Sunday, December 29, 2013

West coast gin (Sunday brunch: December 29, 2013)

While I was on that trip to Cape Cod earlier this month, I took the opportunity to stop by the ‘packy’ in Hyannis to pick up another bottle of Nantucket gin, which I couldn’t do on the summer trip since we went by plane.  While I was there, I noticed a series of gins from the St. George distillery created to express the concept of terroir: where a wine or coffee or food expresses a particular character of where it came from.

Seeing as how the distillery was one of the first of its kind in America, that they started in Alameda next door to one of my favorite wineries, and that it inspired one of my favorite winemakers (Randall Grahm) to try his hand at distilling, this was worth a try.  While they had three gins in the series, I picked the one that I thought would best characterize their work.  The Terroir gin is made with all California botanicals, and certainly tastes like it.  It’s a particularly piney gin, befitting the Christmas season.  Very successful: a trip to northern California in a glass.

Seems like all the west coast gins I’ve tasted tend to the evergreen end of the flavor spectrum: juniper, pine, spruce, and fir, compared to the citrus, herbs and other more exotic flavors of some of the east coast gins.

What to solve over a drink?

We get two cryptics by Hex this week, and since it’s the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s, they’ve given us one puzzle for each.  Start with the National Post puzzle (solved and blogged by Falcon), and then do the Wall Street Journal puzzle, which is a spiral cryptic called “Windup”: appropriate for the last puzzle of the year.   It’s a little harder than their usual WSJ cryptics: comparable to one of their Atlantic puzzles.  But I made it more challenging by blacking out the enumerations of the answers before starting it.  If you’re a cryptic veteran, try it that way.

Hex also have their regular acrostic in the New York Times today (behind the paywall).

Also in the seasonal vein.  Kevin Wald created a great seasonal puzzle called “Time and Tide”, not quite as difficult in the finale as his other puzzles, but nearly as satisfying.

Not a lot else new though, so I worked on a Washington Post straight crossword package Merl Reagle created called “Ghosts of DC.”  It’s a crossword centennial theme with four easy puzzles that contribute to a final puzzle that requires some geography and Washington knowledge as well as puzzle skills.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Hitting your children with a metal stick (Solution No 3,307)

Sabers (third from left) and his teammate Jeremy
(second from left) both qualified for JOs
There was no hockey this weekend, since I was preoccupied with hosting a dinner party Sunday and then a meeting and a big tournament for Sabers Saturday (he had one good bout all day, but he picked the right one: he upset the #1 seed in the semis and wound up finishing second, which punches his ticket to the Junior Olympics).

Further, the fencing club has a “Chinese Food and Movies” fencing tournament Christmas Eve (the head coaches are Jewish) and while we’re Christian, our services weren’t until 9:00 pm so we didn’t miss anything.  Since it was not a very serious event, I entered too, even though I’d only fenced twice before, never taken any lessons. What I did know was that the last time I fenced, I noticed I was getting most of my touches by timing my attacks well instead of by any kind of decent bladework.  So I thought, I might actually be less bad at epee than at saber, and a tournament like this was just the place to find out.  

The tournament went pretty well: at least three other families had both parents and children taking part, and I think that in every case except the one where the child was too young for the open event, there were parent-child bouts: in our case three of them.  Sabers beat me all three times, but I didn’t do too badly and wound up finishing higher than he did in the epee standings.

I know the parents had a good time; I think the kids did too.

The solution to The Nation puzzle no. 3,307 is below the fold.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Centennial (Sunday brunch: December 22, 2013)

I have to day that the week in puzzles didn’t live up to my expectations for the week of the centennial of the crossword.  Google ended up being the big surprise, putting an interactive crossword in their doodle Friday and Saturday.  It was a nice puzzle with a theme that paid tribute to Arthur Wynne’s original.  If you didn’t see it already, it’s archived at  I did it in 7:34, though I would have worked faster if I knew there was a timer on.

Turns out there was a helluva story behind the puzzle, as recounted in the Washington Post.   Merl Reagle had a puzzle all ready to go, and then Google learned that Matt Gaffney had just published a puzzle with the same theme.  So they dumped their puzzle, and asked Reagle to come up with a replacement.  Reagle responded like an old pro, and the Google programming team led by Tom Tabanao gave it a very smooth online presentation.

