I'll admit, I was one of the DNFs (did not finishes) Ian mentioned — I stopped doing this puzzle about a quarter of the way through (and 15 minutes in). Anagrams can be really fun, but I poop out after a few of them, so 70+ was way too much for me. I have a feeling Scrabble fans might love the sheer quantity, though.
I looked through the finished grid and admired a lot of the clue/entry pairs. I was stumped by the very first one, and I smiled at what I had missed afterward — [Trio who released …] was actually [Tori who released …]. As Ian mentioned, it's absolutely perfect for this theme, as the clue sounded so natural, masking its deviousness. Same goes for [Isabel of mathematics fame], which is actually [Blaise …]. Great anagram find, along with the very innocent-seeming clue.
There were enough others, though, where the clue felt so tortured that I knew something odd was going on — [Causal negative] seemed like a typo, [Lima expense] felt like it wasn't grammatically right, etc. It's pretty easy to get a few of these anagrams to be perfectly disguised, as with Tori/Tori, but to get all 70+ of them might be near impossible. I do like the effort to make all the clues fit the pattern, but enough of them didn't work for me that the effect lost some of its magic.
I did love figuring out (after looking at the solution grid) that [Trap #1 …] ALSO fit the pattern! I was wondering why they were listed as three separate traps, and the a-ha discovery that the clues actually meant [Part #1 …] was brilliant. Particularly appropriate that "part" anagrams into "trap."
A very smooth grid, even though Ian had to work with a strict constraint: he couldn't allow even one entry that couldn't be clued in this tricky way. A single ALAI or something might have meant disaster. And there were even a few nice entries like SPARTAN, O CANADA, FRIGATE to boot.
Sound changes, MORAL THINKING hinting at "add-an-AL sound to produce kooky results." I liked that Ian strove for fairly dramatic spelling changes, MARE to MERYL, CARE to CAROL, PEAR to PERIL, etc. And some of the results gave me a laugh, BARTLETT PERIL making me think about John BARTLETT fretting over some lawsuit surrounding his books of quotations.
Some of the resulting phrases did feel a bit too awkward for my taste though. HANDLE WITH CAROL, for instance, felt like it should be HANDLE (it) WITH CAROL, and BARTLETT PERIL ought to be BARTLETT(‘s) PERIL. And although I do like theme density, ICY STARE to ICY STEROL draws upon some deep chemistry knowledge. Kind of hard to laugh at something even this chemistry lover didn't totally understand.
Sometimes Will, Joel and I discuss what makes good fill. I focus so much of my efforts on getting colorful long stuff like COLD CALL, DR PEPPER, GAG ORDER, that I often use a ton of 3-, 4-, and 5-letter answers in my grids. Will and Joel have both mentioned at times that this can make for an unsatisfying solving experience, since those shorties tend to get filled with the same stuff over and over and over.
I got some sense of that with today's grid, and looking at the stats helped me understand why — with almost 100 of his 140 entries in those short lengths, my solve felt a bit overwhelmed by them. I did like the various J CREW, MURKY, EXECS, PRIGS kind of stuff, but they aren't nearly as fun to me as DR PEPPER.
Still, Ian always takes great care to produce smooth grids, and today was no different. BASTA was the only thing that stood out (sorry Ian!), and ONE NIL felt pretty arbitrary. Otherwise, hardly a hitch in the grid.
★ I feel like Ian and I are on the same wavelength. Just last week, I was trying to convince a co-constructor to use HATERADE in a Sunday grid we're working on! Along with the colorful phrases HAIR OF THE DOG, STONE AGE, PAPER CUT, LINER NOTES, it made for such an enjoyable themeless solve.
Cluing was strong, too. LINER NOTES shined even further with such a deceptively innocent clue: [Statements for the record]. In this case, it was hinting at a vinyl record. [A, B, C, but not X, Y, Z] had me thinking about math, not a VITAMIN. People from Little Rock will appreciate the [Little rock] clue for PEBBLE.
And one of my favorite movie characters of all time, HAN SOLO, gets a quintessential quote: "Look, I ain't in this for the revolution, and I'm not in it for you, Princess." Who else could that possibly be? Granted, the writing is a bit hammy, but I'm a sucker for a great descriptive quote as a clue.
I always appreciate the care Ian takes to avoid gluey crossword bits. His themeless puzzles are so smooth, hardly a glob that makes me wince. Today, I did hitch at AGUE, a bit unusual for a Livengood puzzle, but Jim (Horne) and I had a discussion about AGUE where he argued that it's a fine piece of language seen often in historical writing. I'm not totally sold, but I can see his point.
With so many assets (I count roughly 13) and so few liabilities (maybe 0.5 apiece for AGUE and ESTER), Ian comes through with another POW! I like how he's always working with new grid patterns, whatever might fit around his choice of snazzy entries.
If there is anything, I'd like to see him push himself more, perhaps working with a lower word count, more long slots, stacks, whatever. Seems like he's more than conquered the 72-word themeless (the max number of words allowed).
Another squeaky-clean construction from Ian today. This straightforward theme gives us examples of CHEW TOYs — a BALL, STICK, ROPE, BONE. I'm not convinced that a BONE is really a toy, but that might just be semantics, as there are plenty of dog toys out there shaped like bones.
I like how Ian gives us a little flair today by crossing pairs of themers. It's not done very often since it's hard to find pairs that cross nicely, but the O in ROPE and BONE is at the perfect location, allowing Ian to place these answers in the critical row/column 13. The stars aligned just right!
Once he got those in place, he had some flexibility in choosing the starts of *BALL and *STICK — with so many words that can precede each of these, there was bound to be a combination that made the intersection possible. I'm not a huge fan of MASKED BALL, as it doesn't sound nearly as strong as MASQUERADE BALL, but it works.
As usual, Ian pays such careful attention to his fill. Nary a partial, an odd abbreviation, etc. anywhere. And when you lay out two themers horizontally and two vertically, it can be a bit difficult to get in much other long fill without muddying up what's theme and what's not. Great work in integrating ALTAR BOY, THE NERVE, THE NBA. To Ian's point, excellent use of black squares above ALTAR BOY and below THE NERVE to artificially shorten the entries — at eight letters, ALTAR BOY doesn't stand out quite as much as FISH STICK, helping to reinforce that it's not part of the theme.
A lot of constructors and I tend to agree that it's fine to have "duplicates" if they're shorties like IN, ON, THE, IF, etc. But I'm in agreement with Ian here; THE crossing THE feels inelegant to me. I do love both of those though. THE NERVE! in particular is so colorful.
Not the most mind-blowing idea, but a very solid Monday.
MIDAS TOUCH interpreted as "mid As touch." Seeing all the *AA* phrases made it pretty obvious that those letters were integral to the theme, but the revealer gave me a very nice and unexpected a-ha moment.
It's awfully surprising to see an OLIO in an Livengood puzzle (although there is a case to be made for "aglio y olio"), given how impressively free of gluey words his puzzles usually are. So what's going on? It's not that Ian was careless regarding his fill — it's the trade-off of having six themers vs. the usual four or five. Stuffing six themers into a 15x grid is something only a handful of people can pull off well, because so much theme density gives you fits in having to fill around all of them. Stacking themers does help space things out, but the ??IO pattern at 7-Down does take away flexibility.
As much as I like looking at the construction feat, I'm not sure the sixth themer was worth it. Having just four *AA* phrases would have set up the revealer just as well for me. I might have even preferred it, as it got a little repetitive to see that *AA* pattern over and over.
That said, this is a tiny nit to pick. It's much better constructed than an average Monday puzzle, what with just that OLIO and an ARG, and CLIPBOARD and LAKE GENEVA are nice bonus fill. BOB DOLE was especially pleasing to me, since my (13-month old) daughter has taken to carrying around a pen like Dole. It's ridiculously endearing.
Very nice idea, accessible to Monday solvers but still interesting what with that hard-to-predict revealer. I wouldn't have made the same trade-off to work in a sixth themer, but that's just personal preference.
Solid themeless from Ian. Fun to see GDP (gross domestic product), as I imagine Ian is taking macroeconomics right about now in business school.
Ian does well to convert nearly all of his long (8+ letter) slots into assets. (He's probably taking accounting right now, too.) The LEGO MOVIE was surprisingly entertaining, WORK VISA is an issue many tech companies struggle with today, and there are SO many nice casual phrases in IM UP FOR WHATEVER, NO BIG DEAL, THAT SAID, FALSE ALARM, and SAME HERE. Reminds me of Ian's easy-going approach to life.
There was only one long slot that I thought could be neutral, TELEGRAPH, but a very nice clue turns that into an asset for me. [Dotted line?] is a bit of a stretch in relation to dots and dashes sent by telegraph. I like the idea, though.
Good use of his 7-letter slots, too. BULWARK is an interesting word, and although I've never heard of PARONYM, it was fun to learn and something I might actually use. CAR BARN was also interesting to read up on, although it did seem less worthy of packing into my memory banks.
A trademark of Ian's puzzles is a very low number of gluey entries, and he delivers again today. Some might consider ORIEL esoteric, but it is a real term in architecture. IRES isn't commonly used, so I'd ding that. Aside from that though, just a minor DEC, AVES, and YSER is pretty solid.
The only real complaint I had was about the grid flow. A rule of thumb is that constructors should try to avoid grid layouts where a single extra black square would section off an area. Here, there are four places where that could happen — the R of ANGRY, the I of HINDLEG, the G of ARRAIGN, and the O of DOSED. As Ian mentions, this sort of layout does make a puzzle easier to construct, since each small area can be tackled one at a time — but it does provide for a more choked-off feel to the solve.
I can't remember when I've seen such low theme density. On one hand it felt thin, but I did enjoy how much room that opened up for Ian to work his themeless magic. It was a real treat to run across so much great material in a "themed"puzzle. I found these to be colorful:
To get eight pieces of snazzy long fill made for a pleasurable solving experience. Nice change of pace for a Wed puzzle.
The theme … I liked the HUMPDAY idea, incorporating four CAMEL humps. It sure would have been nice to have some extra layer to it, though. Perhaps having different types of HUMPS, i.e. MOOSE, RHINO, BISON? Or to have just two humps, and add other CAMEL parts to help flesh out the visual? Not sure what else could have been done, but it seems like there's missed potential here.
I hold Ian to a very high standard — he's one of the tops in the game, IMO. So it was a little disappointing to see more than just a couple of gluey bits, in the form of EBONS, ANE, ERG, OUSE, SNO, etc. Minor stuff, nothing that glares red, but it's more than I'm used to in Ian's puzzles. A trade-off today, Ian giving us a high number of great long entries at the price of a few more gluey ones.
I really like puzzles that force you to think. Even after uncovering all the themers, and even after uncovering FIVES???S, I couldn't figure out what tied everything together. Neat revelation: the themers all have FIVE STARS. Nice; I like working to earn my a-ha moment.
I appreciated the diversity of answers, too. Not knowing that THE PIERRE was a five-star hotel or that OMAR BRADLEY was a five-star general made it even more fun for me. And it was interesting to look up the symbolism behind the Chinese flag — the gigantic star represents the Communist party, and the four smaller ones represent the four social classes. Some stars are more equal than others, apparently.
HA HA HA JUST KIDDING! Please don't hack me.
I did wonder about the SOUTHERN CROSS, though. It does seem to have five main stars, but there are countries who use it on their flag — New Zealand, for example — where only the four main stars are shown. So that seemed a little off.
What an impressive construction. With five themers in a 72-word grid, I'd always expect to see some gluey bits — except if any one of a small handful of constructors are involved, including Ian. Some people might wonder if FADERS and PARER in the grid isn't great, but I have zero problem with this. A FADER is a real piece of recording equipment, we have a PARER in our kitchen.
Check out the top left corner. That arrangement of parallel downs is almost always going to require some gluey bits. I'm sure Ian and the J.A.S.A. class tried many different entries before settling on INHIBITS and SCENARIO. They're not wildly awesome answers — I doubt they'd earn a plus in Will's assets column — but check out how squeaky clean all the crossings are.
Interesting that Ian pointed out TRUE THAT as one of his favorite entries. I love TRUE DAT. TRUE THAT … not so much. Personal preference.
All in all, a strong theme with a slight hiccup in my eyes, and an impeccably clean grid.
★ Another clinic from Ian today. At 72 words (the max for a themeless), the grid is nothing fancy or envelope-pushing, but Ian makes such great use of his long entries. A puzzle's sizzle often comes from its 8+ letter entries, and with only 14 of those slots available today, it's so critical to convert nearly all of them into snappy entries.
That's a tough task, but look at all the great material Ian strews about the grid. Starting with a SNAPCHAT / KETEL ONE / ICE RINKS and ending with IRON CHEF / NEWSHOLE (vaguely and amusingly lewd-sounding) / GREEK GOD — what a way to bookend the puzzle. Spreading NOISEMAKERS and ANKLE MONITOR and STONEMASONS around made the solve so pleasing all over, from top to bottom and left to right.
A note on ROGER FEDERER and SIMON COWELL. Both gridworthy, no doubt, but I value SIMON COWELL so much more than ROGER FEDERER in a crossword. It's really fun to get your favorite sports (or movie, or whatever) figure into a grid, but celebs can be awfully polarizing. You elate the people that are also fans, but alienate those that don't know (or don't wish to know) the person. So unless there's great cluing potential, I find reliance on names a bit unsatisfying.
ROGER FEDERER probably has clever cluing potential, but [Five-in-a-row U.S. Open winner] sounds like a Wikipedia entry, while [Fox hunt leader of old] is a gold-medal play on SIMON COWELL's former role on the Fox talent search show, "American Idol."
Finally, Ian's short fill. Because a 72-word puzzle is relatively easy to fill compared to a 68 or or a 66, it's important to distinguish it by keeping the glue to a minimum. Ian's always good about this, and today is no different. I have to be pretty nit-picky to point out ANON, which has a bit of a fusty feel to it, but is also common in poetry. And NEC will draw some complaints as three randomish letters stuck together, but I find it hard to argue that a company with a market cap of roughly $10B isn't gridworthy. It's not something I'd strive to use, but I personally find it to be a minor blip.
Very entertaining, smooth solve.
Ian puts on his usual clinic today, four themers hiding diminutive nicknames, plus the SMALL TALK revealer. All themers are two(ish) words, and he chooses half of them with the key word in front — SQUIRT GUN and PEE WEE — and half in the back. Nice consistency and balance, with colorful themers.
I like Ian's style, as he puts a lot of emphasis on including both quantity and quality of long fill. This philosophy leads to a lot of three and four-letter answers, but I don't really mind that in an early-week puzzle. I did notice that there seemed to be a lot of short(y) answers in the grid, but getting an arsenal of great fill — ROOT BEER, ARMY MAN, BLUE LAW, GORILLA, etc. — more than makes up for it.
Ian's comment about 3x7 corners is well-taken. I try to avoid them whenever possible, too. Working with 8s has so much more potential for lively fill compared to working with 7s, as the former has the potential for many more multi-word entries (as well as not-as-often seen single word entries). Ian does great with his corners though, keeping them nice and clean, and 12 out of 12 of the 7s in those corners are above average to great 7s. Takes a huge deal of perseverance and hard work to achieve.
I really liked how SQUIRT, SHRIMP, and SHORTY hid the diminutive pretty well. It would have been a near-perfect theme set if PEE WEE had equally been camouflaged. Although PEE WEE REESE wasn't nearly as short as, say, Eddie Gaedel, at 5'9" he was smallish for a baseball player and was also nicknamed "The Little Colonel."
All in all though, another strong offering from Ian.
Themers starting with sassy synonyms, all disguised using other meanings: SMART as in smart-mouthed, FLIP as in flippant, FORWARD as in "that incredibly good-looking Asian crossword blogger was a little too forward but man did I flip at his bold commentary!"
Or something like that.
It's been great following Ian's puzzles over the past years, seeing him constantly pushing his skills. It wasn't enough to be able to execute a five-themer puzzle as clean as a whistle. Next came five-themers with four long downs — still clean. Then six themers was the new challenge. And now six themers, plus four long downs? I love seeing that drive to push one's boundaries.
Ian does something really interesting today with his themers. Usually it's best to alternate them left right left right etc., but he stacks SMART COOKIE over PERT PLUS on the right side. Makes for a very hard overlap in the RUER area. With six themers, an alternating pattern often makes grid design very difficult — especially when an answer is as long as SMART COOKIE — because it creates many areas where you need to work around three themers at a time. This arrangement, while still very difficult to nail cleanly, reduces the number of said areas.
It's unusual to see a RUER in one of Ian's puzzles, given how exacting he is about his fill standards. But look at how much goodness that one entry enabled: SENIOR PROM in the NE (and PADDYWAGON in the SW). Well worth it.
Sorry to those of you struggling with that Starship captain crossing BOSCH, but I feel like it's fair, even for a Monday. I'd personally categorize BOSCH as one of the greats, and Jean-Luc Picard is clearly the best of all the Enterprise captains. (Don't even get me started on Captains Janeway or Archer, and Kirk supporters are fresh heathens.)
And congrats is in order for Ian, one of the four new members of CrosSynergy, a syndicate providing daily xws to the Washington Post. The others are Patti Varol, editor of the Crosswords Club, Brad Wilber, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Todd McClary.
★ As a solver, I've come to fear the 64 and 66-word themeless. At 68 or 70 words, there's huge potential to cram a huge quantity of assets into a puzzle with not many liabilities. And grids with 62 words or fewer may not have as much in terms of spotlight entries, but they can look jaw-dropping, giving a tremendous visual impact with their wide-open tracts of white space. Too often, the middle ground means not enough assets, a slew of mostly neutral entries, and/or too many liabilities. So a puzzle like today's 66-worder packed full of assets and low on liabilities, is very welcome. Great feat of construction and a very enjoyable solve.
When I opened it up, I wondered how those NW and SE corners would turn out. Not many people attempt quad-stacked 8s, because they too often require pots of glue to hold them together. Kevin has done at least one before, and the experience shows, as both of those corners come out clean as a whistle. Better yet, the long answers are generally fresh and snappy, not at all the neutral types of entries I expected. POT FARMS, AFROBEAT, STARBASE, TENTACLE makes for quite a quartet.
The other corner is anchored by NET SALES, a bit dull since with its common letters, we see it quite often in themelesses. But otherwise, to get PRENATAL with its great clue, HATE MAIL, IPAD MINI with clean crossings is really impressive work.
Normally I'm not one who notices how Scrabbly a puzzle is. Patrick Berry quite often stays away from the Big Four (JQXZ), and his work is almost always standout. But he does usually pepper a grid with a few Vs or Ks to keep things interesting. With just one K, this puzzle did feel a bit "Wheel of Fortune" to me, leaning heavily on the RSTLN E.
And there were a few entries that I didn't care for. UNO DUE TRE felt like a wasted slot, not nearly as in the language as UNO DOS TRES or UN DEUX TROIS, but of course I'm sure Italian speakers enjoyed seeing it. ULSTER was interesting to learn about — a type of coat worn by Holmes — but the clever clue was lost on me, as even after filling in the letters, it didn't make sense until I went to go look it up, and at that point I had forgotten what the clue was.
That's all nit-picking though, as my enjoyment level was really high. To get such a high quantity of assets and few liabilities in a 66-worder is an impressive feat. Along with Will's in-depth commentary of how he analyzed and edited the clues, it was a real joy from start to finish to post-game analysis.
Ian puts on a clinic today, executing on a synonyms theme with near perfection. I like when a Monday theme isn't blatantly obvious, apparent as soon as you enter a few answers. I wasn't sure what was going on when I finished, and seeing the tie between STICK, CANE, POLE, STAFF, and ROD gave me a neat realization of how everything tied together.
I agree with Ian that synonym puzzles work best when the words are one step removed from their common meanings. ROD, for example, completely camouflages the "stick" meaning. STAFF works nicely as well, STICK and POLE too. CANE is not quite to the same level since sugarcane does have some connection to the cane shape. But still, CANE SUGAR does its job, hiding what's going on to some degree.
It's really impressive how little glue Ian uses in this puzzle. For Monday puzzles, that's so important, as a lone OLIO or even an ERNE can potentially turn off newer solvers. And with five themers, cleanliness is a tall order. Ian does well to choose a seven-letter middle answer, which makes everything much easier than if it were a nine, 11, or a 13. Veteran move.
I did find that the STICKUP in STICKUP MEN stuck out, though. I find consistency elegant, and having a lone instance of "this one does not look like the others" feels a bit off. I'm not sure what an alternate themer would have been though, considering how few "STICK *" answers there are that don't give away the game. STICK IN would work, but it's not nearly as jazzy as STICKUP MEN. So I think Ian's compromise is okay.
Patrick Berry's Crossword Construction book is unfortunately a bit hard to come by. Someone ought to think about writing the follow-on cough cough Livengood.
All this time I've been sitting on my laurels, thinking that Jill Denny and I would be the most prolific married couple constructing pair (we have two more accepted, in the queue for publication). Ruh-roh. Enter the newlywed Livengoods (congrats!), a good bet to become a force in constructing power. Today they bring us a clever juxtaposition, with A FISH OUT OF WATER tied to the actual fishng process: BAIT, CAST, BITE, REEL. Not being a fisherman, I was a little confused why you need to bite the fish before reeling it in. Fishing is much more violent than I imagined.
Excellent grid work, with no less than eight pieces of long fill. Note how the long downs are spread out across the width of the puzzle (i.e., TOUCAN SAM hardly interacts with POLICE VAN)? That's a beautiful way to do it, as one set won't affect the next too much. Good spacing and little overlap makes it much easier to achieve clean fill.
Interesting, that NE corner. The rest of the puzzle is so clean and lively, that POOLE stuck out for me. It's absolutely reasonable to put in a not well-known entry into a Monday puzzle (as long as the crossings are fair), but POOLE strikes me as one of those entries that might not be crossworthy. Perhaps if it had been clued to something historically relevant? This is a good example of trade-offs. TOUCAN SAM is such a nice answer. When it and COLORCAST are fixed into place though, sometimes a POOLE-ish answer is required.
I like seeing a glimpse of the constructor's lives in a puzzle, and it was fun to see ASSET clued with a bschool definition (Ian's starting at Drexel in the fall). Learning how to properly record depreciation and amortization in an accounting ledger... less fun. Sorry, man. It gets better.
Bring it on, Livengoods! Dr. and Mr. Denny are in the trenches, working away.
Now that's the way to do a sound change puzzle. Today, the "CHEE" sound is added onto base phrases to produce kooky results, and both the base phrases and the resulting themers are quite good. WOUNDED KNEE -> WOUNDED NIETZSCHE is a perfect example. Additionally, the spelling change is so crazy on this one that it's hard not to admire. Good stuff.
As always, Ian does great things with his fill. Both sparkly (COP CARS, LATECOMER, CAMEL HAIR, even BAWDY, FIVE-O and HOOCH — best of all, TACO BELL and LAST WISH make a hilarious symmetrical pair) and smooth (only the tiniest smattering of the perfectly fine EDT, STS, ADE kind of stuff).
How does he do it? First of all, he sticks to the basics, using seven themers (roughly the minimum for a Sunday) and 140 words (Will's maximum). He then folds in good theme placement, making sure to put as much space in between adjacent entries as possible, and places black squares such that there's a minimum number of downs which cross two themers. That often starts with a stairstep kind of approach, which you can see going (roughly) from SW to NE. Three pairs of cheater squares further facilitates smooth fill — not perfect to have so many in there, but well worth the (very slight, IMO) visual inelegance of extra black squares.
I'm guessing here, but I'm fairly certain the final, rare ingredient is his ability to tear out a good piece of fill and try something else. Too often, constructors stick to some entry they love, convincing themselves that a few dabs of glue is fine. In so many of those cases, an alternate piece of fill is available — maybe not as great, but still quite good — which allows for Livengoodesque silkiness.
Very well done. This is a good one to take apart and study if you're a constructor dipping your toes into the Sunday waters.
Hard to tell that Ian's a sports nut, yeah? There's only COSTAS, THE REBELS, TERRELL Davis... and TEAM SPORTS, of course. Thankfully I like sports too. Even not being a Broncos fan, it wasn't too hard to pull out TERRELL's name. Poor NFL running backs have such a short career lifespan, often topping out before the age of 30. You have to cram a lot of big runs into a small number of years if you're ever going to become famous enough to make the NYT crossword! What, that's not your goal? Ridiculous.
I like the vibe of Ian's puzzles, skewing both more slangy and more sporty than average. I remember the first time one of the kids I work with saying YA HEARD? to me — I give a lot of knowing nods. I'm not sure if YA HEARD will stand the test of time a la WHAT UP G? or go the way of FO SHIZZLE, but for now it seems to be holding up all right.
I always appreciate the variety in Ian's themeless grids. He's always trying out something new, not content to fall into a pattern of using establish grid patterns. This one has so much interconnect it's hard to describe or even grok it all. Beautiful puzzle flow, a feng shui masterpiece, with each section having so many ways to break into it. And look at that intersection of FIREHOSES / RAP GROUPS / RUSSIAN MOB / DR SEUSS / BED HOP etc. That's just one area packed with all sorts of goodness.
I'm a bit mixed on BEDHOP, actually. As much as I enjoy nervously tittering at answers like SHTUP, there's a quaint indirectness with SHTUP, almost like something your grandma might say (at least my grandma, who is awesome). BEDHOP is so direct, so in your face IMO. A matter of taste, of course, but it feels a bit out of place to me in the NYT.
A little more glue than I'm used to in a Livengood themeless, what with both AMO and AMAT (with the same clue, even!) , OON, AZO, ETD, etc., but well worth the price of all the great stuff jam-packed in.
Another strong construction from Ian today, this one using circled letters to spell out FLAG DAY. Which apparently is June 14. Who knew? I like that the circles are placed in the shape of a flag. Nice touch.
Nice choice of four themers, ones that are easily recognizable even by those of us who mix up Wyoming and Wisconsin. I mean, those of us who have friends who know so little about geography. And each of the four is a snappy answer in itself, each one I'd be happy to use as fill in any of my own puzzles.
In terms of specificity, I did pause a little. It was really nice to see [Canada] up top, followed by [U.S.A.] close to the middle. I was anticipating [Mexico] next, perhaps followed by a revealer? So it was a little jarring to see [U.S.S.R.] next. My knowledge of geography is bad, but it's not THAT bad. Although I could probably be convinced that [Japan] is somewhere down south. It would have been perfect if the themers were geographically correct, or if they were the four biggest economies in the world, or all members of the G-7, etc. Eh, can't have it all.
Neat layout today, more difficult that it might look at first glance. Ian does well to space out his themers so as to account for the circled letters. This does force the two grid-spanners very close together, which can often create problems. My expectations are always quite high when I see Ian's byline, so it was noticeable to get EEE in there. Tough to avoid, though, unless you want to use EOE or DR. N (um... Newton's nickname?).
Beautiful way to start the puzzle, with DAFFY and ["You're dethpicable" toon]. I grew up on Looney Tunes, and getting a reminder of those halcyon days when I used to watch hours of cartoons (also known as "yesterday") makes me smile.
Hoo boy though, did I ever get stuck in one spot. Who knew a female SWAN is called a "pen"? Apparently there's also a famous pen brand called "Swan." Considering NO FAT could easily have been LOFAT made it even harder.
As always, Ian gives us good long fill, even what with the tough puzzle constraints. POKER ROOM going through two themers, and FOUR ALARM doing the same — that's excellent grid design. He places his black squares very well in order to isolate those sections, making them easier to fill. YEAH MAN!, good stuff.
★ Another highly polished piece of work from one of the masters. Five theme answers, all common three-word admonitions with IT in the middle, interpreted in wacky ways. It's especially nice that they're all clued as "That's enough!" to a specific type of person. My favorite was KEEP IT DOWN to a hot-dog eating contestants, as it hits on my fascination with competitive eating. There's a sport-specific term called a "reversal" which I won't go into.
Where Ian really makes a name for himself as a constructor is his ability to jam-pack snazzy fill into a puzzle with clean overall results. With five medium-length themers, many constructors would call it good to have simply one pair of long downs. Ian's moved way past that point, giving us GAS STOVE, SEES FIT, CREW TEAM with its fun clue, APE SUIT. And that's just in two of the corners!
Because the central entry is an "inconvenient length" (it sort of splits the grid into an upper and a lower half), it forces open white spaces in the NE and SW. As anyone who's tried to fill a moderate-size chunk of crossword grid knows, it's not easy to do with quality. Sure, it's a simple thing to fill a subsection so that it works, but it's another matter completely to do it without a single blemish. With only a single glue-y answer (CHA) to hold it all together, Ian still manages to work in EXACTA, TEN HUT, ECOLAW. Ian even rescues CHA with a really fun clue.
How does he do it, you might ask? Some people assume that constructors just hit a button and let the computer do the work for them. Some constructors actually do that, but the auto-fill process almost always spits out subpar fill. I've had the pleasure of working with Ian on a few grids, so I've seen that he takes a significant amount of time with every grid he makes, trying out multiple layouts, testing out dozens of possibilities in the critical junctions to figure out what will help him fill cleanly. From there, it's a matter of trial and error guided by hundreds of puzzles worth of grid-building experience to produce a clean result.
What's most impressive is Ian's track record of consistency. Whenever I see his name on a byline, I know I'm going to get a fun theme with more than a handful of long fill and a minimum of cruddy answers. This puzzle is no different, especially difficult given that the best Tuesday puzzles are smooth enough for relative beginners but interesting enough for more experienced solvers. I tip my hat to you, sir!
★ Beautiful puzzle today, everything I personally like to see in a Sunday-size grid: nice theme answers, strong, clean fill, and a visual element. Plus, an inspirational message! Often, I get a little worn-out by a 21x21 crossword puzzle, but this one kept me delighted from start to end. Doesn't hurt that I just saw Ian at the ACPT and had a drink with him, really enjoying chatting about crossword construction as always. Nothing better than talking shop with fellow constructors.
Except if Will is paying, of course.
One aspect I thought Ian did very well was in capturing elements of many different types of puzzles. Quote puzzles by themselves tend to be on the dull side (unless the quote is spectacularly funny or insightful), but not only does Ian restrict the quote part to three entries, he ties it in with the puzzle's visual. I had to work to uncover the quote, and it was totally worth it.
It's also neat when a constructor's personality and interests shine through. Ian is a sports guy, so seeing beautiful long entries like NFC SOUTH, CHICAGO BULLS, and my hometown THE NINERS was a pleasure. Some may accuse him of making the long fill too sports-oriented, but it's not like he's used TOLEDO MUDHENS or the TACOMA RAINIERS. Come on, it's THE NINERS, people! Grumble grumble, stupid play calling / decision making at the end of last year's NFC championship game, grumble grumble.
It did take me a little while to figure out the AHA MOMENT running around the light bulb, because I skipped the notepad (those just tend to seem superfluous) and tried to read it from the lower left corner going clockwise. It's the natural thing to do, right? Getting an OMAHA TNE wasn't quite doing it for me though, so I begrudgingly went back and read the notepad. Fine, I'll follow directions!
As with all of Ian's stuff, the fill is so smooth. He's the one who got me on a kick against partials, especially five-letter ones. It's amazing how much good stuff he packed in while avoiding ugly stuff, just some short NNE, CIR, ADE, SOC, ULT, OLEO kind of filler, barely noticable (I had to go back and search it out). I totally agree with his use of cheater squares in the middle row of the puzzle (before SEAL and after IDOS), which I'm sure made those sections smoother. That section above SEAL (where FEDORAS is) I'm sure would have been crunchier if not for that cheater square.
Can't say enough good stuff about this puzzle!
Another one from the J.A.S.A. Crossword Class, led by Ian Livengood. It's really cool in itself to see a group of retirement-age folks come up with a crossword puzzle worthy of the NYT, and even more so that they integrated so much right-up-to-date terminology.
A snazzy themeless with a current feel, especially strong work in the tricky seven-letter lengths. My favorite was K THX BYE, which if you don't know, typically is slapped onto funny cat pictures, also known as LOLcats. The rumor that I spend 2.34 hours browsing I Can Has Cheezburger and YouTube videos of cats on treadmills is wholly and utterly not filled with liesome truthiness. Ahem. I've not seen K THX BYE used in chat / texting as much, but it's a certainty that every one of the J.A.S.A. Class members is cooler than me (I still use my 2002 Motorola Razr), so I defer on that point.
I did notice the preponderance of three-letter words today, 16 of them. Most themelesses keep the count down to 12 or so, as three-letter words tend to be a little dull, as most all of them have been used so often for crossword glue. I usually don't mind a little more than normal because it usually means I get more great long answers, but today the NE and SW bothered me a little. Having four three-letter words in a row is a bit visually unappealing to me — totally a subjective call — and the tough clues for them made unearthing K THX BYE very difficult.
Everything came easily to me in the SW, although now that I look back at it, having PDF, AVI as a prefix, JDS, and ACH isn't as elegant as I would like. Perhaps if AVI had been clued as the Newbery Award-winning author? I would love to see the day that Young Adult and Middle Grade authors get the recognition they deserve when it comes to crossword fame. (Avi's "Poppy" is a favorite of mine.)
Finally, a clue/answer pair that stumped me so bad I had to look it up after I finished: Tony Danza is one of my favorite sitcom characters (on "Taxi"), but in this case, "danza" is the Italian word for "dance", which is an ARTE, the Italian word for "art." Tricky!
Looking forward to more from the JASA Class! They're just a Monday and a Wednesday away from hitting for the cycle.
There are lots of people probably confused as to why they saw this puzzle last week. I don't know the exact details, but apparently there was a mixup at the Times, because Will wanted to run Kevin Der's puzzle just before the MIT Mystery Hunt, because it was actually integrated into the Hunt. Pretty cool, huh? Great idea, but the execution was lacking.
Onward and upward. Another fine offering from Ian, clean as a whistle. I have to think this follows more of his experiment placing the shorter stuff first, then seeing what he can get out of the longer answers. In general, I love the fact that there's hardly any ugly stuff (pretty amazing to have just AWS, HEPS, SSN, and only HEPS is really cringeworthy).
But the other day I had an interesting exchange with another constructor who's opposed to this approach, because it doesn't allow for as many new entries. Since you fix some constraints by placing shorties into the grid first, you limit your ability to insert truly snazzy stuff. I like the colloquial HOW ARE YA a lot and love MILE HIGH CLUB (if only this had been in another venue and we could have seen one of Will's clues), but other than that, nothing spectacular. And an entry like TRADE BOOKS is about as interesting to me as bond funds are to my nephew. (It's pretty fun to chase my nephew around, yelling about credit risk and durations. Ah, good times.)
For just about any constructor I'd stand up and clap upon encountering this puzzle. A 70-word puzzle is harder than a 72, and a 68 is verging on "only possible to do cleanly and sparkly for those named Berry." But Ian Livengood... well, he's Ian Livengood. I was expecting more sparkly goodness out of a 68-worder. It's kind of unfair, but once you achieve name-brand status a la BEQ, DQ, Nothnagel, Walden, et al, the ante is upped. Still, fun puzzle today; a good workout.
I wrote Ian a month ago, in mock surprise that his name WASN'T on the list for upcoming puzzles that week. His response: "If it ain't broke ..." I'll have what you're having, sir.
Seriously, when you're this good, I don't mind seeing a name pop up this frequently. Today's themeless is a collaboration with his J.A.S.A. Crossword Class, which sounds like a blast. It's hard for me to imagine anyone in the class knows INSTAGRAM or DJANGO UNCHAINED well, so it's pretty awesome that this puzzle has a relatively recent feel to it, what with INSTAGRAM, OBAMACARE, and texty OTOH (on the other hand). Good mix too, with RED SCARE and NEWSREELS; something for everyone.
Themeless puzzles have an interesting race-like quality amongst constructors: "who'll be the first to debut X?" OBAMACARE debuted in the NYT in a 2012 David Quarfoot puzzle and has appeared two more times since (three including today's). Seeing it once recently is fine, but seeing it four times now gets a little tiresome. It's such a tough thing to figure out, since the delay in getting themeless puzzles can run in the range of two years.
A rule of thumb I use in my own themeless submissions is based off a comment Will made last summer. He puts checks by snappy answers (DADS TO BE, VETO POWER), and minuses next to ugly fill (I would consider NAOH, EST, plural UNOS, TAE, and TAI in this category), and that helps him figure out whether or not to accept. I like to have at least 10 checks (preferably 15), less than 5 minuses, and zero "automatic disqualifications" (recently I tried to sneak RSI (repetitive stress injury) by, but it didn't fly). This is all subjective of course. ONE IN TEN seems awfully arbitrary to me, but perhaps someone else would see it as desirable, especially if they could come up with an awesome clue for it.
Enjoyable solve today. J.A.S.A. Crossword Class, keep up the good work!
★ Another beautiful construction from Ian, the first constructor to earn his second POW! during my iron-fisted regime of terror. Er, happiness. Same difference. Almost all themeless puzzles require trade-offs, with snazzier entries or lower word counts coming at the price of ugly fill. Today's is a beauty, a huge amount of lively long fill and almost nothing by way of subpar answers. Almost Berryesque, I daresay. Sacrilege, I know!
When Ian sent his commentary, I thought at first he was joking. Start with the short stuff? And fill in the longer stuff from there? Ha, that's funny! And then I started to wonder ... is this madness, or genius? (Such a fine line.) And to my surprise, Ian said indeed, he was being serious, trying a new approach to minimize ugly short fill. Heck, if the long fill is so nice with such a minimal amount of dreck, maybe he's onto something.
The only hiccup I saw was in the SW corner, with VAYA/VARIG/AGITA. I had to look up the last two, and was glad I did, as they seem like pieces of information I ought to have in my knowledge base. I knew VAYA (con Dios) from spending way too much of my 20s steeped in King of the Hill episodes when I could have actually been doing something useful (like watching Simpsons episodes). If a solver hadn't been exposed to KotH though, Dios help them in the VAYA/VARIG crossing.
One issue I had was it was over too quickly. Perhaps I'm simply on Ian's wavelength, but my solving experience flew by. I would have liked more wordplay clues like "Touch-type?" for BRAILLE (brilliant!), and it felt like too many clues were leaning too far into the straightforward side (SEATBACKS and LEATHER seem ripe for clever wordplay clues, for example). Oh well, if nothing else the variety in difficulty level is good. Great work from Ian today!
Nice Monday puzzle to ease us into the week. This one will be Ian's 11th Monday puzzle in the Shortz era, putting him in rare air. Making a super-smooth but interesting Monday puzzle is one of the more difficult tasks in construction, and Ian yet again proves himself up to the task.
The consistency is much appreciated in his theme choices, all six (SIX! for goodness sake) themers split in the OP/S fashion, none with the O/PS break. Not that there are many phrases which exhibit the latter, but P.G. Wodehouse and his LEAVE IT TO PSMITH must feel left out today.
The layout is unusual, as it often must be with such staggering theme density. Given such stringent requirements, the rest of a puzzle's fill often suffers, but Ian laughs in the face of adversity, tossing in MEAT STEW, CAB STAND, TYPE SET, and MAD MEN. I paused a bit because the themers don't stand out quite as much as they could (I've highlighted them; notice how MEAT STEW and CAB STAND are longer than COP SHOW and look like they ought to be themers) but that's a reasonable trade-off given how much goodness is contained within the grid.
COHIBA...it's often nice to see a brand new word making its debut in the NYT, but this one gave me pause. Yes, it's well known (according to the Google at least), but it feels out of place to me for a Monday NYT. The crossings are all fair, so no problems there, but IMO it has the vibe of being awfully hard for a novice solver.
Will and I have slightly different philosophies on what a Monday puzzle should be. I might have kicked it back to Ian, asking him to lose COHIBA, AGUE, SANA (which I think is more commonly spelled SANA'A), and/or DSO so I could convince more non-crossword people that the NYT xw is doable and that they ought to give it a try (although I'm not sure it would be possible to get rid of those entries, given how theme-dense this puzzle is). But I'm sure there will be many solvers today who applaud Will's decision as one giving them a new word or two for their crossword vocabulary. It must be tough to make dozens of these decisions every day.
Time to kick back with a COHIBA. Ah, relaxing. Okay, I approve of COHIBA.
Final note: I race the great Dan Feyer on my own puzzles, and haven't beaten him yet (although now I can come within a factor of two). I've tried studying MY OWN ANSWER GRID just before solving...and he still beats me. It's like watching a magic trick.
I laughed when I hit ITS SUPERMAN. Rare that I get a chuckle out of a Thursday crossword, so kudos to Ian for the clever idea.
Not only does Ian squeeze in six theme entries, a feat that should carry a "Kids, do not try this at home!" warning, but look at the parallel 9's at 2D/3D and 33D/34D. Ian could have easily put black squares in the middle of 2D and 34D (to increase his word count to the max of 78) and had a much easier time filling the grid, but he chooses to treat us with additional long fill. It's typically difficult to incorporate two adjacent long fillers because there's already the fact that they cross a fixed theme entry (ABOUT THAT and JUMP SUITS crossing ITS A BIRD), but Ian executes it well. So many levels of difficulty in this construction and lots of payoff. I had a hard time with UDALL but for a Thursday it's fair.
Almost every crossword contains trade-offs requiring value judgments. I love that Ian recognizes (and agonizes over) the fact that JEFF KENT will be somewhat controversial. Self-awareness is a mark of a great constructor. I tried to think of what other entries might have worked better, but as Ian already pointed out, only KENT STATE came to mind (and CLARK KENT of course). Due to crossword symmetry requirements, KENT STATE (9 letters) would have to be paired with ITS A PLANE (9 letters), which is possible but would throw the order of themers out of whack. So I think using JEFF KENT is a reasonable trade-off to make this concept work.
Someone invent a new phone and call it the KALEL PDA, will you?
Almost all crosswords place theme answers horizontally, because they're generally easier for solvers to pick out that way. It's a rare puzzle that can successfully pull off vertical themers, and Ian does it well. A simple theme for a Monday, one with good rationale why the themers should run down instead of across.
Note that Ian didn't just choose any four fruits, but ones that are disguised within their phrases. Sure, SODA LIME or PRICKLY PEAR would exhibit literal LOW HANGING FRUIT, but the first isn't a fun phrase and the second isn't disguised. DIDNT GIVE A FIG could work, but it doesn't fit the two-word pattern. So bravo to Ian for being both consistent and specific in his choice of themers.
18A and 63A are fun longer fill, but do they distract from the theme (making solvers wonder what SWEET TALK and CENTER CUT have to do with LOW HANGING FRUIT)? In this case I think it's totally fine because the theme is so obvious, but it would be a different story if the theme were more difficult to ascertain.
Finally, a JWDW (Jeff would do WHAT?!) moment. Will made an excellent point last week about a great majority of his audience already being NYT xw solvers, so that's what he edits to. But I would love to see at least a few super-easy Monday puzzles throughout the year, since it's difficult to get most of my friends to even try a NYT puzzle. Today's is certainly fair (all answers are ones that an educated person ought to know), but I can see how it would be tough for newbies (EL AL, ULEE, OCHS, OLEO, ESTES). Here's an idea for audience-building, which I think is important for the long-term health of crosswords: what if puzzles in the first week of the month were relatively easier than the rest of the month? Anyway, something to consider.
★ POW! In the spirit of the great Ryan and Brian (of "Ryan and Brian do Crosswords"), I'm trying out a new feature: Jeff's Puzzle of the Week!, or POW! for short. I'll use it to celebrate what I believe is the "best" puzzle of the week, the one that best exemplifies what that type of puzzle (early-week, late-week, themeless, or Sunday-size) ought to be. This week my POW! goes to Ian for his beauty of a themeless.
Ian incorporates several marquee answers to bring a smile to solvers' faces (BOBBLE HEAD, MAC N CHEESE, EPIC WIN, etc.), with a minimum of subpar entries (if ES SU and ENE are your worst entries, that's a tremendous success). Most notably, look at the wide-open NE and SW sections, big 6x5 blocks of white space that typically require an ugly answer or two to fill. I often shudder when faced with these types of cavernous areas, usually having to redo the section two or three dozen times before I get something even passable. Ian's are impeccably executed, not a stinker amongst them, and he even managed to work in BRAPADS and RWANDA, a call-out to his seed entry.
Speaking of that, I really enjoy learning what a constructor used to seed a themeless puzzle. I expect that some people are going to gripe about JUBA because they've never heard of it, but I think it's a perfect example of something I was glad to learn about.
Final note: great to hear Ian's comment about SIDESHOW BOB. Kudos to him for this decision; it's really tough as a constructor to give up on an answer you love, but it's the right thing to do if it means coming up with better overall fill. This willingness is one factor that separates the great constructors from the rest.