Sunday, August 31, 2014

Taken as a whole, I liked it!

"Taken As A Hold" is the title of this week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo, and my very first thought was that it's a play on the common phrase "taken as a whole" so I suspected right away that we'd be re-writing phrases by adding a "d" at the end to create wacky new phrases to fit the "?-style" clues. As it turns out, I was almost right:

23a - GIVE IT A WORLD (whirl) (Put something on one of the planets?)
27a - MEMPHIS SOLD (soul) (Graceland's city acquired by a buyer?)
29a - ORANGE BOLD (bowl) (Typeface option that's carrot-colored and heavy?)
54a - COUNTERFEIT BUILD (bill) (Steroid user's physique?)
69a - THE ESSENCE OF EMERALD (Emeril) (Green gem's chief constituent?)
87a - I KNOW HOW YOU FIELD (feel) (Comment to a baseballer from a fan who's studied his fly-catching technique?)
108a-LUMP OF COLD (coal) (Ice cube?)
112a-A LITTLE WILD (while) (Slightly feral?)
118a-LONG-TERM GOLD (goal) (Precious metal one keeps for many years?)

I think all of the new phrases work really well in that they sound exactly like the base phrase with the added "d", and I really like how all of them are completely new words rather than just the original with an added letter. I had never heard of "Essence of Emeril" but his name was vaguely familiar and it turns out he has a TV show by that title that airs on the Food Network (which I also had never heard of, but that's just me). So I liked the theme even though it was totally transparent from the title, and nine theme answers, all symmetrically placed in the grid, is a pretty nifty PIECE (104d - Pie slice, e.g.) of constructing so kudos to Frank Longo on that feat.

The other thing I really liked about this puzzle is that it's totally lacking in pop-culture references involving Rappers, hip-hop artists with bizarre names, and obscure actresses from cable TV sitcoms - not that there's anything wrong with any of those things, it's just my ignorance that makes them difficult for me. There are some proper names in the grid but they all seem to be from more main-stream media (i.e., old-time) so I had a fair shot at all of them, although my only knowledge of "Homer Simpson's favorite bar" (15d - MOE'S) comes from doing crosswords. So that feature ENDEARED (56d - Captivated) the puzzle to me, too.

I learned some things, too, and that's always a plus in my mind. FURBELOW (45d - Skirt ruffle) it turns out has nothing to do with fur, at least according to Wiktionary; it also has nothing to do with the first image that came to mind upon seeing the word (although I didn't check Urban Dictionary to see what they may have to say about it).  ECOSOC (64d - U.N. division), which I was sure Frank had just made up, stands for "Economic and Social Council" which is a real U.N. organ, charged with facilitating international cooperation. On the other hand I did not need to know that FLAPPY Bird is a notoriously hard game app (12d) - THERE'S no way (97d) I care about that.

Other things I noticed, in no particular order:

- LAPS (102a - Indy's 200) crossing LAPPS (102d - Reindeer herders of Scandinavia) seems like cheating somehow.
- FLAME WAR went in on the crosswords but apparently it's a real thing among the on-line community, anyway.
- "Spirited session?" is a really great clue for SEANCE (92a).
- No Roman numerals - what's up with that?!
- Not all shoals are REEFS (30d) but some are, so OK I guess - still I would have liked a "maybe" in the clue.
- AVAST! (31d - "Stop, mate!") might be exactly what you'd hear on a ship approaching the adjacent REEFS.
- OLD (121d) YELLER (126a) always makes me cry.

They say it's always good to leave an audience laughing, so let's watch some Stan and OLLIE(29d) to wrap things up for this week:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The missing letter is "A"

This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo bears the title, "Employee-Consumer Policy" and a quick glance at the clues reveals that there's a riddle afoot so there's nothing to do but launch into the puzzle and see what develops. As you can see from my (almost) completed grid I had some trouble with a couple of bad guesses right at the outset. I wanted "Ma's ma" (9d) to be "Gram", which seemed perfectly reasonable, and a "Volunteer's declaration" is certainly "I'll do it", right? Frank had other answers in mind and they appeared soon enough from the crosswords but, Jeez, I hate to start off with rooky mistakes like that.

Anyway, after I got the top part of the grid sorted out I was able to piece together the first part of the riddle so I soldiered on and with only a couple more wrong guesses I managed to plug in all of the parts of the riddle and it's punny answer:


(wait for it)


The common phrase is, of course "beggars can't be choosers" which informs us means "Those in dire need must be content with what they get. For example, The cheapest   model will have to do—beggars can't be choosers.", but you already knew that, right? I'll leave it to the individual solver to decide if the punch line deserves a guffaw or a groan (I'm in the "groan" camp).

I have one major complaint with the non-theme fill.  Sharp-eyed readers probably noticed an empty square in my (almost) completed grid, where "Clinton cabineteer Donna" (8d) crosses the end of " "Resident Evil" Actress Jovovich" (24a). I'm sad to say that I didn't know either of those proper names and from my perspective an "I" or a "Y" seemed equally likely and when I'm faced with a 50 - 50 possibility I'm almost certain to guess wrong, so I just left it blank. I have to admit that I was totally gobsmacked when I checked the solution and discovered it was neither - the correct letter for that square is "A", a possibility that never entered my mind! So the individuals are Donna SHALALA and MILLA Jovovich, respectively. I probably should have know the former Cabinet member but I think I can be forgiven for not knowing the actress, whose full name, by the way, is Milica Natasha Jovovich  according to Wiki.  Still, I think it's a lousy cross.

The rest of the puzzle was fair enough (i.e., I was able to fill it in) although the extreme bottom-left corner could have been troublesome if the down answers hadn't produced ATHOL (115a - "A Lesson From Aloes" playwright Fugard), DEANE (119a - Diplomat Silas) and MASSE (123a - Curving billiards shot). I learned a new phrase with Table d'HOTE about which Wiki informs: "In restaurant terminology a table d'hôte menu is a menu where multi-course meals with only a few choices are charged at a fixed totalprice. Such a menu may also be called prix fixe ("fixed price"). The terms set meal and set menu are also used. The cutlery on the table may also already be set for all of the courses". 

Nothing else really reached out and grabbed me, for better or for worse, so rather than subject you to random blather and risk having you say DANG YOU (17D - "A pox upon thee!", updated) I'll leave you with this:

Sunday, August 17, 2014

It's not a HUGE theme after all!

This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo is titled "Big Mix-Ups".  I always like to figure out the theme or gimmick as I do the puzzle and today, with the first two long answers in place, I noticed that they both contained the letters that could be rearranged to spell HUGE, so of course I thought I had it: "huge" means "big" and the letters are "mixed-up". As themes go that's a pretty lame one so I was gratified to discover upon filling in the next theme answer that "huge" was not present, nor could I spot any other mixed-up letters to spell any other synonym of "big". After a little staring at the first two long answers I realized that not only did they share the letters for "huge" but they shared ALL the same letters - they're anagrams of one another! OK, that's a much better theme - the "big mix-ups" are the theme answers themselves with the letters rearranged to another theme answer. I love it!

Further solving bore out my new theory as each new pair of anagrams materialized in the grid:

23a - THOUGHT OTHERWISE (Had a different opinion)
31a - WITHER THOU GOEST (1954 hit song with a biblical title)

46a - RETIREMENT PARTIES (Career-completion celebrations)
59a - PRIME INTEREST RATE (Bank offering for creditworthy customers)

70a - PROFESSIONAL GRADE (Like some high-quality models)
82a - SEA FLOOR SPREADING (Formation of new areas of oceanic crust)

101a -WRESTLING COACHES (Trainers looking or pins)
114a-CIRCLES THE WAGONS (Takes a defensive position)

The clues for all of the theme answers are all very literal which made it easy enough to figure them out, at first I resisted writing in the obvious answer because I suspected a trap. Nope, they're just straight-forward, easy clues - I don't know if I'm disappointed or grateful but they did make the solving process seem lacking in challenge. I had trouble with only one because I had a wrong letter in place - at 104d I had entered the very obvious answer COopS in response to the clue "Fowl sheds".  I needed the crosswords to correct the mistake and produce COTES, which I had to look up post-solve because it's a new word to me. So I did fall into that little trap, which I suspect was deliberate (the clue is dead-on accurate for both words).

Speaking of learning new things, I was prepared to complain about "sea floor spreading" as a bogus made-up phrase but, of course, it's a real thing: (from wiki) Seafloor spreading is a process that occurs at mid-ocean ridges, where new oceanic crust is formed through volcanic activity and then gradually moves away from the ridge. 

I was also prepared to get all indignant about a non-theme clue/answer at 110a, where I mis-read the clue (so I guess that's my fault) as "Table scrap" which everybody knows is OrT but the crosswords insisted on OAT instead - it wasn't until I started formulating my complaint to register here when I discovered the clue is Stable scrap. So never mind.

I'm not sure what it says about me, but I needed all of the crosswords to produce Sitcom actress INGA Swenson (5d) but IMOGENE Coca of comedy (16d) went in instantly. Likewise "RAMBLIN' Rose" (Nat King Cole hit) (56d) was in my memory bank but the 1979 Michael Caine film ASHANTI was a complete unknown. Strangely, I had almost no trouble with the pop-culture congestion in the bottom-right corner where "My Cherie AMOUR" (105D), Casey of countdowns KASEM (107d) and Irene CARA of "Fame" (111d) went in effortlessly, probably because they're all from the musical age from my formative years. Fashion designer Oscar de la RENTA (106d), not so much.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

- "Blog feed initials" producing RSS (60d) had me baffled until I consulted google: (from wiki, of course) "RSS (Rich Site Summary); originally RDF Site Summary; often dubbed Really Simple Syndication, uses a family of standard web feed formats[2] to publish frequently updated information: blog entries, news headlines, audio, video. An RSS document (called "feed", "web feed",[3] or "channel") includes full or summarized text, and metadata, like publishing date and author's name." Who knew?
- Apparently you can add as many "A"s as you need to produce a "Sigh of satisfaction" (37a) -AAAH.
- I'm not sure how NARCO is "Stupor: Prefix" (103d) - a person with narcolepsy is in a stupor, maybe?
-I just noticed Italian opera singer EZIO Pinza (35d), EDIE Falco of "Oz" (81d) and Film director ELIA Kazan - what's up with that? Also, Greek vowels ETAS (87d) (which could also have been "JFK estimates", I guess), Canadian station name ESSO (51a), Old West's Wyatt EARP (33d), Bards' dusks EENS (98a), English peer EARL (83d) and Bidding site EBAY (78a). That's a lot of four letter E words - did I miss any? EMAIL (35a - Cyberspace letters) me if I did.

My time is up for this week - how about I leave you with this:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Learning life's lessons (over and over again)

Life, as the saying goes, is the best teacher. It's also the theme of this week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo, which bears the title "What's It All About?" Today's lesson, for me, was the need to guard against over-confidence - it's a lesson I've had to relearn many times over the years. My mistake, which became all too obvious when I got to the bottom of the puzzle, was to think I had correctly guessed the last theme answer without any crosswords in place. After I had solved the first few long theme answers I realized that what they had in common was that each on is a different DEFINITION OF LIFE, so I over-confidently jumped ahead to write that in the spaces provided, where it fit perfectly of course. Then I went back to solving the puzzle in my usual manner, working down the grid from left to right, quite pleased with myself for being so smart.

All of the theme answers were clued, somewhat cryptically I think, in relation to the last one, which was 112-Across, like this:

23a - ENERGETIC QUALITY (112-Across, #1)
30a - BOARD GAME FROM HASBRO (112-Across, #2)
51a - PERIOD OF ONE'S EXISTENCE (112-Across, #3)
64a - HARSH PRISON SENTENCE (112-Across, #4_
83a - QUAKER BREAKFAST CEREAL (112-Across, #5)
97a - ONCE POPULAR MAGAZINE (112-Across, #6)

So there they are, six perfectly reasonable definitions of "life", from the existential to the commercial. I was certainly feeling smug about already having 112-Across already filled in, and the possibility that I might have it wrong never even entered my mind until I got there and discovered some of the crosswords just weren't working. One thing I've learned from years of doing crossword puzzles is that whenever I get stuck, the more certain I am that an answer is right makes it more likely that it is wrong. So I let the crosswords correct my mistake (like I should have done from the outset) to discover:

112a-THE MEANING OF LIFE (This puzzle's theme)

Which, of course, is a much better answer to the question asked by the puzzle's title and is painfully easy to see if one simply uses the crosswords to confirm the answer instead of arrogantly jumping ahead on the basis of nothing whatsoever. If it was a trap it was a well designed one and I didn't just fall into it,  jumped in head first.

My own foibles aside, I have to say this was an impressive theme in many respects. The six different definitions, I mean "meanings", are all spot-on accurate and easy to figure out - assuming you're familiar with the three commercial variations, that is. Then designing a grid around them that provides perfect rotational symmetry, that's a work of art. Two of the theme answers span the entire width of the grid, too - that's something I don't think I've seen Frank Longo do very often and I think it adds an elegant touch.

I always enjoy learning new things (other than "humility") when I'm doing a puzzle and today I learned that PERILED ( 21a - Exposed to danger) can be a transitive verb that means exactly what the clue says; I only knew "peril" as a noun and "imperil" as the verb.

As for the rest of the fill, the grid required a lot of three- and four-letter answers which almost always produces some less than ideal entries but I didn't see anything to get HET-UP (64d - All upset) about.  Even ANG (5d - With 6-Down, Best Director of 2012) LEE (6d - See 5-Down) didn't make me MOAN (33d- Kvetch) too loudly, even though he's a CELEB (17d - Tabloid topic) I know only from doing crosswords.

I noticed a couple of nice juxtapositions in the grid with an AXE (46d - Log-splitter) BIT (47d - Comic shtick) nicely coupled up, as are SCARE (91a - Alarm) and FEAR (94a - Be alarmed by). ANTIC (48d - Ludicrous) SCENE (49d - Script unit) reminded me of this:

And with that I'll say TATA (81d - "So long!") for this week and leave you to ponder the question asked by the puzzle's title and this song:

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and atomic number 79 (from wiki)

This week Frank Longo returns to his wacky ways with a Premier Crossword titled "Gold-Trimmed". It only took two theme answers to discover the gold "nuggets" that Frank had inserted to transform the core phrases into punny new phrases to match the "?-style" clues. But there's a catch: if you don't know that the chemical symbol for gold is Au you're screwed, because it's those two letters that have been added as the "gold-trim" in the puzzle's long answers, thus:

23a - THE MIGHTY AUTHOR (Nickname for a really strong novelist?)
31a - GO BACK FOR MOREAU (Return to get H.G. Wells' title Dr.?)
41a - CUB SCOUT AUDEN (British poet as a young badge earner?)
54a - AUBURN RUBBER (Neoprene produced at an Alabama university?)
68a - PALAU JOEY (Baby kangaroo living on a Pacific island nation?)
75a - AUGUST OF WIND (Very breezy summer month?)
90a - THE HOLY LANDAU (Convertible carriage used to transport popes?)
99a - BEAU OF GOOD CHEER (Boyfriend who's always upbeat?)
111a-AUTRY TO REMEMBER (Singer Gene who should never be forgotten?)

I'm certain a solver could fill in the grid without understanding the gimmick but without that essential bit of knowledge of the chemical symbolism the overall effect would probably be something like "WTF?!" which is probably not the reaction Frank was going for. Even when you get the joke some of the answers seem pretty lame, but that's just my subjective opinion; your mileage may vary. Still, the theme answers all touch on different areas of knowledge from Greek Mythology to classic Country & Western singers so there's something there for everyone - my favorite answer was The Holy Landau which could be another name for what I always called the Pope-mobile.

I had an extra challenge completing the puzzle today because my paper omitted the clues for four answers - I was able to fill them in from the crosswords, except for one square where two of the missing clues crossed. For 36d I had SC_ and 48a was _TS and the correct letter is "I" but I didn't fill it in because I reasoned it could also legitimately be an "H" to produce the abbreviations for "school" and "Heights". That was a minor irritation but I won't let it ruin my day.

I always learn something from the puzzle and today I learned that HAREMS can be used to mean the separate areas of households as well as to the women who occupy them, thus "Wings for women" (27d) is a perfect clue that left me totally baffled.

A couple of late-night TV hosts make appearances with SETH Meyers popping in at 1d and Jay LENO is just passing through at 78a, to be replaced by Jimmy Fallon. Other than those names along with "The Streak" singer Ray STEVENS (45a) and "Friday the 13th" villain JASON (70a) the grid is pretty much devoid of pop-culture proper names (PCPNs) which I regard as a good thing.

NIECE (28a - Many a flower girl) caught my attention only because the same word appeared in yesterday's New York Times crossword, clued as "__ in-law" - that caused considerable consternation among the commentariat, most of whom denounced the clue as bogus. I love it when a puzzle causes that kind of stir among the literati over there.

Looking over my own completed grid I had a few write-overs that rendered it unsuitable for reproducing here, all easily fixed. I tried Guess at 31d, where GAUGE eventually appeared from the crosswords, and I had all the right words in the wrong order when I entered "now I see" but I SEE NOW where I went wrong (87d). I also inexplicably wrote the right answer in the wrong space when I put JUNTA one space over from its proper location (70d). DOlt for DOPE (81d) completed my MIS (40a)-steps.

How can you not love a grid that has POO (68d-__-bah) in it?

I sure would like to know what the clue for DIM BULB (86a) was - anybody?

Time to make TRACKS (122a - Train base) out of here - I think this piece is EDITABLE (83D - Fit to print, after revisions). This clip seems an appropriate way to sign off: