good discussion over at Word Salad last week on rules (or conventions if you prefer) for constructing cryptic crosswords.  Hot noted that the first two comments voiced two opposite opinions: one wanted a stricter standard and the other wanted more of an "anything goes" approach.  We get the same thing in hockey too.  While our rules are voted on every two years and published in a book (crossword rules were handed down from Ximenes in 1966 but never fully subscribed to by everyone in the game), nobody with more than a little bit of experience calls the game entirely by the book standard.

In fact, the USA Hockey officiating program teaches that, once you get to the upper levels.  If you were to try and enforce every rule as it's written, the flow of the game would be disrupted and the players would be skating on eggshells.  Instead, we're asked to create a "box" of acceptable degrees of aggressiveness and fair play, which (aside from some types of penalties USA Hockey wants us to call every time) is actually more lenient than the book rules.  The goal is to communicate a clear and consistent standard of play.

Crossword setting can work the same way.  Good constructors like Hex or Hot and Trazom will set up their "box" somewhere outside the Ximidean rules, but if you've solved a few of their puzzles, you know where the boundaries of the box are and play to them.  With more experience, you can even anticipate and take advantage of them, kind of like my last years as a player, when I learned how much holding I could do... especially when Pat Durkin was refereeing.

After all the twists of last week's puzzle, this one is more in line with the unwritten expectations.  I saw a smidgen of a theme in it—did you?

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): moderate, with a few answers I wasn't sure of at first.

Hozom's comment: "What's a Clue For?" in which Hot and Trazom discuss when it's cricket to put the definition in the middle of the clue instead of having a clean division between definition and wordplay.

Solution and annotation posted Monday.  Join us this weekend for Sunday brunch, where I'll run the numbers on a new source of variety cryptics.