Fantastic RETURN OF THE JEDI clue! Talk of an emperor's fall had me bamboozled. And that's even more impressive, considering that "The Empire Strikes Back" is one of my all-time favorite movies!
Brad and I are huge fans of "The Great British Bake-Off," discussing it at length at past crossword tournaments. It's crazy to think that me, an uncultured brute, not only knows how to make choux pastry but has actually made it. The pastries tasted delicious, although, on the scale from looking like turds to resembling eclairs, they trended toward the former.
Thankfully, it turns out you can polish a turd with a little icing.
CLAFOUTI, though … yikes. It reminds me of watching "Monty Python" as a kid and being puzzled by a skit where a blancmange terrorized the countryside. I had that same terror when trying to complete CLA_OUTI, where the missing letter could have been E, F, I, M, or T. Crossing a specialized foreign term with an undisclosed member of a C suite — CEO, CFO, etc. ...
(I did figure out that the "millions" in [Overseer of millions at work] referred to millions of dollars, but not quickly enough to prevent my stock price from plummeting.)
I generally dig mini-themes, but today's didn't land well. While I did like the visual, PLUS SIGN was way too easy, and QUINCUNX felt like some sort of horcrux split out of Voldemort's soul. At least, when I struggled with QUIN_UNX and a random French word.
I struggled mightily with this one, and I DON'T LIKE TO BRAG, but in the end, I finished, with near 100% certainty I was right.
If you round up from 52%, that is.
A lesson in humility was useful for my long-term growth. And I did love many of the clues — HATFIELD not being the real McCoy, that's fantastic! Worth the price of admission right there.
Even though I've seen a lot of Jedi MIND tricks and anagramming themes over the years, I kept an open mind while solving. I enjoyed how elegantly the circled letters progressed, an orderly procession marching along the puzzle's diagonal. Neat!
Well, until I started thinking about it.
What, Jeff overthink something? You don't say.
What kind of twisted mind CHANGES ONES MIND in such a regimented fashion? If I were making this puzzle, I'd, of course, start with my usual DIMNess, then I'd follow with INDM falling off the grid because I think outside the box dammit, and continue with D M ___ I ___ N broken up after losing my mind.
However, as a diehard Trekker (not Trekkie—puh-lease!) I'd absolutely end with a MIND melded backward in LEONARD NIMOY. That's the sort of mind(bleep) I love experiencing. That's some Admiral-level meta-ness, that is.
So many Star Trek episodes featured the red shirt, that poor ensign you knew was going to bite it. Dude was going to wade right into the alien ILEDE ICAL swamp and then disintegrate.
It turns out everything we need to know about construction we can learn from Star Trek. The problem always came when Kirk told everyone to spread out in this giant, unknown area. When you try to explore swaths with EMAIL ME and BIG MOMMA stirring up alien quicksand … you better say oh hell no and beam your ass right back up.
There's an interesting nugget of a concept here, CHANGED ONES MIND having a lot of potential. I enjoyed the theme phrases Acme and Victor chose — FIND MY IPHONE is contemporary, and it seems to be a highly-used app — but the execution of theme and gridwork wasn't as mindful as a Monday puzzle ought to be.
I love it when a constructor's personality or interests shine through in a puzzle, and that's certainly the case today. I enjoyed the biomedical engineering classes I took in college and grad school, so seeing GENEs get spliced brought a smile to my face.
We've fixed up the thematic database entries (see below), but the concept might still be tough to see. The best example starts at 57-Down, FRONT PAGE NEWS heading south, going through GENE, and then finishing down. It's a pretty image; FRONT PAGE NEWS threaded through REGENERATION in a DNA-like shape. Sorta kinda helical.
During my solve, I wasn't as impressed with themers like HEDGE NETTLE and EUGENE IONESCO. What and who? (They are fine, crossworthy entries, but nothing I'd strive to feature.) Off to our XWord Info Finder and onelook.com to see what better options there were! Come on; there had to be more that split GENE across multiple words.
No? HALOGEN ELEMENTS, anyone? Want to hear about a snot-filled DRAINAGE NETWORK? Can I get a shout-out to STRANGE NEW WORLDS, fellow Trekkers? Ka'plah!
Ow, stop Vulcan nerve-pinching me!
Given how little of interest fit that *??GENE??* search pattern, maybe using DNA as the "spliced" string would have been better: UNITED NATIONS, GOOD NATURED, HOUSEHOLD NAMES, ad nauseam. Hey, AD NAUSEAM!
Getting themers all in a twist is a tricky business. It's so tough to fill well around those crossings. The SW / NE have choked solving flow, for instance, and other areas show the strain of being constrained by two fixed entries. Exhibit A: the bottom right, ONER being forced by EON and EITY fixed into place within a wide-open region.
This is a case where I'd have said, please redo, allowing for a higher word count / black squares. Long entries like LOTRIMIN and SEAPLANE aren't all that snazzy anyway (and RUB RAW isn't in my asset column), so it's better to aim for a cleaner solving experience. And although a higher word count usually means fewer long bonus entries, the ones that are present can usually be made much more exciting than LOTRIMIN.
Overall, a fun concept that would have benefitted from an adjustment allowing for better quality theme answers, and a mutation in gridding philosophy.
Initialisms, well-known(ish) trigrams mirroring famous people's initials. Some interesting finds — with as much ARTHUR C CLARKE as I've read, I've never thought about his monogram matching the Atlantic Coast Conference.
I appreciated how Howard and Victor kept perfectly consistent, always choosing people who are known by their First, Middle Initial, and Last names. Jim and I did have a conversation about STEPHEN A DOUGLAS, which both of us hitched on, knowing him more without the middle initial. Some Googling shows that the A is fine, though.
This is a case where less might have been more. Putting ACC next to ARTHUR C CLARKE = smashing the theme over my head with a hammer. It also emphasized the initialism-nature of the puzzle, which is a bad thing, given that initialisms are generally overdone and boring. It would have been much more playful to integrate the trigrams into the clues, i.e. [Sci-fi author who's a member of the ACC?]
This would have allowed for more bonuses in the fill, as well as super smooth overall product. I did like what Howard and Victor achieved — some great bonuses in AP PHYSICS, A ROSE IS A ROSE, ITS GREEK TO ME, REACTION TIME, SILENT SPRING, along with an average amount of crossword glue.
But just think what these two solid constructors could have done without the constraint of the six trigrams fixed into place. Having maybe four more great bonuses and maybe six less of BSA GRO GRP OBES RUHR STKS could have done so much towards delivering an even snazzier and smoother solving experience.
In general, I advise newer constructors to avoid initialism themes, because editors seem to be slowing down their acceptance of these, given their overexposure. However, even the most done-to-death theme types still might be feasible, if not exciting, if they contain a clever twist, some wordplay, something to help raise them out of the muck.
A decent idea that went on too long. HAND, and then (second)HAND, that's fun. PLACE, and (second)PLACE, still good.
STRING, (second)STRING. Okay.
. . .
Just thinking about having to list out the other five makes me tired. Check out our list of puzzles with repeated words to see them all.
Why not branch out, avoiding being so repetitive (ha)? TIME and (another)TIME. LOCATION and (echo)LOCATION. There's so much potential for fun. You might have to give a hint to the implied word, maybe even put that implied word into the grid somewhere, but it would be worth it.
Thankfully, David and Victor worked in a lot of extras, helping keep my attention. SLIDE GUITAR sparkled. HEDGEHOG, SKI PANTS, WINNIPEG for Canuck solvers, the OUTBACK for Aussies, even some TORSION for us mechanical engineers.
With an average quantity of crossword glue, it made for a good overall grid.
This would have been much better as a weekday puzzle, scaled down. Alternatively, more creative, expansive thinking, would have improved the Sunday experience dramatically.
I continue to hope that Will takes my suggestions in publishing more interesting Sunday puzzles. Things ain't what they used to be.
Here's another suggestion: issue "Sunday theme query licenses" to 25 constructors. I get that it can be overwhelming to have to sift through theme queries, but:
Four measurements, literally ON A SLIDING SCALE. Reminded me of a recent puzzle playing on OBLIQUE REFERENCEs.
It's nice that the scale intersects the measurement, i.e., MOHS coming off the M of MINERAL HARDNESS. That's much better than if there had simply been a bunch of diagonal scale names.
While the idea of intersecting a diagonal scale with its measurement is decent, it's not Sunday material. A 21x21 grid is so big that a theme needs to hold a solver's interest for an extended time. Here, once you discover one pair, what's left?
Sometimes I wonder if it's possible to perform a rescue by making the rest of the puzzle essentially a themeless, injecting so much color and snazz that a solver can't help but be wowed. I heard some kudos about Patrick Berry's Sunday themeless, after all.
Today, we get SAN SIMEON, THE TUDORS, POTLUCKS, SPOILERS, SUNKIST, that's all pretty good. Not nearly enough to qualify as a themeless-grade solving experience, though.
And oh, the crossword glue. That's going to happen when diagonal entries come off themers; so hard to work around. I was impressed through the top half — TELESTO and OTIOSE are tough, and ESS isn't good — but that's solid work around a diagonal themer.
Everything was copacetic … until I hit the west region. RSTU ought to be a puzzle-killer, and to leave that region with ENOL CORT RTE and RETHREW? It's a sad result of two tough factors smashing into each other: the inherent difficulty of a 140-word grid, and the inflexibility of diagonal theme answers.
Victor did an admirable construction job, considering the crazy constraints. But bending at least one of the limitations — maybe going up to 144 words — would have resulted in a better overall solving experience.
I hope Will and Joel listen to my pleas to turn around the flagship of the NYT crossword. I was first attracted to the NYT crossword because of so many brilliant Sunday puzzles. My 10+ years of solving experience has probably jaded me, but I think many factors came together to create a shortage of great 21x21s.
To better draw in more creative ideas, changes must happen. More money is great, don't get me wrong! I'm grateful to Will for increasing rates — astronomically, at that. But I'd be actively reaching out to specific constructors, asking for theme queries. Otherwise, it'll be more of the same, passively sifting through a (very) limited pool of Sunday submissions.
Four FORs today!
(I'm definitely not four for four.)
Victor and Andy pair up theme answers, RECIPE FOR DISASTER transforming [Recipe that entails a lot of shaking] into [DISASTER that entails a lot of shaking] = EARTHQUAKE. I like that the clue reads naturally both ways, making it seem so innocent as presented. Good stuff.
The only one that made me hitch was PLAY FOR TIME modifying [Play of Shakespeare] into [TIME of Shakespeare] = ELIZABETHAN ERA. "Shakespearean play," yes. "Play written by Shakespeare," yes. "Play of Shakespeare" … not really. Even without the telltale "remember X-Across" hints, I would have known that something was up.
There are so many X FOR Y phrases out there that this theme initially felt too loosey-goosey for my taste. Yes, crossword symmetry limits the pairings, since it's tough to get everything to match up in length. But it felt too easy to come up with examples, given the dozens of X FOR Y options to work with.
After some thought though, I appreciated that they chose long X and Y words, much harder to work with than "in for it" or "free for all" or things that are less specific. Length matters! Ahem.
As Andy noted, the element today that stood out for me was the bonus fill — so much of the long bonuses sizzled, elevating my solving experience. It's not easy to incorporate eight themers into a Sunday 140-worder, and they did extremely well in grid execution. A ton of fantastic bonuses, while keeping their crossword glue to only a small smattering of minor ERE ESS etc. Very few constructors can execute on a Sunday 140-word grid with such craftsmanship.
Fantastic clues for TESLAS and CHEESE! [They're charged for rides] = people who take cabs and Ubers, right? And [It's said to cause a smile] had to be some happy thought? (It is weird that the word CHEESE forces you to smile. Bizarre.) Beautiful misdirections.
Would have been great to have a sharper a-ha moment — the "remember" hints gave away the game much too easily — but I liked the concept.
This reminded me of one of my favorite visual puzzles from a few years ago. Fun to see three mountains and three valleys today. You might not have noticed that they're symmetrically located — I thought that was pretty neat, and it makes the construction task even tougher.
Victor mentions "triple-checked letters" — that means that some letters in the grid must work with not just the normal across and down answers, but diagonal ones as well. It's very hard to cleanly work a single diagonal answer into a grid, so to have so much diagonality today makes it an incredibly, incredibly tough construction.
Impressive result, given the difficulty factor — they generally avoided the worst types of crossword glue, just little bits of OCA, HWY, ANAS, RCPT, ECTO material. Only MEOWERS made me cringe, and the KARSTS / ARNO crossing was the only place I felt was potentially unfair.
At first, I was annoyed that my confident filling in of PYTHAGORAS turned out to be a guy I wasn't familiar with, PROTAGORAS, but reading up on him turned out to be fun. His quote, "Man is the measure of all things," is pretty deep. I like having him tucked away in my mental arsenal now.
Some nice 7-letter material too: SIR DUKE Ellington, DOE EYES, DON IMUS, NAME ONE! Not a ton of killer fill in total, but the minimal amount of gluey material was a huge construction feat. To execute this concept in 144 words would be difficult. Cutting out four more words to get down to Will's maximum means eliminating a few precious black squares that could help to separate the diagonal answers.
MOUNTAIN HIGH VALLEY LOW is a perfect revealer for the puzzle theme. But it's a real shame it's not the "ain't no mountain high enough …" song.
★ Loved this idea; three people who elicit "aahs," playfully nicknamed the WIZARD OF AAHS. One-word themers can often come out dull, but OTOLARI, er OTOLAYR, dang it! OTOLARYNGOLOGIST is a neat word. MASSAGE THERAPIST is a colorful answer as well. What a perfect pairing of 16-letter answers, both people strongly associated with AAHS.
I want to stress how much I liked this idea before I launch into my next paragraphs. Just the fact that I spent so much time thinking about the following shows how much I wanted this already neat idea to be the perfect crossword.
PYROTECHNIST. I was so convinced it was PYROTECHNICIAN that I thought rebus squares were in play. Maybe that IAN had been rebified? I had to force myself to enter the -NIST ending, my hands refusing to obey even at the very end. I totally get why Victor and Tom did this — at 14 letters, PYROTECHNICIAN doesn't match lengths with WIZARD OF OZ (10), THE WIZARD OF OZ (13), WIZARD OF AAHS (12), or THE WIZARD OF AAHS (15) — but it felt like a big compromise. Google does show 50K hits for PYROTECHNIST, so it's legit.
Additionally, pyrotechnicians do elicit AAHS, but it's more OOHS and AAHS, with an emphasis on the former. This takes PYROTECHNIST further away from the other two themers for me, as the others are so strongly all about AAHS. I might have actually preferred just three total themers: OTOLARYNGOLOGIST, MASSAGE THERAPIST, and WIZARD OF AAHS right in the middle.
I appreciated much of the fill. Getting the long and colorful ILLUMINATI and OPENS DOORS goes a long ways to add zest. Not a fan of the old-school ITERS though. Those west and east sections are tough, what with having to work with two grid-spanning themers. The starts of OTOL... and MASS... combine with OPENS DOORS to make it a tough little section to fill, but I would have liked some massaging there to strip out ITERS.
It's rare that I like an idea so much I obsess about it this much after solving. POW! for me despite the minor shortcomings. Put a big smile on my face.
Amusing theme; I got a chuckle out of the TURNING A PROPHET revealer. I had no idea what was going on as I solved, so I had a nice a-ha moment at the end.
Great selection of long themers. WIN SOME LOSE SOME, ESPRESSO MAKERS, and especially SCHWARZENEGGER are all juicy entries. Typically I would like to see all of the themers be the same number of words, but the 4/2/1 progression was kind of nice. When you can't have perfect consistency, perfect inconsistency is the next best thing.
I did wonder why these prophets? A quick search turned up dozens of prophets, so it would have been nice to have some rationale as to why these three. It might have been impossible to choose three that were all related in some way (good luck finding a word/phrase with LEIKEZE), but wow, what a big bang it would have made if it had been possible.
Given that there were only four long themers, it would have been nice to see a pair of long downs in the fill. Victor does do a nice job with his sixes and sevens, MISHAP and ZAGGED and SKEWER being colorful. But having even one pair of snazzy eights would have been very welcome.
Ah, the lure of the pangram. I do like seeing Q, J, Z, V's in a grid. They do a lot to add to a puzzle's snazz. I didn't think JAS was worth the price of JAS though. Differences in philosophy — I definitely know both solvers that hate this type of trade-off and those that love it.
Finally, what a great clue for EMAIL! Perhaps a slight dig at the postal service, hmm? I enjoyed running through DHL, FEDEX, UPS, etc. before getting a smile at EMAIL. I find it baffling that the USPS is still allowed to survive in its current configuration, given its history of giant financial losses. One of you clever crossword people, get on that!
Just a few days ago, I suggested to a prospective constructor that Will doesn't often run puzzles with entries that look crazy. Shows what I know! ABRIDOOFAR is A BRIDGE TOO FAR + "Get lost!" (an instruction to lose GET) = ABRIDOOFAR. GET is treated differently in the other three themers, which I've highlighted. Tricky theme! PATEGURNER took me forever to uncover because of how weird it looks. Good a-ha moment when I realized how it fit with the theme (GET is literally entered in "Get back!" fashion, or TEG).
I always appreciate getting something I've never seen before, and the mechanics of this theme was pretty cool. I wish the phrases in parentheses ("Get back!", for example) had been tied to the clues or the answers somehow though, like if instead of PAGE TURNER, Victor had found a themer which had the *TEG* sequence which meant "Get back!" That's likely way too much to ask for, but it would have made a pretty cool idea the bomb dot com.
What a wild looking layout today, eh? Any time you have themers "bending," the fill becomes more difficult, and since two of the themers "bend" twice, it becomes even more difficult. Victor does go over the 78-word limit (80 slots today, although four get melded into others for a total of 76 entries), but he still manages to give us a couple of really nice pieces of long fill, CONGOLESE, JEZEBEL and WRIT LARGE being my favorite. What a neat phrase, that last one.
One issue I had was the segmented nature of the north and south regions. It's usually best if the puzzle has a more connected, flowing feel (more than just one way into a section), because if a solver gets stuck, he/she really gets stuck. That's what happened to me in the south today, unable to see AFORE what with the opaque cluing for the crossing answers. It also seemed to me that with such a closed-off section with little constraint, a better answer than AFORE could have been used. Who knows though, often times a constructor has a particular affinity for a particular word, and that's okay by me as long as it's intentional.
It sure is nice to get the Thursday workout. Will tends to switch things up so there are some easier ones (with more straightforward themes but difficult cluing) and there are some harder ones (mind-bending or rule-breaking themes). I'll almost always favor the latter, but I do appreciate the variety.
What a perfect use for a Sunday-size grid today! Sometimes the bigger palette can feel like a weekday puzzle simply stretched out, but Andy and Victor use the extra space for a great payoff. It took me a while to cotton to the trick, and when I finally figured out that each phrase on the right hand side told you what letters to take out for the corresponding answer, I thought it was pretty cool. But then when I realized that each of the "removal phrases" were fruit-related and FRUIT FLIES tied them all together, I stood up and cheered. A true WITT (Wish I Thought of That).
Ten theme answers makes for a difficult construction. Sure, one might think because the lengths are relatively short that this is equivalent to five grid-spanners (answers of 21 letters), but it's more difficult than that. With grid-spanners you have the advantage that they use no black squares, thus allowing you to deploy your black squares elsewhere, breaking up difficult spots. Today's arrangement places several black squares right off the bat, making the construction less flexible.
The fill is generally good given all the constraints. In terms of long fill, there's GO DUTCH, NAVY YARD, ID LOVE TO, and MISS JAPAN, which at first seemed a bit arbitrary, but I've decided I like. Some really good stuff. However, as with most Sunday-size grids and their inherent challenges, the crossings of DEKE/HEKATE and ESME/ESTES and DNIEPER/ADEN are going to be a real challenge for some. I don't mind seeing a random European river here or there, but somehow having two in one puzzle feels (to me) like one too many (ARNO, I'm looking at you). I don't think any of these crossings are necessarily unfair, but I'd say they aren't ideal.
Finally, I'd like to express another note of amazement that Andy and Victor were able to come up with 1.) five "fruit"+"synonym for leave" pairs and 2.) found enough entries so that they were symmetrically paired. I really enjoyed this puzzle; a close second for the POW. Brilliantly conceived and executed.
P.S. You may recognize Andy from "Million Second Quiz". Incredible accomplishment to have won it all! If you're into such capitalist notions as money. (insert proletarian harrumph here)
★ Clever WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That) idea and clean execution; a winner of a puzzle. CLOCK is incorporated in the center of the puzzle, and the clock number (in the proper position) needs to be added for the clue to make sense (DOZEN becomes TWELVE DOZEN, for example). Perhaps a touch on the easy side for a Thursday puzzle, but what an enjoyable five minutes of solving. Kudos to Tom and Victor.
The difficulty of the construction might not jump out at you because of the excellent execution, but this perimeter theme arrangement is a bear. Most recently, the legendary Liz Gorski did it on a Sunday puzzle and commented on the challenge. Such degree of interlock in the corners places high constraints on the grid, making each corner an individual nightmare to fill.
But Tom and Victor have done it well, even incorporating such great long stuff as SIAMESE CAT, SHIPSHAPE, DEATH STAR, and GO TO SLEEP. The SW corner is especially smooth, I appreciate how much care they've put into it. If AGRI is your only blip (and it's an awfully minor one) I call that a giant success.
To be sure, there are signs of the construction challenge in the AMIGA/GALOP area and the obsolete GMAC, but those are very small prices to pay. And I would bet Tom and Victor tried many other entries in place of I AM A CAMERA before settling on it. Note the alternating vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant (repeat) pattern, which often makes construction easier, especially when surrounding fill like SIDED exhibits the same pattern. I AM A CAMERA not a first-rate answer, but it does its job. Such is the difficulty in incorporating long fill with this sort of perimeter themed puzzle.
There are more nice puzzles coming up this week, but this innovative and beautifully executed xw gets my POW!
It's a rare occasion that I run across a theme idea I've never seen before. Bravo to Victor! It took me a ridiculously long time to figure out the trick, but when I realized the state capitals were split, forming two L-shapes apiece, I smiled.
Sunday puzzles are notoriously difficult to construct; roughly a factor of five more difficult than a regular weekday puzzle. The biggest challenge is that instead of 225 squares/78 max words, you're working with 441 squares/140 max words. While this might seem no different at first glance, it's like sculpting with clay vs. damp sand. So many of my Sunday puzzles have fallen apart just when I think I'm nearly done (unfillable corner, too much ugliness, etc.), and I'm forced to reboot.
Consider the open white spaces in the four corners, for example. You don't typically see that kind of real estate outside of themeless puzzles. Trying to fill them cleanly while maintaining your thematic density can be a serious challenge. Ratcheting up the difficulty level, Victor has chosen to use only 136 words, making the task even harder. He could have split up 23A/123A and/or 24A/126A with black squares, but it would have taken away some really nice long fill. For a Sunday puzzle, which comes with the expectation that there will be some less-than-stellar fill, the price to pay (ONDES, PUD, et al.) seems fair. I personally might have split up one pair to get cleaner fill, but that's a subjective difference in construction style.