MGWCC #217

crossword 5:06
meta 10 minutes 

hello, and welcome to episode #217 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “The Operative Words Being…”. this week, matt hands the keys to talented teenager erik agard for guest constructor month at MGWCC. erik challenges us to determine a two-word phrase. okay, so what are the theme clues?

well, there are no evident theme clues in the grid. TOLL PLAZA, NIELS BOHR, ESPERANTO, WEARS THIN, and PIZZA MARGHERITA are the longest entries in the grid, and as far as i can tell, they have nothing in common. but, truth be told, i didn’t actually spend much time looking at them, because when i finished this crossword, i had a nagging sense that i hadn’t really finished the crossword. i mean, i’d filled in all the boxes and the answers made sense in both directions. but there were some ambiguities that had jumped out at me:

  • {Apple’s head?}, C___. now, my first thought was tim COOK, steve jobs’s successor as head of apple. but no, it turned out to be CRAB, as in CRABapple.
  • {Tours ta-tas} are ADIEUS, but they could also be ADIEUX, the correct plural in french. the crossing entry, though, wasn’t going to be WEARX THIN.
  • {Icon of Wall Street}, BE__ isn’t BEAR, which is what i first wrote in; instead it’s the BELL that marks the opening or closing of the trading floor for the day. i remember something about amy reynaldo’s husband rene ringing it for some reason.

so my spidey sense was tingling for good reason: there are six squares in this grid where either of two letters will work in both directions, making this a schrödinger puzzle. oddly enough, though, none of the three alternate answers above that caught my attention ended up being one of them, although two of the three entries were two-way entries. let’s take a look:

  • {JFK posting} ETD/ETA, crossing {They may be chilling} COLDS/COLAS.
  • {Drone on, perhaps} is ORATE/GRATE, crossing {Easily shattered thing} EGO/EGG.
  • {State of disorder} MUSS/MESS crossing {Icon of Wall Street}, BULL/BELL (not BEAR!).
  • {Barnes & Noble purchases} BOOKS/NOOKS crossing {Apple’s head?} CRAB/CRAN (not COOK!).
  • {Husband, e.g.} MALE/MATE crossing {Roast, often} MEAL/MEAT. M M M M good.
  • {Platte River tribe} OTOE/OTOS crossing {Psychics’ supposed sights} AURAE/AURAS. this felt like the weak link, since both the across entries and down entries are just two different forms of basically the same answer.

why have i listed the entries in this slightly unusual order (top-to-bottom, left-to-right except that i’ve switched the first two)? well, reading down the column of first letters, you can spell DOUBLE, and reading down the column of second letters, you get AGENTS. so the “operative words” (i.e. words to describe operatives) are double agent.

is there a rationale for this unusual ordering? the answer is … maybe. see for yourself:

intentional visual element, or just an accident? well, i’ll leave that up to you to decide. i’m going to give erik the benefit of the doubt.

i think this meta is perfectly pitched to a week 4. the trick is extremely well-concealed. the long answers aren’t any help. the title isn’t any help until well after you’ve had the “aha” moment. nevertheless, the puzzle is fair because of those noteworthy ambiguous clues.

the design of the meta has some extremely elegant features. first of all, the phrase double agents itself is a particularly apt description of those six innocent-looking two-way squares in the grid. the fact that you can order the squares like a 2 to get those two words, both six letters long, is excellent. and here is where the title really helps, since you pretty much need to have an idea of what you might be looking for, or it’s deuced hard to find (so to speak). any of the 191 white squares in the grid could be a double agent. WHO IS THE MOLE?

five of the six double-agent squares have a really nice “aha”, and in fact most of them have two. the lower-right square, as i’ve said, feels pretty lame in comparison, and the ETA/ETD ambiguity wasn’t doing much for me up there. but the others were rather clever.

odds & ends:

  • {Where to charge an electric car?}, or any other car, is a TOLL PLAZA. best clue in the puzzle.
  • {Ms. Brown, e.g.} is apparently an M AND M. i didn’t know they had names, even reservoir dogs-style names. admit it: you’re now imagining M&Ms acting out the plot of reservoir dogs! you’re welcome.
  • {Girder shaped like the 20th letter of the alphabet} is a T-BEAM. unusually specific clue here, because the T crosses the unfamiliar-to-many-non-basketball-fans nickname T-MAC, clued as {B-baller who once scored 13 points in 35 seconds}. now, i remember that game. it was just bananas. the spurs led by 8 with 35 seconds to go, and really, didn’t do much wrong. they made all their free throws. they had only one turnover. they played excellent defense and contested every shot tracy mcgrady took. (tim duncan was whistled for a foul on one of them. that was suboptimal.) but somehow they lost, due to one of the great, unrepeatable, amazing clutch displays in the history of sports. if you’re a spurs fan, it kind of makes you question the existence of order in the universe, doesn’t it? but if you’re just a basketball fan, like i am and like i know erik is, it’s the memory of a lifetime. the reason sports is more compelling than anything else on TV is simply that anything can happen.
  • {Titular creature in a 1997 Palme d’Or winner} is a new clue for EEL. don’t know the reference.
  • {Links seen on} are URLS. ha! okay, this clue might be better than the TOLL PLAZA one.
  • {Fictional crime lord Keyser} SOZE. geez, spoiler alert.
  • {Russian program that put the first man into space} VOSTOK. geez, spoiler alert.
  • {You are here} GRID. that’s pretty meta.

