Sunday, May 31, 2015

An Inconvenient Al

I spend too much time following politics, so when I saw the title of this week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo, "For Fans of Gore", I immediately thought that former V.P. Al Gore might make an appearance and sure enough, he did! I was able to fill in the first two long answers with the help of plenty of crosswords, so I took a minute to study them and there he was peeking out at me from both answers. Further study revealed that with "AL" removed, the answers became familiar phrases from everyday language. So there's the theme: take a common phrase and insert AL (Gore) to create a wacky new phrase to fit the clue. The completed puzzle produce these eight beauties:

23a - SALTING OPERATION (Meat-curing company?
33a - PARKING FINALE - (Last time you'll ever pull into a garage?)
45a - HERALD OF CATTLE (Messenger bringing news to cows?)
65a - SALINGER-SONGWRITER ("The Catcher in the Rye" author's tune penner?)
78a - BALLAST FROM THE PAST (Obsolete provider of stability?)
101a-NEED I SAY "MORALE" ("You already know the answer is 'team spirit', right?")
110a-DESERT SANDALS (Shoes worn in the Sahara?)
123a-HOUSEHOLD CHORALE (Piece from "The Domestic Oratorio"?)

Picking up on the theme early on gave me a big LEG UP (54d - Boost) on solving the puzzle, and I had great fun trying to guess the long answers with a minimum of crosswords. Frank's clues were mostly clever and accurate enough to give a good indication of what he had in mind - only "need I say morale" left me grumbling as I don't think that quite works as a phrase. I also just noticed that in every instance but one, "AL" appears nest to either the first or last letter of the phrase; only "herald of cattle" breaks the pattern, and I wonder if Frank would have preferred another phrase for consistency?  I know, I know, it's a tiny little nit, but he's usually very particular about that kind of thing.

Overall I thought the puzzle was on the easy side and I was able to cruise through the grid with only a single misstep, where I was certain that the "Eagles' org." (3d) was BSA until the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL came along and chased them from the grid(iron). IMBRUES (9a - Stains, as with blood) was a new word to me which I might have gotten sooner than I did, but I was really resisting ICE as "Cold Dessert" (9d). Ice is cold, for sure, but a dessert - really? "Italian ice", maybe even "flavored ice", but just "ice" is not a dessert (except to my dogs, who think plain ice cubes are a great treat to crunch on).

What do you call the brightly lit colored light shown over the head of a cartoon tech genius who just made an astounding discovery?  A 'NEON NERD IDEA"! (93-94-95d)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Japanese writing lesson

The offering from the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo this week is titled "Central Zoo" and I immediately suspected that Frank had hidden various animals in the puzzle's long theme answers. My suspicions were confirmed when a toad appeared in the dead-center of the first theme entry. I'm guessing that it must be some kind of rare, exotic toad to be in a zoo, because the woods in back of my house are crawling with the critters, but be that as it may, I was on to the theme very early on and that is usually pretty helpful. Even so, Frank apparently felt the need to put an explanation of the theme right in the middle of the grid, which was thoughtful if not especially helpful. In the end, the zoo is populated thus:

23a - COMING TO A DEAD END (Arriving where there's no outlet)
30a - GET A GRIP ON YOURSELF ("Calm down!")
42a - STELLA MARIS (One of the Blessed Virgin's titles)
58a - STANDING ORDER (Instruction in force indefinitely)

68a - ANIMALS (They're hidden in the centers of this puzzle's eight longest answers)

80a - FREEZE BRANDED (Marked with a very cold iron, as cattle)
95a - UP UP AND AWAY (Shout just before flying)
104a-GOOD WILL AMBASSADOR (Celebrity advocate for UNESCO)
118a-JAPANESE ALPHABET (Hiragana or katakana, in a sense)

The theme by itself didn't exactly blow me away with its cleverness, but Frank's execution in the grid is a thing of beauty. Every long answer has the same number of letters as its corresponding symmetrical opposite, which you would expect, but the names of the animals hidden in the exact center of the answers are also of the same length as the corresponding mate. I'm no expert on puzzle construction, but it seems to me that those constraints would make filling the grid pretty difficult, so major props for pulling that off.

The missteps that are apparent at the top of the grid are just me showing off my carelessness and/or ignorance and were easily fixed, but that mess in the bottom right corner is evidence of a real struggle. My main problem was wanting "Faith forsaker" (91d) to be "agnostic"; The crosswords quickly fixed the first part but I had to re-work the ending,and the intervening theme answer was no help whatsoever as "hiragana" and "katakana" were totally (and literally) foreign to me. I managed to piece it all together, but not without some heartburn. Still, "all's well that ends well".

