Talkative bird / WED-23-JUL /Tater tots maker / Mekong Valley native

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Constructor: Howard Barkin

Relative difficulty: pretty easy for a Wednesday



THEME: "___ check" — Each of the six words used in the theme entries precedes "check" in a phrase

Word of the Day: TOCCATA (38A: Bach work) —  (from Italian toccare, "to touch") is a virtuoso piece of music typically for a keyboard or plucked string instrument featuring fast-moving, lightly fingered or otherwise virtuosic passages or sections, with or without imitative or fugal interludes, generally emphasizing the dexterity of the performer's fingers. Less frequently, the name is applied to works for multiple instruments (the opening of Claudio Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo being a notable example). -- Wikipedia


• • •
This is one of those "both words can precede (or follow) word X" themes, which we've seen a lot of in recent years. They're not terribly exciting since the reveal is always a slight letdown; you'd hoped there was something mysterious and intriguing going on with those starred clues, but then not really.

OK, so accepting the limitations of the theme type, let's see if super-solver (three-time finalist at the ACPT) and super-nice guy Howard Barkin can jazz things up a little for us. The three theme entries themselves are a good start, with nice phrases BODY DOUBLE, BACKGROUND SOUND ("background noise" Googles rather better, but this phrase is also legit and has the cool -ound/-ound echo) and the excellent PERSONAL BAGGAGE. How Howard must've delighted at seeing both PERSONAL and BAGGAGE on his list of check-preceding words, and then hitting a 15-letter phrase with them to boot. Euphoric boost for a constructor when you score a nice 15.

The revealer is a cut above as well: BLANK CHECK is the answer, and the clue is (Complete freedom ... and a hint to each half of the answer to each starred clue). So you fill in that blank with the six theme words.

The solve was just under five minutes for me and the grid was a mixed bag. Liked seeing those wide-open NW and SE corners, though my Scowl-o-Meter went off some with ARTE, REOS and the contrived RESEEKS right off the bat in that NW. But BARTAB/OREIDA/ATOMIC was a nice stack up there, with good crossers like TIME-OUT and ADIEU. OUGHT TO/TOCCATA/RUN COLD/SWAGGER are elegantly connected sevens in the middle, and ASKANCE, AGA KHAN and EQUATOR are good sevens elsewhere. It gets ragged/crosswordy in the tight parts (ANS - ATRA - MYNA - AKEY - DCIV - ASAN - AMB - STE), but maybe those sevens are worth it.

Americans are everywhere!



Bullets:
  • (19A: Got away from one's roots?) = DYED — That's a good one.  
  • (52A: Love letters letters) = SWAK — sealed with a kiss. And hopefully some other kind of adhesive. 
  • (35A: Palindromic girl's name) = AVA — lots of girls named Ava these days. How long before one of them becomes famous so we can give Ms. Gardner a well-earned break?
  • Speaking of OUGHT TO: I dig this entry in part because of its trippy (and solver-vexing) vowel/consonant pattern of VVCCCCV. Wordplay trivia: can you think of a common, 7-letter word that uses the same pattern? I can only think of one. Put it in comments if you've got it (or a different one).
A grade of "B" is the natural limit for this kind of theme in my book; something really crazy would have to happen to lift it any higher. And with its slightly above average revealer, above average phrases, and lots of nice longish fill, I think we can say that this one comes close to maximizing the concept, so: B it is. B for Barkin! Crossword-powered Howard.

Signed, Matt Gaffney, Regent for two more days of CrossWorld

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Screenwriter Sorkin / TUE-22-JUL / Making a bundle / Many Snapchat users

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Constructor: Joel Fagliano

Relative difficulty: on point for a Tuesday



THEME:  — "either way, it makes sense" -- seven pairs of words cross in the grid and are clued to the two words/phrases they form

Word of the Day:  STOA (44D: Ancient Greek colonnade)  

  Stoa is a term defining, in ancient Greek architecture, covered walkways or porticos, commonly for public usage. Early stoas were open at the entrance with columns, usually of the Doric order, lining the side of the building; they created a safe, enveloping, protective atmosphere.

The name of the Stoic school of philosophy derives from "stoa". -- Wikipedia

Took me until almost the very end to catch this snappy and original theme. Seven pairs of words cross in the grid, and form a familiar word or phrase no matter which word you start with. They are:

(6D: With 8-Down, lime shade) = LIGHT GREEN; (8D: With 6-Across, approve) = GREENLIGHT
(16A: With 12-Down, not natural) = MAN-MADE; (12D: With 16-Across, mob inductee) = MADE MAN
(23A: With 33-Across, fan of the N.F.L.'s Packers) = CHEESEHEAD; (33A: With 23-Down, deli product) = HEAD CHEESE (disgusting phrase and thing)
(38A: With 38-Down, place to drop a coin) = WISHING WELL; (38D: With 38-Across, desiring happiness for someone = WELL WISHING
(40A: With 31-Down, jazz legend) = ARMSTRONG; (31D: With 40-Across, coerce) = STRONGARM
(58A: With 54-Down, waffle alternative) = PANCAKE; (54D: With 58-Across, bakery container = CAKE PAN
(59A:  With 57-Down, part of a morning routine) = BREAKFAST; (57A: With 59-Across, basketball tactic) = FAST BREAK




About halfway through the grid I got an eerie "it's too quiet in here" feeling, like in a horror movie: where were this puzzle's theme entries? I'd noticed a large number of cross-referenced clues but it wasn't until about 80% of the way through that it all clicked.

Notice the elegant touches: there are seven word pairs in the grid, which is a lot, and they're placed as close to symmetrically as could be hoped; they're all well-chosen and familiar; all the word pairs cross each other, logically since they're "cross-referenced," and aesthetically because it tightens the theme (and doesn't make you hunt all over the grid for a cross-ref answer).

That's an excellent crossword. In contrast to Sunday's puzzle, which was elegantly constructed but played somewhat dull, this one is both elegant and a fun solve since finding each pair of words isn't tedious and it's inherently interesting that two phrases comprised of the same two words take on radically different meanings if you reverse the order of those words.

I chided yesterday's puzzle for some weak fill, but if you read closely I actually chided it for "easily avoidable" weak fill. There are some crosswordy words in here -- STOA and ISERE especially -- but with a grid this tightly packed and no tough crossings on those two so it's just a small ding.

Best fill: BEATEN DOWN, BANDLEADER, IN-CROWD, SPIED ON, DIRT BIKES, LASERDISC and DRONE BEE.



Clues are a little jazzier than yesterday's. No barn-burners but (45A: Try to improve a Yahtzee turn) is good for RE-ROLL and (44D: Watched through binoculars, maybe) is good for SPIED ON.

It's grading week, and this one gets an A. Original and amusing theme, clean grid despite many theme entries, nice aha moment when I finally grokked the theme idea, and the cleverness of crossing cross-referenced entries. No wonder Will Shortz hired the author as his crossword intern.

Signed, Matt Gaffney, Regent for three more days of CrossWorld

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