Solving time: 39:25, nearly 40 minutes under average with relatively few cheats. Fácil.
AMES (41A: Hawkeye State city) is one of the entries in today’s puzzle. But besides a space-grant research university and the birth-site of the world’s first electronic computer, this college town boasts relatively little. Oh, it’s also home to the largest federal animal disease center in the US. But besides that, there’s really nothing that spectacular about this town; its downtown main street carries that same brand of dreary charm as any other in the country. It’s a convenient crossword answer, much like some of the answers in today’s puzzle feel like they belong in a crossword more than they do in a real-life context. There are some landmarks here and there, but other than that, the grid is just a passing attraction.
By landmarks, I mean AZALEA TREE (15A: Colorful ornamental with a trunk), which is obscure but in a delightful way and sounds like just about the prettiest thing that anybody could ever have in his garden.
I want that.
Reading Rex Parker’s blogpost on today’s puzzle, I was once again struck by the arbitrary nature of his evaluations; what qualifies a certain answer to be “clever” or “enjoyable,” given that only a clue and not an answer can ever possibly be a pun? Does such an answer have to have lots of “high-value” letters – in other words, letters like “X” and “Z” that score you more points on Scrabble? Rex mentioned that he thought there were too many “adjective-noun” combinations in today’s long answers; METAL STAMP (12D: Imprinting tool) and RUMBLE SEAT (57A: Old-fashioned auto feature) satisfy that pattern, for example. But what’s wrong with adjective-noun two-word phrases? It seems totally groundless to discriminate against them. I think that answers with bounce or spice consist of rare-but-common words. What do I mean by that? SMOKY TOPAZ has some nice bite to it because of the cool sound of the phrase in general and the rare-but-common nature of the word “topaz”; in other words, the word topaz hardly comes up in our day-to-day lives, but it sounds familiar to all of us because we’ve definitely seen it before somewhere. It sounds exotic, but imminently accessible. That rare-but-common vibe should characterize all the long answers in themeless puzzles, in my opinion. Phrases like ART BOARD (20A: Backing for a cartoonist) because both of the words inside them are too ordinary. Sure, if you juxtapose them together, they might result in a semi-obscure combination, but the sum of the parts isn’t worth much more than the parts themselves in this case.
What else? 1A: Like a Navy seal (WATERTIGHT) was a funny pun; notice how the letters in “seal” aren’t capitalized, meaning that the word isn’t referring to the special operations force but instead any type of substance that binds two things together. That clue, coupled with its adjacent across – 11A: Tall tale producer (IMAX, whose screens are really tall) – resulted in a fairly humorous top row. But DTEN (18A: Battleship guess) was arbitrary af, given that it’s just a random spot on the “Battleship” board, and references to ANSON Williams (22A: __ Williams, Potsie player on “Happy Days”) and ’50s cowboy character HONDO (42A: John Wayne title role) reminded me that Will Shortz and his crossword constructors are from the STONE AGE (50A: Primitive). OK, maybe not the STONE AGE, but at least several generations ago.
It’s only been six days since the last mention of MERINO (31A: Quality wool source) and nine days since that of Edmond DANTES (43D: Edmond __, the Count of Monte Cristo). Where’s the originality??
Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld