Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pie and bourbon (Sunday brunch: November 30, 2014)

We had Thanksgiving dinner, as we often do, with an old friend of ours who taught biochemistry when The Other Doctor Mitchell and I were in college, and later became TODM’s post-doc boss. Academically speaking, Eileen is my aunt, as she and my graduate boss were both Mildred Cohn’s students.  It’s a testament to Mildred’s talent and mentoring that her scientific descendents can be found in so many different places.  (I did some NMR work for her while I was in grad school and she was an emeritus; I also taught her how to use a Macintosh computer.)

This time, Eileen hosted since her daughter was going to be back from New Jersey.  Liz made the appetizer, The Other Doctor Mitchell made dessert, and I selected the beverages.  Recalling that Eileen appreciated a cocktail on her last visit to our house, I decided to pack a bottle of nice bourbon to go with dessert, which was a deep dish apple pie.  How deep?  Very deep (to recall a favorite phrase of another chem prof).

Eileen took the occasion to get out a tiny little cordial glass for her bourbon, while I went for my usual small glass with one ice cube.  It was a perfect choice: the sour mash aroma slicing the sweet/tart of the pie.  You hardly needed to drink any, just pick up the glass and savor.  I wouldn’t recommend it with pie for breakfast though.

Breakfast or nightcap, these puzzles will go well with your pie.

Kevin Wald composed a Thanksgiving cryptic.  I got through the grid in a flash, but the theme answer was really tough.

Hex have a laddergram cryptic in the Wall Street Journal, their regular straight cryptic in the National Post, and an acrostic in the Times.

The Globe and Mail cryptic is a hard one this week: I've barely scratched the surface.  The Stickler was tough too.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Vowels to Bosnia (Puzzle No. 3,346)

Tom Magliozzi (1937-2014)
With the passing of Tom Magliozzi, one half of Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, Ray and the producers of Car Talk put together a memorial program.  One of the pieces in it was “Vowels to Bosnia,” which originally appeared in The Onion. in 1995  It was perfect for Car Talk because of Tom and Ray’s penchant for skewering their NPR News compatriots and the wall to wall coverage of the Balkan wars going on on the network at the time.

So did you donate vowels to Bosnia?  Have no fear, you can still solve crosswords.  The vowelless is a well-known form of variety puzzles, which add an additional challenge because the answers aren’t enumerated.  Solving them requires a good eye for spotting letter patterns.  Crossnerd has created a bunch, Trip Payne has one, Neville Fogarty has one, Andy Kravis has one, and Arthur Schulman has done four for the New York Times.  The kng f th gnr is Frnk Lng.  The constructors all seem to have fun with them.

Now, back to regular cryptics: here’s this week’s The Nation puzzle.

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle):  Somewhat hard.  A few of the answers escaped me on the first go, even after I got the theme.

Hozom’s comment: “A Grat √Čtude,” in which Hot and Trazom give thanks for their test solvers, and introduce the two newest members of the team.  They also give us a few before and after examples of clues the test solvers helped improve.  

Weekly cluing challenge:  GRATEFUL

See you this weekend for Sunday Brunch, and don’t solve like my brother.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two tickets (Solution No. 3,201)

The solution to The Nation puzzle no. 3,201 is below the fold.

Sabers and his coach
Congratulations are in order for Sabers, who had two qualifying events last weekend and succeeded in both.  Saturday was the PMEA District 11 chorus auditions, where he won a place in the three-day chorus festival.

Sunday was the Junior Olympics fencing qualifiers for our division.  This event also functions as the unofficial Philadelphia-area high school fencing championship.  There’s a senior from DVFC who’s the class of the division: he’s won every one of the qualifiers he’s been in, and another senior from our club who’s the number two junior in the division.  After that, there are four others, including Sabers, who on any given day could lay claim to being number three.

So on Sunday, with three qualifying for JOs, Sabers could earn a spot if he competed up to his potential.  He won his first four bouts, including the one against his biggest local rival.  Meanwhile, one of Sabers’s teammates (a sophomore) upset the DVFC senior, leaving Sabers in first place. Sabers who had already beat the sophomore 5-4, lost to the senior and then inexplicably lost a 5-4 bout to the fencer who ended up in last place for the tournament.  That dropped him from the number 2 slot to number 4, and he’d need to win two bouts to get that third place and the ticket to Richmond.

