Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tripping (Old tIme hockey)

No puzzle from Hot and Trazom this week as The Nation published a double issue last week.

Need substitute puzzles?  Trip Payne has us covered.  He's collected some of his past works over at Triple Play Puzzles.  Trip is a versatile constructor: there are straight and themed crosswords there, variety crosswords, block cryptics, and variety cryptics.

This week we'll make note of the block cryptics, of which there are a dozen.  Most of them are basic 15 x 15s constructed in 2006 and 2007 (I guess for Cryptics Monthly).  They play it pretty straight, rule-wise, and their degree of difficulty is comparable to the Hex puzzles in the National Post.  They'll serve us well the weeks we don't get our regular puzzles, as well as when you just want an extra puzzle after finishing the week's new ones.  

Trip's "Megacryptic" is particularly notable.  With a 21 x 21 grid (and four-way symmetry), there's room for multiple 16-letter and 14-letter answers: a welcome bit of variety and an extra challenge.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sacre du Printemps (Solution No. 3,273)

Look below the fold for the solution and annotation to this week's puzzle.

The weekend's entertainment included a Philadelphia Orchestra concert featuring works premiered in America under Leopold Stokowski.  The concert begin with one of Stokie's own works: the orchestration of Bach's Passacaglia and Fuge in C minor: a huge organ work Stokowski made even bigger.  Despite it being the introductory work on the program, the playing (and conducting) was excellent, with the kind of precision that makes Bach so attractive to those of us of a puzzling bent.  In the program notes, I learned that a passacaglia could be analogized to an anagram, for your obligatory crossword content.  Work two was Ravel's G major piano concerto, featuring Jean-Yves Thibaudet.  It's a jazzy work, freer and airier in feel than most concertos.  Together the two works foreshadow where American music would go in the middle of the 20th century: film scores and other bold yet accessible works.

Stravinsky might have been thinking the same way when he composed his third ballet, The Rite of Spring.  Definitely bold and avant-garde, it caused a good deal of controversy when it was premiered in Paris a century ago.  As I was listening (and watching, as the Ridge Theater Company performed a dance/film mashup with the orchestra's accompaniment), I pondered the question of whether the controversies over Super Bowl halftime shows are today's equivalent to the 1913 outrage over Nijinksy's staging and the earthy sentiments it was supposed to evoke.  I'd be more sympathetic to the Beyoncés of the world if they could articulate an artistic motivation other than just making making older people cringe.

The orchestra and its artists found a way to capture some of the atmosphere of that premiere without alienating three-fourths of the audience.  Act I, The Adoration of The Earth, was accompanied by circus artist Anna Kichtchenko (see picture above) performing on an "aerial tissu loop."  The performance required awesome physical strength and an equal amount of nerve, to hang from a fabric trapeze 20 feet above the stage.  More than a few in the audience including Inquirer critic David Patrick Stearns, were distracted by the seeming danger, but I saw pretty quickly how Kichtchenko secured herself with loops of the fabric and could appreciate the athleticism.  It took Daniel Matzukawa's bassoon solo to get our attention back on the music.  Act II, The Sacrifice (meaning human sacrifice), may have been the part that stirred things most in 1913, but here it was more conventional modern dance, accompanied by visual images of flowers and plants contrasting to the snowy scenes of Act I.

No controversy in this week's The Nation cryptic, unless you think inverted clues like 29a are unfair.  I got through the top of the puzzle very easily, and then ran into difficulty at the bottom.  But I eventually got it, so your solution and annotation is below the fold.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Lawn chairs (WSJ solution: February 23, 2013)

The solution to "Musical Chairs," the Wall Street Journal variety puzzle for 2/23/2013 is below the fold.  Ask in the comments if you want any answers explained.  Then browse around the rest of the blog for more puzzles and commentary.  My main beat is the puzzles by Hot and Trazom in The Nation, but each weekend we have a roundup of new puzzles for your Sunday brunch.

As mentioned at this week's Sunday brunch, this Hex was pretty easy as variety cryptics go.  I had almost everything done before I needed to look at the "chairs."

