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James Mulhern author page

25 puzzles by James Mulhern
with Jeff Chen comments

James Mulhern
Puzzles constructed by James Mulhern by year
Sat 3/26/2022

I haven't seen such a fresh trio of marquee central answers in ages. All of them are NYT debuts, and only one was already in our XWI Word List. REAL ORIGINAL, dripping with sarcasm, is ironically really original. Although I didn't recognize CUDDLE PUDDLE, it's easily understandable. Plus, squee-worthy animals!

Great material in the lower left and upper right corners, too. Themelesses are all about making the most of your precious long slots, and CHEM LAB / CUT LOOSE / ADMIT ONE are all excellent. Not only are they the kind of colorful multi-word phrases that editors prize, but they're ripe for clever cluing. This chem dork loves the misdirect away from solutions and solutes.

Not quite as much zing in the opening corner, unfortunately. I appreciate the effort to make BRANDISH sing, but the image of people waving guns in the air is not so appealing given current events. The oldie MR SANDMAN makes its second appearance in less than a month, too — although that does make SEE DOUBLE apt.

Attempting to forestall the questions I'm bound to get:

  • DIRNDL is exactly as clued, a folk dress.
  • RES is … a residential telephone number?
  • Tube letters are always SPF. Except when they're ADA. As in, ADA Lovelace's cathode ray tube, of course.

(American Dental Association on a toothpaste tube.)

A lot of fun packed into this Friday-ish grid, mixed with some kick-it-up-a-notch Saturday-level clues. It's ironic that disgusting NONPAREIL candies mean "without parallel." I'm going to have some words with our French friends about that …

Fri 6/23/2017

So much goodness packed into this themeless! Big corners like the upper right and lower left, with their stacks intersecting stacks, are notoriously hard to fill with snazzy material and a minimum of crossword glue. That upper right sizzles, all six long entries oh so good.

Well, the hated TOM BRADY being the exception. Grumble grumble says this Seahawks fan.

With every single short answer perfectly fine, that's stellar work.

Speaking of stellar, I even liked SKY ATLAS. Not only is it a neat term that this astronomy nerd liked learning, but it's easy to get from the crossings, as both words are recognizable as astronomy-related terms.

The lower left was also entertaining, but it didn't quite catch my attention like the upper right. BUST A GUT and UPTOWN GIRL are both fine answers, but both have a bit of an old-timey feel to them. I suppose the latter is a classic, immediately recognizable even to this pop music idiot.

The crossing of APO and THE ROOTS ... APO (Army post office) is going to be three random letters to some solvers, and THE ROOTS could easily be THE RIOTS. No bueno. It left me with a 50-50 guess, and thankfully, I guessed right. A case could be made that THE ROOTS is a big enough name that I ought to have known it. But I think while JIMMY FALLON and the TONIGHT SHOW are must-know names for educated solvers (even QUESTLOVE), I don't think THE ROOTS passes that bar.

Along with the toughie PERCALE, that corner didn't make as good an impression as the opposite one. Still, it's pretty darn strong--GOO GOO GA GA made this dad laugh--if you can overlook the big flaw.

I was leaning toward giving this one the POW!, what with all the fantastic SPINAL TAP, SUPERDOME, ANTIPOPE type answers to accompany the aforementioned. But there was another hiccup for me, the clue for OGLE: [Look at on the beach, say]. Ick. Ick. Again, ick. Why clue it that way when there are so many less creepy ways to do it?

Overall, 95% of the puzzle had me nodding and smiling. Too bad about that remaining 5%.

Sat 1/21/2017

CATLIKE REFLEXES and I HOPE YOURE HAPPY anchor today's puzzle, both great entries. Interesting choice to have them running vertically instead of horizontally. That made it much more difficult for me to see the CATLIKE part of the first answer; made for a very difficult challenge.

I enjoyed some of the longer stuff, the combination of KICKBALL and USA TODAY really nice. Fun to think about Timothy Parker get KICKedBALLed out of that editorship due to plagiarism. LAPEL PIN was nice, too.

KIND EYES … my first reaction paralleled Will and Joel's: is that a real thing? After some thought, I seemed to remember that Lily Potter had kind eyes. Sniffling, I let it pass.

Chunky block patterns in the middle, indeed. A hidden pentomino mini-theme? I don't mind that central plus sign, but the other two scream EXCESSIVE USE OF BLACK SQUARES! to me ... even though they're also five squares big. Just like James mentioned, there's something excessively blocky about those shapes that makes my constructor's brain cringe.

A note on TARPONS. I used to hate this kind of entry. I remember seeing GALOPS back when I was starting to do crosswords and thinking that it was the worst entry I had even seen in my life and that it ruined the puzzle. But my sensibilities have changed a lot, mellowing with time. Although I still don't get much elation from something-new-but-unexciting like TARPONS, I like learning a little each day ... just as long as the crosses are fair. Sometimes people complain about TERRIBLE NEW THINGS THEY HAVE TO LEARN FROM THAT !%#$@ JEFF CHEN'S PUZZLES LIKE SIRENIA AND MOLDAU AND HE'S THE WORST CONSTRUCTOR EVER!

Haters gonna hate.

And these types of entries are useful to have in one's solving arsenal! Today, I was very glad that I had learned EDESSA / ODESSA (from crosswords). And LYCEUM too. Very tough the first time I encountered it, but glad it's part of my vocabulary now.

