At first I was underwhelmed by the S S concept. Super easy to find two-word phrases that fit this pattern, right? But I've been down this road before, missing the additional layer. I had to really scratch my head before realizing that Gerry incorporates a second level, the second vowel of each theme pair being A E I O U, in that order. Much harder to do.
But really, is it THAT hard? I was curious, so I searched for possible alternates for the middle SI* SI* entry. After 15 minutes of searching, the only other good ones I could find were SIX SIGMA and SINGLE SIDED. I love SIX SIGMA because it relates to so many things that interest me: statistics, quality control, and manufacturing. But it doesn't work as a central answer, because of its even-numbered length. You could enlarge the grid from 15 to 16 columns in order to accommodate, but I think enlarging a grid ought to be reserved for must-need cases only.
I liked much of the longer fill. Although I didn't remember who he was, Bronko NAGURSKI is an interesting figure in football history with a colorful name. Sheryl Sandberg's LEAN IN was on the non-fiction bestseller list. I CHING and ARTISTES are nice too.
Very difficult construction, a low word count (72) featuring a lot of mid-length material. Cleanliness does not come easily on this type of layout. Been a long time since I've seen EXC … except? Exceptional? Exchequer? But aside from a handful of gluey bits, I liked a lot of the MOTT ST / BOLERO / OUTGUN fill.
It's too bad there's not a more explicit way of pointing out how the theme combines initialisms AND a vowel progression. Generally, I like giving solvers the opportunity to discover the cleverness in a puzzle themselves, but this is an example where I fear that many people will never see it.
GOLD NUGGETS hidden in the grid today, a neat visual when seen in the print version and pdf. These types of graphics don't occur very frequently in the NYT crossword, partially because not that many people send things like this in, but also (and maybe more importantly), the NYT's syndication partners can have difficulties reprinting the specialized graphics. Tough business the NYT's in.
This is an audacious debut, not for the faint of heart. It may not look like it's that difficult, but to constrain your grid in six places with those 2x2 sections is a nightmare. Gerry does well to semi-segment them so that he could fill sections one by one, not having to worry too much about one influencing the next. Good use of black squares.
Even then though, each of the six sections carries a compromise. The NW is the closest to rock solid, the nice BOGEYING a real bonus. And I don't mind EWER at all. (Most people call it a pitcher, but an ewer by any other name…) It's a shame that NLERS was necessary to hold everything together. Similar issues arise in each of the six areas. I was especially glad to figure out the theme before hitting the SE, as I wasn't familiar with LLDS or ARLEDGE.
There's some debate whether having each GOLD nugget identically laid out (G in the same position every time, the word going the same way each time) or random orientations is better. The former can be elegant. The latter can be more fun though, especially if the concept is transparent — gives the solver an additional challenge. And from a construction standpoint, given the ultra-heavy constraints, being able to rotate and flip the G-O-L-D letters is a very good thing. I can only imagine how rough the fill might have gotten if each GOLD had been identically oriented.
All in all, a neat visual, forcing some compromises.