The last letter I entered was mostly a coin-toss, as I was uncertain if a "small monastery" (97a) ended in an "i" or a "y", and the gem mineral (83d) presented the same question. I finally decided that the "Y" looked right for both words and I avoided finishing with an error.

It's Memorial Day weekend and far too nice to stay inside, so I'll leave you with this:

Or maybe this is a better choice - I'll let you decide:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Trial Balloons

The Premier Crossword by Frank Longo for this week has the title "Common Endings" and if the constructor hadn't provided a revealing entry as the last theme answer I never would have figured out what that meant.  I'm sure it was a failure of imagination on my part that I couldn't see, even with most of the grid filled in, that the "common endings" of the theme answers are all things that, literally or metaphorically, "fly". Here's the list - did you spot the common feature without seeing the final theme entry?

23a - VICIOUS RUMORS (Cruel canards)
33a - UNITED STATES FLAG (Old glory)
42a - STRANGE BIRD (Odd sort)
57a - EASTERN DAYLIGHT TIME (Summer hours in Ohio)
66a - RABBIT FUR (Cottontail's coat)
74a - MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL (The Tigers are part of it)
88a - PATROL PLANE (Lockheed P-3 Orion, e.g.)
95a - FALSE ACCUSATIONS (Libelous claims)

111a-THINGS THAT FLY (What the ends of eight long answers in this puzzle are)

The list seems to be evenly divided between things that literally "fly" (flag, bird, baseball, and plane) and things that "fly" in an idiomatic sense (rumors, time, fur, and accusations), which I guess is a nice touch. The clues are totally straightforward so it's entirely possible to solve the grid without having any idea what the theme is - that's basically what I did - but I like it better when figuring out the theme provides an "AHA!" moment and/or helps solve the puzzle.

I had some trouble gaining traction as the entire top portion of the grid eluded me, but things picked up when I saw "Old glory" and had just enough crosswords in place to know it had to be UNITEDSTATESFLAG. That told me that there was no trickery afoot, and I was able to cruise through the rest of the puzzle with only a few missteps, all easily (if not neatly) fixed. Then I was able to go back and piece together the top of the grid. In the end I was left with one blank square staring out from the bottom of the puzzle where "Actress Stevens" (99d) met "Milk-curdling stuff in a calf's stomach" (118a) - I had ING_R/RENN_T, and an "a" seemed more likely for the name but an "e" looked better for the enzyme. In the end I just gave up and looked up the answer - I hate it when that happens.

A couple of entries gave the puzzle a local flavor for me. I live about 15 miles from Brunswick Naval Air Station which was, until it was closed a few years ago, home to several squadrons of P-3 Orions that were regularly deployed to patrol the Atlantic in search of potentially hostile submarines. They often flew right over my house when they were coming and going and it was always a joy to see them. In a bit of crossword serendipity, PATROLPLANE provided the initial letter for the other item that was near and dear to my heart, LOBSTER (89d - Dined-upon decapod) - if there is one item that is associated with my home state, surely it's Homarus Americanus, or the Maine lobster.

After a hiatus of several weeks, Sue Grafton reappears in the puzzle with "O IS for Outlaw" (87a).

Seeing Major League (Baseball) in the grid inspires me to post a clip of one of my all time favorite scenes from the movie bearing that title - enjoy, and I'll be back next  week.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo is titled "Chain Links", and a quick glance at the clues for the long theme answers revealed that instead of the usual "?" to indicate punniness we have "literally". Further study disclosed that each one is a type of "chain" but it still wasn't clear what Frank was up to; that became clear upon seeing the first theme answer mostly filled in by the crosswords. It took only a little imagination to see the answer was a smash-up three furniture pieces, each sharing a first or last letter with the adjoining one, creating a "chain" with the common letters being the "links". Of course, each theme answer calls for a different sort of chain, so we end up with these beauties in the grid:

23a - SOFARMOIRETEGERE (Furniture chain. literally)
31a - PONDEROSARBYSUBWAY (Restaurant chain, literally)
50a - PUGREYHOUNDALMATIAN (Dog chain, literally)
69a - KILEMANJAROLYMPUSINAI (Mountain chain, literally)
89a - BANANASPARAGUSHRIMP (Food chain, literally)
108a-BARBADOSUMATRARUBA (Island chain, literally)
120a-LONGINESEIKOMEGA (Watch chain, literally)

I suppose this theme could be done with any number of categories to create "chains", but I really like that each of the types in the puzzle are real types of chains that we might use in everyday conversation - nicely done!

I spent a few minutes searching for a hidden message in the "link" letters, but if there is one there I can't find it. Someone with a sharp eye and a lot of free time may have better luck rearranging these letters into something meaningful: AEASGDOSASSASO. Good luck with that.

