Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trivia (Puzzle No. 3,301)

Any resemblance
to my boss is
One of the little details that separate great constructors from the rest is the way they can keep clues fresh.  One way is to throw in a bit of trivia.  Patrick Berry did that with his Wall Street Journal puzzle last weekend.

The answer (third in Wave 2) was “IDENTIKIT”: the tool police departments use to help witnesses develop a composite drawing of a suspect or of a missing person.  Now it’s highly unlikely that anyone other than someone who makes or uses the product would know, so it was really of little or no solving value, but Berry threw us a little nugget of novelty, adding “developed by Smith and Wesson” at the end of the clue.

Now most of us know Smith and Wesson for making guns (a former work colleague liked to use “Smith and Wesson” as hypothetical authors when we were discussing how to search for, analyze, or cite medical literature), so it’s a bit amusing to see their name in connection with something else.  Kind of like how I felt when I saw a General Motors logo on our Frigidaire when I was a kid.

There are lots of such factoids out there, like all the actors who were born in Canada or what “meow” is in other languages.  It wouldn’t be hard to pick out a couple of such facts, or a set of them, and work them into your clues.    

It wasn’t trivia, but something did start to smell funny about a quarter of the way through this week’s The Nation cryptic crossword.  Sure enough, the last row confirms our suspicions.

Link to puzzle:

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): hard--some more complex wordplay than usual, an obscure word you can get if you think about it carefully, an author, and a famous scientist.

Hozom’s comment: One on One, Part 2, in which we learn that Hot grew up in Lebanon: the one not in Tennessee or Pennsylvania; and that his approach to British cryptics is the same as mine--the satisfaction of solving good clues is more important than the frustration at not finishing the puzzle.  Sounds like both our constructors have some more interesting personal stories to tell, so maybe we’ll get parts 3 and 4 at some later date.

New York Times cryptic crossword solution: October 27, 2013

Below the fold is the solution to this week’s variety puzzle from the New York Times: a straight cryptic by Richard Silvestri.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Handwriting, part 2 (solution no. 3,300)

Thursday I noted that I try to solve my puzzles neatly, even if nobody else is ever going to see them.

Part of it is that my handwriting was more than awful when I was in middle school, so I’m especially aware and maybe even defensive about it.  I worked like hell on it in seventh and eighth grades, made a few changes at the behest of the teacher who was working with me on it, and eventually came to using all caps for much of my writing, which in fact takes after my father, though not necessarily by intent.

The other reason for trying to make neat grids is the extra challenge.  As you may remember, when I work on sudokus, I try to avoid writing notes in the boxes, to make them a bit more challenging.  I know I could write down partials or leftover letters to make anagrams easier to solve, but I don’t feel a strong need to do so, and I’d rather have the satisfaction of doing it all in my head.  I won’t even make notes in the margins, except to call out clues and answers I want to comment on in the blog post.

But I am not such an ascetic when it comes to variety cryptics: there’s too much going on like extraneous words in the clues not to annotate liberally on the page (which is also why I prefer to work most of my puzzles on paper).  Below the solution to this week’s The Nation puzzle is my solved copy of Kevin Wald’s ACPT puzzle from earlier this year (and yes, it was a doozy: harder than usual and with four layers of theme metas.  Go try it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Whistles, part 1 (Sunday brunch: October 27, 2013)

The Fox 40
Fencers aren’t used to whistles.  I learned that last weekend at the tournament where I was Bout Committee.  When I found out we didn’t have a PA system at the field house, I used one of my whistles to call the captains over and start a round of matches or make an announcement.

The first time I used it, I stepped away from the captains who were already over at my table before blowing it, and two of them looked over at me like their ears were bleeding.  I didn't blow it especially hard or long: just my usual whistle.

I guess they were used to hearing a cheap phys-ed class whistle and not a professional-grade model.  And like a lot of other tools of any trade, there really is a difference.
Acme Thunderer

Hockey referees might be more particular about their whistles than any other sports officials.  Why? Having a good sound matters for everyone, but because we move so much faster than anyone else, ergonomics are especially important in hockey.  We have to get the whistle to our lips safely and precisely, at the same time as we’re skating full-tilt after an icing, or making a hard stop on the blue line.