Tough solve; some great mental exercise.

Sat 10/22/2016

Love the long entries anchoring this one: GRAVITY'S RAINBOW and YOU'RE DARN TOOTIN'! The latter is such a fun phrase to say, and although I haven't read the former, what a great book title. If the fact that it won the National Book Award wasn't enough, apparently there's a mysterious device at the center of the plot called the "black device." And heck, I'll go read it just based on the catchy title alone.

Fun pairing up top of MICKEY D'S (slang for McDonald's) and IN AND OUT. The latter isn't that exciting a phrase to me — more of a space filler — but I enjoyed how it hinted at IN-N-OUT Burger. SURE, SURE was also good, although it felt a notch below YEAH, SURE or YEAH, RIGHT. (I'd also accept the heavily emphasized SUUUUUUUUUURE, which I use all the time.)

The bottom stack was fun as well, the colloquial GUESS NOT and DRUM SET framing the triple of EBB TIDES / CLOSE ONE / SEWER RAT. They're all thumbs-up answers, and there's nary a gluey bit in sight. EBB TIDES didn't excite me on its own, but what a clever clue to elevate it — [Rollback events] had me thinking about store sales where they roll back their prices.

A couple of other bonuses here and there, BOGART my favorite of the mid-length answers. A close second was IMBIBE, because of the amusing clue. ([Lift one's spirits?] refers to a literal lifting of a distilled spirit.)

Overall, a high level of smoothness, really just a LAN and a TSE (ERTE bothers some, but I think he's made a big enough mark in art to easy be crossworthy). Hardly a hiccup during my solve, and I really appreciated that. I would have been fine with a touch more glue, though — maybe one or two more bits — in order to get a few more entries that sizzled like MICKEY D'S. It would have been awesome if RINSE OUT and IN AND OUT had been swapped out for top-notch answers, for example.

POW Fri 9/30/2016

★ Right on my wavelength. The top half of the grid kicked off my solving experience with a bang. I already liked TONE LOC (I like my old school rap) when I hit HACKATHON, and then I uncovered INK BLOT right after that. BABY BJORN and DIVE BAR were next — and I hadn't even gotten to the middle stack yet!

Beautiful triple in VICHYSSOISE (I misspelled it roughly eleventy times before finally getting it right), GHETTO BLASTER, and LBJ. The GHETTO BLASTER holds a lot of cultural significance for me — it makes me think about "Do the Right Thing." One of the most powerful movies of all time, I still feel for Radio Raheem.

HACKATHON might be one of my favorite recent debuts, as it's such an evocative term (a bunch of coders getting together to hack up quick prototypes). There's something so fresh, so juicy about that; makes me want to go back to my college days or my startup days when anything and everything was possible — if you were willing to stay up three days in a row (I was).

All that, for just the very minor prices of TAROS (is it really pluralizable?) and OCTO = yes, please! (I'm fine with OTB, since it's a real thing, apparently common to some folks.)

The bottom half of the puzzle didn't have the same jam-packed zing for me, but HERE GOES, GLOBULIN, and SLAM POETS still stood out. But I LOVE LA is one of those mid-length entries that constructors lean on (I've used it many times) because of the perfect vowel-consonant alternation. It's so darn useful in spots like this. I wouldn't personally count it as an asset — I wonder if people of other generations might?

LIEABED … still thinking. Do I love this or hate it?

Still, there was more than enough in the top half of the grid that I had big smiles overall. I have a feeling it might not play as well for crowds unfamiliar with HACKATHON or BABY BJORN, but considering I have a (very sweaty) BABY BJORN and love to work on coding projects, the ton of colorful, vivid answers hit all the right notes for me.

Tue 7/19/2016

What a fun idea! Even for this non-baseball-fan, seeing a FULL COUNT with three BALLs outside the strike zone and two STRIKEs within it is pretty cool. (It's called a FULL COUNT because one more ball will give the batter a walk, and one more strike will strike him or her out.)

At first, it seemed odd to have word duplication with the three BALL phrases and the two STRIKE ones. That sort of duplication is usually a no-no in crosswords. But here, I found it easy to make an exception, since it's such a neat concept.

I liked the visual on the pdf (replicated below in bold red lines), although I found it odd that the strike zone — from a batter's knees to midpoint of torso, and the width of home plate-- was represented with a square. Granted, Eddie Gaedel, at 3'7", would have created a squareish strike zone, but most batters have decidedly non-square zones. It would have been so easy to stretch the bolded square up and down one row, better emulating a real strike zone.

I know, that probably sounds super-picky, but I would have loved seeing this attention to detail. It's often those little details that turn a good puzzle into a great one.

Nice execution, otherwise. The place bound to be the roughest is the center, where STRIKE and STRIKE overlap. But James deploys his black squares wisely, sectioning it mostly off to make onstruction easier. It does contain NANU ("Mork and Mindy" seems a bit outdated now) and the iffy(ish) AREEL, but that's not bad, especially considering the rest of the puzzle is well-executed and contains little to no other gluey bits.

Also nice to get some long bonuses; I was lovin' IM LOVIN IT. BODACIOUS seems a bit outdated, but it gave me a throwback to the good old days of "Wayne's World" and the like.

A really cool idea, with a bit of unfulfilled potential. I almost always appreciate a unique visual element.

Fri 7/1/2016

Two nice answers, FANTASY BASEBALL and SQUARE BRACKET down the midlines of the puzzle. I'm huge into fantasy basketball, and I can see the appeal of FANTASY BASEBALL (if only I liked baseball!). Something so compelling about analyzing oodles of stats, cutting the data in hundreds of ways a la Billy Beane in "Moneyball."

Sometimes when a themeless features a few really long answers, we don't get much else. Really nice that James configured his grid to allow for 12 eight-letter-long slots. My favorite was TEXAS BBQ, not just because I love me some BBQ, but that terminal Q is so bizarre-looking. It's also so smoothly interlocked into SQUARE BRACKET.

I would have liked more of these longish slots to be converted into stellar material, though. I enjoyed EPIDURAL with its funny [… labor management?] clue, and ER DOCTOR, TAILGATE, FLASHERS with brilliant usage of the word "hazards" (slang for hazard lights) in [Driver's hazards]. ANAPOLIS felt a little off, like ANNAPOLIS had been misspelled, and it felt like there was a lot of geography what with NAGASAKI and CANBERRA. I did like learning a little about each city, though.

Grids with great grid flow like today's often present construction challenges. It's so tough to work from two different directions and get everything to mesh together. Generally I thought James did quite well, for example getting the ER DOCTOR/TAILGATE region to mesh with LESTAT/LAKOTA/STARES, without needing crossword glue. The one place I hitched was in the center, with STUPA. The middle is no doubt the toughest region to fill, given how many words flow into it, and STUPA is really the only word which stood out to me. (Just one data point, but my dad's a practicing Buddhist, and he didn't know what a STUPA was.)

I would have loved a little more cleverosity in the SQUARE BRACKET clue — [Backslash neighbor] made it a little too easy to look down at my keyboard and fill in the blank right away. How about [It's often to the left of a backslash], misdirecting to URLs?

Overall, a couple of really nice long entries and a lot of care taken to make the grid pretty smooth.

Sat 2/20/2016

Standard themeless layout, with each of the four corners containing a triple-stack of long answers. As a Gen Xer, seeing MIAMI VICE made me smile. I never actually watched the show, but talk about influential to my generation. (If I only had pics of my friends walking around in Crockett and Tubbs sport coats ...) It's a great triple, too, with BONEHEADS and IDLE HANDS making the Devil's work. And the XIPHOID process running through it — what a crazy but cool-looking word!

That little red spot is the XIPHOID process

I also liked the upper right, as STARTUPS are of particular interest to me, having co-founded one (Acucela, Inc., now traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange). The clue [Brand-new outfits] is brilliant, making me think of suits and various other clothing before I finally cottoned to it. Running STATUS QUO so smoothly through, the Q integrated into Erich Maria REMARQUE, made for a satisfying solving experience.

I wasn't as taken with lower left, as INFOMANIA … do people really say that? It has an outdated feel to it, akin to "cyberspace" or "AOLer" or something. I'm sure some solvers will be taken with the word, but I didn't feel like it deserved such a prominent feature spot in the grid.

FIXIE BIKE was another curious one. Interesting point James brings up — maybe it is a Britishism? As a mechanical engineer with a few friends obsessed with bikes, I'm familiar with a "fixed-gear bike." Wikipedia says that "fixie" has become a popular term with urban cyclists. While I do appreciate new language and phrases introduced into the lexicon, this one feels too hip or too youngsterish or too British or too something for me to ever use.

So, some colorful entries, including some excellent mid-length stuff in XIPHOID and DIKTATS, and a smattering of entries that just didn't quite jibe with me. Personal taste.

Sat 12/26/2015

Nice 70-worder from James today. I like the challenge he gives himself — big "L" corners like in the NE and SW are no joke. It's hard enough to come up with a triple-stack when the crossing answers are short, but try doing it when some of the crossers are eight letters long. Add in the fact that those long crossers have to be snazzy (since you don't want to waste any of your long slots), and it's a real bear.

RIEMANN of the Riemann hypothesis

I like how clean James got this grid. TROJAN WAR / LIFE COACH / CENTER ICE is a beautiful stack, with nothing remotely gluey required. WAIT A BIT and ACCUTANE aren't quite as nice to my ear, especially since ACCUTANE is off the market now, but RHETORIC is a strong word loaded with feeling.

Similar results for the opposite corner. FAT ALBERT / IN ESSENCE / CASUAL SEX all colorful (although the last one feels a bit too edgy for the NYT crossword, IMO), but SPECIFIC and ATHLETES are more neutral than assets in my eyes.

Both corners show how tough this grid arrangement is — James did a great job getting both of them super clean and smooth, but four of the 12 slots fell into neutral territory for me. This is why most people try to separate their triple-stacks, rather than having them intersect.

I'm sure there will be RIEMANN hypothesis haters out there, but I love a good mystery and I love me some math. I can't say I understand the details, but almost anything on a list of "Millennium Prize Problems" will intrigue me. And to James's point, there's such a wide variety of answers today. Something for everyone is a great philosophy.

I also liked James's use of 6-letter entries to try to spice up the puzzle more. WAVE AT is a bit neutral, but there's something fun about I NEVER and HEY NOW! Even SO VERY is kind of nice. I liked that corner a lot.

