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Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle
A Crossword Blog...

by Rex Parker, published: Wed 30 Jul 2014 06:00:00 AM CEST.

Favicon Romanian Rhapsodies composer / WED 7-30-14 / Karmann classic German sports car / Rapper with 3x platinum single Hold On We're Going Home / Dress smartly in old parlance / Turbo Tax alternative for short
30 Jul 2014, 6:00 am
Constructor: Jean O'Conor

Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

THEME: Recluing kitchen stuff — items found in the kitchen are clued ("?"-style) as if they are not items found in the kitchen, but some other items altogether.

Theme answers:
  • COOKIE SHEET (17A: List of user IDs?)
  • MEASURING CUP (22A: Undergarment fitting device?)
  • CAN OPENER (30A: Jailer with a key ring?)
  • MICROWAVE (43A: Hardly an attraction for a surfer?)
  • CUTTING BOARD (49A: Directors in charge of downsizing?)
  • CHAFING DISH (58A: Attractive but annoying date?)

Word of the Day: "Cookie" (COOKIE SHEET (17A: List of user IDs?)) —
cookie, also known as an HTTP cookieweb cookie, or browser cookie, is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored in a user's web browser while the user is browsing that website. Every time the user loads the website, the browser sends the cookie back to the server to notify the website of the user's previous activity. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items in a shopping cart) or to record the user's browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited by the user as far back as months or years ago).
• • •

The theme on this one holds up pretty well. The fill really should've been edited into much better shape. It's rough and musty all over the place. Clearly someone got in there mucked with the cluing at 54D: Rapper with the 3x platinum single "Hold On, We're Going Home" (DRAKE), a clue that stands out like a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake [simile stolen from Raymond Chandler] compared to the hoary quality of the rest of the clues. But rapping up one clue hardly constitutes serious editing. In America, we say "first grade," not GRADE ONE (55A: Elementary start). We also never say TOG UP ever. GHIA is horrible as a stand-alone answer (though KARMANNGHIA would be righteous). Many NEINS? Nein. Then there's your usual assortment of tired stuff like ISAO and ENESCO (the grid-friendlist 6-letter composer—can also be ENESCU: handy!). STELA SAXE OSAGES-plural. NUM! I mean, you've got two sets of cheaters* (SW, NE)—the fill in those tiny sections should at least be passable. How 'bout GHEE! GHEE is a thing. A real thing. GHIA wishes it were GHEE.

The theme clues felt a tiny bit tortured, though I got a kick out of the CHAFING DISH clue, for sure. Reasonable theme, weak fill. Pretty much par for the course, of late. Actually, a bit better than some of the stuff I've seen since returning from my time among the MAORI (6D: Most Cook Islanders).

One thing about the theme—seems like you could make a pretty funny Sunday-sized puzzle out of it. The options seem manifold, if not limitless: [Sex in southern Ireland?] (9), for instance.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

*cheaters (or cheater squares) are black squares that do not increase word count, inserted primarily to make a grid easier to construct [today, black squares before 10A and below 12D, as well as their rotational symmetry counterparts]

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Favicon Mujer of mixed race / TUE 7-29-14 / Rapper who hosted MTV's Pimp My Ride / Away from a chat program say / Noted filmmaker with dog named Indiana
29 Jul 2014, 6:00 am
Constructor: Timothy Polin

Relative difficulty: Challenging (*for a Tuesday*)

THEME: Plants with animal names — First theme clue begins "Nursery worker's suggestion …" and then each clue simply follows the pattern "… for a ___"; nothing in the clues about animals, so that's just an added thing you have to figure out (after you figure out which kind of "nursery" the clue is on about, and after you figure out where the "first" theme clue is so you know what the first part of the theme clue phrase is, because w/o it, you've just got these ellipsis clues staring at you, which can be maddening …)

Theme answers:
  • SNAKEPLANT (18A: Nursery worker's suggest for a backstabber?)
  • CRABGRASS (3D: … for a grouch?)
  • DOGWOOD (36A: … for a scoundrel?)
  • WOLFSBANE (32D: … for a lothario?)
  • GOATSBEARD (57A: … for a fall guy?)