So our whistles have a fingerclamp which keeps the whistle on the back of our hand while we’re skating.  And when I need to blow the whistle, I make a fist and bring the whistle up.  It’s a great feature. When I was in grad school and rode my bike to campus, I’d wear my ref whistle, so if someone in a car wasn’t paying attention or got too close, I could blow the whistle.  Thankfully, I didn’t need it much, but it worked really well.  Those of you who are urban cyclists might want to visit a hockey pro shop to get a fingerclamp whistle.

Hear that whistle sounding?  It’s your signal to start solving.  How about we warm up with the weekly Hex cryptic in the National Post?  Falcon says it’s a hodgepodge.

There’s another cryptic for us in the New York Times this weekend (behind the paywall).  This one is by Richard Silvestri.  I’ll post the solution Sunday afternoon or evening.

It’s not easy to keep up with Ucaoimhu, since the puzzles on his pages are listed by theme category instead of by date.  So I’m catching up with a few, starting this week with “Baccarat, Etc.” which actually was a September puzzle.  Even though it’s only nine by nine (that’s part of the theme), it’s still got the incredible depth of Kevin’s full-sized variety cryptics.  Smaller puzzles are a great idea: they’re faster to construct and to solve, and they give new solvers a better chance at getting all the way through to the puzzles you solve after the grid part is done.

Once you’ve finished the mental workout of those cryptics, BEQ informs us that our friend from Down Under, Denise Sutherland, has a clue-writing contest up: entries being taken until next weekend.  She’s offering copies of her books as prizes--sorry, the cute fluffy dog is not on the prize list.  So sip your coffee (or that Bloody Mary) and think about the word “INTERCHANGE”

In the regular crossword department, the Wall Street Journal offers a “Riding the Waves” by Patrick Berry.  It’s an easy variety crossword with another nice bonus at the end.

And Nathan Curtis ought to be around shortly with his regular weekend variety puzzle.  I’ll link it here once it’s up.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Handwriting, part 1 (Puzzle No. 3,300)

Is that a 2 or a 3?
While Sabers was refereeing at the Swarthmore Invitational Sunday, I was working the Bout Committee desk: setting the schedule, checking in fencers, sending referees out to their matches, and compiling the results.

It was a huge event: 8 schools, 9 rounds, 20 strips, 23 referees, 207 athletes, 216 scoresheets, 1813 bouts, and 11,576 touches all had to be accounted for.

Now I thought Sabers had bad handwriting (he probably inherited it from his father...).  But it wasn’t nearly the worst I encountered, either from the referees or from the fencers.  Take a look at that example on the right.  Next year I’m giving a prize to the ref with the neatest scoresheets.

As I said, I’m not the neatest writer.  But I’m pretty careful when filling in scoresheets, so the commissioner and statistician will not have to puzzle out what penalties were given.  And even though nobody ever looks at them but me, I’m equally careful when filling in crossword grids.

Part of it is because I usually work in ink rather than pencil (I’m a lefty, so pencils and bad pens smudge my knuckles).  But I guess that if crosswords are about being precise, my writing ought to be too.

Link to puzzle:

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

Hozom’s comment: One on One, Part 1 in which Hot introduces us to Trazom and we learn that Trazom likens the conventions of cryptic construction to the conventions of baroque counterpoint.  I can certainly see that.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dido vs. Dido (Solution No. 3,299)

Sabers (who is 15) refereed a college fencing tournament Sunday.
Competitors from (l to r: you can tell them by their socks) Navy,
William and Mary, Rutgers, Lehigh, and Virginia. 
“British pop singer’?  Don‘t ask me.  Despite having a teenager and a near-teen in the house, I remain blissfully ignorant of the latest boy bands and singer-songwriters.

I’m usually more in sync with Trazom, who in his day job is a classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.  So it surprised me to see the definition part of 5d when Dido was also the queen of ancient Carthage and a character in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Purcell wrote an opera based on the legend of Dido and Aeneas, which I saw in concert performance at the Curtis Institute a few years ago, so that’s where I recognize the name.

