MGWCC #593

crossword 3:49 
meta DNF 


hello and welcome to episode #593 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Union Meeting”. for this week 2 puzzle, matt instructs us that the contest answer is 1 of 50. what does that mean? well, given the title and the fact that the central across answer is {It may touch Sonora or Saskatchewan, say} BORDER STATE, i’m assuming that the answer is one of the 50 states, and he didn’t want to say “state” in the instructions because it’s in the grid. fine.

so, what are the theme answers? well, that’s a very good question. normally we’d look at the longest across answers, but in this grid pattern, there aren’t any other long across answers, and besides, BORDER STATES suggests looking at the borders of the grid. it could just be the top and bottom rows (if we treat the grid as an approximate map of the u.s., then the states that would border canada or mexico are at the top and bottom), or it could be all four borders of the grid. but darned if i know what to do with them. the last across answer, {They beat the Giants last Sunday} VIKINGS, certainly suggests a border state (minnesota), but it’s the only one.

several other observations, in no particular order:

  • i don’t think this is relevant, but the second-longest answer in the grid is the central down answer {Subtle message} UNDERTONE. in a different meta, this might be suggesting to look underneath “tones” somehow.
  • the grid is slightly asymmetric: there is a black square in the northwest corner, but not in the southeast corner. that is certainly unusual, but what does it signify? if he had wanted to maintain standard symmetry, matt certainly could have changed the S in the southeast corner to a black square, making VIKING and FLANK instead of VIKINGS and FLANKS. the fact that he chose not to suggests that the S was needed there for some reason. similarly, the weird RAFF at 43a could easily have been RASP or RAMP, so i’m guessing that the F was needed.
  • speaking of these weird NW/SE corners, the fact that 1a is {Vowelless praise for a chef} MMMMMM is also pretty striking. in fact, the letter clusters in both of those corners are just plain odd. MMMMMM and MANNA, that’s weird. you can spell WISCONSIN from the cluster in the southwest (mostly SCHWINN but also using some of OMAKASE and WISEMAN). CONVICT in the northeast suggests CONNECTICUT, but LOUELLA and UPSILON below it have almost all the letters of ILLINOIS (except for one I). and the LAY IT IN/IN A TANK/VIKINGS stack in the southeast has weirdly many I’s and A’s and N’s, but no E’s. in fact, the grid overall is heavy on I/L/M/N at the expense of some of the usual E/R/S.
  • the black square formations on either side of BORDER STATE are in the shape of little utahs. this is fairly typical (almost mandatory) when you have a central 11-letter theme answer, so i don’t think it’s clueful, but utah certainly is a state, so it’s worth noting.
  • you can spell NEBRASKA from a relatively compact clump of contiguous squares in the southwest corner (the NA of ANAEMIC, ERBA of BEERBASH, and SK of SKEW). i tried to find other things like this, but i couldn’t quite get contiguous groupings for ILLINOIS in the northeast, MARYLAND in the northwest, or (AR)KANSAS in the southeast. in the vicinity of NEBRASKA there are also the letters of IOWA and WISCONSIN but again, not quite contiguously.
  • two-letter postal abbreviations are often relevant in state metas, but i didn’t see anything to suggest those in this puzzle. CONVICT is CO + NV + CT with an extra I, but that’s about as far as that goes.

i really don’t know what to look at next, and i’m pretty bummed because this is only a week 2, but i have to admit that looking at these letter clusters is pretty unsatisfying so far. i’m just going to punt this week and hope that MINNESOTA is itself somehow the answer. blergh.

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45 Responses to MGWCC #593

  1. pgw says:

    There are 49 squares around the outside (or “border”) of the puzzle. In those squares are the initial letters of 49 states, but there’s no D for (fittingly, the First State) Delaware.

  2. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon. 176 right answers, so clearly a tough Week 3 or an easyish Week 4 and not a Week 2.

    The answer is DELAWARE, since the 49 letters on the grid’s border are the first letters of 49 states. Only one missing is the solitary D, so has to be Delaware (also the first state, so its place would fittingly be in that first, asymmetrically-placed box).

    I thought BORDER STATE plus the title and the MMMMMM entry would make the idea easier to spot than it was.

    • pgw says:

      This one was definitely in the SAD category. After I figured it out I thought “yeah, that’s pretty simple, week 2 seems about right,” but while I was trying to figure it out it seemed impossible. Solving numbers confirm it was pretty tough!

    • I think what made it very hard for me to spot was that BORDER STATE and MMMMMM *were* strong signals, except I picked up a lot of noise from them.

      Whenever I think of U.S. states and letters, I immediately go to the two-letter postal abbreviations. I never think of them as single letters. Seeing MA, MI, MT, and ME all extending from the border in the northwest seemed very promising, as did many other different two-letter state abbreviations in the other corners, but they didn’t lead anywhere.

      It’s one of those metas where it’s easy to get ideas that are close to the right path but aren’t quite right — ideas that aren’t so far off that you abandon them entirely, but not close enough that you can easily understand how to tweak them and find the right answer. A really tough line to walk between easy and difficult, I guess.

      But just to be clear: This is a brilliant meta, even if it wasn’t a Week 2. Just knowing that a 15×15 border can be made up of 49 or 50 letters feels like a cool discovery on its own (it’s something I’d never noticed, anyway).

      • DBraun91 says:

        Agreed that there were a lot of distractions. Got caught up on all the two letter postal codes throughout the puzzle. Hard to see past NEUT , CONVICT and others. Seeing the solution reminds me that metas are always more straightforward than my mind wants them to be. Fair but I definitely overthought it.

    • Joe Eckman says:

      Awesome construction, Matt! My path to the solve had a few detours through the multiple 2 letter postal codes, and it was hard to quiet the voice in my head that was mocking me for not picking up on the week 2 clues. Thankfully a quiet moment allows me to reset, focus on the M cluster and count the border squares. When I got 49, i knew I had it. And when it turned out to be Delaware, I chuckled because i live less than 10 miles from the DE “border”….

  3. Amanda says:

    Phew. Glad to know I’m not the only one who was stumped.

  4. Mutman says:

    Never got there. Hung up on 2 letter state abbreviations. Thought perhaps a slimming down to the actual border states (Canada and Mexico bound) would help. Did not.

    Noticed the asymmetry and tossed in border state Washington as a Hail Mary, because that’s where the odd square pointed to.

  5. Dan Seidman says:

    The top two across entries on the right side both have the unusual property of starting with the first three letters of a state name and ending with that state’s postal code. It would have been great if that were part of the meta.

  6. Norm H says:

    I tried most of what Joon did, and similarly got nowhere. I also noticed that MADEIN is composed entirely of postal abbreviations, but again nothing.

    Interesting construction, but even seeing the solution here doesn’t feel like a “pop” to me. So, harkening back to an NYT puzzle from last week, I must say I’m not REALAWED by this one.

    • Terpagator says:

      I also noticed MADEIN as the only word comprised entirely of postal abbreviations. Since DE had the states MA and IN on its border, I submitted Delaware. What is this feeling of getting the right answer but with the wrong mechanism?

      • Matthew G. says:

        If you solve MGWCC for years, that will happen to you sooner or later. Buy your intuitions a drink and feel not the slightest guilt.

  7. john says:

    I got this really late, but when i did, i felt i was being lazy/obtuse in my solving because it wasn’t that hard. Changing my mind now. I did figure all the Ms in the first line were the beginning of states, but i looked into the grid to complete the 2-letter state code, either the letter next to it or the end of the grid entry (as with most states). It made sense in a lot of cases, but not all the way through so i was stumped for a good bit.

    The fact Vikings was in there, and all the Ms, made me think pretty strongly this was Minnesota and i was basically back-solving to prove it. It was the Ws that finally spilled it for me. All those Ws seemed odd with the Ms. So i checked the number of W-starting states, saw they matched the Ws on the border and I thought, wow, could these *all* be the first letters of the states around the grid? Sorry, but i find that amazingly cool. Nice job, Matt!

    • pgw says:

      As I mention above I had the same “this wasn’t that hard” feeling in retrospect, but yeah, it was.

      My path to the solve was thinking about the actual border states. At one point I thought to wonder how many northern border states there are. You can’t really count Wisconsin, and you probably shouldn’t count Ohio or Pennsylvania, but if you count all three of those it’s thirteen, same as the number of squares along the top row of the grid. Put that together with the asymmetry, which you know Matt would never do not-on-purpose, and eventually I thought “oh, are there the right number of squares around the *entire* perimeter?”

      The sense that the mechanism would involve postal codes was a tough rabbit hole to get out of; they’re so common in puzzles, and so ingrained if you’re thinking of representing U.S. states succinctly, and of course in a crossword grid they are bound to pop up all over the place.

  8. Steve Thurman says:

    Usually when I see the answer for a Week 2 that I didn’t get, it’s either a “how did I miss that?” or a “never was gonna get that” (usually because it has to do with geography). This was somehow in between those two extremes.

  9. Seth C says:

    I wonder if anyone picked Delaware based on the instructions alone, which asked for “1 of 50”?

    • Mutman says:

      My second Hail Mary. Unfortunately my first one (see above) ended the game.

    • jefe says:

      I really don’t like puzzles (especially non-Week 1) where the answer is strongly implied by the title or prompt (see also “Why Can’t We” a couple months ago where the answer was “Be Friends”) because it’s no fun to guess it off that without having any idea on the actual meta.

      I specifically didn’t guess Delaware because “1 of 50” representing the first of 50 states is too Week 0.5.

  10. Garrett says:

    BORDER STATES has an entirely different context during the Civil War. These were Union states that did not oppose slavery. The border states during the Civil War were the slave states that didn’t leave the Union. These states included Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. West Virginia, which separated from Virginia during the war, was also considered a border state.

    Of these, only Delaware is in the grid as DE (reading down), twice.

    I took a wrong turn early on by thinking that the grid had all the postal codes for states on the Canadian border save one. It turns out all but three are there. So I moved away from that and looked to the Union border because of the title.

    • Abide says:

      Yes, my first focus was on those five states, which made it hard to get away from Matt’s home state of WV.

    • Jim Schooler says:

      With Garrett’s help I went along these same lines and came up with Delaware. In the comments I even thanked Matt for what turned out to be an interesting lesson in Civil War history!

  11. Andrew Bradburn says:

    I knew that if I could figure out the reason for the one black square in the upper left corner, I would find the answer. Unfortunately, all I could think of is that the S in the lower right was needed so that KS could be made with the letter above it. Along with SC in the lower left and CT in the upper right making for border (corner) states. Too many other state abbreviations throughout the grid and along the edges, it never occurred to me to just use the first letters of states. Also with ‘undertone’ as the central down, and lots of MIs, LAs, TIs and one RE in the grid meant for lots of background noise.

    Looking at the meta instructions after the fact, I see that it is a “The Last of Sheila” type hint, so obvious it is right in front of you without you being aware of it. Delaware not being just 1 (state) of 50, but #1 of 50. I am amazed at both Matt’s ability to continually come up with new ways to create a meta, and solvers’ abilities to think in so many different ways about these puzzles.

  12. Seth says:

    Holy impossible, Batman. I never would have gotten this in a million years. I got hung up on two-letter abbreviations, obviously. I think, for this to be a week 2, it needed to have SOMETHING hinting at single letters. The title of the puzzle could have done that. As it stands, the title is totally useless, because the central answer is a better hint. “Union Meeting” means nothing.

  13. Jeff M says:

    Not sure how one could construct a better meta than this (and I was nowhere close). Could have used a bigger hint from the title – 5 *s

  14. joon says:

    hoo boy. count this as the latest in a long line of metas i have missed that hinge on using just first initials to stand for things that are not normally abbreviated by their initials.

  15. Kristin says:

    The central entry, BORDER STATE, prompted me to immediately look at the border of the puzzle. The row of Ms in the upper left was clearly unusual and it brought to mind all the states that start with M. I thought, “He couldn’t have possibly built the entire border out of initial letters of states!” Then I counted them and there were 49. My mind was blown that Matt fit all those letters so elegantly around the border. The whole thing only took me a few minutes to figure out because it seemed to jump out with BORDER STATE right in the middle. It told us in no uncertain terms where to look (in my opinion!).

  16. PATXC says:

    Hahaha! I tried to take the states’ postal codes and make sense of which ones were there. There was no rhyme or reason to that theory. I sort of gave up, so I took the title, Union Meeting, to mean union hall. With HA above the OR in BORDERSTATE and LL lined up below, I submitted OREGON as the answer. Makes sense, no?

  17. Jack Sullivan says:

    I was distracted by the crossing of UNDERTONE and BORDERSTATE. I kept searching for letters next to states or under tones. When that went nowhere, I considered Delaware (1 of 50) but was unable to justify that answer in the grid so a DNF for me.

    Great meta though. Thanks Matt.

  18. Jim S says:

    I fell for the asymmetric trap. Figured it had to be Vikings, which pointed to MN. Further convinced myself using UNDERTONE. MN is a border state “under” the other country, and if you take the far southeastern corner of MN, you can find Toronto (TO) towards the northeast (NE). Yeah, when I submitted it I commented that I was 99% sure I was wrong, but it was better than my other wild guess (Texas, because it’s the only border state “under to Nebraska” – yeah, I know, I’m not smart).

    • Garrett says:

      You are competing against some of the smartest people in the world. Say you solve half of them (and I don’t know) that makes you pretty smart. And Matt Gaffney is perhaps one of the best constructors out there, but for Metas — non pariel — the best

  19. Trerotos says:

    Wow is all I can say. Well done Matt! I was sure Delaware was it based on wording of the clue but could not backsolve to it. Did all of what’s been described here and then some. I was sure that lone black square was significant also but again could not make it work. Glad I am not alone in that!!

  20. Joe Eckman says:

    Speaking of state postal abbreviations, has anyone seen this brilliant stand up bit by Gary Gulman?

    • Brian Cross says:

      Such a funny, well-crafted bit. It isn’t often that a comedian can take a dry, academic topic like this and make it hilarious. His HBO special The Great Depresh is excellent.

  21. RAD26 says:

    Although I am sure joon would not agree, I like his explanations better on the rare occasions when he misses vs. when he gets the meta. He is SO clever and SO analytical. And of course if he misses I have no shot so I take some comfort. Great write up and terrific puzzle.

  22. Hector says:

    I saw lot of two-letter state abbreviations, and decided to count them. There are something like 65 in the puzzle. To see to what extent that is unusual I dug out a recent puzzle of the same size and counted fewer than half of that. Seeing that the asymmetrical square in the lower-right yielded KS, I was at that point absolutely sure that two-letter abbrevs were the thing and never considered any other possibility. Couldn’t make anything work super well that way, of course. But I had a few solid ways of getting at Connecticut, including the confidence-inspiring “connect = union = meeting,” and the air-tight observation that UNDERTONE could be parsed as “under T-one” and therefore as “under TI” (yeah…), and the letters under vertical TI in the grid are CT. So I was quite understandably outraged when my answer was not accepted.

  23. James says:

    I saw most of the correct hints, then looked up the birth states of several people in the puzzle: Marilu, Schwinn, Louella… all but Tyra Banks were from Illinois.
    So when I looked at Clue 50A [MIL] and took 1A [MMMMMM] literally *out of* it, I was convinced this Week 2 meta was MIL – M = IL, Illinois !

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