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10 puzzles by Howard Barkin
with Jeff Chen comments

TotalDebutLatestCollabs
107/23/201412/16/20192
SunMonTueWedThuFriSat
2302111
ScrabbleRebusCirclePangram
1.65100
Howard Barkin
Mon 12/16/2019
YOUTHGOOFREBA
ARNIEOMAREVIL
MADEALITEMANE
LORDOFTHERINGS
DRSWAX
BADGERJOINDDT
ARIESPOOFAURA
RICEKRISPIESBOX
BAEZOTISNEALE
SLYACHEAVAILS
OAKTRI
SANTASWORKSHOP
PLOTTOBEAILEY
ROVEAVONGLARE
YEARREEDELVES

I love it when a Monday puzzle temporarily mystifies me. What connects LORD OF THE RINGS, RICE KRISPIES BOX, SANTAS WORKSHOP? Ah! They all contain ELVES!

Wait just a second. Are you saying … that SOYLENT GREEN IS ELVES? Eew, Rice Krispies Treat, my ass!

Come on, you're telling me you didn't think the crossword was implying this? LORD OF THE RINGS and SANTAS WORKSHOP contains ELVES inside, so for consistency, doesn't that mean a RICE KRISPIES BOX also contains ELVES?

You can't argue with logic.

Aside from wondering if this were true (and how many people I could get to believe it), I wondered if RICE KRISPIES BOX is fair game as a crossword phrase. Here are a few entries akin to RICE KRISPIES BOX — you tell me if they should be allowable:

  • CLIF BAR WRAPPER
  • CHOCOLATE COIN FOIL
  • GROUND ELF MEAL

Logic never lies, my friend.

Whatever your view on the plight of the poor elves being farmed for their meat, it's hard to argue with the ROCK STAR gridwork. Three themers plus a short revealer should mean that there's solid assets (HEADDESK, FREE WIFI, ROCKSTAR, ENVISAGE, yes!) and virtually no liabilities (TO BE and that's it). Well done! (Just like how I order my elf steaks!)

One could argue that there are a lot of proper names, many of which could be tough for newbs: NEALE, JOSIE, OTIS, AILEY. Cutting that list in half would be an improvement, but it's not something that should trigger a revision. Nice to get a rare J from JOSIE, anyway, to spice things up.

Overall, an offering I'd happily give to a newer solver, featuring a delightful, if disgusting, moment of discovery.

Sun 10/6/2019INITIAL PUBLIC OFFERINGS
WHIRODEBELASVASSAR
DOMEREXREACTIONTIME
SNAPABTALICEBTOKLAS
OGODTORNNURSESENT
ALOTOFRUDEREEDSNAS
HUNTERSTHOMPSONHST
ALEEAPERPITTOAST
BURDENEDGATBEARPAW
ACCARTHURCCLARKE
FASTAPPHYSICSLIED
GURUSIMOUPSCENTS
ATOMOVERTHERELEGO
SUSANBANTHONYSBA
PRETEENAHSSLOWRIDE
AIRESBROOWESAGES
SADSTEPHENADOUGLAS
BSASPURTOVUMMADEDO
EIREREARSESPYLOSS
GEORGEMCOHANGMCLIPS
ITSGREEKTOMEACELAIR
NEESONSHEARSALSSNS

Initialisms, well-known(ish) trigrams mirroring famous people's initials. Some interesting finds — with as much ARTHUR C CLARKE as I've read, I've never thought about his monogram matching the Atlantic Coast Conference.

I appreciated how Howard and Victor kept perfectly consistent, always choosing people who are known by their First, Middle Initial, and Last names. Jim and I did have a conversation about STEPHEN A DOUGLAS, which both of us hitched on, knowing him more without the middle initial. Some Googling shows that the A is fine, though.

This is a case where less might have been more. Putting ACC next to ARTHUR C CLARKE = smashing the theme over my head with a hammer. It also emphasized the initialism-nature of the puzzle, which is a bad thing, given that initialisms are generally overdone and boring. It would have been much more playful to integrate the trigrams into the clues, i.e. [Sci-fi author who's a member of the ACC?]

This would have allowed for more bonuses in the fill, as well as super smooth overall product. I did like what Howard and Victor achieved — some great bonuses in AP PHYSICS, A ROSE IS A ROSE, ITS GREEK TO ME, REACTION TIME, SILENT SPRING, along with an average amount of crossword glue.

But just think what these two solid constructors could have done without the constraint of the six trigrams fixed into place. Having maybe four more great bonuses and maybe six less of BSA GRO GRP OBES RUHR STKS could have done so much towards delivering an even snazzier and smoother solving experience.

In general, I advise newer constructors to avoid initialism themes, because editors seem to be slowing down their acceptance of these, given their overexposure. However, even the most done-to-death theme types still might be feasible, if not exciting, if they contain a clever twist, some wordplay, something to help raise them out of the muck.

Fri 4/12/2019
OBSESSESBASING
RAPSHEETYOOHOO
CHIPOTLEORNATE
ANTWASPSTOTES
OPTMCCAFE
MESSIBOHOATMS
ATTHEMOMENTOOH
CURACAOMIASARA
ADEEXTRACRISPY
WEEPILESANKHS
THAMESRNS
FIFEDGODOTLAS
ROONEYROGUEONE
OTOOLETHELORAX
MADMENSATANIST

Breath of fresh air to hear Howard's approach. "What was your seed entry" is the question I get asked most often about my themelesses, and I can almost always recall the seed immediately. I can't even imagine how Howard used this freewheeling style — maybe it's like when people tell you to "be the ball" in baseball or golf (and you nod politely and then strain as if you were pooping so that you look like you're working hard at following their unintelligible instructions.)

He ended up with some great long fill, EXTRA CRISPY (yum!) crossing I HATE TO ASK … the highlights for me. I'd happy seed a themeless with either. STREET FOOD was a treat too — I'm a huge fan of bars that have rotating food trucks outside.

There were a lot of single-word entries, which often don't get much love from editors — it's so much easier to inject bursts of color using multi-word answers. Things like OBSESSES and RESORTS aren't often going to do much for the quality of a solve unless there's a wickedly clever clue that accompanies them.

But what a fun fact about CHIPOTLE peppers. I had no idea that one of my favorite tastes originates from a smoked jalapeno.

One with many hairy legs? Come on, we all thought of Europe, didn't we? Zing! Not that there's anything wrong with that! Okay, it's the TARANTULA. (Excuse me as I shudder — tarantulas are creepy.)

And it's not always the case that multi-word entries are more colorful than single-worders. I'd take SHOWPIECE any day over AT THE MOMENT.

A couple of clues elevated the solving experience. Best one was "19th-century author whose works are still read word for word." As in ROGET's Thesaurus! I'm not entirely sure if that means his editions have never been updated, or there's clever wordplay about words being substituted for synonymous words. But either way, I like it.

Overall, a bit more crossword glue than I like in a 72-worder — ANAS BAHN ILES RNS — and not as much color. But still, a good effort.

Mon 2/11/2019
SHUTSNASALBYOB
HADATOVINEIOWA
IHOPETILDEGREY
VANILLASKYUBERS
OMITETTA
CHOCOLATETHUNDER
LEIALINARGYLE
IALCALMDOWNLAN
PREFABEELMANE
STRAWBERRYBLONDE
REALMOAN
SOSADNEAPOLITAN
AVOWMIAMIAKITA
TADAANTICLEDON
SLAYPOSESARENA

Basketball nicknames are awesome. Whoever thought up Dr. Dunkenstein was a genius. But my favorite is for an entire college team that featured Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon and "Clyde the Glide" Drexler. How could you not want to be a member of Phi Slama Jama? CHOCOLATE THUNDER is right up there — Darryl Dawkins was a dunking machine. If only I could get a MONIKER featuring my hops!

(It would have to be a very short nickname.)

Straightforward Monday theme, VANILLA SKY, CHOCOLATE THUNDER, STRAWBERRY BLONDE making up NEAPOLITAN ice cream. The second and third themers are snazzy choices, spicing up the joint with some highlight-reel jams. Too bad VANILLA SKY was such a terrible movie. Tough to pick anything else that features VANILLA though, without going right at the flavor of vanilla, i.e., VANILLA BEAN, VANILLA SHAKE, etc.

Jason Williams' nickname of "White Chocolate" is close, but no cigar. Ah well.

Solid gridwork, for the most part. Loved getting some extras in OLYMPICS, BIG BANG, TAPIOCA, MONIKER — jazzing up a straightforward theme can elevate a puzzle mightily.

Howard did a nice job separating his themers will wise black square placements. But it's hard to work with two central 16s. The west and east sections are usually trouble, what with so many down answers having to work through them. See IAL in the west, and ELAND / LAN in the east. I don't mind the former, but the latter feels like a trap for newer solvers. Esoteric animal crossing a tough initialism = no bueno!

What could have helped: separating the west and east from the rest of the puzzle a little more, by shifting black squares around. See how the east has to work with BIG BANG, ARGYLE and MONIKER? That's asking for trouble. If the price is just an IAL, it's passable. Not so much for that ELAND / LAN pair.

Nominations for Jeff's nickname are now open. Please, no "Yellow Chocolate."

POW Wed 12/26/2018
CINCHUGHSIGMA
ALOHAFRYARIEL
ROBINHOODYANNI
ASIAGOORESSUV
TEDANIMALHOUSE
PROSFIB
KONARIPETEMPO
FANTASTICVOYAGE
CREEDITOOEGAD
NUBLIED
BEETLEJUICETEL
ATMTEEMELTORO
NAOMISPIDERMAN
DIJONSECREESE
SLINGEDYSKIER

Day 3 of WTF? Week at XWI! I love having the chance to tell people What I'm Thankful For

Howard gave me such an easy job today. Let's start with the theme — so clever! Of course, Nicolas CAGE should have starred in ANIMAL HOUSE. Why didn't the casting folks consider Tom CRUISE to headline FANTASTIC VOYAGE?

And my favorite, BEETLEJUICE. It took me a second to figure this one out, but of course, some VW Beetles run on diesel fuel. It's an outstanding set of leaps, to think about BEETLEJUICE to Beetle juice (gas) to diesel to Vin Diesel to THIS IS A GREAT CROSSWORD THEME!

Stellar gridwork, too. This is nearly everything I want from a technical perspective. When you have five themers, it's usually best not to go wild on the grid, keeping it at a conservative 78 or perhaps 76 words. Make sure you have a couple of strong bonuses — ADULTING along with PATENT, HANGAR, EMOJI, GINSU all help that cause — and don't let your short fill trip up solvers with weirdness. Check, check, and check!

Bravo, Howard, and thanks for the huge uplift today!

Thu 11/23/2017
WRAPMOVIEJIVE
HEROEBERTORAL
ISTORANATDECK
THIRTYMINUTES
EOSALAACIDY
NOTOKSIXAMIGOS
STEREOSENNHL
RICHARDIX
APBTEASMILED
THREEOAKSASAMI
EDITSOMGWAN
THEJACKSONONE
INCAACRIDAMAS
MOONBRUNODATA
ONMESEEDSANET

Mathplay! Some beautiful finds, like [Double feature?] interpreted as "double the number in a feature film," turning "Three Amigos" into SIX AMIGOS. And [Halftime show] as "halve the time in a show," creating THIRTY MINUTES out of "60 Minutes." THIRTY MINUTES would be much more appropriate for us short-attention span people LOOK, SOMETHING SHINY!

Ahem. I was proud of myself for getting RICHARD … something. IX? IV? Okay fine, I didn't read "Richard II" when I was supposed to.

What, it's "Richard III"?

I knew that.

It took me a while to figure out THE JACKSON ONE. What's a "fifth act," I wondered? The … fifth act of a play? Is it like a third wheel, in that final act of a play that JUST WON'T END?

Maybe "Richard II"?

But that "fifth act" business was the only one that didn't play on a common, in-the-language phrase, so some good finds overall.

Okay, I was still confused on [Fourth estate?] hours after solving. Did that mean … fourth in a series of estates? Is there something called "Zero Oaks," so THREE OAKS is the 4th, using zero-based indexing? (Man, I'm a nerd.) Or take one-fourth of something called "Twelve Oaks"? Huh.

Ah, right. There's something called "Twelve Oaks" in "Gone with the Wind." Huh.

I didn't notice until the very end that Howard formed a sequence with his themers! Well. Kinda. Sorta. If you squint. It's 1/2, x2, x3, 1/4, 1/5.

*squinting harder*

Oh, 13-letter themers, you pains in constructors' patooties. Notice how Howard had to put the first and last themers in rows 4 / 12 instead of the usual 3 / 13? Crunches things up, but good! And with that central 9 splitting the puzzle in half, forcing big corners … oof, that's so tough to construct around. It's no wonder there's a bunch of OCTO, HEA, ANET, AMAS, ESE, etc.

Too much crossword glue to feel like an elegant product, but I can understand the decision to achieve the sequence(ish) of themers, which forces a terribly difficult arrangement of themers. I might have chosen to go more randomly, thus opening up more themer possibilities, especially with the movie and the play. And maybe dropping THREE OAKS.

Overall, a bit kooky with some blips in most aspects of puzzle design, but an interesting idea that made me think.

Sat 4/1/2017
MCIASWARMHDTV
NOLALANAIAIRE
GUESSAGAINVSIX
SAUTEMOLES
PRIZEEERINESS
ACAITIMNNONOS
WASSONGSETTLE
GINORMOUS
SPRUNGAARPPSA
MEANTCNRRSIKH
UNSNARLSATTYS
HEXADBLURB
SPEDTWOBYFOURS
TORIEARLEPLEA
PESTDRESSHLIK

Hey, what's this 80-word puzzle doing in place of our expected themeless? Ah, note the date ... April Fool's!

Howard gives us four examples of uber-common crossword entries you can ink in without even thinking … or can you? That Great Lake has to be ERIE … or is it MI/CH/IG/AN! The OREO is switched for the TH/IN/MI/NT, ANTI is CO/NT/RA/RY, and the ubiquitous OSLO is HE/LS/IN/KI.

Fun idea. The WSJ, unfortunately, ran this same idea recently, but that's part of the crossword game. Too bad about getting scooped, Howard.

I don't mind when a constructor goes up to 80 words, as long as I get enough bonus fill. Love GUNNED IT; evocative entry. HAVE NOTS, PIT BULLS, GINORMOUS, SIN TAX are all excellent. But I would have preferred a little more, considering the "theme" answers were so short, and I was expecting a themeless jam-packed with juicy entries.

Howard did get the grid fairly smooth for an audacious 16-rebus square puzzle, which I appreciated — only some minor AIRE, SSE, IN NO kind of stuff. IN NO isn't good, but it's understandable given that it's smack dab in the middle of the puzzle, a tough region to fill given the presence of two "themers" and GINORMOUS, all making for an inflexible area.

I can see why Will was okay running this on a Saturday — it was incredibly hard for me. Very tricksy to figure out what was going on. But daily solvers expecting two themelesses on the weekend might be a little let down, as I was. I like (and fear) my hard Saturday themeless fix!

Sun 4/17/2016EXPANDED WORLDVIEW
NACHOOLSENBLOBSHAQ
ETHERNOOSELOVELGBT
ANIMALHOUSEONESEATER
TINLIAISEWERENT
ENUFONEASYSTREETMBA
REARENDSOHOANSWERS
ALEATWORSTESAI
STUMBLINGBLOCKFIGHTS
HOSEABARIHAIRDO
ARESDESIRESBELTOUT
GMOSEXANDTHECITYUNE
SENSATESEABASSPICA
CRESTSMOLEAUJUS
RENOIRCOMMUNISTSTATE
IDIOIMAMESSRIS
SUNBURNPDABREACHED
ECOREDSOXNATIONHEXA
TAPEUPDIGITSDIP
TIMELAPSEGOOGLEEARTH
APEXSTIRFUGUEGREEN
JOLTTHEASTANDAANDE

Congrats to our new ACPT champ! Neat to see one of the top speed solvers diving back into the construction game.

GOOGLE EARTH, a fun tool that I totally don't use to spy on my neighbors

Fun crossword, perhaps some solvers' first completeable Sunday, as Howard mentioned. I like the image Howard gives us, starting with a HOUSE, zooming back to a STREET, a BLOCK, CITY, STATE, NATION, to (GOOGLE) EARTH. Reminds me of the zoom out sequence in Contact, showing us how small we really are. And how nice that GOOGLE EARTH not only ends the sequence with EARTH, but GOOGLE EARTH is a tool that allows you to do that zoom out.

A couple of rough patches, perhaps a little more than we usually see on a Sunday. I tend to gloss over the ETE, HGT kind of stuff, but the plural EBONS and the crossing gluey bits in IDIO / EDUC are tougher to ignore. And AGRIN … because the starting A tends to come in useful for construction, we get a lot of AGLOW, ABOIL, ABED. Not great though.

Still, Howard does well to give us some good bonus fill, from BLOWTORCH to TIME LAPSE to SOAP OPERA to IM A MESS. Even the mid-length BIG GUN and PUTSCH are assets. For a theme that's nothing mind-blowing, I think about six pieces of good bonus fill help create enough snazz for me to be satisfied — Howard's definitely done that here. I really appreciate when a newer constructor takes the care and effort to work in such goodies. I imagine that solving thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of crosswords helps Howard stay in touch with what is "good fill" and what's just neutral filler material.

It's so neat to see consumers of puzzles become producers. Here's hoping we see more from not just Howard, but the other top solvers too! I'm looking at you, David Plotkin and Dan Feyer.

Mon 1/11/2016
GIFSEBBEDOPEL
OREOSAUNAKANE
BOULDERDAMOPTS
INDIESMACKERS
DADSETAREO
ASKROCKLOBSTER
WINGSPANSIR
ECOLERICAFAIR
WOOFORATIME
PEBBLEBEACHLOX
ELYERETHOR
LONESOMERAISE
OPALDUSTJACKET
SEMIESTERKENT
IDESDEANSSADE

Neat progression: a BOULDER, ERODED into a ROCK, to a PEBBLE, finally into DUST. I like this theme type, especially when the concept isn't readily apparent until you hit the revealer. I appreciated how Howard disguised some of the progression, as BOULDER DAM (the original name for the Hoover Dam) doesn't automatically make you think of a giant boulder, and ROCK LOBSTER (awesome song!) also camouflages what's going on.

ROCK LOBSTER!

It would have been great to do the same with PEBBLE BEACH and DUST JACKET, but there's not really other usages of PEBBLE or DUST. And before I got to those, I had already hit ERODED, so the jig was up anyway.

It's a shame that ERODED wasn't the final across answer. I really liked this concept, but I might have loved it if it had kept the theme opaque all the way until the end. It isn't easy to work with a six-letter revealer in the last across spot, but, I think it would have been possible. Also, it feels inelegant to have ERODED in a random-feeling spot. I suppose a case could be made that it's kind of cool that ERODED intersects two themers, but to me, its placement feels a bit haphazard.

Nice job working in PAPER TRAIL and KNOW BY NAME, two snappy phrases, in the normal long down configuration. It's unusual to have long fill in the across direction, and I like that Howard worked in WINGSPAN and SMACKERS. (FOR A TIME feels more neutral to me, and I could go either way on LONESOME.) Long fill in the across direction can muddy up what's theme and what's not, but here, I like that it helps disguise things!

No surprise that there's some ESE/ETTE, ESTA, ESTER sort of stuff given how much long fill Howard worked in, but it would have been nice to get more variety in types of gluey bits. So many E, S, T letters in there, and two suffixes tend to make them stick out. Given the flexibility in the SE corner, maybe something like ETTA could have been better.

All in all though, a really nice idea that gave me a smile.

Wed 7/23/2014
BOARTALLZESTS
ARTEALTAIQUIT
REOSBODYDOUBLE
TIMEOUTMYNA
ADIEURAETRIO
BACKGROUNDSOUND
SHORNWRITE
AVATOCCATANOS
SITATOMEGA
PERSONALBAGGAGE
SWAKANDEATUP
AIRYDARKENS
BLANKCHECKHALO
LANCEOPIEASAN
TOSEAWAVYNEWS

Howard! What a pleasure to see this nicest of guys get his debut. Howard finished 3rd at the 2014 ACPT, performing admirably on a tough final puzzle. I'm not sure I would have completed it using the "B" level clues. And to solve using the "A" level clues in front of hundreds of people... impressive!

This is one of the best revealers I've seen in the "both words can follow X" type of themes. At first I didn't quite understand it. But when you look at BLANK CHECK more like: "___ CHECK" it really sings. Not only is it an apt description of the theme (BODY check, DOUBLE check, etc.) but it's a nod to the fill-in-the-blank nature of many crossword clues. Beautiful.

And to top it off, it's always fun to get some of the constructor's personality and life in the puzzle. I smiled to see BODY check in there, knowing that Howard is a hockey player. (I'm also in the "futile attempt to capture the sporting ability of my youth" stage of life.)

It's an impressive debut. The layout of the themers looks good, and generally the fill is really smooth. There's bits of ATRA and ANS and AS AN, but that's all normal stuff. Most everything else is quite well done, and the addition of a natural-feeling Q and Z in the NE is such a nice touch. Often those Scrabbly letters feel shoehorned in, but that's one beautiful, flowing corner.

TOCCATA in the center sure is a nice little piece of fill, but having a seven-letter word sandwiched in between two grid-spanners can often cause difficulty (hello AMB!). Perhaps shifting a few black squares or even going up to 78 words would have made that easier to fill. And I'm glad Howard mentioned the RRN (random Roman numeral). There's a huge range of opinions among constructors about these. I'm with Howard in that I would take almost anything else besides a RRN, but some people like the fact that they can make a devious but gettable math clue (IV * CLI anyone?).

Constructing has definitely improved my (still sorry) solving skills, because I end up looking up and debating things like which is better: DOREN or DORAS or DORAL? Looking up all these esoteric bits tends to stick in my brain and spill out when I see a clue like [R. J. Reynolds brand]. Scary to think how much constructing might improve an already elite solver's times!