Perhaps Trazom couldn’t bring himself to link “accomplished nothing” to that Dido and found an opportunity to editorialize on the state of pop culture.  If that’s the case, I agree.  On to the rest of this week’s puzzle.

Themework: As 31a says, the names of 11 well-known magazines are found in the acrosses of this puzzle.  

I looked, and I didn’t see a magazine named “Update” though there are plenty of periodicals named “___ Update.”  And the magazine for breeders of pigeons is called “Pigeon Fancy,” not “Pigeon.”

Difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): easy

Political content: 29a

Solution and annotation to The Nation Puzzle No. 3,299 below the fold.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Left-handed cronuts (Sunday brunch: October 20, 2013)

I had a split doubleheader last Sunday: you heard about the morning game, and the afternoon game was better in several ways.  Next age group up, the ice felt a little less dead, the coaches had a better grasp of things, and a decent partner: not only is he pretty focused and conscientious for a high school kid, he’s also left-handed, which is rare among referees.

Because of my bad shoulder (the injury that got me into refereeing), I keep my whistle on my right hand and signal with my left.  When you’re signaling a delayed penalty, your arm should be right against the earhole of your helmet, and I can’t raise my right arm that high.  In other sports, this doesn't matter too much, but in hockey, you have to pass the puck to your partner after you pick it up and he establishes the face-off location.

Now stop and think of what would happen if I skated up to my partner holding the puck in my left (non-whistle) hand while he was holding his right (non-whistle) hand out to receive it.  We’d crash into each other, one of us would probably end up on our butt, and everyone in the rink would have a laugh at our expense.  So in most cases, before I pick up the puck for my partner, my whistle goes into my pocket, and I hold the puck in my right hand so we can pass right to right.  When I work with Joe, we get to pass left to left, and I appreciate every one of those passes.

So even though it was just another day at the rink, gamewise, I was feeling pretty good after the second game: a blend of tired and satisfied.  This is the rink on the way down to the city, and just down the road is a gigantic Korean supermarket.  We needed more chopsticks (Bangle likes to use them for rice, and I find them very convenient for cheese curls (no orange powder clinging to my fingers) and I felt like getting some noodles and dumplings, so I went down there after the game.

In the mini-mall there is a pastry shop, of French and Indochinese influence.  The perfect place for a light post-game snack, and they had a batch of cronuts there.  Now I’d heard of cronuts and how they were the big thing in New York; now I could see what all the hype was about.

A cronut is a pastry made out of croissant pastry, cut and fried like a donut.  That would be pretty good for starters, but a cronut needs more: specifically some kind of cream filling (in this case lemon) and a bit of compllentary flavoring on the outside.

Verdict?  Darned good.  Decadent but not deadly.  Over the top, but not overpowering.  A fine reward for two hours plus of skating.

Puzzles?  Yes.  This week they were just as tasty.

It’s a two-acrostic weekend.  Mike Shenk has a seasonally-appropriate puzzle in the Wall Street Journal: pretty easy, especially if you know it’s themed and Shenk is a good constructor.  Hex have their regular acrostic in the New York Times (paywall) and commentary on Deb Amlen’s blog (spoiler warning)

Want cryptics?  There’s Hex in the National Post with a puzzle less easy than usual; and Xanthippe with her brit-cryptic with a nice central answer.  And we learn that Nathan Curtis 1--merits having Kevin Wald construct a birthday puzzle in his honor and 2--is remarkably humble about the honor.  You know you’re someone in puzzledom if you can get such a fine constructor to come to your potluck.  Hooray for both of you.

Nathan didn’t let the honor go to his head: he kept up with his commitment (hint: someone give him a regular gig) and provides us with a Snake Charmer this weekend (very easy, I thought).

We should also note that Puzzazz has updated their app for iOS 7.  I had a long wait for the train this week during which it was a real pleasure to have cryptics I could pull up and solve on my Pod.  The latest edition of Puzzazz is a significant improvement: saving you taps and time by bringing you back to where you left off instead of making you find and open the virtual book.  And the Touchwrite feature is feeling more and more natural: to the point where this Luddite is ready to dispense with a keyboard.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fifteens and fours (Puzzle No. 3,299)

Hex had a very unique grid for their National Post cryptic last weekend.  Never seen anything like it before.  The top row and bottom row each were comprised of three four-letter words, and in between were six fifteen-letter words.

There wasn’t a theme or anything else tying them together, just the novelty of having so many long entries to grid and to solve.  So I liked it even though some of the fifteens were obvious anagrams which made the downs very easy.

Real long answers can lend themselves to really boring wordplay or to really fun wordplay.  I imagine the difference is in whether you start with the answer and try to fit wordplay to it or come up with a great piece of wordplay and then work it into an answer.

The Brits have a good way to bring long answers into a cryptic, and Frank Lewis made good use of it sometimes in The Nation.  That is to use phrases rather than one long word.  It gives the constructor some more flexibility in the length of the total answer and also makes the grid easier because you don’t have to have another long entry for proper symmetry.  Click over to the Financial Times if you want to see (and solve) some examples.  The puzzles are hard for most American solvers, but you can also just browse through and look at the solutions to the long answers to see (and learn from) the wordplay.

I don’t know whether it’s codified or not, but there’s definitely a rule where when a phrase-type answer is spread across two lights in the grid, the break between the lights goes at a break between words in the answer.  On the other hand, they don’t require the components to be adjacent or symmetric(*), though the good constructors do it frequently: especially for a two-word phrase.

Nothing longer in it than nine letters, but this week’s The Nation puzzle is themed: with eleven of the sixteen acrosses (a nice bundle) being theme answers and a twelfth(#) telling you what the theme is.  Hot and Trazom managed to put all twelve into symmetric lights.  Pretty good.

Puzzle No. 3,299

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): mostly easy, as a result of the themework.

Hozom’s comment: Double Talk, in which Hot and Trazom discuss double-definition clues, and we learn that there are actually some important rules that constructors should try to follow when picking answers to clue this way.

Back on Monday with the solution (and maybe some triple talk in the annotation).  Join us for Sunday brunch this weekend and every weekend!

*--though you’d better make your theme answers symmetric and fill all the long spaces in at least one direction with them if you want to sell a themed straight crossword to the New York Times.

#--which reminds me that you’d also better put the theme-explaining answer in the center or at the end of the puzzle (or in the last long light) if you want to sell that puzzle to the Times.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Comment spam

This morning I deleted two new comments from the blog.  They appeared to be automated comment spam, intended to promote a site selling custom jigsaw puzzles.

I will not all ban links from comments, including links to commercial sites.  However, the links must be relevant to the topic of the blog (no ads for gold, for obvious instance), and they must be in the context of a comment genuinely relating to the post being commented on.  Comment spam generators try to evade automated filters by including words and phrases from the blog or by being so general (“Interesting post, wasn’t it?--Buy Gold Here”) that it can’t be filtered out by automated means.

Fortunately, this is a small blog, and I can manually moderate the comments without too much delay.  If you have a word puzzle site you’d like to announce to our readers, please e-mail me, and if it’s worth their time, I’ll even call it out in a post.  I’m happy to do this and help get constructors like Xanthippe and Nathan Curtis some more traffic.  Thanks for reading, and please be sure to visit our partners’ sites like Word Salad regularly.  They deserve our clicks and support.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Squirt B game in October (Solution No. 3,298)

The ice was dead at the rink where I had two games yesterday.  I don’t know why or how--maybe it’s that they didn’t melt down and remake the ice during the summer, but it just felt dead out there.  Pucks that got dumped down to the other end would slow down or even stop before reaching the red line for icing, and it felt like work to skate.

Throw in a couple of teams of nine-year-olds who were new enough they were still having trouble lining up on the right side of the ice, and all the ingredients are there for a sloppy game, even on the part of the officials.  So I made up this mantra, and reminded my partner between periods:

“The habits you build in a Squirt B game in October are the framework 
for the game you bring to the playoffs in March.”

On to this week’s puzzle from Hot and Trazom, which definitely needed a sharp mind.

