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20 puzzles by Michael Hawkins
with Jeff Chen comments

Michael Hawkins
Sat 8/29/2020

MAHNA MAHNA, the nonsense-word song from Sesame Street, is a bold choice for a feature crossword entry. I knew the song, so I enjoyed the craziness of sounding out M A H N A. I wonder if people without kids will describe Mike's choice using a different word than bold.

Those of us with kids will know Pokemon, and I'm probably below average in the number of Pokemon I can reel off. (About 30.) YUGIOH is on a whole 'nother level — or perhaps a level my kids haven't reached yet? And I thought I had caught them all!

I love entries that most everyone will have heard of, like IDIOT PROOF and AFTER YOU. There's something so universal about IDIOT PROOFing, then having second thoughts about whether it's IDIOT PROOFed after all.

Good thing I have kids. AFTER YOU, my good children, why don't you take the first turn on the rickety climbing wall I'm prototyping?

I only heard the term SIDE HUSTLE about a year ago, but since then, I've used it in a theme and seen it many times in crosswords. See, kids, your dad is cool!

Tess and Jake just rolled their eyes at me. Talk about US VS. THEM.

Do the kids say the NOW part of OH ITS ON! Now? NOW? Or did you mean, OH ITS ON NEXT FRIDAY?

I loved so many of the clues today, so much wordplay tickling me. The first rule of crosswords: [First in a series] is always ALPHA. Unless it's a PILOT for a TV series. D'oh! I especially love when short, seen-all-the-time words get a fresh spin, like CHUM. Such a clever repurposing of "close one." No telltale question mark needed!

I generally like more oomph in a themeless grid, so it's tough when you start with only ten long slots (8+ letters). Thankfully, there were a few standouts, and along with the wealth of aha-inducing clues, I enjoyed the solve.

Sat 7/18/2020

YOU HAD TO BE THERE is a perfect themeless anchor. Snazzy, colloquial, snarky, memorable. It's unfortunate that the clue was so straightforward, giving away the game. Something playing on "being present," perhaps?

I'm often turned off by esoteric clues, like ones giving the scientific name of the entry. However, [Mammalian hematophage] is outstanding. It's like one of those crazy scientific names labeling the Road Runner (Velocitus delectiblus, Boulevardius-burnupius) that looks impossible to figure out at first, but then makes you smile. Hemato … ah, I get it!

I enjoyed some other entries almost as much. LOT IN LIFE. HAM HANDED. EX NIHILO is tough but interesting, both for Bible readers and logophiles.

Some outstanding clues, as well. Paying a "steep price" for TEA, ha! [Sort of spousal separation] felt like a downer, until I figured out the clever misdirect away from AGE GAP. How is Mount ETNA found on a couple of plates in Italy? Not dinner plates, but geological plates.

A few others didn't work as well. I like "clue echoing" best when the duplicated clue is spot-on but in two different ways. PET DOGS seek table scraps, no doubt. ANTs … yeah, but that's a tortured way to describe scavenging.

And [A, as in April]? I couldn't remember which form SCHEDULE A was (Wikipedia-ing ... itemized deductions, huh), and the "as in" part confused me. I get that it's trying to be clever, but it didn't succeed — especially since tax day wasn't in April this year.

All in all, an entertaining solve, although I could have used a little more juice. I bet closing off the SW and NE — imagine putting black square at the P of PICARDY, for instance — would have made it easier to squeeze more out of all the long slots.

Fri 1/31/2020

If you haven't tasted The Rooster, you haven't lived.

That sounds dirtier than it is.

Those of us hooked on SRIRACHA sauce call it The Rooster because there are plenty of knock-offs, but there's only one original SRIRACHA with the Rooster logo. No, it doesn't have any rooster in it!

Or does it? Maybe that's why it tastes like chicken?


I also loved MIND … BLOWN! It sure could be tough to understand, though, if you've never used or seen the phrase and thus don't know to insert the implied ellipsis and exclamation. A clue with parallel structure could have helped, along the lines of ["That was ... UH-MAZING!"].

Two clues I should probably explain:

  • Temptation to steal is a WILD PITCH? Think about baseball, where a pitcher's wild throw opens an opportunity to take off running. What confused me was that I thought a baserunner advancing due to a wild pitch was recorded as an error, not a steal. (Turns out that an anal overthinker analyzing a clue to death takes away all of its cleverness. And a wild pitch doesn't result in a stolen base or an error. Man, is baseball weird.)
  • SWAMIS are know-it-alls? Aren't the wisest people those who know only that they don't know everything? (What was I saying about analyzing a clever clue to death?)

