Saturday, May 31, 2014

Frank’s Finale (Puzzle No. 1,634)

Summer is nearing, and The Nation is into its bi-weekly publication schedule.  This summer, we’ll use the off-weeks to go back to some Frank W. Lewis originals.

We’ll start with the last puzzle he constructed for The Nation, No. 1,634, which was first published in May 1976.  It’s very typical of the Lewis style: more British, with frequent cross-referencing within the puzzle and answers split across multiple lights. 

The solvers who complain about Hot and Trazom’s cluing will have even more to get upset about.  There are unindicated anagrams, word associations, and other things you might find in a Puns and Anagrams but break the strict Ximenean rules typical of North American cryptics.  Be aware of that as you work on the puzzle, and you’ll have a better chance of solving it.  

Add to that the sometimes-obscure words in the grid (remember these were all constructed without the aid of computers and the internet), and these are truly hard puzzles.  I struggled with them when I was first solving cryptics, and I still get stuck often today. 

Maybe you can do better; maybe not.  But we’ll try and use a summer’s worth of these puzzles to build up some new solving skills together.

Degree of difficulty (by standards of the current The Nation puzzle): very hard

Back with the solution and annotation Monday.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Triple definitions (Solution No. 3,327)

All gave some, some gave all...
The solution to The Nation puzzle no. 3,327 is below the fold.

Take a look at this clue from the weekend’s Globe and Mail cryptic by Fraser Simpson.

31a  Secretly carry off Scotch tenor     SPIRIT

Too much of a good thing?  I suspect some solvers would think so.  As I parse that clue, I get three definitions, not two:

  • Secretly carry off
  • Scotch
  • tenor

By the Ximenean book, that’s not cricket.  A definition, wordplay (in this case a second definition), and nothing else.  Another definition qualifies as “something else.”  But having both “Scotch” and “tenor” in it makes the clue read better—a little more mysteriously too.

Then Hot and Trazom did something similar in this week’s The Nation puzzle: see 18d (in red) below.  The second definition in the clue was more like a definition and a half.  Was that intended?  Did the constructors accidentally leave in part of their original clue while editing it?  Maybe Hot will shed some light on this one for us.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

First to intervene (Sunday brunch: May 25, 2014)

Scroll down below the video for the weekend’s new puzzles.

[update: Link to NYT solution added]

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but the hockey rulebook and related publications have a rather peculiar language.  We wear trousers rather than pants, players get into altercations rather than fights, and the “third man in” rule actually penalizes the “first to intervene.”

Third man in rightly is one of the most serious offenses in the book.  One of the others is physically abusing or interfering with an official.  It so happens that the latter most happens in the process of preventing the former, and that was the case in the Stanley Cup game this week between the Canadiens and the Rangers.  There was a fight between two other players during the first period, and Carcillo appeared to be looking for a chance to join in.  Scott Driscoll, who’s one of the top linesmen in the league, saw the situation developing, and smartly placed himself in between Carcillo and the fight.

Carcillo then threw an elbow at Driscoll to try and get free and get into the fight.  That earned him a ten-game suspension.  That’s a long suspension, in line with what the league hands out for a high hit that injures an opponent.  Kerry Fraser explains the story behind that rule over at his blog “C’mon Ref.”

Some of the TSN viewers who responded to Fraser’s explanation didn’t buy it, but if you’ve ever refereed men’s league, you know exactly why the penalty is so stiff.  Fights happen occasionally, and scuffles happen a lot more.  But there are a few players who go absolutely bonkers when one of their teammates gets into a scrap.  We had a couple of them in the Penn league a few years ago.  If you don’t stop them, they can turn a routine pushing and shoving incident into a full-blown brawl involving all the players on the ice.  So league commissioners usually issue long suspensions for these incidents. The ones that don’t?  That’s a story for another day.

How about doing battle in a much less violent way with these puzzles?

The Sunday New York Times (behind the paywall) features a cryptic by Richard Silvestri.  The solution is posted below.  Deb Amlen blogs it (spoiler alert) at Wordplay.

There’s a Hex cryptic in the National Post, but Falcon is on vacation and you’ll have to wait to see it.  I’ve already solved it, and it was hard.  You can get the Globe and Mail puzzle by Fraser Simpson right now.

