Friday, February 12, 2010

NYT Friday 2/12/10 - Knowing the Drill

I got down to this Saturday New York Times crossword very late, after seeing a performance of The Uneasy Chair at the Cider Mill Playhouse. Seeing the grid for this puzzle, with its quadruply stacked 15-letter answers, didn't make me particularly uneasy ... I have consistently found such grids to make for the easiest end-of-week puzzles.

So things turned out, and the central section with just the one grid-spanning entry was the hardest part for me: I started at the top and had the upper four rows done inside 5 minutes. On a roll, I tackled the corresponding bottom part: that was slightly tougher, but I had it done in a further 8 minutes.

Hence to the central section, which I solved from left-to-right. Its 15-letter answer was much harder to spot and even when I had the first three words of it, getting that last word was difficult (I couldn't think of "routine" without imagining comic routines would be involved).

The final block at the middle right took about five minutes on its own, the crossing of ows and WALL-E being the crux ... there was definitely some forehead-slapping when I got WALL-E, as I know the movie well. The only other trouble spot for me was the 40-Across/40-Down crossing, where I could justify neither answer, but gambled that when a constructor like Kevin G. Der can put a J in a grid (as opposed to an H or some other lowly letter), he will.

The difficulties of filling grids like today's is evident in the rather predictable endings of the stacks: SSNs and SSTs. The likelihood of hackneyed answers like these appearing is one reason such grids tend to be easier for the solver, although it takes some time to acquire a knowledge of the common answers which you can then exploit - I think this crossword would have been much more of a struggle for me a year ago.
Solving time: 23 mins (solo, no solving aids)
Clue of the puzz: 42a jar {Tipping point?}

Kevin G. Der
Grid art by Sympathy [about the grid colors]

CompilersKevin G. Der / Will Shortz
Grid15x15 with 26 (11.6%) black squares
Answers66 (average length 6.03)
Theme squares0 (0.0%)
Scrabble points316 (average 1.59)
New To Me

39a Lee {Novelist who was a lifelong friend of Capote}. Of course, I knew of Harper Lee, but not of her friendship with Truman Capote. It turns out they were neighbors Monroeville, Alabama and were best friends before they became famous writers. Capote based the character of Idabel in Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) on Lee, and was in turn the inspiration for the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird. It amazes me that Lee produced virtually no other writings following her Pulitzer-winning classic.

40a jake {Ducky}. I didn't quite figure out this clue when solving, even contemplating hake (with Hansen for 40-Down) but got it right by considering how unlikely the constructor would pass up getting another J in the grid. Checking Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary later, I see that both jake and ducky are slang for "fine", as in "everything is just jake/ducky". Anyone use either of these expressions? I can't say I've heard them.

Edmonton Eskimos55a Edmonton Eskimos {13-time Grey Cup winners}. 15-letter teams are way less of a problem than 3- or 4- letter teams. Just give me a handful of the letters and the whole answer is fairly guessable. The Edmonton Eskimos are a Canadian Football League team based in Edmonton, Alberta. The Eskimos are the most successful CFL franchise of the modern era (1949-present), having won the league's Grey Cup championship thirteen times. They play their home games at Commonwealth Stadium.
Mission Santa Ines8d Inés {California's Mission Santa ___}. Inés seems to have come up a lot recently to my mind; but apparently only twice so far this year in the New York Times, so it's not quite got to the Ulee or Enya levels of overuse. The Mission Santa Inés was founded in 1804 as part of the California mission chain, an effort by the Franciscans to spread the Christian faith among the local Native Americans. I strongly associate the architecture of such missions with the setting of the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, but that was identified as the Mission San Juan Bautista.

40d Jansen {Dan ___, 1994 Olympics speed-skating gold medalist}. So far as I knew, this could equally well be Hansen, and only my instinct that the constructor would favor another J in the grid made me go for Jansen instead. Dan Jansen won his gold medal in his final Olympic race in 1994 after years of disappointment in previous Olympic games. Jansen was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004. He is now a speed skating commentator for NBC.

48d Alan {Lightman who wrote "Einstein's Dreams"}. One of the great things about stacked 15-letter answers is that you can happily ignore 25% of the downs, knowing that they'll automatically be right. This is a good example of a clue I didn't even look at; although if I had, Alan would have seemed a not unreasonable answer. Alan Lightman is a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Einstein's Dreams is his best-selling fictional account of the young Albert Einstein, who is troubled by dreams as he works on his theory of relativity in 1905. The book consists of 30 chapters, each exploring one dream about time that Einstein had during this period.


17a The Descent of Man {Seminal naturalistic work}. This had me scratching my head a lot. The normal meaning of "naturalistic" is "pertaining to naturalism". Can it also be "pertaining to a naturalist"? It would have to be that since The Descent of Man (1871) is Darwin's second great book on evolutionary theory, in which he applies evolutionary theory to human evolution, and details his theory of sexual selection. I can't help thinking of this title without its counterpart The Ascent of Man, a landmark BBC documentary series from the 1970s.

19a tar {Main character?}. A clue exploiting a classic way to mislead ... "main" meaning the high sea, on which you might find a tar.

