Homage to Cathy today, the no-nosed wonder twice as irked as usual — ACK ACK indeed. (Cathy and Voldemort both having no nose ... things that make you go hmm!)
Today is a perfect example where a revealer — some word or phrase explicitly explaining the theme — would have been fantastic. The puzzle works as is, since the themers follow a clear pattern that's not hard to spot. There wasn't a sharp a-ha moment, though, more a slow realization that each themer has two instances of ACK.
What could have been a good revealer? How about ACK itself, clued to Cathy's quaint cry? That's getting there, but it doesn't explain why there would be two ACKs.
ACK ACK (clued to the gun) would have been better, opening the eyes of even the greenest solvers. It's not a great crossword entry in itself, but it would have been a spot-on explanatory phrase.
Speaking of green solvers, this isn't the most welcoming early-week solving experience. Too many names (especially tough ones) can make a crossword feel like a trivia contest — IDINA, REX, ELTON, ANN, AUDI, ALEXIS, ROKU, AGRA, ANI, DYAN, SARTRE, GAYLE, NASHUA, OTIS. There's no hard and fast threshold for how many names is too many, but this crossed well into dangerous territory.
There weren't any glaring grid skeleton problems — it's a fine layout — but further iteration would have helped smooth out some of the inelegancies. Aside from the slew of not-everyday names, something like NES / ATA / SCI atop each other should trigger a revision.
Overall though, I did enjoy the bonuses — DEAL ME IN, NEW CAR, SABOTAGE are great — and it was fun to see so many *ACK *ACK phrases. You can use our Finder with the search string *ack*ack* to get lots of others, like HACKY SACK, WACKY TOBACKY, QUARTERBACK SACK.
Dan asked me to look at this in its early stages. I felt it had a lot of potential, but I found it so hard to explain the theme. Let's see if I can do it without discombobulating everyone:
Still with me? Didn't think so.
Okay, 1-Down isn't 1SIES, but ONESIES. 2-Down is 2TORED = TUTORED. And 1-Across is clued as [Ten cents], which is the entry at 12-Down. And 12 DOWN is the entry at 1-Across.
Plenty of puzzles have used cross-referencing, numbers in grids, homophones, even clues duped as entries — but the combination feels like something different and unique.
One point I made to Dan was that it would be a lot better if it weren't random entries that were duped from clue to entry. Why SEA COW, MACARENA, etc.? "Just because they fit" usually isn't a good enough rationale for me. It'd be orders of magnitude harder — maybe impossible — to work in entries that hint at the puzzle's theme (maybe DUPLICATION, CLONING, EVIL TWIN, etc.). So I like the balance he achieved, giving us some snazzier answers in TEN CENTS and MACARENA.
I liked a lot of the bonuses in the fill — TIME STAMP, STARTUP, TARANTINO, CREATINE. And Dan kept his short fill fairly smooth, a tough task given all the themers packed into the grid. SSRS and WIEN were cringe-y outliers, but ELL, NEV, PRES, SENS are mostly ignorable.
I would have liked more bonuses, as things like REANNEX, ENTERER, ALLOWED IN all felt neutral to negative, but that's tough to do given how much real estate the themers take up.
All in all, I appreciated the novelty of the solve. It felt different. I think different is a great thing for crosswords.
THE LITTLE THINGS today, three foreign phrases that translate to "the little lunch," "a little grace," and "a little serenade." Interesting to learn that the last one actually doesn't mean "a little night music," as I'd thought every one of the hundreds of times I've played it! (Former cellist.)
Dan got in touch with me about this one at Will's behest. It's a tough set of themers to work with, so it was no surprise that Dan hadn't been able to come up with a grid that met Will's criteria for smoothness and snazziness. I wasn't super hot on the theme, but I gave Dan a couple of tips on how to lay it out better.
After several back and forths, he was still having trouble. Again, no surprise, given the frazzling theme set of 15 / 10 / 15 / 10 / 15. It's a constructor's nightmare.
Normally, I don't build grid skeletons for people without asking for a shared byline, but Dan was so earnest and hard-working, never quitting, that I hated to see him stymied. I offered to help him out, gratis — I like a challenge, anyway.
Took me five or so hours to figure out a grid skeleton that tested out well, with generally solid fill plus a few strong bonuses in the long slots. During the first two hours, I had become worried that perhaps this theme set was intractable, so it was a huge relief when I finally landed on a layout I was nearly certain could be filled well.
Unfortunately, I had put in UNA POCO DE GRACIA, not POCA. Sigh. Such an idiot!
Such a seemingly easy thing to correct proved to be not so easy, so it took me a couple more hours to come up with proper adjustments. Dan took it from there, and after a few more back and forths, it was in the can.
Overall, I think it turned out well. I did worry (slightly) that solvers might mess up the K in KROC or the second E in EBENEZER since they're crossed with tough foreign words, but ultimately, I think educated solvers ought to know those names.
The theme still only tickles me as much as I would like — just a LITTLE, ha ha — but I think Dan did a nice job of finding a solid set of themers for the concept and finishing things out.