The Wall Street Journal weekend puzzle is a Labyrinth by Mike Shenk.  It’s definitely hard.  Lots of solvers are having trouble with the top four rows, so they’re not finding a toehold.  Try and get the rows below that, and see if that gives you enough of a hint at a “winding” answer that you can get some letters extending into the top rows.  If not, I have a hint grid posted elsewhere on the blog, and the solution is up if you want to check your answers.

Good news if you own Puzzazz (and if you liked that Labyrinth, the new e-book of variety puzzles: “Mike Shenk’s Variety Show” is a pretty good reason to download the app).  Version 3.3 was just released this week.  I was glad to see that the app now allows you to delete puzzles from your download folder once you’re through with them.  Next I’d like to see a way to create different download folders so cryptics can go in one “book” and Puns and Anagrams can go in another.

Puzzazz has also finished the e-book version of “Cryptic All-Stars.”  I’ve been working my way through the book over the last couple of months, and while the standard isn’t as uniformly high as we get from the top constructors like Hot and Trazom, the variety of variety puzzles and constructing styles has been entertaining.

New York Times solution: May 25, 2014

[back-posted to keep the current The Nation post at the top]

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

After you look at that, why not look around the rest of the blog?  We have links to new cryptics from The Nation most Thursdays, solutions on the subsequent Mondays, and Sunday brunch every weekend, featuring a smorgasbord of cryptic and variety crosswords, interspersed with hockey, music, fencing, and other such topics.

Wall Street Journal hint grid: May 24, 2014

Below the fold is a hint grid for this weekend’s Wall Street Journal puzzle: a Labyrinth by Mike Shenk. It shows you where the winding words start and end.

Once you’re through with this one, try some Sunday brunch: with info on a new Puzzazz release that you can solve more of Mike’s variety puzzles on, plus cryptic crosswords on the menu.

Wall Street Journal solution (May 24, 2014)

Below the fold is the solution to this weekend’s Wall Street Journal puzzle: a Labyrinth by Mike Shenk.  Did you know there’s also a hint grid available?  It shows the starting and ending squares for each of the “winding” answers.  Try it if you don’t want quite as much help.

Once you’re through with this one, try some Sunday brunch: with info on a new Puzzazz release that you can solve more of Mike’s variety puzzles on, plus cryptic crosswords on the menu.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Halfway (Solution No. 3,326)

The solution to puzzle no. 3,326 is below the fold.

I’ve continued to mull on the “meet the constructor halfway” point I made last week, not just on the world at large, but on crosswords too (much more important subject, don’t you think).

We have to particularly apply that principle to the words and definitions a constructor chooses. American constructors have an incredibly broad and deep culture to work from: so much so it’s multidimensional. High culture or popular?  Old or new?  Common or obscure?  And then there are so many subcultures one can dip into.  Macpherson struts, Liszt, platelets, so many words and phrases lending themselves to wordplay.

The Andrew Ries subscription Rows Garden I did last week started off with two answers that I figure might inspire some solvers to demand those inane “trigger warnings.”

1  Ursine fad of the 1980s   CARE BEARS
2  Site whose members list hobbies and favorite Bible verses   CHRISTIAN MINGLE

Now I have been happily married nearly 25 years, and I cringe at treacly sentimentality, but I still smiled at both of those answers.  They reached into deep and dust-covered recesses of my brain.  CARE BEARS came to mind instantly, while CHRISTIAN MINGLE was one of those answers that made me wonder “how did I ever remember that?”

What I can’t abide is solvers who complain about the source of an answer: that we’re too good to be glorifying a silly pop fad or acknowledging that Christians are a significant part of our population. Respecting diversity has to include things that might not be our particular cup of tea, but might be someone else’s.

It’s fitting that a The Nation puzzle name-checks liberals and teases conservatives.  But in the end, the main point of a good cryptic should be to celebrate the language that unites us.  As with commencement addresses, if you’re demanding that every message validate your worldview, you’re losing out on a lot of what makes us grow.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The NHL draw (Sunday brunch: May 18, 2014)

Typical men's league faceoff.
Last Sunday I had a spring league double-header.  Off-season hockey ought to be more about building skills than being competitive. There was a summer league I worked in Maryland twenty years ago that had the right idea.  Body checking was not allowed, and the organizers told the players they were expected to play defense by outskating the puck carrier instead of hitting him or going for his stick.

