MGWCC #507

crossword 3:28 
meta 15 minutes 


hello and welcome to episode #507 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Look at That Line!”. for this week 3 puzzle, matt tells us: You’ll need one of these to get this week’s contest answer. curious. what are the theme answers? rather unusually for a crossword, the longest answers in the grid are all partials with fill-in-the-blank clues:

  • {The Great ________ (Michigan)} LAKES STATE.
  • {Have _____ (be certain to get)} A LOCK ON.
  • {_________ fool (disrespecting the intelligence of)} TAKING FOR A.
  • {__________ flag (signals danger)} WAVES THE RED.
  • {“The Carol _______”} BURNETT SHOW.

there are also a handful of shorter fitb clues and answers:

  • {“Dies ___”} IRAE.
  • {Nirvana’s “Been ____”} A SON. don’t know this song.
  • {Jai __} ALAI.
  • {With _ breath} BATED.
  • {Make ______ (atone)} AMENDS.

so that’s the obvious part. the next step is to take a cue from the title and notice that the blanks are all of varying length. typically, a fill-in-the-blank clue in a crossword is three underscores long, no matter how long the answer is. here, if you look very closely at those lines, you’ll see they’re all distinct lengths from 1 to 10 underscores long. in order, they are:

  1. {With _ breath} BATED.
  2. {Jai __} ALAI.
  3. {“Dies ___”} IRAE.
  4. {Nirvana’s “Been ____”} A SON.
  5. {Have _____ (be certain to get)} A LOCK ON.
  6. {Make ______ (atone)} AMENDS.
  7. {“The Carol _______”} BURNETT SHOW.
  8. {The Great ________ (Michigan)} LAKES STATE.
  9. {_________ fool (disrespecting the intelligence of)} TAKING FOR A.
  10. {__________ flag (signals danger)} WAVES THE RED.

it turns out that the length of the blank is the key: not only does it provide an ordering mechanism, but the number of underscores in the blank is also the index into the answer. so we take the first letter of BATED, the second letter of ALAI, the third letter of IRAE, and so on. mystery hunt veterans know this technique as “taking the diagonal”, because if you write the answers out in order in monospace font, the extracted letters can be read off the diagonal:


anyway, the answer you get is BLANK STARE, which is cute because you need to look quite closely at the lengths of the blanks to get the meta.

i liked this meta mechanism, but i have to admit that the very long partials were off-putting. i wonder how crazy it would have been to try to construct if matt had used single-word (or standalone phrase) answers for all the long theme answers, but still cluable via fitb? e.g. instead of LAKES STATE to get the A in the 8th slot, maybe {The _________ State (Kansas)} for SUNFLOWER to give the R in the 9th slot? and {The __________ Show} could have clued CAROL BURNETT to give the E in the 10th slot.

i was amused to see ABEND in the grid at 67a, clued as {Evening, in Erfurt}. normally that would be clued as {“___ in the River” (V.S. Naipaul novel)}, but here that wasn’t possible because it would have interfered with the theme. the german clue is all right, i guess—”guten abend” (“good evening”) is at least relatively high on the list of german phrases an english-speaker might know.

that’s all i’ve got for this week. how’d you like this one?

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25 Responses to MGWCC #507

  1. Matthew G. says:

    Dang. I was so close. I put the entries in order by blank, but it didn’t occur to me to select the letters within each word by length as well. When the ordering didn’t work with the initial letters, I moved on to other ideas and never returned.

    This was a frustrating miss. I lost count of how many different tricks I tried with the blanks and how many pieces of paper I crumpled up in the process.

  2. Gwinns says:

    My annual “Didn’t Go to the MIT Mystery Hunt But Let’s Try to Solve the Puzzles Anyway” week paid off… I just casually checked the diagonal as due diligence and lo and behold, there it was.

  3. CSC says:

    The answer WAVES THE RED and its clue in this puzzle are most definitely an homage to Merl Reagle. It was an answer in his debut crossword in Games Magazine in 1979, per Will Shortz in a remembrance after this death:

    “I don’t remember our discussions there, but we must have hit it off, because Merl immediately started contributing to Games, where I was the new “Pencilwise” editor. Merl’s first puzzle for the magazine appeared in November/December. Titled “Wide Open Spaces,” it was a 66-word themeless with an eye-poppingly wide-open center. He would cringe at it now. It featured such entries as OVERATONING and WAVES THE RED — clued as “___ flag (signals danger).” Years later, we had a big laugh at that. But at the time the puzzle was brash, novel, and refreshing.”

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      I first met Merl at the ACPT in 1997. There was a copy of that puzzle floating around, and Frank Longo and I were working up the courage to ask Merl about the puzzle in general and the WAVES THE RED entry in particular. I was pretty nervous to bring this up to Merl, but his disarming response was: “Yeah, that’s a bullshit entry!”

      • CSC says:

        Love it! Related/unrelated: when the Presidents of the United States (the band) were a thing, I (a once-aspiring drummer) went to the drummer right after the show and worked up the courage to compliment him. His response “Ah, f#$%, I’m just a hack.”

    • CSC says:

      I *guess* you could call this confirmation? Matt Liked my observation on Twitter:

  4. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon –291 right answers this week.

    Except for WAVES THE RED, my goal was to make the longer theme entries as ridiculous as possible to call attention to their FITB-hood. I particularly like LAKES STATE and BURNETT SHOW since it separates the lexical chunks “Great Lakes” and “State” and “Carol Burnett” and “Show.”

  5. Jim S says:

    Matt – thanks for accepting RULER! Very cool idea for a meta, which I didn’t catch until I printed out the puzzle from AcrossLite (and I used my ruler to measure the lengths to make sure of the order – the number of underscores wasn’t clear on my printout).

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Actually I jumped the gun on that and have to check with the panel. One person submitted “Ruler for Blank Stare” which I took, but then I started accepting RULER by itself because I thought that everyone who submitted it had seen BLANK STARE but had submitted RULER anyway, but now I see that’s not the case. So I need to check with the panel — apologies for accepting and then maybe retracting, I know that’s not fun but let me see what they say.

      • Jim S says:

        No problem – and in the spirit of full disclosure, I knew that the lengths had something to do with the answer but I didn’t get as far as BLANKSTARE. By my measurements, they weren’t strictly incrementing from 1/16 to 10/16 (more like 2/16 up to 14/16) so I was impatiently awaiting Joon’s write-up to see what I missed. If the panel rejects RULER, you’ll get no complaints from me.

        • Garrett says:

          Yeah, I used a ruler to figure-out the order. I could not eyeball the lines. I realized later that you could probably wing it once you got the general sense of order and started spotting the letters, but like you I used a ruler and precisely measured them all.

      • Craig Mazin says:

        Yeah, I was the dork who wrote RULER (for BLANK STARE) because I actually used a stupid ruler.

        I mean, imagine me, fussing about, working off of 16ths of an inch… oh, how exciting… and you need “one of these” to solve it… yeah, I needed a ruler to get to BLANK STARE.

        Thanks for that much flexibility. I figure if you get BLANK STARE one way or another, you’ve done the deed. Then again, I’m not on this mysterious panel.

        The panel sounds scary.

  6. lisepac says:

    Wow, was I way off on this one. Noticed the blanks of varying lengths and got out the ruler to measure them (in millimeters). When the resulting lengths didn’t lead to a solution in the corresponding numbered squares in the grid, I looked at the long answers in the grid and noticed that the final words in each could be paired with “line”:

    60A. {taking of} A – LINE (dress style)
    39A. {a lock} ON LINE
    11D. {waves the} RED LINE (lots of this in the news regarding uhf
    24D. {burnett} SHOW LINE (animals bred for show as opposed to work)
    17A. {lakes} STATE LINE

    So I was looking for a six-letter word to continue the progression, and because I’d used a ruler to measure the blanks I submitted “METRIC LINE.” The ten clues with blanks reassured me that a 10-letter answer was required.

    Never occurred to me that the blanks were underscore spaces.

    • lisepac says:

      Whoops. Posted without finishing RED LINE: (lots of this in the news regarding government-sanctioned red-lining of minority neighborhoods in the past).

  7. Jon says:

    On the Crosswords app I use on my phone (after importing the .puz into it), almost all of the lines had pixel-sized black dots that divided the line up. That made it easier to tell the difference between the 8-long line and the 9-long line. I think 2 of them appeared to be a solid line. Trying to count their lengths w/ my face millimeters away from my phone’s screen was most difficult.

    My a-ha moment was seeing how small the line was in “With _ breath.”

    Really good meta.

    • tabstop says:

      I just set my font in Solver to a monospace font and that was basically good enough, as there was some clue nearby that I could use to mark things off with.

  8. Evad says:

    Any COBOL programmer would see ABEND and think of 100s of pages of hexadecimal code to be parsed to explain why a program abnormally terminated. I still recall S0C7’s being the most common explanation (an alphabetic character in a numeric field), which generally meant a variable exceeded its allotted space in working storage.

    Ah, the good ol’ days!

    • BarbaraK says:

      COBOL – wow, haven’t thought about that in a long time. Did both the wimpy newfangled COBOL with ENDIFs and such, and the old original COBOL where one period ended every open statement. Thanks for the memories.

  9. BarbaraK says:

    I thought this was a great week 3 puzzle – not too easy, not too hard, clever, and fun to follow the steps to the answer.

    I did copy and paste and enlarge the theme clues from the PDF so I could easily count the underscores.

  10. Katie M. says:

    I couldn’t see separate underscores. It was really hard to notice the different lengths on Across Lite. I had to open the PDF and use ctrl-F to find and count them. So what did I need to get the answer? A blank stare, a computer, the PDF and ctrl-F. (I also checked to see if I could use a millimeter ruler on a printed PDF – that worked too).

  11. ===Dan says:

    I waited a day after the answer was released but it didn’t happen: I was going to guess TIME MACHINE as my hail mary. I guess there’s still hope.

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