Straight over the plate Sunday, casting a wide net to catch as many solvers as possible. There's nothing about the theme that's tricky, nothing to trip up even a starting solver. It's easy to recognize that W words become SW words.
Well, easy … ish. SUMMER SWEAR had me confused for a hot minute, thinking that maybe it should be SWUMMERS SWEAR. Like what a backstroker would do when hit by cramps?
And FOR SWANT OF A BETTER SWORD? Swans can become knights?
Let's call it easy(ish) for non-ridiculous overthinkers. The "straight over the plate" pitch might actually be a W-SW curveball!
I appreciated so much of Julian's grid: IRIDESCE, TOY STORES, PARTHENON, CARL SAGAN, POWER DIVE? Yeah!
It's not easy to smooth out an entire 21x21 140-word grid, though. If it hadn't been for that pesky middle section ... I didn't know NORITE, fine. One word, whatever. Then ROWEL? And if you don't own any AIWA electronics, or if you haven't heard stories of ROCs in Arabian Night tales, you're in big ROC doo-doo.
Then there's KEBAB. No, KABOB is the alternate spelling. No again … KEBOB? I know it's a transliteration, so there might not be a "correct" spelling, but man, does KEBOB look wrong.
Simple letter swaps like W to SW seem too easy to be interesting, but I did get a laugh out of SPARKLING SWINE, which made me imagine pigs shining each other up with their muddy dung. You can almost get to a "polishing a turd" joke … not quite, but close enough to make me giggle.
I prefer more envelope-pushing Sunday crosswords, but a softball every once in a while isn't a terrible thing, offering up a theme that might be accessible to the entire gamut of Sunday solvers.
I appreciate the tremendous range in Julian's themeless innovative grid designs. He's done geometric patterns, figure 8s, a boxing ring, and even a butterfly-looking thing. In a crossworld where maybe three out of every four themelesses are based on a standard pattern involving four sets of triple-stacked answers in each corner, the variety adds spice. Bring on the heat!
Those NW and SE corners are beautiful. It's not hard to stack three longish answers atop each other, but it's a whole new level of difficulty when you have another three intersecting them. There's a reason why so few themeless constructors try to "turn the corner." Most would place some black squares roughly where OPEN is and call it good. SPONGES isn't that interesting, but SAO PAULO / JUNK EMAIL, through JOE CAMEL / SULTANATE / SANDALWOOD is an excellent result.
Even better is TREVOR NOAH / A AVERAGES / INERT GAS through TORPEDOES / SKI AREAS / YIDDISH. Note how Julian used cheater squares (the three black squares in the very NW and SE corners) to make his life easier. They cut down the number of intersections you have to work with. They're aesthetically attractive, too, giving the grid a lovely curved look, which is most appropriate for turning that corner.
Ah, Saturday, you devilish imp. I usually have to stop and think about a clue or two, but I had a lot of head-scratching today. Here are a few that will likely generate confusion:
A bit of junk fill is expected with this degree of difficulty, so to keep it to ARIZ ETO TAI VAR is noteworthy.
Overall, I appreciated Julian's careful craftsmanship. I hope others don't point out the flaws without understanding just how difficult it is to fill a mold-breaking, eye-pleasing grid like this.
Eye-catching grid pattern, all those black squares connected in geometric patterns. I was hoping the sideways Ts would relate to a few entries somehow — ah well.
Nice grid-spanners in IM WAY AHEAD OF YOU and LIMOUSINE DRIVER, with its great clue, [One with a long stretch to go?]. Took me a while to realize that "stretch" was slang for "limo."
Some other colorful long answers, too: THE PIANO, FREEMIUM, and PAY AS YOU GO not far away. Nice duo, those last two!
It can be tough for single-word entries to shine (OVERLOUD, I'm looking at you), but I loved GENDARME. The clue tying it to "Les Miserables" puts it over the top for me, making me reminisce about all those crazy emotions I had when I first saw the musical. Great stuff.
Fun to have a French mini-theme, too, what with DÉTENTE, ROTISSERIE, and LE MONDE, all nice answers. And how cool that LEMONDE and LEMONADE are so similar! I sense a crossword theme in there somewhere …
Ah, if it hadn't been for the odd SMIT. NEET, REG, ANON, and ERNO (Rubik) feel pretty minor to me, and ONE NO is something I read about nearly every day in my beloved Bridge Bulletin. Okay, I admit that the last one is iffy (and that I wish we were back in the day when bridge was America's most popular game. sigh). SOR is … the Soroptimists? Took me almost ten search queries to figure that out. (Whoops, it's short for "sorority." Thanks to Nancy Shack and Dave Glasser for pointing this out!)
My first impression after solving was that there wasn't that much crossword glue, but when I count it up, it's a pretty high number. Julian does well to spread everything around, never concentrating too much in one spot, which helped to camouflage it all.
It'd have been nice to get more grid flow — that diagonal line tends to split the grid in half — but entries connecting the halves were pretty easy to get. And I liked how the grid presented so much great long material in concentration. To kick off the puzzle with STRAWMAN, THE PIANO, IM WAY AHEAD OF YOU, TOSS A COIN blaring like headlines was a neat effect.
Fun to get a change of pace in a figure-eight grid. Solving it was a bit like completing a lap on a racing track.
Given that Julian only left himself six long slots to work with, it was important to use those to his best advantage. Great triple in CARD CATALOG/GAME OF THRONES/GOT INTO HOT WATER. And MAKE THE BEST OF IT/DO A GOOD TURN were nice too. RECRIMINATION isn't bad, but I wouldn't classify it as an asset — it feels a bit less interesting than the other five. Still, five out of six is pretty darn good.
There are a ton of 7-letter entries to work with, and Julian does pull some extra bonuses out of those slots. I particularly liked the hard to parse ones, like CAT SCAN, US STATE, SUNDOWN (which I was sure was ___NOON). I also enjoyed learning more about NOGUCHI, whose name (but not work) I recognized.
I wasn't as big a fan of CJ CREGG. I'm sure "The West Wing" fans will enjoy seeing her name in the NYT crossword, but it was a lot of work to piece together ([Tally] = AGREE, in the form of "make sure the votes tally up") with little payoff for this non-viewer. I do like the crazy CJCR start though, and I really appreciate Julian's efforts to make every crossing very gettable. Made me want to read up on the character — turns out she's quite a complex person.
It's tough to make any triple-stack both snazzy and clean, and the longer the entries get, the harder that task is. Julian does end up with some ATH, ON AT and OTRA, but that's not too shabby considering he's working with very long entries. Those sets of three black squares in each of the four corners makes the task hugely easier — wise choice to employ them. They also give the puzzle a really pretty aesthetic, without making it look like too much of the grid was eaten away.
Standard layout of triple-stacked long answers in the four corners. Oddly enough, my favorite entry was a shortie — AIRBNB. A few years ago I wondered if it would be mainstream enough to be crossworthy, and I didn't end up adding it. But these days, it seems like it's here to stay. I appreciated that Julian made every cross easy, as that would be a rough name to figure out if you've never used the site before (FYI, the original name was "AirBed & Breakfast").
I liked Julian's NW corner the best, with the marquee answer THIS JUST IN kicking things off. HAVE IT MADE was also pretty good, although the past tense HAD IT MADE rolls off my tongue so much better. I was so sure I had something wrong when I uncovered RS??? for [Gets back (to)] — love those crazy letter sequences like RSVPS! TAMIAMI was also interesting — I never figured out the portmanteau during my solve, but that clue made me want to look it up (Tampa to Miami). Good clues will lure a solver in like that.
A triple-stack can lose so much flexibility by fixing into place just one long entry that runs through it. And when you fix into place two long entries like DREAM UP and ROCK IDOL, you quickly lock things down. Both of those entries are nice, the latter in particular, but look how much flexibility they take away. The EC combination especially limits choices, and picking something for that slot further narrows down options for that corner. While ECONOMIC is a fine word, I wouldn't call it an asset to the puzzle — same goes for ROMANIAN and DRINKS TO.
Personally, I'd rather have just one long and strong crossing entry (like ROCK IDOL), trying many other things in the DREAM UP slot — including boring, neutral stuff — to see if I could find a triplet that sings a little better than DRINKS TO / ROMANIAN / ECONOMIC. You'd lose DREAM UP, but check out the opposite corner — YELLOWS is pretty neutral, but AL PACINO / LEASH LAW / FOR KEEPS is much more colorful in my eyes. Always the trade-offs!
One-named singers worked into common phrases with kooky results. TICKLED PINK worked well for me, now that I actually know who PINK is (learned about her recently ... from crosswords!).
I did struggle with PRO BONO. I think the other singers are all pronounced exactly the same as the normal word, right? But isn't pro BONO pronounced with a long O, while BONO is a short vowel sound? If that's correct, it felt like an outlier to me. I did get a smile out of the BONO pun, though.
Nice to have a bunch of long fill, DYNAMIC DUO my favorite. Yes, it is a [Nickname for a high-achieving couple], but it'll always be Batman and Robin to me. Man oh man, I hope Joseph Gordon-Levitt reprises his role as Robin from the recent "Batman" trilogy.
Great to get TATER TOTS and DRIVE THRU, too. Even CAKE MIX.
I also liked the tightness of having the singer's name at the start of the first themer, the end of the second, the start of the third, etc. The consistency is elegant.
There are definitely compromises, though. That upper left corner with RECT, the awkward L RON, the partialish IN A LIE, and Shatner's "TEK War" makes for a rough start. I wonder if shifting the black squares on top of L RON to the right would have made for a much better entry than L RON, a ??LR?? pattern amenable to things like OIL RIG, KILROY, WALRUS, etc.
Other gluey bits in the grid, too. ABMS reminded me that little-known acronyms are something Will really wants to avoid (this one may or may not pass his test; I'm not positive). Sometimes I think the entry can be rescued by making all the crosses totally fair, but here, I couldn't quite recall what ABMS were (anti-ballistic missiles). ABRS sounded equally good, with DARN crossing it. Darn it!
Overall, the themers didn't quite do it for me, as they didn't elicit as much of a laugh as I want out of a theme like this. But I did appreciate all the long fill, well-chosen for colorful appeal.
Neat 8-track pattern today. Reminded me of a mini-themed themeless from a while back.
Like puzzles featuring triple-stacked grid spanners, this one leans heavily on a just a few long answers for snazz. Luckily, THIS IS SPINAL TAP hits my sweet spot; one of my favorite movies of all time. I bet there will be others out there like me as well spouting off dozens of lines from the movie to the annoyance of everyone around us. STORAGE SPACES felt more neutral to me, and PRISONER OF WAR had the potential to be grim. Nice job on the clue, spinning it in a positive way by recognizing Sartre and Churchill for the hardships they endured.
Although he sounded familiar, I wasn't sure who STEPHEN JAY GOULD was, so I enjoyed reading up on him. Given all his contributions to evolutionary science, he gets a big thumbs-up for me, as right on target for a NYT audience.
Super tough NW section, the combination of MELISMA and SHOGI (as well as not being sure if GRISTLY was an actual word) turning up the difficulty to 11. I really like learning a new thing (maybe two) from a crossword, but getting too much shoved together can make it less palatable.
Finally, I loved the clue for ASIA. I was vaguely aware of the neat "four Asian Tigers" term describing Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. And learning that the four "Tiger cub economies" covered the more developing economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand is something I quite enjoyed learning.
Nice change of pace, with a cool-looking grid.
Fun interpretation of phrases containing OUT today. TAKE OUT ORDER stood OUT for me, as the base phrase is solid and the resulting kooky definition is surprising. Interesting take on breaking the "dupe" rule of crosswords, where an answer ought not be duplicated elsewhere in the grid. (Will plays a bit looser with this rule than other editors, which is completely in his right, as the editor gets to make the rules.)
I personally like "clue echoes," so seeing [Letters on some kits] in sequential acrosses was neat. I wasn't sure at first if a CPR kit was a thing, but some Googling shows it to be fine.
Loved the clue for MACS. For those of us PC users, "Safari" is an internet browser widely used on Macs. And an interesting clue in [They may be paddled], which wasn't CANOES or KAYAKS or BOATS. I wonder if this might stir a little controversy, especially given all the recent NFL violence issues. It is a clever misdirection in the clue, though.
Finally, I bet there will be grousing about LIEF. I doubt I would ever choose to use LIEF, but that's personal preference — although it's not a terribly current word, it does have literary value. I did hesitate when I got there, especially since LAEF (Et ALIA felt equally correct to me) seemed as good as LAEF. Er, LIEF. Perhaps an easier or less ambiguous crossing would have been better there.
Oh, let's not forget HOT PINK! Great entry worked into the fill. Not totally sure it's a super-popular Victoria's Secret color, but this clue is bound to spark some discussion.
Five things I think I think:
1.) Beautiful NW/SE corners. It's so hard to stack four long entries atop each other and keep them both lively and clean. BROMANCE / EASY POUR / NTH POWER / TEAR GAS with MY PRECIOUS is beautiful work, with just the tiny EER as a blemish. Just about the prettiest corner I've seen in a long time. How is it possible to pack so much great stuff into such a small area?
2.) Julian does deploy a lot of his black squares in order to segment those corners. Perfectly fine, but it does make filling the rest of the grid a bit harder. That central section is a biggie — awfully tough to fill an open area featuring a lot of 7's and 6's. He does well there, using a bit of neutral stuff like VARIED and SERIES to cement some nice answers in place.
3.) For those of you who don't know what DURIANS are, they're a divisive power in Asia. Some people (like Julian) go crazy for them, others (like me and the rest of the sane world) say they don't pass the breakfast test. They smell so horrifically bad (sorry Julian!) that some hotels in Malaysia have "NO DURIAN" signs. When Jill and I were there two years ago, a cabbie talked about how sad it was he couldn't eat his beloved DURIANS in his car because he would lose all his customers for the day. Go figure.
4.) Just EER / RTE / AGNI / A GOB felt like a fairly low price to pay for the sheer quantity of great entries — I count roughly 15 entries toward Julian's assets; a huge number. If it hadn't been for that pesky DRURY / IDY crossing, this would be POW material for me. Even for a Saturday puzzle where solvers are expected to know more, to be able to figure out crazy wordplay, I find this crossing unfortunate. Even if it might be deemed fair because Drury Lane is well-known enough in the theater community, I think this corner's going to detract from overall solver satisfaction.
5.) A shame that contract bridge isn't as wildly popular as it used to be. One very useful bidding convention is called "reverse DRURY." As I keep on telling anyone too slow to run away, bridge would solve all the world's problems.
Nice construction from Julian today, one that features the "stair step" pattern of black squares that we've seen more of these days. You can browse themeless patterns on our Calendar page, hovering over the Fridays and Saturdays to see the thumbnails. Neat way of perusing the archives, yeah? Note that Patrick Berry had a similar type of arrangement on July 4th, Peter Wentz had one on May 24th, Patrick had another one on February 21, etc.
Why? Because this arrangement offers a nice bonus: the potential of three additional snazzy long entries. Many constructors use a basic pattern of four triple-stacked 8's or 9's (one in each corner), which allows for TWELVE marquee answers. But if you choose your central entries wisely, this type of stair step arrangement gets you not only the usual triple-stacks of answers in each corner, but an additional three in the center for a total of FIFTEEN slots. Harder to execute on of course, but it's well worth the extra effort if you can get an extra POSTER CHILD entry worked into your grid.
Julian also adds in a layer of difficulty Kevin Der pointed out in his January 17 puzzle of this year. It's common to see three 8's or 9's stacked atop each other, but to have four of them is something entirely different. Quad-stacking 15's has become a more common sight these days in the NYT crossword, but those usually come with (expected) compromises in the crossings. The real trick of what Julian (and Kevin) attempt, is to pull off quadruple-stacks of longer answers without compromise.
The SE corner is pretty nice, with some beautiful answers. Even the single-word entry, ATOMIZES, sizzles. KNOW BEST felt a bit off to me (KNEW BEST seeming more in-the-language and less partial-like) but still, it worked. SMEW isn't most constructor's preference, but it's a legit entry. And although COSSET isn't a word most people run across in everyday usage, it's definitely legit. It's a reasonable set of trade-offs.
And I quite liked the NW corner, with all its Scrabbly goodness. Julian eased that J in there so smoothly. I did frown a bit at the ST MORITZ / LAZIO crossing (I had a moment wondering whether it was ST MORITS, and LAZIO did nothing to help me figure it out), but ultimately, ST MORITZ ought to be well within an NYT reader's bailiwick.
Smooth solve today, a beautiful grid building off of new developments in xw construction.
Some beautiful entries today, my favorite being the SOUP NAZI from Seinfeld. Kind of a surprise it's taken this long to show its face. What a nice exercise to rack my memory, going through all my favorites: MR MOVIEFONE, NEWMAN, BANYA, FESTIVUS POLE, STEINBRENNER. Love it when a crossword brings a little bit of joy into my life.
It's not often that I get surprised by a seven-letter entry, because it's hard to find debut stuff in the shorter lengths. But HOUSE MD got me with its bizarre ???SEMD ending. Really nice moment when it came to me that HOUSE wasn't just HOUSE at all.
Some beautiful clues today. I've come to love Saturday puzzles (even though I can't always finish them without a little help) because they more often than not are loaded with tricky wordplay clues. "Position papers?" is such a great clue for KAMA SUTRA, and we get another one right below in "Vanity case?" for EGOMANIAC. And then we get my favorite, "Members of a joint task force?" for NARCS, with "joint" in the "doobie" meaning. Really fun.
As with most themelesses, we get a smattering of "glue" type entries. ENOTES has such friendly letters, and Julian/Will do well to try to rescue it with a term actually used by a few internet companies. Still, it doesn't quite hold up to my understanding of modern usage. ETAIL is perfectly fine with me, perhaps because I see that term all the time in the NYT and WSJ, but ENOTES... I'm still not convinced.
The name pile-up in the SW corner is going to get some people, too. It's good that MELLON, CEE-LO, ESSEN, NELLE, and ST BONIFACE are all drawn from different areas, but it's not ideal. A very tough corner to fill though, given the big chunk of white space with FORELIMBS running through it.
Why has NO SOUP FOR YOU never been in a NYT themeless? A travesty! NO SOUP FOR YOU CONSTRUCTORS!
Good workout today from Julian, theme phrases which all contain some arrangement of AEIOU across two words. He uses a pattern today which often facilitates easier filling, having two theme entries run vertically at the sides of the puzzle. The reason it usually makes construction easier is that it reduces the number of places two or more themers are crossed by the same word, making for more flexibility.
However, this type of arrangement makes for a more difficult time incorporating good long fill. Why? Because when themers run both horizontally and vertically, it can be tough for the solver to pick out which are theme answers and which aren't. For this type of arrangement, Will likes to keep fill short (shorter than the shortest theme answer) in order to make the theme answers stand out. For a long time I didn't agree with him, but I've come to see his rationale.
Julian brings up the counterpoint, that for certain theme types, it's pretty obvious what is thematic and what isn't. But even today, where the theme becomes clear after finishing the solve, I had a bit of confusion because of MEDIA BIAS. I love that piece of fill and its clever clue, but during my solve I got it stuck in my mind that it was somehow thematic, and that distracted me. So I like the fact that Julian redid the puzzle to make sure the fill was all shorter than the themers.
Theme answers like this soar or fall on the strength of how amusing or wacky they are, and most of them felt a bit too straightforward for my taste. But I really enjoyed the fill Julian incorporated. Even with the above constraints, he managed to include MEDIA BIAS, GET REAL, DONT PANIC (without a Hitchhiker's Guide reference, dramatic sigh), HOT LEAD, HAIRPIN, THE SOPRANOS, AD SPEAK, etc. Hitting all that really enhanced my solving experience.
Fun to read through Julian's story about working with Will to improve the puzzle. When I started constructing, I felt like Will was being so picky when he asked for three redos of one of my original puzzles. But now I'm really glad he did, because it made for a much better product.
Julian ups the ante in this puzzle, not just using triple-stacked 11's, but adding an 8-letter word (19A, 44A) into those massive white spaces. Look at the amazing result in the top: not only are there three fantastic 11's, but even the crossing entries are interesting. It's difficult to get anything of note out of three and four-letter words, but UNIX, JUDO, and Riddick BOWE provide spice.
The lower stack also contains three great 11's, plus CRONYISM is the cherry on top. Some solvers will point out that YAGO is a heavy price to pay, but certainly all the crossings are fair and inferable. Overall, beautiful work from Julian.
Will brings up an interesting point re: either knowing or not knowing the BURJ KHALIFA. It serves as a perfect example of an entry that's fair even if it's unfamiliar, especially given that a Saturday puzzle is intended to be by far the hardest of the week. The world's tallest building, towering out of the Dubai desert, is something educated people ought to know; certainly a piece of knowledge a late-week solver ought to have in his/her repertoire. Useful to throw in at cocktail parties too. Jill and I were there in Feb and found it stunning, especially as we looked at the pictures of what was there 30 years ago (hundreds of square miles of sand).