MGWCC #179 -- Friday, Nov. 4th, 2011 -- "College Knowledge"

Good afternoon, crossword fans -- welcome to Week 179 of my contest. If you're new to the contest and would like to enter, please see the site FAQ on the left sidebar for instructions.


Just 13 solvers puzzled out the extremely difficult (unfairly so, some claimed -- more below) final challenge in H40, "A Time to Cull." This left us with only seven surviving tribal members for the month, whose names are listed below.

Solvers were given a morbid scenario where the mushroom-eating shaman was supposedly leading the tribe to new hunting grounds. There were no overt hints in the grid, so where to search?

Many solvers noticed a bunch of numbers in the clues (18 in total) and that many of those clues seemed either random or forced. At 47-across, for instance, we had {82 and 87, for octogenarians} cluing AGES. Why those two ages? And at 35-across GIGI was clued as {Winner in '58}. That was indeed the year that film won Best Picture, but why wasn't the full year used in the clue? Several other clues with numbers were similarly stilted, sending red flags up in solvers' minds.

But what to do with those numbers? That was the tough part, especially since there were no hints in the grid about it. Via several subtle nudges plus trial and error, successful tribal members realized that those 18 numbers in the clues refer to words in the contest story posted on Friday. So the "1,2,3,4" in 1-across referred to the words 1-4 in that story, which were THE WISE SHAMAN LEADS. The next two numbers in the clues are at 16-across, where 202 and 212 point to the 202nd and 212th words in the story, which are YOUR and TRIBE.

In full, the 18 numbers in the clues spell out the following message:


Here is the full list of clue numbers and their corresponding words:

1-a {"1,2,3,4 (Sumpin' New)" singer} = THE WISE SHAMAN LEADS
16-a {202 or 212} = YOUR TRIBE
29-a {"227" actress} = TO
35-a {Winner for '58} = STARVATION
47-a {82 and 87, for octogenarians} = WITH HIS
48-a {"101 Dalmatians" voice} = MUSHROOM
54-a {First of 26} = VISIONS
4-d {52} = CRUSH
10-d ('55 Chevy, e.g.} = HIS
25-d {blink-182, e.g.} = SKULL
34-d (144 things} = WITH
54-d (Got 100 on} = A
60-d ("99" group} = ROCK

Was this meta unfairly difficult or at least insufficiently hinted at? Long and heated discussion about that here, but solvers' main complaints with the puzzle and meta were:

1) The weirdness of the numbers in clues may have been obvious, but there were no instructions about what to do with those numbers. Solvers were forced to use trial and error, which some viewed as inelegant. COUNTERARGUMENT: although there were no explicit (or even implicit) instructions there were some subtle hints, which several of the 13 who solved the meta mentioned using: the extremely stilted language of the story, for example, or the numbers themselves (see counterargument to #3).

2) You didn't really even have to solve the puzzle to get the meta, since the meta was hidden in the clues and story only. COUNTERARGUMENT: there was no way to know that before solving the puzzle and meta, so who cares? Besides, there's no rule that the meta must include the grid, though it will 98+% of the time.

3) There were a huge number of things you could do with those numbers, so I should have included a hint. COUNTERARGUMENT: there weren't that many things, and some were ruled out. For example, the numbers couldn't be pointing at squares in the grid, since 227 is the highest number and there are only 225 squares in the grid.

Many more arguments for and against the puzzle and meta at the Crossword Fiend link above. In special months I aim for between 25 and 40 winners; the number of winners of the four special months so far in MGWCC history are 36 (Oct. 2009), 36 (May 2010), 50 (February 2011) and now 7 for October 2011.

So obviously that's low. I'd have preferred a higher number (I estimated 50 people would get MGWCC #179) but that's the way it shook out; perhaps a small hint in the title would have nudged more solvers towards the trick.

I'm torn on whether the meta was "unfair" -- that's about the worst adjective you can apply to a meta in my view, since it implies that solver-constructor trust has been violated. Solvers invest their time and energy into tough metas under the belief that the meta is reasonably gettable.

Since 13 solvers did get this one I don't think it can be argued that it wasn't reasonably gettable (especially since this was not a meta where one could successfully guess from a limited number of possibilities; all 13 fully grokked it). Still, it's a thin line to tread between a challenging meta and an unfair one, and I do regret that some solvers feel I stepped over the line with this one. It's just the second time in 178 metas that I can recall solvers throwing the word "unfair" around, and I certainly got the message.

Are the special prizes this month (details below) penance for overshooting a bit on this last meta? Only the Wise Shaman knows for sure. But thanks for playing the Hunt for Food October -- the tribe did survive, in some form. Perhaps we shall hear from them again in the future.

This week's winner, whose name was chosen at random from the 13 correct entries received, is Neville Fogarty of Lexington, Ky. Neville has selected as his prize an autographed copy of TV Crosswords.


The following seven solvers survived the Hunt for Food October:

Ross Beresford -- Kingsley, Penna.

Todd Etter -- Alexandria, Va.

Jeffrey Harris -- Norwalk, Conn.

Robert Hartford -- Stow, Mass.

Brent Holman -- San Francisco, Calif.

David Sullivan -- Swampscott, Mass.

John L. Wilson -- Shoreview, Minn.

Congratulations to our seven surviving members. The Wise Shaman sends greetings from the Great Beyond.


Jill Palmer writes:

We're in day 3 of a power outage from the freak October snowstorm. My kitten enjoyed my only hard copy of the puzzle, making it really hard to work on it, let alone by candlelight.


Over the month of November I'll be awarding two weekly book prizes instead of the regular one. In addition to MGWCC pen, pencil and notepad set, weekly winners during this period will win a copy of either of my two new books, 20 Minute On-the-Road Crosswords or 20 Minute While-You-Wait Crosswords.


This week's contest answer is one of the 50 top universities in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. If you're not familiar with this list, find it here. E-mail it to me at crosswordcontest@gmail.com by Tuesday at noon ET. Please put the contest answer college in the subject line of your e-mail.

To print the puzzle out, click on the image below and hit "print" on your browser. To solve using Across Lite either solve on the applet below or download the free software here, then join the Google Group (1,590 members now!) here. To solve with friends at Team Crossword, click here.

Solve well, and be not led astray by words intended to deceive.


Anonymous said...

"You didn't really even have to solve the puzzle to get the meta, since the meta was hidden in the clues and story only. COUNTERARGUMENT: there was no way to know that before solving the puzzle and meta, so who cares?"

For the record, I do, a lot. From my perspective, a metapuzzle is a puzzle which uses the results of solving one or more other puzzles; if it just involves parsing the initial puzzle you were given in a different way, it's not really a meta, and it's likely to be less satisfying.

And just to be clear, this doesn't necessarily mean a "meta" that breaks this rule is unfair, broken, or objectively bad. It's just extremely unlikely that I will personally enjoy it.

pgw said...

Would you believe I solved last week's meta but refused to submit an answer because I did not want to aid and abet a homicide? No? Okay, you're right. I didn't. But hey - "super hard" is not the same thing as unfair. Congrats to the solvers and thanks for saving the tribe.