The Post also did a puzzle contest for the centennial, using a Washington theme. The prizes are probably all spoken for now, but it’s still a fun experience.

Kevin Wald has 100 letters in his grid called “In a Century of Letters,” but there’ll be a few more when you’re done.  The grid part is actually pretty easy; it’s the conclusion that will leave you scratching your head for a while until it all comes together.

The National Post cryptic missed the centennial, but did celebrate the start of winter by recognizing two of Canada’s greatest athletes.  One’s a hockey player and the other is a figure skater, so you know it was a hit in our family.

The Wall Street Journal went seasonal too: a Patrick Berry puzzle called Candy Canes.  There's not a lot of interlock between groups of rows, so you really need to get three starting points to finish the puzzle: use a pencil.  I’ve got the solution posted elsewhere on the blog; there’s a fun twist in the finale.

The Times?  They didn’t even give us a crossword for the variety puzzle this week (behind the paywall).  It’s a Boggle-type letter game by Will Shortz in a novel 3-D format.

For some centennial reading after you finish solving, visit the Guardian for a column by Alan Connor or get Connor’s book “Two Girls, One on Each Knee.”

Finally, I got an update from the Cryptic All Stars team.   Their target ship date has slipped from December into January, but the puzzles are being edited now.  The giant poster-sized puzzle is done, and there are extra copies available for $10.00.  I also got the souvenir pencils they’ve promised to their supporters.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Wall Street Journal solution: December 21, 2013

Below the fold is the solution to this weekend’s Wall Street Journal weekend puzzle: Candy Canes by Patrick Berry.

Join us this weekend for a centennial edition of Sunday brunch.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Abecedarian jigsaw (Puzzle No. 3,307)

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): moderate to hard.  Took a little while to get a toehold, but the theme was pretty easy.  

Hozom’s comment: Explaining Ourselves, in which Hot and Trazom point out that even good solvers sometimes get totally baffled by a clue.  There are constructive ways to handle this and ways that are not constructive: blaming the constructor is not constructive.  And if I may say so myself, creating a blog to solve and annotate each week’s puzzle, and answering questions about how clues are supposed to be parsed is constructive.  

What got me about the anecdote that Hot and Trazom started their post with was that the correspondent who compared them unfavorably to Frank Lewis said that Lewis’s clues always explained themselves.  I disagree diametrically.  If anything, it was Lewis who was willing to sometimes follow British practice and omit an indicator from the clue.  Hot and Trazom are pretty strict Ximeneans (definition, wordplay, and nothing else).

Solution and annotation to puzzle no. 3,307 will be posted Monday.  Join us this weekend for a special centennial edition of Sunday brunch! 

Two weeks ago, we looked at the alphabetical jigsaw, which was one of Araucaria’s contributions to cryptic crosswording.   Today we’ll discuss its close relation, the abecedarian jigsaw.  Henry Hook and Richard Maltby credit Dogop of The Listener for creating the form (in October 1973), or more precisely adapting it from its block cousin.  

The abecedarian jigsaw is set on a bar grid, usually 12 x 12, so it has 40 clues and answers instead of the 26 in most block versions.  Thus you can’t have only one solution for each letter of the alphabet, but you do have to have at least one of each letter.  Not as elegant, but a little more difficult, since you don’t know the first letter until you get the adjacent clues.   It’s also more difficult because there are more spaces to choose from when placing answers, but then once you get started, you get more help from intersecting letters.  

The past couple of weeks, I solved several of Maltby’s abecedarian jigsaws from Harper’s: it’s a form he’s gone back to seven times by my count (interestingly, the one titled Abecedarian Jigsaw IV actually was the fifth).  One of them was a variant on the variant where the clues were alphabetized by their last letter instead of the first, so the letter frequencies were quite different.  

