Sunday, April 27, 2014

I'm Drawing a Blank



The title of this week's Premier Crossword by Frank A. Longo is "A Common Thread" which seems straight-forward enough - there's some feature that ties all of the long theme answers together and we have to spot it. Sounds easy enough, right? I worked my way down through the grid with very little difficulty filling in the long answers as I came to them because they all were pretty literal answers to their clues and were easy to figure out. After each one I looked for some feature it shared with the previous ones, some "common thread", but to no avail. When I had the entire grid complete except for the section with the last theme answer, which I knew would reveal the secret, I stopped to study all of the answers looking for something to tie them together, some MOTIF (11d - Dominant theme), some unifying element; but whatever it was eluded me so I said "Uncle" and filled in the last themer to learn the secret. And now I'll reveal it all to you:

23a - CLEAR DISTINCTION (Easily seen contrast)
31a - ROUND OF APPLAUSE (Encore elicitor)
42a - COMIC STRIP ("Blondie" or Beetle Bailey")
50a - BLANK STARES (Absent looks)
67a - PLAYING CARD (Jack or king)
86a - BATTLE LINES (War fronts)
93a - ARCHERY BOW (Weapon used with a quiver)
103a-WRONG CONCLUSION (Incorrect inference)

All of which, as it turns out, are:

115a-THINGS YOU CAN DRAW! (Theme of this puzzle)

Once the gimmick is revealed it's apparent that all of the long answers are in fact things that can be, literally or figuratively, drawn. Some other things that can be drawn are an inside straight, a hot bath, a blood sample and a crowd - the list is probably endless but Frank's examples are all good ones and I do like the many different ways in which "draw" applies them. So there's the theme - I'll leave it to you to draw your own conclusion as to its cleverness.

As usual I learned a couple of new WDS (120d - Dict. entries) from the puzzle: ACCOUTERS (16d - Provides with furnishings) was new to me although for some reason I know the French "accoutrements" which I presume is related; and "Alfresco" (which is Italian in origin, I just learned) was a familiar term but I don't think I knew that it specifically means OPEN AIR (96d) - now I do. And while we're having an lesson in Italian I might as well include AMICI which is Italian for "friends" (44a), and ALLEGRO which is "Quickly, in a score (44d).  The three letter English word COX (55d - Racing boat steerer) surprised me, too, because I did not know Coxswain, a term which is very familiar to me as a life-long sailor, was regularly shortened  like that, but wiki assures me that it is: "In a crew, the coxswain /ˈkɒksən/ (or simply the cox) is the member who sits in the stern (except in bowloaders) facing the bow, steers the boat, and coordinates the power and rhythm of the rowers. Coxswains are traditionally thrown into the water after a regatta win."

The alphabet is prominently featured in the puzzle with "Alphabet starter" ABC leading off at 1d, followed by NOP (34d - Trio after M); either one or both of these could have been clued with reference to the numbers on a telephone dial (really look for yourself - ABC is on the "2" and MNO is on "6" which would have elevated the clues above the kindergarten level. We also have "Sue Grafton's A IS For Alibi" (93d) but maybe that's unavoidable because this reference is probably too obscure for a puzzle (from wiki): "The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is an automatic tracking system used on ships and by vessel traffic services (VTS) for identifying and locating vessels by electronically exchanging data with other nearby ships, AIS base stations, and satellites. When satellites are used to detect AIS signatures then the term Satellite-AIS (S-AIS) is used. AIS information supplements marine radar, which continues to be the primary method of collision avoidance for water transport." The Greek alphabet makes an appearance with PSIS (36a - Frat letters)  and the Romans, not to be outdone, chime in with their numeral MMIII (10a - Year the U.S. declared war on Iraq) (and frankly, I could have done without being reminded of that particular historical fact). That somehow gets the discussion around to the CIA (69d - Covert U.S. org.) but let's not go there.

Odds and ends that entertained, amused or annoyed me:

- "Shave AND A haircut..." (5d) is probably going to leave a lot of solvers scratching their heads but I recognized it immediately from the old musical ditty which went something like, "Shave and a haircut, two bits; I know a girl with... (oh, never mind)".

- I take personal offense (even though I'm sure none is intended) every time TIN EAR (27a - Musical inaptitude) shows up because I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, as the old saying goes, and I don't need to be reminded of it.

- Didn't Judge ITO (13d - What am ___ to think) preside over some notorious trial? Why yes, he did (wiki): "Lance Allan Ito (born August 2, 1950) is an American Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, best known for his presiding decision during the O. J. Simpson murder trial." That would be a good clue, I think.

- At least ESS ( 39d - Twisty path) isn't "Letter after tee" - but it could have been. And I just noticed AAH ( 52d - Ooh and __) could have been clued "Letter after Q" and solvers in my part of the country (New England) would have gotten it instantly.

- I can't decide if the WES (72d - Film director Craven) WSW (97d - Nashville to Memphis dir.) WDS (120d - Dict. entries) string running down the right side of the grid is cool or annoying but I've already complained too much so let's call it cool.

- Speaking of RADAR TRAPs (80d - Police setup to catch speeders), I'll leave you with this which I discovered yesterday on youtube and it tickled my fancy - maybe you'll enjoy it too:


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Sunday, April 20, 2014

At least there's not a lot of Star Drek!



Frank A. Longo must be especially proud of this week's Premier Crossword because he announces it with the title "TA-DA!", as in "Look what I did!" A glance at the clues revealed that "?-style" clues are in play so I set my pun detector on "high alert" and launched into the puzzle to see what Frank had in store for us.

It didn't take long for the first theme answer to reveal itself and it took even less time for the significance of the title to become apparent: common phrases are re-imagined with new meanings by removing a "T" as in "TA" and replacing it with a "D" as in "DA" - "TA to DA", get it? So when the grid is complete we have these long answers to contemplate:

23a - ON THE JOB DRAINING (Pulling a plug while at work?)
34a - DRENCH WARFARE (Water balloon battles?)
44a - DAMPER RESISTANT (Unaffected by killjoys?)
60a - OLD WIVES' DALE (Ancient valley where female spouses lived?)
71a - DON'T SHED A DEAR (Decide against divorce?)
81a - DENNIS COURTS (Basketballer Rodman is a suitor?)
94a - DRY BEFORE YOU BUY (Finish doing the dishes prior to going shopping?)
106a-ELEPHANT DRUNK (Circus beast after tippling?)
121a-DIME AND DIME AGAIN (Twenty cents in change?)

This seems like pretty standard fare from Frank A. Longo so I don't know if it merits a "TA-DA!" on it's inventiveness - I was more like, "Oh, okay", but maybe that's just me. On the other hand I'm certain I couldn't come up with even one phrase that would work with the letter-substitution, let alone nine of them, and I'm damn sure I couldn't put them in a grid and construct a workable puzzle around them so if the constructor thinks it's "TA-DA!"-worthy, who am I to argue? I think I'm just UGLI (119d - Aptly named citrus fruit) because I don't like seeing elephants described as "circus beasts", but that's another discussion altogether so let's move on.

My local newspaper added an extra element of challenge to the puzzle by omitting some clues, partially or completely. So for 86a I had only "...Your Mother"" to work with but I presume there was a "How__..."at the beginning so IMET would complete the TV title.  There was no clues at all for 49a so PEELS had to go in on the crosswords. Likewise, 30d was partially clued as "forest's climate: Abbr." which wasn't much help in producing TROP, and the long entry at 77d, ENTRAPMENT was unclued, which was worrisome for a while. Still, all's well that ends well so no harm, no foul.

Otherwise my solving experience was remarkably smooth and error-free. My only write-overs were self-inflicted problems caused by carelessly writing answers in the wrong space (which I'm prone to do at least once in every puzzle).  I don't believe I've ever encountered the word REGALITY (55d - Kingly state) and I did not know that "Heavy bases under statues" are PLINTHS (89a) but there seemed to be only one likely letter at the crossing so no problem.

Odd and ends:

- "Laughing sound" can be HAHA (1a) or HAR (72d), among others I am sure.
- ANJOU (5s - Pear type) crossing NISI (20a - Not yet finalized, in law) could have been problematic had I not seen both words recently in other puzzles. Non-lawyer solvers who don't know their fruits could have trouble there.
- SOSUEME (57d) looks really weird in the grid, but it's a great answer for "I goofed...big whoop!"
- ELS (35d) are in fact "Letters after kays" and RSTU (67d) are "Q followers" but it seems wrong for them to both appear in the same grid. Maybe I'd feel better if ELS had a non-alphabet clue, like "Chicago trains" or something.
- RWR (25d) as an answer to "He defeated Mondale to become Pres." - since Mondale's last name was used in the clue I was expecting the answer to be a surname, too, but I guess the "Pres." was supposed to suggest an abbreviation or initials?
- I did not know that TAV (48d) was the final Hebrew letter; seems like a premature end to the alphabet.
- INSUM (80d - As a recap), I finished, I enjoyed, I learned some things - TA-DA!

Speaking of elephants:





Sunday, April 13, 2014

A literal puzzle with an alliterate title


This week the Premier Crossword by Frank A. Longo is a totally straight-forward piece of work titled "Literal Language Lesson", and that's exactly what it is - the theme answers are each clued with a single foreign word that we are to translate into English and enter into the grid.

23a - PANE > ITALIAN BREAD
33a - CORNE > FRENCH HORN
42a - KIELBASA > POLISH SAUSAGE
63a - KOUCHUU > JAPANESE BEETLE
72a - LUACH > HEBREW CALENDAR
94a - TORTILLA > SPANISH OMELET
100a-CRUX > LATIN CROSS
115a-BAGVAERK > DANISH PASTRY

My foreign language skills are limited to being able to order a beer in several different countries but otherwise I don't know my KOUCHUU from my BAGVAERK, but that didn't keep me from working my way through the grid with barely a hitch. The theme is helpful in that it lets you fill in the first part with only a few letters in place - although I probably should have waited to see if JA------ might be JAvANESE, which it certainly could have been. The second half of the answers were more random and could have been almost anything but the crosswords were generally easy enough to
plug in without difficulty, so no problem.

