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20 puzzles by Ryan McCarty
with Jeff Chen comments

Ryan McCarty
Sat 9/18/2021

I laughed after uncovering MEATBAGS. My brother and I play Clash Royale, and certain high-hit point troops are known as "meat shields" — as in you send them out in front to take the punishment, while more valuable troops behind use them as armor.

I also enjoyed NU METAL, hearing the term maybe ten years ago. It sure is hard to parse, though, so Jim Horne (the professional musician!) asked me what "num et al" was. I bet it might have gone over better with Jim if NU METAL had been presented horizontally?

A ton of stuff that felt only vaguely familiar:

BRONZER PALETTE. Reasonable number of Google hits, and probably something ultra-familiar to people who wear this kind of makeup.

MOM BLOGS. My initial reaction was that this felt arbitrary, but it turns out there are way more MOM BLOGS than I could have ever imagined. Perhaps not surprising, given how intense parenthood is. Sadly, the number of Dad blogs looks to be more than an order of magnitude less.

TROLL ARMY. Would I rather face a Battle of Hogwarts TROLL ARMY, or an army of Internet trolls? It's sad that the world has come to people hiring armies of trolls for their electronic onslaughts.

LIBATE / APNEAL. Glad that these ran on a Saturday, not a Friday. Also relieved that I was able to solve them, deriving these word-ish entries from "libation" and "apnea."

Some of these entries gave me the same I'm-not-hip-enough-to-understand-this sensation as DANK MEMES, but as with that entry, I'm sure that there are many people that will delight in these.

I also wondered about GAY PORN. I appreciate that some crossword editors are pushing to reduce entries that are unpleasant to some solvers, like OGLE, LEER, PORNO, SMUT. I'm curious if those editors would count GAY PORN as a similar liability, or as an asset because of its inclusiveness. Glad I'm not an editor.

I'm a huge fan of Ryan's wide-open-middle, ultra-low-word-count themelesses. This one didn't awe me like those usually do, but I do appreciate seeing constructors expanding their breadth of work.

Sat 7/17/2021

Ryan is such a master at these gigantic open middles. I've made a few themelesses using this pattern(ish) but note how Ryan shunned the big pyramids of black squares on the left and right of the grid. I wanted to do that, but it felt impossible — those extra black squares make a world of difference, an order of magnitude. To achieve something like SLICE AND DICE / EMOJI KEYBOARD / WAGE LABORERS, crossing BLANKET TOSS / LOOP DE LOOPS / RAGGEDY ANDY is a tour de force.

Puzzles like this one, with astonishingly few short answers, can be difficult to solve. Where do you even begin, with no toeholds? I was thankful that Leon URIS got a gimme clue — could easily have been clued to "Topaz" or "Mitla Pass." Even then, I was stuck for long minutes, staring at a nearly blank grid.

When puzzles are this difficult, I often slog to the end with frustration as my overwhelming feeling. Saturdays are supposed to be hard, but there's hard and there's so-freaking-impossible that it'd take Erik Agard a full six minutes to finish it. (I clocked in at about 50.) However, I was more exhilarated than anything when I finally reached the end. It was like that high you get when you sprint across (okay, stumble in a heap over) the finish line at a triathlon. So satisfying to finally crack EMOJI KEYBOARD.

Granted, I wouldn't think of saying EMOJI KEYBOARD in everyday language, but it's definitely a thing. I also wasn't positive was SPA TUBS were—SPATULA isn't something I want to think about in the bathroom—but they're also most definitely a thing (that I badly wanted after finishing this solving marathon!).

I gave this one a lot of consideration for the POW!, and if some of the clues had been turned down from difficulty = 11, like the SCOTUS not so generically described as a "high branch," it could easily have gotten there. Stunning achievement in gridwork.

Sat 5/1/2021

It's rare to find a crossword niche. It's even rarer to be one of the few people who have mastered said niche. Ryan is not only the creator of this "tilted football" wide-open, low-word-count themeless style, but the one and only master. It's amazing how many fantastic entries are packed into that humongous center — without any dabs of crossword glue!

I'd be happy to work in BALD TIRES, LOVE SEATS, DIRTY RICE, THE OLD VIC, WATER HAZARD, EAR TRUMPET, SCOTCH EGG into a themeless. To do so in the middle of a wide-open center is jaw-dropping. I rarely have the sense of not knowing where I would even begin on a construction, but this is one of those cases.

Not only that, but there are half a dozen brilliant clues. [Popular camp assemblies] had me thinking of sing-alongs. But marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers get assembled into S'MORES all the time.

And part of a diplomatic address had to be referring to an embassy mailing address. What a great a-ha, realizing that MADAM can be a diplomatic way to address someone.

The question mark tipped me off on [Places where things are all tied up?] but that didn't take much away from the humor of boats being tied up at MARINAS.

Even the common ABS got elevated as a focus of "middle management." It's been over a year since I went climbing …

I now better understand Ryan's feats because I've spent hours breaking them down, developing tricks that can help replicate his results. That still doesn't take away from my appreciation for his artistic and technically amazing feats. To pack in so much juice while never allowing yourself to use even a single drop of crossword glue = superstar. In most weeks, this would have easily gotten the POW!, but great themes don't come around very often.

Sat 9/12/2020

Ryan is making a name for himself with these incredibly wide-open middles. This puzzle clocks in at an astounding 60 words. That's not low enough to break any records, but it gets him high on our list.

Previously, Ryan has dipped into ultra-low word territory, but the closest he's gotten until today is 62 words. With his other "pinwheel" themelesses, he's usually kept it more manageable, sticking to 66 or 64 words. Going down to 62 is a small percentage change, but it ups the difficulty by a factor of about five. My 62-worders have all been hair-tearing, Sisyphean trials. It's no surprise that I'm bald today — be careful, Ryan!

I enjoyed the solve, so much fantastic long material worked in. It's hard enough to fill a center as big as today's, but to do it with SANTA HATS, GO BERSERK, SCAM ARTISTS, STEP-PARENTS, SHOEHORNING, HEAD RESTS — my Santa hat is off to Ryan!

Not bottlenecking corners makes it so tough to generate both a colorful and clean puzzle. I appreciate that the grid is devoid of gloopy short entries, besides the outdated TNN.

I did hitch on several entries, though; not a needle-scratching effect but a lot of OTTAVA, REDBONE, ZENER, TRANK, HEW TO, ZAPOTECAN, and ANTONIN clued to something even this Harry Potter MEGAFAN couldn't recall. Low word-count puzzles almost always come with some form of compromise — I'd have gladly taken a couple more common short gluey bits in exchange for fewer of these tougher entries.

Even with so many entries that felt foreign, I did enjoy the solve overall, especially with clues like [Collection of offers?]. Having heard similar tricks (OFFER = someone who offs), I confidently put in HITMEN. D'oh! Same length as THE MOB; beautiful trickery.

Sat 6/27/2020

Ryan Mccarty is so strong at assembling low-word count grids. This isn't his first football-shaped middle — he's done three others — but it's still stunning to see all those long answers stacked atop each other. Five long answers from TITLE DEED to GAVE A DAMN — all intersected by more long answers from COAST TO COAST to I CAN DO THAT to SCHOOL MARM to SWEET AND SOUR? There's nothing sour about that, only sweet!

Constructors like entries such as JASON MRAZ because of that bizarre NMR string and the two rare letters. He's not going to do much for those who don't know him, though. There's something to be said about introducing solvers to your favorite musician or someone you think is important, but you might leave solvers with a negative impression of that person. Some solvers don't like being forced to learn, not when they're looking for pure entertainment.

Similar case for DARIO FO, although he's not as noticeable since he's tucked away in a corner.

Clever clues make a themeless stand out. I loved the one for TREADS, this bald guy initially going to HAIR.

And my kids know that I'm an enchanting one, not just because I tell them so. Watch as this dad MAGE pulls a quarter out of your ear!

Tess, too smart for her own good, now constantly inspects my palms.

I also appreciated the HATE WATCH clue, including both "put on" (the TV) and "put-off." It didn't work perfectly, though, since it made me wonder if I understand what HATE WATCH means. (I don't.)

Solid work, the grid assembled with care, not a drop of crossword glue in sight. I'd have welcomed a bit more, though, in exchange for fewer unfamiliar names and more clever clues.

POW Sat 4/18/2020

★ Oh, that center. Ooh. Ooooh! If you add a googol Os to that "ooh," that'd be more accurate. I've worked with many big centers while developing themelesses, but nothing like this. It wouldn't even occur to me to try, so impossible does it seem. I might attempt it once, and then quickly place a black square at the very center, or maybe scatter two around, like at the A of CYBERATTACK and the R of LOTTERY PICK.

Stunning. I rarely open up a themeless and stare, slack-jawed.

My usual second reaction to something like this is to clench every muscle in my body in preparation for a slew of uglies. Short gloop. Mid-length oddities. Long curiosities. Everything under the Barnum and Bailey sun.

Not today. The middle is more Blaine than Bailey. There are strong feature entries, like LOTTERY PICK (term for a high NBA draft choice), CYBERATTACK, RAT TRAP, STAR STUDENT, SPY CAMS. And there's no short crossword glue — how could there be where there are so few short slots, period?

RADIUMS is ugly in the plural, but it gets a pass as the sole funky bit in the massive white hole that is the center. I laughed at Ryan's appropriate use of the word "vomitous," too.

Solid corners, too. CRY HAVOC, THE FORCE (think: "Star Wars"), SNO BALLS, the women's soccer powerhouse TEAM USA, and that wannabe COOL MOM we all roll our eyes at, ha ha ha ... hey, wait. One of my kids called me a "cool dad" the other day. Huh.

Some may miss the cleverness behind [Shrunken head?]. LAV is short for "lavatory," so there needs to be some "for short" or "Abbr." tag in the clue. Great use of "shrunken" to do that job, while introducing wit by using a fun phrase.

I'd still have given Ryan the POW! for this masterpiece if it had turned out 80% as strong. I might have to award him 1.25 POW!s today!

POW Sat 1/18/2020

Diagonal symmetry is one of the rarest categories in our database. It's a shame, because not only is it distinctive, but it can be aesthetically stunning. That's the case for this sword-ish grid, resembling a medieval coat of arms. My family's crest is currently a set of squiggles drawn by my 5-year-old, so I'm nudging her to, ahem, revise. I'll have to leave copies of this puzzle around to influence her subconsciously.

At just 64 words, this grid almost made our fewest words list. Typically, that makes me worried, since such a feat almost always comes with severe compromises created by the difficulty of filling gigantic white spaces. Ryan did something smart, nibbling away at said white spaces with extra black squares — those three pyramid shapes count for a whopping 12 cheater squares (black squares that don't affect word count), 3 each in the top two pyramids and all 6 of the lowest. Usually, I don't like such a huge count of cheaters, but today's enhance the overall visual impact, without affecting solving flow.

Ryan also left himself plenty of long slots for juicy fill, and wow, was the juiciness overflowing! Beautiful marquees in WINE TASTING, KICKSTARTER, POP A WHEELIE, SIDEWALK ART, ICE PALACES, IVE MOVED ON.

Hilarious clue for BAD DATES, too. Way back when I was in the dating pool, is that why all those people had emergencies come up? No, those were all real emergencies, I'm sure.

A frequent reader, John Sutton, wrote in the other day, asking if I could spend a few lines explaining clues that one might never figure out via Google. You can go to AL JARREAU Wikipedia page if you don't know him, for example, but you can't do that with a wordplay clue. Great idea; here are two I noted:

  • TAJ: The "opening" in [Opening for a Mughal masterwork] is a bit of wordplay, aiming at "starting word," as in the TAJ Mahal.
  • Dalmatian, for one is CROAT? Yes, when you're referring to Dalmatia, Croatia.

I'll try to do this more for tricksy Friday and Saturday clues.

I didn't connect with everything — LINDROS sounded alien to this red-blooded ‘Murican, LAVA LAKES didn't ring a bell, and SUDSES sounded soapy — but there wasn't anything newfangled that turned off this ol' geezer in the vein of DANK MEMES. All in all, a beautiful product that sang like Excalibur.

Sat 12/14/2019

Don't let the fact that this grid has 69 words (near the max allowed) fool you. Since it's wider than usual (16 columns), it's effectively as hard to fill as a 67-word 15x15 grid. It's not as simple as that, though. Widening a grid to 16 presents unexpected challenges in a themed puzzle, and in a themeless, it can be brutal.

That one extra column can force oddities in the middle of the puzzle. It's unusual to get two long entries symmetrical to each other (FLYING CARPET / GREEN MONSTER), and that can be tough to build around — especially when they both have to cruise through a stair stack! Unseasoned constructors can get EATen ALIVE, but not Ryan. Seven strong entries anchoring the middle is impressive.

16-wides don't stop troubling you after the middle, though. The corners tend to get harder, too, because what seems like one measly little extra column can mean spending extra black squares. Ryan did well overall in the corners, but a couple of oddballs — UNSOBER, ARNICA, APIA crossing MANRAY, SANDP — left me with a sense that compromises were made.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN … I figured out the DEAR part quickly enough. DEAR … IVAN HENSON? DEAR EVEN HANDED? EVEL KNIEVEL, featuring death-defying stunts? Jim Horne mentioned that this marquee entry made the puzzle feel easy (I like that he and I often represent opposite ends of knowledge spectra), as he was able to drop it in without any crosses. Me, not so much. Good thing I'm secretly a MILIY Cyrus fanatic! D'oh, MILEY! D'oh, don't tell anyone!

(I bet DEAR IVAN HANSEN, written by Dostoevsky and set in the deep of Russian winter, wouldn't have done as well.)

Impressive feat of construction, as are most of Ryan's works. However, today's snazzy entries like ELEVENTY, ROID RAGE, DAIRY COW, VERBOTEN were watered down by ones that didn't hit my ear quite right — AUTOPEN, LAD MAG (do people still say this?), ECONOCAR, ECOTAGE. Those all do check out, but along with the aforementioned oddities, I left feeling a bit unsober.

Sat 8/3/2019

This is a typical grid pattern constructors use to feature two long crossing entries ... except for one little thing. No biggie. Just take out the black squares that would usually be at the S of POWER STATION and C of SMOKED CIGARS. Couldn't make things THAT much harder, could it?

What's that noise?

Ah, it's the small cabal of low-word-count themeless specialists roaring with a mix of laughter and outrage.

Ryan is so good at gigantic, wide-open middles. Building around SAME SEX MARRIAGE was a delight (happy anniversary!), and the stacks of POWER STATION / SMOKED CIGARS + THE TERMINATOR / MASSAGER was IN EXCESS, in a good way. It's so difficult to execute on a central swath when you can't depend on a bunch of three- and four-letter words to help you out. Beautiful work.

Something elegant about AA ONLINE and the SS MINNOW echoing each other in symmetrical spots. After you've solved as many themelesses as I have, novel touches are much appreciated.

Corners as big as the NW / SE are usually to be avoided. Might not look daunting, but a lot of failure and hair-pulling has shown me that it's nearly impossible to get corners like these to sing, while keeping them smooth. Jim and I both failed on the COLMES / I SAID SO crossing, both putting in COLMEN / I SAID NO. Frustrating way to end a puzzle.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that the NW / SE corners are bad. The NW even has COW TOWN, which I love. (OPIUMS in plural, not so much.) They don't hold up in comparison to the middle of the puzzle, though. The SE especially, there's too much PAI / OSSA / ECO / OWES TO. Nothing egregious, but it's not quite the finish that would make the puzzle POW!-worthy.

Sat 6/15/2019

Jim and I enjoy trading messages about a week's worth of puzzles, comparing notes on which we liked the best and which we thought lacked. I highlighted today's as one of my favorites from this week, with the caveat that I wasn't sure it would work as well for a broad audience. Perhaps a couple of niche entries would get lost on a lot of solvers?

I was thinking about GREEN TAPE, GOOGLE HOME, maybe FLOUR BOMB?

The first is a fresh play on "red tape" for ecolaws, the second one of Google's sad home product attempts (FOCUS ON GOOD STUFF LIKE GOOGLE READER, DAMMIT!), the last something modern protesters might employ.

I was 100% correct!

Well, maybe not 100%.

Jim wasn't familiar with BIT O HONEY. Or the "Rocky" franchise. Or the world of the "X-men."

So more accurately, I was 100% correct, in one way. 0% in another, more important way. Let's average it out to 99%.

I liked so much about this one, a well-crafted 66-worder similar to a previous one, packed full of great entries without needing much crossword glue. That's no easy task.

There are almost always trade-offs, though, and today it came in the form of some unpleasant entries, akin to KNEECAPPING in one of Ryan's previous ones. GANGRENE is tough to clue in a fun way (although maybe referencing the Packers' "Gang Green" nickname would have helped?), and SICK ROOMS wasn't as uplifting as BIT O HONEY.

(It's delicious. How can you go wrong with a bit of chewy honey? Even IVAN DRAGO liked him some BIT O HONEY, I'm pretty sure. Professor X too.)

Oh, and BIT O HONEY crossing BEEHIVE — with the latter's fun [Home sweet home] clue? Even better.

This one got some POW! consideration. Perhaps without the ickiness of GANGRENE and a nudge toward aiming at broader audiences, and it would have gotten the nod.

Fri 4/5/2019

This type of pyramid pinwheel grid is so tough to work with. Just as with the last one and almost all the ones before it, trade-offs will be necessary. In usual themeless grids, trade-offs often come in the form of short gluey bits. But this type of grid, with not that many short slots, will usually show its strain in the form of mid-length entries that make you tilt your head and squint.

I love so much about that middle section. HIPSTER CRED is so apt for Seattle, a town full of software engineers and BETA RELEASEs galore. How many better team names are there besides the RAJIN' CAJUNS? TRIAL JUDGES as ones "going through the motions" is fantastic.

But IRRUPT ... huh. Sorry, Ryan!


And KNEECAPPING is no doubt colorful. I'd prefer for my 15 minutes of entertainment not to be so red, though.

The assets more than offset the liabilities. But how many times have I heard a solver grumbling, judging a puzzle by its oddest word?

I appreciate that Ryan left his grid wide-open, multiple ways to work into each corner. That does make filling more technically challenging, though. See: AKEELAH SO RARE SICARIO ALINER HEW TO.

Overall, there were many feature entries that made me smile — so many great long phrases in that middle section! And I've learned to tamp down that part of me that discounts a puzzle because of its worst entry/entries. But it does take effort.

Sat 2/9/2019

I'm a big fan of Ryan's wide-open constructions. This one, with a football-ish shape in the center, reminds me of another one of his I loved. It's so clean, just an ENDO as a minor dab of crossword glue needed to hold such an audacious construction together. Great craftsmanship.

Some top-notch feature entries, too. Loved TORCH RELAYS and DESSERT CASE crossed by BUSH LEAGUE in the center. ID BRACELET / BOOK REVIEW anchoring the NW, GOLDEN BEAR / ESPY AWARDS in the SE, even a bit of DIATRIBE in the upper right? Nice to get a little something everywhere you look.

Because I'd already seen a similar grid pattern from Ryan, my expectations were pretty high. I had a couple of hitches in TWO TONE CAR — apparently that's a thing, but it doesn't resonate strongly for me — and SCULPTED ABS, which felt not as solid (pardon the pun) as SIX PACK ABS or WASHBOARD ABS. I know that they mean slightly different things and that SCULPTED ABS is a real thing. But the other two phrases sound so much snappier.

A bit of an ick factor with BAYONETING, too. It's a real word. A pretty unpleasant one, though.

A couple of clues elated me, while I felt like some others needed explaining:

  • NINE is a small square — three squared, to be exact!
  • How is FIVE an orange ball? Hmm ... it's the orange ball on a pool table?
  • [Field of flowers] is so innocent, so fun, referring to the field of BOTANY!
  • [Off] isn't as innocent for LESS. Yikes is that tough, not in a fun way. I *think* it's referring to the "minus" meaning of both?

Overall, a fine piece of craftsmanship. It didn't hit my ear quite as well as Ryan's last one, but it still made for a satisfying and challenging solving experience.

Sat 12/1/2018

As with most all of Ryan's puzzles, I thought there was some amazing gridwork. He's an up-and-comer in a space that few constructors dip into — the ultra-low-word-count grid. It's so darn hard to fill a grid like this one with color and cleanliness, yet Ryan worked in BOTOX INJECTION, FITNESS CENTERS, with INK BLOT TEST, SOCCER STARS (head shots, ha!) and BATMOBILE running through them. Lovely!

And I love STICKY RICE (usually with condensed milk and mango), and AIRPORT BAR. That last one made me laugh with its clue, "craft" beer referring to aircraft. Didn't totally work, since there aren't any actual crafts in an AIRPORT BAR, but who's counting.

Impeccable gridsmanship, nary a gluey bit to be found. That's an amazing accomplishment for this level of construction difficulty.

Although ... I've been thinking more and more about why Patrick Berry is so highly revered by so many people. A big part of it is that he's so careful to stay away from entries that might seem TOO fresh, potentially alienating large swaths of solvers.

Doing and analyzing Ryan's themelesses has opened my eyes to a point I hadn't considered before. In one of his previous puzzles, I heard many gripes about DANK MEMES, seeming to severely sour some people's perspective on what I thought was a pretty darn good puzzle. It baffled me that a single entry could have such an overwhelming effect. It's at least gettable, so you can ignore it if you don't like it, yeah?

Judging a puzzle by its worst entry doesn't seem fair to me, but I can see how a lone entry might alienate some solvers. Maybe it makes you feel dumb, or out of the loop, or like the puzzle is trying too hard. Like Ryan, I wondered about BROGRAMMER in that vein.

Now, I think the term is amusing, having first heard it on "Silicon Valley." (It refers to dudes bro-ing their way in tech start-ups heavily dominated by 20-something men.) It also seems gettable, a mash-up of BRO and PROGRAMMER.

But I think these days, I'd personally try to avoid it. Such a tough call — would you rather go extremely memorable for some solvers, while alienating others? Or try to aim for the middle, risking losing your color?

Not sure what the right answer is. Tell me if you figure it out!

Sat 11/3/2018

Ooh, a wide-open 62-worder! A daunting construction challenge! The SW / NE corners are hard enough — 4x7 stacks, not at all segmented from the rest of the puzzle.

And the opposite corners? It takes some serious guts to tackle areas as big as those. Themeless constructors can usually rely on a dab of short crossword glue here or there, helping to hold their feature entries together. But take a closer look at that NW corner. There are virtually no short slots! Impossible to slip in a CUL or a SIL when every darn entry is mid-length or more.

What, AND there are four long entries locking the grid skeleton in place? Hatchi matchi! Talk about an uber-duber-challenge.

I was mighty impressed that Ryan was able to use such lively feature entries — ANTIVAXXERS is such a neat-looking string of letters. (Not so neat are the anti-vaxxers themselves, harrumph.) Loved DORA THE EXPLORER and SAINT PETERSBURG, too. Not personally taken by DEE DEE MYERS, especially with her oh-so-friendly constructor-friendly letters, but she works.

It's so difficult (impossible?) to escape a whoppingly-gigantic corner without a CAPEMAN. Or SERENER (more serene?). Or UNIPED (un-ip-ed = no IP address, ha ha). Or a NON HERO. These are all real, dictionary-supported things — and likely not at all odd to some (I can already hear Paul Simon fans' outrage). But to me, they're not nearly as juicy as APPARAT, AMUSE ME, STYGIAN, IGNOBLE.

There's much subjectivity here. But AMUSE ME is at least figure-out-able if you haven't heard someone say that. CAPEMAN, not so much.

Mighty fine fill overall. Especially given the immense level of difficulty, I considered this one for the POW! It just gave me one too many moments of pause to get it to the promised land.

Sat 8/11/2018

LAUGH AT MYSELF (LAM-poon) week, day 6!

What an incredible NW corner! Constructing a four-stack is one of the toughest tasks in all construction. A 4x9 that has a ton of color and hardly any glue? It takes fortitude and a ton of sticktuitiveness to not give up.

The SE corner was almost as good. Four strong to fantastic entries was well worth the price of a couple of PREV and AREOLE type blips.

Let's see, what would PJ (petty Jeff) say about this one? He'd probably focus on the entries like MAASAI, AREOLE and ALTERANT, calling them head-shake-worthy because they're full of common letters, in particular vowels that tend to be friendly for construction patterns.

But today I'm sweeping that technical pedantry aside. I choose to overlook PREV (it's common enough, yeah?) and AREOLE (perfectly valid biological term), and declare the SE a win, too.

And that middle. FAUX DIAMOND and HOT DOG STAND, with SIGMUND running through it! I hesitated on DADDY ISSUES, as I worry that my daughter will one day have DADDY ISSUES. But I choose to overlook those worries today, as there's no doubt that it's a colorful phrase, even if you have negative connotations associated with it. Could easily just be me.

It's a rare constructor to tackle these types of wide-open grids, and even rarer for a relatively new constructor to do it — and to do it well. Neat to see Ryan emerge in a big way onto the themeless scene.

Sat 7/7/2018

I think Ryan has the potential to become one of the greats in the category of low-word-count themelesses. I loved his last one, a wide-open masterwork. This one didn't strike me quite as well in terms of the solving experience, but oh, the craftsmanship! Few constructors tackle 66-word grids, and fewer still tackle ones that are this wide-open. With so many ways in and out of each subregion, it's so tough to construct.

Even tougher is to work with grid-spanners inside a grid like this! Two of them, both beauts — LITTLE KNOWN FACT made me smile, thinking about Cliff Clavin and KEEPS IT TOGETHER. So colorful. Interlock WACKY TOBACKY and THAT'S SO NOT OK, and you have such a snazzy grid skeleton!

But an incredibly inflexible one, too. Thus, I was amazed to get TALK TO ME. CHEAP SEAT. ARM LOCKS. JAMES WATT. Wow! I was heavily expecting more neutral stuff of the NETSURF PHENOLS ilk. But so much TWINKLE!

A couple of things held me back from POW! consideration, though. ABLARE is a dictionary-supported word, but it felt a bit odd. BENJAMITE crossing ITT Tech — I incorrectly guessed BENJAMINE / INT. Felt borderline unfair. (Sour grapes, probably.) ALY Raisman crossing Bud SELIG felt fairer to me, but I could see how non-sports fans might grumble.

I wasn't familiar with APHERESIS, but what an interesting term. I always wondered what that sound dropping was called. So bizarre that the opossum is called a possum. There's a crossword theme in there somewhere …

Neither Jim nor I had heard of DANK MEME. It was gettable, but it still didn't mean much to me after looking it up. Perhaps I didn't care for it because it made me feel out of the loop? (Read: old.)

Overall, a super-solid 66-worder. A lot more snazz than I expected, given the incredibly tough construction.

And CONGRATS! Here's to many happy years ahead for you and Quinton.

POW Fri 5/18/2018

★ Loved, loved, loved this one. I'm a sucker for giant middle swaths of white like this one. Lots of themeless constructors "stair stack" three long answers in this manner, but how many even attempt five? To pull it off with great answers — PRIDE PARADE and SOUND MIXERS are fantastic — and run four more snazzy answers through them?

CORPSE POSE was always my favorite part of yoga, basically lying on the ground and falling asleep. Along with WATER TAXIS, WINEMAKING, RARE JEWELS, this middle section is a rare jewel.

Some strong work in the NW / SE corners, too. NOT ONE IOTA / STARTER SET / AIR POPS is pretty darn nice. SAY WHEN, NAME CALLER too?

JEEZ, there's so much goodness packed in!

Yikes, even the remaining corners — which often end up dull in these stair stack themelesses — had some ORIONIDS (think of ORION), BANSHEE, OH STOP, TWO PAIR.

And it was all SOLVABLE, without running into much of any crossword glue! I squint a bit at TABU, but even that seems reasonable.

Okay, HYSONS in the plural felt odd. HYSON in the singular too!

Regular readers will be able to guess the main nit I had: the segmentation. The NW and SE were nearly cut off from the middle, potentially stranding solvers in one of the puzzle's subsections. But there are two entries connecting each corner to the middle, so it's passable.

Grid construction is much easier when using this type of segmentation since you can (sort of) independently work on each subsection. But when it allows such amazing results, I'm okay looking the other way.

Would have been the POW! for most weeks this year so far. It's just that darn good.

POW Sat 3/10/2018

★ I'm a sucker for innovative patterns in themelesses. I still greatly enjoy standard themeless layouts, as long as the fill is sparkly, but there's something so thrilling about seeing something new. Big swaths of white, swirling from SW to NE! More swirliness in the other corners! All done with pretty good grid flow, and a ton of long entries? Color me intrigued. Nervous, too — it's so difficult to fill a grid like this well — but intrigued.

Such a pleasure to get a snazzy triplet in the middle, FIXED ASSETS / HIGH AND AWAY / BARBARA EDEN. Okay, at least one of these could bore most anyone — finance haters, baseball haters, old sitcom haters. But I like the variety.

Personally, I like finance and baseball (at least the fun slang), but I did do some head-scratching at BARBARA EDEN. When I looked her up on Wikipedia … man oh man, that theme song! Though I never watched the show, I love that jingle.

Then, GEAR TRAINS and ICE CAPADES worked through the middle stack! As a gearhead, I love GEAR TRAINS. And [Arrangements of teeth?] obfuscating it made it even better.

And there was more — nice stacks in each of the four corners! Loved loved loved PIERCED EAR / ONE MAN ARMY / ISLAND HOPS. Such juicy answers!

Well, let's reduce that to two loves. Agreed with Ryan, BEERYS is one of the worst pluralized names I've seen in memory. Ick! I'd have preferred the black square at the S as Ryan described, but who knows what it would have done in the NW.

I personally would have never let BEERYS through. But if it enables such a great triplet of long entries, why wouldn't you? Woudja look at that, after all these years, I'm still adapting my thinking.

(Okay, I still probably would have fought like heck to get rid of BEERYS.)

Overall, great usage of his long slots, and I love the innovation and solid execution using a challenging grid pattern. Very impressive work from a relatively new constructor.

Thu 1/18/2018

NO WAY = remove "way" from phrases for kooky results. The theme confused me a bit since RUN A TRAIN is something I see in some of my kids' books. It's a bit kooky … but a bit real, too. And SUBSTATIONS is a real word, isn't it? (Yup.)

Thankfully, HIGH ROBBERY clarified the theme (more or less) for me. There's no such thing as HIGH ROBBERY! And I like me some heist movies like "Tower Heist," especially when they happen up on rooves. So that worked for me.

ONE STREET … not kooky enough for me.

But I did love some of the fill. RIGHT-O! The GEM STATE shone. (*rimshot*) A LONDONER next to a STOCKADE painted a funny 17th-century picture. And CEMENT MIXER was fantastic!

Er, CEMENT MASON. Hmm. I so badly wanted it to be CEMENT MIXER. Such a great clue, riffing on "concrete plans." Let's just pretend it was the much more awesome CEMENT MIXER, shall we?

Overall, mixed results, especially given my high expectations for creativity on my Thursday puzzles. What other, more surprising WAY removals are there? WAYNE NEWTON to NE (Nebraska) NEWTON? PROJECT RUNWAY to PROJECT RUN? It turns out to be a tough trigram to work with. Huh.

I did appreciate much of the gridwork, not bad at all to finish up with just some ignorable stuff in a debut puzzle. Let's just try not to eke (ha) out so much similar ETE, ERE, ENE stuff next time.

Sat 6/17/2017

It used to be that most every themeless puzzle was a standard "four sets of stacks, one in each corner." I like the recent push toward big, open middles. Something cool about that swath of white space smack dab in the center. DEERSTALKER was my favorite long entry through there, as I'm a huge Holmes fan. I couldn't remember SILVER ARROW off the top, but what a neat brand name.

And what a way to debut! Making these types of wide-open middles is hard enough with some computer assistance here and there — to do it by hand is daunting.

I've seen all of "The Office" and two seasons of "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," but I couldn't remember ELLIE KEMPER's name. Rats! I wonder if it would be different if the latter show had been on a major network instead of Netflix-only.

Two years ago at the ACPT, people started talking (gushing, actually) about "Hamilton." This dummy had no idea what they were talking about, but I sure do now. Even the SCHUYLER SISTERS rings a bell now (although I still don't know exactly who they are). Amazing how "Hamilton" has exploded. I often don't care for proper names that you either know or you don't, but if they're huge enough in pop culture, they're fair game.

Sara TEASDALE was tough for me to piece together — thank goodness I'm a huge "Music Man" fan (LIDA ROSE is a classic for me). But I wonder if that crossing might trip up a good chunk of solvers. I could see the case for calling that an unfair crossing.

I'm also a huge fan of Norse mythology, so RAGNAROK was a gimme for me. Thank goodness it didn't cross EDERLE though — the exact spelling (for both of them!) is tough to remember.

Along with OTARU and ANTOINE, that is a ton of tough proper names. I don't mind when a puzzle has a lot of proper names. It's when many of them could be called esoteric that it starts to feel like too much.

And QUINTE, SEMIBREVE … that makes for a lot of learning and education in one puzzle.

Thank goodness that this puzzle ran on a Saturday, the toughest day of the week. A lot of stuff I didn't know, a lot of learning I did along the way, a good educational experience. And a huge relief to have solved it correctly. I didn't have high confidence that Mr. Happy Pencil would appear.

Impressive to debut this way — wide-open middles are so tough to construct. I'm looking forward to seeing what Ryan can do with the assistance of some modern tools.