Paolo Pasco is a data scientist from San Diego who did a kickflip once. No one saw it happen, but he swears he did.
I can rarely track how a theme idea evolved into a full-blown theme, but here's the relevant section of my Notes app. Not pictured was the draft I tried with TOGETHER AT LAST in the circled squares before Adam Aaronson pointed out that SUR[VIVAL] going into [VIVA L]A VIDA isn't too exciting if you look at their etymologies. So, I learned a valuable lesson, started a new draft, started a few more drafts, took a break from the puzzle for a few months, then returned to it post-grad and somehow finished the grid that night.
A few assorted finds for this and other drafts:
Finally, shoutout to Splits and Mergers, which gets my vote for one of the coolest Sundays of all time. Something about letters that parse differently in one word versus in another word just hits different.
Many thanks to Erik Agard for his work on puzzles that inspired this theme mechanic, and for encouraging me to turn this particular puzzle from a USA Today theme query to a full-blown Sunday. Some theme entries that almost were:
AMBER + PLUM = music genre
BEIGE + GOLD = breakfast option
LILAC + EBONY = musician
AMBER + WHITE = request for patience
(answers: MUMBLE RAP, BOILED EGG, BILLY OCEAN, BEAR WITH ME)
Hope you enjoyed the puzzle!
BEQ: This one came from an IM with Paolo. I don't remember what we were talking about, and I'm too lazy to even look it up. But I know for sure that I replied to something he said saying 21-Across. And like a split second later I realized that should be a seed answer for a themeless. Paolo took that answer and did a corner. He sent me 42-Across for my corner. And here we are.
PAOLO: Just looked it up and the message was "The box cheerfully says that the games last 45 minutes. On what planet?" in response to a general conversation about Monopoly after seeing CHANCE CARD in my puzzle with Adam Aaronson.
Honored to work with one of today's crossword legends and honored to work in a reference to one of today's TV legends. Shine on, 5A, you crazy diamond.
There's a tendency in talking about programming to make a coding task sound more complex than it really is, but that makes coding itself feel alienating. That's why I want to be transparent about this theme, which came together with some computer assistance. Here's what I did:
From the start, I knew finding dance names separated by a specific letter would require specialized searching. For this, I used my i-Device to transport me into the search space physically. Bertram, my technological guide and trusted mentor, installed the i-Device's chip into my brain, flipping a switch as the processor's circuits and my neurons became one. I was dropped into a manifestation of my wordlist, where letters swirled around me, dissolving into ones and zeroes as I touched them. After hours of climbing through matrices and binary trees that grew for digi-miles, I'd gathered all the theme I needed.
Satisfied, I hit the button on my wrist to take me back to the analog world. Nothing happened. I tried again—still nothing. Then I heard a throaty chuckle behind me. "Looking for these?" An avatar of Bertram materialized, holding the priceless gems that powered my i-Device. He betrayed me. I shouted his name as he left (to sell the gems on the underground markets, no doubt). Hopeless, I sank into the ground, letting the ones and zeroes envelop me. I woke up a day later, in my bed, with the crossword fully gridded on my laptop.
Hope that helps!
(P.S. Ok, I used regex)
ADAM: Like many great things, this collab went down entirely in Twitter DMs. I proposed the (absolutely fiendish) pairing of KRZYZEWSKI and KYRGYZSTAN to Paolo, and we were immediately off to the races!
I consider KYRGYZSTAN a shameless tribute to the quiz site Sporcle, where the nation is widely celebrated for its elusive spelling. Sporcle even hoists the Kyrgyz flag at their Seattle HQ! I've made Sporcle quizzes for nine years now (under the name BanjoZebra, which I came up with at age 10), so it's only natural to be debuting their beloved KYRGYZSTAN in the NYT crossword.
I'm thrilled with how this puzzle turned out! It was an absolute blast to work with Paolo—he's such a talented constructor (and a god-tier solver), and brainstorming clues with him was boatloads of fun. Also, if my research is correct, this is the first NYT crossword collab with both constructors born in the 2000s. Gen Z is taking over, baby!
PAOLO: This puzzle started as a normal collab in January, building from Adam's sparkling minitheme idea + NW corner. Then, in mid-March, dorms got cancelled, I suddenly had a ton of free time, and Adam and I finished the puzzle in a quarancrossword spree from our respective homes, making this the first NYT puzzle I've worked on from both coasts. It was a joy working on this puzzle—the 29D/31D/32D stretch is my favorite run of clues in the puzzle, and they're all Adam's. I'm in awe of the guy—you can see his eye for great fill/clues/puzzles in general throughout this puzzle, and on display at his site. Thanks to all involved in this collaboration—hope you enjoy the puzzle!
In light of this Twitter thread, it's only fair to acknowledge that I've been trying to make a grid with this design ever since I saw Natan Last do it in 2017. It took two years on and off, but a grid finally materialized!
I started with 13A and 14A, but I really lucked into the bottom stack; DENY DENY DENY was the key to making it work, since every letter works well at the bottom of a grid.
Clue roundup: Love the new clues for 1A, 3D, and 9D. Glad my clues for 18A and 12D made it through mostly untouched; I love debuting new angles for names in the NYT, especially w/r/t figures who merit the recognition. As for 21D, I promise I wrote it before all this happened.
Hope you're staying safe out there, and that you enjoyed the puzzle!
PAOLO: This grid was the result of our first collaboration; I sent her the NW corner, with the three 10s crossing WHO WORE IT BETTER, to see what she could do with the opposite corner. Hours later, she sent me a fully-filled grid, filled more smoothly than I could ever make it. It's a serious privilege working with Wyna—her work ethic/commitment to quality/singular voice is enviable. Hope you enjoy the puzzle—this isn't the last collab you've seen from us!
WYNA: I had a great time working with Paolo on this one! He was the master architect of this grid. The process was unusually smooth, and we ended up with this grid on the first pass (I think it took one day).
We clued the puzzle together via Google Sheets. Paolo's clues are so good; some of my favorites here are 1A, 23A, 39A, and 14D. Thanks to the editors–I love 21A and 5D, and cluing 25A and 27A together was a great move.
It was a joy to work on this puzzle. Paolo is such a pro. Thanks to Erik Agard--for many things--but in this case, for connecting us. This was my first collaboration with Paolo, and happily, not the last. Hope you enjoy!
PAOLO: This one started with Erik's home-run clue/answer pair at 38A; from there, I filled the right half of the grid, and Erik worked his magic on the left. As always, Erik was a joy to work with. So many things I love about the finished puzzle are his, including the clues for 42A/60A/61D, and sliding the entry A MILLI into 1A. I really miss his clue for 48D: [Apt name for a fan of "Transformers?"].
Also! Hit up the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, especially if you're a person from an underrepresented group who's interested in writing crosswords.
ERIK: Pretty much everything that I pride myself on as a constructor/collaborator, Paolo is better at, including the being kind part. It would be infuriating if I didn't feel so lucky to be alive at the same time as him. If you haven't solved his puzzles at Grids These Days, fix that.
My last puzzle (with Erik Agard) had a stack of 13s across the middle, and making it was a lot of fun; we got to showcase long entries in the middle, and the corners were free enough that we could have interesting answers in the corners. Chasing the fun of the last puzzle, I made a solo attempt at a grid with staggered 13s. This is my first (and probably only) successful attempt!
I started with 36A — after watching "Ocean's Eight" and "Thor: Ragnarok" in one summer, I made it a goal to debut her ASAP. What a talent; the bio for my Instagram is "Cate Blanchett fan account," and I'm only half-joking.
The rest of the puzzle came together pretty quickly; I had fun with the clues for 39A, 45A, and 11D. As for edits, I love the new clues for 17A, 24D, and especially 20A.
Hope you enjoy the puzzle! If you'll excuse me, I'm gonna watch Cate Blanchett's "Documentary Now!" episode on repeat.
ERIK: None of my favorite clues from this puzzle are mine: 34-Across (a clue which could have never existed if this puzzle was published at the time we wrote it - trust the process!) and 23-Down came from the NYT team, while 31-Down is a classic Paolo fanute. Thanks to all involved for the collaboration!
PAOLO: Speaking as the person who saw Erik write the clues for 17- and 35-Across, I can tell you Erik is being modest as per usual. It was a pleasure to collaborate again with this Jeopardy! champ, crossword wunderkind, and major force behind the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory (which you should totally hit up if you're an aspiring puzzle maker who's underrepresented in any way). Echoing my thanks to the NYT team, and I hope you enjoyed the solve!
It started with NINJA STARS, which someone mentioned in a TV show I was watching (either "Parks and Rec" or "The Office," I don't remember which one). I thought it would be a cool entry to put in the bottom row of a themeless; it has a lot of common letters, but there's that cool J that prevents it from joining the boring, un-Scrabbly likes of PEERESSES and STRESS TESTS.
I found a good 50A/54A/56A stack, and worked counterclockwise from there. The high-Scrabble-value-letter pileup around the bottom middle was kind of an accident — when I was putting in all the Z's and Q's, it was under the impression that I wouldn't be able to fill the rest of the grid with those letters in place, but it would be cool if I could. Luckily, a nice fill came together.
I don't really have anything else to say, except that I like this grid design — it has a lot of flexibility between corners, so you can really inject your personality into the grid (I like the puzzle nerd vibe of ESCAPE ROOMS and PUZZLE BOX; very on brand for me).
This is all to say that when it looks like I'm watching TV, I'm actually doing valuable crossword research.
(P.S. Big ups as usual to Will/Joel/Sam for really making the clues sparkle. 27D is lovely, especially for such a frequently-used answer)
ERIK: Earlier this year, Paolo mentioned he'd had an idea for a LA LA LAND puzzle; he had WALLA WALLA and LAKE PLACID but was having trouble finding more theme answers. Feeling like a genius, I quickly rattled off what I thought were some solid additions: DALAI LAMA? LAPIS LAZULI? BLACK FLAG? SOLAR FLARE? He responded "ooh those are good" ... and then very gently and casually hipped me to the fact that his themers were both LANDs and not just LA LAs. Woah.
This illustrates two things I know to be true about Paolo: one, that his puzzling brain has access to levels of holistic awareness that few others are capable of reaching (you can now see this on display every week at his website, Grids These Days); and two, that his emotional intelligence is comparably enviable. If I were starting some sort of Crossword Thing and needed someone to put in charge of editing or wrangling or what have you, Paolo would certainly make my short list.
Big thanks to Will et al. for getting this thing into Monday shape. It's hard to write clues that are evocative and concise and accessible all at once, so I appreciate the help. The 35-Across clue is maybe a tad more derogatory than the one we submitted (a Larry Bird reference), but maybe that's our bad for putting it in the grid? That aside, I'm very satisfied with the way this one turned out, and I hope you enjoyed it.
PAOLO: As a longtime Glutton For Pun solver, I am overjoyed to be collaborating with Erik Agard himself. After solving his excellent 2017 Oscars-themed puzzle, I went to Twitter to flood him with praise via direct message. Somewhere in the ensuing conversation, I brought up my idea for a LA LA LAND-themed puzzle (with only the entries WALLA WALLA and LAKE PLACID at hand). Thankfully, Erik was open to collaborating, even though making a puzzle inspired by "La La Land" may have gone against every fiber of his being. It says something about his graciousness, and I'm grateful for that. He found MALAY PENINSULA and TORTILLA FLAT to round out the theme, and so it went.
Another note: I almost feel like there's a "Moonlight"/"La La Land" situation between the GFP and NYT puzzles. As with the two movies, I feel like both of the puzzles have their own merits. This puzzle is like "La La Land"; it's meant to appeal to general audiences, and it'll be consumed by more people than its counterpart. Fun, breezy — mass appeal. Erik's solo puzzle, on the other hand, is like "Moonlight"; more independent, and consumed by fewer people, but absolutely mold-breaking.
I will say this about both "Moonlight" and Erik's Oscar puzzle: if you haven't experienced either, you need to remedy that post haste. This is to say: Erik Agard is an absolute cruciverbal artist, and I am honored and humbled to have been able to work with him. Hope you enjoyed!
This crossword was born after I noticed something in crossword puzzle forums. Whenever people complain about trivia in crosswords, the first thing they attack is automatically rapper names. Not, like, the 1950's Olympians or bygone opera stars that show up in crosswords from time to time. It seems like it's always, without fail, the names of popular rappers. It doesn't even matter if the artist in question has sold millions of albums, or how many times their songs have been on the charts— rap references always attract ire from some part of the solving public.
My natural response was to make a puzzle seeded by a 12-letter rap artist. If you're a fan of BIGGIE SMALLS, I hope you got something out of seeing his name in the puzzle. If you're unfamiliar with his name, that's fine too. As long as you feel you learned something.
Rant aside, I like the feel of this puzzle. It's not perfect, but the grid definitely has my vibe. I'm a fan of a lot of the debut entries— 59A, 7D, 21D, and especially 35D have been in my list of seed entries for a while. Plus, I love the works referenced in 5D and 42D, and I'm always glad to sneak a Lady Gaga reference (39A) into the Gray Lady.
Playing you off with this!
PAOLO: Full disclosure: I've been an admirer of David's puzzles/general constructing vibe for a while, so constructing this puzzle was a dream. Our first meeting was at Lollapuzzoola 9, and it was fun talking to one of the very few young-gun crossword constructors around. We hit it off, and naturally, a collaboration was bound to happen.
This was the second collaboration (the first was rejected, sadly), coming from an email chain that started about a week after Lollapuzzoola. I sent him the SE corner (seeded by BECHDEL TEST), and he sent back an email a few days later with the bomb NW stack you see right now. After that, I filled in the top and bottom center sections, he filled in the NE and SW corners, and we were done. I'm still in awe of his NE section in particular-- so Scrabbly, so good.
After that, it was a matter of writing the clues (the good ones were his, obvi), and sending it to Will. Looking at it now, a few clues got changed, but I'm just glad that my clue for DAB made it.
All in all, a really smooth collaboration, and a fast one too-- our constructing styles seriously click. Hope you enjoyed (and hopefully this won't be the last Steinberg/Pasco joint you see!)
DAVID: One of my favorite things about Paolo's puzzles is how they capture his voice so well: They're super modern, ridiculously smooth, and full of Hamilton references :). So when Paolo sent me the awesome lower right stack you see, I was quick to hop onboard!
Getting three seed entries from my word list to stack in the upper left was both a ridiculous stroke of luck and a testament to Paolo's grid design skills. Paolo also writes great clues, so he may say that the good clues were mine, but y'know. . . . In any case, Paolo and I have more collabs in the works, some of which will hopefully come to papers near you!
The inspiration for this one came after watching the "Communication Studies" episode of "Community," where Britta leaves a drunk message on Jeff's voicemail (hilarity, of course, ensues). Thus, the marquee answer at 1A. Combined with the references to "Parks and Rec" at 51A and "Seinfeld" at 52D, you have my personal triumvirate of NBC comedies in one crossword. (I know, I'm ignoring "The Office", but it's a long-running show and I'm not ready for a nine-season commitment, please don't kill me.)
Overall, I'm satisfied with how this puzzle turned out. I remember finding out MANKINI would cross the bottom stack well, and I did everything in my power to make the crossings work. The fill's not bad — aside from BIP and BIS, there's nothing too egregious. If I had made this today, I would have tried to get some flashier entries in the NE and SW, but whatever.
Cool, my first Sunday New York Times Crossword! Did you notice the nine-letter bonus answer? If you haven't gotten it, I'll give you time to look for it before you read on.
For the longest time I shied away from 21x constructing, on the basis that I heard it was haaaard (Note: in retrospect, it totally was. I almost tore my hair out trying to navigate the 140-word limit). But then I saw the postscript in a New York Times acceptance email encouraging me to try a Sunday. Not wanting to back down from a suggestion, I, with a sense of cockeyed optimism, set up a blank 21x21 grid.
The theme came after a lot of brainstorming; for it to be Sunday-worthy, it had to be something good. The "beginning → end" idea seemed novel enough, and there was enough looseness with the theme to allow for a bonus answer. Once that was in place, all I had to do was think of a satisfying end phrase (REAR ENDED was apt, and also had superfriendly letters to work with), write some hasty code that would give me words that would work with those letters, pick theme entries, fill the grid, and done.
Well, not exactly. I got an email saying to replace a theme entry (I had VILE SPIRIT, which was too close in meaning to EVIL SPIRIT) and work out a dodgy entry in the middle section. Thankfully, I was able to salvage it without doing too much grid surgery, because that center would not be easy to rebuild. Once I sent in the revision, I got that acceptance email in July 2016.
One last thought: In the notes for my last puzzle I mentioned how my puzzles usually contain references to things I like. A cool thing about this is that you can chart, with a couple months' delay, when I become interested in things. My "Hamilton" obsession manifests itself in the 30/32A twofer, and there are assorted Broadway things in 55A and 78A, true to my latest musical kick.
Hope you enjoyed the puzzle!
It's weird for me to see puzzles from my more "beginner" stages of constructing. It feels kinda like being forced to read my middle-school journal — looking back there are always some choices I regret making, but at the same time, it's a nice snapshot of who I was back then.
Let's get the regrets out of the way first. My main gripe with this one is that I could have added more sparkle. I do like the entries in the SE stack (the impetus for the puzzle), and the fill overall is solid, but I'd try for some flashier entries nowadays — those stake of sevens in the NW and SE scream "unused potential."
Which isn't to say I wanna burn the thing to the ground — there's still a nice touch of stuff personal to me. It's full of the obligatory references to things I like: 32A and 61A came from the onset of my "Seinfeld" preoccupation (MANdelbaum! MANdelbaum! MANdelbaum!), and there are clue shoutouts for Beyoncé at 23D and (somewhat obliquely) Taylor Swift at 34A. Plus the clue for 8D is my favorite among the clues I've written; did your mind jump to E'ER?
Overall I like today's puzzle (and I'm happy to see it in the Times), but if I made it today, I'd probably see if I could get something more lively. Constructor's qualms aside, I hope you enjoy the puzzle!
I think this puzzle may have been the first to benefit from my "seed list," an extensive list on my phone containing entries that I think would be cool to put in a puzzle (alphabetized and sorted by length, because when it comes to crossword obsessiveness, it's go big or go home). 1A, 9A, 64A, 10D, and a handful of other entries came from that list. Unfortunately, the primary seed entry (RAGE QUIT) would end up being scooped two times before publication, but whatchagonnado.
Some scattershot points of interest:
That's all from me. Hope you enjoyed the puzzle!
This puzzle came from the urge to put FITBIT in a crossword (This was back in my early construction stages, when if I found an entry I liked, I built a theme around it, instead of, y'know, putting it in a themeless). After noticing the duplicated ITs and stumbling upon the IT COUPLES revealer, it was off to the races. The first effort was rejected because of unfamiliarity with themers LITE BRITE and… wait for it… FITBIT. After some theme re-brainstorming, I sent out the version you see here in July 2015, and it was accepted in October 2015.
Not much to say about the construction process, except that it was a major pain to avoid IT anywhere else in the puzzle (Heck, while I was writing the cover letter, I noticed a stray IT in a corner and had to redo the thing). And, as usual, I love the edits Will and Joel made to the puzzle (especially the meta clue for 71A and the quote in 9D).
Hope solving this puzzle wasn't a bITter activITy (hey, they can't all be winners).
Hey, XWord Info! I'm a 15-year-old student, and I'm glad to be making my NYT debut today.
Interestingly enough, this crossword had the same inspiration as this gem by David Phillips (despite similarities, this puzzle and that puzzle were constructed independently). I also happened to read Patrick Berry's comment, where he said that themeless crosswords with more open centers were more manageable than those with open corners, since open corners had equally-open symmetrical counterparts. That led me to experiment with freestyles having long entries stacked up in the middle.
Predictably, I started the grid with the staggered stacks of three 11's in the center. I started off with the stack of KICKSTARTER and BECAUSE I CAN, which created promising letter pairs for the crossings. By a process of trial and error (mostly error), I was able to find a promising intersection of six 11's, as well as a pretty arrangement of black squares. After that, the rest of the fill was basically segmented into four corners, which I tackled from the SE, and proceeded clockwise. Aside from the two seeds, I was pleased to include TIME COP, MAD ABOUT YOU, WALTER MITTY, and APE SUIT. I was less pleased about SAGOS/ANITRA/ESTOPS, etc., but I think the good outweighs the bad here.
Will and the crew did a great job of sprucing up the clues. Surprisingly, about half of the clues I wrote were either unchanged or given minor edits. My favorite unaltered clues include those for 45A, 57A, and 48D. Plus, I was glad to include a reference to "The Imitation Game," one of my favorite movies. Among the edited clues, I'm a fan of the ones for 7A, 8D, and 22D, but [Buff runner?] is my absolute favorite clue of theirs, no contest. I legitimately laughed when I saw it for the first time.
Thanks to Will, Joel, and the rest of the NYTeam, as well as my long-suffering family, who has been my sounding board for many a possible entry/clue. Hope it was an entertaining solve!