Neat mini-theme, linking AHA MOMENTS and EYE OPENERS as [Epiphanies]. So appropriate for a crossword puzzle.
Lots to enjoy in the grid, from WINE SNOB to CHIA SEEDS to KEG STANDS to LET'S DIG IN. Nothing that screamed out as a flashy marquee entry, but along with IT'S ME AGAIN, PAPER HATS, TOMATO SOUP, it all made for a satisfying meal.
Slightly constricted grid, what with the middle diagonal nearly slicing things in half, but there's adequate grid flow. As a constructor, being able to work on one region at a time is so handy. You can toil away at the upper left corner almost independently of the rest of the puzzle, for example.
A couple of standout clues providing me with excellent AHA MOMENTS:
[Obtain a sum via special relativity?] I thought physicists didn't make much money. Ah! They do if they INHERIT sums from special relatives. That's brilliant!
I don't know what you were thinking with [Some like it dirty], but I was thinking MARTINI all the way.
For a puzzle focusing on AHA MOMENTS, though, I wanted more of them. So much of the solve felt straightforward; hardly any wordplay. Yacob is a budding crossword star, and I'd love to see him inject more playfulness and sparkle into his clues.
Now, this is how you execute on a 70-word themeless! The competition is so fierce in the themeless space these days that a 72- or 70-word grid must explode with sparkly color and be immaculate. Yacob hit on both marks.
Check out his conversion rate of long slots: 14 entries of 8+ letters and only one (STRESSORS) is more neutral than an asset. Such awesome marquee entries — AU CONTRAIRE, NOT UP TO SNUFF, and fittingly, ALL SYSTEMS GO. So evocative; the solver in me would enjoy the puzzle on the merit of that trio alone.
Yacob appealed to my technical side, too, with his unusual layout that interconnects so many long entries. I appreciate how he made it feel like I was experiencing great TRAIL MIXES, TEASER ADS, SEA TURTLE, NOT UP TO SNUFF, BRUTE FORCE moments without pause.
That last one could have been tricky to clue, given these times, so I appreciated it referring to cracking a code. Because my coding skill is so basic, I've employed much BRUTE FORCE in my Python programming.
(Talk about STRESSORS, says my poor computer.)
I enjoyed the cluing, too: if you'd asked me which U.S. city has the largest Basque community outside Spain, BOISE would not be in my first 100 guesses. What a neat piece of trivia that spurred me on to learn something new.
I should explain the cleverness behind the TIRE MARKS clue — doing doughnuts is different from eating doughnuts. I enjoyed the clue, but it'd be hard to appreciate if you'd never heard this usage.
Interesting clue for CTRL. I was aware that SZA was a celebrity, and I was worried that the album title would be some insider thing that would flummox this pop culture idiot. I was relieved that it turned out to be a familiar set of four letters I use all the time, and it made me want to read up on her. My inner nerd loves that album cover!
Fantastic puzzle. I give preference to great themes since they're incredibly difficult to think up, but on most weeks, this would have gotten the POW!
Yacob! I've been so impressed with his work. He's won a POW! for an amazing 50% of his prior puzzles, and this one earned some consideration. He's been so humble, so eager to work on his craft, willing to listen to feedback. It all shows in his products.
I was on Yacob's wavelength for much of the solve, making for a fast and enjoyable experience. I'm big into fantasy basketball, Dunkademics, and the Professor, so BALL IS LIFE gave me a favorable bounce.
Then, that clue for ASCII ART allowed me to drop it in without any letters. Speaking of being on the same wavelength, I'd used the entry in a previous puzzle—in almost the same position! (The middle IIA string is tough to work with unless it's floating in the middle of a region, so the similarity is not at all surprising.)
Schroder and his TOY PIANO from "Peanuts," SOLAR CAR, FACEPALM all tickled me, too. I appreciate that "Peanuts" appeals to older generations while FACEPALM is more a millennial kind of thing. Something for everyone.
A common complaint I hear (a lot) about is names in crosswords. I don't think having exclusively non-proper-name words in crosswords is a great idea — how would we constructors get by without our crutches of ONO and ENO and REA and RAE? However, I can sympathize with the perspective that too much of it can make for a trivia contest instead of a word game. When there's so much of HAMM LEICA TRACI MR KITE ELY ALEC LANA ARON—that's just the Acrosses — it might feel like a flood.
I should explain two clues:
Always great to get Yacob's byline. Some of the entries like ASCII ART and SOLAR CAR might be too niche for some solvers, but I enjoy when someone speaks to the nerd in me so strongly.