Word of the Day: MESTIZA (49D: Illusions) —
noun: mestiza; plural noun: mestizas
  1. (in Latin America) a woman of mixed race, especially the offspring of a Spaniard and an American Indian. (google)
• • •
At a minimum, it was interesting. And it was certainly way harder than the typical Tuesday, what with the rather complicated / double-unstated theme (unstated first because there's no clue tip to the animal angle, and unstated second because unless you know which theme answer is the so-called "first" one, all your theme clues are just partial clues). Seems like 3D should've been "first," in that it is closest to the upper left, where most people start, but there certainly is convention on the side of making the "first" theme clue be the first theme clue that appears in an Across position. Anyway, my first theme answer was SNAKE PLANT, a thing I've never heard of, so I just … had no idea what was going on. Eventually, after figuring out a bunch of themers via crosses, I could see that we were dealing w/ animal plants, and things got a tad easier. But then there was the whole XZIBIT (!) MESTIZA area, which is right hard for any day. I actually know both the rapper and the "mixed race" term, but the latter never dawned on me (til late) and the former … is he still somebody people know? Seems like he is solidly and completely bound in amber from circa 2003.

I fell into a horribly stupid self-made pit when, faced with --KEN at 64A: Wheelbarrow or thimble, in Monopoly, my eye took in only the first word and I wrote in (with what, in retrospect, was a weird amount of confidence) OAKEN. This did two things. First, it gave me a perfectly acceptable word at 58D: Spanish "that" (ESO—I had ESA); second, it gave me -IO as the last two letters of the rapper, and wham bam thank you COOLIO! Then things got ugly. Because just as I'd never heard of SNAKE PLANT, I'd never heard of GOAT'S BEARD, and the leap from "fall guy" to GOAT (given all the imaginative thematic nursery leaps I was already having to make) was pretty far. When I see "fall guy" I just see Lee Majors doing stunts and … what, solving crimes? Did he do that? I never actually watched the show.

So theme was … let's be generous and say "layered" in an "interesting" way. Felt a bit wonky as set up, clue-wise, and as I said, at least two of the plants meant nothing to me, so I didn't Love the theme, but the core concept holds up, and I rather like most of the fill. Except ICE FOG. I'm not fully convinced that's real. ICE stuff is like E-stuff, in that the puzzle keeps trying to sell me new products, and I just get increasingly skeptical. ICE TEA ICE RUN ICE AXE. I think I draw the line at ICEAX(E). OK, that's all.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Favicon Weasley family owl / MON 7-28-14 / Plump songbird / Nickelodeon show whose protagonist has football-shaped head / Those who put lot of effort into social-climbing in modern lingo
28 Jul 2014, 6:00 am
Constructor: Tom McCoy

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

THEME: STRING QUARTET (37A: Classical music group … or what the four sets of circled letters make up?) — I don't know how to describe this theme. Circled/embedded letters spell out … what? Strings can be made of "nylon" … and they are analogous in shape to the other three … I honestly don't understand what makes this theme consistent. Mainly I do not understand "nylon." Seems like a huge Odd Man Out.

Theme answers:
  • ZEROPERCENT (17A: Chance of an impossibility)
  • "HEYARNOLD" (30A: Nickelodeon show whose protagonist has a football-shaped head)
  • ANYLONAGER (44A: For even a second more)
  • VOCABLESSON (59A: Component of a language class, informally)
Word of the Day: TRY-HARDS (38D: Those who put a lot of effort into social climbing, in modern lingo) —
[I have googled [define "try-hards"] and mainly what comes up are gaming sites and sites where people are asking the question "what (the hell) is a 'try-hard'?" I'm deeply suspicious of the reality of this answer. I love "modern lingo," but certain minimum qualities of familiarity must be met, I think.] [Here's a "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" message board, if that helps]
• • •