My missteps are pretty apparent: I wanted "long AGO" for "Way in the past" (18d) but the crosswords insisted on AGES AGO, instead. I flip-flopped between "Switch-aROO" and "switch-EROO" (32d) a couple of times (indecision is a terrible affliction), and I misspelled DALMATIoN at first, despite having had one for many years. Finally, I think I can be forgiven for guessing Mt. Olympia, as apparently there is such a thing (although I have no idea why I have heard of it) but it obviously is not a famous as the correct OLYMPUS.

My mistakes aside, there was nothing in the grid that caused a lot of HANDWRINGING (17d - Excessive display of distress), those juicy long answers there provided a lot to SAVOR (86d - Revel in), and who doesn't like BLUEBERRY JAM (63d -  Certain fruity spread)?! Overall, this was much better than SOSO (1d - Merely OK).

I'll leave you with another chain to ponder:

Sunday, May 3, 2015

How am I supposed to know Alex Trebek's middle name?

This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo presents us with a puzzle titled "Middle Names" which caused me a little initial consternation because I have trouble enough with first and last names, never mind  middle names. That was short-lived though because by the time I arrived at the first theme answer I was able to spot "ALEX" (Trebek), which momentarily confused me because that's his first name, not his middle name. Then my epiphany came when I counted the squares and saw that ALEX was in the dead center of the answer, so that's how it's a "middle" name! OK then, game on.

When the puzzle is complete we are presented with these notable first names, all perfectly centered in the long answer:

23a - MEDICAL EXPERTS (Doctors testifying about injuries, e.g.) (Trebek)
33a - BOUNCES AROUND (Uses a pogo stick) (Chavez)
40a - FOCAL LENGTH (It's variable with a zoom lens) (Ginsburg)
60a - PAST EVENTS (They're part of history) (Seagal)
62a - GEE THANKS (Modest reply of gratitude) (Hawke)
79a - TRADE LAWS (Regulations on importing and exporting) (St. Johns)
84a - EARLY LEADS (Initial race advantages) (Lovett)
97a - MODERN STYLE (Current fashion) (Lubitsch)
104a-OFFHAND REMARK (Cyurt comment) (Previn)
120a-GETTING MARRIED (Saying "I do") (Bergman)

So we have ten first names, all split between thew two words in each answer and all directly in the middle - I call that some pretty nifty constructing so kudos to Frank on that score.

Regular followers (are there any, I wonder?) know that proper names often give me fits so a theme centered on them (did you see what I did there?) has a lot of potential for disaster. In this puzzle, the clues for the long theme answers were straightforward and the answers were obtainable without knowing the names, so good on that. Then it's a pretty easy exercise to spot the name within the answer as most of them are pretty recognizable, even to a pop-culture averse curmudgeon like me. In the end, only ADELA St. Johns (Adela Nora Rogers St. Johns (5/20/1894 - 8/10/1988) was an American journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, per wiki) and ERNST  Lubitsch (Ernst Lubitsch (1/29/1892 - 11/30/1947) was a German American film director, producer, writer, and actor per, the same source.). I feel no shame for not knowing those two and I'll bet that many others did not, either.

With all of the theme answer in place and the grid nearly complete, I was left staring at two blank squares and I had no idea what letter was needed for either of them. In the upper-right quadrant I had AD_NOSINE (16d - The "A" of ATP) crossing OD_NSE (25a - Third-largest Danish city) and as far as I knew any random vowel could go in the empty block. I finally decided on an "E" which was right, but it was an out-and-out lucky guess. I was less fortunate at the bottom of the grid where ELEN_  (108d - Nicholas Cage novel) shared an unknown letter with S_LESIA (129a - Region centered on the upper Oder valley) - I thought an "a" or an "e" were equally plausible but never even considered the possibility of an "I", which it turned out to be (I looked it up before I wrote it in). Google tells me that all of those words are perfectly legitimate and literally defined by the clues,but even so I think knowing that "Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a nucleoside triphosphate used in cells as a coenzyme, often called the "molecular unit of currency" of intracellular energy..." (wiki) is beyond the pale of the average solver (in my humble opinion),

I'm no constructor but I have to think that filling in a grid around ten theme answers puts some pretty serious constraints on the non-theme fill, and still Frank managed to avoid anything to make me WAIL (82d - Grieve loudly) or say too many UGHS (35d - Cries of repugnance).  Besides, I think having ARR (86d - Abbr. on a bus schedule) crossing BRRR (96a - "It's cold!") is kind of cute. The puzzle has FENG Shui (40d) and that pleases the ESTHETE (29d - Beauty lover) in me, so all-in-all, two thumbs up.

Here's your video clip suggested by an answer in the grid - I'll let you decide which one: