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The Kia Rio has been a handy automotive import for crossword constructors, and the recently introduced Kia Niro (65) is an additional boon. I predict that Kia will next produce an electric vehicle called the Orion.
Last week I met some puzzle room entrepreneurs from Canada. Their main product is virtual reality escape room experiences that they sell to franchisees. I tried a demo of one of their rooms. It was the first time I tried VR and after the fifteen-minute adventure I felt queasy for the rest of the afternoon. I did add Oculus Rift (75) to the database. The entrepreneurs also manage an Archery Tag (72) facility in Ottawa. I wonder if that would make me queasy.
I don’t celebrate the holiday, but I bought some Easter candy (75) today — gourmet jelly beans. I also notice sales on bone-in ham (70), and wondered what other bone-in (60) meats are database worthy. I’ve heard ribeyes and filet mignon described as “bone-in.” Based on length, those would be unlikely entries anyway.
JOHN RATITE’S INTERPLANETARY PALOOZA
Players form teams of two and participate in an “Amazing Race”-styled competition that takes place in various fictional planetary systems. Teams pilot spaceships and visit planets where they are given trivia questions. Teams that answer questions correctly receive rewards that help them on the race: fuel, navigation information, weapons that can be used against opponents, etc. Trivia knowledge is the principal skill, though teams can also form alliances and employ strategy to gain an advantage. The main goal in each planetary system is to find a stargate to the next system. The last team to find the stargate in each system is eliminated. The last team to avoid elimination wins the competition.
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Interplanetary Palooza is the third John Ratite trivia game that I organized and presented on the Grey Labyrinth website. Registration opened on February 2, 2005, and the game started a week later with twenty registered teams. Nine months and over 4,000 posts later, the team of Matt Jones and Trip Payne planted a flag on the final planet and were declared the winners. The thread is preserved on the Grey Labyrinth site, albeit with now broken links to images.
The game was richly detailed with countless inside jokes woven into selected trivia questions, planetary system themes, and overall narrative. Shortly after the game concluded I wrote a lengthy post that covering these fine points; the post is on page 104 of the thread. Looking back at Palooza after many years and focusing on the broad strokes, two things remain notable: the size and the drama. Palooza comprised more man-hours and creative content than any other project of my career. I generated material at an even pace throughout the experience, and didn’t think about the total number of trivia questions and planet descriptions I had written until it was all over. The drama largely involved a player with the screen name LoudmouthLee. Lee performed well in the trivia but less so in the social game due to his arrogance and unusually convenient rationales for knowing the answers to difficult questions. At one point he casually mentioned that his non-playing girlfriend helped him with a question. When other teams observed that this was a violation of the “no outside references” rule, Lee claimed a misunderstanding of the rule and I chose to be merciful. LoudmouthLee was eventually eliminated as a result of a sabotage perpetrated by a team that was out of the running but in a rare “kingmaker” position. Lee proclaimed that the sabotage, while not a violation of the rules, was unsportsmanlike and clearly motivated by personal rather than strategic motives. His comments spurred a heated exchange that included insinuations of cheating and favoritism based on real-life friendships between players. The situation was uncomfortable at the time but became an interesting case study on gameplay morality that I could share at cocktail parties.
The size and drama attracted many non-player spectators to the Interplanetary Palooza thread on Grey Labyrinth. It was the first game thread inducted into the Grey Labyrinth hall of fame.
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My Xfinity cable service recently replaced its music channels with the Pandora app. I have a Pandora account but I’ve never been able to train the algorithm to play exactly what I want. I created a station a few years ago that was intended to play contemporary Billboard hits. I tried it out last weekend and discovered that it plays songs that were hits when I created the station, and not hits today. The station also has a tendency to go down rabbit holes. After playing a hip-hop song, it decided to play exclusively hip-hop, establishing that passive listeners are not entitled to variety. I did jot down Brother Ali (65) and Dyme Def (60) for the database, but I wish I could have better way to listen to current top-40 music. Any advice from Pandora experts?
California’s wet winter has produced what news stories are calling a super bloom (70) in desert flora. I’m not sure if this is a regularly used term for the phenomenon, or if it will be an ephemeral buzz-term related to climate like “polar vortex” or “snowpocalypse.”
I added the Michael Masterson book title Ready Fire Aim (70). I’m interested to see if the title phrase gains traction as a hyphenated adjective for impulsive decision making. I’ve seen the phrase used in that fashion in recent commentaries about the Trump administration.
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Mahershala Ali (65) was already in my list, but his Oscar win for Moonlight solidifies another good clue option for ALI.
Mayonnaise cafes (72) are apparently a new culinary trend in Japan. The creamy dressing has been a popular Western import there for a long time, but now the Japanese can seek out trendy restaurants in which all menu items, including dessert, contain generous portions of mayonnaise. I haven’t found evidence of “mayo cafe” as an alternative term.
I saw the phrase “crazy cheap” (80) and wondered if 11C sanctions “crazy” as an adverb. It does, and the adverb definition gives “crazy good” (75) as an example. I added both of those phrases. What other “crazy [adjective]” phrases are common?
DRAWING A BLANK
Players are given assignments to draw things from various disciplines. The drawings are judged not on artistic ability but on a set of details that represent a basic visual familiarity with the thing to be drawn. Players are randomly given cards before they begin drawing. Some cards reveal one of the details that will be judged and other cards have no information; player receiving those cards have “drawn a blank.” The completed drawings are shown to all players. Before the judging, each player must secretly vote for an opponent that they believe drew a blank. The judges then announce the details and the players who did draw blanks. Players score for including the judges details in their drawings, for voting correctly, and for garnering incorrect votes from opponents.
At one of my early ACPT appearances I presented an after-hours game called Thingamadoodles, which was a drawing based Balderdash variant. The game played poorly and I pulled the plug after a single session. Years later I mentioned the game to Darren Rigby. I admire his game design and wondered if he might have a remedy. Darren said that the game was similar to an idea that he was working on called Drawing a Blank. He invited me to collaborate on an after-hours game for the 2011 NPL convention in Providence and I agreed.
The game logistics were almost completely based on Darren’s original concept. I contributed by helping with the content, i.e. ideas for well known and drawable items that players could have fun with. Many of the judged details involved spatial memory: In Grant Wood’s American Gothic, is the male farmer on the left or right? In which part of Australia’s coast is the island of Tasmania? Darren was also very thoughtful about designing elements that improve gameplay efficiency, such as voting cubes that players could use to keep track of votes for scoring purposes. At the convention Darren and I took alternated between being the primary presenter and the assistant. A memorable bit of comic ad-lib occurred when I was presenter and Darren assisted. I explained to players that they did not need to be proficient artists to score points, and used Darren’s “crude rendering” of the art school admissions test character Tippy the Turtle as an example. When I said “crude,” Darren turned to me with dramatic indignation. It was a fun bit that we used in several sessions.
DOWNLOADABLE PUZZLE: Unthemely #92 (PUZ) (PDF)
34-Down was the seed entry in this puzzle. I learned it from a friend who offered to make some intellectual property available for a work project. The fill came together pretty quickly and I managed to include some additional first-time (for me) entries. Happy solving!
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NOTES: Merriam-Webster recently announced a new list of words to be incorporated into the dictionary. Most of the additions are entries I already had in my word list, though I got a few new entries, such as SEUSSIAN (65), that could be useful as general fill. The Trump administration presents an opportunity to add to entries to Default. Members of the White House staff and cabinet require some “vetting” for a crossword database just as they do for their actual job positions, though I did add SEAN SPICER (60) because I’ve been watching those SNL videos with Melissa McCarthy playing the gum-chomping press secretary. MAR-A-LAGO (65) might be utilitarian fill, though I resisted adding its partials that are not already represented as legit letter combos. I’m watching Riverdale on The CW. The modern-noir soap opera reimagining of the Archie Comics characters is hit-amd-miss, but I like the New Zealand-born lead actor K J APA (60) for his name. When Sybil watches, she comments on his massive eyebrows every time he appears onscreen. I hope the show survives so that his name becomes eligible fill for Daily Celebrity Crosswords.