Even at this point in my career, I too still look for opportunities to work on new skills, and last weekend was one of them.  The first game was 9- and 10-year-olds, and many of them look to have just moved up from mite-level.  So I decided this would be a great time to try an NHL-style draw: down way low with your arm out to present the puck.  Colorado wants us to use that type of draw, but most of us value our safety more than pleasing the USA Hockey administration, so we drop the puck the way they used to instruct us to do.
An NHL face-off.  See where the players are?
But a spring league game, with players who probably couldn’t hurt me if they tried?  Perfect time to work on a new technique.  The photo at left shows what it should look like: get your rear end down and form a diamond with your rear end, your shoulders, your puck hand, and your skates.

But I bounced the puck through the whole first period.  Once I was comfortable with the position and still bouncing pucks, I shifted my hand and put two fingers on top of the puck.  The pucks started landing flat.  Mission accomplished.

Work on your pencil-holding grip for these puzzles.

It’s an excellent weekend for variety cryptic fans like me.  The Wall Street Journal puzzle is a Hex cryptic called “Rebuses.”  There are fifteen unconventional clues: you should be able to figure out how they work.  If you can’t, try these hints.

Next we’ve got the new Harper’s, which is called “Full Circle.”  A dozen answers are unclued.  How do you take on a puzzle like this?  Get as many of the regularly-clued answers as you can and hope they give you enough intersecting letters for you to get some of the unclued answers.  Then those might help with the rest of the regular ones.  I couldn’t figure out the theme connecting the unclued answers until I was nearly through with the entire grid.

And on top of that Mark Halpin has a Sondheim-themed puzzle called “There’s Always a Woman.” These are good puzzles, not impossibly difficult, but hard enough that getting all the themework done gives you a real sense of accomplishment.

Straight cryptics?  Hex have you covered in the National Post (blogged quickly by Falcon, who is going off on vacation), while Fraser Simpson’s weekly puzzle is in the Globe and Mail.

This week’s New York Times variety puzzle (behind the paywall) is a Hex acrostic.   Deb Amlen felt like getting a drink when she was through with it.  That sounds like a good idea.

Wall Street Journal hints: May 17, 2014

In case you are stuck, there are some hints below the fold for the Wall Street Journal weekend puzzle: “Rebuses,” a variety cryptic by Hex.  Once you’re done with that one, this month’s Harper’s cryptic by Richard Maltby will make use of the same tactics.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Project Architeuthis (Puzzle No. 3,326)

Link to puzzle
(puzzle is fixed: see cancelled note below)

Degree of difficulty:  Mostly easy (simple charades and anagrams), but a few hard clues and answers are sprinkled in.

Hozom’s comment:  Critical Condition, in which Hot and Trazom add their two cents on the Jim Horne manifesto I blogged on on Monday.  While they sympathize with Jim, they defend the people who carp about puzzles and remind us of the purpose of critics in the art(#) world.  Money quote: “Holding [the NYT puzzle] to the highest possible aesthetic standard is another way of saying that the quality of the puzzle is worth caring about passionately.”

Another reason for good constructive criticism is to give other artists(#) a chance to see and understand the parts of an opus that weren’t received as well as the creator expected.  In the context of an otherwise good puzzle, the few weaknesses are distinct enough that a good critic can analyze them and use them as a teaching point.  

#--“art” is defined broadly around here.  Constructing puzzles is definitely an art, as is blogging and refereeing hockey games.

Weekly cluing challenge: CARPING

Back with the solution Monday.  Join us for Sunday brunch this weekend and every weekend.

A coupla weeks ago, puzzlers started buzzing about a Facebook page called Project Archieuthis   (Architeuthis is a genus of giant squid).  It promised an intriguing puzzle hunt, woven into a tale about a stolen weapons system.  Can you crack the codes, solve the puzzles, and save the kidnapped scientist?

If you can, you might be good material for the United States Navy.  The puzzle hunt is intended to identify people with minds well-suited to cryptography and other skills needed for information security, and to open them up to the idea of putting those talents to work for their country.

Three cheers for the Navy and its ad agency for putting this unconventional campaign together.   It’s good to recognize that there are people out there who want to serve, but don’t fit the model of the stereotypical military recruit.

Twenty years ago, I had a temporary job in Maryland with the USDA doing MRI of fish (we used them as a living indicator of water quality)  I refereed a lot of hockey while I was down there, and the route to one of the rinks took me right by the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.  Being the puzzle fan I was, I made a promise to myself that if there ever was a situation where the country was under threat, I’d go there and offer to join (there are other places too where the nation needs smart people, like chemical and biological defenses at Fort Detrick, where we had some MRI collaborators).

I wasn’t aware of it at the time (I wasn’t even into cryptics), but Frank Lewis, longtime puzzle constructor for The Nation, was an civilian employee of the Army and the NSA, earning two prestigious medals for his service during . Now I can raise a coffee cup in his memory when I pass Fort Meade.  Frank, you were 70 years ahead of your time.

NOTE: the first posted version of Puzzle No. 3,326 inadvertently includes the 20a clue from 3,325.  Ignore it.  A corrected file will probably be posted by The Nation soon.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Jim Horne’s Manifesto (Solution No. 3,325)

The solution to puzzle no. 3,325 is below the fold as usual.

While we’re on the subject of difficulty (or lack thereof), I noticed a post from Jim Horne (proprietor of asking “What are crossword bloggers thinking?”  He notes that many of the most popular crossword blogs, and their commentors, take inordinate pleasure in sniping at the puzzles they review, so he found it discouraging to blog.

The manifesto had seven points—I think they’re all insightful.
  • Blogs are written by people who are not the target audience for the puzzles
  • The blogs are written by people who have done so many puzzles that they've become tired of the standard forms.
  • The bloggers seem to be more conservative than I am
  • Bloggers have an unreasonable focus on the weakest short fill entries
  • There’s a tendency to equate knowledge gaps with bad puzzle-making
  • There is too much focus on symmetry and consistency
  • There is irrational hand-wringing when made-up rules are broken
If I had to distill it down to a single point, it would be: “solvers and bloggers have to learn to meet the constructor halfway.” Go read the whole thing.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Happy birthday, Raydoc (Sunday Brunch: May 11, 2014)

Raydoc (right) and family
on a blustery day in Nantucket
Today we wish a very happy birthday (one with a zero!) to Raydoc.  Being a diagnostician by trade, it’s not surprising he likes puzzles too.

We have a nice Rows Garden (by Patrick Berry) in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. Hints are available if you need them.  They’re in white print so you can take as much or as little help as you need.

Mark Halpin has composed a tough variety cryptic in honor of the documentary “Six by Sondheim.”

There is a diagramless by Fred Piscop in the New York Times today.  Comment (and spoilers) by Deb Amlen at Wordplay.  The solution is posted elsewhere on the blog.

The National Post cryptic by Hex has a few baseball-related clues, but is otherwise themeless, and not too difficult.

Fraser Simpson’s Globe and Mail cryptic isn’t as easy as last week.  2d is a good example of the difference between his puzzles and most other North American cryptics: the clue is “close of play” and the answer is EPILOGUE.  The clue is a single definition and no wordplay.  The cryptic element comes because the phrase “close of play” is usually used to describe the schedule of a cricket match and not a drama.

New York Times solution: May 11, 2014

Below the fold is the solution to this weekend’s New York Times variety puzzle, a diagramless by Fred Piscop.  Once you are done with this one, take a look at the rest of the Sunday Brunch menu.  There’s a Rows Garden by Patrick Berry, a Hex cryptic, a Mark Halpin variety cryptic, and more.

Wall Street Journal hint: May 10, 2014

Below the fold are some hints for this weekend’s Wall Street Journal variety puzzle, a Rows Garden by Patrick Berry. As usual, they’re set in white text so you can click and drag over one hint without seeing the rest. After you’re done with this, stop over for Sunday brunch with more puzzle links.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Avalanche (Puzzle No. 3,325)

Bangle singing with glee club
Some puzzles give you breakthroughs rather than the smooth solving experience of a good block cryptic.  If you remember Chem. 101, it’s the concept of activation energy.

This week I worked on solving several of the Cryptic All-Stars puzzles.  One of them was a John Forbes puzzle called “Wrap Sheet.”  Its answers are entered in the grid starting at the corresponding numbered square and then going in any direction: right, left, up, or down. 

The trick in this particular kind of puzzle is to fill in all the first letters you can get, and then use a process of elimination to get down to the only possible orientation for an answer.  You might have to work out 20 or 30 of the 50 or so clues before you can fill in even one word.  But once you have that first one, it can lead you to another one, and that one leads to a third, and pretty soon you have enough intersecting letters to start working out the remaining clues and finish the puzzle.  It can feel like an avalanche once it gets rolling. 