So speaking of letter frequencies, I learned from experience that it’s better to start solving abecedarian jigsaws with the last clues instead of the first ones.  U and X and Z answers are not only uncommon, but usually pretty obvious in the wordplay, and those also show you how many V, W, and Y answers there are.  After that, the solving strategy is pretty much the same; the key is to get at least three of the longest answers (which usually come in fours as these puzzles have 90 degree symmetry) and place them by process of elimination (if the fourth letter of the long answer is B and you know the only B answer is a five letter word, then if the fourth space of a possible location starts a four letter word that’s not going to work.  

So the alphabetical/abecedarian is a great variant: simple enough that lots of constructors have created them, and common enough to become an institution. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Norfolk Island Pine (Sunday brunch: December 15, 2013)

Here is the official Christmas tree of crossworders, the Norfolk Island Pine.  Why for crossworders?  It’s the most popular (at least here in the US) member of the araucaria family: the “Monkey Puzzle Tree” that John Graham adopted for a pen name.

Araucaria heterophylla isn’t the true Monkey Puzzle Tree: that one is Araucaria araucaria.  But the Norfolk Island Pine is more common and quite appealing to the eye.  I had one for a while while I was in grad school.  

As I was researching the post about Araucaria the constructor a few weeks ago, I learned a couple of things about Araucaria the tree.  First of all, while they’re commonly called “pines” (such as the Chile Pine, another name for Araucaria araucana and the source of Graham’s FT alias: Cinephile), they aren’t actually in the pine family.  And I had mistakenly thought the Norfolk Island they were referring to was somewhere off the Virginia coast.  Actually it’s off the Pacific coast of Australia.

Once your favorite tree is decorated, here are some puzzles to solve.

The National Post cryptic by Hex starts with a Christmas theme.  Falcon has it solved and annotated for you.

The new Harper’s is out, and this month’s Richard Maltby cryptic is titled “Cross-Purposes.”  I thought was a piece of pi^H^H cake: I needed only six answers before I figured out the theme and solved the big long answer across the middle.

The Wall Street Journal puzzle is an acrostic by Mike Shenk.  It’s also acrostic weekend in the New York Times (puzzle behind the paywall): Deb thought it was an easy one. She also has a post up listing some of the TV shows her boss Will Shortz is on, talking about crosswords on their 100th anniversary.

some more links coming later: I have to get to bed for an early game tomorrow.

Friday, December 13, 2013

From the beginning (Puzzle No. 1)

Double issue of The Nation last week, so no new puzzle this week.  I had queued up this puzzle as the next Old Time Hockey post, and as I worked the puzzle, it was just too compelling to just toss up there as a weekly post, so I’m postponing the second installment of the Alphabetical Jigsaw post until Monday.

Puzzle No. 1 (yes, 1, but it wasn’t numbered at that time):

Let’s go back... all the way back.  The Nation has posted a few of the very first puzzles they ever published, and in the absence of a new puzzle from Hot and Trazom, I’ve been working on it this week.  This is Frank Lewis, from 1947, two thirds of a century ago.

The first thing that struck me was the degree that it resembled Lewis’s work from more than 60 years later.  There were the answers split across multiple lights, the cross references, and the loose approach to cluing rules.  Ximeneans would have a heart attack doing this puzzle, but having done the Puns and Anagrams in last week’s New York Times, this looked a lot more familiar.  What’s more, this puzzle made the point to me that Puns and Anagrams is our modern-day link to the cryptics of the past.

At the time Lewis constructed this,  Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword was still nearly 20 years in the future.  Constructing was still decidedly a free-for-all.  There were no expectations, no critics, no web sites to turn to if the puzzle in front of you wasn’t to your liking.  Puzzles were a one-way communication from constructor to solver.  I expect it was a lot more easy then to develop an individual style.

And on top of that, there weren’t the advanced tools we rely on today: the crossword software or even the basic drawing tools.  Grids were done in pen and ink, and dictionaries were weighty books instead of searchable databases.  The content of a puzzle reflected the knowledge and library of its constructor, and thus was much more individualized.

So as I said, this reminded me a lot of a Puns and Anagrams.  Indicators were not obligatory: they were offered at the generosity of the constructor.  So it took me a little while to start making progress.  Once I dialed down my expectations and started thinking more creatively, the puzzle made more sense.  I’m still not done with it, though that’s because I had some other things occupying my time.  This would definitely be hard by modern standards, but Lewis always created hard puzzles.

