Monday, July 29, 2013

Getting the assignment

Double issue of The Nation last week, so no puzzle and no solution today.

Thirty years ago, I watched the hockey tournament at the third National Sports Festival, held in Syracuse in 1981.  I was thrilled to get a stray puck that was deflected into the stands, and get Dave Poulin to sign it for a college friend of mine I later learned was a third cousin.  The US Olympic Committee started the NSF as a way of giving America's elite athletes a major event to participate in in non-Olympic years.  It lasted until 1985, then morphed into the US Olympic Festival.

While there's not a direct lineage, the State Games of America carries on that tradition.  It's a lot more democratic though, which is good for the Mitchell household.  Though neither of them are (yet) elite athletes, Bangle and The Other Doctor Mitchell will be competing in their third State Games (both won bronze in San Diego two years ago).  Sabers has his sport to participate in; and since the event is in Harrisburg, close to home, I'm participating too.  Four Mitchells, three sports!

Getting my assignments last night (I start Friday morning with the pee wee opener and then junior girls) was a bigger deal than I would have let on.  After officiating this long, you know your own weaknesses and you have a few doubts about whether you're ready for a big event like this and whether the assigners think you're good enough.  That practice on the weekend did most for my confidence than for my legs and getting the e-mail saying I was in was as nearly much of a boost.

Thirty years, a shoulder operation, a career, and a family later, I'm back at the games, and on the other side of the glass.  Who would have though that then?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Open hockey (Sunday brunch: July 28, 2013)

I don’t have to compete at State Games like The Other Doctor Mitchell, Sabers, and Bangle, but I need to be in mid-season shape too: this is an important event for the players and they deserve our best.  Official USA Hockey training camps aren’t going to start until next month, so I set up my own program: going around to some of the area rinks for their open hockey sessions.  It’s a whole lot more productive practice than going to a public skate and just skating around in circles, even skating fast and weaving around other skaters to work on agility like I usually do to get ready for the season.  And I need it because I've been refereeing more fencing than hockey the past few months.

The players found it novel to have a ref join them, but for the most part they played like the usual open hockey: hacking around, floating in the neutral zone, and showing off individual skills.  Friday night was a really good bunch of players: a couple of guys who looked like college players or maybe senior A, some decent senior Bs, and some good midget/high school age players including a very solid defenseman.

With no goalies, no line changes, and very light enforcement of the rules, it was like pond hockey.  For the ref working solo, it was like D-league, only at twice the speed.  There’s no better workout for a ref: a solid hour of 150 percent speed and endurance.  Bantams will seem slow after this, which is just what I needed.

Need some puzzles to keep your brain just as fit?  Here we go...

The Wall Street Journal has an acrostic by Mike Shenk and the New York Times has a Hex acrostic (behind the paywall).

Hope you’re not afraid of snakes!  This week’s Hex cryptic in the National Post has a serpentine theme, while the Nathan Curtis puzzle of the week is a Snake Charmer.

And if you didn’t see it earlier this week, give Roger Wolff's “X Games” a try, and if you like it, join the Kickstarter for his Cryptic All Stars book.  I finished it this morning, after nailing the 12 letter entry on the left.  It’s one of those puzzles where the lights are unnumbered and the answers given in alphabetical order.  I had about two thirds of them figured out, but only three in the grid.  I had to take a leap of faith, and ended up rolling right through as soon as I did.  Let that be a lesson.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cryptic All-Stars

Double issue of The Nation last week; no new puzzle this week.  I've been working through “The Merry Old Land Of O’s” by Patrick Berry, and the sample mentioned below.  

I'm a week late for this considering that the baseball All-Star Game was last week.  However, I'm not too late to encourage you to help get the Cryptic All-Stars their last thousand dollars through Kickstarter.  Roger Wolff has brought together a dozen constructors for a proposed book of variety cryptics.  The team includes Trazom, Henry Hook, Zebraboy, Slik, Roy Leban, and more.

The Kickstarter deadline is July 30, and if the project reaches its goal, Wolff will go ahead and commission the puzzles.  He estimates that they'll be ready by December, with the printed books done in February 2014.  Here’s a sample.

There’ll be 45 puzzles.  It’s 25 bucks if you want the electronic version, 40 for print.  Donate more and you get souvenirs or a call-out in the book.  It's not cheap compared to the books that are out there (like Wolff's own), but it's also more remunerative to the constructors with a lot fewer middlemen taking their cuts.

Cash is always a nice incentive for constructors to give us more puzzles, and for more to get into the game.  One more good thing about a project like this is it gives you a chance to try out puzzles from different constructors, and find out whose you like and whose you don't like.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Silver! (Solution No. 3,289)

Sabers (right) with his first medal in an all-ages individual
tournament (he's won some youth and team events previously) 
Mission accomplished for Sabers at the Lehigh Valley Sportsfest.  Everybody fenced well and represented the sport well at an event with lots of spectators passing by, most of whom had never seen a live fencing match before.  In the interest of putting on more of a show, the organizers held an unprecedented three rounds of pool bouts.  Though he was the youngest competitor in the tournament, Sabers won one of those pools and was seeded second in the eliminations.

In the silver medal bout, Sabers got an early lead and held it at the break, but then lost focus and fell behind.  He and his opponent traded touches until the score was 14-11.  Back to the wall, Sabers tried a “point in line.”  It's like a defender in a basketball game establishing a position and trying to draw a charging foul.  The opponent took the attack, but didn't do it well enough to beat the blade, and the referee called the touch to Sabers.  At 12-14, Sabers went to the point in line again--with the same result--and again at 13-14.

14-14.  Sudden death.  By protocol, the fencers salute each other and the referee.  It also adds to the drama.  One touch for the silver.  Point in line one more time, the opponent attacked right into it, two lights, and the referee gave the winning point to Sabers.  He let out a yell that was half triumph and half relief.  The physical part is important, but this win took brains and guts, which is why fencers like their sport.

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

Themework: 26a tells us there’s something you need to complete three other answers (to be precise, they were lacking from the clue and so would be inserted as literals (†) in the answer). That something was “pope” and the three popes are John Paul (Bishop Wojtyla if you’re the Reformation type), Benedict (Bishop Ratzinger), and Francis (Bishop Bertoglio).  Good pastors and good men all.  Note that they’re included in chronologic order!

Difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): once you figured out the theme, it wasn’t too hard.  I got the top right first and then the bottom left.

Musical content: 20a

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

New York Times diagramless solution: July 21, 2013

Below the fold is the solution to this week's New York Times variety puzzle: a diagramless crossword by Fred Piscop.  Now that you've got this one, why not head over to the Sunday Brunch post for more cryptic and variety crosswords to do?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Training camp (Sunday brunch: July 21, 2013)

Wouldn't you like to be in a nice cool ice rink on a very hot weekend?

The State Games of America are just two weeks away now, so the Mitchell participants are working themselves into top form.  Sabers is at his training camp, doing fencing-related activities eight to twelve hours a day.  Bangle and The Other Doctor Mitchell are at the rink most of the day: two to three hours of skating each day and an off-ice class.

They all have some additional competition prior to State Games: a home fencing tournament and the Lehigh Valley Sportsfest this weekend and Skate Wilmington next weekend.  Me?  I get to write the checks and do the laundry.  I'll do two puzzles a day too.

This weekend's puzzles start with a Section Eight by Patrick Berry in the Wall Street Journal.  I posted some hints earlier in case you get stuck.  Don't resort to them too soon.  If you get some of the ring 1 sections completed and figure out a few of the middle ring words, you can get an approximate location and direction for those middle rings.  Then the rest of the ring 1 sector will give you a letter bank for the rest of the middle ring word.

The New York Times variety puzzle (behind the paywall) is a diagramless by Fred Piscop.  Deb Amlen calls it “sensible.”  I'll be back with a solution after I get my copy.  Update: the solution is posted.

Nathan Curtis has a Pathfinder up for us this week.  I like these puzzles a lot.  When they're constructed well, one answer leads to another and it's a challenging but smooth solve.

Falcon reports that the Hex cryptic at the National Post got him up on his feet.

Xanthippe has another new British cryptic: xii if you're counting.

Finally, we say "thank you" to Aries, who is laying down the pencil after creating 117 Rows Gardens.  That's enough for a couple of books: it would be great if he could find a publisher for them (maybe Puzazz?)
Danger!  Saber fencer!

Wall Street Journal hints

This weekend's Wall Street Journal Saturday puzzle is a "Section Eight" by Patrick Berry.  It can be hard to get a toehold in this format, but once you do, you can work it out.

To help beginners and people who want to check their guesses, I'm posting some hidden hints below the fold. Scroll over the blank spaces to see the enumeration (letter count) of the words in each ring, the direction each ring goes, and the sector the ring starts in (see ring 1 for numbers).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On Crosswords (Puzzle No. 3,289)

On Crosswords: Thoughts, Studies, Facts and Snark About a 100-Year-Old Pastime
by T Campbell (köehlerbooks: 175 pp., $14.95)

This book got and deserved some nice blurbs, but I was not quite as impressed.  What struck me most was how obviously the book needed an editor.  There's lots of interesting content, but it reads like a stream of blog posts.  There aren't really chapters, and having that more traditional structure might have helped Campbell organize the content better.

But there are plenty of interesting tidbits in the book, and you can pick it up for a few minutes whenever you feel like it and have a satisfying read.  In fact, something like this is better taken in little nibbles: the better to appreciate the puzzles Campbell writes about.  They're the extremes, the oddities, and the inside jokes.  We also learn about the publishers' side: the proclivities of New York Times editors, the rise and fall of Games magazine, and the somewhat prudish standards of Dell.

Nearly all the book is devoted to straight crosswords, and particularly those of the kind the New York Times would print.  There is room for a comparable history of the cryptic (which may need to be [or already has been] written by a Brit), and even more so for a history and taxonomy of variety crosswords, which I think we’re in a particularly good age for. 

On to this week's The Nation puzzle (the PDF of which was posted late).

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): moderate to hard.  I got the top right first; it got a lot easier once I sussed out the theme.

Themework: see 26a.  As it says, three of the clues don't give you the entire answer.  The purists will be upset, but I liked it.

Hozom's comment: "Capital Gains," in which Hot and Trazom talk about the convention of ensuring that a clue that is capitalized leads to an answer that is capitalized and vice versa.  They also sneak in a mention of how sometimes they'll make you insert a space into a clue word to work out the answer.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tour de France (Sunday brunch: July 14, 2013)

For many years July in our house means watching the Tour de France.  The recent doping scandals and revelations tarnish the individuals involved, but they don't detract from the drama of the event itself.

Once you get to know the event and some of the personalities, your enjoyment of the Tour increases exponentially.  There is a lot more to it than who will wear the yellow jersey in Paris: the effort of the leaders' teammates to set the pace, throw off opponents, and deliver their man to the finish; the opportunistic riders who go off in a breakaway and the tactical riding of the sprinters' teams to keep the break from getting too far ahead; and much more.

The scenery and the crowds also make the event.  There are many familiar faces: human (commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen; The Devil, who shows up during the mountain stages), and non-human (the familiar curves of Alpe d'Huez).

Today is one of two "queen stages" of the Tour: days expected to be the toughest and most decisive.  Today's stage finishes with the long lonely climb up Mont Ventoux, while Thursday the race climbs the Alpe not once but twice.  I'll bet fans are already camping out there today in order to get the best viewing points.  There'll be a quarter million lining the road there by Thursday, and they'll get a fabulous show.  Check your local listings, so you can be there in spirit.

As frequently happens, acrostics show up together this weekend.  The Wall Street Journal's acrostic (Java link) is by Mike Shenk.  Not many comments posted so far, but the majority note it is fairly difficult.  I don't think it had the polish of Hex's acrostics (of which there is one behind the New York Times paywall), but I liked the fill (aside from the one which obviously was the last one Shenk clued--J): a reggae artist, a backgammon game popular in the Navy, and a nice, happy pop song.

The new Harpers is out, with Richard Maltby's variety cryptic, but there are no recent posts over at Erica's blog.  She must be busy with her video directing.  Nathan Curtis also informs us he doesn't have much to say, but there is an Around the Bend puzzle for us this week.

There's a BEQ cryptic I missed last week (#553 if you're counting), and the regularly scheduled Hex cryptic in the National Post.  For the latter, a little French will help, but I think there's not enough there to call it a themed puzzle.

And hooray, hooray: Xanthippe is now offering printer-friendly versions of her (British) cryptics, starting with her Opus 10.  Go visit, solve, and comment.  Xanthippe is eager to improve her work, and she's blogging about the constructing experience as well as sharing her puzzles with us.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

Customer service (Solution No. 3,288)

Hot and Trazom appear to be paying attention to the solvers who comment over at Word Salad and sometimes complain about clues that contravene the standard US cryptic cluing practice.  They haven’t done away with them altogether, but they are using them in moderation, which lets them function more as conversation pieces.  1a/28a is a perfect example of this: clever enough to make it worth bending the rules for.

Themework: none, other than the long answer at 1a/28a and its cross-reference in 2d.

Difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): moderate

Political content: 15a, 26a (see comment)

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

Sunday, July 7, 2013

New York Times variety puzzle solution: July 7, 2013

Below the fold is the solution to this week's New York Times variety puzzle: Marching Bands by Brendan Emmett Quigley.  For your convenience, I've used colors to distinguish the two answers in each row, put in bars to separate the Band answers.

Now that you're done with this one, why not try one of the other interesting variety puzzles linked in this weekend's Sunday Brunch?  Then come back every weekend for more puzzles and commentary, and on Thursdays for the cryptic crosswords from The Nation.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Variety (Sunday brunch: July 7, 2013)

Sabers at Nationals
This is a weekend for variety crosswords.  The Wall Street Journal has a Patrick Berry Beginnings and Ends puzzle.  I'll post the solution elsewhere on the blog, but you probably won't need it: the first commenters say it's easy.

The New York Times has a Marching Bands by BEQ behind the paywall.  Is this the first time they've run one of these? Definitely not the straitlaced puzzle selection of old.  Add your comments to those of Deb Amlen at Wordplay.

Update: I've added a hint grid below the fold.  If you're having trouble with the NYT puzzle, the hint grid shows where the band words start and end.

Puzzazz brings us the June installment of their Year of Puzzles: a bit late due to the NYT rollout there.  They promise to catch up with an extra puzzle this month.  The current installment is set in Washington DC.  The variety part?  Some of the clues are in the form of flags.

Of course there's also the weekly variety puzzle by Nathan Curtis: a Rows Garden this week.  Nathan says he's pretty happy with how this turned out.  Agree?  Drop a comment on the post

There's a new issue of Contingencies out: Tom Toce shares his first cryptic acrostic with us there.  Variety squared!  There may be some clues that the actuaries will get first, but I'll bet we cryptic fans will get the last laugh on that one.  There's a neat story about the quote: I'll share it Monday along with the solution to The Nation No. 3,288.

After all that, a straight block cryptic will feel like a change of pace.  Falcon is back and blogging the Hex cryptic in the National Post, with an air show theme this week.

And Xanthippe has her weekly cryptic for those of you who like the British style.  She says she's trying to hew more closely to the rules, so us American solvers might have more of a shot at it.  Unfortunately, there's not a printer-friendly version posted.  I've asked for one and will keep you apprised of progress.

Wall Street Journal solution: July 6, 2013

Below the fold is the solution to this weekend's Wall Street Journal Saturday puzzle: "Beginnings and Ends" by Patrick Berry.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Pulled pork and pierogi sandwich (Puzzle No. 3,288)

Pulled pork, barbecue sauce, and potato and cheese
pierogis on a pretzel roll
Parades and fireworks are just fine for celebrating Independence Day (the Fourth of July events are one of the defining things of Glenside), but if you want to really celebrate America, find a baseball game and look for some local specialty at the concession stand.

This is the pulled pork barbecue and pierogi sandwich I had at the Pirates-Phillies game Tuesday.  Something about Pittsburgh makes people put their side order in the middle of a sandwich instead of, well, on the side.  They do it a lot with french fries, but pierogis (Polish dumplings with mashed potato and other fillings) are even more interesting.

Can't say I really get the point: the somewhat bland pierogis dilute the flavor of the meat and sauce, though the tingle of salt from the pretzel roll popped up as a little surprise in each bite.

This week's puzzle has a couple of split answers, in a nicely symmetric way.  One is easy and the other is a cultural reference I didn't get off the bat.

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): moderate.  Only one answer that I would say is pushing the limits of US cluing practice.

Hozom's comment: From Point A to Point B (Part II), in which Hot and Trazom (in keeping with the holiday) make a spirited defense of their freedom to clue in ways that sometimes defy the established (at least here in the USA) order.  Interestingly, in crosswording it is the British who embrace liberty while Americans mostly seek order and conformity.

Hot and Trazom also make kind mention of this humble blog, and one of the points of parsing and explaining each of the clues.  If you follow through and work out the wordplay of each answer instead of just filling in the grid, it will help you solve future puzzles.  And those keys you get from solving this puzzle will work on a lot of other puzzles, including the British style.

Back with the solution to No. 3,288 Monday.  Join us as always for Sunday brunch this weekend.