Speaking of chairs, in one of the NHL videos Ian Walsh showed us during training camp, officials were told to look out for "lawn chairs."  Those are the type of players who fold up as soon as you touch them: in hopes of drawing a penalty on their opponent.

They weren't trying to draw penalties, but I had my own set of lawn chairs a few Sunday mornings ago in a mite game (eight year-olds).  It must have been eight or nine times I had to stop play because of a player down on the ice and not getting up, but in no case was the player actually injured (as far as I can tell).  It's tough for the officials in a couple of ways.  First you don't want to stop the game unnecessarily, but in the younger age groups, you err on the side of caution.  Second, the parents always assume that if a player is down on the ice he must have been fouled, and so they complain at us for not calling anything.  They won't listen when you explain that one incident happened when a player ran into his own teammate, and another happened simply because the player lost an edge.  The one cause that's frequent but really hard to understand unless you've seen it a lot of times is the one where players who don't have a lot of lower body strength (which means most little kids), so if their skate collides with another player's skate, the foot turns and it's very likely the player will fall down.

Is it a word? (Sunday brunch: February 24, 2013)

Several times this week (both with the The Nation puzzle and with the WSJ puzzle), I found myself asking myself "is this a word"?  I checked online to see if it was and to learn the meaning, and each time it was.  Not surprising, since I was pretty confident that I had the wordplay figured out, and good constructors try and balance obscure words with clear wordplay, and employ shifty wordplay only when the defined word is not unfairly hard to work out.

That may be one thing that makes cryptics particularly satisfying.  You might also find words you've never seen before in a straight crossword, but there they are as much of an annoyance as a revelation.  They get in the way of solving.  Whereas in a cryptic, they're easier to solve so you aren't as angry at the word.

Have confidence!

The kitchen at Hex-plex has been pretty busy (wonder what their menus are like?  Maybe someone could dedicate a crossword meal to them) with three different courses to serve this weekend.

If you feel like paying for an appetizer, they have an acrostic in the New York Times (behind the paywall).  Deb Amlen reviews for us, and interviews the chefs as well.

If you come for the party, you can play Musical Chairs: a novel variety cryptic in the Wall Street Journal: no hat tip to The Listener or some other forerunner, so this must be an entirely new arrangement.  Reminding myself about the above principle, I got all but two words without even looking at the chairs, so it might be on the easy side.

And dessert is comfort food: the straight cryptic in the National Post.  Falcon will tell us more about it.

Enjoy your meal, and maybe go out for an extra skate afterwards--I am...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Free enterprise: in The Nation? (Puzzle No. 3,273)

This week, Hot and Trazom talk up the crowdfunding as an alternative means for constructors to publish their puzzles and make some money.  Now it might give some of the leftmost readers of The Nation the vapors, but this really is a validation of the principles of the free market.  A willing seller offers a product, and if it is good enough, willing buyers come forward and pay for it.  The result is a profit for the constructor, earned by satisfying his fellow man's (or woman's) desire for an intellectual challenge.  The economist Walter Williams put it in a very clever way: dollar bills as "certificates of performance."

Regardless of your politics, you're encouraged to use the invisible hand and raise the value of cryptic crossword construction, so more people will get rewarded for their efforts and we all get more puzzles to solve.  Maybe take the price of a book you would have bought and read if not for the time you spend solving, and divide it up among the two or three constructors whose work you enjoyed most.

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): Moderate.  I thought it was going to be a breeze: I started with a nice picket fence of downs, but ran into trouble at the lower left.

Hozom's comment: Crowds and Power, in which Patrick Berry laments the lack of opportunities to publish American cryptic crosswords, and Hot and Trazom call our attention to Berry's Kickstarter page (noted here a coupla weeks ago) and other crowdfunded puzzle projects.  Of course Berry (partnering with Trip Payne) was one of the constructors vying for the gig at The Nation: they were my second choice not because I think less of them as constructors: I just didn't want to see Berry working on straight cryptics instead of his terrific variety crosswords, for which he has a regular engagement in the Wall Street Journal and a regular mention here in Sunday brunch.

Solution and annotation to be published Monday.  Post hint requests in the comment space below.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tiffin Wallahs (Solution No. 3,272)

When I solved and blogged this week's puzzle, I noted a second theme:  instruments and other music-related terms as well as the main theme of "Yes!"  I don't think Hot and Trazom intended it that way, but it would have been cool if they had, and worked an instrument into all the theme clues.  But there ended up being just as many music entries as theme entries.

Be sure and click through to one or more of the articles referenced in 9d. Or take a look at this video of a day in the life of a dabbawala.  My friend Susan has a set of tiffin boxes she brings her lunch in sometimes.  And we have a growing empire of restaurants called Tiffin here in Philadelphia, which started with (and still does) a delivery service.

Solution and annotation below the fold

Sunday, February 17, 2013

New York Times cryptic crossword solution: February 17, 2013

Look below the fold for the solution to the 2/17/13 New York Times cryptic crossword by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon.

Then stay a while: Sunday Brunch is still being served, and we have another Hex cryptic for you, along with two(!) easy Richard Maltby puzzles and a Patrick Berry variety crossword.  We also have links to new cryptic crosswords in The Nation every Thursday, and annotated solutions every Monday.  Bookmark us!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Expect the unexpected (Sunday brunch: February 17, 2013)

On average, the cryptics by Richard Maltby are the hardest that are regularly published in America.  This was not an average week.  First, after thoroughly beating his 1968 New York Magazine solvers up with "Vicious Circles" (which see), Stephen Sondheim took the week off and had Maltby fill in.  The result was "Anesthetics." I got the gimmick pretty quickly, and finished solving in a day or so, which is pretty good for me.

Then yesterday, the new Harpers appeared, with a puzzle titled "Title Search." (puzzle available to subscribers only)  I started in on it on a walk over to the library, got the top right corner right away, and instantly saw the theme.  This one categorizes as a theme puzzle rather than a variety puzzle, which is Maltby's usual medium.  I solved it by the time I got on the train home, in case you were one of the people on the platform wondering what that guy was doing blowing smoke from the muzzle of his pen.

Two easy wins?  Sabers did even easier, winning his latest tournament with a pair of 15-2s, after a decent effort Thursday against much tougher competition.  

There's a whole weekend left?  What to solve?  Start with the Hex cryptic in the New York Times (behind the paywall).  Deb Amlen has commentary at Wordplay, and I'll post the solution later this weekend.

With one set of circles done, Patrick Berry kept me well rounded last night with "Section Eight": a different form of circular variety puzzle: instead of radial words, there are eight sectors: one letter comes out of each sector and the rest are rearranged each time you move inwards.  A tough but very fair puzzle.

And of course, there's the weekly Hex cryptic in the National Post.  Falcon asks us: "Where's the Theme?"  (I think that was rhetorical.)  I'm not so worried about a theme considering the unusual grid.  Each of the 7- and 8-letter entries in the center are fully checked: rare in a block cryptic.

Murder (93)

Well those might have been the hardest 93 letters I've ever had to fill into a grid.

The June 3, 1968 New York Magazine cryptic by Stephen Sondheim was called Vicious Circles.  It's a format I've seen and solved before: don't recall whether it was Hex or Maltby, maybe both of them have set a puzzle of this type.  It's a series of five concentric rings, the first having three letters, the second six, the thir twelve, and on to 48 letters in the outer ring.  The letters in each of the 48 radii make up a word, though you have to rearrange them, while the outer ring spells out a quote and the third identifies its author.  As additional assistance, you're given an anagram of the 24 letters in the fourth ring, and are told that there are no duplicated letters in the first or second rings respectively.

Eventually, I solved it, but it took over a week.  A couple of sections fell quickly, but I got bogged down.  Fortunately, the first section was one of the ones I had, and that led to the quote and the author.  Another ten words or so followed, and Wednesday I was to the point where getting two words in a day was considered success.

There was one pair which would have been a nice cross-reference in a conventional puzzle, but here was just a quick way out for Sondheim, since he needed two words differing by a single letter.  I have to believe he could have done better today, with an anagram server available.

