Sunday, December 28, 2014

California, Inc.

"Technical difficulties" nearly kept me from my weekly write-up about the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo, which this week bears the title "California Incorporated" but I managed to cobble together a combination of devices to get the job done - I'll leave it to the individual reader to decide if it was worth the effort. I've reproduced the printed solution from the paper rather than my own completed grid because, frankly, mine was a mess. Between misreading clues, mixing up Robinson CRUSOE with Enrico Caruso, and wanting "Ecumenical" where EUCHARISTIC belonged (I was willing to insert a random letter to make it fit) I managed to reduce some of the squares to black blobs before I finally sorted things out - let's just say it wasn't pretty.

However, my misadventures aside, I really liked the puzzle because the theme, once discovered, made trying to guess the long answers a lot of fun. I was able to fill the first answer in from the crosswords I already had in place but I couldn't quite see what Frank had in mind by "California Incorporated". When I arrived at the second long answer I was able to guess the answer from the clue and then I saw it - CA (that's the postal abbreviation for "California", for those who may not be familiar with USPS regulations) had been inserted into a common phrase to create a funny new phrase as clued - that's a classic Longo gimmick and I think it works very well to produce these gems:

23a - MACADAM SECRETARY (Head of the Department of Paving Material?)
31a - CONIFEROUS FORECAST (Prediction that lots of pines and firs will grow?)
43a - WRECKING BACALL (Ruining a "Key Largo" co-star?)
59a - SILVER PLACATES (The Lone Ranger's horse appeases?)
72a - PECAN NAME (Moniker for a praline nut?)
82a - ABSOLUTE MUSCAT (100% pure white wine?)
98a - SUN TAN LOCATION (Beach, in summer?)
109a-RECANTERS' INSURANCE (Coverage for people renouncing their beliefs?)
122a-SINGAPORE SCALING (Activity for a mountaineer in an Asian island country?)

Every one of the base phrases is a well-known, in the language term that should be familiar to everyone who speaks US English as a first language. One or two of the wacky new phrases might be a bit of a stretch as clued (a horse that appeases - really?) but, hey, that's what the "?" is for, isn't it? So kudos on the fun factor created by the theme - and did you notice that Frank sneaked a short theme answer smack dab in the center of the grid? "Speed-solvers" (you know who you are) might very well have missed it completely, but there it is hiding in plain sight (do you think he was saying "FOOLED YA" (19a) to those who missed it?).   I think from now on I'll refer to "Dirigonzo" as my "pecan name" as it seems strangely appropriate.

Random thoughts and observations:

-"Supplies with a crew" is MANS (97d) - feminist solvers might find that a SEXIST (106d - Gender offender) term from the PAST 64a - in history). I might have gone with "A dog is __ best friend", but maybe that's no better?

-I might object to OCK (32d - Suffix with bull) but since the clue and answer taken together remind me of Sandra Bullock I'm willing to overlook it.

-Near identical twins can be found at BEI/BED (45d/92a),  ORC  (and its pluralized anagram ROCS)/ARC (34d/3d/66a), AYN/AYR (85d/124d), AMC (and its anagram CAM)/AMP (102d/126d/127d), ALA/ALL (4d/46d), and surely  NOI/POI/POE/OPE/LOP (100d/107a/125d/79a/47d) all have at least one parent in common.

-If you must have III in the grid you might as well give it a math problem with Roman numerals as the clue (48a- 25% of XII).

- "Seized sedan, say" is a very cool clue for REPO (55d).

-I was all set to strenuously object to "to be" being adjacent to OR BE (39d), but then I discovered it wasn't  - that's one of the clues I misread (38d - TWAS not to be).

-MAI Tai (117a) atop the SINGAPORE S(CA)LING is neat - I could go for either one of those right now.

-BEER! (40d)

I'll close with the obvious choice - see you next week.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and..."

"A River Runs Though It" is the title of this week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo and this time it's a description of what's going on because the name of a river spans the two words in each long answer:

23a - FRIVOL GALLANTLY (Waste time on trifling things in a brave way?)
33a - OBAMA ZONKED (Bush's successor ready to hit the hay?)
42a - CHERUB ANGIOPLASTY (Repair of an angel's blood vessel?)
63a - REAGAN GESTURED (Carter's successor used a hand motion?)
75a - SALAMIS SOURING (Deli meats turning bad?)
96a - NEVADAN UBERMENSCH (Nietzschean superman from Vegas?)
105a-FALCON GOOSE (Bird crossbreed?)
121-MYRRH INEBRIATES (Incense resin causes intoxication?)

The appearance of my completed grid makes it aparent that I had some trouble with the puzzle, most notably in the bottom-right corner where I managed to guess wrong on three of the down answers which pretty much doomed the last long answer until I took out some letters that were obviously wrong and rethought those entries.  The only other real difficulty I had was accepting the fact that GISMO (15d - Doohickey) is a real thing, but apparently it's a variant of "giZmo" which is what I had entered, but I was certain of Rusty STAUB (25a) so I (reluctantly) made the change.

Some of the cluing for the theme answers requires a stretch of imagination to make them work. "Ready to hit the hay" just barely works as a definition for ZONKED, and I really, really don't think of deli meat as SOURING when it goes bad. I did enjoy seeing FRIVOL all by itself as I usually think of it only as part of "frivolous". NEVADAN UBERMENSCH was my favorite entry even though I have no idea what either the clue of the answer means. I think I'll start referring to Harry Reid with the term.

As to the short fill, it had ELAN (55a) and it had OOMPH (73a) (both clued as "Zing") and what more can you ask for from the short answers?  I learned that ASTANA (16d) is the capital of Kazakhstan, Rialto is the financial and commercial of VENICE (91a) and has a lot of NEONS (81d), and ARMENIA (20A)  is east of Turkey (which is located in EURASIA (21). NOE (123d) Valley is a neighborhood in the central part of San Francisco and the ROANOKE (1a)River is in Virginia but doesn't qualify as a theme answer (there's a prize for whoever can come up with a phrase that has that river "running through it"). It's like a geography min-theme with so many interesting places!

KILLER BEE (6d) reminded me of this:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

It's an ANALOG clock, dammit!

The theme for this week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo is "The First Reversed" and the long answers are all clued with a "?" so you know trickery is afoot. I spent a minute or two trying to figure out how it might work but I lack the imagination needed to see the full beauty of Frank's creation until I had a few examples to study. I think I was looking at the third long answer I had filled in when I realized that it was the whole first word of a common phrase, in this case "stink to high heaven", that had been "reversed", or spelled backwards, to create a wacky new phrase to fit the clue. That revelation made solving the rest of them a lot easier and in the end we have:

23a - REVILED (deliver) THE GOODS  (Gave some merchandise an awful review?)
32a - REDIPS (spider) WOMAN (Lowers a lady again while tangoing?)
39a - KNITS (stink) TO HIGH HEAVEN (Fashions articles out of yarn incessantly?)
55a - DECAF (faced) FACTS (Data about unstimulating java?)
65a - LIVED (devil) WITH A BLUE DRESS ON (!) (Never took off one's teal jumper?)
74a - MINED (denim) JEANS (Casual pants dug out of the earth?)
89a - STROPS (sports) ILLUSTRATED (Magazine devoted to razor sharpeners?)
101a-STRAW (warts) AND ALL (Thorough way to steal someone's milkshake?)
112a-LAMINA (animal) MAGNETISM (What makes thin sheets stick together?)

Every one of the base phrases is rock-solid although it took me a little while to remember Spider Woman from the comics, and solvers who don't know Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels might balk at Devil with a Blue Dress On. The hard part for the constructor must have been coming up with clues for the new phrases because let's face it, some of them seem to defy definition so kudos to Frank for coming up with workable clues that don't stink to high heavens (although "casual pants dug out of the earth" smells a little ripe).

The theme aside, it seems to me that the difficulty level of this puzzle is a step above the usual. Ordinarily I can produce a complete or nearly complete grid with just one run through the clues, but today there were a couple of sections that were left largely empty and I had to go back and piece them together with crosswords (and a couple of lucky guesses). The top-right corner was especially troublesome for me, mostly because I didn't know INHUME (17d - Bury) or Sans-SOUCI (29a - (carefree) ). Then there was the GNOCCHI (31d - Small Italian dumplings)/KIMCHI (53a - Spicy Korean cabbage)/ISIAH (41d - Hoops Hall of Famer __Thomas)/HOAGIE (61a - Edible hero) mish-mash that I had to fill in one letter at a time - in the end only the two "I"s in KIMCHI were in question and they seemed to be the only logical choice so in they went on a hope and a prayer.

There were some words in the grid that were totally unknown to me, too, so that complicated my solving process. ICOSA- (50d - Twenty:Prefix) was a total WTF that needed every single crossword to appear, but at least I was certain it was right because the crosses were all rock-solid. It was nice to see Haile SELASSIE (87d - (Rastafarian savior) ) make an appearance but I'm guessing his name will give some solvers fits. Novelist Theodore DREISER (70d) went in on the crosswords, and ULULATE (92d - Wail loudly) is a word I know only from doing puzzles, but I love it anyway.

Of course there were words and placements in the grid that, be they intentional or unintentional, tickled me and added an element of interest beyond the theme:

- ORIOLE (96d - Yankee rival) next to BANNER (97d - Pennant) seems like a prediction of next years American League baseball champions. Remember, you read it here first.

- OOO (28a - Winning tic-tac-toe) and III (85a - Jr.'s junior) appearing in the grid together seems like cheating but I'll cut some slack this time.

- It took too long for me to understand why "Stud locale" is EAR (75d), but then I don't wear earrings.

- I recently postulated here that younger solvers have probably never heard of a "strop" and today it shows up in a theme answer- that's an odd coincidence, I think.

- Bullies don't retort SAYS ME (49d); it's "sez me", just like the store offers "two-fer" (56d) deals, not "two-for".

- GAL (109a - Lass) SAL (91d - "My Gal __")  seems like an unfortunate repetition of a word in a clue and in the grid.

-"Not digital, as a clock" (20a) should, to my way of thinking and every definition that I can find, be ANALOG, not analogUE.  (Well, I see now that the British may spell it either way but I think that's too much of a stretch to make it right in the puzzle unless it's clued that way.)  Thoughts, anyone? Frank?

- I just noticed the MUD (7d - Strong Java) that Frank served as an alternative to the "unstimulating java" in the theme answer at 55a. That was considerate.

-Product placements include IBM (63a), Krispy KREMES (53d), Canon EOS, SARAN Wrap, the WSJ newspaper (67d) and ABC television - I sure hope Frank is compensated for mentioning them.

-UNTIL (68d) next week ERE we meet again.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Are you calling me a tool?

This week The Premier Crossword by Frank Longo bears the title "Tooling Around" and the long theme answers are clued with a "?" so we know it probably involves some play on words or puns intended to elicit a chuckle or maybe a groan. The top part of the puzzle put up very little resistance so when I came upon the first theme answer I had enough of it filled in to confirm my suspicions, and the substitution of a single letter turned the name of a common bird into a type of tool to match the somewhat tortured clue. This one turned out to be the easiest one to find in the box of tools and it soon became clear that the title not only describes the theme but it's an example of it too, because clearly  Frank was "Fooling Around" when he conjured up these beauties:

23a - GREAT HORNED AWL (Tool with a large, bony projection?)
31a - AT THE TOP OF ONE'S VICE (On a tool's upper surface?)
43a - AX OF KINDNESS (Tool given as a peace offering?)
58a - HAMMER SIMPSON (Hit a cartoon dad with a tool?)
68a - THE WRENCH CONNECTION (Add-on accessory for a tool?)
81a - SANDER BULLOCK (Male bovine using a tool?)
98a - DRILL PICKLES (Use a tool on some Heinz products?)
108a-MOST VALUABLE PLIERS (Priciest tool?)
122a-I FEEL YOUR PLANE (Statement upon locating someone's lost tool in the dark?)

A couple of these tickled me a lot - "ax " is an almost perfect homophone for "acts" and it's always nice to be reminded of random "acts of kindness", and "I feel your pain" is common enough that substituting "plane" in the phrase still works. Some of the others had me scratching my head and I struggled in a couple of places to finally see the answers. I had "at the top of one's vice" completely filled in but still didn't get it - I finally realized it's a play on "at the top of one's voice" but I think that falls a little short of the mark. I love Sandra Bullock and I guess the substitution of "sander" isn't too much of a stretch, and Homer Simpson is probably ubiquitous enough to make "hammer" understandable. "The French Connection" was a best-selling novel and movie more than 40 years ago so it's possible younger solvers won't get the "wrench" connection (see what I did there?). Sports fans will probably know the MVP reference even with the tool substituted for the "players", and I guess everyone will know what "Dill pickles" are but why anyone would want to "drill" them is beyond me. So that's  the theme - whether Frank was "tooling around" or fooling around" with us, I'll leave it up to you to decide.

Did  anyone else notice the bonus tool inserted in the grid but not part of the themed? "Shaped with a certain cutting tool" certainly looks like it should be part of theme but it lacks a "?" and so produces the non-punny answer CHISELLED (85d)./ I can't make up my mind if that's a nice touch or a inconsistency that somehow affects the integrity of the puzzle, but there it is.

Close observation will reveal where I miswrote while filling in the grid, but those write-overs were more a result of carelessness than any difficulty with the puzzle. My real problems came in other areas of the grid, not the least of which was having to know not only ESTELLE (Parsons of "Roseanne" 96d) but the name of her character she played (BEV - 97d), and it didn't help that both of those crossed LYSE (102a - Disintegrate, as cells) which was a totally new word to me (and one that I am certain I will never use in conversation, so I'm unlikely to remember it). Looking back over the completed puzzle I can't see anything else that especially problematic but I still feel that I spent longer than usual to finish (not that that's a bad thing).

I was reading another crossword blog recently and several commenters seemed to take offense at a reference to "god" appearing in the grid (the whole answer was "godsend" or something like that) because some religious sects prohibit calling the almighty by name. Today Frank puts God right up front, clued as "Divine one" (1a) - feel free to register your outrage in the comments.

The holidays are fast approaching but Frank offers help for last-minute shoppers who have to shop IN HASTE (87a - Hurriedly) by letting them SAVE BIG (95a - Get a steal at a store) on items that are ON SALE (74d - Cut-rate) - that was considerate.

Three-letter fill is usually helpful to me because it's generally petty easy to fill in, but DIB (98d - Fish by letting the bait bob) had me totally perplexed as I have never heard of it. I wanted "jig" but it wasn't meant to be. Happily the long crosswords saved me.

I just noticed the Grand Ole OPRY (2d) crossing OPERETTA (19a - Gilbert and Sullivan work) - I wonder what that would sound like?

I can't wait to see what Frank Longo, the POOBAH (39d - Big cheese) of the Premier Crossword, has for us next week.