This is one of the reasons I post hints for some of the variety puzzles that come up in Sunday Brunch.  In the comments on those puzzles, you often see solvers asking for help because they don’t know where to start.  Once they get that toehold, they get the reward of seeing the pieces fall into place, and maybe they’ll be hooked. 

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): Hard, especially if you aren’t familiar with some of the uncommon types of wordplay Hot and Trazom like. 

Hozom’s comment: “How Hard Can It Be?” in which Hot and Trazom ask a crossword blogger to explain how he rates each puzzle as hard or easy.
Themework: see 29d.  I actually forgot about the theme until after I had finished all the theme entries.  

Back with the solution and annotation Monday.  Make sure you try and work out all the wordplay in this one in the meantime.   

Monday, May 5, 2014

Rhythm (Solution No. 3,324)

The solution and annotation to puzzle no. 3,324 is below the fold

As I mentioned Thursday, I had an easy time with this week’s puzzle thanks to getting 1a and 1d right off the bat.  That gave me the first letters of nine more answers, which were completed in due time.  A third of the puzzle was done before I looked up (actually, I had to look up to cross the street and to make sure I didn’t bump into anyone as I was on my walk/solve).

Next I started on the bottom (another easy 15) and worked up from there.  Not quite as many immediate answers off last letters than off beginnings (it’s how our memory banks are wired), but this puzzle had a definite feel of the two halves coming together in the center.

That made me think that a clever constructor could almost direct the solver through the puzzle by the relative placement of easy and difficult clues.  Variety cryptics sometimes work this way, the quintessential example being puzzles with an unclued theme.  It’s not as much fun if you can get the theme right away as it is if the theme emerges slowly as the solution builds up.

So a suggestion to constructors: think about where your hard clues and easy clues are.  Use easy clues to give solvers a way to build up a partial solution to the hard clues, and more customers will be satisfied.  Anticipate that most solvers will start at the top and work down from there.  And if there’s a theme, think about how the solver will get there, so it will be the climax of the puzzle.

UPDATE:  BEQ thinks the same way, and nailed it by explaining that the theme of the puzzle is like a punchline.  Timing makes it work.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Catching up (Sunday brunch: May 4, 2014)

If there’s anything this weekend is notable for, it’s the lack of new cryptic and variety puzzles.  So I’m going to use my puzzling time to work on Cryptic All-Stars.

Tom Toce’s latest puzzle in Contingencies isn’t a cryptic, it’s his second annual Academy Awards sonnet: this one containing the anagrammed titles of 14 Best Picture nominees.

The Wall Street Journal weekend puzzle isn’t a cryptic: it’s an acrostic by Mike Shenk.

The New York Times variety puzzle isn’t a cryptic: it’s an acrostic by Hex.  (Puzzle behind the paywall, comments and spoilers at Wordplay).  Meanwhile, I can see that Deb is not a fencer: she illustrated a post on a puzzle themed “double-edged” with a couple of kids fencing épée, and you don’t get credit for using the edge in that weapon, you have to hit with the point.  Spearing, not slashing.

There are cryptics at the usual weekly Canadian sources: the National Post (Hex: blogged by Falcon, easy top and bottom 15s make this an easy solve) and the Globe and Mail (Fraser Simpson, I almost finished it).

Nothing new from the other regular sources either.  

Fancy a trip to the rock-bound coast?  The NPL has announced its annual gathering: MaineCon in Portland July 17-20.  The weather in New England is really nice in summer: you’ll solve puzzles and eat lobsters and clams by day, and sleep wonderfully soundly by night.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Palindrome (Puzzle No. 3,324)

Recently making the rounds among wordplay fans was a short story in the form of a 500 word palindrome by the comedian Demetri Martin.  The subject matter is risqué, but the link is safe.  Enjoy!

Now on to Puzzle No. 3,334

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): easy.  Got 1a and 1d right off the bat, which provided a whole lot of first letters, and it was off to the races.

Hozom’s comment: “Take Five,” in which Hot and Trazom  inform us there is a Facebook group devoted to supervocalics and we are introduced to Eric Chaikin, producer of the film Word Wars and author of a scholarly review of the topic (Chaikin might be a good subject for a future Word Salad interview).  If you don't know what supervocalics are, go over to Word Salad and find out.  Or perhaps subscribe to Word Ways.

Weekly cluing challenge over at Word Salad: HOUSEMAID

Back with the solution and annotation Monday: in the meantime, join us this weekend for Sunday Brunch: a roundup of links to new cryptic and variety puzzles you might enjoy.