all in all, i can’t give this less than 5 stars, and if i could, i’d give it more. and ten thumbs up for guest constructor month as a whole.

your thoughts?

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29 Responses to MGWCC #217

  1. Paul Coulter says:

    Cheers to Eric for a very enjoyable puzzle. For me, it was a bit easy, approx. ten minutes, but maybe that’s only since the first / pairing bothered me while solving, and we’ve seen this trick of ambidexterous definitions quite recently. From the title, I thought it would turn out to be a medical term playing on verb/noun forms, but that’s likely from my biological mindset, so I was pleased to see our guest infiltrator used double deception with his operative words. It was a very clever and smooth construction, particularly how Eric was able to spell the answer more or less left to right, top to bottom, though I suspect that had our masterful friend Matt been the setter, the / boxes would have also been symmetric.

  2. Matt Gaffney says:

    62 right answers this week. Thanks to Joon, Pete, Patrick and Erik for their puzzles!

  3. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    Excellent puzzle.

    My entry to the answer came with that bottom right square, where I was thinking, Hmmm, that’s a perfectly insoluble Natick, E or S? Then I noticed the BOOKS/NOOKS duality, and I was on my way to the solution.

  4. Pete Rimkus says:

    A great meta that ruined my weekend (well almost)…until the ‘aha’ moment last night. The lack of symmetry of the ‘double agent’ squares really bothered me…I kept looking for more…
    I also just saw “The Usual Suspects” a week ago for the 1st time, so I was able to drop SOZE right in there (especially since I never heard of Trey SONGZ).
    And the long answers sidetracked me for a while…I kept seeing a relationship between ROTATE SEDAKA and NIELS BOHR…and ESPERANTO crossing RANTO seemed suspiciously redundant…
    Kudos, Erik!

  5. abide says:

    Meta took 3 days, and only got it when I started puzzle from scratch.
    I was sure TBEAM had some importance since IBEAM IMAC would have been more likely fill. That did get me thinking about alternate letters.

  6. sps says:

    Brilliant. Just brilliant. Planned to work more on it this AM but work got in the way. I don’t think I would have gotten there even if I had taken the time. I was too focused on the three long answers…even tho I noticed the ETA/ETD and OTOS/OTOE thing. Nice work to the smart 62!

  7. Matthew G. says:

    Beautiful puzzle and meta. I’m kicking myself, because I noticed the duality of the lower-left and lower-right squares, but when I didn’t find corresponding duality in the upper-left and upper-right, I decided I was barking up the wrong tree and started looking elsewhere for the meta. Never came back to the right path.

    Five stars from me.

  8. John says:

    Did not get this. Too wrapped up in theme answers that weren’t there. The laugh is that i went through the BELL/BULL MESS/MUSS thing with a colleague as well as CRAB/COOK (I must think like Joon) conundrum and STILL didn’t get that this was central to the meta. A real lame-brained week four for my part. Brilliant puzzle and a great month, as has been noted by my MGWCC brethren.

  9. Jeff L says:

    The SOZE clue in itself is not a spoiler at all. Adding the name of the actor who played him would be the spoiler.

  10. Karen says:

    I had no clue on this one, but a beautiful solution.

  11. David says:

    Brilliant meta. If you multiply Joon’s meta time by about 52 you get mine.

    Is there anyone else who was convinced the meta was about opera?

  12. Wayne says:

    I spotted the “BN” ambiguity and thought “How sloppy. Who is this Erik twerp? I’m glad GCM is ending.” Once in the trap, I never got out. That’s my favorite way to get licked by a meta: to be left feeling that not only am I a dummy, but that the constructor is ohhh-sooo-clever. Very well done, Mr. Agard.

    @joon re: spoiler alert: LOL.

  13. Yossi Fendel says:

    Very nice puzzle. Four of my distractions en route to the meta:

    1. I was distracted for a long time by the PIZZA MARGHERITA, which I assumed had to be significant. Especially when I noticed that 68A+69A (as I had filled them) anagrammed to TOMATOES. Also, I was hungry.

    2. Like Pete I saw the RANTO in ESPERANTO and the BIO in BIOTA.

    3. I thought “Operative Words” might mean verbs, and saw that the only verbs in my across fill (that I recognized at first pass, anyway) were a rhyming threesome of GRATE, ROTATE, and MATE.