White Rabbit43a fob {Where one might keep time?}. Another highly misleading clue: a fob is a small pocket in trousers or a waistcoat where you can keep a pocket watch. That was the original meaning; it later came to mean a short strap, ribbon or chain used to attach the watch to the pocket.
28d WALL-E {Animated character who likes "Hello, Dolly!" songs}. WALL-E (2008) is a movie I saw on first release and loved, and yet I could only get this answer by working through all the letters at the crossing with 27-Across. Only when I got the answer did I remember that WALL-E is obsessed by the movie Hello, Dolly!, it being the one VHS video that the robot has found to watch.

split29d split {Lane pain?}. Bowling references seem to be aplenty this week. I've never tried the game, but I can imagine a split is a pain, because it's hard to knock down two separate groups of pins to achieve your spare.
41d Cooke's {"Alistair ___ America" (1973 book)}. I probably learned more about the USA from Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) than anyone else (Garrison Keillor included) ... Cooke broadcast Letter from America on British radio from March 24, 1946, to February 20, 2004, making it the longest-running speech radio programme in history. I started listening to these as a teenager and missed very few. I'll try to find an example, as I don't suppose many Americans will have heard them (maybe I'm wrong?). Ok, I can't find an example on YouTube, but you can read and listen to the last letter here. Instead here's a clip from his TV documentary America: A Personal History of the United States.

The Rest

1a geometric series {9 + 3 + 1 + 1/3 + 1/9 + ..., e.g.}; 16a active interests {Dating service questionnaire heading}; 18a stainless steels {They're dishwasher-safe}; 20a fir {Tree-line tree}; 21a rajahs {Some 21-Downs}; 25a l'arc {Tir à ___ (bow-and-arrow sport: Fr.)}; 27a ows {Punch lines?}; 30a ozone {Thunderstorm product}; 31a ease {Fit by careful shifting}; 32a trap {Help in hunting}; 33a you know the drill {Routine statement?}; 36a alla {___ francese}; 37a poky {Puttering}; 38a aïoli {Fish garnish}; 41a cygnet {What the ugly duckling really was}; 42a jar {Tipping point?}; 44a essential organs {Heart and brain}; 53a tells it like it is {Doesn't hedge}; 54a real estate agent {A lot may be on one's mind}.

1d gats {Hoods may conceal them}; 2d echt {German "genuine"}; 3d O Tea {"Cup ___" (1970s Don Williams song)}; 4d midi {Trend in 1970s fashion}; 5d even then {"Sure, but ..."}; 6d teslas {10-kilogauss units}; 7d ricer {Potato preparation aid}; 9d ctns. {Milk holders: Abbr.}; 10d sets free {Spares}; 11d erotic {Sizzling, so to speak}; 12d refer {Point (to)}; 13d Is Me {"This ___ ... Then" (Jennifer Lopez album)}; 14d et al {Citation abbreviation}; 15d SSNs {Govt. database entries}; 21d royal {One with subjects}; 22d azole {Nitrogen compound}; 23d Joule {Physicist James who contributed to the laws of thermodynamics}; 24d Anka {He had a #4 hit with "It's Time to Cry"}; 25d latke {Hanukkah nosh}; 26d ashy {Visibly horrified}; 27d Orion {Odysseus saw him as a shade in the underworld}; 31d Ewok {Sci-fi's Chief Chirpa, e.g.}; 32d Trig {One of the Palins}; 34d op artist {Creator of some illusions}; 35d daybreak {Time of awakening}; 42d Jell-O {Need for some shots}; 43d Flite {Top-___ (sports brand)}; 44d être {To be in a faraway land}; 45d seed {Basis of development}; 46d slam {Compliment's opposite}; 47d it to {Hand ___}; 49d Gigi {1958 Best Song Oscar winner}; 50d at 'em {"Lemme ___!"}; 51d Nino {Chile child}; 52d SSTs {Fleet fleet, once}.


Anonymous said...

You write regarding the quadruple-stacked 15s: "... I've consistantly found such grids to make for the easiest end-of-the-week puzzles"

What other quadruple-stacked 15 grids are you talking about? Aside from an irregular 16x15 grid last year with central quad-stacked 15s, this is the first ever quad-stacks 15x15 puzzle in the entire history of crossword puzzles.


Crossword Man said...

Good point MAS. I write the commentary before reading other blogs, and am sometimes unaware of the historical context - that was the case here. Kevin Der's achievement with this ground-breaking puzzle is remarkable, and by having quad stacks he avoids my usual beef about a preponderance of common 3-letter answers.

My point was more generally about grids with lots of stacked 15-letter answers, not necessarily quadruple. I've usually found these easier than those with answers clustered in the 5- to 8-letter range.

Anonymous said...

If your interested in historical context, grids with triple-stacked 15s were very, very rare until about 10-15 years ago. The reason they're more common now, is that most (if not all) constructors have access to decent computer crossword construction programs with large word lists/data bases.

Also, a grid with (top/bottom) triple-stacked 15s does not necessarily mean more 3-letter words than a "normal" themeless grid. It's quite possible to have only one, or maybe two 3-letter words going down through each of the stacks. Moreover, a grid with a trio of stacked 15s running through the middle of the grid may have no 3-letter words at all running down through the stacks.



Crossword Man said...

Thanks MAS (is that Martin Ashwood-Smith?) for your insights on the history and construction of grids with stacked 15s.

My impression of grids with them may have been colored by some less than outstanding examples early on (I started solving in January 2009) and I may have built up a prejudice against them.

I'll remember this conversation next time one comes up and try to keep an open mind. It certainly says a lot about Kevin Der's grid that I only found SSNs and SSTs to moan about! I'm sorry my ignorance led me to overlook such a milestone grid.

Anonymous said...

Hi Crosswordman,

Yes, you've correctly identified me. Incidentally, I'm originally from the UK too. I grew up near Newbury.


Crossword Man said...

Interesting. The last place I lived in the UK was in Berks - Twyford, just east of Reading. I hope we get to meet up if you're coming to the ACPT this weekend!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I'm unable to attend this year's ACPT. Too much of a trip right now (I live near Vancouver).