Start to grunt / WED 8-20-14 / Runoff conduit / Game in which pieces can be forked / Name that's Old Norse for young man / Wasabi bar snack / Autograph seeker's encl / Start of magic incantation

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Constructor: Zhouqin Burnikel

Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

THEME: The FREE "Wheel of Fortune" letters (55D: Like the initial letters of the answers to the six starred clues, on "Wheel of Fortune") — initial letters of the six starred clues are a stand-alone R, S, T, L, N, and E, respectively

Theme answers:
  • R RATED MOVIE (17A: *Fare for those 17 and up)
  • S STAR (22A: *Astronomical red giant)
  • T ROWE PRICE (28A: *"Invest With Confidence" firm)
  • L FRANK BAUM (48A: *Best-selling novelist who wrote the children's poetry volume "Father Goose")
  • N*SYNC (54A: *"It's Gonna Be Me" group)
  • E STREET BAND (60A: *The Boss's backup musicians)
Word of the Day: Hedy LAMARR (6D: Hedy of "Ecstasy") —
Hedy Lamarr (/ˈhɛdi/; 9 November 1914 – 19 January 2000)[1] was an Austrian-born American actress and inventor.[2]
After an early film career in Germany, Lamarr moved to Hollywood at the initiation of MGM head, Louis B. Mayer, where she soon became a star during MGM's "Golden Age." Max Reinhardt, who directed her in Berlin, called her the "most beautiful woman in Europe," having "strikingly dark exotic looks", a sentiment widely shared by her audiences and critics. She garnered a degree of fame and notoriety after starring in the Czech director Gustav Machatý's Ecstasy, a 1933 film which featured closeups of her acting during orgasm in one scene, as well as full frontal nude shots of her in another scene.
Lamarr was also notable as co-inventor, with composer George Antheil, of an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, which paved the way for today's wireless communications and which, upon its invention in 1941, was deemed so vital to national defense that government officials would not allow publication of its details.[9] At the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Sixth Pioneer Awards in 1997, she and George Antheil were honoured with special awards for their "trail-blazing development of a technology that has become a key component of wireless data systems." (wikipedia)
• • •

I've seen variations on the initial-letter thing before, but not this variation. It's interesting, though none of the resulting themers are particularly remarkable, and two of them are so common and crosswordy (SSTAR, NSYNC) that they either disappear into the grid or outright detract from the theme, depending on how generous you're feeling. You have six themers, but it feels like four because of those two short dull answers. The upside of those short, dull answers is that the grid is less crowded with theme, which allows for a pretty interesting overall grid. The shorter fill isn't great, but the abundance of solid longer stuff, esp. in the Downs, is impressive. RHAPSODY, TEA KETTLE, GREW WEARY, CLASS ACT—all wonderful. The clue on the revealer, though—it seems incomplete. I mean, there is one, specific context in which RSTLNE are free: at the end, during the showcase or whatever it's called. Right? I mean, they don't just give you those letters during ordinary turns, do they? So the clue there should be more specific. Much more. But it's not like the answer was hard to figure out, so no harm done.

I crushed this puzzle—half minute faster than yesterday's, and not a Wednesday record, but well below my average time. But my experience appears to be slightly anomalous today (based on posted times), so I've adjusted the difficulty rating accordingly. I was lucky enough to catch the letter thing right away—which brings me to another criticism of the theme execution. For elegance's sake, I wouldn't have any answers *besides* the themers that had single letters within them. Acronyms and initialisms are fine, but HARD G? … I'd've tried desperately to ditch that if I could've (1A: Start to grunt?). I got it immediately (not always the case with those SOFT / HARD letter answers), which may have been the key to my starting quickly. Then I was confronted with an initial RR- in the first themer, which made that easy to uncover as well. Once I got T. ROWE PRICE, the theme concept was obvious, and things got even easier from there. I had a few hiccups. STARES for GLARES, ESTOS for ESTAS, some flopping around in the TMS / NOMEN / ESSES section … but overall, piece of cake. Only thing that I didn't know, in the end, was what it means for a piece to be "forked" in CHESS. But I don't play, so that's not surprising. Here's a definition of Fork (Chess) for you, from wikipedia:

In chess, a fork is a tactic whereby a single piece makes two or more direct attacks simultaneously. Most commonly two pieces are threatened, which is also sometimes called a double attack. The attacker usually aims to gain material by capturing one of the opponent's pieces. The defender often finds it difficult to counter two or more threats in a single move. The attacking piece is called the forking piece; the pieces attacked are said to be forked.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


Wyoming senator Mike / TUE 8-19-14 / Deals buyable via tap on app / Goldsman Oscar winning screenwriter Beautiful Mind / Charge of 1% against occupy Wall Street

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Constructor: Sam Buchbinder

Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging (**for a Tuesday**)

THEME: YELLOW BRICK ROAD (58A: Path taken by 37-Across to find the ends of 17-, 26- and 44-Across in [circled letters])— path taken by DOROTHY (37A: 23-Down of a classic L. Frank Baum novel) to find a BRAIN, COURAGE and a HEART (for characters not available in this puzzle) in OZ.