What an experience (despite the terrible editing by whoever converted this to HTML--there are several mis-numbered clues).  if you’re an experienced cryptic solver, it’s well worth your time to work some puzzles of this era in honor of the 100th anniversary of the crossword.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Picard maneuver (solution No. 3,306)

Though I have never watched any Star Trek other than the original TV series, I at least knew who Captain Picard was.  But I’d not heard of the “Picard maneuver.”  Then I saw this video last week (HT: Neatorama).  I do the exact same thing on the ice all the time.

I don’t care for the polyester sweaters most referees wear; I’ve always worn acrylic ones: first a Bruce Hood model, and currently a Crossbar (both now out of production).  They’re soft and comfortable, but the cuff at the waist is rather tight, especially when they’re going over a protective girdle.  So my sweater rides up all the time.  When play stops, I find myself doing a Picard maneuver to pull the sweater back down.

When my partner has the face-off, there’s a rhythm to it.  Glide by and hand off the puck, skate a stride or two out from the face-off circle, pivot onto a backwards edge, and bend over into a ready position, hands on my knees, as I glide back to my spot at the blue line.  Two tugs at the back of my sweater, and I’m ready for the puck drop.

Solution to The Nation puzzle No. 3,306 below the fold.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

New York Times solution (December 8, 2013)

Below the fold is the solution to this week’s New York Times variety puzzle: a Puns and Anagrams by Mel Taub.

I found a couple of iffy parts here, but most of them had such definite intersecting letters that I was comfortable with the solution.

Done with this?  Why not try a cryptic crossword?  The anagram clues will be pretty familiar, with the added advantage of the clue telling you that you should be looking for an anagram.  I find that the National Post puzzles by Hex are the easiest introduction to cryptics.  We link them here every weekend at Sunday brunch, and Falcon will post the puzzle and annotated solution every Saturday.  Give it a try, ask for help in the comments if you need, and come back every weekend!

Hyannis (Sunday brunch: December 8, 2013)

Not as much time to cook up a fancy brunch this weekend: I had to take an unplanned trip to Cape Cod and back Monday and Tuesday, and I’ve also been spending time on that alphabetical jigsaw I commended to you Thursday.

In the New York Times (behind the paywall) is a Puns and Anagrams by Mel Taub.  I’ll have the solution for you this afternoon.  Blogging at Wordplay, Deb Amlen explains how Puns and Anagrams have grown on her.  I agree that they’re easy for us hard-core puzzle fans, but that makes them a good gateway to the cryptic world.  As I’ve said before, we need to have all the rungs on the ladder: you can’t expect even good straight crossword solvers to jump right into a alphabetical jigsaw or one of Kevin Wald’s brain-busters.  Plus the P&A format lets constructors play with fun anagrams that wouldn’t work so well in a proper Ximenean cluing with definition, wordplay, and nothing else.

Meanwhile, Deb reports that the regular crossword by Patrick Berry has what she calls a “layered theme.”  Just about anything by Berry is worth a go at, so look for the puzzle in the Times this weekend or in syndication next weekend.

The Wall Street Journal weekend puzzle is a Snowflake by Mike Shenk.  A hint is posted if you need it.  Speaking of Mike Shenk, here’s a nice profile from one of the local papers.  Quite a collection of puzzling talent around there: Hex (Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon) also live in the Lancaster-Harrisburg area.

Hex have their regular weekly cryptic in the National Post.  I thought it was more challenging than usual, and there are a pair of 15s in the grid crossed by two 11s.  Falcon guides you through it as he does each week.

For fans of the British style, Liz has a new and possibly fiendish opus posted, including a PDF for those of you who solve on paper.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Wall Street Journal hint (Dec. 8, 2013)

Below the fold is a hint for this weekend’s Wall Street Journal puzzle: a “Snowflake” by Mike Shenk.

After you’re through with that puzzle, join us for Sunday brunch, or read up about alphabetical jigsaws.  Then come back every week!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Alphabetical jigsaw (Puzzle No. 3,306)

The Nation Puzzle No. 3,306

Link to puzzle:

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): easy.  A lot of anagrams and rebus clues.  The whole left side went pretty fast, and there were only a few bumps in the road.  Even the strange clue at 27a is attainable: a good introduction to the visual puns that Hot and Trazom sometimes throw at us. 