Sabers, Nick, and Nate, again
The quarterfinal was against one of our teammates: Sabers blew him out 15-6.  The semi against the top seed was just as lopsided the other way.  So it came down to the bronze medal bout, which unfortunately had to be against his teammate.  The teammate hot, and took an 8-4 lead in the first period.  I noticed Sabers’ attacks falling short, so I advised him to pay attention to distance and not make his move too soon.  He got a couple of quick touches, and a minute later, I could see his opponent looked mentally exhausted, even though he was still ahead 10-8 in the bout.  Sabers stepped up his tactical approach, took control of the bout, and closed it out with ease, 15-12.  Some ups and downs along the way, but mission accomplished.

Hockey Fights Cancer (Solution No. 3,200)

Spearing for a cure
The solution to The Nation puzzle no. 3,200 is below the fold.

Each November, I join thousands (I hope) of other refs in dedicating one of our game fees to Hockey Fights Cancer.  Saturday morning was that game: a nice skate with the mites (seven-year-olds) and a partner who looked to be 12 or 13 (with the perfect balance of support and independence from his father).

Want to join us?  Take an hour’s pay or the proceeds from a puzzle you construct, and send it to Hockey Fights Cancer.  The first five people who do so and send an e-mail to will get a Hockey Fights Cancer decal you can put on your helmet (or fencing mask!).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lake effect (Sunday brunch: Nov. 23, 2014)

With SPIRO GYRA turning up in one of the puzzles a coupla weeks ago, I had planned to make this post about the band with the similar name and about how several other performers of “smooth jazz” (cue Chuck Mangione) got started in upstate New York.  But the region made bigger news this week with the gigantic snowstorm that close to paralyzed Buffalo.

Normally, upstaters take snow in stride.  I’m a Syracuse native: the city gets 10 to 11 feet of snow per year on average, the snowiest major city in America.  Buffalo actually gets less snow (8 feet or so) but it gets more publicity.  Part of the reason may be that Buffalo can get more of it all at once.  This was definitely one of those instances. Like Sandy’s storm surge coming on top of an particularly high tide: there were a combination of circumstances that made for a huge snowfall.

To understand them, let me first explain the Lake Effect.  Lake snow happens when prevailing winds blow across the Great Lakes, picking up moisture from the lake and dropping it as frozen precipitation when it comes across dry land.   This week, two factors combined to amplify the snowfall.  First, we had an unusual cold snap for mid-November.  The air and the ground were unusually cold compared to the surface of the lakes, which were warmer because lake temperatures change more slowly.  Second, the winds blew very steadily and from the east-southeast instead of the east-northeast.  They blew right up the long axis of Lake Erie, giving them ample opportunity to store up moisture, which funneled right into Buffalo and Niagara Falls at the end of the lake.  By contrast, Syracuse only got a few inches of snow, because the winds off the lake were all off to the north this time.  

Snowed in?  Here are some puzzles to keep you occupied.

The Wall Street Journal variety puzzle is a tough one: a Belt Line by Patrick Berry.  Bring an eraser: you’ll probably need to make some guesses.   The New York Times has one of Willz’s non-crosswords: a letterbank puzzle with a twist: you must double one of the letters in each of the words you come up with.

I hadn’t noticed these before, but Todd McClary has constructed a cryptic and a variety crossword called Hopscotch as well as a bunch of straight crosswords.  Give them a try.

Falcon found himself disturbing a Medusa while solving Hex’s weekly cryptic.  Sounds dangerous. No snakes found in the Globe and Mail cryptic, but it was pretty challenging.  This week’s Stickler was a nice smooth solve.  

In (mostly) straight crossword news, Patrick Blindauer has announced his latest Puzzlefest, scheduled to go live next month.  And Cross Nerd (Peter Broda) and his team are inviting a guest constructor to provide a puzzle for the Indie 500 crossword tournament.

Chuck Mangione: Land of Make Believe (Esther Satterfield, v.)

Spyro Gyra: Morning Dance

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Cluing Challenge (Nov. 21, 2014): SNOWFALL

Didn’t realize until Thursday that last week’s was a double issue of The Nation, and then I’ve been preoccupied with researching and writing an evidence report on rehydration treatments for Ebola patients, so I owe you a cluing challenge and a back puzzle to work on.

In honor of tomorrow’s Sunday brunch topic, the cluing challenge is SNOWFALL.  I can think of tons of ways to clue this, so multiple submissions are encouraged.

And the puzzle I’m solving and will annotate on Monday is No. 3,200.

See you at brunch tomorrow.

P.S.  Happy Birthday to Liz today!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sanding both sides (Solution No. 3,345)

The solution and annotation to The Nation puzzle No. 3,345 is below the fold.