★ A great man, JOHN LEWIS. Last year, I read the "March" trilogy, awed by his strength and courage in the face of so much hatred. It's a gripping read; highly recommended.
I was curious why this puzzle came out so long after his passing — usually, some constructor scrambles to put together a tribute so it can run a week or two afterward. I do like that it's running during a week where all the NYT constructors are African-American, though, as well as at the start of Black History Month.
The FREEDOM RIDERS ... it's hard to imagine how frightening that must have been. I hesitate to go into parts of our country today because some folks have out and out said they don't like people "like me." To get on those buses in the face of vitriol a million times more intense is bravery beyond belief.
GOOD TROUBLE is a fantastic phrase. That's well worth highlighting, evoking the subtly powerful smile Lewis often gave people.
I wasn't a huge fan of some aspects of the work today — GEORGIA'S FIFTH felt forced into being a theme answer to observe symmetry, stacking themers resulted in OOLA, Lake BIWA is a deep cut. It would have been awesome if the themers had told the story of his life more, rather than being an assorted collection of themers. I'd even be fine ditching symmetry to achieve that.
Overall, though, a welcome celebration of an amazing man, someone who continues to inspire and make a difference even after his death.
A few years ago, Paolo Pasco approached me with a SKIPPING SCHOOL concept with a different interpretation. He proposed ELECTRIC EEL and STAY ALERT, where crossing down answers would skip over the RICE and YALE letters as if they were invisible. I thought it had some merit, but it felt too similar to other crosswords I'd seen before. We let it drop.
Today, I enjoyed Yacob and Chad's extra layer, that not only does STAY ALERT have YALE in it but when you subtract out YALE, it becomes a real word. Interesting discovery.
The other finds weren't as juicy:
GAS PRICES to GASPS is almost as good, but it's easier to see what's going on since RICE doesn't span across the two words.
COMMITMENT to COMMENT: a single-word answer to another single-worder isn't as fun as something that plays with a spacing change, like STAY ALERT to START.
SUN CHIPS. Jim Horne asked me, "What are SUN CHIPS?" Apparently, in the vast Canadian hinterlands, they only sell Snow Chips and Moose Chips.
Amazing gridwork, which I've come to expect from Yacob, and is also great to see from a debut constructor! They squeezed every last drop out of those SW and NE corners. One might worry that regions like this are too big to be filled with color and cleanliness, but with only one theme answer constraining them, going big is doable. MONA LISA / SALSA BAR / REPTILE, ACCREDIT / NEUTRINO? That's the way to do it!
Jim asked about NIHAO — that could be odd for people unfamiliar with the Chinese transliteration. What a neat clue, though, a common word in the world's most common language.
I might be burned out on "skipped letters" concepts that echo crosswords from the past, but that won't apply to solvers who aren't as obsessive. In the future, I'd like crosswords in this maturing theme category to push the boundaries more.
★ Phrases that morph into equally valid new phrases are my jam, so Yacob and Erik had me at BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD. What a beautiful discovery!
I have a feeling some solvers won't figure out what's going on, so here's a before and after:
None of the rest is as strong as BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD — it's so neat when there are multiple words involved. IN THREE-D did hit that mark, but spelling THREE out is a crossword-specific … "oddity" would be a generous description.
As I would expect from these two (Yacob giving us a smash hit on this last themeless), such a tasty grid! Constructors often fail when they try to go big — 72 words is in themeless territory — but there was no going home today. Even if you didn't enjoy the theme as much as I did, I'd give each of these entries a check (Will Shortz assigns checks and minuses in his grid-assessing process):
Between TACTILE, ANIMATE, and IMPEDED, I'd toss in another checkmark, taking the total up to 8. That's astounding for a puzzle built around five theme entries.
I'd have loved another stunner like BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD, but the four (RE)LOCATIONS worked well enough. It made me want to go search for more. I didn't have time to write the code, but I spent five minutes figuring out how I would do it — I love it when someone gives my brain a challenge. Along with gridwork that greatly enhanced my solving experience, these guys earn another POW! apiece.
★ Every Wednesday, I have the pleasure of exchanging thoughts with Jim Horne about a full week worth of puzzles, and it's rare that we agree on which is the standout (if any). I prefer when we laud different puzzles, because Jim often presents a viewpoint I hadn't considered.
Groan, thanks a lot, Yacob, we both thought your puzzle was stellar. Now what are Jim and I supposed to argue about?
Yacob got in touch with me a few months before he submitted this one, asking for feedback. My first impression was that he showed a tremendous amount of talent and that his draft already had a decent shot at acceptance. It had a different SW, and a slightly different SE, though, and I thought it needed improvement.
Often, constructors don't listen to me and just submit. I'm not offended — I'm often wrong, after all — but why ask me if you're not going to at least consider critique? Yacob did everything right. He absorbed my comments, went away for a few weeks, and vastly improved the SW corner. I rarely tell constructors that they have a high chance of acceptance with Will, but this was one instance I was nearly sure Will would say yes.
Fantastic cluing, too. "Pen pals" for CELLMATES. "Barb" making you think about a verbal jab instead of a literal jab from a BLOWDART. I hope you don't [… incur charges overseas] ON SAFARI!
One oddity: the final grid Yacob sent me had a different — and better — southeast corner. As I solved, I noted the weirdness of BATE and LATEN, and confusion set in. I surely would have noted those and recommended he revise, since that region is somewhat flexible. Looking back upon his submission, I noticed that his corner was superior to what was run. Yacob doesn't exactly remember what happened, but he thinks he made a last-minute change before submitting.
Alas! Nothing's perfect. So close, though.
Standout Monday grid. Super accessible to newer solvers — only some minor PENH (can only be clued in one way), SPFS (not usually pluralized), UNI (prefix), WKS (abbr.). And what a treat to get quantity and quality of bonuses: MC ESCHER, KISSERS, BANSHEE, BENGALI, MENORAH. Dang!
Constructors, NOT A CLUE how they did it? Study this layout. Their themers are spread out to the max, and more importantly, their long bonuses are too. Note how BENGALI and MC ESCHER are in adjacent columns, but they're offset so there's not much overlap. Same goes for MC ESCHER and KISSERS. Elegant way to work in so many long bonuses.
Entertaining clues, too, not a surprise from an Agard joint. SPLAT as the sound of ice cream hitting the floor. An ICICLE as a "high point" of winter — literally. BANSHEE is already great fill, and the trivia about it foretelling a death in the family? Creepy, but so interesting.
I also enjoyed the go-big approach to linking the clues for STOLEN / HOT, OOH / AAH, MOS / WKS. There's something about STOLEN right next to HOT that feels especially neat.
I sadly couldn't get past the not-quite-perfect theme. There are tons of X IN THE Y phrases, and a subset where X rhymes with Y (CAT IN THE HAT came immediately to mind). Tightening it up by using the related SUN, SKY, SHADE … BLACK?
Not only was I iffy on whether BACK IN THE BLACK was as juicy as the other themers, but it only fits with the other three if you turn your head and squint hard. And it pays you $50 to look the other way.
Sure, why not. That'll be $50.
Tough call. I value perfect consistency and tightness, but if that's impossible, a diverse mix feels stronger.
Overall, still an excellent newb-friendly offering.
I love me some superheroes. I'm not quite to the level of dorkitude as my twin brother, who can not only name all four people who have been the Flash, but who can also list off all the alternate Flashes in the DC Multiverse. (I'm not-so-secretly in awe of him, although sometimes I wonder if his brain cells could be used for better purposes.)
I wish I had that level of ability when it came to pop culture! I stared and stared at FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE, sure that it must be some play on words or a kooky phrase formed from a solid base phrase. My realization that it's a real band was alas, far from Flash-quick. They had a hit called "Stacy's Mom"? I watched the video and was amused.
I had a similar issue with DUKE OF KENT. That band's hit was …
Wait, that's the person, the Duke of Kent?
You're saying he's Superman?
WELL HE SHOULD BE.
Thankfully STARK NAKED, NOSY PARKER, and BANNER YEAR worked perfectly for me. I especially liked the first, so apt for playboy billionaire Tony STARK. Ten years ago, I would have worried that no one would have recognized these alter egos, but thankfully the "Avengers" movies have brought them more into popular consciousness.
Theme concerns aside, such solid gridwork coming from two newer constructors! Five themers, including a 16-letter one, is rarely easy to build around. I hardly noticed a blip during my solve. Even going back for a second look, the only thing I picked up was a stray OTRO. That's a much better than many established constructors can produce.
Working in IN ANY CASE, HEAT MAP, and especially ALTER EGO? That's dynamite. Notice how carefully they deployed their black squares in the middle of the grid? They separate all the long slots so well.
Neat idea and superb craftsmanship. If all the themers had worked for me — I think it'd be tough to argue for FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE being something educated solvers ought to know — this could have been in POW! territory.