Hozom’s comment:  Monkey Puzzle Tree, in which Hot and Trazom share their thoughts about Araucaria, particularly with respect to his willingness to bend the rules in favor of a promising clue. They also liked the “80 percent” quote which I led off my weekend Araucaria post with.

Back with the solution and annotation on Monday.  Join us this weekend for Sunday brunch!

Alphabetical jigsaw

The passing of Araucaria suggests an obvious topic for this week’s post: the alphabetical jigsaw.  Araucaria is credited with inventing the form, certainly polished it, and may well have been its most prolific constructor (a book with sixty of them was published ten years ago, but alas it is out of print).  The alphabetical jigsaw comes in both block and bar form: the bar form, which we’ll look at next week, is also called an “abecedarian jigsaw.”

The obvious spotting feature of an alphabetical jigsaw is the lack of any numbering of the clues or the grid.  Clues are provided in alphabetical order of their answers, and the solver has to use logic to determine where each one belongs in the grid. 

In the block form, there are traditionally 26 answers: one starting with each letter of the alphabet.  That’s a boon to the solver, since you’re effectively given the first letter of each answer. 

The solving strategy is pretty much set for everyone: run through the clues and get as many of them cold (from the clue itself without any intersecting letters aside from the known first) as possible.  Then mark the enumerations of each row and column in the margin of the grid. 

Here’s the place where you get a toehold: there should be one or two values for which there are only four clues with that enumeration.  You need two or preferably three of the four to get started.  Note the locations of the letters where the clues intersect each other (e.g. the ninth letter of one intersects the sixth of another).  Then figure out which of the words you have have a common letter at that intersection point.  Once you get two of those intersection points, pencil in the three words and see if that gets you the fourth.  Once you’re to that point, it’s off to the races. 

Another tool for placing words is to find the uncommon letters: you know there have to be at least two Js, two Qs, two Xs, and two Zs in the puzzle, and one of each has to be the first letter of a properly enumerated space.  If “zoological” is your Z answer and “fritz” is your F, then you can look for a place where the last letter of a five-letter answer intersects the first letter of a nine.  If there’s only one such spot, that’s where your words go. 

Constructing the block-form alphabetical jigsaw is a little more challenging.  Most of the typical 15 x 15 grids won’t work, either because they have too many answers[*] (most of them are 28 or 30) or because they have squares that are the beginning of both an across and a down (not allowable because they would require two answers with the same first letter).

Now Araucaria being a master, not only did he make excellent grids, he also established a tradition of setting his alphabetical jigsaw clues in verse, two clues at a time.  Other constructors have emulated this touch, which can make the puzzle tougher if the breakpoint between the pair of clues is somewhere other than the break between lines of each verse.

Here’s a particularly lovely example from the Guardian last year.  Post links to more of your favorites in the comments.

*–while it might not be as elegant as having exactly 26 lights in the grid, you could work around that by having one or two answers spread across multiple lights, and thereby work in a 28-light grid.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Balm (Solution No. 3,305)

A Wall Street Journal article week called “Grooming Secrets of the NBA” coincides with the onset of cold, windy weather here.  It had me reaching for my skin lotion even on days I don’t skate.  A couple of seasons ago I turned 50, and around that time I started noticing that my skin sometimes felt raw after a game.

Skating a pair of games is like being outside for three hours in freezing weather with a wind of 10 mph gusting to 20.  It’s not so bad in spring and summer and fall; in fact it’s pretty pleasant.  But in winter, the rinks are as cold as the outside, and when the air is dry, your face gets dryer.

So I started carrying a bottle of moisturizer along with my gear.  The variety I use comes in a very thick little bottle, so I can keep it in my hockey briefcase and it won't break and spill all over my rulebook and manuals.  It’s worth it to get the good stuff; you only need a drop or two, and it doesn’t make my face feel greasy.  I might even use it between games of a doubleheader.  A calmer face makes a calmer referee, and a calmer referee makes a calmer game.

Solution and annotation to The Nation puzzle No. 3,288 below the fold.