23  Not very highly strung player in Red group with nothing else...
24  ... put more of the same in a little room with one

look below the fold

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Two in one (Puzzle No. 3,272)

Theming your entries is a pretty common way of bringing some extra interest to straight cryptics.  British constructors do it a lot, particularly by putting the theme in the grid and then using its number to refer to it in the clues.  Hex also frequently theme their weekly National Post cryptics.

So what do constructors do if they they think a single theme isn't challenging enough?  Put two of them together in a single puzzle.  The main theme is words and phrases meaning "Yes!" (in this case the exclamation point is not indicating a clue functioning as definition and wordplay simultaneously), and many of them also have a music reference in them (Trazom could have worked another one in at 14a).

Link to puzzle

Hozom’s comment:  Going to the Bank, in which we learn that the word “venisonivorous” is actually in MW2 (is that the right shorthand for the dictionary?), and that it won Hot and Trazom’s hearts instantly.  Those guys?  Not surprising.  In my case though, The Other Doctor Mitchell wins my heart every day.  

We also learn that Hot and Trazom are kicking themselves for missing some good letter bank opportunities in the past, and that we should keep an eye out for more of them in future puzzles.  They need more good indicators though.

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): pretty easy.  I knocked off almost all the acrosses before I got across campus to the café, and would have had the downs on the way back if I had a third hand to wield a pen while holding a coffee cup and a puzzle.

Solution and annotation will be published Monday.  Use the comments for hint requests, gripes, and shout-outs to whomever wins your heart.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tasting menu (Solution No. 3,271)

After introducing us to letter banks a few weeks ago, Hot and Trazom give us another one, this time with bells on it.  There are several other nice clues here (9a, 10a, 15a to name a few), and it looks like the rest of the puzzle was put together to let those entries shine.  An example of everything, more or less.

Sort of a "sampler," though I wonder now why that word got used to describe a needlework project where all the work is done in cross-stitch.  Shouldn't a sampler include some embroidery and crochet as well?  "Tasting menu" might be more appropriate, sort of like the omakase at Morimoto (right), something that TODM and I have been fortunate enough to have on a few occasions.

puzzle solution and annotation below the fold

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Throw Patrick some coin (Sunday brunch: February 10, 2013)

Two-acrostic brunch this weekend, but there's more for you to solve.  Once you've polished off those puzzles, come join me in Project Sondheim.

The Wall Street Journal has a timely acrostic celebrating the centennial of a great American landmark.

The weekend puzzle at the New York Times (behind the paywall) is also an acrostic.  Deb Amlen will have comments from Hex over at Wordplay.

Needing to get away from the wintry weather?  The National Post cryptic by Hex is a birdwatching visit to the seashore, and is blogged as usual by Falcon.

Elsewhere in the puzzling world, Patrick Berry has posted a new Rows Garden.  He's been busy with more than that though.  There's also a new app Patrick is offering called Eye Rollers (have you tried it? share your impressions in the comments), plus a virtual book of new puzzles called The Crypt.  He's using Kickstarter to raise money for this project.  This is a promising model for making it worth people's while to create cryptics: very few publications are willing to publish and pay for them (we should be grateful that The Nation is one of them).  New constructors can use the web to publish free puzzles and build a following, then use Kickstarter or a similar service to make some money from their work.

About the time you finish Patrick's project, Trip Payne will be readying his Extravaganza 2013.  It'll be a mix of word puzzles, but there's also a huge (25 x 25) cryptic among the bonus puzzles you can get along with your registration, plus a meta-puzzle which could win you $100.00.

I'm going to pitch in this weekend.  How about you?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Shaken, not stirred (Puzzle No. 3,271)

I'm not as obsessive about it as James Bond, but I do prefer my martinis shaken, not stirred; and yes, the "two twists" in my nom are also from my martini preference.  Just as there is an art to mixing a cocktail, there's an art to creating a good anagram for a cryptic crossword.  Go over and read this week's Word Salad installment for Hot and Trazom's observations.

Anagram clues are easy to construct, but that makes it easy for fair to middling constructors to rely too heavily on them.  Anagrams are also the most common way to clue real long entries such as you often see in British cryptics.  There the good clues are one where the anagram has some logical connection to the theme of the puzzle.  If I find one that's especially clever, I'll call it out in an In the Pink post.

For a short anagram clue to be rewarding to the solver, it has to have an element of misdirection: either wordplay carefully chosen to look like a charade or other type of non-anagram clue, an unusual indicator, preferably one related to the contents of the anagram, or such a nice fit between definition and wordplay that the clue reads very naturally, which can be a misdirection in its own way.

Otherwise, anagram clues usually make a puzzle easier to solve, especially in the internet age where we have tools like the Internet Anagram Server.  Before (and when I'm trying to challenge myself by avoiding computer assistance), I'd get out my Scrabble tiles when a particular anagram proved too tough to crack on inspection.  I'l bet more than a few of you did that too.

Finally, we should note a different species of anagram clue: the "Puns and Anagrams" style.  In this style, the anagram indicator is omitted, but the anagram mix is short enough and stands out enough to be readily distinguishable.  I don't know whether ir originated here or in Great Britain, but it's considered fair game in British cryptic practice.  In the U.S. these clues are given their own special puzzles, especially in the New York Times, but are against the unwritten rules of straight cryptic crosswording.  Puns and Anagrams are a pleasant quickie for the experienced cryptic solver, and a gateway drug for the straight crossword fan.  

Link to puzzle

Hozom's comment: Mixing it up, in which Hot and Trazom talk about the fine points of anagramming.

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

Need hints?  Got a gripe about the cluing?  Comments are open below.

Solution and full annotation will be published Monday.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Project Sondheim update: six down

After solving the first couple of Stephen Sondheim puzzles, I thought I might be looking for another new puzzle project before the year was out.  I'm not so sure now.  There's quite a lot of variability in the difficulty of the puzzles.  Here's what I've done so far, with links to the puzzles that were posted as part of New York Magazine's 40th anniversary feature.

1.  [untitled], April 8, 1968.  Fifteen unclued lights go with five theme words.  Easy.  The editors printed it under the title "New York Magazine Puzzle," aptly enough.

2. Dedicated Dodecahedron, April 15, 1968.  A dodecahedron-shaped grid where each face was a five-letter word sharing its letters with a six letter word.  Very easy as long as you can figure out the person to whom the puzzle was dedicated.

3. 3 Downs, April 22, 1968.  24 of the clues are anagrams of two words rather than the standard definition/wordplay construction.  You have to use those words to determine a third word to go into the grid.  Moderate difficulty: I recognized a few of the pairs which might not be familiar to younger people, and that helped a lot.

4. One Shy, April 29, 1968.  A straight bar cryptic, with a hidden message you have to find and interpret.  Easy.

5. Diametricode, May 6, 1968.  I remember solving another of this type--might have been a Maltby.  Fifteen of the answers must be enciphered before going in the grid, with the substitutions shown by the letters extending out from the grid.  Hard.

6.  Woodbabes, May 13, 1968.  24 of the lights are what I call visual puns, where the physical placement of the letters is indicated by the answer phrase.  So if the clue led to "babe in the woods" the light would be "woodbabes."  Sondheim gave enumerations for the lights, not the answers, which made this very hard.

And you thought that the term "snail mail" started with internet-era hipsters looking down on their old-fashioned elders?  Think again.

Public service advertisement from the U.S. Postal Service
New York magazine: April 15, 1968

Monday, February 4, 2013

1 1 1 (Solution No. 3,270)

I'm one of the few people who can explain the two-line pass, the LBW law (cricket: leg before wicket),  the concept of "right of way" in fencing (I made my debut as an fencing referee Thursday night, not that I plan to do more except in very informal circumstances), and the ordinal system in figure skating, but there was no difficulty in figuring out the results of the adult pre-bronze event at Keystone State Games this weekend: congratulations to The Other Doctor Mitchell, who made her salchow and did her best competitive skate ever to outdo a couple of younger skaters and win gold.

Working out all the answers to this week's The Nation cryptic was a pretty rewarding experience too.  Well worth the extra time to parse out the indicators as well as the wordplay. The answers are below the fold.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Fast ice (New York Times solution: February 3, 2013)

Welcome New York Times solvers.  Below the fold of this post is the solution to Paula Gamache's diagramless puzzle from today's NYT magazine (caution: link contains starting square hint).

I usually don't have too much trouble with these puzzles, and today was no different.  I even guessed the starting square correctly and early on.  My game this afternoon felt like that.  A good partner, sportsmanlike players despite the game being one-sided (Raiders won 4-1, and it could easily have been 10-1), easygoing coaches, and very fast ice.  With the sustained cold weather, the ice at most of the rinks around here gets colder and harder.  As long as your skates are sharp, it's easy to skate fast.  Plus the ice doesn't get rutted up, so it's easy to turn and pivot on (we refs pivot and change directions a lot).   You have to push hard to get through soft ice, and the ruts wear down your ankles and knees.  So the game was more of a 90 minute aerobic session for me: easiest game of the year.

Click "Read more" for the solution, then bookmark our forum and come back each week for our regular puzzlers Sunday brunch (a roundup of new and interesting puzzles), the weekly cryptic by Hot and Trazom, a trip in the Wayback Machine called Project Sondheim, and much more.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Project Sondheim (Sunday brunch: February 3, 2013)

Well, as promised last week, I'll tell you about my next big solving exercise.  The Stephen Sondheim references in Word Salad, along with the bit I learned about Sondheim mentoring Richard Maltby and the sample Sondheim cryptics from New York magazine that I solved piqued enough interest that I'm going to work my way through the entire Sondheim catalog (at least the New York magazine part of it).

Fortunately, I have access to the University of Pennsylvania library, and they have the early run of New York on microfilm.  So I went over last week, found the reel, and fired up their new microfilm viewer.   Yes, I said "new," not "old."  This one lets you print the film pages to a PDF instead of paper, so it's cheaper and I can print a fresh copy if I foul up the first one.  The copy quality is not great, but it's enough to read and solve the clues.

I'll say it was a trip going back through the pages of a 1968 magazine.  Some big names like Jimmy Breslin were writing for the magazine, politics and culture were of a very different era, and the ads were a hoot.  My mother subscribed to the magazine, and I remember reading it in the 70s.  After the Sondheim cryptic had run its course, they started a competition where readers were asked to make up humorous movie titles or typos on a weekly theme.  It subsequently inspired the Washington Post's Style Invitational, which continues to this day.

And the ads...!  I'll have to wait for another weekend to share a few of my favorites, but suffice it to say it was a less PC (which is to say much less stutifying) world.

So as of now, I've solved the first six puzzles.  Some were easy, some were very hard.  I've tried to solve them as a 1968 reader would have: no Google, no anagram server.  It gives you a lot of respect for the solvers and constructors of that era.  I'll post comments on some of the puzzles as we go along.

And with perfect timing, we have a new addition to the Sunday brunch menu: the cryptics by Zebraboy for The Sondheim Review.  His latest is called "I Never Do Anything Twice." (Lara Bruckmann sings it below).  It was a nice solve.

I Never Do Anything Twice (by Stephen Sondheim, from "The Seven Percent Solution)

Elsewhere in the puzzling world, the Wall Street Journal has a Patrick Berry variety crossword called Mailboxes.  It's a slight variation on some of his previous work, but familiar to Berry's fans.  It's another fully-checked puzzle (a Berry specialty) where a jigsaw puzzle of rectangles is placed with the help of across-words.  I found it pretty hard, but some of the other folks commenting had an easier time.

The New York Times has a diagramless behind the paywall, plus the monthly Fred Piscop bonus puzzle, which I now understand is not another diagramless, though Piscop does many of their diagramless.  This month's is by Paula Gamache (must repeat her headshot).  I'll bet it's themed.  Look for the solution posted to the blog as soon as I get the puzzle and get it done.  [update: solution is posted, and Deb Amlen's post at Wordplay has the starting square if you want a hint.]

Want something a little more straightforward?  Hex have their regular weekly cryptic in the National Post, and Falcon will blog it for you as always, over at  

That's a pretty full menu.  Something for everyone, unless you're Fannee Doolee...