I would have loved yesterday's theme served on a single plate with today's! This kind of WELL-ROUNDED DIET and SQUARE MEAL are the stuff of my kids' dreams. Buh-bye, whole wheat toast, hello KRAFT SINGLES between SALTINE CRACKERS! Ironic that "square" would describe such unhealthy items as STARBURSTS and KLONDIKE BARS.
Similar humor to yesterday; I enjoyed imagining Drax the Destroyer befuddled by the English language. Today's puzzle kicked it up a notch in a way, because it's much harder to think of foods that come in squares than it is for rounded shapes. Physics likes efficiency, and WELL-ROUNDED so often more efficient than SQUARE.
In fact, the only "healthy" square item I could think of was whole wheat toast — and that's only quasi-square.
Unlike yesterday, it's difficult argue the case for any of these square-shaped foods being the slightest bit healthy.
Now that I've dissected all the humor out of the joke, I'll refrain from dissecting the fun out of the crossword. KETTLEBELL is a fresh term, and I'm sure there will be fans of MALE MODELS and THE CURE in solverland. Ella gives us another great example of a colorful and almost perfectly-clean grid, showing yet again that a five-themer crossword can and should live up to this standard.
I enjoyed the back-to-back WELL-ROUNDED DIET / SQUARE MEAL duo. There's something neat about having a longer arc over multiple days instead of one-off, unrelated short stories. I'd love to see this more.
Many moons ago, I tried to create a crossword around POP UP ADS — the word "pop-up" screams for wordplay. After exploring a dozen different executions, I still didn't come up with one that I thought would delight solvers. I wish I had landed on Ella's concept!
Some solvers will fill in every box and still not get the theme, so we've highlighted the thematic squares. It's so evocative, a SHOP popping up and then disappearing into the background, mirroring the life cycle of real-life pop-up shops.
This mechanism works so perfectly for this puzzle. Not quite as perfectly as an ORCA spy-hopping in the middle of WINDSOR CASTLE would, but the whale-watching Seattleite in me is biased.
Excellent gridwork, too. It might seem like the H and O atop the S and P are trivial to grid around, but they force a lot of constraints. It's solid enough to use something like OPTED (BOPP less so), but GROWTH SPURT growing through one of the HS pairs, and OH SNAP / HIGH SPIRITS through the others = EUPHORIA. Brilliant way to add emphasis to your themers.
The thematic density felt a tad low, and I would have given this the POW! if Ella had added in JOHNS HOPKINS. It's the only notable other possibility I could find (DENNIS HOPPER is too similar to GRASSHOPPER), so it would have completed the set perfectly. Much harder to grid around an extra themer, but I bet Ella would have been up to the task.
Solid cluing work, too. Starting from 1-Across, [Cubans are full of it] sounded more like a controversial epithet than a clue. Thankfully, it was referring to the HAM in a Cubano. You know, the Cubano, the dish seen around the world? Oh right, that's a UFO.
Fitting that Ella's last Across entry helped her take a BOW. So close to a POW!
★ Back in my first career as a mechanical engineer in product design, I had a visionary idea for "chair pants." Tired? Crouch down, and the legs automatically pop out. Instant chair! All my coworkers mocked me mercilessly, but who's laughing now?!
(They still are.)
Neat visual: seven-letter musicals forming (most of) a chair. I'd have loved two black squares popping out to form the back legs — where the M and E of CHIME are, in the bottom left, for example — but it's hard to take me seriously, given that I'm walking around today with aluminum rods mounted into my sweatpants.
Although the chairs weren't as beautiful as my ahead-of-its-time invention, the execution was super solid. (Unlike my prototypes, which tend to buckle at inopportune moments.) It's so tough to work with fixed circles that Will Shortz doesn't take them much these days, with the rationale that they usually force too many fill compromises. I love how smoothly Ella worked NEWSIES into that opening corner — RAW SILK is apt!
ARRET isn't great, but that didn't stop me.
What made this puzzle stand out was its amazing cluing. Having to tailor an early-week puzzle to newer solvers can choke off creativity and fun, but Ella managed to make the puzzle sing in multiple clue categories:
Not the perfect imagery for MUSICAL CHAIRS, but when you add up all the ways Ella excelled, that's some first chair-level work.
MIND OVER MATTER, literally represented four times in the grid. Elegant that Aimee and Ella listed the four states of matter in proper progression: SOLID, LIQUID, GAS, PLASMA. Also elegant that their four MIND synonyms exactly match their respective states of matter in length. Tidy picture — see below, where we've highlighted the key answers.
A feat of construction; pairs of stacked answers difficult to work with. Not to mention requiring rotational symmetry! LIQUID ___ must match length with ___ NOODLE, and ___ SMARTS must also match length with PLASMA ___. It's a wonder that Aimee and Ella managed to find matching sets at all.
It's a mark of technical excellence that I barely noticed minor AFR ALII ANIN glue.
Jim Horne mentioned that he solved this mostly as a themeless, and I did as well. While the technician in me appreciates the extremely difficult construction, it felt like a one-liner, not far enough away from the rest of the states of matter crosswords, to make the theme alone worth a 21x21 solve.
Thankfully, Aimee and Ella did a great job incorporating enough bonuses to elevate the experience. Ironically, I couldn't figure out IGNORATI, but I got such a laugh out of the word. PATOOTIE similarly brought a smile to my face, and this wannabe-Jedi loved MAY THE FOURTH (be with you).
Some great thematic phrases also helped elevate, like STREET SMARTS and PREGNANCY BRAIN, which somehow I caught while my wife was pregnant (and haven't shaken since).
DOUBLE CROSS gets at "a hidden TWO acts as a multiplier for a crossing answer." We've fixed up the entries for the database (see listing below), so [Duplicitous] is not ONE FACED but TWO FACED. Similarly with FOUR LETTER WORDS, SIX FEET UNDER, and EIGHT BALL.
I enjoyed FOUR LETTER WORDS and SIX FEET UNDER most, since these feel much more like marquee Sunday entries than the shorties, TWO FACED and EIGHT BALL.
This isn't a new concept — a recent one cleverly crossed two numbers to form plus signs — but I appreciated how well Aimee and Ella hid TWO. It's not the easiest "hidden word" to work with, especially when you're dealing with short phrases, so IT WORKS! and JUST … WOW are great ways to incorporate TWO.
Also cool that ONE, TWO, THREE, and FOUR share a letter with TWO, a curious fact that made this concept possible.
Will Shortz doesn't often accept puzzles that require a repeated, shaded hidden word. The problem is that once you fill in one or two, you can plunk in the rest without thought. That did diminish some of my solving pleasure.
POP A WHEELIE, such a vivid term! (Go watch BMX in the 2021 Olympics; amazing athletes!) STONE SOUP was interesting too. If you haven't heard of it, your curiosity is piqued by two recognizable words that seem to clash. A soup … made of stone? Yes, read all about it!
I enjoy when Sunday constructors try to push the envelope. This one had some inelegant aspects, including the repetitiveness of the hidden TWOs, the shortness of the crossing themers making them pale in comparison to the great long bonuses (using the full BEHIND THE EIGHT BALL would have been much better), and some rough patches like LOLZ / APIA / OPI right at the start. Still, I'd much rather constructors aim high than repeat an overly trodden path.
I hadn't heard the term INSIDE BASEBALL before — I figured it must refer to the infield fly rule's intricacies, what comprises a balk, why a fielder can't catch with their hat (true!), etc.
How a country that abhors rules can love a game with a nearly 200-page rule book is beyond me.
Some interesting discoveries; five-letter "hidden words" can be tricky to uncover. The clue for BREAKFAST ROLLS hit my ear funny because I'm used to them being more of a sandwich, but ASTRO inside is a neat find. And for considering myself an uber-nerd — a strange one, to boot — I'm ashamed not to be able to identify the STRANGE LOOP.
A lot of colorful fill today, excellent use of mid-length slots. Aimme is spot-on, that CAT LADY, BULLDOG, WHAT IFS sizzle. NARWHAL, CHILLIN', DREIDEL, HASHTAG are fantastic one-worders, too.
I wasn't as enamored by all the glue required, though — AGUE, ADIA, and ATOI can trip up not just newer solvers. I'd sympathize with non-millennial solvers who got the OBI/BAE crossing wrong, too. With such a wealth of riches in the 7-letter slots, I'd have loved more balance between color and cleanliness, which might have reduced the possible sticking points for Monday solvers.
Delightful clue for RING: a good thing to have "on hand" at a wedding, indeed.
Ultimately, this comes down to a "hidden words" puzzle, so I'd have enjoyed longer finds. An hour of searching turned up ORANGE RIND and (1ST) MARINE REGIMENT, which this Seattle homer would have loved.
SPIN THE BOTTLE is so full of crossword potential, a constructor's dream. I have notes on several ideas for executing this, including the strings OTTLEB TTLEBO within words, bottles like BUD spun in the grid, even a big (upside-down) bottle made out of black squares. I never thought of this implementation, though. I admire the creativity!
The concept might still be unclear to some. The Across answers use the letters B O T T L E, starting from 6 o'clock and going clockwise. The Down answers use the same letters, but they start from 12 o'clock. Thus, the BOTTLE is spun 180 degrees. Sort of.
It didn't entirely make sense why Acrosses and Downs used letters of different spin positions, but it is done with consistency.
It's not hard to fill a grid region so that in one square, two letters form equally valid Across and Down words. Take GA(TB)OR, for instance. There are dozens of patterns that could be valid for the ??(TB)?? sequence. It does, however, get increasingly harder as you go, since every time you fix something into place, the rest of the grid loses flexibility.
I was impressed that Aimee and Ella got most of the special squares smooth. LITRE and EATER (is that EATRE in England?) aren't great, but the rest are all fine. Great work there.
Mostly excellent bonus fill, too. USAIN BOLT is retired, but who can forget that Olympics where he looked like he was jogging? WASSAILS, LOSE FACE, EVA PERON, also excellent.
I did wonder what ABOUTNESS was all about ... Eliot Ness? It appears to be a library-specific term, exactly as clued. It is two recognizable words. Man, did it look bizarre, though, and it feels a bit too insidery; smug. Of course, now I'll be dropping it into everyday conversations.
I could have used more polish on the short fill — ESO OSO TSO is so many SOs, and ASA ATOB STL UKE, whew! — but given so many constraints, there had to be some trade-offs.
All in all, I like the innovative thinking, but the a-ha level wasn't as high as I like for a Thursday puzzle.