Sunday, March 29, 2015

I'd like to buy a vowel, Pat

This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo is entitled "Vowels On Vacation" and it was apparent very early on what that meant - Frank had come up with some nifty long theme answers and then removed all of the vowels before he put them in the grid. Entering the answers required some mental gymnastics that made solving the puzzle harder, but in a fun way. Frank had helpfully furnished the missing vowels in the clues, so the challenge became inserting them among the consonants already in place from the crosswords to form meaningful answers to fit the clues. The resulting grid is, to put it mildly, very bizarre looking and populated with vowelless gibberish but it certainly provided a unique solving experience. I thought it was an interesting challenge and managed to produce an almost pristine completed puzzle, but I can imagine some solvers might have found it frustrating. I suppose you could look at the completed answers and still not know what the whole phrase is, so here's the list:

23a - FILED FOR BANKRUPTCY (Took a big step to relieve debt)
34a - PSYCHO-ACTIVE DRUGS (Mind altering chemical substances)
51a - PILLSBURY BAKE-OFF (Cooking contest since 1949)
53a - MOLECULAR PHYSICS (Study of bonds between atoms)
73a - ULYSSES SIMPSON GRANT (President before Rutherford Birchard Hayes)
90a - DOCUMENTARY FILMS ("Sicko" and "Super Size Me", e.g.)
92a - SYNDICATED COLUMN ("Dear Abby" is one)
111a-HIGHLY SOUGHT AFTER (In great demand)
126a-ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE (Thwarters of Boris Badenov)

OK, I did not notice until I typed those answers that in every instance the answers are missing not just random vowels, but one of each vowel, AEIOUY. That, my puzzle-solving friends, is a thing of beauty. That ramps my love of the puzzle and respect of the constructor up a couple of notches - that could not have been easy to accomplish.

I learned a few things from solving this puzzle, chief among them that it is very difficult when writing in an answer to resist the temptation to write in ALL of the letters, not just the consonants. A couple of times I found myself on the brink of writing in a vowel but managed to stop in time. Historically speaking, I had no idea what U.S. Grant's middle name was so when I checked my answer after I finished the puzzle I came away thinking that Frank might have taken just a tiny bit of liberty with that answer: "President Grant’s real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant. At the age of 17, he secured a nomination to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point through his Congressman, Thomas Hamer. Apparently confused with Grant’s mothers maiden name of Simpson, Hamer mistakenly nominated him as Ulysses S. Grant. The academy would not accept any name other than what was on the nomination form so Grant adopted the new name as his own. Contrary to what some may believe, the S. does not stand for anything at all." [Source:"] I'll leave it to the historians among you to debate that issue, I was just happy that the crosswords provided the missing letters that I needed. 

Concentrating on writing the theme answers correctly took so much concentration that I hardly had time to notice the short fill and looking back on the completed puzzle I don't see anything especially remarkable.  There were two areas in the grid that caused me some temporary grief owing to my ignorance of pop-culture proper names. At the top-center section YAN and MIRO both crossing ALISON had me holding my breath (INCUS was no help, either). Then in the bottom-right corner the NOLL/LILI/ELWES smash-up left me wondering if my guesses were correct and luckily they were.

My only write-over came at AbLAzE/AGLARE and it took some head-scratching to get that sorted out, especially with a no-vowel theme answer involved, but eventually my one geography-related brain cell kicked in to produce ERITREAN and all's well that ends well.

"Joan of art" (8d) and "Joan of Arc" (18d) appearing together was a cute touch, I think, and sticking some random vowels (EIEIO - 101a) among all the vowelless answers was a crafty touch.

The bottom line of the grid is almost LYRICAL (100d):  LES ETTE ELYSEE ASONG,  which reminds me of this:

With that I'll bid you "au revoir" (BYE - 128d) until next week.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Si, si, si, si, si, si, si Señor!

"Starting Sound-Alikes" is the title of this week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo, and if you solve like I do, top-to-bottom and left-to-right, you probably figured out by the second or third long theme answer that they all start with the same sound, despite differing spellings. I figured that was probably not a coincidence and it is in fact the theme. If there had been any doubt remaining my the time I arrived at the last theme answer, Frank dispelled that with an alternate title that's even more explicit.

23a - CAESAR SALADS (They have bases of romaine)
33a - SEEK SHELTER (Try to find a safe place)
40a - SIEGFRIED AND ROY (Onetime popular pair in Vegas)
63a - CEASE AND DESIST (Halt, legally)
70a - SEIZE THE MOMENT (Live for right now)
92a - SCENIC OVERLOOKS (Vista points)
99a - CENOZOIC ERA (It began with the Tertiary Period)

116a-THE SEVEN SEAS (Alternate title for this puzzle)

Apparently in the English language, at least in the dialect spoken in Frank Longo's part of the country, the are at least eight letter combinations that can produce an initial sound that approximates that of the Spanish word for "yes". I personally would pronounce a couple of them differently, but then I'm from New England and everybody knows that we talk funny here.  "Siegfried" is especially troublesome to me because I've always heard the name as having a short "i" sound in the first syllable and presumed that was the correct pronunciation. I'm on the fence about "Cenozoic" as it's not a word I'm familiar with, but on-line references indicate that either a short or long e sound is OK:

So there's your theme.  Huge props to Frank for finding phrases that not only had the right initial sound but also ones that could be paired length-wise with their symmetrical partners in the grid - nicely done!

As for the non-theme fill, I struggled in places because there's a plethora of proper names to contend with - at least two dozen by my count. I won't belabor the issue by reciting all of them, but "Goran of Tennis" IVANISEVIC (7d) makes my point nicely, I think.  Avid tennis fans may feel otherwise.

Other than that I liked the puzzle just fine even though nothing about it made me sit up and say "WOWZA!" I am a little suspicious of the innocent-looking crossing of two seemingly innocuous three-letter words dead center in the grid: SAM JAR or maybe JAR SAM, either way there must be a hidden significance due to their central placement. Feel free to leave your conspiracy theory in the comments.

Often-times I confuse myself by misreading clues and refusing to consider alternate readings. Such was the case with "Really irked" (106d) which I construed as an adjective (having been nicely set up by "Plenty angry" yielding IRATE (102d). I was sure, then, that the answer was Angry, and when I finally tore that out so the crosswords could produce ATEAT I could not parse it to mean "really irked". A TEAT? No that's something else entirely. AT EAT? Nope, that's just nonsense. Oh wait - the clue is looking for a past tense verb, not an adjective! Finally, ATE AT made sense to me, but it took far too long.

I'll make that revelation the END (34d - Last part) of this piece before it MORPHS (14d - Changes gradually) into a state of complete inanity (happily I don't have an editor to put a DELE (43d - Proof mark) on the whole thing.

You just knew I'd pick this song to close with, didn't you?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

It's the Ides of March (III/XV/MMXV)

This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo bears the title "Roman Invasion" and it didn't take long to discover that in this case the "invaders" were numerals - Roman numerals, that is. Most constructors I think try to avoid using Roman numerals in the grid but here we have Frank, rebel that he is, embracing them in his theme. He has taken eight more or less common phrases and inserted random Roman numerals to create wacky, but not totally nonsensical, new phrases for the puzzle. After I managed to get it all sorted out it looks like this:

23a - HAS A BOVINE TO PICK (Must choose from among the available cows? [6])
34a - DELIVER MEAT (Take a beef order to someone's home? [54])
42a - CROSS COUNTRY SKIMMING (Reading things quickly through fields and woods? [2,000])
64a - HUMDINGER STRIKE (Lulu of a bowling roll? [1,501])
72a - YEAR OF THE BOXCAR (Chinese zodiak part associated with freight trains? [90])
93a - WINE TASTING PARTICLES (Bottle sediment at oenophiles" events? [150])
102a-QUIXOTE MARK (Scar on the Man of La Mancha's body? [9])
117a-BRIDLING TOGETHER (Putting headgear on a horse jointly? [551])

Obviously (now) the numbers in brackets for each of the clues tells us exactly what Roman numeral we are to insert, and I found that helpful in a couple of instances. Solvers who aren't up on their Roman numerology may have struggled with some of the long answers, although the clues are pretty descriptive of the new phrases (not that they all make sense). It didn't help that I really, really wanted the base phrase for DELIVER MEAT to be "deli meat" so that had me confused for a while. Happily I grew up in a hunting family so "deer meat" makes perfect sense, too.

My completed grid was a total mess (hence the newspaper's solution copied above) due totally to my lack of care in checking crosswords before I wrote answers in. In the end I had several write-overs: emiTS/RENTS, Sneak/SIDLE, Singe/SCORCH, Opel/ONYX, mri/TAT and apron/MITTS. Every one of them had the right number of letters and fit the clue, and every one of them was wrong - I hate it when that happens.

I eventually got all my mistakes corrected, had all of the long theme answers filled in, and in the end I was left facing one blank square: the cross of 33d  ("Amélie" star Audrey) and 51a ("Loot" playwright Joe). I had TAU_OU/OR_ON and not a clue as to what the intersecting letter might be. ORsON is a common name so that seemed plausible, but other letters seemed to fit too. In the end I just left it blank, but I don't think the "T" would ever have occurred to me. I had to run the alphabet to finally get BEATZ (61a - Hip-hop artist Swizz__) but at least I knew A ZOO  (56d - "It's ___ out there!" was right when I finally got to the last letter of the alphabet.

It appears there's a matrimonial mini-theme with ALTAR (10a - Wedding vow locale), WED (108a - Say "I do"), UNITE (103d - Marry), all of which, in my experience, will probably end up in the COURTS (81a - Plea places) and leave someone in DEBT (65d - Bar tab, e.g.). I might be a tad jaded on that subject, and as Jimmy Buffett so famously said, "It's my own damn fault!"  See you next week.

LATE EDIT:  I had to come back and give props to  Frank Longo for the timely reference to my home state of MAINE (106d - 23rd state) on the 195th anniversary of its becoming a state (3/15/1820).

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Shout-out to ACME - Hi, Andrea!

"Between the Extremes" is the title of this week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo, and so it is - it's neither exceedingly wacky as Frank's offerings can sometimes be, nor exceedingly drab. It is, as Goldilocks once so famously said, "just right". But of course that has nothing to do with the reason for the title, In fact it soon becomes apparent that the theme revolves around common two word terms, the second word or each one being a word that means "between the extremes". So when the grid is complete we find seven such phrases, plus a bonus theme answer which suggests an alternative title for the puzzle, just in case the obvious had eluded us.

23a - FITNESS  CENTER (Site of many a yoga class)
31a - COMMERCIAL HUB (Mumbai, vis-à-vis India)
48a CORN KERNEL (Bit attached to a cob)
63a - REACTOR CORE (What melts in a meltdown)
72a - UPPER MIDDLE (Like the social class that includes managers)
86a - COUNTY SEAT (San Rafael, vis-à-vis Marin)
102a-ATOMIC NUCLEUS (Proton's place)

117a-SEVEN OF HEARTS (Card that's an apt alternate title for this puzzle)

So like I said, no knee-slappers and no groaners - let's call it "middle of the road" from a theme perspective. Let's give Frank full credit, though, for finding terms of the appropriate lengths so he could fit them into the puzzle symmetrically - I always marvel at how easy he makes that look when I sure it's not easy at all.

Today I managed to mostly resist my usual impulse to write down the first answer that occurred to me upon reading a clue, with the result being an almost pristine grid; I only had to change one letter as a result of failing to check the crossword before writing - that's not too bad for me. I actually stopped short a couple of times when I realized at the last second that alternatives were possible. I've tripped up in the past over things like "Farewells to François" when I've impulsively entered ADIEUs when the constructor obviously wants the French plural, ADIEUX - but not today, François!

Almost every puzzle has at least one answer, and usually more, about which I have not a clue. A good example in today's offering came early with "86-across in eastern Kansas" (21a). OK, first it's a cross referential clue to something that comes much later in the grid, but even after I looked at that clue, "San Rafael, vis-à-vis Marin" I had no idea what Frank was getting at. Even after the answer, OLATHE, appeared from the crosswords I had no idea what it meant as my ignorance of eastern Kansas geography is profound. It turns out to be a city with a population of about 132,000, and it's the COUNTY SEAT of Johnson County. So now I know. In solving the section I especially enjoyed seeing OLÉ (8d - Flamenco dance cry) adjacent to TANGO (9d - Dance from Buenos Aires) - nice touch!