Getting a smooth surface on a cryptic clue can be hard sometimes, as Hot and Trazom pointed out at Word Salad.  Just think how hard it must be to get a clue to work two different ways and give two different answers—Kevin Wald accomplishes that in the second of his two new puzzles from last week.  That’s a trick he specializes in: some of those special clues are very well camouflaged,  I had to work backwards from the final message to find the last double clue.  Hall of fame stuff.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Hall of Fame (Sunday Brunch: November 16, 2014)

This weekend is the annual Hockey Hall of Fame induction in Toronto.  Canton has its bronze busts, and Cooperstown its history, but the Hockey Hall of Fame is the best of all.  It’s in a former bank building in downtown Toronto, and you walk into the bank vault to see the Stanley Cup.  Unlike the HOFs for the other major sports, the Hockey Hall of Fame has welcomed great players and coaches from outside North America like legendary Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak, along with female champions like Cammi Granato.  Referees and linesmen take their place alongside the players too, which obviously I agree with: no sport is more demanding on its officials than hockey.

This year’s class features Bill McCreary, who for a decade was the finest referee in the NHL (no offense to Kerry Fraser though).  There’s no greater honor for an official than to be chosen for the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals, and McCreary got that call several times.  Also in the class of 2014 is Sweden and NHL star Peter Forsberg.  He had the same shoulder operation I had, the same week that I did, but the opposite side.

Some Hall of Fame constructors have puzzles for us this weekend: let’s start with Hex, who have an acrostic (spoiler alert) in the New York Times along with their weekly straight cryptic in the National Post.

Kevin Wald posted two new birthday cryptics this week.  I managed to finish the first of them in one sitting, including the ending pieces—that doesn’t happen very often.  Remarkable how Kevin can tie up so many loose ends in a puzzle so neatly.

Richard Maltby in the new Harper’s?  I managed to finish that one pretty quickly too.  Can’t say more because it’s a prize puzzle, but I’ll share some notes once the entry deadline passes. Meanwhile, Erica blogs the November puzzle at Tacky Harper’s Cryptic Clues.

Mike Shenk set the acrostic in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Stickler has his weekly Australian cryptic, and our friend Anonymous has the weekly Globe and Mail cryptic.

How about something different?  If you solve sudokus, you should try Thursday’s Samurai Sudoku (hit the link and then select November 13--Evil).  These puzzles are five interconnected grids, and when they’re on, they really have a lovely rhythm where you have to move from one grid to the other to get the missing answer.  Once you figure out the logical key to the November 13 one, it goes down very smoothly.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

First impressions (Puzzle No. 3,345)

Speaking of hidden in plain sight (Word Salad this week),
can you see the owl here?  More at Gizmodo.
Last week, Hot and Trazom explained the concept of “surface” in a clue.  It’s the first impression you get from it.  The surface can make a clue easier or harder, depending on whether it makes the indicator obvious, disguises it, or sets up a misdirection.

Related to that is the first impression you get from the topmost acrosses and the leftmost downs. They’re usually where solvers dig into a puzzle, and if they get those right off the bat (*), we feel the puzzle will be easy, and if those first answers are tough to get, we feel the puzzle will be hard.

So those first clues are another way that a diabolical constructor can mess with your mind.  While it’s good form to have a fairly consistent range of difficulty among the clues (it’s what I refer too as a “smooth” solve), the firsts are the best place to adjust the perceived overall difficulty of the puzzle.

This week’s puzzle, at least for me, was one of those that started out harder than it finished.  How about you?

Link to puzzle:

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle):  moderate, once I bypassed 1a and 1d

Hozom’s comment:  Free Lunch, in which Hot and Trazom reply to critics who don’t like answer pieces appearing verbatim in the clue (these are the elements that I indicate with a †).  My experience is they show up about twice a puzzle on average.  Most of the time it’s necessary to make the clue read in a sensible fashion, but with a good misdirection that supposedly-easy bit can effectively camouflaged.
Weekly cluing challenge (at Word Salad):  FREEBIE

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Train time (Solution No. 3,344)

The solution to The Nation puzzle no. 3,344 is below the fold.

I thought this week’s puzzle was not hard.  The wordplay was around the usual level of difficulty, but there were fewer misdirections or other tricks.  Since Hot was wondering how I appraise the degree of difficulty, maybe I should use the train trip as a reference.

Back in my first stint of taking the train to work, before I started solving cryptics, I often worked the puzzle from the daily newspaper on the ride home.  Being on paper rather than a computer or a mobile device, there’s no handy timer.  So I used the train as a timer.  If I had the puzzle all done by Wayne Junction, it was easy.  If it took a few more stops, it was moderate.  And if I didn’t finish it by the time I got home, it was hard.

With the The Nation puzzle, I usually type up the annotation on the train Friday and/or Monday.  Usually I can get almost but not quite half the puzzle (acrosses or downs) explained before I get to the city.  This one I got into the last across before I had to get off Friday morning.  I think that was farther than I ever got on a day the train wasn’t delayed.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

New York Times solution: Novembr 9, 2014

Difficulty-wise, this is about on a par with the National Post cryptics by Hex.  Less inventive than the The Nation puzzles.  Interestingly, the grid is the same that Silvestri used for his July NYT cryptic. I won’t complain about that.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Warm spot (Sunday brunch: Nov. 9, 2014)

The rink where I had a came a couple of Sundays ago is one of the nicer places I skate.  The ice is kept in good condition (they have a well-regarded figure skating club), the referees’s dressing room is spacious and even has a hot shower (so I can be presentable when I get to church), and the place is well-lit.  I also like it because there’s an area near the blue line on the far boards where the ventilation system blows warm air.  It must be misadjusted, because the warm air is supposed to be aimed at the bleachers, but I’m not going to complain.

The rink is not that cold otherwise (the one up north from me is very cold), but the warm spot still is a very comfortable place.  It’s calming in a tense game, but it can also get my attention as I skate through and keep me alert in an easy game.

We haven’t had a new Kevin Wald puzzle in a while, so maybe it’s a good thing that the grid of “Many a Day” is pretty easy to fill (by standards of Uc’s puzzles, which are pretty darn hard).

The WSJ variety puzzle is a new type (right?) by Mike Shenk.  It’s called “Alternation” and it reminded me of a Nathan Curtis puzzle.  It’s probably easier to construct than a straight crossword, and quicker if not easier to solve.  With that in mind, I posted a challenge grid as well as the usual solution and hints.

The New York Times has a cryptic this week: it’s by Richard Silvestri. Among the spoilers (read her post after you solve) Deb Amlen has a good description of the attraction of cryptics: “The reshaping of our train of thought is what makes cryptic crosswords so much fun.”  She also informs us that the Times is preparing to make some of their cryptics available in their mobile app.

Regular weekly straight cryptics are found at the Stickler, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail. The Stickler was hard: I haven’t had time to solve the others yet since I need to be Mr. Mom this weekend (more precisely, to do figure skating and orchestra taxi service).  

Wall Street Journal challenge grid: November 1, 2014

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal variety puzzle is by Mike Shenk and is called Alternations.  The words form a spiral in the grid, and alternating letters from that spiral form two more sequences of words.  The grid includes numbers for placing the main words, but if you want more of a challenge, try doing it in this grid, which has no numbers.

Wall Street Journal solution: Nov. 8, 2014

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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Patterns (Puzzle No. 3,344)

(Sorry for the delay finishing the post: I had a battery problem.)

Do you find yourself following a pattern when you solve?  All the acrosses first?  Outside to inside? Or maybe no pattern: just solve whatever clue your eye falls on?  When I solve straight cryptics I usually try to challenge myself by making a chain: only solving clues that intersect answers I’ve already got instead of picking off the easy ones first.  For some reason, I did this one acrosses first though.

What’s your solving routine?  Share it in the comments.

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): easy

Hozom’s comment: Rising to the Surface, in which Hot and Trazom explain what makes a clue read well: the natural (non-cryptic) reading of a clue is called the surface.  They also share a few clinkers. When I try cluing, I usually overdo it on shaping the surface.

Weekly cluing challenge (at Word Salad): MILLIONS, OREGANO, and PARODY—a three-way challenge (the aforementioned clinkers)

Back with the solution Monday.  Join us this weekend for Sunday brunch:  there’s a great variety cryptic on the menu.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Body contact (Solution No. 3,343)

The solution and annotation of The Nation puzzle no. 3,343 is below the fold.

In the latest edition of their rulebook, USA Hockey redesignated its checking and non-checking categories “Body Checking” and “Body Contact.”  I applauded the change because there is plenty of banging and crashing in the non-checking levels, and it might cut down on parents who scream at the ref because someone hit their kid and he’s down on the ice.

Of course you’re not supposed to body-check the ref at any level of hockey, but we take our lumps too.  One of the more dangerous times for a referee is when the puck gets dumped in over the blue line and players are chasing it.  Normally, I bump out away from the boards to give the defenseman a straight line to the puck; otherwise, the players try to go through me rather than around.  This time though, there was also a forward chasing, and he didn’t expect me to make the move.  He hit me at full speed and I got rocked.  That’s why we wear all that protective equipment.

D players are such bad skaters that if you can’t get out of their way, it’s time to retire.  Cs will run into you, but more often than not, they’re the one who lands on the ice.  Senior As are good skaters, and if you get in their way, they shove you aside and drop a few four-letter words on the way.  Bs have all the size and speed, but not the agility, which is a recipe for collisions.  We should get combat pay at that level.

This week’s puzzle referred to a much less physical pastime.  Read on to find out what one...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Great Game (Sunday brunch: November 2, 2014)

Seeing as how Election Day is this Tuesday, I figured I should read one of the new books by a prominent politician.  No, not one of the people angling for the 2016 presidential nomination.  The author isn’t even American: it’s Stephen J. Harper, Prime Minister of Canada.

Though his degree is in economics, Harper has long had an interest in history.  Being a native of the Toronto area, he’s an avid Maple Leafs fan.  When the Society for International Hockey Research was formed, it inspired Harper to pursue that avocation.  He says the research and writing for the project, which began in 2004, was a pleasant release from the stress of politics and work in Parliament.  He had assistance in researching the book’s contents, but the writing is all Harper’s.

A Great Game: the Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey is centered on the emergence of professional hockey in Toronto, from the beginnings of the Ontario Hockey Association around the turn of the century to the first Stanley Cup for Toronto, won by the Blue Shirts in 1914.  Much centers on the tension between the ideals of amateurism in sport and the rise of professional sport as popular entertainment.  This story, which played out in other sports too, like golf and football, was driven by rising prosperity and the emergence of a middle class.  The upper class no longer had a monopoly on sport or other leisure-time activities.

In the manner of the best popular history books, A Great Game is both scholarly and accessible. There are plenty of anecdotes to illustrate the ways of life before the Great War, and intriguing bits of hockey history like the introduction of goal nets and the practice of dropping the puck in a face-off instead of laying it on the ice (which is how face-offs are conducted in lacrosse, which was an equally big sport in Canada at the time).  Harper also does a nice job fleshing out the main characters: not just the players, but the association presidents and promoters too.

Quotes from newspaper stories of the time knock down the myth that society’s preoccupation with sports is a modern thing: only fans gathered around newspaper and telegraph offices for play by play instead of around a television screen.  The parade welcoming a returning Stanley Cup challenger, even in defeat, was just as much of an event then as it is now.  That points to the only shortcoming of A Great Game: though it is well-illustrated, I would have liked to see more photographs of games and of the surrounding hoopla.

Amateur or professional, try solving these crosswords...

The highlight of the weekend is Hex’s variety cryptic in the Wall Street Journal: Spoonermania.  I don’t think I need to say any more other than some of the clue types will be obvious.  But a few aren’t so much, and in case those give you trouble, I have hints posted.  The solution is also up  Hex also have their usual straight cryptic in the National Post (blogged by Falcon).  More moderate difficulty than easy, but a smooth solve.   If you remember Hex’s fondness for second definitions, you’ll do well.

More straight cryptics are found in the Globe and Mail, and Down Under courtesy of the Stickler.  I found the latter to be a tough one, but I got through it.

BEQ posted a new Marching Bands he brought to Crosswords LA as a bonus for the entrants.  Small (11 x 11 instead of the usual 13 x 13) but creative as BEQ’s work always is.  The other puzzles from that tournament (all straight crosswords, I think) are available for just five bucks, proceeds going to charity.

The New York Times variety puzzle is an acrostic, blogged (with spoilers) by Deb Amlen at Wordplay.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Wall Street Journal hint: November 1, 2014

Need a hint for this weekend’s Wall Street Journal variety puzzle?  In this puzzle, 12 entries have a Spoonerism in their clues, 12 others have their answers Spoonerized before entry, and the rest are normal.

Below the fold, I've posted a table of which entries have altered clues, which have altered answers, and which are normal.  If you want to find out which group a particular entry is, click and drag over the box next to its location.

Wall Street Journal solution: November 1, 2014

Below the fold is the solution to this weekend’s Wall Street Journal puzzle: Spoonermania, a variety cryptic by Hex.

Did you solve the Richard Maltby variety cryptic from Harper’s?  It’s linked in the latest edition of Sunday brunch.