Theme answers:
  • ARTIFICIAL BRAIN (17A: IBM's Watson, essentially)
  • GET UP THE COURAGE (26A: Embolden oneself)
  • NEAR TO ONE'S HEART (44A: Dear)
Word of the Day: AKIVA Goldman (30D: ___ Goldsman, Oscar-winning screenwriter of "A Beautiful Mind") —
Akiva J. Goldsman (born July 7, 1962) from Manhattan, New York is an American film and television writer, director, and producer.
He received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2001 film, A Beautiful Mind, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Goldsman has been involved specifically with Hollywood films. His filmography also includes the films Batman Forever and its sequel Batman & RobinI Am Legend and Cinderella Man and numerous rewrites both credited and uncredited. In 2006 Goldsman re-teamed with A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard for a high profile project, adapting Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code for Howard's much-anticipated film version, receiving mixed reviews for his work. (wikipedia)
• • •

Everyone loves "The Wizard of Oz," so building a theme around it seems like a good idea. And probably could be. I didn't think this idea worked very well, though. Even more than yesterday's, today's theme just isn't tight, clean, crisp. Dorothy wanted to go home … right? Am I remembering that right? To say that DOROTHY went to OZ to find a brain, courage, and a heart is to abbreviate the plot of the story in an absurd way. She wants to find those things *only* because of the three characters she meets on the way to OZ. In fact, when she sets out, those items are Not on her mind at all. So without the Scarecrow and Tin Man and Bert LAHR, this theme feels hollow, incomplete, weird. Nevermind that IBM's Watson seems like it should be "artificial" intelligence (a real phrase) instead of ARTIFICIAL BRAIN (a phrase I've never heard) and that all ONE'S make me a little queasy. The DOROTHY / HEROINE bit in the middle is kind of a nifty trick. I wonder if HEROINE wasn't one of those dumb-luck discoveries that constructors sometimes stumble into—a bonus theme-related answer you realize belatedly that you can build around existing themers.

I'm realizing now that I would've liked ARTIFICIAL HEART a lot better …

The fill is a mixed bag. The bottom half of the grid is pretty nice. There's a barrage of fine fill down there, with HECKLE and RUBLES and NAKED EYE and CLASSISM and KLUTZY. With the exception of BIALIK (15A: Actress Mayim of "The Big Bang Theory") and GROUPONS (16A: Deals buyable via a tap on an app), the middle-to-top part feels a bit more gunked up, and I will never understand why someone chooses AKIVA in that position. Why are you picking an obscure proper noun there? At first I thought there might be some pangram aspiration—that shoehorned "Q" seemed like strong evidence, as did the double-proper-noun (and also shoehorned) "Z" at ENZI / ZAC. With those bits already in play, the AKIVA EXERT area looked like more evidence that the grid was being tortured for pangrammic reasons. (Remember, the problem isn't the pangram per se, it's what chasing one makes you do to the grid) *But* … a. the letters in AKIVA are all found elsewhere in the grid and b. this puzzle isn't a pangram after all. No "J." Now I don't know if that's the editor's doing or the constructor's or what. But I almost wish there was a "J," because at least then I'd *understand* what AKIVA's doing here. AKIVA is a name you might reasonably consider for a Friday or Saturday, if it helps you hold some very impressive section of the puzzle in place. Here, it just doesn't belong. That section's just too easy to rebuild with more familiar words / names.

Clue on CLASSISM feels off (66A: Charge of the 1% against Occupy Wall Street). "Class warfare," sure. But I've never heard a rich person (on camera or in person) accuse Occupy of CLASSISM. Not saying it has never happened. Just saying it's not common enough or representative enough to warrant the clue. The Occupy/1% clash deals with broad, serious issues of systemic economic inequality, not with whether someone eats quinoa or drives a pick-up.

Lastly, DAT'S what I'm talkin' about!?!?! (37D).  No. DAT is what *you*'re talking about, and only if you are speaking Brooklynese. *I* say "That's what I'm talkin' about." I really do. I say it a lot, because I quote "Dazed & Confused" a lot. I never — ever — say DAT'S. Can't say strongly enough how wrong this clue feels.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


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