Mini-theme! Sort of. ELEVEN hints at VETERAN'S DAY, because … ah, it's 11/11 on the calendar. And there are ELEVEN answers of ELEVEN letters. It's not my favorite mini-theme ever — I much prefer ones that have maybe two or three long answers slyly connected, with that connection up to you to figure out. But it mostly works.
Some beautiful phrases in those featured ELEVENs, TAKE A NUMBER, PEST CONTROL, DRAFT ANIMAL, MARE NOSTRUM! The fact that "mare" is used in many moon location names, because ancient folks thought there were seas on the moon = trivia gold!
ACCOUNT FOR, TIRE BALANCE (you balance your tires, and you might get a "tire balancing," but a TIRE BALANCE?), HORROR FLICK ("horror movie" sounds so much better to me) … well, they do their job of filling out those ELEVEN-letter slots, if not adding much.
PUSSY GALORE … I used to think that was hilarious when I was younger. Not sure why not anymore. Maybe the joke feels dated now. Or *gasp* I've grown up?
ELEVEN-letter entries make life tough on crossword constructors, because that length forces a ton of three-letter entries (15 squares wide - 11 letter entry - 1 black square = 3 remaining). That's not a problem in itself unless the three-letter entry count gets too high.
These shorties can mess with solving flow because 1.) the solver has to change to a new entry very frequently, making for a choppy feel, 2.) most three-letter entries have been used so much in crosswords that it's hard to come up with a fresh clue, and 3.) in order to make these fresh clues themeless-level difficult, they sometimes veer into "annoyingly difficult" territory.
Take RMN, for example. It's not a great entry in itself since Nixon wasn't known as RMN (compare to Johnson / LBJ). And when you're stuck in a puzzle, and you hit the ridiculously vague [Presidential inits.] … maddening!
Not every three-letter word will exhibit one of these problems — UFO as a subject of some conspiracies is both figure-out-able and fun — but when you have 26 (!) of them, you're bound to get some pain. I think somewhere in the teens is about as high as a constructor should go.
It's a concept I haven't seen before, and I like that. But I wanted a much bigger a-ha moment to make up for the costs I had to pay as a solver.
The five taste sensations get spread through themers: SALTY, SOUR, BITTER, SWEET, and UMAMI. I've found that UMAMI isn't as well-known as I would have thought, but way back in school I did only learn about the four basic tastes. (UMAMI is Japanese, meaning roughly "savory.")
I learned the four tastes in a particular order, which I would have liked to see reflected in the themers: SWEET always came first, followed by SOUR, BITTER, SALTY. But that's not a strict ordering, so I don't mind the mixed-up order of the themers too much.
Impressive gridwork, considering that there are five 15-letter answers — rarely an easy task. In virtually every area of the grid, the down answers have to work through two themers, sometimes even three (UPTURNS, CHIMNEY, RIVIERA). So much inflexibility; so difficult to not have at least one section that's problematic.
I wonder if George and John started with the order of themers I mentioned, but realized that switching some of them around would produce better fill? If that's the case, I think that's a great decision, because the fill is so remarkably smooth for such rough constraints. Sure, there's the minor REL, ORA, ALTE, and the head-scratching IM MEAN (has anyone ever heard this uttered in real life?). But that's much, much less than I would have expected from a puzzle featuring five grid-spanning themers. Well done.
Overall, I wish there were something more playful to the theme. I'm not sure how else you could incorporate the five tastes into phrases, besides spreading them through themers like this. The first four tastes are easy — SWEET JESUS! for example — but UMAMI muddies the picture.
"There's no accounting for taste" feels just so, so ripe for wordplay! Accounting puns, anyone? Perhaps SWEET JESUS! or SOUR GRAPES or BITTER END or SALTY LANGUAGE could somehow be tied to accountants and audits? Maybe?
Maybe not, but this finance geek sure enjoys thinking about the possibilities.
Not a surprise to get another quad stack from MAS and George, this one featuring some nice long entries. ARRIVES ON THE DOT and HOTEL CALIFORNIA are both great, colorful phrases. LAID IT ON THE LINE is also an excellent one, but my stupid constructor's brain recalls other stacks using it — a quick search shows two of them in the past year, one from MAS. Not sure why that sours it so much for me — hey, I never said I was logical or rational!
I like how MAS and George work to give great entries above and beyond the quad stack, HAD THE LAST LAUGH my favorite entry of the puzzle. I didn't care for the HAD duplication in HAD A HAND IN, but that's a minor little word so it doesn't bug me too much although it is inelegant at the very least. COPACETIC was also a great word running through the quad-stack.
I didn't know LA VIE BOHEME, but what a great entry and song. (Listen to it all the way through — what clever lyrics!) I didn't know ELVIS BISHOP, so he didn't do much for me, but he certainly seems to be crossworthy, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Aargh, ELVIN BISHOP, not ELVIS! Not sure why I finished with an error in TRAISING SEMINAR. That felt like a real thing somehow.
As did COSCO Bay and Robin O'DAIR. Pretty rough crossing. I really ought to have known TRAISING SEMINAR wasn't a thing, but CASCO / ADAIR? Hmm.
A lot of good craftsmanship in this one, with not quite as many gluey ORARE, SEL, HEA, PTL, ETH, types of entries as I'm used to seeing in a quad-stack arrangement. There were a few long entries that really hit for me, but others like OF THE PAST, TOSSPOTS (talk about OF THE PAST!), and SERVICE PROVIDER felt more neutral than exciting to me.
Given my short attention span, I like having an easy-peasy Sunday puzzle every once in a while — today's fit that bill. I enjoyed the "bed" visual formed by black squares in the middle of the grid, and the MONSTER / DUST BUNNY hiding underneath gave me a grin. Something so playful about that! The rest of the theme was a bit straightforward for my taste — phrases containing the words PILLOW, BLANKET, SHEETS, PAD — but it was nice that they came in the correct order of making one's bed. (If you waste your time on such nonsense as making your bed, folding your clothes, etc.)
Some long fill forced by the bed visual. Any time you work with such a long line of black squares, you have to surround it with entries of equal length or longer — otherwise, you'd create a two-letter word. It's very difficult to stack long entries like this, but SLEEPOVER / ADD TO THE MIX / SAW LOGS is sure a nice result.
Stacking entries in this way comes at a price. Not a surprise that it's the rockiest place in the grid, with OLDS / GET A / PTL / URI working hard to hold everything in place. Each one of those is minor, but as a whole, that's a lot of glue. The other side came out much smoother, with just a WDS as the cost. Very nice work on the underside of the bed.
And with so much theme material — along with the bed visual — there are just so many places where themers must interact with each other. The lower left exemplifies this. CAME DOWN IN SHEETS is atop MESSAGE PAD, and the black squares try so hard to give good separation, but there's just so much overlap to deal with. SANDIA crossing SCARNE might be a killer for some, and ISSO / PREF / INE / APACE / LST is not an unusual price for such an arrangement of themers.
Although there were a few glue-laden regions throughout the grid, most everything was gettable and came easy. And the visual of that bed, with the MONSTER underneath, brought forth some really fun "Monsters Inc." type imagery.
Quad-stack featuring some great central entries. AMASSED A FORTUNE seems more neutral to me than an asset, but wow, HURRCANE SEASON, AFRICAN ELEPHANT, and STICKS AND STONES in one stack is quite a treat. HURRICANE SEASON is particularly nice given its clue, [Depression era?] — as in a "tropical depression" worsening into a HURRICANE. I've come to appreciate entries that are not only colorful in themselves, but are amenable to being clued in a clever way.
Very nice crossings in that quad-stack, too. Usually we see all sorts of gluey bits barely holding the precarious thing together. Today we get treated to some awesome crossing answers — GREAT BARRIER REEF, MAKING AN ENTRANCE, TEN THOUSAND YEARS with interesting trivia about the word "Banzai" — along with generally solid shorter entries. I didn't care for A HASH or IN ONE, both awkward partials, and LENTS is a strange plural, but if that's the only glue in a quad-stack, that's a success.
I've come to appreciate MAS's efforts to open up his stacked grids, striving for good grid flow. Today's didn't resonate well with me in that regard though, the NW and SE corners having only one entry possible. The other corners are segmented off too, with only two entries apiece allowing the solver access.
That made the entire puzzle feel choked. I got stuck in the lower right; a frustrating experience to be dead-ended in a mini-puzzle that wasn't integrated into the rest of the grid. To finish by guessing at ESTE didn't make for a very positive finish, either. (JOE College wasn't familiar — apparently, it's kind of a "Joe Six-pack" for the university crowd.)
It was odd to get all the usual gluey bits one would see in a quad-stack … in the non-quad-stack regions. ADM / ELENI / ADAMA make for a tough trio up top, and EA POE A PEAR / ERY down below felt equally inelegant. I can see what happened — at 73 words in an expanded 16x15 grid, MAS and George are already near the maximum for a themeless. Trying to work around MAKING AN ENTRANCE / SEINFELD / INKSTAINED makes that north region very tough.
Loved the quad-stack and the long crossing entries, though.
Five things I think I think: (with a nod to the great Peter King)
1.) What a lively quartet of stacked answers. I CALL EM AS I SEE EM is not only sparkly, but it looks so crazy as ICALLEMASISEEEM. I wasn't sure what BREAKER ONE NINER meant, but it sure sounds like fun CB lingo. And I don't mind ONE'S phrases, which tend to get a bad rap.
2.) Upon further Googling, I wonder if BREAKER ONE NINER is flawed. BREAKER ONE NINE appears to be quite common (BREAKER used to start a transmission, ONE NINE referring to channel 19), but not BREAKER ONE NINER. Perhaps the difference might seem small, but I wonder if it's a huge difference in the CB community. MAS and Jim both remember it as NINER though (and MAS tells me saying NINER helped with clarity), so I'm inclined to believe that some CBer ought to get on Wikipedia and change the entry.
3.) I love how MAS and George have left 16 slots open for 8+ letter entries. Love to see that sort of structure in a themeless skeleton, as longer entries have more potential to be snazzy. That's not easy to do with a quad-stack taking up a lot of your real estate. Nice use of triple-eights in the NW and SE corners. I would count DELAWARE and SENESCENCE and MEANINGLESS as only neutral, not positive, but that's still a pretty good number of snappy entries.
4.) A touch too much glue for my taste. I think stunt puzzles deserve more leeway with regards to crossword glue, as they have such potential to push the boundaries. But I've seen enough quad-stacks that I'm not as willing to extend those liberties anymore, at least not to the same degree as before. Some entries like SCH and YEO and GPS are reasonable. Add in A MERE, the odd BEGEM, the forgotten ELIAN, the esoteric ERICK, etc., and it's a lot for me.
5.) I haven't been so stumped by a clue in ages. [Mideast pops?] as ABBA? I can almost always figure these out with enough Googling, but I sat with this one for a full three days before asking Will for the answer. I like the drive for originality in the clue, but I think it would have been so much better if "Mideast pops" was a real thing, like "Boston Pops" or "ice pops" is. Much better to me was the question-marked clue [Smoke without fire?] playing on "where there's smoke, there's fire." Beautiful clue for an even better answer.
Whew! Once in a while a puzzle comes along to break all sorts of conventions, and one way or another, it stimulates creativity through both strong positive and negative reactions. Who knows if today's will be looked upon ten years from now as the one that spawned an entire movement using heavy bars? Jim and I (mostly Jim) fixed up the puzzle to reflect the print version, as the Across Lite file seemed not nearly as elegant as print. Hopefully the time Jim and I (okay, 99.9% Jim) spent gives you a nice post-solve experience. And make sure to try the special HTML 5 online solving tool Jim programmed! Or if you're on an iPad or iPhone, you might try out Puzzazz's app.
I enjoyed the idea behind this one, seeded by oil and water not mixing. Perfect for George, who's a professor of chemistry! I had a very rough time with the central entry, because I dropped in LIKE OIL AND WATER with just a few letters and refused to believe it could be anything else. "LIKE WATER AND OIL" actually googlizes better than "LIKE OIL AND WATER" so perhaps this was just my issue (I was glad to hear that George and Michael actually started with OIL AND WATER, which makes me feel less crazy). Also possibly just my issue: the way the top and bottom interlocked, it felt like the oil and the water halves actually *were* mixing (in the central row). Hmm.
Very tough to pull off this construction. Not only do you have the unusual quasi-non-mixing of the top and bottom halves of the puzzle, but there's the rebus factor. George and Michael do well in some of those entries, the lovely HOT WATER BAG and ET VOILA, notably. Rebus entries work best for me when they allow the constructor to work in something unusual, something not typically seen in normal puzzles. But with dense rebus puzzles (or rebus puzzles with high additional constraints), some entries suffered. LOW WATER sounds a bit funny to my ear, and eau de toilette is so much more elegant than TOILET WATER and its slight ick factor.
Lots of good long fill in this one, and the highlight of the puzzle for me: the wonderful clue on MAITRE D'. I was stuck on "two-seater" as a type of car, and was so frustrated I couldn't work my way into that section. But when MAITRE D' (which already looks awesomely weird as an entry) appeared, what a sense of relief + the pleasure of experiencing a great clue. Well done.