Did anybody get LYSOSOME (6d - Enzyme-filled cell organelle) just from the clue? Show of hands - how many didn't need every crossword for that puppy? Anybody? Bueller? I get it that the clue is pretty much the dictionary definition of the word but still, am I really supposed to know that stuff? But again, all the crosswords were fair enough so credit to the constructor for turning it into a learning opportunity instead of a trap. Had he crossed it with "Comic actor Kevin" NEALON (61a) I would definitely have cried "foul", but he didn't so no harm done.

Let's see, what else did I notice as I worked through the grid? Oh yeah, there's almost word-ladder of sorts with words like SCAR, SPAY, SKYE, STIE(S), STOW, STEW, STUB, STEP (ON), SPED (BY) and maybe STY(L)E all making appearances throughout the puzzle. There are probably hours of entertainment for anyone who wants to create a word ladder to get from MIFA to ESPY (upper left and lower right corners) using the four letter words in the grid - report back in the comments as to your success.

That's probably more than enough IDIOCY (20a - Extreme folly) for one day. I'll leave you with a video clip that I came across when I misremembered the lyrics of a Ricky Nelson hit from back in the day - it's not TORE UP, dummy, it's Stood Up - but it's still a really good song.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

LT YR = about 5.88 trillion mi.

This week we're presented with a Premier Crossword by Frank Longo titled "School Orders" which didn't mean much to me by itself, but a glance at the clues reveals that there's a riddle involved so there's nothing to do but launch into the grid and see what develops.

One of the first things I did was to make a completely unforced GOOF (43d - Slip up) by deciding, on the strength of the initial letter alone, that a "Warrior's suit with small, overlapping plates" (3d) would be "Suitofmail" because it fit so perfectly both clue-wise and grid-wise. Of course it turned out to be completely wrong with only the first letter that didn't need to be changed to produce SCALE ARMOR. An early mistake like that can be down-right discouraging but I persevered and managed to recover pretty well. I pretty much cruised through the rest of the grid until I made careless mistake by writing an answer in the wrong spaces, so for "Oscar winner Guinness" (96d) I entered "siralec" in the adjacent boxes for 95d. Of course I immediately discovered the mistake and put ALEC where he rightly belonged in the grid, but I had no idea what the "West African tree" might be, so I had to wait for the crosswords to produce the answer letter-by-letter. The very last letter I put in was an educated guess because I didn't know "Ian who played Bilbo Baggins" (119a) but with HOL- in place the M seemed like the most reasonable choice.

So with the grid all filled in we can see the riddle and its answer:



So let's go back to the title "School Orders" because now we can see that it is a pun all by itself since "Simon Says" is a childhood game commonly played at school (at least it was when I was growing up) and Frank turns it into a game played by a school of fish, so that explains that.

Of course the whole concept has to RELY (60d - Bank (on) ) on the solver knowing the game to begin with. For those who, for whatever reason, aren't familiar with "Simon Says"here's the full low-down from wiki: "Simon Says (or Simple Simon Says) is a child's game for 3 or more players where 1 player takes the role of "Simon" and issues instructions (usually physical actions such as "jump in the air" or "stick out your tongue") to the other players, which should only be followed if prefaced with the phrase "Simon says", for example, "Simon says, jump in the air". Players are eliminated from the game by either following instructions that are not immediately preceded by the phrase, or by failing to follow an instruction which does include the phrase "Simon says". It is the ability to distinguish between valid and invalid commands, rather than physical ability, that usually matters in the game; in most cases, the action just needs to be attempted.
The object for the player acting as Simon is to get all the other players out as quickly as possible; the winner of the game is usually the last player who has successfully followed all of the given commands. Occasionally however, 2 or more of the last players may all be eliminated by following a command without "Simon Says", thus resulting in Simon winning the game.
The game is well embedded in popular culture, with numerous references in films, music and literature."
We'll leave it there - feel free to add a comment about any childhood memories the puzzle may have evoked for you - or if it left you completely (C)FLAT (105d - B soundalike).
I was about to conclude with the observation that the grid didn't contain a single Roman numeral, but then I spotted OTTO I (118a - Holy Roman emperor known as "The Great") lurking in the bottom left corner. I'll conclude instead with the two "stadium shouts" Frank inserted into the puzzle: RAH (83a) and OLE (101a)., and say ADIOS (52a - "Later, José").
I'll leave it up to you to figure out inspired me to choose this totally awesome clip to sign off with: