Actress form mixed martial arts champion Carano / WED 2-22-27 / Puccini title heroine / Portmanteau in 2016 world news

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Constructor: Kyle Dolan

Relative difficulty: Medium

THEME: familiar phrases clued as word ladders — clues are "rungs" on a word ladder leading from first word in themer TO final word in themer:

Theme answers:
Word of the Day: GINA Carano (1A: Actress and former mixed martial arts champion Carano) —
Gina Joy Carano (born April 16, 1982) is an American actress, television personality, fitness model, and former mixed martial artist. [...] Outside the ring, Carano performed as Crush in the revamped 2008 television series American Gladiators. Carano has pursued a career in acting since she retired from competition. Her film debut was in Steven Soderbergh's 2011 action film Haywire, and she is currently best known for her roles in Fast & Furious 6 (2013) and Deadpool (2016). (wikipedia)
• • •

OK, so word ladders are the last refuge of a crossword scoundrel. Just a terrible idea, in general. But I will give this puzzle credit for taking the typical, tired crossword word ladder (where 1A changes to a new word, over the course of many subsequent Across answers, one letter at a time, until you get to the destination word at the final Across, ugh) and doing something new with it, i.e. putting it in the clues and not in the damn grid (where all it does is take up space and reek of awfulness). And though the theme is not scintillating, the grid is not bad, and the clues put up a reasonable fight in several places, so this one gets a marginal pass from me (though it may be benefiting by comparison to the recent string of subpar puzzles). There are probably a lot of other phrases that one might've used in a puzzle like this. "LIVE TO TELL." ROAD TO HELL. CALL TO ARMS. GONE TO SEED. Etc. But these are the ones that were used. Arbitrary, but such is life. Can't you go straight through TMEN to get from AMEN TO THAT? If you're gonna allow OPED (I assume that's OP-ED and not OPED as in some "poetic" form of "opened") then you should allow TMEN, and then it's just three steps: AMEN ... TMEN THEN THAN ... THAT.

I finished in a pretty normal Wednesday time (low 4s), but felt like I struggled a lot. Always hurts when 1A is a total mystery, and I blanked on GINA Carano. Turns out (after googling her) I know (vaguely) who she is. But between not knowing her and the vagueness of 4D: Hordes (ARMIES), I flailed a bit up there. Flailed again in the east with both LIMBO (tenuously clued as 33D: Gray area) and FLINT (I can see why it would be useful to *some* campers ... but not most) (34D: Camper's tool). Worst struggles came at the end, though, all along the mysterious REPORT CARD (30D: Progress indicator, of a sort). [___ department] and it's REC!? A cellphone replaces a CLOCK!?!?! Are you sure you don't mean "watch"? CLOCK? I don't carry a CLOCK around with me. And then I couldn't remember where Matt Damon was stranded in a 2015 film. Oh, and CEO as the answer to 44D: Board hiree, for short, was never coming. I had no idea what kind of "board" was at issue (condo board?) so CEO never occurred to me until it was filled in from crosses. Nothing stood out as great today (I feel like I've already seen BREXIT too much for it to be special anymore). But it was OK. Fine. Tolerable. That is, better than most every puzzle from the past week.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Relating to songbirds / TUE 2-21-17 / Explanatory Latin phrase / Physicist Alessandro inventor of electric battery / Flying insect with prominent eyespots

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Constructor: Timothy Polin

Relative difficulty: Easy

THEME: AP TEST (69A: Exam for an ambitious H.S. student ... or what this puzzle has been?) — eight theme answers are all two-word phrases where first word starts "A" and second word starts "P"...

Theme answers:
  • APPLE PIE (20A: Classic American dessert)
  • AMY POEHLER (3D: "Parks and Recreation" star)
  • AT PRESENT (10D: Currently)
  • AFRO PICK (18A: Grooming accessory that may be stuck in the hair)
  • AIR PIRATE (35D: Plane hijacker)
  • AL PACINO (61A: Michael Corleone player in "The Godfather")
  • ART PAPER (57A: Material to sketch on)
  • ATOMIC PILE (31D: Nuclear reactor)
Word of the Day: OSCINE (63A: Relating to songbirds) —
A songbird is a bird belonging to the clade Passeri of the perching birds (Passeriformes). Another name that is sometimes seen as a scientific or vernacular name is Oscines, from Latin oscen, "a songbird". This group contains some 4,000 species found all over the world, in which the vocal organ typically is developed in such a way as to produce a diverse and elaborate bird song. // Songbirds form one of the two major lineages of extant perching birds, the other being the Tyranni which are most diverse in the Neotropics and absent from many parts of the world. These have a simpler syrinx musculature, and while their vocalizations are often just as complex and striking as those of songbirds, they are altogether more mechanical sounding. There is a third perching bird lineage, the Acanthisitti from New Zealand, of which only two species remain alive today. There is evidence to suggest that songbirds evolved 50 million years ago in the part of Gondwana that later became Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Antarctica, before spreading around the world. (wikipedia)
• • •

The crustiness continues with this overly simple theme of no delight. A bunch of AP phrases. The teensiest bit of wordplay in the revealer, but that's it for concept. Otherwise, just a mass of unrelated, often awkward / dated phrases that have one non-interesting characteristic in common. There was a time an adequate but totally unremarkable puzzle like this wouldn't have been accepted because there were just too many good puzzle crowding it out. Every longtime constructor has had a puzzle better than this rejected before. But the bar is low—when you have no real competition (at the daily level), I guess you get complacent and you start turning out "Just OK" and "Good enough." For a while in the '00s, the NY Sun crossword (a superior daily) was keeping the NYT honest. No more. I guess if you see puzzles as simply providing a diversion from life's ILLS, then, sure, this'll do. It's familiar. It's comfortable. It looks like puzzles have looked like in the past (20, 30 years ago). It meets all the minimum requirements. LESSEE ETCETC SEAEELS PTUI. Sure. Print it.

My only problems today involved figuring out the tail ends of longer phrases (that I never hear in real life). The PILE in ATOMIC PILE (we just call them "nuclear reactors" now ... and have for my entire life). The PIRATE in AIR PIRATE (we just call them "hijackers" now ... and have for my entire life). Even the OIL in TUNA OIL gave me pause (43D: Source of healthful fatty acids in a StarKist can). Otherwise, I just filled in the answers easily, as they came. I'd seen IO MOTH before, so that didn't throw me as it might've (14A: Flying insect with prominent eyespots). Ditto PTUI (42A: Spitting sound). Oh, I tripped all over 33D: Recasts damaging information in a favorable light, say (SPINS), needing 80% of it from crosses before I saw the correct answer. I had SKEWS at first, and even when I knew it was wrong, it was hard to shake, or to see anything else. Strange, considering that clue / answer pairing seems very straightforward in retrospect. Sometimes loooonnng clues make me impatient and I don't take them in fully. This is of course my problem, not the puzzle's.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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