First glimpses were definitely not right in this week’s puzzle.  Lots of potential anagrams that didn’t fit, making you dig deeper to parse the wordplay.  Very few simple wordplays in this one: in fact I was thinking of flagging all the examples here of combining two different wordplay elements, such as in 21d and 23d.

Solution and annotation to The Nation Puzzle No. 3,298 below the fold

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Keep your sweater untucked (Sunday brunch: October 13, 2013)

One of the other NHL rule changes taking effect this season is a delay of game penalty for players who tuck their jersey into their pants.  Some smart fans think this is a precursor to teams selling advertising on the bottoms of the jerseys, the way they do in European leagues.  In fact, their refs have advertising logos on their sweaters too.

Of course, there was one player they never would have dreamed enforcing such a rule on: Wayne Gretzky always tucked in the right side of his sweater and left the left side out.  So on Gretzky’s sweater, the manufacturers would move their logo from the bottom right (where the logo is on everyone else’s) to the bottom left.  And the day Gretzky’s number was retired, I wore a Flyers turtleneck to work and left the left side untucked in his honor.

Also on the equipment front: goalie’s pads are going to have to be a little shorter (about two inches), which the league hopes will increase scoring.  Their sticks are going to be a little smaller too.  Those changes could be more than a little annoying to some goalies: it could mess up their balance while making them get rid of their favorite old pads and break in new ones.

It’s the weekend, and we don’t care whether your shirttails are tucked in or not, or even if you’re still in pajamas.  Get comfortable and solve some puzzles now.  

The new Harper’s is out and timed just right to illustrate the comment I made at Word Salad about clues in verse.  The format is one we’ve seen before, where the grid has four-way symmetry and answers are clued in groups of four: you have to figure out which of four spaces each answer has to go in.  This makes for a good level of difficulty: challenging but not impossible.  If you get two or three answers from a couple of intersecting sets, you can eliminate most of the possible locations until you come up with the right one, or at least a good guess.  Since this is a prize puzzle, this is the only tip you’ll get.

I don’t think I’ve linked Kevin Wald’s Oscar-watching puzzle yet: it’s called “16 Changes” because the alterations to the answers are somewhat themed to the Best Picture nominees.

The Wall Street Journal puzzle is a Labyrinth by Mike Shenk.  Right in the sweet spot of difficulty level.  I got a few of the acrosses, had a guess at the first winding, and then stalled a little.  I had some guesses, but I wasn’t trusting them enough to write them in.  So I got a pencil, filled in the guesses, and they were all right!  That got me around to the halfway point and then some, where I got stalled again.  I trusted my guess again, got a little further, and one more guess later got to the end.  Nice grid: the average answer in the winding is 8.4 letters long.  Even Patrick Berry would be proud of an grid like that.

If you’re still having difficulty, I’ve created a hint grid that shows where each of the boundaries between Winding words is.  Look below the fold.

The weekend’s New York Times puzzle (behind the paywall) is a diagramless by Fred Piscop.  Deb Amlen blogs it (spoiler warning) at Wordplay.  I’ll have the solution posted here (I’ll stick it below this Sunday brunch post) between games on Sunday.

Falcon is on vacation, but he’s posted the National Post cryptic for us, though the solution and annotation may be late.  The grid looks interesting: Hex have put six(!) fifteen-letter answers in it.

[update] Nathan Curtis’s weekly variety puzzle was also from the “puzzle potluck”: it’s something called a Nurikabe.  These are tesselation (tiling) exercises like the four-color map problem, only in black and white.  You are given a grid and a set of instructions: you must color (or not color) every polygon so the final result will meet all the restrictions set up in the instructions.

Friday, October 11, 2013

New York Times solution: October 13. 2013

Below the fold is the solution to this weekend’s New York Times variety puzzle: a diagramless by Fred Piscop.

Want more interesting puzzles to solve, along with commentary on puzzles, hockey, and other diverse topics?  Stop by every Thursday for new cryptic crosswords from The Nation (solved and explained for you Mondays), and come back on the weekend for Sunday brunch.

Wall Street Journal solution: October 12, 2013

Below the fold is the solution to this weekend’s Wall Street Journal variety puzzle: Labyrinth #6 by Mike Shenk.

