MGWCC #669

crossword 3:44 
meta DNF 


hello and welcome to episode #669 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Easy As A-B-C”. for this week 4 puzzle, the instructions tell us that we are looking for a five-letter historic place name. okay. what are the theme answers? well, i have no idea. let’s see if we can figure it out together! by which i mean, of course, let’s see (together) if i can figure it out (alone) while i write this post. you’re not really helping, you know that?

there are only two long answers in the grid: {1935 title role for Katharine Hepburn} ALICE ADAMS (a movie i do not know, based on a booth tarkington book i do know of but have not read) and {Putting camouflage over} DISGUISING. the latter does seem like it might possibly relate to a meta mechanism, but it’s not very specific about how the theme might be disguised.

the grid is unusual beyond its lack of long entries. the word count is 82, somewhat higher than you normally see in a 15×15 grid. and there are some areas of the fill which do not appear very constrained, yet contain some pretty iffy entries. like that little 3×4 corner in the upper right does not need to have A CAR crossing AAM and YRS unless there’s something thematic necessitating at least one of those; changing A CAR to ACRE would produce ARM and YES instead, which would be a clear improvement on all three entries. the symmetrically opposite corner has DPS, III, and SLC as downs, none of them lovely.

actually, the very first weird thing i noticed about the puzzle was before i had finished solving the grid, and it’s {It may evoke sympathy} SAD LOOK at 45a. that’s because i originally had written BOXES instead of {Seating in opera houses} LOGES, so i tried SAD BOOK, which also fits the clue and is at least as much of a thing as SAD LOOK. of course, that X did not work in the crossing answer (DISGUISING), but beyond that, i’m not sure anything special is going on here with alternate answers to clues. maybe PENCILS is an alternate answer to {Some graffiti artists use them} STENCILS, but that seems a little dubious.

the next thing i noticed was in relation to the title—the grid contains the entries {Airborne buzzers} BEES, {Take control of} SEIZE, {47-Across speaker, sometimes} EWE, all homophones of letters (either plural or singular). there’s also {___ on (commands to attack)} SICS for 6. however, this is probably just a coincidence; certainly the fact of a crossword grid containing the entry EWE is nothing noteworthy.

the only thing i’ve noticed so far that i feel pretty sure is relevant is the fact that five different across entries are all related to australia, with none of them mentioning australia explicitly:

  • {Birthplace of Heath Ledger} PERTH, the capital of western australia.
  • {Big bird} EMU, the bird on australia’s national seal.
  • {Ashleigh who’s currently the #1-ranked women’s tennis player in the world} BARTY. i watch a lot of tennis, so i’m certainly familiar with ash BARTY, who is notably australian. however, this could have easily been changed in the grid to the more familiar BARRY (with CATS becoming CARS), so it does seem to be an intentional inclusion.
  • {Spread made from yeast extract} VEGEMITE is just about the most australian thing in existence.
  • {Geelong greeting} G’DAY. i wasn’t familiar with the city of geelong, near melbourne. G’DAY crosses the unusual foreign word {Where grapes grow, in Spanish} VINA at the A; G’DAY/SID/VINA could easily have been changed to GREY/SIR/VINE to clean up the grid down there, so again, this looks important. (however, no possible improvement could have been made on the clue for {“___ & Joon” (1993 rom-com)} BENNY.)

so i think we’re supposed to be thinking about australia, but i really don’t know what the next step is. in the context of australia specifically, perhaps ALICE ADAMS is meant to get us to the town of ALICE springs or the nevil shute novel a town like ALICE, but it’s certainly less clear what to do with DISGUISING.

what about attempting to backsolve? thinking about australian places that have changed names and might be five letters (or have been five letters), the only thing i can come up with is AYERS rock, now called ULURU. or actually, now called uluru/ayers rock. it’s not a bad guess as a hail mary, even if i can’t find anything concrete to suggest it in the grid. there are rather more Y’s than you’d expect in a grid, so that’s something. (A, E, R, and S are all well-represented too, of course, but that’s very much to be expected.) and geographically, it’s close to ALICE springs, or at least closer than anything else.

i thought this might be one of those metas where coloring all the instances of A/Y/E/R/S in the grid produces a picture of ULURU (a type of meta i have utterly failed to solve every time it has appeared as a mgwcc mechanism), but that does not appear to be the case, even with some very determined squinting.

could the meta be based on some kind of correspondence between AYERS <=> ULURU, both five letters? i don’t really know how. there are very few U’s in the grid, but not zero. i don’t see anything that would become a recognizable word if you turned all the A/E/S to U’s.

so this could well be wrong, but as i have nothing else, i’m going to try it. either way, i’d love to hear in the comments section what i missed about this meta, because i feel like there has to be a great deal of thematic material all over the grid and i just can’t figure out what it is or how it’s working.

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30 Responses to MGWCC #669

  1. Mutman says:

    I saw the Australia angle (for A), but also saw British (for B) GDAY, RIZ, OFFAL, AAM and Chinese for C, YAOMING, NIHAO, XIAN PANDA.

    Easy as A-B-C? Not for me.

    Couldn’t get further.


    • pannonica says:

      That’s insane. Kudos to those who got it.

    • Mike says:

      Well that explains a LOT! I’ve noticed that there is a rhythm to the number of correct solutions, which made me think people worked together. But I never imagined there was an internet forum where people could ask for and receive hints!

      • Tony Z says:

        To be clear, that solution was posted after the deadline. While some may occasionally request and be granted a gentle nudge, as a rule the forum does not “work together” or share info.

  2. Magoo says:

    Bad luck, Joon. Same thinking as me, right down to the Hail Mary. Having looked at the answer, I’m thinking: “Wow! 120 people got that?”

    • Abide says:

      I would estimate the “Solo Solve” on this one at around 50.

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        Great guess — it was 47

        • BrainBoggler says:

          In all honesty, that should really be “46 solo solves, and 1 lucky solo guess”. I was nowhere near making the connections that the “true solo solvers” have explained/demonstrated. An hour before the deadline, I only had BABEL and BURMA as my hail mary candidates. Then, my eye caught the RIZ entry in the central area of the grid, and despite knowing Matt’s tendency to shy away from anagrams, I mentally filled in the missing A and E and rearranged to get my third candidate, ZAIRE. While I had been leaning toward BURMA (thinking of timeliness with unrest in Myanmar), I decided to take my chances on submitting the candidate from the other end of the alphabet. It’s really more the feeling of winning a mini-lottery at this point than it is to be undeservedly considered a member of the “solo solves” group. Congrats to all who truly solved this one from A to Z.

  3. Adam Rosenfield says:

    My group found the 5 Australian across entries and the 5 Chinese down entries. The closest thing I found was that the clue [Ball star] at 5D could also refer to either BARTY or YAOMING, and [“I’m trying to subtly get your attention…”] at 58A could arguably refer to either G’DAY or NIHAO. [Objects] at 49D could also refer to VEGEMITE or TOFU but that’s a lot weaker and underspecified. But there were no good alternate clue options I found for PERTH/XIAN and EMU/PANDA.

    The first letters of the corresponding answers for those clues are __BIA, so I submitted NUBIA as my Hail Mary. But the only clues that would give an N or U are [___-picking (petty)], [Hainan hi], [Numbskull], and [Milk container], [They’re next to radii]. None of those work in the slightest, except maybe with a big stretch a panda could be considered a milk container (they’re mammals), but certainly not emus.

    Other things we tried: taking the intersections of the (extended) Australian and Chinese entries (but they sometimes intersect at black squares), taking averages/differences of their clue numbers (but that’s not always an integer), taking averages/differences of their first letters (also not always an integer), and other similar dead ends.

  4. Scout says:

    There are five related entries for Australia: GDAY, PERTH, VEGEMITE, BARTY, and EMU. Five also for China: NIHAO, XIAN, TOFU, YAOMING, and PANDA. Greeting, city, food, athlete, animal. With the title “Easy as A-B-C”, you’re looking for a B country. Back to the grid, where you have OLE, RIZ, ACAR, PILE, and BAA. Change one letter and you have five things that go with Brazil: OLA, RIO, AÇAÍ, PELE, and BOA. The five letters you replaced anagram to ZAIRE. I’m always amazed when a meta clicks for me like this one did.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Thanks, Scout.

      Notice that it’s not a random anagram: you put the Brazilian ones in the same order as the Australian (which are all acrosses) and Chinese (which are all downs): city, animal, athlete, food, greeting.

    • joon says:

      dang, that’s very nice. it’s not an anagram, either—both the australian things and the chinese things go (from top to bottom in the grid) city, animal, athlete, food, greeting, and so you can take the modified brazilian entries in that same order to get Z (from RIZ/RIO), A (BAA/BOA), I (PILE/PELE), R (ACAR/ACAI), E (OLE/OLA).

      • I just kept staring at the tidiness of it all – the five Australian clues all across – in order. City, animal, athlete, food, greeting. Then the Chinese clues were all down. In order. It was so incredible. That AND the amazing WSJ this week, Matt – WOW.

  5. Alex Bourzutschky says:

    Frustrating! I saw the Australian things, saw the Chinese things, then began to try to piece together Brazilian things. I even penciled in “ola” as a greeting and had Pele among my list of athletes, but I did not look at the grid too closely. I did see that “ola” was similar to OLE but did not look for Pele. I had also noted earlier that it was strange to see ACAR when ACAI is far more common in crosswords, and also that RIZ could have easily been LIZ.

    But no, instead I thought about other B countries, since while Brazil lies between China and Australia in population, Brunei lies between them physically, and there are many other B countries out there. I spent a while feeling confident about Endive for Belgium, funnily enough.

    I had only seen the full Australia/China pattern Sunday night; perhaps if I had found it a day or two earlier I would have tied up the loose ends. Alas, 2021 is faring much worse for me than 2020. Very good mechanism on this one.

  6. Hector says:

    I Hail Maried correctly, having come up only with BURMA and ZAIRE as possibilities, and BURMA being too much still in currency to be aptly clued that way. I think this was yet another case (for me) where paying too much attention to the title early on was a road-block. Great puzzle, and props to the solvers!

  7. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 133 correct entries this week, of which 47 were Solo solves.

    Intended solving path was:

    1) Notice lots of Australian and Chinese references
    2) Realize there are five for each country, and consist of a relevant city, animal, athlete, food, and greeting
    3) Realize that those five are in that specific order, on the Acrosses for the Australian and on the Downs for the Chinese
    4) From the title, realize you might be looking for a B-country, and one big enough to have a city, animal, athlete, food, and greeting that people might know
    5) Brazil is the most obvious choice, but no RIO, PELE, etc.
    6) Wait — RIZ across center, PILE in the lower-left, then find BOA (from BAA) for the animal, ACAI (from ACAR) for the food, and OLE (from OLA) for the greeting, and placed symmetrically in the grid as a possibly-helping hand
    7) Put those replaced letters not in grid order but in the order of the Aussie/China refs (city-animal-athlete-food-greeting) and get contest answer ZAIRE

    • Maggie W. says:

      First thing I noticed (before the Seder) was the parallel between “Geelong greeting” and “Hainan hi” (considerate of you to have alliteration in both!). Then (after the Seder) noticed PERTH and wondered “Is there a Chinese city in here, too?” And then I was off to the races…

    • pgw says:

      Step (1) took me like 60 hours because I’m an idiot. The rest flowed pretty well, but was not easy! I considered Brunei as being “on the way” from Australia to China, but always had the feeling that the B country had to be Brazil for the reasons you mention. RIZ and PILE were definitely the first two I found, OLE next (I had Rio, Pele and Ola written on my paper before I even thought to look at the grid), then ACAR (did a lot of googling of Brazilian foods before remembering that crosswords often clue ACAI with a reference to Brazil) – knew I had to be looking for an A to complete Zaire, and still had to scour the entire grid before I found BAA/BOA.

      Great puzzle, very satisfying solve after feeling totally hopeless for a day or so.

      Also can we pause to note that Jangler apparently missed another one, and we now have two co-leaders whose ONLY miss was the insane 4-solver #296? Kudos to j and jeremiahsjohnson!

    • Seth says:

      PARTY/BARTY was the major indicator to me that there were off-by-one-letter theme answers hiding in the grid.

    • lilroser says:

      FWIW, this was *exactly* my solving path…with a big delay between steps 4 and 5 !

  8. Charles Stevens says:

    Snuck in three minutes under the deadline with a carefully considered, meticulously deduced answer. No of course it wasn’t a wild-ass guess, how dare you even suggest that.

  9. joon says:

    i should have seen the chinese entries, i think—four of them were quite obvious in retrospect. the one that is not obvious to me is TOFU, which, yes, originated in china… but i do not think of TOFU as a chinese food. it’s a staple of many east asian and southeast asian cuisines. the english word TOFU itself comes from japanese, although very likely the japanese borrowed it from the chinese word doufu.

    it’s a pretty weak excuse, i know. i wonder if the real reason i didn’t notice them is that i was looking more at the acrosses than the downs.

  10. Small Wave Dave says:

    I had my fingers crossed that BURMA, if not Matt’s intended answer, would be at least a marginally acceptable alternate. Fits between Australia and China alphabetically and geographically. And I guess it’s historic enough; heck, I’m old enough to remember when Zaire was the new name!
    Wish I’d thought to consider altered grid entries instead of just raw ones like SLC, CATS, BEES, EWE, ORCA, OFFAL (sure, it’s food!) and CYS, which didn’t complete the list of five things.

    • John Berry says:

      Oh man, I was betting on BURMA too!! The geography of it (between Australia and China) acted as a sort of “false click” for me.

  11. Dave says:

    I got fairly close. I got the Australian and Chinese things. I looked for Brazilian (and other B county) things that might somehow spell something if placed in the same order. I thought about Pele and Rio de Janeiro. I didn’t consider Rio since it’s not actually the city’s name. I Googled “Brazilian animals” and “Brazilian foods” without seeing boa or acai. (Acai, to me, is just crosswordese; I didn’t know it was Brazilian.) I probably wouldn’t have gotten the last step even if I had the right list of Brazilian things.

  12. john says:

    I didn’t do the puzzle until yesterday. I had no chance. Unbelievably wonderful meta, just wish I had gotten it.

  13. TRidgway says:

    Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one taken in by ULURU. At one point I wondered if “A-B-C” was supposed to represent a pattern of five letters (including the blanks). ULURU kind of maybe aligned with that, because the Us are in positions 1, 3, and 5. Wrong as wrong can be, but at least I wasn’t the only one!

  14. Mikie says:

    Wow. Noticed the Aussie and Chinese entries, but never snapped to needing a B country. D’oh! If Matt gets any trickier I’m going to see about getting cloned as a quantum computer.

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