    4. The menagerie of CRAB, BULL, SALMON, EEL, and GEESE, along with zoological associates EGG, PELT, MEAT, and GILL. (Perhaps these were the relevant BIOTA?)

    My solve only came once I looked up OTOS on Wikipedia and found the alternate OTOE, and then things started to fall into place.

  14. Christopher Jablonski says:

    Ouch. This slaughtered me wholesale. I think because I haven’t yet incorporated the “ambiguous answers” heuristic into my solving. And the long answers were too meaty to divert my focus. Did anyone else look for ways to make the grid look like an Italian flag?

  15. Themutman says:

    I thought the meta was great, despite the fact that Erik kicked my butt here.

    Well done.

    Being married to an Italian woman I had a hard time getting basil, mozzarella and tomatoes off my mind. Time for lunch!

  16. CY Hollander says:

    Missed this one too. “Double agents” crossed my mind when I was thinking about what the title could refer to, but I couldn’t connect it to anything. I’d noticed the “books/Nooks” ambiguity, but none of the others, and I’d chalked that one up to simple misdirection. Even if I’d submitted “double agents” on wild spec, it wouldn’t have been a satisfying way to get the answer.

    I spent most of my thinking time on the long answers, which interestingly enough were also clued ambiguously. I fixated in particular on 62A, “He was on the 500-kroner bill” (NIELS BOHR) and 35D, “Zamenhof’s language” (ESPERANTO). With different interpretations of those clues, those could have been NIELS ABEL (Norwegian kroner) and BELARUSAN (native language), each of which would have fit into the grid (though not with the crosses), which steered me towards thinking “Nobel” something. Nothing else about that was panning out, though, so I was pretty sure that I was on the wrong track. Good to have it confirmed.

  17. john farmer says:

    Nice work. No luck here with the meta. Not sure I get the spoiler alerts either. One of those days.

    Erik’s got a good name for wordplay…the TEEN crowd in TEA GARDEN?

  18. joon says:

    oh, funny—the “fictional” in {Fictional crime lord Keyser} just refers to the fact that he’s from a movie, as opposed to a real-life crime lord. that’s not how i read it at first, not at all. you can imagine an alternate interpretation where it really does kind of spoil the movie.

  19. Andrew Greene says:

    Saw NOOK/BOOK, got CRAB as the crossing to resolve the ambiguity, and never looked back. I have GOT to get in the habit of highlighting any clue that feels odd in any way.

  20. john farmer says:

    See the reason for the spoiler alert now, but not sure if SOZE was fictional in another sense. Maybe Verbal was. Can’t remember … it’s been a few years since I saw the movie.

    Not a spoiler like “‘Citizen Kane’ sled,” anyway, or the “shocker” spoilers in the LAT puzzle from Bruce Sutphin and Doug Peterson last month.

  21. Neville says:

    This one was a lot of fun. I noticed the issue in the SE corner, and eventually decided to look elsewhere for it. Proud to be in the elite 62.

    I’ll not go on for hours about how THE MOLE is the best reality show ever. Just know that I’m thinking it.

  22. Jeff Chen says:

    Wow – fantastic! Great work, Eric.

  23. Norm says:

    Put me in the formerly baffled and now appropriately awed group.

  24. Don Lloyd says:

    I did manage to tease out the six pairs of dual-solution letters and anagram them to the ‘operative’ phrase, but I didn’t realize they were paired in word order, as joon shows in his diagram above. Bar-raising detail work!

  25. Garrett Hildebrand says:

    A brilliant meta, I agree, but it went right over my head, even though I saw a couple of things which could be filled-in differently, depending upon how one would think about it. I should have realized…

    But I was caught-up by the number of Zs and the number of words which contained or ended with the letter S which sounded like a Z. So I started looking at letters in those words and came up with Cesarean Sections. Anybody else start to go down this path?

  26. Cole says:

    Completely eluded me; I was following a food theme I tried to force into the long entries; PIZZA, NIELS BOHR was DANISH, ZAMENHOF was POLISH (sausage) and if you squint a bit you could find a WHEAT THIN. Sadly I could not find a plausible food connection for TOLL PLAZA.

  27. Another week 4 miss for me. I was too distracted by all the Z’s, the theme answers that weren’t, and the TBEAM/TMAC that could’ve been IBEAM/IMAC. I wanted COOK at first and corrected it to CRAB, but that was the only one that I noticed, and I forgot about it after the solve. The Schrödinger letters went right over my head.

  28. Abby says:

    I was on the road for this one too, so I didn’t have as much time to look at it as I would’ve liked, but the right answer was my first thought- and what I got back to eventually. I sure went nuts in the middle, though. The tip for me was NOOKS/BOOKS, but I still wasn’t totally sure I was right. Like, actually doubted it. I think that was because of the lack of symmetry, mostly.

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