Well, insofar as the fill was kind of zippy, and the overall puzzle was much tougher than your normal Monday, I was pleased. Probably should've been a Tuesday, but whatevs. Close enough for horseshoes etc. But there is one major problem here—kind of a deal breaker. This theme makes no sense. Or, it makes sense in only the loosest, vaguest way, like "here's some stuff in the broad galaxy of string-ish things." And if you're going to go that route, why not pearls, cheese, theory, etc? But here, there's ROPE, YARN, and CABLE … all of which can be made of many, many things, and share with "string" a physical shape (spaghetti-ESQUE is, I believe, the technical term). But NYLON is the material out of which one might *make* string, or rope, I think. So there's a consistency issue here. You want your revealer to just *snap* the whole puzzle into place. "AH … yes. Bam. Got it." Is the reaction you want. Here, I just made a face at the puzzle and then tried to piece together my comprehension failure. I asked my group (I have a group) and it turns out I wasn't alone in my bafflement, so … yeah. If you don't give a rat's [beep] about tightness of themes, then you can just enjoy the atypically crunchy fill and let it go. But this looks like Theme Fail to me.

What made this one slower than most Mondays. Well, first off, the theme answers are not exactly common phrases. They're real things, but all of them took me crosses / thought to come up with (not always the case on Mondays). "HEY, ARNOLD" was by far the toughest, as I had completely forgotten that show existed. My kid never watched it, I never watched it … I know it only because it's Out There. In the Air. Man. [Chance of an impossibility] sounds like it's going to be some interesting colloquialism, but ends up being highly literal. YOU was clued toughly (32D: Word pronounced the same when its first two letters are removed). I mean, not so's you'd be up all night sussing it out, but still, these little difficulties add up on a Monday. I was over 3:30, I think, which is 30+ seconds slower than usual (those thirty seconds feel much longer than than they are). I'd say 90+% of my Monday times fall in a very tight group between 2:45 and 3:15, so when the times are outside that range, I know something's up. But again, no big deal. I like a little struggle, a little bite, on Monday, as long as the end result is a good puzzle. Today … things didn't quite come together, theme-wise, but it wasn't a total loss.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Favicon Small pellets of noodle dough in Jewish cuisine / SUN 7-27-14 / Pathet old revolutionary group / Longtime baseball union exec Donald / European capital to natives / Exemplar of indecision / Names featured in Al Hirschfeld drawings
27 Jul 2014, 3:29 pm
Constructor: Randolph Ross

Relative difficulty: Medium

THEME: "What's My Line?" — Theme clues are all familiar phrases following the pattern [___ line], and answers are all "lines" in the sense of something someone might say (i.e. unexpected answers, not immediately associated with the apparently context of the clue) (so, for instance, [Fault line] is a line one might utter if one was at fault, and not anything to do with an earthquake)

Theme answers:
  • SORRY WRONG NUMBER (22A: Telephone line)
  • SHOW ME THE MONEY (30A: Cruise line)
  • I'LL GET IT (14D: Help line) 
  • MAY I SEE YOU AGAIN? (15D: Date line)
  • ONCE UPON A TIME (52A: Story line)
  • MIGHT MAKES RIGHT (39D: Power line)
  • THAT'S ALL FOLKS (77A: Finish line)
  • IT'S NOT YOU, IT'S ME (101A: Fault line)
  • EAT FRESH (84D: Subway line) —this struck me as the freshest (!) of the bunch
  • TAKE MY WIFE, PLEASE (111A: Laugh line)

Word of the Day: FARFEL (99A: Small pellets of noodle dough in Jewish cuisine) —
noun, plural far·fel. Jewish Cookery.
a solid foodstuff broken into small pieces: matzo farfel; noodle farfel.
1890–95;  < Yiddish farfl;  compare Middle High German varveln noodles
Dictionary.com Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014. 
• • •