The non-theme clues were likewise literal and straightforward with nary a "?" or pun to be seen. I seldom get through a whole puzzle without any write-overs at all but I thought I was going to make it today - until I decided not to wait on any crosswords to confirm cAlmS where TAMES needed to go (102d - Instills docility in). I like a little cleverness in the clues and don't mind changing an answer when I've been outsmarted, so a neat finished grid is not necessarily a good thing from a solving perspective.

I did enjoy learning (or more likely relearning, as it seems like I should have known this) that OEDIPUS was the Sphinx riddle solver (96d) ("Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering: Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age - wiki) 

There were a couple of dubious crosses that concerned me a little. "Farming-related prefix" (62d) can be AGRi, AGRa, or AGRO depending on the needs of the grid so I always wait for the crossword to give me the terminal letter; "Actor/singer Zac" (77a) wasn't exactly helpful, but I finally decided, correctly, that EFROM was more likely than the alternatives. Crossing two proper names from pop-culture will almost always give me fits, so "Actress Gilbert" (109d) and "Dunne of film" (120a) could conceivably have been IlENE/SAlA, but that seemed unlikely. Had I not known that TIVO is a DVR brand (108a) I might have guessed that "Singer LeAnn" (103d) spelled her last name RyMES as that seems like a perfectly good surname. But as the saying goes, "All's well that ends well".

And on that note I will bid you "Farewell" (English AUF WIEDERSEHEN) (do you see what I did there?):

 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

OBAMA DICTA


This week's Premier Crossword by Frank A. Longo is titled "From End to Beginning" and after filling in only a few of the "downs" it was pretty clear what's up with the long theme answers: they begin with Z and end with A - from the end to the beginning of the alphabet. So on the one hand this simplifies the puzzle somewhat because you can confidently enter those letters at the ends of the theme answers; on the other hand all the letters in between were mostly problematic, for me anyway. Here's what I mean:

23a - ZHENGZHOU CHINA (Province capital on the Yellow River)
35a - ZOLTAN KORDA (Director of the Humphrey Bogart film "Sahara")
56a - ZENO OF ELEA (Greek philosopher known for paradoxes)
59a - ZOE SALDANA ("Avatar" actress)
73a - ZAGREB CROATIA (European country capital)
94a - ZOO ATLANTA (Animal-filled attraction in Georgia)
96a - ZUBIN MEHTA (Israel Philharmonic director)
110a-ZETA PHI BETA (Sorority founded at Howard University in 1920)
129a-ZOOM LENS CAMERA (Shooter allowing for an adjustable focal length)

First, kudos to Frank A. Longo for coming up with nine phrases for the theme, and major props for constructing a puzzle around them that is ultimately solvable by those of us who are unfamiliar with many of the people and places named. There were only three answers that I was certain were right without checking all the crosses, the rest needed every single crossword to produce the answer and a couple required an out-and-out guess. The city in China was crossed by "Blood type, informally" (24d) which could reasonable be "A neg" or "O neg" - I chose the latter because it "looked right", not because I knew it was right. The Croation capital was equally troublesome for me, with "Maestro Solti" (47d - GEOR_) needing a terminal letter that might have been anything as far as I know, but again my intuition LED (78a - Piloted) me to the correct solution. The "Avatar" actress might have been iffy had I not known Polish labor leader Lech WALESA (30d) but happily his name is engraved in my crossword data bank. Knowing the theme saved me from a wrong answer where I would have had Porky Pig STuttER instead of STAMMER (100d), but I needed that "A".

So the theme was troublesome and helpful at the same time - there's probably a word for that but I don't know what it is. Now let's see what little gems and surprises Fran sprinkled around the grid for us to discover:

- "Bicolored beast" is a great clue for ZEBRA (110d) which could have been a theme answer, but it's not.
- I don't know how Frank leans politically but placing OBAMA DICTA (63d and 59d) smack in the middle of the grid is sure get Tea-Party types frothing at the mouth.
- Navels can be either outie or INNIE (54d); since they both have 5 letters you need a cross or two to decide which.
-"String after D" had me thinking in musical terms so EFG (46d), but I guess given the alphabet-related theme it fits right in. Likewise "Closing letter" ZEE (96d) seems a little desperate but I guess it had to be in the grid.
- I just noticed ADZE (1d) is almost a mini-theme answer in reverse.
- "Gerund suffix" for ING (5d) made me think way back to some long forgotten grade-school English lesson - I like remembering stuff like that.
- For "Open up!" follower (88d) I wanted "say ah" - who hasn't heard that from their doctor as (s)he sticks a tongue-depressor in the mouth. (It's still better than "now turn around and bend over", though).
-"Cow dangler" has to be the best ever clue of all time for UDDER (17d) - I had the mental image and couldn't CONCEIVE OF (40d - Imagine) where Frank was going with that one!
- "Funny Mort" SAHL (2d) is a frequent visitor to the puzzle so let's see what his brand of humor was:

I'll be back next week, same time same place - see you then!