Friday, January 1, 2010

NYT Saturday 1/2/10 - Extreme Gridding

This Saturday New York Times crossword seems unusual in a lot of respects, but these fortuitously played to my strengths as a solver: 24 minutes must be close to my solving best for a regular Saturday puzzle and I'd  have taken a few minutes less, were it not for my ponderings over the stipes/septimes intersection.

The most striking grid feature is the high average answer length: 6.55 - a consequence of there being just 58 answers ... not a record, but there haven't been many NYT crosswords of this order and Robert H. Wolfe seems to have made them something of a specialty.

There is usually a downside when you stretch into extreme territory and the most obvious one to me as a solver was the large number of agent nouns and their plurals, which started to get a little tiresome in the bottom of the grid. We have attainer, on runners, enterers, readers, sitter and seaters in that area. Hence I was surprised that acer was clued as {One not allowing a volley}, given there was the opportunity to avoid flagging another agent noun via {Dell competitor} or the like.

Apart from that, the fill seemed OK even though the colors of the grid below reveal how few of the "Scrabbly" letters got worked in. The average Scrabble point count is a low 1.33. But I can't complain too much because this was a great solving time for me. I think that's not just a consequence the types of answers employed, but the way they were clued: looking through the clues I found many fewer popular references than usual to comment on. I'm not sure if this choice was intended or just a consequence of the difficulty of cluing an answer like restaff or prosed in any way but its dictionary meaning.

Like yesterday, I started in the NW corner and worked clockwise, though I ducked the issue of how 16-Across and 4-Down should cross until right at the end. The twenty minutes or so spent on the rest of the grid did not enlighten me as to this conundrum and I found myself once again trying each letter of the alphabet in turn until I hit on what seemed appropriate for a fencing term (septimes) and biological term (stipes).
Solving time: 24 mins (solo, no solving aids)
Clue of the puzz: 20a attire {What goes on?}

Robert H. Wolfe
Grid art by Sympathy [about the grid colors]

Robert H. Wolfe / Will Shortz
15x15 with 35 (15.6%) black squares
58 (average length 6.55)
Theme squares
0 (0.0%)
Scrabble points
253 (average 1.33)
Letters used
New To Me

mushrooms16a stipes {Mushroom supporters}. Stipe is one of many dictionary words I know to exist (but can't easily recall the meaning of), not least because of the coincidence that it is also the surname of R.E.M.'s lead singer. It's quite common for competitive Scrabble players to know an entire lexicon of words, but have no idea of their meaning; crossword solving is slightly better for imparting the dictionary meanings, but I still find that knowledge of definitions lags knowledge of the answers ... for one thing, there are so many more meanings than words. Anyway, a stipe in botany and mycology is a stalk of some kind.

4d septimes {Defensive fencing positions in which the top of the blade is pointed at the opponent's knee}. Crossing this with stipe at 16-Across was tough, and it took me a few minutes to reach a logical decision about the two answers. One thing I know about fencing is that much of the terminology comes from French, but I also hoped that somewhere in that very long clue would be a hint to the answer ... why otherwise say any more than just {Defensive fencing positions}? That hope was dashed, but trying each letter in turn at the intersection, I knew I'd found what I wanted with P and looked no further: there are eight basic parries in fencing, named Prime, Seconde, Tierce, Quarte, Quinte, Sixte, Septime, Octave, Neuvieme (what a sec, that's nine - Wikipedia inconsistency).

14d Estes {Eleanor who wrote "The Hundred Dresses"}. A rare popular reference in this crossword: Eleanor Estes (1906–1988) was a children's author who took to writing while recovering from a bout of tuberculosis. The Hundred Dresses was first published in 1944 and concerns Wanda Petronski, a poor and friendless Polish-American girl, who comes to school in the same faded blue dresses each day, but claims to own a hundred dresses at home.

38d Morita {Swank's co-star in "The Next Karate Kid"}. The Next Karate Kid is a 1994 film starring Hilary Swank and Pat Morita, the fourth in the The Karate Kid series. The film's two taglines are: "An ancient tradition is about to collide with a new generation...and get a kick in the pants" and "Who says the good guy has to be a guy?"


Raisa with YSL1a Raisa {Early 1990s first lady's first name}. Not being in the US in the 1990s, I couldn't be sure right away this wasn't an American first lady, though clearly Hillary didn't fit (Barbara was the other candidate I couldn't think of). But I fairly soon thought more widely and remembered Mrs Gorbachev (1932–1999), and then the only question was whether she was Raisa or Raiza and I experimented with both to make 4-Down work sensibly. Here she is with YSL.
orache47a orache {Spinachlike potherb}. Another obscure dictionary word I thankfully just know ... and this time I could recall that orache is an edible plant (genus Atriplex). It was apparently cultivated extensively around the Mediterranean until spinach came along and supplanted orache in the veggie hit parade. Its green leaves were once used to color pasta in Italy.

The Rest

6a pettish {Cross}; 13a Essene {Group member from the time of Jesus}; 15a gone into {Chosen as a career}; 17a all-metal {Without any wood or plastic, say}; 18a tut-tut {Repetitive rebuke}; 19a slippery {Untrustworthy}; 20a attire {What goes on?}; 21a bus line {A conductor may have it memorized}; 22a fermis {Units in nuclear physics}; 23a attends {Serves}; 24a flues {They may be full of hot air}; 25a ogee {Sigmoid architectural feature}; 26a yes man {Rubber stamp}; 28a reefer {One getting hit on?}; 33a tras {Skipping syllables}; 35a sones {Acoustic measures}; 37a impetus {Momentum}; 41a tootle {Play the flute}; 42a Normans {Kings Henry I and Stephen}; 43a yttria {Oxide used in television tubes}; 44a atropine {Spasm-relieving alkaloid}; 45a repast {Feast}; 46a cuisines {Mexican and Indian, e.g.}; 48a enterers {People working with logs?}; 49a sitter {Parents' hiree}; 50a readers {Folks going through leaves}; 51a chess {Its openings are often studied}.

1d restaff {Fill positions differently}; 2d astutely {With sapience}; 3d is it true? {"Really?"}; 5d aneurism {Arterial problem: Var.}; 6d polluters {They're not green}; 7d enlistee {New face on base}; 8d temple {Congregation location}; 9d tie-pin {Dapper Dan's doodad}; 10d intend {Destine}; 11d stares {They're often drawn on the street}; 12d holy {Like an 8-Down}; 15d gas-bag {One full of hot air}; 25d on runners {How most sleds are mounted}; 27d attainer {Goal getter}; 29d esoteric {Way out there}; 30d footpath {Way to walk}; 31d entr'acte {Dramatic break}; 32d relishes {Fancies}; 34d assess {Value}; 36d seaters {Those who put you in your place?}; 37d in tune {Pleasant way to play}; 39d prosed {Wrote an essay, say}; 40d empire {Persia, e.g., once}; 41d tyros {Pros' opposites}; 44d acer {One not allowing a volley}.


Daniel Myers said...

According to the OED - which may show some bias here - SEPTIME (as both a musical and fencing term) comes straight from the Latin "septimus" = seventh, without any French intervention.

Crossword Man said...

I guess it's possible septime comes from the Latin, but seems odd given the rest of the series. Glad to get the answer right anyway, even if for the wrong reason!

Anonymous said...

If you like historical fiction and would like to learn more about fencing, check out Arturo Perez-Reverte :-)

Crossword Man said...

Thanks for the tip ... I'll add Mr Perez-Reverte to my wish list. Maybe I should read him in the original Spanish to help my vocab? :-)