This was one for people who are a. way, way older than I am, and b. have a very, very different sense of humor than I do. Essentially, if you thought the NYT crossword puzzle had its heyday circa 1980, this was the puzzle for you. You can really taste the Maleska. Almost completely void of any contemporary frame of reference? Check. Cultural center of gravity of roughly 1955? Check. "Humor" (i.e. very very mild guffaws or chuckles that are guaranteed family-friendly and TRITE)? Check. Short fill that is ridiculously, bafflingly arcane, in places where it could easily, with little reworking, be replaced by something reasonable and familiar? Checkity check. I stopped solving within the first minute, at PRAHA, because I couldn't believe it was right. "No way you'd have that in an easy-to-fill corner like that … No way." And yet, way. I mean, that corner's got PSIS and ITGO, so it's not like PRAHA is doing some kind of valiant, Atlas-like labor  and holding the whole area up. Dear lord. HATLO!? "They'll Do It Ever Time"? OK, HATLO's work looks interesting, but that guy's been dead over 50 years and his strip was never terribly major to begin with. Real answers with clever / interesting clues beat obscure proper nouns (especially barely inferable ones like these) Every Single Time. It's construction 101. At this point, we're dealing w/ an editing problem, not a construction one. This theme is so stale, and the fill so mediocre-to-poor (and dated), that I don't know how puzzles like these keep getting published. In 2014. Solving this felt like slightly like punishment. Where was the fun? This was about as fun as filling out a SCHEDULE A (I imagine).

What year is it? Who says "MAY I SEE YOU AGAIN?" No, you may not, and get rid of the bow tie and desperate squeaking voice, and Vote Truman! The fact that the [Laugh line] is TAKE MY WIFE, PLEASE tells you everything you need to know about this puzzle. I want you to walk outside right now and just start exclaiming "FARFEL FEHR!" When people ask "Why are you talking gibberish?" just say "Not Gibberish! It was in my puzzle! FARFEL FEHR!" The whole thing started feeling like a trivia contest—as if the puzzle were made harder by the inclusion of stuff like [Pathet ___ (old revolutionary group)] and [___ de Champlain (founder of Quebec)] and [Astronaut Slayton]. I wanted (much) more stuff like "IN THERE" (which is at least colloquial and has some zing) or DATA FLOW. But mostly all I got was punishing moldy stuff.

"Why are you opposed to learning new things!?" Because I'm a small-minded American. Also, I'm not opposed. I'm opposed to people using lame excuses for why cruddy fill is in their grids. Put it this way: if I put Samuel ETO'O in a grid, your reaction would not be, "Oh, I am so glad to learn of this Cameroonian footballer who is a star striker for Chelsea FC." Your reaction would be "WTF?" or "Not *sports* again [groan]" (yeah, I see you) or "Paging Dr. OOXTEPLERNON!" or some such. And much as I enjoy the names of footballers from around the globe, if my puzzle were a mainstream puzzle (such as the NYT), You Would Be Right To Groan, not because ETO'O is not a great name (it is) but because four-letter answers should not be spent on obscure names unless Absolutely Positively Necessary. See also, five-letter words, six-letter words, etc. And by "obscure" I mean "obscure to the majority of the target audience." To many football fans, ETO'O is not obscure.

Also, where is [Party line]? [Shore line]? [Zip line]? [Panty line]? [Bee line]? There Are So Many Lines, with (one imagines) So Many potential different answers, any number of which might've been entertaining / amusing / clever / fresh.

Had to suspend my Puzzle of the Week feature for a bit because I haven't been keeping up w/ All The Puzzles during my travels. I'll probably do something collective for July. I'm taking nominations if you've got 'em. Now if you'll excuse me, I gotta go gas up the ol' LANDAU (44A: Vinyl-roofed car).
The landau description was revived during the 1960s. There was a trend for making "fake convertibles" by applying vinyl roofs on regular cars. Some of these vehicles were called "landaus" by their manufacturers, and many were fitted with landau bars on the rear quarters (faux cabriolet). Some used the term "Town Landau" such as for one of the 1967 models in the Ford Thunderbird line. This generally meant a wider rear pillar with no rear quarter windows, or a partial vinyl roof that was applied only over the rear seat area (and is thus reminiscent of a town car).

A landau roof is also commonly used on the North American hearse; very long closed rear quarters, a vinyl roof, and huge, polished landau bars have been the preferred hearse style since before World War II. (wikipedia) (emph. mine)

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Favicon Zigzag ribbon / SAT 7-26-14 / Resort town near Piz Bernina / Airline relaunched in 2009 / Material also known as cat-gold glimmer / Dutch queen until 1980 / Cousin of goldeneye
26 Jul 2014, 6:00 am
Constructor: Julian Lim

Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

THEME: none, or maybe "JERSEY SHORE," since there's a lot of Italian stuff in the grid like JOE PESCI and LAZIO and AL ITALIA, and WOW FACTOR kind of recalls the name of one of the characters (people?) on the show, JWoww, though as you can see she spells her name differently; I don't think it's a stretch to call the cast SEA CREATUREs … but no, I think I'm reading too much into the grid; I'm sticking with "none"; no theme; NIL.  

Word of the Day: RICRAC (46A: Zigzag ribbon) —
rickrack or ricrac  (ˈrɪkˌræk)
— n
a zigzag braid used for trimming (dictionary.reference.com)
• • •

Since I haven't slept properly in about a jillion hours (read: 48+) and am roughly 8 hours jet lagged at the moment, I figured I would struggle mightily with this one, but instead I tore it up, viciously, if not joyfully. I'd heard rumors that the puzzles had improved notably during my absence. Looking at some of the bylines, I wouldn't be surprised, but I'd hold off on the declarations that "It's Alive!" Ten days or so is not a noteworthy or statistically significant amount of time. It's easy to fall into the recency delusion. I mean, I've written this blog for going on eight years, and if I have a serious negative (or positive) reaction to a cluster of puzzles, I get mail about how I must be in a better mood these days, or "why do you blog if you hate puzzles so much?," when really there is no larger trend. Sometimes you flip "heads" five times in a row. Not likely, but it will happen if you flip long enough. This is all to say today's puzzle was decidedly average—a handful of decent, original answers and a pretty good StaggerStack™ there in the middle, and then either forgettable or below-average stuff most everywhere else. What's super-weird about this puzzle is it has a pretty low word count (64), but with all its short junk, it feels like the word count is much higher. Usually low word-count grids don't feel this choppy, and whatever their potential flaws, I don't have to endure stuff like ERL and ELIS and ADIN and OOO and partial names like NOVO and PIBB. WOW FACTOR (15D: Provider of "!!!") speaks for itself, and LOVE BITE adds some zing, but otherwise, pretty tepid.

Whole SW corner feels off. RATED A is a bond thing, then? You'd never use it to mean "Tops" in any situation I can think of. RICRAC is a new one on me; can't say it's bad, but can't imagine it was a "hoo boy can't wait to get this one in the grid" kind of answer. I spent many years studying the Middle Ages, where monks abounded, and I always new them as ASCETIC. The -AL sounds quaint and odd, like when people say "IRONICAL"—it's a word, but not the word one would, you know, use. EARING sounds like something Eliza (the notorious AITCH-dropper) would say. "Am I 'EARING you right, 'Enry?" she'd ask. I've never spelled DOOZIE like that. I'm a "Y" man, myself.

I've been doing mainly cryptic crosswords for the past two weeks while in NZ. Usually with family, usually over tea. Much more social than this US crossword business. Highly enjoyable, if (much) more time-consuming. Anyway, I'm back in US crossword mode now. I'm here blogging for another week, then I leave again (for less distant lands and for less time). I might blog at least a few puzzles during next week's trip, since I'll at least be in the country, and will be able to access the puzzle at a humane, west coast hour. Anyway, I'm hugely grateful to the people who filled in for me when I'm away. It's a considerable privilege to have so many people I can just hand the keys, without having to worry about, well, anything. So thanks to Erik Agard, The Klein sisters, Doug Peterson, Andrew Ries, Finn Vigeland, and especially Matt Gaffney.

Back with more hot blog action tomorrow.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

P.S. way way Way too jet lagged to get into the potential problems with 36A: Eliza in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," e.g. (MULATTO). Not sure why you'd even have that in your word list, but … nope, nope. Too tired. Bed.

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