Totally stumped by ACED — [Didn't get a return from] made me think about the IRS. Great clue. And great piece of trivia about NATO's flag: [… dark blue, symbolizing an ocean].

Fri 9/25/2015

Awesome skeleton; three sparkly answers stacked in the middle with INTERNET ECONOMY running through them. (I loved seeing INTERNET ECONOMY — I always read the business section first.) QUOTE UNQUOTE is my favorite kind of entry — it baffled me, especially as I tried to figure out if it was one word or many, plus it's a great phrase and amenable to potentially sneaky clue.

Max BAER defeats Arthur BAER!

The layout also allows for many more long entries. Ten additional slots for 8+ letter entries = such potential for assets!

Starting in the upper left: even though I tend to not like one-word answers and proper nouns that much, AMERICANA is snazzy, and PAVAROTTI both has huge fame and plays to the NYT's learned audience. I didn't care for IM A MAC as that commercial tagline is quite outdated by now, and ACS is a crossword convention that many an editor has let by. This annoyingly strict mechanical engineer sighs.

I dug the lower left. Although O SOLE MIO has been used a ton in crosswords now, it's still a classic work. The fact that PAVAROTTI has performed it many times helps its cause today. DONE DEAL is also a jazzy entry, and best yet, that corner is nice and clean. NEMEA might be tough for some, but this huge fan of Greek myths will be assigning stable-cleaning duty to any cynics. Plus, all the crossings are fair ... unless someone can justify hearing OYs on a ship.

(Okay, the Argo went through a lot. Oy!)

I don't mind a bit of ANODIC or AMINES, but both in one puzzle isn't ideal for me. Even with CEES and ACS, I still wasn't bothered … until I hit the lower right.

I'm vaguely familiar with PARSI, but PARSEE looks variant-ish, given that a few dictionaries list it as such. It might be perfectly fine since it's a word ported to English without a definite spelling. But man oh man, trying to figure out the BAER and GARRET crossings was rough.

I know Max BAER from crosswords now, but Arthur "Bugs" BAER and GARRET, a word rarely used during the Shortz era … yikes! Made for an unfortunately unsatisfying ending to an otherwise fun solve.

Fri 7/31/2015

AUTOTUNE! If you haven't already seen "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," it's well worth watching if only for the autotuned opening song. I thought the show had its ups and its downs, but even the bad episodes were made palatable by that awesome theme.

It's a miracle!

Interesting layout today, featuring only 10 answers of 8+ letters. Most of those were pretty strong — DRAG SHOW, ONLINE AD, and HULA SKIRT some of my favorites — but I wasn't sure if GET WEIRD felt natural enough. Is GET BAD or GET CONFUSED or GET WILD equally acceptable ... or just weird? Not sure.

So that places a lot of pressure on the seven-letter answers to generate color and snazz. Of the whopping 18 (!) seven-letter entries, some are quite good. DAS BOOT gets a great clue, describing a amusingly-named drinking vessel. PACHISI teaches us a bit about the etymology of the name. CANKLES is a funny word, although I don't know how well this will go over with certain solvers. (The term is a portmanteau of "calf-ankles". Do yourself a favor and don't look up pics.)

Normally, I love the onomatopoeia of KERPLOP … but as Ashton mentioned a while back, he likes to search for fill where adjacent or crossing answers relate, giving mini-themes. I'm not such a huge fan of KERPLOP crossing TOILET in my morning crossword. Ahem.

STAY DRY and TALK BIG also hit me the same way as GET WEIRD. TALK A BIG GAME, for sure. TALK BIG? Dunno. STAY DRY … okay, it's legit, as in a mom saying ["Keep out of the rain!"]. Perhaps more of a neutral entry for me.

So with a decent (but not outstanding) number of grid assets, I'd expect the shorter stuff to be pretty darn clean. James and Ashton do pretty well in this regard. TKTS is a bit awkward and KERB is pretty out there, but neither is puzzle-killingly terrible. And while some people will hate CAGER, there seems to be dictionary support for it.

Overall, some strong vocab, as well as some that didn't quite hit for me.

Fri 6/5/2015

Nice change of pace to get a themeless focused on seven-letter entries. These can be really difficult, since 8+ letter entries have so much more potential for color and pizzazz. But when a constructor can identify and weave in such great entries as OH GOD NO! it makes for good effect.

I like how James offset some blocks in rows 1-3 to give himself a good number of eight-letter slots. With this particular grid pattern (a big "X" in the middle — scroll down to see it), a lot of constructors have chosen to go the all-out, focus-on-seven-letter entries approach. Seven-letter entries tend to lend themselves to such neutral stuff as DONATOR and CLEANSE, so throwing in some eight-letter slots can really help to add zest.

Who's going to be the first to use JOCK JAM MEGAMIX?

Normally I find it difficult to identify colorful one-word entries in themelesses, but REJIGGER did it for me. Fun word, and one I like to use in colloquial speech. If we engineers know anything, it's failure.

That didn't come out right.

I meant, even with all the planning and groundwork, the path to perfection (or simply good enough) involves a lot of iteration, i.e. REJIGGERing.

Something Byron Walden said has been resonating with me; how he avoids putting his marquee entry at 1-Across. I do like a great start to the puzzle, but there's something to be said about stumbling upon buried treasure where you least expect it. I didn't know what JOCK JAMS was, because I knew I was looking for a feature entry, that prompted me to try some Scrabbly letters in that first answer, getting JOCK JAMS to fall a bit too easily. Whoomp, there it went!

