Adam Wagner, originally of Long Island, New York, is a creative lead at Patreon helping creators get paid for their work. In previous lives, Adam has also been a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a viral YouTuber, a game show champion, and an applied math major at Brown University.
Adam currently lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife, son, and a few thousand honeybees.
I explained the FIBONACCI SERIES to my kids only a week ago! Mostly blank faces — until I recounted all the things in nature exhibiting GOLDEN RATIO-based spirals. Then Tess ran off to pick flowers and Jake smashed some snails, in a thinly-veiled rebellion against yet another of dad's lessons.
I loved the touch of FIB O N A C C I in the Fibonacci series locations (grid numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55).
An anal math sort within our household may have grumbled that the first square should have been an FI rebus since the series starts with 1, 1, 2 …
Ten years ago, another FIBONACCI SERIES crossword debuted, and I loved the beautiful spiral you could draw through its circled letters. That imagined spiral did struggle to get noticed amidst the black squares, though.
Not so much today! Although the Adam's spiral isn't perfect — you simply can't make it so unless you have more pixels — it still exhibits natural beauty.
Some compromises, like the restricted grid flow, weird specificity of SCIENCE CAMP as a themer, and SUNFLOWERS / NAUTILI got a bit lost in the asymmetric shuffle, but this numbers nerd appreciated the focus on how such a simple series is manifested within the beauty of our natural world.
Oh, the irony of this puzzle!
You have to have a good reason to break a crossword rule and an even better reason if you're going to break two of them. Why unchecked letters? It's elementary; the two circled letters spelling out F E, the chemical symbol for IRON. Perfect.
No duplicated words within a grid? It is fitting that today's two magnets attracted a pair of IRONs apiece.
I didn't buy the second rule breakage as much, though, since it was so repetitive to uncover all those IRONs. Would it have been better ... to use themers that started or ended with FE instead? That would have eliminated the dupes, but I'm not sure solvers would have even noticed why a BUTCHERS KNIFE or a BANK SAFE would be stuck on.
Perhaps items that typically stick to magnets, like NAIL POLISH? FDA FILINGS? Again, that would have gone over some solvers' heads.
I love me some grid art, especially built out of black squares, and the horseshoe magnets are distinctive. I didn't find myself magnetically drawn to the execution because of the IRON overdose, but it's a reasonable choice that more solvers are likely to appreciate.
★ I SLUMPED from being STUMPED but quickly went from WTF? to FTW! How could [Key lime] possibly be MOMENT OF TRUTH? Doubly fun to realize in that moment of truth that the clue writer hadn't followed the reminder the CROSS YOUR TS — as in [Key time], not [Key lime]. Such a perfect obfuscation, "key lime" sounding perfectly legit!
All of Adam's tomfoolery was so innocent, not a single theme clue making my Thursday-trickery-radar ping. My favorite was [One for whom libel is a major issue]. I plunked in PUBLISHER and happily admitted getting gotten, when the DALAI LAMA appeared on behalf of not libel, but Tibet. The double-t-crossing double-cross = genius!
I'm not often a fan of "Thursday trick in the clues," because the wordings can sound weirdly unnatural, or they get lost in the shuffle. There's a reason why most editors focus on long grid entries for 99% of puzzles.
Today's falls into that rare category of trickery-in-clues puzzles that works brilliantly. I rarely want to spend time reviewing anything after finishing a crossword, but I spent half an hour marveling at all the natural-sounding flim-flammery — as well as the fact that Adam didn't have any stray Ls in the non-theme clues!
In case you missed any of the genius, we've highlighted the themers below. Note that although symmetry wasn't 100% necessary, Adam did a great job of putting all his long themers in opposing spots. Dotting so many short themers around the rest of the grid made my Is open wide, too.
★ Fantastic finds! As if I wasn't already wowed by FRIDA spaced out through FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, SEVEN through OCEANS ELEVEN was doubly interesting because both movies are number-related.
And then the coup de grace, HEAT found twice throughout THE GODFATHER PART II. At first, I wondered if that double-vision was strange? But the duality of the themers echoed by two HEATs — as well as THE GODFATHER, Part II! — made it such a captivating finale.
I hadn't heard of INHERENT VICE, and HER all together (instead of spaced out like the others) made it less impactful. However, I admire Joaquin Phoenix's body of work so much that this entry cued me to add these movies onto my long to-be-watched list.
When a theme concept is this strong, the best thing to do with your grid is to make sure it doesn't get in the way. Work in a few bonuses if you can — EXOTIC FISH, NO SIREE BOB, NEED A LIFT, REN FAIRE, LOW LIFES more than do the trick — and keep your short fill unnoticeable. Adam did an impeccable job, not only keeping his quantity of gluey bits to way less than Sunday average but limiting them to gettable entries like ELLS, PHS (think PH paper), TO BE.
Sunday puzzles ought to have themes that captivate solvers all the way through the large canvas, and this did exactly that. I'd pay a premium if every Sunday NYT were half as entertaining.
Many constructors have approached me with various "half-human, half-creature" puzzle concepts. Aside from CENTAUR and MERMAID, there's the GRIFFIN (half lion), SATYR (half goat), HARPY (half eagle), MINOTAUR (half bull), among others. I can imagine Greek storytellers running out of ideas, asking themselves, what other human-animal hybrid can I concoct?
All my co-brainstorming has gone nowhere, no approach hitting me strongly enough to want to dedicate time to it. It's so tantalizing … in a Tantalus sort of way.
Today's is an approach I'd never considered: an intersecting phrase using the WOMAN top half of MERMAID, and the FISH bottom half. (WOMAN) OF THE WORLD and DRINK LIKE A FISH. I admire what Adam was able to achieve, given his constraints. Not easy to get four themers, placed symmetrically, all intersecting into MERMAID and CENTAUR. Solid phrases, too, making the feat even more impressive from a technical construction standpoint.
It didn't sing me a siren song, though. Having to clue OF THE WORLD awkwardly … even Homer would have trouble recounting the cross-referenced language.
It did make me wonder, what could have been more impactful? I spent an hour sketching out various options, including one with a WOMAN phrase intersecting the first M of MERMAID and FISH phrase crossing the I, to make it more elegant. Didn't work with symmetry. Bah!
I finally hit on something that seemed fist-pump worthy: themers oriented vertically, like PRETTY MERMAID AND CHIPS. This would hint at two themers — PRETTY (WOMAN) using the top half of MERMAID, (FISH) AND CHIPS using the bottom.
That might have gone over some solvers' heads, though. Not unlike those grapes pulling higher as I reach for them.
The puzzle overall didn't hit me as strongly as I wished, but I'm a miniscule minority who's spent dozens of hours thinking about this concept. And it's impressive that Adam was able to make the symmetry work in this concept.
It helps to know that resigning in chess can be done by tipping over one's king, so it clonks to the board. We genteel players of the learned class don't stoop to such levels, instead choosing simply to shake hands, nod, and walk away.
That's much harder to do when your six-year old screams YOU CHEATED, I HATE THIS GAME!!! before kicking the pieces into smithereens. In my household, the C O L E of King COLE would be scattered somewhere into next Tuesday.
Jim Horne and I had a fun discussion about the general concept, since neither of us bought "the king is tipped over and the long down phrase jumps over and uses it." (For example, NAREPTIC picks up COLE to become NAR(COLE)PTIC.) It felt … off?
I asked Jim what would be a more "accurate" or "visually fun" way of representing the king being knocked over, and he was quiet for so long I worried he hung up on me. Thankfully, he was just silently making fun of all the "quote marks" I use in everyday speech.
TIMID AS A MOUSE is such a great way to incorporate King MIDAS. Jim made me laugh when he commented that TIS A MOUSE looked reasonable enough that he bought it as is. Eek!
It would have been so awesome to see T'CHALLA in the grid! I don't have anything against King Cole or King Tut or King David, but featuring the Black Panther would have been bad-ass. I'd gladly have accepted CATCH-ALL ADDRESS to get a dose of Wakandan goodness, although the evil supervillain-Marvel-atheist-known-as-Jim would beg to differ.
Adam brings up an interesting point about GARY IN. I added a ton of these to our Word List years ago, thinking that they looked so cool. They're love ‘em or hate ‘em, though. I've heard enough feedback about entries like MESAAZ — you see Mesa, AZ on envelopes all the time, right? — that I use them sparingly.
I enjoyed a lot of the bonuses, entries like ANTIDOTES, CLIO AWARD, HIMALAYAS, and EGGDROP and YUKON GOLD appropriately meat(ish) and potatoes. I wish the visual representation of the king knocked over clicked more strongly. I have no answer for what would have been better, but it's intrigued me enough to continue thinking about it. That's a great sign of a seed idea with tons of promise.
I can't remember struggling to solve a Thursday this much in years. Quote puzzles usually ease up on the Down clues because you essentially can't use the Across entries. Not today. I absolutely love the clue for BUSES, "certain ways to work," misdirecting toward collaboration styles. It was harder to appreciate than usual, though, since I was so badly stuck trying to uncover the first line of the poem.
Fun concept, playing with the HAIKU form of 5-7-5 syllables. I didn't get why the extra syllable of LONG was squeezed into a rebus square, though. Seemed like the gag would have worked just as well if it hadn't been rebusized. Maybe that would have allowed for a more elegant Haiku presentation of three lines? It'd be hard to pack seven syllables into 15 or 16 letters, but it's not like there are many other constraints in a Haiku.
There was so much to love in the grid, great use of mid-length slots: OR WORSE, HUMOR ME, COME NOW, OBSCENE, AP SCORE, and especially PIEHOLE. What a wealth of riches! I don't mind a bit of RHYE, tricky KURTZ crossing UTZ, ERLE, etc., for that payoff.
Love the clue for OWLS, too. Excellent appropriation of the phrase "head-turner."
However, it was tough for me to fully appreciate all the great aspects of Adam's grid when the solve was so off-the-charts difficult. Along with not having a great rationale for a rebus square, it all didn't resonate. A simpler presentation might have been more effective, perhaps a paradoxical haiku?
Jim Horne made me spit take with laughter with the ones he mentions below.
There's such a flood of great fill in this debut. Kicking things off with JUICE BAR, continuing along the top with a ZINGER and OH GEEZ — talk about GNARLY! Continuing throughout with AW RATS, HOMBRE, the ROSETTA Stone, EVER SO, ELIXIR. OY VEY, that's fantastic!
I usually take the philosophical approach of adding some color while keeping to a minimum of crossword glue, but there's so much to enjoy in the fill that I didn't mind EGEST (tough vocab), OTRAS (foreign plural), ANIN (partial), etc. If you didn't connect with the theme, there's a ton of bonus material to keep you going.
As a pet lover, I enjoyed the DOG noise words GROWLER, WOOFER, BARKER, and YELPER. It's tough to disguise these, though. I have a growler, but I'd never refer to it as a BEER GROWLER. (My neighbor is currently using it for Kombucha, that foul brew.) I've heard enough WOOFER wordplay that this entry confirmed my suspicions, and "Name That Theme" was over all too quickly.
ELITE YELPER … I read up on this but couldn't find the exact term in their FAQ page. There are some not-exact references to it, though. Sorry Adam, not entirely buying it.
Fun concept, but one that didn't generate a strong a-ha because of how hard it is to disguise the critical words. Such a blast of fill sizzle, though — looking forward to Adam's future grids!