Don’t click for the solution too fast—I’ll have hint grid for you with Sunday brunch.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The difference between “challenging” and “hard” (Puzzle No. 3,298)

I think I’ve covered this ground before, but there’s a difference between puzzles that are challenging and puzzles that are merely hard.  And that, my fellow solvers, is the difference between good constructors and the rest of them.  Hard puzzles require you to recognize unusual words and know obscure facts.  Challenging puzzles are neither unusual nor obscure; they force you to see words from a different perspective.

In Crypticworld, the distinction is easier to see than in straight crosswords.  Constructors have a lot more ways to obfuscate the cluing of a common word, and this week’s The Nation puzzle is a good example.  I’ll call out some examples with the solution on Monday.

Now while I usually bust on the New York Times puzzles, today’s one was actually a timely exemplar of a strategy I’d like to see more often.   51a is a five-letter word clued: “Oxygen’s electrons, e.g.”  The answer is “octet,” which most times is a particularly awful bit of crosswordese, but good cluing saved it.  I don’t think it’s unfair: eight electrons in oxygen is straight out of high school chemistry, and it’s not unreasonable to expect most solvers to know this.  In fact I’d expect more solvers have passed high school chemistry than know the cast of Saturday Night Live (21a) or 70s prog-rock bands (59a), yet you see pop culture clues a lot more often than you see science.  And if you do see science, it’s usually in the service of awful crosswordese answers like “DNA” (58d)

Hex are a good example too.  I’ve learned that one of their tricks, in both straight and cryptic crosswords, is to make use of secondary and tertiary definitions.  They’re clear, but not obvious.  You wouldn’t want to go overboard on them, just like you wouldn’t want to bluff all the time in a poker game, Related tip: don’t go for the variants everyone else uses: at this point, when I see the word “flower” in a clue, my first thought is a river.

The Nation Puzzle No. 3,298

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): moderate to hard, in the good way.  I circled a half-dozen answers to consider calling out to you in the annotation.

Hozom’s comment:  “Local Man Actually Eats Calendar (7)” in which Hot and Trazom consider more playful clue readings, and whether it’s cricket to leave an article in a clue if it doesn’t contribute to the wordplay.  Remember: “definition, wordplay, and nothing else.”

If you get to the advanced level of solving, you’d better be willing to handle clues that might not fit that rule, because the constructors may need to do it in the service of a larger cause, like stringing clues together in verse (a Sondheim favorite) or making the nth word in a clue part of some bonus meta-solution (something Kevin Wald is especially good at).

Solution and annotation to Puzzle No. 3,298 on Monday.  Join us this weekend as always for Sunday Brunch!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Visors (Solution No. 3,297)

The other NHL rule change that got publicity was the rule calling for an extra minor penalty to a player who removes his helmet before an altercation (“altercation” is rules-speak for a fight).  We’ve had that rule in amateur hockey for several years: the reason for it is that players can fall and hit their heads on the ice either swinging, being hit, or wrestling with the opponent.  The kind of fights you see in TV hockey where the players drop their gloves, circle each other, throw punches and end up in a clinch are pretty rare in men’s league games: what we tend to see is one guy whaling on another or both guys trying to slap at each other until they lose their balance and fall down.

I support the rule: falling on the ice without a helmet is a good way to get a concussion.  But I fully expect there’ll be plenty of guys who ignore it.  They might get creative like the two players in a pre-season game who politely allowed their opponent to remove his helmet before commencing blows, or they might just blow off the rule and take off their helmets anyway, in which case fighting is going to be seven minutes instead of five.

The league is also mandating that rookies with fewer than 25 games experience wear half-shield visors to protect their eyes.  Because of this, they’re dropping the rule applying an extra penalty to a player who gets into an altercation while wearing a visor.

We have a similar new mandate in amateur hockey: all us referees must now wear visors, regardless of our age or experience.  Up until now, the visor was strongly recommended, but I went without one because I wore a pair of sports glasses designed for use with a helmet instead.  I switched from contacts to glasses because I have pretty bad astigmatism, which the contacts don’t help.  I see a lot better with my hockey glasses, plus my eyes are protected from stray sticks and pucks (fortunately, I’ve never been hit in the face in my officiating career: I’ve had enough stitches there already).

But I feared that a visor would reduce the airflow around my glasses when I skate, which I rely on to keep the glasses from fogging up.  I’m like a shark; as long as I keep moving, everything is fine.  If I stay still during a third-period stoppage when I’m all sweaty, that’s when my glasses fog up.  When the rule change was proposed, I appealed to the committee to grant an exception to those of us with alternate eye protection (the glasses actually protect me better than a visor would, since a stick blade can’t get under them), but I was unsuccessful.  Not surprising, because very few players or officials wear dedicated sports glasses: they just wear their everyday glasses under their helmet.

So I got a detachable visor, which I can take off when I’m working Penn and other non-USAH leagues and tournaments.  So far it hasn’t fogged too much, but summer league will be the real test.

Did this week’s The Nation puzzle (it was a hard one) fog your mind?  If so, I’ve got the solution and annotation below the fold.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Hybrid icing (Sunday brunch: October 6, 2013)

The NHL season began this week, and as always there are rule changes intended to make the game better and safer.  The most significant is the adoption of “hybrid icing.”  Icing is when a defending player shoots the puck from his half of the ice all the way down to the other end: it often happens when a player is under pressure from a forechecker and doesn’t want to turn the puck over and give up a scoring chance.  Icing is not a penalty, but the puck is brought back down to the defensive zone for a face-off, so the offending team loses any positional advantage.

For many years, the rules provided for icing to be negated if a player from the team that shot the puck down the ice could hustle there and get to the puck first.  This leads to some exciting plays: races between a forward and a defenseman to get to the puck and either get or wash out the icing.  (It’s a big moment for the linesmen too, since they have to hustle down with the players to be in position to see who touches first.)

But touch icing is exciting in another way: the player making the touch-up often ends up in a vulnerable position, and “pays” for the play with a crunching body check.  So for safety reasons, USA Hockey has a “no-touch” icing rule where the play is blown dead as soon as the puck crosses the goal line, even if an attacking player could have gotten to it first.  I like the rule because it discourages players from just dumping the puck and makes them pass it up-ice instead.

But the NHL wants to cut down on injury-potential situations while maintaining the speed of the game, so their rule now gives the front linesman discretion to blow the whistle as soon as the puck crosses the line if it’s evident that one player will win the race to the puck.  If the race is even, it continues all the way to the puck, and hopefully both players are focused on the puck instead of on the hit.  So it’s a hybrid of touch- and no-touch icing.  The NCAA has used it successfully for several years, and I think it will be good for the NHL.

The puzzle lineup for the weekend includes “High Frequency,” a mostly-easy variety cryptic by Hex, with an unusual way to get to the final theme answer (groaner warning).  Despite all the stuff going on in the grid, all the entries are solved and entered normally, so I don’t see much of an opportunity for or need for any hints.  If you’re having problems with any of the clues, the solvers on the comments tab of the WSJ puzzle blog will be very glad to help you.

If you got through the Hex as fast as I did, let’s catch up with Ucaoimhu and his MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle from earlier this year: “If At First You Succeed.”  That ought to be enough of a challenge for anyone.

No new Harper’s puzzle this week (probably next week), but I’m happy to report Erica is back, and she has the September puzzle annotated for you at Tacky Harper’s Cryptic Clues.

The regular Hex cryptic is published in the National Post, getting political but ecumenical.  Falcon solves and blogs it for you.

Nathan Curtis tried something new for a “puzzle potluck” (what a great idea) he attended: a conventional crossword, Sunday size, themed.   It’s called “Rule 34: Crossover Slash.”  Try it out and let him know what you think.  The grid is on the simple side: not as many long entries as a Times puzzle, but the cluing is excellent, especially for some of the words that are often found in crosswords.  And we learn that Nathan is also a Cliff Johnson fan!

The New York Times puzzle (behind the paywall) is a Hex acrostic.  The monthly bonus for subscribers is “Italian Heritage Month” by Fred Piscop.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Second opinion (Puzzle No. 3,297)

Earlier this week I attended a Grand Rounds lecture by Mark Graber of Stony Brook, who is an expert on diagnostic errors in medicine (an expert in understanding them, not committing them...).  While I was supposed to be thinking about medical care, I have to admit I thought just as much about puzzles and how we solve them.

The part about heuristics reminded me of anagramming: especially the times when you see a pile of letters and immediately get the anagram.  With anything more than just a few letters, the systematic, logical approach is impossible: just too many possibilities to roll around in your brain.  So in this respect, cryptics are especially good exercise for your brain: making it do several different kinds of work.

But heuristics can get doctors in trouble: like diagnosing patients based on the other cases they've seen recently and jumping to a conclusion instead of ruling out the alternatives first.  It got me in trouble too, on the solution to last week’s puzzle when I groused about pulling letters out of cORsiCA when if I had thought a little more, I would have seen they could also have come from majORCA (or minORCA).

One of the studies Dr. Graber showed us involved doctors-to-be taking their licensing exams.  Contrary to my experience on my rules test, most of the time that the persons taking the test changed their initial answer, they changed it from the wrong answer to the right answer, and the additional thinking helped them make the right diagnosis.

How do you reconcile those two tendencies of errors?  Patients are tricky, so the writers of the medical exams intend for their questions to be a little tricky.  Rules exams are supposed to be easy as long as you know the rules; the writers are not trying to trick us.  While some of enjoy making up unusual situations and debating them in the dressing room before or after a game (it’s like arguing Talmud law), the official tests are straight out of the rulebook and the situation manual.

Crossword-wise, most puzzles are like the rules test: if it seems tricky, you’re doing something wrong. In Word Salad, Hot and Trazom have made the point several times that they aim to be fair, and that part of the reason they have friends test-solve the puzzles is to catch and adjust anything that might be unfair.  And I provide the full annotations here on Monday so you can see where each and every part of the wordplay is placed in the clue.

Puzzle No. 3,297

Link to puzzle:

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): harder than usual

Hozom’s comment: “In Plain Sight,” in which Hot and Trazom talk about the ups and downs of hidden word clues, from the constructor’s perspective and from the solver’s.

Solution to No. 3,297 posted on Monday.  See you this weekend for Sunday brunch.

Variety crosswords for better and for worse

The syndicated New York Times crossword usually lags the publication in the Times by three weeks, so I was wondering when this particular puzzle would showed up in the campus paper, reminding me to post something about it.  It actually ran August 29 (Wordplay post with spoilers), so visit your library for a copy.

The best kind of twisted crosswords (the ones where something has to be done to some of the answers when entering them in the grid) are the kind where you’re absolutely sure you know a bunch of the answers, but can’t figure out how they go.  Then there’s a clap of thunder and the trick appears in front of you.  You race through all those entries you now know how to fill in, and all is right with the world.  That puzzle was one of them.

Meanwhile, today’s NYT puzzle came close to meeting that standard.  Deb blogs it (spoiler alert) at Wordplay, including an interview with the constructor, whom we learn is a Haverford alum (I wasn’t into crosswords when I was in college).  We also learn that these kind of puzzles can make life difficult for both programmers and users of Across Lite and other crossword software.  Finally, they noted a few entries that had never shown up in the NYT puzzle before.  To me the reason for one of them was obvious: earlier editors would have quickly vetoed “sucks” in a context other than siphons or vacuum cleaners (I scold my teenage children for such usage too—it may not be profane but it’s a lazy vulgarity: one people ought to have more appropriate words in their vocabulary for.  

Deb also had a nice post on the heuristic topic visited by my main post this week, and why we find these kinds of solutions (and things like fugues resolving) so rewarding.  Go read it.

The ugly part: take Tuesday’s Times puzzle, please.  Unusual symmetry in the grid made it pretty obvious there would be something different with the theme, the theme was left pretty out in the open, and the fill needed to make the theme work left a little to be desired.  And if you’re one of the ones who  do Harper’s too, it didn’t even feel novel.  (I’m sure both constructors came up with their themes independently).  So it met the fate of many NYT puzzles in my hands: do enough of it to complete the theme, then chuck it, the rest of the solve isn’t worth the time.