Now, that's easier said than done. It's almost always easiest to incorporate Scrabbly words into that 1-Across slot, since so many more words start with a J than end with one (or have one in the middle). Always the trade-offs.

Finally, I liked the FAKE PUNT-style fakeout of [Printemps time], which is ALWAYS "ete." Er, make that ALMOST always. I like being forced to rejigger my thinking.

Er, "printemps" means "spring," not "summer." Drat! So much for those five years of high school French.

Sat 4/25/2015
Sat 3/14/2015
Sat 12/13/2014

A lot of nice entries today packed into a 72 word grid. I especially liked what was going on in the NW quadrant, given the LIQUOR UP / TEQUILA crossing as well as ONE ON ONE and BUTTOCKS squeezed into a UNITARD. Love the intentional connections; a nice touch of which we don't see enough. Such nice packing density of colorful entries, especially given how large that L-shaped quadrant is. It's daunting to work with a triple-stack of any kind, and when one turns the corner into other long entries, things can get rough.

Often I'm not a fan of grids leaning on 7-letter entries, but I liked a lot of what I saw today. That SW corner especially exemplifies what I personally like out of 7s: SWEE PEA with a neat trivia clue (all these years I thought he was a she), the colloquial HIT ME UP and OF A SORT. Excellent triplet, even featuring AP TEST running through them.

72-word grids sometimes have a danger of feeling restricted, and I noted that today. Usually I'm fine with a set of cheater squares, and even prefer them since they often make smoother fill possible. Today, the squares after HAIL and before ALTS felt restrictive to me, nearly dividing the puzzle into halves. I can see how difficult it would have been to get those giant NW and SE corners filled though — 8x3 chunk intersecting a 7x4 is something I stay away from because of the difficulty involved in getting colorful and clean fill. Always the trade-offs.

Curious, the decision to connect MORE / OR LESS and BAD / EMS. I personally don't like seeing cross-referenced partials, seeming like a desperate save to make something like OR LESS acceptable. As much as I liked the NW quadrant, I didn't care for OR LESS, maybe even liking it less for the cross-reference. Ants on a log And BAD / EMS … whoo. Nearly made the puzzle impossible for me. Saturday puzzles should be hard, so maybe this is fine. It was a very unsatisfying moment for me though, when I finally did enter those BAD / EMS squares after struggling over them for so long. Not an a-ha moment at all.

Fun anchor phrases, ANTS ON A LOG such a snappy entry. It's too bad it's not more well-known that it required such a definitional entry. And I think I liked STREET MEAT a lot. I think. I would put a picture of it up, but all the images Bing showed me were of a different (NSFW) ilk. Ahem.

Tue 11/11/2014

Cool find today, phrases with two UP instances in each. I like when I'm surprised by puzzles, and it was a nice aha moment when I got to the revealer. I had no idea what all the themers had in common, and finding the simple UP / UP pattern gave me a smile. Chupa Chups logo

Simple pattern… or was it? Out of curiosity, I went back to see if this was actually a task difficult enough to required the odd CHUPA CHUPS (which I now realize is pretty commonplace, especially outside the US — James said he remembered the brand from his time in London). To my surprise, all I could find was CUP OF SOUP (which sounds better to me, but CUP A SOUP is clearly a thing), SUPER DUPER, and SUPPORT GROUP(S). Sometimes I have a theme concept and I just can't figure out that fourth themer and have to let it go. Kudos for digging deep to uncover both CHUPA CHUPS and its culturally interesting clue. (He mentioned to me that he tried to keep all the crosses very fair because many solvers might have trouble with it, and I think he did well in that regard.)

I liked a lot of the longer fill, too. LOUIS CK isn't my thing, but he's definitely crossworthy. And as much as I liked AFTER DARK, LOVE CHILD, APPLE TV, and ALL CAPS with its appropriate clue, I loved MACULA. (Bruce Haight, who constructed yesterday's puzzle and is an ophthalmologist, got scooped on this one.) I know, you're thinking, "What the what?" The company I helped a friend start, Acucela Inc., the one we built from two people to now a public company, is focused on addressing dry form age-related macular degeneration, which affects more than 10 million Americans. Seeing MACULA brings me back to those days, and keeps me crossing my fingers for emuxistat's potential. I like when a crossword leaves one a good feeling, and so many entries can do that.

The shorter fill suffered a bit, but only with minor offenders like EST, NCO, ON AN, OISE, etc. And I'm mixed on "SOO…?" Feels a bit arbitrary. Overall, it seemed like a tad much, but I was okay with it because of all the nice longer fill it enabled.

Overall, a fun solve, tinged with a bit of "what is this" when I got to CUP A SOUP and CHUPA CHUPS. But considering those were needed to round out the theme, I can overlook my personal feelings of ambivalence around those two answers, and appreciate all the other aspects this puzzle has to offer.

Sat 9/6/2014

Wow, what a workout today! At the 20 minute mark (where I usually finish), I had filled in maybe half the grid. James uses an unusual pattern today, giving us two large L-bends and two big 6x5 open sections, and each of the quadrants was tough to break into.

Why was it so difficult, I wondered? Part of it was that certain entries, while nice, are difficult to clue in a fun or clever way. Take CELERY SEED for example. Either you know what this is or you don't (the latter camp for me), and with a vague clue, it took nearly every cross to figure it out. Same goes for RADIO EDIT, which gets a similar definitional clue.

Even the great entries (both snazzy and allow for a clever clue) get beautiful but extremely difficult clues. PINKY SWEAR is such a fantastic entry, and [Use a two-digit confirmation code?] made it shine even further. So tough, though! I thought about security codes on a smartphone, perhaps some sort of binary code reference, etc. And it didn't help that there was a trap laid at ["Ish"]. S is such a prevalent letter that I plunked in SORTA, and let it sit there for way too long.

Turning those big L-corners is a construction nightmare. James does well to integrate really lively long fill in both of them. CROAKED and STAINED are more neutral entries, but there rest of the entries stand out, especially HANGOVER and SQUIRT GUN for me. So tricky to get all the crossings to work, though. In the SE we see ORI and A RAP, pretty darn good. But the NW gives us a dreaded KON? / ?EH crossing. All it takes is one weird crossing to give solvers fits. Not knowing KONY 2012, I debated between MEH, YEH, and NEH, which all seemed reasonable given the ambiguous ["Uh-huh"]. KONM looked too weird, so I narrowed it to KONY and KONN. I chose poorly.

Aside from that, I enjoyed the workout. Some wicked hard clues for great entries — the clues for PUREES and PUTS ASIDE and ROAD RUNNER were pure gold. That last one was my favorite — "Beep beep" indeed!

POW Fri 8/1/2014

★ I love days like this. Sometimes I have to dig a little to uncover the assets of a crossword — almost every puzzle has something to admire in it — but sometimes there's goodness everywhere I look. It's a true joy to write about a puzzle when I enjoyed it as much as today's.

I'll go back to my personal system of analytics to take measure of this puzzle. First, the ASSETS:


An astonishing 18. More typically, I usually count about 12 in an average NYT themeless. Now, let's evaluate the LIABILITIES:

  • OISE
  • WSW
  • ENS

Judgment of what's an ASSET and what's a LIABILITY is completely subjective of course (some might argue that RESTATE isn't great, but I hear about companies restating earnings all the time).

So how does the puzzle hold up? We have fewer than five LIABILITIES, and ASSETS minus LIABILITIES = 14 (much higher than my threshold of 10), so this puzzle easily crosses my thresholds. Not surprising, considering how much fun I had solving this bad boy.

Not to say that it's perfect — very few puzzles are. For me, the biggest issue was the slash in the middle of the puzzle tending to create a two mini-puzzle solving experience. It wasn't a serious problem, but it did hinder the puzzle's solving flow for me. I've used a similar effect before, because it makes puzzle construction easier. One of the biggest challenges in themeless creation is working with interlocking areas, where one change ripples through the puzzle. If you can section off your puzzle into separate pieces, it makes construction much easier.

Well done; such a pleasurable solving experience for me today.

Fri 5/30/2014

A lot of strong entries in the grid today. I like it when I can't quite tell what the seed entry or entries would have been. Sometimes there's a feature entry at 1-across which is much stronger than any other piece of the grid, but James has quite a few goodies in for us today. That top corner of BEAT POET / LADIES MAN / OVERSHARE, now that's the way to open your puzzle strong.

Although the grid looks a little unusual in its pinwheel-ish shape, it retains a usual structure of having four sets of stacked entries in each of the corners. The one hangup I had on the grid design is that is does choke down at two points, at SAPPHIRE and MUST READ, making it feel a little like I was solving two mini-puzzles. Minor issue, though, as it didn't greatly affect the quality of my solve.

With triple-stacked 8's, 9's, 10's, or 11's, there's often a tradeoff of awesome entries vs. shaky crossing fill. Up the awesome factor and you'll often up the shakiness of the crossers. The NW stack is so good, so snazzy, but it does pay the PES price. Oof, a clunker, that one. Still worth the price of admission up top, but it sure would have been pretty if that first stack could have been clean as a whistle.

Contrast the SW corner with its JAMES DEAN / UNUSALLY / DISPERSAL stack. Extremely clean, just a beautiful set of crossers, none of which are remotely ugly. MUST READ runs through them, too! However, while JAMES DEAN is someone I'd almost always love seeing in his full name format, the other two long entries in this corner are a bit dull in comparison. One-word entries, and not terribly snappy at that. Often times a plebian word can be saved by an amazing clue (Patrick Berry is the master at this). Not really in this case though.

I liked the little mini-theme of GRENADA / FIJI / GHANA today. I often find it entertaining to get a "clue echo," two entries clued in similar ways, so to see this triad with clues along the same sentiment was really nice. Themeless puzzles can often run together for me, one appearing awfully similar to the next, so I appreciate these small touches.

A side note, KIPS to me is a fine entry if it's related to pull-ups at the gym. We climbers give each other a hard time when we see someone kip (flail their body in order to propel themselves up, instead of doing it in a controlled way). No kipping for you!

James has had quite a few themeless puzzles in the NYT recently, and I think this is his best yet. A lot of strong entries, some good clues ([Old pitcher of milk?] = ELSIE the spokescow = my favorite), and best of all, only a very small amount of PES-like entries. Tough to get quantity and quality of long answers while keeping your glue-type entries to a minimum. I have a feeling we'll see a continued progression in James work to X-out the TELE, ACU, SSE type fill in the future.

Fri 5/9/2014

What a cool grid pattern. Typically in most themeless constructions we see two triple-stacks of answers running horizontally, two vertically. One reason for this is that arrangement helps separate the four stacks, allowing a constructor to work on each one (more or less) at a time. So it was pretty cool to see this unusual arrangement — check out how many long across answers are basically on top of each other: KRUGMAN (really nice to see this influential economist finally get his due), DIET RITE, ABNORMAL, MUMBO JUMBO, UTILIZE, SHEER AGONY, UNBEATEN. Not everything overlaps completely of course, but it makes for quite a challenge. Neat to see something different.

A lot of great fill today, with MOT JUSTE / MUMBO JUMBO being a standout. I found it really neat that they both follow the M* J* pattern, and they mean essentially opposite things. AL PACINO in itself is a really nice entry, but I love getting an iconic image in my head from a puzzle, in this case of Pacino in "Scarface." This is a great example of getting the most out of an entry / clue pair: for me, something that evokes emotion like this is a real winner.

What with all the horizontal overlap, I was impressed that James filled the puzzle as cleanly as he did. The parts I was wondering about as I was solving were the west and east sections, as I worried stitching the two halves of the puzzle would be tricky. On the west side, the halves come together pretty nicely. It's a little tiny bit inelegant to have USMC right next to NCAA, but they're both fine entries, of course.

Where I had a little frowning, especially in contrast to the high quality of the rest of the puzzle, was in the east. It's quite possible that NON-U has common usage in England? But I tend to cringe at its sight, along with the usual ADIT and ETUI type suspects. Could just be a personal preference, as I know several constructors who don't blink an eye at random Roman numerals, while they make me shudder. And seeing it next to Ned YOST made it stick out a little further — I like seeing some sports references in puzzles, but unless an athlete is in the Hall of Fame or has achieved something huge in his/her field, it feels a bit unfair. Sort of like having to fish out GINO Torretta or RIK Smits (I have a soft sport for the Dunkin' Dutchman, but I doubt many others do).

Also interesting to me was that I thought the NW and SE should be the cleanest sections, given how separated they were from the rest of the puzzle. James did a great job with the SE, nice fill there (I know ANIL bothers some folks, but it's totally fine by me as I saw a lot of it traveling in South America). The NW however, with its two partials in close proximity, felt a little unfortunate. I can see where fixing the beautiful MOT JUSTE and MUMBO JUMBO in place would cause problems, though. Always the trade-offs.

Finally, two clues I really dug. The first, appropriately, was [Digs in the snow?]. Digs here refers to a crib, a joint, a place to live, and it's a great misdirection, making me think about shoveling snow in the Indiana winter. The second, [Fix as a pointer]. In computer science, it's quite easy to have problems with syntax, using pointers to memory locations, so this clue had me baffled for a long time, thinking about what coding lingo would be appropriate. I felt silly (and delighted) when it turned out to refer to pointer-type dog. Dog-nabit, that's some nice stuff!

Fri 4/18/2014

Some really nice work today from James (who is now engaged!). Instead of the more typical triple stacks of 7's, 8's or 9's, he removes one set of black squares to incorporate two beautiful 15's. SHARING IS CARING is my favorite debut in a while, and NOT MUCH TO LOOK AT isn't self-descriptive at all.

And what a bevy of nice answers in the grid. STANDING O looks so funny as STANDINGO (I tried so hard to parse it as STAND IN GO) and is such a great answer. Toss in LIKE CRAZY, MAN MADE, FAST ONE, BUCOLIC, and you have yourself a snappy puzzle.

One across is going to be divisive, methinks. On one hand, it's fun slang, with the crazy IZZLE ending. On the other, it feels to me about 10 years old, sort of like me showing off my Motorola Razr. I totally understand the effort to be more hip and cater to the younger generation, and if this had debuted even five years ago, I think I would have liked it better. Tough one; I'm sure some people will talk about it as their favorite answer in a while.

As I've progressed in my themeless construction skills, I've come to realize how competitive the business is, even more so than in the themeless / Sunday-size game. It takes an almost perfect grid for an acceptance, ripe with juicy entries, with nary a glue entry to be seen. James executes with great care and to nice effect. It's unfortunate that TOR, ORIG, and ULE read almost straight across one row, as there really isn't much else that sticks out.

Finally, two beautiful clues. [Learn to teach?] has nothing to do with teaching skills, but is a tricky way to give an example of an ANTONYM. And [It can be painful to pick up] for TAB ... I maintain that I have no idea who might have drunk so much on Will's TAB at the ACPT judges' dinner.

Cough coughLivengood

Sat 4/5/2014

Good Saturday workout, with a huge number of fresh, up-to-date entries. It's really neat to see a themeless puzzle obviously put together by constructors of Gen Y, hopefully bringing in more younger solvers into the NYT fold.

Some wonderful long entries, PRIMAL URGE and MAKE BANK my favorite. Colorful phrases that jump off the page are hard to beat. LEGALIZE IT also does a nice job touching on the national debate around marijuana, which is legal here in Washington State. FYI, it's odd to be running around Greenlake (a beautiful 2.8 mi loop in the heart of Seattle) and get a big whiff of pot smoke. Sometimes from another runner!

The older generation of solvers might not be as into this puzzle as others, as it could argued that it doesn't have a "classic" feel. One aspect of that is the test of time, which I'm not sure LEGALIZE IT or SHE SAID YES (the song) will pass (congrats, James!). Another is that there's so much material geared toward "feeling fresh" that it might overwhelm. I like new entries as much as anyone, but seeing LEGALIZE IT, REEFER, and SEX SYMBOL all together felt like a tad too much testosterone flowing through the grid. Could just be me, also reading too much into some of the clues.

Heck though, even if you agree with me, a great thing about a daily puzzle with a large number of constructors is the huge variety. It's a reasonable bet that there will be a more female-oriented puzzle in the near future, if that's your taste. FYI, Amy Reynaldo started a great dialogue about male/female constructors well worth reading.

Take a look at that fantastic SE corner (count me as a huge fan of ANATOLIA and the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World). That area is a beautiful piece of work, what with PATTY CAKE, LUCKY ME, MAKE BANK integrated all without a single blemish. I'd hope all themeless puzzles aspire to that level of quality. It's rare to see such snazziness without at least one ugly entry.

As far as the overall construction, the long entries are beautiful. All twelve of them are good to great, and LUCKY ME is such a beautiful choice for a seven-letter entry. It all does come at a price though, with the handful of NES, FER, ABAB, ETERNE, AYLA to hold everything together. While that seems like such a small number of entries, there's so much competition in themelesses these days that I did notice them as I solved.

Finally, a beautiful clue for the difficult LEE. At first glance it would seem simple to clue, yes? But it's been used so many times, finding something interesting and not overused is tough. Trivia-related clues can be hit or miss, but I really enjoyed learning something I didn't know about General Lee.

ADDED NOTE: James's girlfriend... SHE SAID YES! Okay, forgot what I said about the staying power of that entry. Congrats, James!

Sat 1/25/2014

Now that's a great 1-across clue. (For all you non-physics nerds out there, Newton's first law of motion is often quoted as "a body at rest tends to stay at rest.") ZOMBIE in itself is a very fun answer, but the clue makes it golden.

I really appreciated the cluing today; a bevy of nice ones. Typically fun wordplay clues rely on a question mark, which gives away the fact that it's a fun clue. But "It's not normal" for ANOMALY, "Drink that often makes a person sick" for ONE TOO MANY, and "Get off the drive, say" for DELETE are really nice, all enhancing my solve. Beautiful stuff.

This puzzle is a great example of one having some fantastic, marquee entries at the price of a good amount of crosswordese. ZAGAT RATED, GLUTEN FREE, SURE ENOUGH, SO SUE ME, and NUMBSKULL crossing BOOB with the same clue, that's some great stuff. ULU, OFT, NAUT, ATO, ENL, SSW... that's not. At 72-words, it contains enough great answers to make me happy, but enough ugly stuff that people will complain.

What's going on? Let's take a look at the SE corner. Notice how the triple-stack of 10s turns the corner, forming an ell (where DR LAURA is)? That, combined with the fact that the stack must connect at the SOBER UP area, makes construction very difficult. Not only are there 10 across entries that must be filled in through that triple-stack, but so many of the slots are long. Not an easy task to accomplish.

And now look at the NE corner. See how small it looks in contrast to the SE? James does an admirable job in this corner, with some nice answers (WORD OF GOD!) and only SSW as the price to pay. Typically themeless constructors try to segment their grids into four roughly equally-sized subsections, each of moderate difficulty. But today's xw is a tale of four corners: two easy to fill, two hard.

Fun workout today, the clever cluing helping to make up for some of the uglier entries.

Sat 12/7/2013

Nice work today from James. A ton of great fill, highlighted by BUG ZAPPER and its associated clue. I wonder if SANDAL TAN is going to get criticized as "not a thing", but I really liked uncovering it. And having a risque clue made it even better to me. Tee hee.

This is a 72-word puzzle, the maximum number allowed for a themeless, and some constructors / critics will probably pooh-pooh it as the easiest type of themeless to construct. But what matters to me is the solving experience, and James incorporated enough long stuff (triple-stacked corners plus longer fill coming out of those answers) that I didn't notice the high word count. A win in my book.

The NE corner is a great example of the tradeoffs that themeless constructors must make at every step along the way. What a nice stack of BUG ZAPPER / GLEE CLUB / USER NAME, all intersected by OLD GEEZER! Four very nice entries crammed into a small space makes for a great solving experience. However, that ultra-high density of goodness usually means that there will need to be ugly bits to hold it together. Some will argue that OGEES is totally fine as an architectural term. Some will even say give me my BPOE or give me death! (Okay, maybe not.) But having both of those along with NES in a single corner is tough to swallow in a themeless.

A discussion on cheater squares. Typically I don't mind cheaters at all (Rich Norris at the LAT calls them "helper squares" for good reason as they usually improve fill quality a lot), but sometimes I pause on a high-word count themeless. It's of course a subjective call, but the cheater just before PUMA (and its symmetrical pair) makes the grid look less elegant to me. I don't mind the one after PROACTIV (and its symmetrical pair) as much. Again, a subjective call. Generally I highly value smoothness of fill in a themeless, so I appreciate James's choices here — I can only imagine JEZEBEL would have been tough to work in without incorporating that central set of cheaters.

Nice work today, good tough challenge.

Mon 11/16/2009