MGWCC #308

crossword 4:16
meta 5-7 minutes 

mgwcc308hello and welcome to week #308 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Scavenger Hunt”. the instructions for this week 4 puzzle tell us that this week’s answer is an ominous sign. well, that is an ominous sign, but let us for(a)ge ahead. what are the theme answers?

  • {Dark comedy of 1982 (take 2 of what you find)} is EATING RAOUL. never heard of this movie.
  • {Fall celebration for Mexicans (take 2 or 5 of what you find)} is el dia de los muertos, or THE DAY OF THE DEAD.
  • {Band headed by George O’Dowd (take 1 of what you find)} is CULTURE CLUB. i guess george o’dowd is boy george?
  • {More common name of New Guinea’s “kuru” (take 3 of what you find)} is LAUGHING DISEASE. i did not know this, although i have heard of kuru. it’s one of those prionic diseases, found among cannibals. let that be a lesson to you: don’t eat other people’s brains. otherwise it’ll be no laughing matter. well, apart from, apparently, the laughing.
  • {Bloodied boxer (take 7 of what you find)} is ROCKY BALBOA. aha, a fictional boxer.

well, this one fell quickly. i’m not sure why. the key is figuring out how to interpret the title: this isn’t a hunt which involves scavenging. this is a hunt for scavengers. a different kind of scavenging animal can replace the last word of each theme answer to make a well-known phrase or title:

  • eating CROW
  • the day of the JACKAL, a crime thriller by frederick forsyth (that was probably made into a movie, i’m guessing). my first thought here: the day of the locust, a novel by nathanael west. but locusts aren’t really scavengers.
  • culture VULTURE. this is, i believe, a term i first learned from a paula gamache themeless NYT crossword. but once i had CULTURE in the grid, it was the first scavenger i was able to see.
  • laughing HYENA
  • rocky RACCOON, a beatles song

once you’ve identified the five scavengers, you take the indicated letter of each one: the 2nd letter of CROW is R, the 2nd or 5th letter of JACKAL is A, the 1st letter of VULTURE is V, the 3rd letter of HYENA is E, and the 7th letter of RACCOON is N. putting them together spells out RAVEN, another famous carrion scavenger, and indeed an ominous sign.

did you know? in HBO’s game of thrones, the sight of a raven means that a character is about to die. (spoiler alert: game of thrones being on at all means that a character is about to die.)

i liked this meta, but i didn’t love it. what i liked about it was actually the title. repurposing a familiar expression like “scavenger hunt” into a meta is top-drawer wordplay. but some other parts of the puzzle felt less than elegant. i guess something about indexing into key words using an arbitrary given number always feels a little clunky.

there was also the nagging feeling i couldn’t shake that the theme was 80% consistent in a couple of ways. first of all, in 4 out of 5 theme answers, the scavenger replaced the second word of a two-word phrase, but in THE DAY OF THE DEAD, it replaced the last word of a 5-word phrase. secondly, in keeping with the “ominous sign” instructions, we’ve got a dark comedy, a festival for the dead, a deadly disease, a bloodied boxer, … and a 1980s pop band. one of these things is less ominous than the others. (or, to attempt to use a word i’ve only ever seen in crosswords, four of these things are EERIER than the fifth.)

finally, the grid, too, suffered from the construction design issues associated with a central 11, necessitating those big ugly chunks of black squares in the center-left and center-right. that’s not really matt’s fault, but it didn’t help me shake that feeling of inelegance. i will say that matt did very well under the circumstances to give this grid a low word count (only 70) and fill it with some rarely seen but interesting medium-length entries. i liked MAOISM and SOUGHT and SPARE RIB and MINOAN and the PIXIES, but there were a handful of unfamiliar or barely-familiar things like ENDUST and PINTAIL and CUBAGE. overall, i’d say the grid was a net positive despite the black square chunks.

what did you all think?

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41 Responses to MGWCC #308

  1. Laura says:

    Hahaha! At 11:57, I noticed Culture rhymed with VULTURE, and guessed it was a five-letter word with V in the middle. Submitted RAVEN with a minute left. Victory! Kind of!

  2. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    [Sputter, sputter, sputter . . .] In the past I have been able to solve third and fourth week metas, but recent results suggest I may have to restrict myself to first and second weeks.

    Can’t complain about the puzzle when a hundred people got it. Brilliant as usual, but way beyond me.

    • Bunella says:

      I’ve never gotten a week 4 and at this rate, my streak will remain unbroken.

      After hearing the answer, I thought it was brilliant.

  3. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, joon. 124 correct entries this week.

    I’ll push back here and disagree with your review, though. I thought the grid was one of the best I’ve ever done, 70 words and very clean despite the five theme entries. And the wide open central area, clean despite cutting through three theme entries, was also something I liked.

    As for the theme — you just change the last word. And there was no attempt on my part to make all the five base phrases ominous (I don’t think ROCKY BALBOA counts as ominous, since it’s a total feel-good movie). So while you might argue that the five-letter THE DAY OF THE DEAD entry is orphan-ish, I don’t think you can call CULTURE CLUB one.

    • Garrett says:

      I had no problem with the grid fill. It was satisfyingly tough to solve, but not obtuse. And I thought the theme clues were mysteriously unconnected until I finally twigged onto the intent. Until then, they simply veiled the intent until I had the “aha moment” and then my first thought was, “Brilliant!” I loved it. I’m rating it 4.5, taking off 0.5 for the way the index numbers were clued.

      • joel a says:

        I agree with Garrett. This was one of my favorite MGWCC puzzles. The interaction of the puzzle theme with the meta was great, and I thought the difficulty of the meta was spot on for a week 4. I don’t think the fill was subpar at all, and even if 4 of 5 theme entries seem more ominous than the 5th, I think misdirection is fair play anytime (even if intended).

  4. Paul Coulter says:

    This seemed very mild for a Week 4, didn’t it? Nothing wrong with the meta — the slight inconsistencies Joon notes didn’t bother me — I thought it would have made a fine Week 3. But the scent was easy to sniff out given the enumerations in the clues. They readily suggested a letter taken from that position in each emergent entry, hence a five-letter meta answer. “Scavenger Hunt” was a very apt title and I can’t fault Matt for using an idea so literal, it’s pulled off with panache. But where else could a solver go from there? After writing down the themers, vulture swooped and hyena pounced. On the good side, I liked that the answer was a notable scavenger, itself. 4 stars.

    By the way, ravens are exceptionally smart birds, capable of complex problem solving. And hyenas are actually highly successful hunters. There are no good guys or bad guys in nature, but they’re often miscast as the archetypical villains. In reality, they make most of their own kills, then frequently lose the carcass to lions. These are the real scavengers among the large African carnivores, but one can’t blame them for conserving energy where possible.

    • pgw says:

      Agreed. This struck me as likely having been reverse-engineered from the title – that is, the seed idea was likely something like “I’ll make a ‘scavenger hunt’ where you are hunting for scavengers …” Nothing wrong with that, mind you.

      My comment on the puzzle – That’s So Clever

      • Matt Gaffney says:


      • CY Hollander says:

        I know what you mean, but I don’t think the term reverse engineered actually applies here.

        • Jonesy says:

          agreed with CY — probably more accurate to say ‘the title was the inspiration of the puzzle’ rather than how it often seems like the title is a result of the puzzle/meta… i guess Matt has to find a MSM published puzzle and then ACTUALLY reverse engineer a meta now…

          great puzzle, thought it was brilliant but not one i got/would get.

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          I found the puzzle in the year 2487 (won’t say how), but only the title and meta answer were retrievable. From that information alone I reverse-engineered what must have been the original meta, grid and clues.

    • Matthew G. says:

      I solved it in about the same time as joon, which means it was indeed on the easy side for a Week 4. I paused only because, again like joon, I thought of “The Day of the Locust” before “The Day of the Jackal.”

      I think this would have been much harder if the central theme answer had not contained a word that rhymes with VULTURE.

      • mrbreen says:

        Almost the exact same thoughts here. When I finally got around to looking at meta yesterday, it clicked immediately. I had Day of the Wolves at first, but with the R-VEN pattern I back solved the A quickly. Absolutely loved this meta. 5 stars from me.

    • pannonica says:

      Didn’t have a chance to work on the puzzle, but save for vultures none of the animals listed are exclusive or near-exclusive scavengers. Most are not even predominantly scavengers, though all will engage in it at times (hey, even top predators do, too).

      Incidentally, crows and ravens are very closely related, members of the same genus: Corvus.

      clarification: Neither of these observations is an attempt to negate the viability of the meta.

      • Jim Schooler says:

        Two ornithologists were arguing about the difference between ravens and crows. “Ravens have two pinion feathers, and crows have three,” the first ornithologist said. “You’re mistaken,” the second ornithologist said, “it’s the other way around, crows have two and ravens have three.” “Well,” the first ornithologist said, “I guess that’s just a matter of a pinion.”

  5. Garrett says:

    Oh, so bummed… I was SO CLOSE. After an exhausting examination of the grid over the weekend (after which I noticed that GEARTO fits in EATING RAOUL, and NAUSEA fits in LAUGHINGDISEASE) I finally tripped onto Laughing Hyena Monday afternoon. Just walking around not even thinking about the meta and it just popped up in my mind. I’ve read “The Day of the Jackal” and that came immediately, then Culture Vulture, then Rocky Raccoon, and after a bit of thought Eating Crow.

    But the way I read the number hints was that they were a quantity rather than in index. So I’ve been anagramming! So many letters! I finally got “coyote howl,” and that could be considered ominous (thinking of the howl of the dog in “Hound of the Baskervilles”) but it only gave me 10 letters, and the way I understood the instruction (take 2 of, take 2 or 5 of, take 1 of, etc…) I needed 15 or 18 letters. Arg… could not make it work. I finally threw-out Crank Coyote Howl in last minute desperation (literally — I submitted at 8:59). Had I understood 2nd, 2nd or 5th, 1st, 3rd and 7th I would have nailed it.

    • Bencoe says:

      I did the same thing, assuming the answer would be a 15 letter phrase (with an optional “the”) and spending way too long trying to anagram something to fit. When I got the answer, it was such a simple process that I felt pretty stupid for all the pointless work I put into my anagramming.
      Still, I thought this was a great meta. Solid theme, solid phrases (I loved the movie Eating Raoul). The “ominous sign” phrasing points to Poe’s “The Raven,” and there are three clues which read “Black (blank)”, also pointing to a raven. Mega meta content.

  6. Flinty Steve says:

    My sourness/bitterness over my complete inability to find my way into yet another Week 4 leads me to offer a pedantic correction here. The clue for 37A is inaccurate. There’s no “the” in Pixies (and, sadly, now no Kim Deal either).

  7. ant says:

    Wow!  I whiffed on this one – but get this:  Each clue could have given us a new possible theme answer, with the indicated number in the clue referencing matching letters:

    THE BIG CHILL fit over EATING RAOUL – with 2 letters in the same spot (GL)
    DIA DE LOS MUERTOS fit over THEDAYOFTHEDEAD – 3 letters (5 from 2?) (DOE)
    CLUBCULTURE (obviously) fit over CULTURECLUB – 1 letter (C)
    ROCKYGANNON fit over ROCKYBALBOA – 7 letters! (ROCKYAO)

    However, I couldn’t get those corresponding letters to anagram to any ominous sign. Now, I know The Big Chill came out in ’83 (and isn’t quite a “dark” comedy), and Club Culture is Boy George’s podcast, not a band, but this is just too close not to be amazing.  I figured I was off somewhere (and that “2 or 5” hint was really not making sense), but I remember thinking how incredibly difficult it was for Matt to come up with such a brilliant meta.

  8. Giovanni P. says:

    I had thought about looking up scavengers, but the idea of replacing them in the phrases didn’t occur to me. A miss for me, which I shall have to rectify next month.

  9. mps says:

    the repeated occurrences of Cu, Ba, and Se sent me down a chemistry rabbit hole for a little bit, trying to find other elements hidden in theme answers. then somehow “culture vulture” jumped out at me and i was finished in two minutes. glad i solved it, and relieved i didn’t waste hours on a dead end.

  10. Evan says:

    Never heard of the phrase CULTURE VULTURE. I gave up on the “look for scavengers” angle when, after noting the rhyme between CULTURE and VULTURE, nothing else worked for the other entries.

    Like Garrett, I figured we were supposed to add up the “take X of what you find” values to get either a 15- or 18-letter entry, but I couldn’t come up with anything that made reasonable sense. I went with 666 — because I have no idea why. Maybe because the digits add up to 18? (NUMBER or SYMBOL OF THE BEAST is unfortunately 16 rather than 15 letters.)

    Still, a very tough but fair meta. I just never cottoned to it.

    • Likewise. CULTURE VULTURE and THE DAY OF THE JACKAL were complete unknowns to me; a LAUGHING HYENA is certainly a thing I know of, but it’s not exactly a standout phrase; and EATING CROW and ROCKY RACOON just didn’t come to mind to me. I did think of the ‘scavenger’ angle from the title, but I didn’t think of changing the last words to scavengers.

      So in the end, not really my in my wheelhouse, but it was a perfectly fair (if somewhat challenging) meta.

      I did love the grid, though—super-clean 70-worder, which correctly clued me to the fact that there was nothing relevant in the grid besides the theme answers.

  11. Jon says:

    I’m new to this whole meta crosswords world. Meaning I’ve only been trying them out for the past few months. Weeks 1 & 2 I can do but I’m still not able to figure out weeks 3 & 4.

    I wasn’t able to figure out the substitution key like you all so I thought this week’s puzzle was worthy of week 4. Perhaps if I stick with it I’ll one day be able to solve these later month entries.

  12. Ale M says:

    I got this one eventually, but I was stuck early on because I too thought it would be a 15-letter (or 18-letter) answer. Because of the references to black and red in the clues, I thought the answer might be RED SKY AT MORNING (or THE RED SKY AT MORNING), and I tried to back solve from there. Never back solve! It never works!

  13. Pj says:

    “Never back solve.” So true. I figured the meta was a 15 or 18- word clue, so I first found an ominous sign that contained the number of letters asked for in each clue (“take _ of what you find.”). I found, “Seeing a black dog,” and it fit, taking the N G from Eating Raoul, the DE from The Day of the Dead, E from Culture Club IGS from Laughing Disease and CKBALOD from Rocky Balboa. Seemed farfetched because I couldn’t reconcile the 2 or 5 from TDOTD answer. But it fit, albeit not a familiar omen. And wrong to boot.

  14. Scott says:

    I’m feeling stupid these days. I am a member of MENSA yet I cannot grok these late-month metas. I love this blog, but I always feel like Everybody Is Getting These Except Me. Oh well, I guess I’ll keep trying! Anyway, thanks Matt!

  15. Hey, Scott, that’s why I keep a framed copy of an over-twenty-year-old Dilbert cartoon on my desk — search for 02/03/1992

  16. Amy L says:

    A pox on all 124 who got this right! I thought the theme answers were five icky things: cannibalism, death, disease, rockiness, and for culture I kept thinking of the crosswordese “agar,” so I thought of all the icky things cultured in a Petri dish. I found three associated scavengers–vulture, hyena, and raccoon–but I didn’t think of Culture Vulture so I didn’t realize you just had to change the last word. I kept wanting the crow to be associated with the Day of the Dead and I couldn’t come up with a scavenger for Eating Raoul. I also thought the meta would be 15 or 18 letters.

    I keep thinking I’m getting better at these puzzles, but every week there’s a whole new trick.

    It was a great puzzle and I enjoyed seeing the O’Keeffe and Monet pictures from #303 again. Matt’s clueing is often a lot of the fun.

  17. Matt Gaffney says:

    Low raters: as usual, how about some specific feedback? I truly want to know. It helps me not at all without specifics. Thanks!

  18. dave glasser says:

    I got really tied up by the fact that both EATING RAOUL and LAUGHING DISEASE were cannibalism-related. Did Culture Club have a song about cannibals? Did Rocky fight a cannibal in some sequel I never saw? Took me a while to give up on that one.

  19. Norm H says:

    This was the first Week 4 I have gotten in quite a while. Nice feeling.

    I was helped by the fact that The Day of the Jackal is one of my two favorite novels of all time (the other being the The Great Gatsby, featuring scavengers of a different sort). Good to get JACKAL first, because the identical 2nd and 5th letters confirmed I was on the right track. From there it all flowed, although for some reason I had to Google a list of scavengers to see CROW.

    I’m with Matt on the layout — not often we get a MGWCC grid that looks like a themeless.

  20. Carl H says:

    I haven’t been solving Matt’s metas for more than a few months, but this was the most satisfying one I’ve had the pleasure to meet so far: imaginatively conceived and masterfully executed, despite steep engineering challenges. The red herrings, intended or not, noted by others are part of the solving drama, and only enhance the AHA moment when (and if?) it finally arrives. I give it a solid 5 and can only hope that subsequent metas will make that seem too high. Great fun.

  21. Abide says:

    Great puzzle and grid; inelegant review. Took me two days to get away from the chemistry and anagram angles already mentioned. Also “Take x” had me more focused on taking the xth letter away, or trying to spell something with other x letters.

    I stumbled into the answer by getting distracted and trying to come up with my own scavenger theme for a future puzzle. I had COYOTEUGLY, DAYOFTHEJACKAL, and when I wrote down LAUGHINGHYENA I thought, “now that looks familiar”.

    I still had to back solve off the ?AVE?. I give this puzzle 4.89 because crows and ravens are in the same genus.

  22. Jim S says:

    I fully bought into the scavenger hunt angle and, with 3 of the 5 being movie titles, I was scouring IMDB for information about different “takes” (as in, “Rocky Balboa, scene 5, take 7”). Figured that a week 4 might be so complex that significant IMDB or Google scouring could be required. Couldn’t escape that world. After reading the solution, it’s definitely a solid meta – not sure if I should be discouraged or pleased that I went in a more complex direction. Maybe I’m starting to get the hang of this stuff even as I miss the hard ones.

    At least I discovered why the final Rocky is called “Rocky Balboa” instead of “Rocky VI”!

  23. Jon says:

    Matt, I found your site via my Crosswords app on my iPhone. It appears to be made by Anyway, your crosswords appeared on it but whenever I tried to make an entry, it wouldn’t allow me. That made me Google your name & then I found your website.

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