A lot to enjoy, notably marquee entries like AND … SCENE! (again with the implied ellipsis and exclamation point), BOLD MOVE, COWGIRLS, and GRYFFINDOR (I'd be an undistinguished Hufflepuff), but I like 70-word themelesses to be squeaky clean, avoiding the little dings of IMY, CMS, RDS, LPN, etc. as well as the perilous crosses of MCAN / COE and ALKALI / ALDO.

Sat 8/17/2019

FOLIE A DEUX, I just added that to our word list last month! The author of "Bad Blood" used the term to describe the amoral pair of Elizabeth Holmes and her partner in crime. It's a gripping tale of how they duped Silicon Valley through obfuscation and strongarm tactics.

Sometimes foreign phrases make me feel like a boorish American — which admittedly, I am — but I enjoyed learning this colorful one, and I felt smart today when I plunked it in with zero crossing answers.

Mike's a PNWer (is that any worse than NBAer or NLer?), so I smugly enjoyed the insider nods in ORCAS Island and AIRLINE HUB, "Alaska" not referring to the state, but the regional Alaska Airlines.

I wonder how many non-PNWers got PWNed.

I had Mike's name in my subconscious when I got to ["Weekend Update" co-host …], so I blurted out MICHAEL CHE. Then the crosses didn't work. Had to be COLIN JOST! That's too short? COLLIN JOSST, perhaps?

Then I wondered, are either of those two guys crossworthy yet? Probably not (a shame, they're hilarious). AMY POEHLER it is; I enjoyed working hard to uncover that one.

Mike loves his portmanteaus. I'd never heard of SCREENAGER, and it didn't strike me strongly. I wonder if it has staying power, as entries like FUNEMPLOYED and STAYCATION have become eye-roll-worthy. Maybe they were from the start.

I appreciate the effort to aim toward empowerment with this puzzle. STILL I RISE, what an uplifting poem! It's another to add to your TBR (to be read) pile.

HERSTORY, though … is this term still in use?

Along with some questionables in BUNTER, SCARRY attempting to pass off as "scarred," SOFTY making me wonder if "softie" was more common, and the tough COSSET / FOLIE A DEUX crossing, the SMART MONEY was against a POW! Thankfully, there was more than enough in terms of strong entries and clues — I was sure "semis" had to be found in truck stops, not playoffs — to hold my attention.

POW Fri 6/7/2019

★ JUST SO nice to have so much sparkling color throughout the grid. I don't often sit up while doing themelesses, but entries like DO ME A SOLID, VOICE ACTOR, STORY ARC, DON'T I KNOW IT, DINE AND DASH made for an attention-getting, juicy solve.

Great fun in the wordplay clues, too:

  • TENTS fall apart when the "stakes are raised." That's the kind of groan I love.
  • [More than nods] had me thinking about signs of agreement, but it was referring to nodding off into NAPS.
  • Did you skim over TELLY as a [Flat screen?] It's worth another look. Get it, "flat" as in a British apartment, where one would watch the telly?
  • Similarly, you might have missed the laugh with POTATO, a thing that's an [Eye site], playing on "eyesight."
  • Even the usually ignorable AYE got elevated by [Answer to one's mate]. That's a seagoing mate, not a life partner!
  • And the best one, a STORY ARC as something that might build character over time. Brilliant!

So many fantastically entertaining clues. I might have picked this for the POW! on that merit alone.

Two entries made me pause: ECUMENISM and NAPERY. I'm not a religious person, so the former didn't come easily. It was a word that I could dig out of the back of my head, though, and it was neat to read up on a movement to promote unity among all the sects of Christianity.

NAPERY. Man, did I stare at that one for a long time. Hasn't been used in the Shortz era since 2000 — almost two decades ago! The Goog shows NAPERY has a lot of usage, albeit more olden-style and perhaps outside the US. A bit of an oddball, but not so much so to ding the entire puzzle from the POW! race.

Bracing for the onslaught of hate mail from linen enthusiasts …

Great craftsmanship, only IMA for crossword glue. Not quite as many colorful long entries as I want in a 72-word puzzle, but their quality was so high. Along with the outstanding amount of clever wordplay, it gets my POW!

POW Wed 3/27/2019

The finance wonk in me loved this one. It's paradoxical that an industry so boring — many friends have nodded off or run screaming as I've spun delightful tales of arbitrage, efficient portfolio frontiers, and basis points — can introduce such colorful terms. PATENT TROLLs have been in the headlines a ton (at least in financial headlines), and I'd heard of ZOMBIE BANKS (think: banks biding their time, all but dead). Such descriptive phrases!

UNICORNs I knew too, but just as "unicorns." As in "those horribly prancy things my daughter begs me to get books about." Also, as in "private startups valued at over $1B." Never heard them called UNICORN STARTUPS, though. Kind of like calling a company a "business company." Still, I can let it slide in the service of a clever theme.

It'd have been good enough for me with just three themers. Toss in the brilliant revealer, FINANCIAL MYTHS (think: what Jim Cramer propagates, ba-dum *rimshot*), and you have yourself a winner.

Clean-as-a-whistle gridwork, only OBE as a tick in the liabilities column. Add in some assets — PATTY MELT and HOT TAKES — and it's a solid product.

Mike's a good enough constructor that I'd have liked to see him push himself. Take out the black square between ABET and HOW SO, for example. That'd likely have resulted in more bonuses, while still retaining smooth short fill.

Overall, a great theme tailored to us econ junkies. Even if you hadn't heard of any of these terms before, they're so colorful that I bet at least one will stick in your memory.

Fri 2/8/2019

You think Mike likes portmanteaus? FUNEMPLOYED and MATHLETES today, with HACKTIVISM and STAYCATION in his last themeless? Hmm!

I'm partial to MATHLETE, myself, having been one (and wishing I were still good enough to be one). I mostly hear the others in a jokey way though, almost cringeworthy. I much prefer colorful multi-word phrases, such as CLAIM TO FAME, READY ROOM (Jean-Luc Picard fans unite!), FLAT BROKE, LOVE LETTER. Those feel much more timeless.

I remember the first time I SAW (II) WADIS in a crossword. My reaction was far from FOR THE WIN (something the kids say these days — or what they used to say, by now?). I've softened over time. It's kind of an interesting term, albeit specialized. Makes for a good party trick when you want to show off your trivia.

While I prize jazzy, multi-word phrases in themelesses, I also appreciate when a cool single-word entry dazzles, like IMPRIMATUR. I admit I wouldn't get this one right on a vocab test, but it made me feel good that I recognized the fancy-pants word.

All in all, not quite enough color in this one for my taste, along with a couple of (admittedly very) minor CES ESE HMS dings. It's tough — the bar for a standard 70-word themeless is so high these days.

POW Wed 7/11/2018

★ I almost dismissed this as an inelegant, loosey-goosey theme. Man, am I glad I took a second look! I skimmed over the SNOOZE BUTTON clue at first, thinking that the theme was simply "noises that come out of an alarm clock." RADIO, BUZZ, SOUND? Bleh, totally unspecific!

What, you got the real theme immediately? Um, so did I. For all those ninnies that didn't, bear with us:

The SNOOZE BUTTON makes the RADIO go silent, for RADIO SILENCE. It KILLs the BUZZing, as in a BUZZKILL. And it turns OFF the SOUND = SOUND OFF!


I wasn't sure if it was just me who missed the cleverosity, so I asked Jim for his thoughts on the puzzle. Turns out he glossed over it, too! After chit-chatting about it, we both agreed that it was delightful; such fantastic plays on words that were tightly bound to SNOOZE BUTTON.

Great grid execution, too. Mike didn't try to do too much, sticking with an easy-to-fill 76-word grid. But with a little zazz in STARGAZING, WORD LENGTH, HOT YOGA, even some BUSH SR, UNICORN, ST LOUIS, that's more than good enough for me.

Best yet, such a silky-smooth grid. I love it when I can't find a single short entry to squint at. This grid felt much more friendly to newer solvers than either of the past two days, even given the presence of HOBART. Some might complain about that one, but come on. You gotta at least be familiar with world capitals.

Okay, maybe BORGE crossing KLEE isn't newb-friendly. But that's perfectly fine in a mid-week puzzle. Paul KLEE is an important painter educated solvers ought to at least have heard of.

So, so, so glad I took a second and third look. A fantastic-- albeit delayed — a-ha moment.

Wed 6/13/2018

Figures of speech … using sewing terms? Not sure I would have ever thought of that! I like it when that happens.

MOVE THE NEEDLE is particularly good, as it's pretty far away from sewing — it refers to something being important enough to appreciably shift the indicator dial on a dashboard.

The others have sewing-related backgrounds in how the phrases came about, so they weren't quite as fantastic, but they still work well in this theme set.

I appreciated that Mike kept consistent with his verb tenses, all present. It's so tempting as a constructor to change one entry's tense in order to appease the gods of crossword symmetry.

It would have been perfect consistency if every phrase had a (verb) + THE + (noun) form. Ah well, you can't win ‘em all. Just finding four solid sewing-related figures of speech, using the same tense, is a win.

Solid gridwork, hard to find even a single dab of crossword glue. I think it's so elegant when you can't quite tell how the creator put it all together.

DEVEIN was the lone entry that made me hesitate. It looked like such a weird string of letters. But Jill and I have DEVEINed shrimp (what a pain), so ultimately it felt fine.

Toss in a bit of BROWN RICE and PIANO ROLL, along with ON THE SLY, and you have yourself enough bonuses to keep solvers' attention. I usually prefer long bonus fill in the down direction, since long across fill tends to muddy up what is theme and what is not. But today, the themers are so apparent that BROWN RICE is perfectly fine where it is.

The theme wasn't exciting enough for me to put the puzzle into POW! contention, but I did appreciate seeing a theme angle I doubt I'd ever think of.

Fri 5/4/2018

Mike's had an impressive run of themeless acceptances — his rate is much higher than most anyone I know. He said the secret is to stick with 72 words, making every one of your long entries count. And of course, minimizing your crossword glue. Easy peasy!

Nice example in the NW, a great triplet of HACKTIVISM / IMPRESARIO / STAYCATION. Editors tend to value multi-word entries since they're often more colorful than one-worders. Plus, parsing them makes for a fun solving challenge. But these one-worders are nice. A bit of AMT, TECS holding it together, but both of those are minor.

Mike usually sticks to straightforward themeless grids, focusing all his juice in the four corners, with each corner having three stacked long entries. So it was nice to see him branch out with MONEY TALKS running through the NW stack, and KRYPTON / OPEN WIDE making the puzzle feel like it had good stuff woven all through it. I like it when something fun pops up everywhere you turn.

I'm realizing more and more that there are different tiers of themeless feature entries, and my method for evaluation is shifting. To me, the best entries those that are both 1.) snazzy in their own right, and 2.) ripe for a clever clue. ONE STOP SHOP hits both of those right on. "Has a lot in store for you" made me laugh. Very well done, Mike!

HACKTIVISM is a fantastic headliner. But since not everyone will know what it means, it must have a definitional clue. So it doesn't hit criterion #2 for me. It's still a colorful phrase, just not an entry that ticks all the boxes anymore for me.

KRYPTON might be a dull entry for some, but its clue made it shine. DC area wasn't the District of Columbia, but DC Comics — as in Superman's homeworld! So although the entry might fall short of criterion #1 for some, it hits #2 with high marks.

A lot of strong entries, not much crossword glue. If it had had a little more pizzazz overall, it would have been my POW!

POW Sun 10/15/2017WISE MOVE

★ WISE MOVEs indeed, two-word phrases where the Y sound is moved from the end of the first word to the end of the second. Some great results, doggy treats to DOG TREATIES my favorite. Such an amusing visual of dogs sitting around discussing settlement terms (maybe while playing poker?). Gravy train to GRAVE TRAINEES also worked well for me, as 1.) the base phrase is great, and 2.) cemetery interns, now that's something I'd write a book about! Great stuff.

Most of the others worked decently well, too. County fair to COUNT FAIRIES gave me a fun visual of census takers doing their darndest to get an accurate count while all the fairies flit about. Smartypants to SMART PANTIES made me laugh, too — not exactly sure what data a pair of SMART PANTIES collects. Probably don't want to know.

The only one that I was plus minus on was GROCER STORIES, which seemed duller than the others. A little too close to the base phrase of "grocery stores." YMMV.

Mostly strong work in the grid. Loved CHEEZ IT, EASY NOW, EVEN STEVEN, MAIN MAN, MEDIA STORM, NOSE JOB, OLD SALT, POWER NAP, SOUR MASH, and more. It's rare to get this much bonus material in a Sunday grid — four-ish bonuses is passable for me, so this is well above and beyond. Even if the theme didn't amuse solvers, all these great bonuses provide entertainment.

Not that many blips in the short fill, too — ETTES, IN AS, SDS, etc. is overlookable. Didn't bug me as I went.

The only sticking point for me: the oddballs in NEEDER and TUYERES. That first one is hard to imagine ever using in real life. The second … this mechanical engineer didn't recognize the term. It is a real thing, but it's not the type of mid-length word I'd strive to debut in the NYT crossword. Thankfully, John and Mike made the crossings fair. And I did like learning what a TUYERE is.

I liked this twist on the standard "sound change" type of theme. Done consistently, with a bunch of nice bonuses, and the grid mostly executed well. A nice example of a Sunday that can cater well to a wide audience.

POW Sat 9/9/2017

★ A ton of strong entries today, most all of them hitting home so well for me. That bottom stack in particular — PEACE SUMMIT, PR NIGHTMARE with its crazy PRN start, and SPIDEY SENSE? Yes, please! And there was so much goodness in those four corners, WORLDS APART to ZONE DEFENSE to HORSE AROUND to VAN DAMME (check out "JCVD" if you haven't seen it — amazing movie!).

And ADOLESCENTS isn't usually an entry I'd point out as an asset, but its clue made it shine. Such an innocent looking [Minority group] clue made me think of voting minorities, not under the age of 18 folks. Perfect wordplay; so clever.

The EMAIL clue, referencing the shenanigans in the 2016 election? Too soon, Will and Joel. Too soon.

I typically hold 72-word themelesses to a very high bar, because they're pretty easy to execute on. For me to pick one as a POW!, it usually has to contain well over 10 great entries, and close to no crossword glue. This one made me rethink my criteria. I counted about 11 assets and 3-4 liabilities. EEE in particular is EEEgregious, a constructor's crutch that I'd never use in one of my puzzles.

But I enjoyed the puzzle so much, that I was able to overlook these issues. Although there were some lost opportunities in the long slots — ARTINESS and GET REST don't do much except take up valuable real estate — the feature entries were so strong. Made me think I need to adjust my evaluation metrics, perhaps giving strong entries one point and super-strong ones two points?

My OCD need to measure and record everything aside, themeless puzzles are all about how the entries hit a solver's personal interests. This one was spot-on for me.

POW Tue 7/18/2017

★ My first impression was that this puzzle had so many — too many — diagonals of black squares rising from left to right. Kvetching alert! Those middle diagonals break up the solving flow! All those pyramid blocks around the perimeter felt like cheating to this constructor (they make a grid way too easy to fill)! Forty-two total black squares is too many!

Boy, did I feel silly when I realized that the black squares were thematic. I didn't catch on to the theme until very late, and I loved when the switch finally flipped on. STAIRCASE WIT, ESCALATOR CLAUSE, ON THE UP AND UP made for a simple concept, but the black square patterns — every single one of them rising diagonally — made for an elegant touch.

Excellent craftsmanship, very little crossword glue anywhere. Some people may complain about SCRY, but I think it's a fair word, even for more novice solvers. Then again, I do love sci-fi and fantasy novels ... if you haven't read the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, you're missing out on some awesome SCRYing! (More importantly, the crossing answers are all gettable; even REMY Martin ought to be at least familiar).

Great BANK clue, playing on Penn and Teller. How have I never realized that a BANK has both pens and tellers? Love those sorts of connections.

The puzzle did play hard for me, what with less common vocabulary such as TRICORN, ANTEHALL, ASYLA (that really is the plural of "asylum"!) to go with SCRY. I happened to be familiar with all of them, but I'd understand if these answers left an odd taste in solvers' mouths — I think it's better to stick to just one or two of these potentially head-scratching words.

But with great bonuses like COSPLAY (I happen to look a great deal like EVIL Spock to begin with), EVIL EYE, CHALLAH, ICE CUBE TRAY, I thought Mike executed well on his grid on the whole.

Great visual with all those STAIRSTEPS in black squares. I didn't immediately know what STAIRCASE WIT was, but even then, I liked learning the term. Neat idea, an inability to come up with the perfect comeback until one is at the bottom of the stairs and needs to rush back up to use it.

Fri 6/2/2017

Mike was over at my place for a beer a few weeks back, and he shared with me an enviable fact: he and John are around 75% in terms of themeless acceptances. Considering Will once told me there's only one person who's sustained an acceptance rate over 40-50%, that's fantastic.

(The person is Patrick Berry of course, at around 90%.)

So what's their secret? Sending money directly to me, in stacks of large, unmarked bills. You can do it too!

Well, that, and working only with 70- or 72-word grids, focusing all their effort toward getting the four corners packed with juicy, clean fill. Middle of the puzzle be damned!

Of course, this is easier said than done. Creating a single triple-stacked corner with great entries and smooth fill is hard enough. Finishing a grid with four of them is a tough task.

I loved the lower right, AS EASY AS PIE for me since I'm a huge IDRIS ELBA and basketball fan. What a great clue for MIAMI HEAT too — I usually don't think about what logos actually are. Cool flaming (basket)ball.

Mike said VOLUNTOLD was one of their seeds. That one didn't do much for me, as 1.) I hadn't heard of it, and 2.) found it hard to believe people would say something so silly-sounding. It could easily be a TRYHARD situation, where I pooh-poohed that entry at first, and now I've heard all sorts of people (much younger than me) say it. Hmm.

INSATIATE in that same corner … I tried to plunk in "insatiable" and was confused why it didn't fit. Hmm again. INSATIATE is in the dictionary, though I doubt I'll ever use it.

ALEPH NULL was another curious one. I love math, having read a ton of Martin Gardner's work in rec math. But ALPEH NULL was tough to piece together, and it took a while to figure out what it meant (stupid complicated Wikipedia article!). I wonder how this entry will strike non-math fans.

In that same corner, John got worried that they had gotten scooped on MALL SANTA when they were working on the grid. It is true that themelesses tend to shine on the strength of a handful of fresh feature entries. But I think that given enough time between publications, great entries can still retain their sparkle, like this one.

I did get stuck in the NW, unwilling to believe that CYCAD was a thing. I kept wondering why LTD was specific to Lucasfilm (it's not). This uberdork immediately put in THX. Sigh.

Overall, great work keeping the grid smooth and silky. If only a couple of feature entries had resonated a little better for me ...

POW Wed 5/24/2017

★ Plumber-themed puzzle! Now that's something you don't see every day. I enjoyed how Mike related all these common phrases to a plumber's moods. Not sure why I was so amused — maybe because it reminded me of all the creative ad slogans I see on plumbers' vans around town? I pity the stool!

What made the puzzle stand out for me was the grid execution. 14- and 12-letter entries are hard to work with — they force placement of black squares right off the bat, and they force you to squeeze themers toward the middle — but Mike did great.

First, he incorporated nearly flawless "parallel downs" in TOLL ROADS / SEE DOUBLE and IM NOT SURE / GAG WRITER. All are good phrases, with GAG WRITER being a standout. And he avoided crossword glue almost completely, which is a usual problem for parallel downs.

Now, he did incorporate odd-looking cheater squares at the end of HERO and before TRIO. But I‘d take that visual imperfection any day when it leads to solid to fantastic long downs without any crossword glue.

He also managed to work in a couple of other extras in PSYCHED, LIKE NEW. I wasn't sure about STOKERS, but they do appear to be real positions in a steamship.

I breezed right through the puzzle, meaning that the short fill did its job beautifully. Okay, an OER here, an ENG there, and some may take issue with EBSEN. (I'm okay with him since he seems to have been a relatively famous actor in his day.) Mike clearly filled his grid with a lot of effort and iteration to produce a top-notch product.

I would have loved 1.) more playfulness out of the themers, maybe having them tell a story about the poor plumber's day, and 2.) to have it run on a Monday. Something this smooth and straightforward would have filled that critical early-week slot so beautifully, much more approachable for newbies than the average Monday puzzle these days.

Still, I thought the execution was top-notch. Maybe wishing it had been more playful is a *rim shot* pipe dream.

Fri 3/24/2017

Mike mentioned to me that he and John had gotten three (or more now?) themelesses accepted, with a focused strategy: 1.) go up to 70 or 72 words, 2.) use a fairly standard themeless layout, 3.) focus hard on those four corners, packing in as many great entries as possible, and 4.) allow some gluey bits, just as long as it doesn't get to be noticeable. It's a strategy that's paid off well for them.

This one was almost exactly what I was expecting, given Mike's description. Love that ASTERISKS / CLIP ON TIE / RELAY RACE trio (ASTERISKS got elevated with a great clue referring to "qualifications" — modifiers, not resume points!). A bit of USS and ISSA (hard to ask solvers to know every congressperson) holding everything together, but oh so worth it.

I wasn't as hot on the opposite corner since CRINOLINE didn't mean much to me. I felt like it represented untapped potential for that precious slot — although I'd bet lovers of Jane Eyre and 19th-century Britain would disagree.

Give what Mike told me, HEY BATTER BATTER was a nice surprise. Great feature entry right across the plate.

It can be tough to work in a grid-spanning central entry into a themeless, since its start and end reduces flexibility, constraining the triple-stacks it intersects. So I can understand why they decided to put that black square between STY and ICERS, to facilitate better filling. It'd be great to get another set of triple-stacks in those two corners, but it's much better to get just two great answers like LEVIATHAN and EYESTRAIN rather than try to strain your grid.

I was on the verge of feeling like AIS (partial), ICERS (is that a real profession?), and the aforementioned were too much, but they kept the glue spread out pretty well.

And with bonuses such as FBOMB and the amusing TWERK TWERP pairing, I quite enjoyed this 72-worder.

Sometimes themeless constructors (including myself) stretch too much, aiming for much more technically difficult 68- or 66-worders, but we'd do well to think about what these guys' approach brings to the solving experience. Looking forward to their next collaborations!

Mon 3/21/2016

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I nearly emailed Mike to ask how HUSH HUSH related to the other themers. How could [Top secret] be descriptive of SMASH HIT, RUSH HOUR, etc.? I noticed the *H H* pattern early on, and thought it had to be some sort of 4-H theme (math isn't my strong suit, apparently). Thunked my forehead when I realized HUSH HUSH hints at SHH, the three-letter string hidden in all the themers. Very cool that HUSH HUSH itself also hides SHH.

Very intimidating hat there

Squeaky-clean Monday puzzles are tough to pull off, and Mike does well. I love when a constructor can manage to keep the crossword glue to a small handful of minor stuff. Here, it's just ENV, RET, SLO. Note how those shorties don't stick out much? That's why I score these three-letter gluey bits slightly higher (25 points) than five-letter bits (20 points) in our XWord Info Word List.

It's actually pretty easy to generate a super-smooth Monday crossword, but once you throw in added levels of difficulty: 1.) higher than average theme density and 2.) bonus long fill, it's much more meaty a task. Even though Mike doesn't leave himself much in terms of long (8+ letter) slots, he does very well with his mid-range stuff: PULL TAB, LA FITTE, LOSES IT, PRENUPS, BARISTA, etc.

Mike could have incorporated a lot more 8+ letter fill by reducing his themer count from five to four — that middle entry, TRASH HEAP, really constrains the grid — but I do like having the extra themer today. And given that Mike did so well with his mid-length fill, I think he made good grid choices.

It's such a neat find that SHH is right inside HUSH HUSH. I probably would have given this one the POW! for that reason alone, if the cluing had made it more apparent. Perhaps something like [Very quiet … and a hint to a sound found in …]? That's not quite right either, but something like that could have been more appropriate for a Monday puzzle.

Wed 9/9/2015

Mike is moving out to Seattle, AKA the new crossword Mecca! Come, join us. Resistance is futile.

Repeat after me: expecto patronum!

Six famous(-ish) gathering places from TV shows. Having wasted (er, spent — sorry Mike!) hundreds of hours watching "Friends," I knew CENTRAL PERK right off the bat — fun, punny name. And as a die-hard "Star Trek" fan, TEN FORWARD came easily as well. MACLARENS, not so much. Thankfully, Mike did a nice job of making sure that most all the entries crossing themers were fair.

Some might argue that ZAPOTEC makes for a tough crossing, but first of all, how many possibilities does TEN F?RWARD have? (Okay fine, maybe TEN FARWARD is marginally plausible.) Second of all, boo on you if you haven't invested in all the greatness that was "Star Trek: the Next Generation."

I like the consistency, all places from TV shows. At first, this giant "Casablanca" fan was distressed to see RICKS omitted, but that would have introduced a "this one is not like the others." Ah, well.

AZKABAN, the "Harry Potter" prison! Fun for the fanboy in me to see that. Probably not so much fun for the non-fanboys to guess at if it was AZKABAN or ASKABAN, what with INEZ / INES being equally likely. I'm taking away five points from Crossffyndor for that.

Nice execution, considering the difficulty of incorporating six themers. Mike does well to stack CENTRAL PERK / MOES TAVERN and TEN FORWARD / THE PEACH PIT, allowing him to space out the rest of the themers. It does cause some difficulty in the top, with UNES and PERTER, as well as in the bottom, with our good crossword friend EERO and A POD, but those are relatively minor.

I also like Mike's big thinking, keeping the word count low (74) and giving us quite a bit of longer fill. SOME NERVE, SLAPDASH, and LAID AN EGG are so zippy. He did a good job of spacing these long entries out, too, which helps a constructor more smoothly fill a grid.

All in all, a fun idea. It would have been nice to get at least one more with a wordplay name like CENTRAL PERK rather than straightforward trivia — get on that, TV writers!

Mon 5/19/2014

Fun theme, five colloquial phrases loosely related to phones. DIAL IT DOWN, OFF THE HOOK, and PHONE IT IN, those are some snappy entries. Excellent material.

Michael gives us quite an ambitious grid, especially for a Monday puzzle. Not only does he give us five themers, all relatively long, but integrates SIX long downs, two pairs which are both adjacent to each other. I was really impressed by each of the six, ICE BRIDGE and SYMBIOSIS being really nice, and TATER TOTS easily my favorite. I don't see them around nearly as much these days, but TATER TOTS were a staple of my school lunches way back when. Nice to have good feelings evoked by a crossword.

This type of parallel down structure has its drawbacks, though. Let's take a look at ICE BRIDGE and COLOSSEUM. As with any sort of stack (as typical in themelesses), the crossings inevitably become difficult because of all the constraints. Here, RING A BELL and WHAT IS THE HANG UP already constrain this pair of long downs, so choice is restricted. And once you settle into a pair you like, there are often trouble spots with the crossing answers. Specifically, the ?RS? pattern has very few "good" entries to fit, OR SO or URSA being the only ones I'd personally be happy with. It's tough to avoid these types of issues with any stack of longer answers.

I would say that ORSK and KYL are a bit iffy in themselves. And when taken together, and in a Monday puzzle, are not my ideal. Nice to learn a thing or two from a crossword, but this little area felt a bit too much like work, for my taste. I'll note that my philosophy is shifting, in that I don't think Mon NYT puzzles should be accessible to ALL people. I do think that there's a balance though, and having ORSK and KYL in one little section could be a real turn-off for someone considering tackling the NYT crossword.

I did appreciate that Michael took care throughout the rest of the puzzle though. The opposite corner for example, is amazingly smooth for all the constraints. It's a small miracle anytime you can pull off a double-stack as good as CHINA SHOP and TATER TOTS with only a very minor price of UNES.

I liked the innovation in the theme. It's not often that we see a crossword that can't easily be classified into a theme type. I like the ones that stretch our ability to categorize. I think I would have loved it if the five themers cohered a little bit better, i.e. they all ended with parts of a phone or something, and if WHAT IS THE HANG UP had felt not as wonky. I wanted WHATS THE HOLD UP, especially given the clue, and I'm mixed on whether WHAT IS THE HANG UP is "in the language."

Overall, nice to see the boundaries for a Monday puzzle pushed. A little strained at points, but worth it to me.

Thu 1/23/2014

Very cool idea from Michael today. Congrats on the debut! I always appreciate when constructors learn the rules well enough to break them with thoughtful deliberation, and I felt like Michael did just that. It's sort of a faux-rebus, one where supposed white squares are actually a physical block. I like it even better with his original concept (special squares being black, carrying a white number in them).

Very impressive was the way Michael interlocked his theme answers (BLOCKS OUT intersecting BLOCK PARTIES, etc.). It is true that there quite a few potential BLOCK-related answers to choose from, but to figure out a way to interlock at four different points is pretty neat. I don't think many solvers appreciate how difficult it is to do that.

Generally a good job on the fill too, considering the difficulty of filling around the interlocked theme answers… with the one main exception of TUBE PANS crossing SHEB. Oof, a very difficult crossing, one that I guessed on. Granted, I have roughly the skill of a one-legged dog in the kitchen, but I do know what a BUNDT PAN is. TUBE PAN does google strongly so perhaps that's on me, but yeesh, SHE? could have been anything, and TUNE PAN and TULE PAN felt like they were reasonable.

Final comment on fill: I would expect the NE and SW corners to be on the crunchy side, given 1.) how big they are and 2.) how constrained. But Michael dos a good job in the NE, with AS THE being the only blight. Even given my distaste for five-letter partials, it's not a bad one. The SW does suffer more, with IDAS and ENOW in close proximity. I wonder how many options Michael tried instead of BLOCKAGE, and if BLOCKADE or BLOCKERS or something would have cleaned that up.

Neat idea, perfect for a tricky Thursday.