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73 puzzles by Zhouqin Burnikel
with Jeff Chen comments

Zhouqin Burnikel
POW Tue 9/7/2021

★ AWED is a perfect 1-Across for this delight. Money is a common theme in crosswords (except for constructor pay, i.e. micropennies per hour), so you have to add an extra element to make yours stand out. That's exactly what C.C. did today, in three different ways.

  1. Fresh themers. I'd never heard of ERIC YUAN, but there's no doubt that the founder of Zoom has currency (sorry) during the pandemic. PRESS POUND is a phrase that I've heard thousands of times, yet it's new to the NYT crossword.
  2. International flair. Many cruciverbalists stay Eurocentric with their themes. I love that aside from the British POUND, C.C. globetrotted to use the Brazilian REAL, Korean WON, South African RAND, Chinese YUAN. I hear a lot of solver griping if constructors dip into monetary units such as the Albanian LEK or Romanian LEU, and that's understandable. The BRIC countries are economic powerhouses, though, and their currencies carry weight.
  3. International flair, part two. There are so many dull ways to clue STARS, but [Quintet on a Chinese flag] is not one of them. These touches in so many clues and entries — INDIAN Ocean, GHANA, VILLA as a Mediterranean estate — furthers the worldly feel.

Accessible wordplay in many clues, sadly uncommon for early-week puzzles. TOUCAN playing on "big bill" lets even newer solvers groan at its punniness.

ATLAS shows us another type of clue we don't often see in early-week puzzles, giving a piece of information that at first confuses and even causes consternation, but then the light bulb clicks on. There is no Atlas Ocean, but there is an Atlantic.

C.C. did exactly what she needed, to make an old-hat theme stand out. Along with excellent gridwork as is her usual — spicing things up with EYELINERS, LABRADOR, NAKED LIES, and so meticulously keeping her short glue to only EPS — another POW! for C.C. is easy money.

POW Mon 5/10/2021

★ I've done a lot of work with colors in crosswords, and I'm kicking myself for never coming up with today's theme. It's so perfect, four examples of two-word foods whose second words are pluralized colors. I've even used HASH BROWNS in a previous color puzzle. How could this have not occurred to me?

(Might have something to do with my eating habits. Given that my lunches are "whatever the kids refuse to eat, mixed into a bowl, it's mostly grays.)

What's most impressive about this theme is its tightness. I could hardly believe that there were four perfect examples of common foods/ingredients fitting this pattern, and I couldn't think of a single other one. Sure, there are variations like VALENCIA ORANGES or MIXED GREENS, but no other color worked. That tightness makes for such elegance.

I'm a huge fan of mirror symmetry, partially because it allows for bizarre sets of themer lengths. Thank Crucivera, the goddess of crosswords, for her benevolence in gifting constructors with this option! Some silently curse her because they don't like mirror aesthetics, but I say a pox on them!

(Mostly because I'm petrified of invoking Crucivera's wrath.)

SPORCLE and PLACEBO! Excellent use of mid-length slots; so important in a layout that doesn't feature any long extras. I'd personally remove the black square between ERICA and PERE to generate a pair of long bonuses, but I can see how some solvers might mistake those lengthy slots as theme related.

I did pause at STRATI. One stratus cloud, two … stratuseses? STRATI is technically correct, plus it allows meteorologists to say things like "Those are cirri-ously wispy clouds!"

(Now accepting proposals for Jeff's punishment. The more painful and ironic, the better. --Crucivera)

Mon 4/5/2021

C.C.! Been months since we've seen her byline, so it's great to get her back. She has a knack for coming up with interesting themes and colorful fill.

I had a tough time with "Name That Theme" today, partially because I couldn't remember which clues were starred. That's one problem with mixed horizontal/vertical themers — was AIRSPEED involved somehow? Take a SPEED … is that something the kids say these days? OK Boomer, take a speed!

Solid set of TAKE A ___ words: take a TRIP, a CUT, a DIVE, a SEAT, and a HIT. I appreciated how C.C. remained consistent, never diving into "Take the ___" or "take ___" phrases.

There are a ton of TAKE A ___ phrases — searching TAKEA* turned up dozens of hits. (I took a hint, not boring you by taking a swing at naming them all.) There's nothing wrong with a lack of tightness in a theme set, but it's not as elegant to some of us more obsessive sorts.

Loved seeing MALARKEY, considering it's one of Joe Biden's favorite words. DERIDED was apt, too, given how much Biden gets derided about it. Along with RADIANT, I enjoyed the bonuses. Usually, editors prize multi-word long fill, but today, one-worders were better since they helped minimize the confusion about what is theme and what is not.

Look at where some of the short offenders lie: SST is near the crossing of COUNTY SEAT and POODLE CUT. AHAT at the intersection of INFIELD HIT and LOCAL DIVE. C.C. is right — macro gridwork is often easier if you can fill cleanly around intersecting themers — but that can be a big if.

I'd have preferred fewer themers since it was bound to be not a tight set anyway. It was fun to get fun theme phrases like POODLE CUT and LOCAL DIVE, though.

Tue 7/21/2020

Appropriate puzzle for the year 2020! It's a shame that it wasn't run on the first day of the year — there's something so pleasing about the idea of riffing on 1/1/2020. I'd seen a couple of these before — a game score, the TV show, a ratio, eyesight measurement, and a year — inside tricky crossword clues (easily found with our clue search tool), but never thought to aggregate them like this.

I didn't feel a strong a-ha impact, since some of the themers felt askew. VISUAL ACUITY is the general term for how sharp one's eyesight is, so [20/20, e.g.] doesn't quite work ... let's call that one 30/20 vision.

20/20 as a NEWS … show, right? Huh? You say that Wikipedia allows for a "newsmagazine" to be a television program? Back in my day, magazines were glossy, hand-delivered, and the Sears catalog came in the mail! Get off my lawn, you darn kids!

RATIO works, but it echoes 20/20 as a visual measurement, and also the news show.

Fine, newsmagazine, you stinkin' kids!

Solid grid, as with all of C.C.'s products. Bonuses like WHAT A SHAME and ALL FIRED UP help keep a solver's attention if the theme isn't doing it for them. I also enjoyed some LO MEIN, VASSAR, CAPRIS, DAWDLE, all giving the puzzle a bit of style.

OMBRE is a toughie, but it's no doubt in use. Hey, if Khloe Kardashian is doing it, so will I! Oh, you need hair? Rats, no OMBRE for this hombre.

Fun to imagine other possibilities riffing on the number 2020, especially when you can use any mathematical symbol. Reminds me of the game Krypto, my favorite as a kid. How about a theme using operators to get to the entry's Across number! For example, (20)*2+0! = 41-Across! Think of how many people would love that!

Right, just me.

Tue 5/12/2020

I love the potential of this puzzle. Can't you see some poor kid, clapping his hands and jumping up and down as his dad gets home from work, saying, "Jake, I got you something! It's so much fun; you're going to love this MARBLE … rye!"

Disclaimer: I've never done that before.

Disclaimer to the disclaimer: it was a marble statue of me laughing at his despondent reaction.

SOB STORY, indeed.

Instead of technical analysis — the gridwork on a C.C. product is always strong, with little glue and some strong bonuses — I spent the time dreaming up ways to torture my kids.

Did I say torture? I meant tease, of course!

In a torturous sort of way.

Hey Tess! I brought you a …

  • RATTLE … SNAKE! Bwa ha ha!
  • TOP … sirloin! Tee hee hee!
  • PET … peeve! Cackle cackle!
  • BALL … gown! Ha ha ha … wait, what?

Now I have to buy my princess-obsessed daughter a matching tiara. Thanks a lot, C.C. and Tom.

More importantly, thanks a lot for the much-needed source of humor as I attempt to stave off insanity in this, my eighth week of self-isolation. Serenity now.

Thu 3/5/2020

MALADIES is right! I had the toughest time figuring out the trick. I tried rebusizing MA and MAD, word laddering MAD to MAS to whatever, MAs sitting outside the grid, etc. Even when I got to the revealer, NO MAS, I wondered where the missing MASs were. It took a good hard headdesk to realize that it meant "no MAs," i.e., MAs are missing from 11 entries.

Phew, it made me want to cry MAMA!

Some of the finds were delightful, the longer ones in particular. MALADIES to LADIES is brilliant, as are MADE FACES to DEFACES and MALINGER to LINGER. We've fixed up all the answers in the full listing (below), although visually putting the MAs into the grid felt against the spirit of the puzzle. Sorry if you're still looking for them!

My favorite was WEBMASTER to WEBSTER — I love those surprising finds — but with this already confusing presentation, it was hard to see and easy to forget. I had to scan through all the answers a few times to remember what and where it was.

The mix of MAs missing from starts and middles made it such a difficult solve. On the one hand, I like the trickiness. On the other, it wasn't satisfying, and it made me dread how much work there would be to fix up the answers and explain precisely what was going on.

Making the solve even harder were a few clues that didn't make immediate sense. For example, [One-up, say] for DRAW. When I couldn't immediately understand that "one-up" was a sportsy way of saying "the score is tied at one-one," I figured it might be part of the theme. DRAMAW? MADRAW? Is "mad raw" something the kids say these days?

All in all, I enjoyed the concept but found myself brainstorming ways of improving the presentation. I enjoy getting my constructor's brain churning, so I appreciated having something to chew on.

Fri 12/20/2019

Friday is often my favorite day of the NYT crossword week, since Fridays can be chock full of clever, gettable, wordplay clues. They also tend to give me an ego boost — a fun challenge that I can overcome without releasing the magic smoke from my brain.

A flood of witty, tricksy clues today:

  • Nervous witnesses in mystery novels … supporting cast? Plot devices for moving the story forward? Well, yes, but more often than not, RED HERRINGS to throw readers off track.
  • [Boost at the gym] has to be a spotter. A personal trainer yelling at you? No, a burst of fuel provided by an ENERGY BAR.

I like it even more when pedestrian short entries are made into standouts via their clues:

  • SITIN is an event where participants may take the floor. So groany that it's great!
  • WTF is [1/2 vis-à-vis 1/3, say]? How could EVE possibly fit? And come on, does anyone know what "vis-à-vis" means? Ah, 1/2 = Jan 2nd, the EVE of Jan 3rd! And of course, I know what vis-à-vis means! (Heading to, BRB)
  • [This might be a bust] usually has some relation to a NARC or a KILO, and it often fools me. Doubly fooled today, as this bust meant a STATUE's head. Fool me … you can't get fooled again? Apparently I can!

I found the overall solving experience harder than for an average Friday, and that tends to be unsatisfying when you expect to fly through. The biggest factor is that there are some wide-open sections — take the SW corner, for example — where it's tough even to get started. Any time you have four answers like LOGAN / FURMAN / MANO A MANO / PROGRESSO stacked, with no short answers going through them, it makes it tough to gain a foothold. Makes me remember when I would see a tract of squares like this and not even bother trying the puzzle.

I like to feel smart doing crosswords. Perhaps if this one had been run on a Saturday, accommodating for the difficulty in gaining traction through the giant white swaths, my extended 16 minutes of solving time wouldn't have felt so shameful.

Plenty of strong material, particularly in the clever cluing, to gain some POW! consideration. Maybe if my bruised ego hadn't gotten in the way …

Mon 10/28/2019

Another buttery-smooth offering from C.C., who's challenging Lynn Lempel for the "Queen of Mondays" title. Such a solver-friendly grid, hardly a blip to trip anyone up. Along with enough bonuses in PAVLOV'S DOG, ONION BAGEL, ROAD RACE, TIME LAGS, I'd gladly offer this to a newer solver. Heck, I'd gladly offer it to anyone!

Have you ever wondered why there's no "King of Mondays"? I've noticed several constructors expressing notions of wanting to challenge themselves to create audacious grids, the quest to fashion something-that-should-be-impossible being the ultimate thrill — damn the solving experience!

And every single one of those have been men. (Sadly, including me.)

There's something to be said for constructors wanting to keep personally interested. Following the same darn recipe ad infinitum can get boring. Trouble is, this tried and true formula — no more than four themers, high word count, deliberate placement of a few snazzy vertically-oriented bonuses, extreme care with short entries — is a great way to give early-week solvers exactly what they need.

As far as the theme goes, it's hard for me to get excited about anagrams these days. However, the revealer makes a strong case for why D A N G E R should be mixed up. Words made OUT OF D A N G E R are indeed GANDER, GRANDE, GARDEN.

Pushing my biases aside, newbs won't have encountered as many anagrams as I have. Considering that it's tough to find anagrams for longish words, DANGER GANDER GRANDE GARDEN might even elicit a "wow!" from rookie solvers. Along with top-notch gridwork, this was in POW! territory for sure.

Mon 9/2/2019

I was so close to winning "Name That Theme" today! I knew GORDON JUMP right off the bat, having been raised by "WKRP" (and "Gilligan's Island and "Three's Company" and …). So it had to be HOP SKIP JUMP, the Olympic event!


PHOTO SHOOT ... biathlon! They JUMP over little hills along the way.

Well, they do!

CHICKEN RUN ... now I have it! CHICKEN RUN is the very definition of my gait on the third leg of a triathlon — cramping from the long bike ride, hobbling like a chicken in distress.

Huh? What does SHOOT have to do with it? Have YOU ever done triathlons? Then you wouldn't know. So there.

See, ADULT SWIM, triathlon! SNOW FENCE, there are fences that gate off the changing areas for transitioning from SWIM to RUN to bike.

What? Wouldn't BIKE be in a triathlon-themed puzzle?

Who asked you, wise guy?

PENTATHLON, of course. That's exactly what I thought right from GORDON JUMP. Because of the high jump. Or long jump?


I liked the theme, but it didn't click strongly. SHOOT, RUN, FENCE, SWIM, yes. But JUMP? If I could have given early input, I'd have taken the themers out for a test ride. Maybe then, C.C. could have accelerated to maximum ride.

Ahem. RIDE!

(JUMP does allow for intersecting themers, crossing with ADULT, which often makes grid layout much easier when you have to incorporate six themers. It's still possible to use RIDE, though, while RUNning all six themers in the across direction.)

Speaking of maximum ride, I loved so much of C.C.'s seasoning: NO CAN DO. ORIGAMI as something for which you need a "folder" = genius! The I CHING. Modern SHONDA Rhimes to balance out GORDON JUMP. UP TOP, C.C., take some ENCORES for that!

POW Wed 6/26/2019

★ Brilliant themes don't come around often. The way they get presented can make them stand out even further, or hold them back. Today's puzzle hit on all cylinders, an auto-POW! pick.

Discovering HEBREWS → He brews → male who makes beer is a constructor's dream. The muse blesses you with her benevolence! How to execute a full theme set in a 15x15 crossword, though? Some might take it in a "dictionary theme" direction, with a grid entry like PERSON MAKING BEER. Others might put HEBREWS into the grid, with a clue of [Headline: "Male Makes Beer!"]

Even if you landed on the optimal solution of choosing a colorful phrase to describe "Hebrews" — BEERMAKER is great — you might write the clue as [Hebrews?], or [Hebrews, in a way]. Putting HEBREWS in all caps was a touch of genius, shouting to solvers that something odd was going on. A question mark might do that, but the CLUE YELLING IN MY FACE made me take special attention. There was zero doubt that I was going to review what the heck was going on once I filled in the last square.

I was annoyed that I finished without hitting a revealer to explain everything, but it didn't take long to figure it out. HE BREWS, WE AVER, SHE RIFFS, I RATE, all with snazzy, in-the-language phrases describing them? That's as big a WITT (wish I thought of that) moment as I've had this entire year.

Along with strong grid execution — extras in BEEN THERE, POOR TASTE, CAMISOLE, EN GARDE, MARS RED, FAN BELT, and not much crossword glue — it's a work of top-notch craftsmanship.

THE NERVE of C.C., making me feel so pleasantly jealous. It's no wonder that she's near the top of my POW! list. I give her strong odds to take over the top spot in the next few years.

POW Wed 5/15/2019

★ I'm envious. It takes a great constructor to transform a stale theme — I've seen dozens of "salad dressing" concepts over the years — into something incredible. Who would have ever thought to riff on CROSS DRESSING, interpreting it as "a revealer literally crossing dressings"? And to attempt the impossible, crossing CROSS DRESSING through FIVE symmetrical dressings, incorporated into great phrases?

It should be impossible. There's no way that Crucivera, the crossword goddess, is benevolent enough to allow such a fortuitous happenstance.

You'd have to come up with a way to intersect five salad dressings through CROSS DRESSING, at symmetrical rows. That's hard, but doable.

But add in the constraint of having the five phrases also be symmetrical in length? And have those lengths match up in position, so the dressings still fit properly?

Nah. I wouldn't have even tried.

Sure glad C.C. did! Wow. I uncovered the revealer and figured out the theme early on. But I kept stopping to admire the feat. It didn't seem humanly feasible. I mean, getting CAESAR and RUSSIAN to intersect in rows 6 and 10, that's pretty cool. But to have HAIL CAESAR and RUSSIAN MOB just happen to fit into total, absolute, mystifying crossword symmetry?

Screw HAIL CAESAR. HAIL Crucivera is more like it.

Fantastic clue in RECESS, too, reimagining "trial separation" in a funny way.

A couple of blips in the fill: a little more crossword glue than I like, and a ton of 3-letter words that broke up solving flow. Not the most elegant of finishes. But:

  1. Much of that is expected with six interlocked themers. After looking carefully at the grid design, I don't think I could have done better.
  2. Who cares? When a theme is this eye-popping, such trivialities matter not.
Tue 3/26/2019

Compare and contrast today's puzzle with yesterday's. They both have seven themers along with a revealer, and both needed heavy crossword glue.

The big difference is that C.C.'s puzzle had a good reason to need all seven themers, since you can't do a puzzle about the days of the week without including the entire septet. I was able to overlook a slew of ESSO ESO IRT EUR ARA RTES today because it was in service of a complete set.

I've seen many "days of the week" themes, as well as "months of the year," etc. But I loved how C.C. tied in the snappy OPENING DAY to give the puzzle a raison d'etre. She could have kept to seven themers, calling it good by simply circling MON, TUES, WED, etc. But the addition of OPENING DAY put a perfect bow on the theme.

Thoughts on TU ES BELLE? Initially, I shook my head. Resorting to random phrases in a foreign language? Why not pick a strong phrase or word that starts with TUES?



Is "Tueslam" a word?

Okay, then. Why not shorten to TUE and use …


Ah, now I see C.C.'s issue.

Given that there is nothing reasonable that begins with TUE, TU ES BELLE is passable in service of a decent theme. Sometimes I think that it's better to scrap a theme completely if you're going to need a phrase that's not in the language, but in today's case, I came out in favor.

I would have preferred for OPENING DAY to be at the very end since it was odd to get SATE afterward like it was an afterthought. But trying to pack seven themers in rows 1 to 12 is sheer madness. Perhaps a compromise would have been to shift SUNG to the NE and SATE to the SW, which could have made OPENING DAY seem more like it was at the end of the puzzle, even though it still technically wasn't.

Incredibly tough construction that came with the sorts of trade-offs I'd have expected. But overall, the theme plus revealer was interesting enough that I didn't mind the rough patches.

POW Mon 3/18/2019

A Monday theme that's accessible to newer solvers and interesting for more experienced ones? I say YES!

That was too easy. Well played, C.C., well played.

It's one thing to use "foreign words for YES" — I've seen that a couple of times before — but to disguise them using homophones is a great way to target both sides of the solving spectrum.

The theme is tight, too. How many other foreign languages would YES be obvious in? SI (Spanish or Italian), HAI (Japanese), DA (Russian), and OUI (French). My inner nerd wishes that Dothraki or Klingon were included, but in both of those languages, YES loosely translates to "I shall excise your gizzard and use it to kill the ghosts of your ancestors." Probably wouldn't pass the breakfast test.

C.C. did well in her themer choices, LAH DI DAH, AIMS HIGH, and especially THE ROYAL WE. I liked PLAIN TO SEE, but it was a bit, well, plain. I'd have preferred THE DEAD SEA. Perhaps that's my inner Dothraki speaking.

As always, C.C. is a star when it comes to bonus fill. So much greatness in CARPE DIEM, SAN MARINO, PIT STOP, SLEUTHS. I liked FAN ART, too, great way to use a mid-length slot.

My solve was slow. Not because the short fill was gluey — on the contrary, just an LTS = top-notch craftsmanship. But there was so much novelty in the shorties: AP LIT, GO BAGS, KTOWN, even DEETS and DCON. As much as I enjoy a feeling of freshness — and I do like each of these entries on their own — this verged on too fresh. I wonder how it affected newer solvers. I could imagine it being a turn-off.

But overall, an entertaining, creative theme with a solid a-ha moment doesn't come around very often on Mondays. Along with a solid grid that aimed high, it's a slam-dunk POW!

NOTE: Thanks to some sharp-eyed readers, mistranslations in the original post have been corrected.

Fri 3/1/2019

Will Shortz has warned me to avoid using too many proper names in puzzles if they're at the level of not-quite-famous-enough — "either you know them, or you don't." If you're in the latter camp, it's no fun to work hard to uncover someone that brings you little joy.

Now, the President of China? He's most definitely a person everyone ought to have heard of. But is that the case? I could only recall Xi off the top. And JINPING? Good luck with that! All those Asian names look alike.

(One of the benefits to being a minority is being able to say stuff like that. Don't try it at home.)

I enjoyed this entry, as its clue was eye-opening: XI JINPING at #1 on Forbes' list of most powerful people? Yikes! Neat that he has so many rare letters in his name, too.

With only eight long slots (8+ letters), I wanted every one of them to count. AD LIBBING is great. FINAL SALE, FULL TIMER, ODOR EATER, all solid. HYACINTH is pretty, too.

But SITS IDLE and RESTS EASY are on the dull side, sitting there too idly, resting too easy.

Thankfully, there were a lot of mid-length slots to juice up the joint. ARTEMIS, HEY JUDE, NO JEANS, FOX CUB are all assets.

Most others weren't as strong, though. LENDERS is fine, but nothing exciting. I WAS HAD isn't as interesting as I BEEN HAD or WE WUZ ROBBED! And SLOVENS? It is in the dictionary. That's the best I can say about it.

All in all, solid craftsmanship, but I want more snazziness out of a standard 72-word themeless.

Fri 1/25/2019

Fairly standard 72-word layout from C.C. today. I loved that wombo-combo of ICE SCRAPER / SENATE RACE / LETS PARTY in the SE — that's the way to make the most out of your triple-stacks!

Not as hot on the prices to pay of PARA, NO PAR, NEC, though. Minor offenders, all, but when working with a 72-word grid — the max allowable for a themeless — there's very little room for inelegance. The bar has been raised so high for 72-worders.

I'd be interested to see what C.C. could have done without the black square separating EMMA and SCAR. Both the SW and NE corners already have some crossword glue — RYNE / ADP, and ATTA — which I would have been more forgiving of, if there had been more quality and quantity in the long slots. Give me another ADOPT A PET or LEAD STORY and I'd happily look the other way at the tough crossing on CALPHALON / ADP and CALPHALON / RYNE.

Some great clues helped snazz up my solve:

  • Did [Ring in a coffee shop] make you think of a coffee ring, too? Brilliant misdirect.
  • [Stern competitor, once] disguises the capital S of Howard Stern.
  • The plural "arms" is a bit of a stretch, with an ESCORT being an [Arms provider?]. But that's the kind of stretch I'm fine with. Funny wordplay. (And Jim's favorite clue of the puzzle!)

Some great marquee entries in EAGLE SCOUT, RAN TRACK (or RANT RACK, where you store all your kvetches?), MALAPROP, ME AGAIN. But also some inelegance that's hard to accept in a 72-word themeless these days.


A "revealer" entry is often necessary to create an a-ha moment for solvers, but sometimes these still don't clear up the theme for everyone. I bet some won't understand why DEAR JOHN LETTERS ties everything together, so I've highlighted the special letters below.

Get it? HOLLYWOOD ENDING refers to the end of the word HOLLYWOOD? EYE OPENER points to the beginning letter of EYE? It's an oldie but a goodie, a theme type that's played upon in many crosswords and other puzzle types as well.

I enjoyed how C.C. didn't rely solely on beginnings and endings, throwing a CENTER in there, as well as a SECOND and a THIRD. Even an EPISODE I!

Wait a second …

(that sort of works for A, the second letter of WAIT!)

My first reaction to the theme: why was DEAR JOHN chosen? Why not BUSINESS letters, or VARSITY letters, or the SCARLET letter? There's nothing wrong with DEAR JOHN LETTERS as a phrase, but since this is a time-tested theme type, it would have been nice if there had been some additional layer. For example, if SCARLET LETTER had been used, it would have been so cool to arrange the seven special letters in the shape of an A!

Then again, it would need to be pluralized into SCARLET LETTERS, which makes no sense. So upon further consideration, DEAR JOHN is probably the best choice for this sort of LETTERS theme. Take that, overthinking Jeff!

Solid gridwork, as to be expected from a pro like C.C. I enjoyed the bonuses of CUP O JOE, BLACK COD (one of my favorite dishes at my local sushi place), MOLESKINE, SCEPTERS, BALLPARK, NOBLEMEN. Not a ton of bonuses, but enough.

The only place I disagreed with C.C.'s gridwork — the southwest. It's neat to work in an X into IXNAY for some rare letter color, but I didn't think it was worth the price of AMICA, especially crossing ASANA. Even non-yogis probably ought to have heard of ASANA before, but two words like this crossing felt like inflexible legs cranked into the lotus position.

Hilarious clue alert! I had the middle three letters solved for [It's in your jeans]: _ENI_. Ahem. Of course, it was DENIM. Of course.

(I'd make a comment about a GENIE in one's jeans, but I doubt anyone wants to hear that.)

POW Tue 11/20/2018

★ I like to play the "guess that theme" game with early-week puzzles. Not difficult with today's! Turkey's place = POULTRY FARM, okay. Turkey's place = RAZZIE AWARDS ... game over! Oh well.

But even with the premature giveaway, I still had more a-ha moments. Fun to figure out where other types of turkeys could be found. A bowling turkey is three strikes in a row, and Turkey is a country in WESTERN ASIA. Four very different turkeys!

This type of theme is often done with a single word clue, TURKEY, and the entries are dry dictionary-entry-esque. (Think BIRD WITH A WATTLE). I like C.C.'s implementation so much more, each of the themers snappy phrases I'd happily use as fill in other crosswords.

And the fill! C.C. has built a well-deserved rep as one of the top constructors when it comes to assets in her fill. CLEAR AS MUD and LEMON WEDGE are in the positions you'd typically see bonuses. She goes above and beyond just that though: VAMOOSE, OPEN MIC, DO TELL. Not a lot of long slots, but she used her mid-lengthers to such advantage.

With just a couple of EUR and OUTA minor dings (I have a soft spot in my heart for grape NEHI, Radar O'Reilly's drink of choice), it's top-notch craftsmanship.

If that weren't enough, the clues for PARLOR and DROOL made me laugh. Not sure I'd visit an establishment that serves ice cream at the same time they're tattooing you, but that might be "Shark Tank" worthy. And I had a moment of panic after reading [Baby wipe target], as my two-year-old has many baby wipe targets do not pass the breakfast test. Thank goodness it was DROOL!

Ticked all the boxes. I'd be delighted to give this puzzle to a newer solver, trying to get them hooked on crosswords. POW!

Fri 9/21/2018

Some delightful feature entries: TATAMI MATs always making me feel at home (I love visiting Japan!). And how can you not love a DUDE RANCH? The SILK ROAD is so evocative, Marco Polo along it for 24 years. And I'm fascinated by intellectual property law, so I enjoyed getting TRADEMARKS defined as "commercial slogans." It didn't feel quite right to me at first, as most slogans as "trademarked," not TRADEMARKS. But then I realized that they're actually both — fun realization!

Not so fun: STALIN ERA, which brought the death of tens of millions of people. I usually would point out things like CRIME BOSS and DEAD END as assets to the puzzle, but man, what a shiver-inducing vibe, that CRIME BOSS / STALIN ERA pairing. Not sure it passes "the breakfast test" — I would have STRESS ATE everything in sight!

COSSETS is not in the assets category for me. Apparently "cosset" means "mollycoddle"? Huh.

Also in the "huh" category: NATALE.

Check out those COSSETS and NATALE corners — there's a reason for these oddball entries. The NW / SE might not look like much of a challenge, but yikes, are they ever. I rarely leave a section that big to fill in a themeless (or any puzzle, for that matter), because you're usually going to need short gluey stuff (see: ANO CMAS ESA) or weird mid-length stuff. C.C. did make her task a bit easier by adding a black square just before LEAVEN, but those huge chunks of white space were still too leavened to fill smoothly.

I find more and more that a themeless is all about the connection you feel to the constructor — did you get that great vibe of being right on someone's wavelength? I didn't today, as I usually want a more uplifting solving experience. Personal taste. I can see how others might love the subtle message implied by pairing CRIME BOSS with STALIN ERA.

Tue 6/26/2018

I admit it took me a while to figure out what was going on. ALTOGETHER = AL TOGETHER … = A and L repeated in phrases? Ultimately, I think it's more simply AL + AL together. Confusing though, in that IN LA LA LAND is the only one with a third LA, and MALALA has an extra A.

What, no FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA? Grinch!

I enjoyed the diversity of theme answers. From KUALA LUMPUR to I AM MALALA to HALAL FOOD to CENTRAL ALPS — what a range! Especially that last one. (rimshot)

That's a ton of themers, intersecting, taking up a ton of real estate. FRAID SO that there's a bit of ANDA and ITHE, but that's pretty darn good given the constraints. And as much as I dislike partials, they are friendlier to newer solvers than weird words, esoteric abbreviations, tough names, etc.

Speaking of tough names, I don't mind a couple of toughies in my grid, even if there are one or two head-busting ones. For a newb though, I'm not sure that ANI IMAN LAILA OPIE RAE SHERA is very friendly. I worry that this sort of pile-up might be quite a turn-off.

I enjoyed the creative parsing of ALTOGETHER = AL TOGETHER. But I wish it had provided a stronger click; a sharper, more smile-inducing a-ha moment.

POW Mon 6/4/2018

★ Beautiful Monday puzzle. Interesting theme full of fresh finds, a couple of bonuses in the fill, and a smooth grid. Nothing more I could ask for!

C.C. riffs on DOUBLETREE = phrases with two trees embedded within them. I highlighted them below in case you couldn't locate them. Particularly nice one in BALDERDASH! It's so densely packed with trees, plus it's a fun word to say.

C.C. is so, so, so good with her fill bonuses. DON'T BLOW IT? No way she would --- AMEN TO THAT. And a BARISTA, DR DOOM, and SARA LEE? Nobody doesn't like that!

And when NNE is the only grid entry that feels gluey, you've done incredibly well. Superb craftsmanship.

The only nit I had was that it took me forever to think of TEA in STEALTH FIGHTER. I was a bit slow to find FIG to begin with, and then I thought there might something called a TEAL tree? After much Googling, I headdesked when I figured things out.

I often wish that puzzles don't get dumbed down; that solvers be allowed to discover and earn their a-ha moment. Here though, TEA tree feels not as easily recognizable as the ASH or ALDER (I might say the same for TEAK), so I would have preferred shading them in the grid.

Ooh, trees providing shade! That would have been so meta.

ADDED NOTE: Astute reader Janie Smulyan commented that ARBORS are indeed [Shady places]! Another call for shading; that would have been awesome!

Minor quibble aside, a near-perfect start to the week; a puzzle I'd happily give to any newer solver.

Thu 2/22/2018

I like theme type mashups — so interesting to cram together two tried-and-true ideas to form something new.

1.) Reversals. Many puzzles over the years have featured backwards entries. BACK, UP, REVERSE, FLIP are usually hints or revealers.

2.) Different definitions of a key word. Take a word that has many disparate meanings, find phrases that define said meanings. (Many moons ago, I wanted to use LOG as my key word, and Jill suggested something scatological as we were brainstorming. I knew then she was a keeper.)

Mash these two up, and you get a three COURSE meal — reversed! AUGUSTA NATIONAL is a golf COURSE, PREALGEBRA is a school COURSE, and APPETIZERS are a meal COURSE. I like the innovation.

Great bonuses in the fill has become C.C.'s trademark. No surprise to get awesome AU NATUREL, PICANTE, DON'T PANIC, GONDOLA.

Sometimes I've critiqued C.C.'s work with an eye on her craftsmanship, her slight overreliance on crossword glue. I think she's come a long way, and today I didn't notice much at all. A bit of ELEC URI, that's it? Excellent work.

I score each new entry as they get introduced into our Xword Info word list, and I waffled on ADD ME. Is this a thing? Granted, I'm not a huge fan of the Facebook ("the" added for humor, of course, I knew that, I REALLY DID!), but do people say ADD ME? Huh.

ANALOG got such a great clue. I can just imagine the kids though, saying "wot the heck are watch hands?"

More likely, "wot the hell is a watch?"

Overall, I liked the innovation. If "reversing A course" had been a real phrase, I might have given this some POW! love. But as is, the anal grammaratician in me hitched on the awkwardness of REVERSING COURSE as a revealer, without that "A." I know, I'm so darn annoying!

Mon 1/15/2018

Apt MLK Day theme, reinterpreting the famous FREE AT LAST to mean "phrases whose last words are synonyms for free." Especially apt that Agnes and C.C. chose the "release" meaning of free (instead of "not busy" or "take a burden from"), given MLK's goals in life.

NEW RELEASE and THE COAST IS CLEAR worked beautifully for me. Colorful phrases, and perfect synonyms.

BEG PARDON … perhaps it's a generational thing, but I don't ever hear exactly this. I BEG YOUR PARDON, yes. BEG YOUR PARDON, too. (And OH NO YOU DIDN'T all too much.)

TAX EXEMPT is my favorite type of tax! But here, the "free" meaning of exempt didn't get at the "release" sense of "free" that I associate with MLK's work.

As always, C.C. gives such nice bonuses — POWDER KEG, OLIVE OIL, CRAVAT are great. COSPLAYS is a bit odd in the verb form, but it's legit. REAL DEAL is similarly odd in the plural, but it's okay too.

I did find the short fill novice unfriendly. CITGO, ELYSEE, DARIN, ORECK are all valid words that educated solvers (mostly probably) ought to know, but so many in one puzzle felt like a heavy concentration.

Usually, these sorts of compromises arise when constructors try too hard to add in bonuses, but curiously, it had nothing to do with those added bonuses today. I would have asked for some rework in the north and south sections, which should be doable without changing black squares.

I wonder if someone might be a SOX fan, striving a bit too hard to work in the odd GO SOX …

Happy MLK Day! Hope you're volunteering somewhere, or at least remembering the spirit of the day.

Tue 1/2/2018

Plays on "___ orders" today, TAKE IT SLOW disobeying a rush order, MOVE AHEAD disobeying a stop order (a stock trading term), etc. My favorite was HAVE A SEAT disobeying a "standing order," because there's fun wordplay involved — standing order has nothing to do with physically standing.

STEAL A KISS disobeying a pecking order also involved wordplay, which was nice. But a pecking order isn't something that's "disobeyed." Maybe it's broken, or circumvented, or reorganized, but not really disobeyed. I appreciate the effort to get every themer consistently into the "disobeyed" mold, but this one didn't work for me.

C.C. gives us the usual assortment of great bonuses that's become her trademark. ROOKIE YEAR, EMAIL ALERT, I HAD A BLAST, NAPA VALLEY = what I expect out of a four-themer puzzle. But then to add in STANZA, CALL NOW, NAIVETE, that went above and beyond. Beautiful work in that regard.

Short fill ... I'm being ultra-picky now because C.C. has long since reached the upper echelon of constructors. I don't mind some CST, LDS, ISPS, DSL. (AHL is worse, as it doesn't feel as familiar to me as the others.)

But notice how each of the five is in that "initialism" category of crossword glue. That concentration makes it all stick out glaringly. Will has a sore spot for initialisms (constructors, take note!), especially ones that aren't well-known. And for good reason! If you're a newer solver, how are you supposed to infer AHL if you don't know it?

Overall, today's theme is a good idea, with some fun wordplay on various "orders." I appreciated the consistency, each one riffing on a well-known "___ order." I wished fewer of them had been so literal, though — if only they had been as spot-on and funny as HAVE A SEAT disobeying a "standing order"!

Tue 12/5/2017

It's so much fun when the Celeb Constructor series puts out a theme related to that celeb! Today, Harry Smith, a journalist, gives us a kooky news team, anchored by an [Anchor man?] — POPEYE THE SAILOR. (Think about that tattoo he sports.)

It took me half a minute to grok how a MARINE BIOLOGIST was a [Sound technician?]. I'll give you a little time to think about it … *

ALLEN GINSBERG is pretty good [Beat reporter?] — he's of the Beat Generation. As to being a reporter, though … hmm. But one definition of "report" is "to give a spoken or written account of something that one has observed." Contrary to my first impression, that describes GINSBERG surprisingly well.

And the best for last, the [Executive producer?]. WHARTON is one of the most famous b-schools, i.e., a place that produces execs! Great way to cap it off.

C.C. is such a PRO. Look how expertly she uses mirror symmetry to her advantage today. It's such a great option when your themers are unpairable but all odd-numbered in length. She spaces the four themers to the max, giving room to breathe, and uses her black squares to separate them wisely.

The only tiny section that needed some crossword glue was the south, not a surprise considering it has to work with two themers. A bit of SYN and ANO … but look at what bonuses she and Harry were able to work in. HAT TIPS and OH HENRY are delightful. A hat tip to both of you for fitting those in with such minor prices to pay!

A lot of construction is iterating little sections over and over until the balance is right. This grid came out so smooth, while even incorporating some bonuses in ROAD CLOSED, IM NOT READY. Not a ton of extras, but with HAT TIPS and OH HENRY, it was enough to keep me happy.

So smooth and engaging a solve. If all the themers had been as spot-on and funny as WHARTON, it would have been the POW! for me.

(*Think about Puget Sound. As in, the place I live. D'oh!)

Fri 11/17/2017

ERASERMATE gets the clue of the day award, the innocent [Pen name]. Literally, ERASERMATE is the (brand) name of a pen! Love it. AS IF I CARE, INNER EARS giving a nice piece of trivia relating to temporal bones, and the TOKYO DOME made for a couple of other snazzy entries.

Several mystified me though, starting off with … CITI BIKE? We have four different bike-share companies in Seattle, but CITI BIKE wasn't familiar. And DO NOT IRON? While that is a mantra for my life, it's not something I've seen. It didn't help that for some idiotic reason, I thought the Yank was TITO Martinez, so DOTOTIRON felt like it had to be some cleverly parsed phrase.

Is there such a thing as a dot to dot ironing pattern?

I know, it's hard to believe that I'm an adult.

GOOGLE PLAY also didn't resonate with me. There is the fact that I finally gave up my Motorola Razr flip phone just a year ago ...

Now I sound like an old man. Huh.

It looks like GOOGLE PLAY is quite a popular destination for app downloaders, akin to the Apple store. I do wonder whether the name has staying power, given how often Google kills products or switches their names.

RSS FEED I had seen in one of C.C.'s puzzles before, so I was able to figure that one out. It does feel past its prime now though ... especially after Google killed my beloved Google Reader a few years ago. Boo!

With some SMEW, OGEE, LDS, APACE, ISAO (if only he had won a major to make him crossworthy!), the grid wasn't as smooth as I've come to expect out of themelesses. Given that TESLA CARS felt wonky — anyone say "Honda cars" or "BMW cars"? — I wonder if breaking that up at the L would have helped. (In order to keep the same number of long slots overall, the black square between F FLAT and SCAN could be removed without much added difficult.)

Wait, there was one more clue that I loved! EAST led me to looking up "Wrong Way Corrigan." I love the idea of this guy insisting that I MEANT TO FLY TO IRELAND NOT LONG BEACH SRSLY I DID!!!

Fri 10/13/2017

I often debate whether I should prioritize quality or quantity in my assessment of themelesses. I remember when I first broke into solving Fridays, I was delighted to uncover SAY THE MAGIC WORD — it was such an amazing entry, so snazzy, something a huge chunk of solvers would recognize. Didn't even matter to me what the rest of the puzzle was like. These days, I tend to do a straight-up count of how many above-average entries there are.

No entry of SAY THE MAGIC WORD's caliber today, but a couple of solid feature answers in WENT BERSERK, OPERA HOUSES. Those are ones I'd personally consider as seeds for a themeless.

I felt like there wasn't enough in the grid besides those. DIGITAL DATA is a thing, no doubt, but the difference between analog data and DIGITAL DATA isn't that interesting, even to this data junkie. I've seen a few episodes of AMERICAN DAD, but it didn't stick with me like "The Simpsons" or "King of the Hill" or "Family Guy." And I follow the stock market (although I'm 95% an asset allocation / passive index fund guy), but MARKETWATCH wasn't that interesting to me.

So many short answers, too. Some shorties are necessary to hold most grids together, but with only eight long answers (of 8+ letters) and six mid-lengthers (of 7 letters), there's little capacity to snazzify the grid. It's so difficult to make those shorter answers sing. BAR TAB is nice, SCARAB good, but so much of the short stuff tends to be of the LOWS, SWAB, OYL, NIGHT neutral quality. Overall, it's fine — especially considering there's virtually no crossword glue, except for RIS — but not much of it added to my solving experience.

Now, there were a few standout clues that helped make some of that short stuff sing — [Opposite of downs] was a great misdirect toward "nadirs," instead of "gulps, as a drink". AD HOC similarly, the clue [Not standing, in a way] befuddling, until I realized that an AD HOC committee is the opposite of a standing one. Great stuff.

But all in all, I would have liked either one or two sizzling standout entries to make the puzzle memorable, or a whole lot more long answers to give the puzzle more meat.

Tue 9/19/2017

There's a brilliant idea here, SILENT PARTNER referring to two-word phrases where both words contain the same silent letter. Neat finds — my favorite was GENGHIS KHAN, as my old Ultimate Frisbee team (who recently went to the city league summer league finals, woop woop!) is named Genghis Khan Wild (get it?).

There have been a lot of plays on silent letters, a SILENT NIGHT puzzle one of my favorites, but I can't remember this particular implementation. I wished I had thought of it, gosh darn it! ... once I understood it.

I so badly wished it had been SILENT PARTNERS, plural. The clue for SILENT PARTNER was so convoluted that I didn't get it, even after reading it a few times. It would have been so much better if it had read [… and what G, H, W are …] for SILENT PARTNERS. Seemingly small change, but it would have made all the difference in the world for me.

Some nice bonuses, not a surprise in a Gagliardo / Burnikel offering. DR LAURA, SO AND SO, TAKE TEN, PORSCHE, APACHES, IRON AGE — fantastic use of the mid-length slots.

DOG MEAT … I hitched on this one. My western bias is showing for sure, but I'm not sure I'd put this entry into one of my own puzzles. Should it pass the breakfast test? I'm not sure, but if it elicited an icky reaction from this dog-lover, I imagine it could do the same for many others.

A couple of blips in the fill, GORSE, EDS, HOS, ORO, SKEE, SNO. All in all, too much for my taste, but I can see how other constructors would find these as acceptable prices to pay for all the great bonus entries like IRON AGE plus the aforementioned. Given that IDENTIKIT and ON ONE KNEE didn't do that much for me, I would have preferred focusing on all those great seven-letter entries and getting a smoother grid.

Fantastic idea, wish I had thought of it. It would have been a theme of the year if it had used the plural SILENT PARTNERS.

Tue 8/15/2017

Plays on various "collectors," a PASSPORT collecting stamps, the GUINNESS BOOK collecting records, a CASH REGISTER collecting bills, and a PASTA BAR collecting shells. GUINNESS BOOK worked great for me, as it played upon two fairly different senses of the word "record." CASH REGISTER was also good since a cash bill and a "you owe me X" bill are different enough for my taste.

The others weren't as strong for me since some countries put actual stamps in your PASSPORT instead of just stamping it with ink. Yes, these aren't exactly the same, since you can't mail a letter with that type of stamp, but I like more wordplay rather than less. And the idea of a PASTA BAR "collecting" shells ... that was too tortured for my taste.

C.C.'s bonus fill shines, as usual — I give her a STANDING O in this regard. Along with MISS TEEN USA, MAD DASH, POINT GUARDS, BITTER END, there's so, so, so much goodness packed in. Note how C.C. so carefully spreads out her bonus fill across the puzzle's columns and alternates them up and down for good spacing — this is a great methodology for being able to incorporate a ton of snazzy fill.

With just four themers, all constructors should aim for this much great long fill. It's very doable any time you have four themers that aren't grid-spanning. Doable, meaning without a lot of crossword glue, that is. I did pick up a bit of ITAL, ISO, RTE, UNOS, but that was all so minor. Nice craftsmanship.

There was so much good stuff, I think it would have been passable if C.C. had put a black square at the E of PULSE, breaking up BITTER END, or a black square at the A of PISA, breaking up POINT GUARDS. I'm glad she didn't, since I so much appreciate all the great fill, but for more novice constructors studying C.C.'s execution today, both would be viable options that would make those tricky NW/SE sections easier to fill.

I would have liked the same level of a-ha moment I got from GUINNESS BOOK being a "record collector" from all four themers, but overall, C.C.'s strong execution kept me engaged throughout my solve.

Sat 7/22/2017

Great craftsmanship in this puzzle. A common critique I have for C.C.'s puzzles is that they contain a little too much crossword glue for my taste, but that didn't apply today. With just SHA, TAS, TMEN as minor blips, it's well under my threshold for crossword glue in a themeless. Okay, DEEPS is odd in the plural, but still, four dabs of mostly negligible glue makes for a smooth puzzle.

And C.C. manages to retain her trademark, a ton of fresh fill spread throughout her grid. Her themed puzzles are always chock full of great bonuses, and this themeless shines with snazzy material like EPIC WINS, LATTE ART (with a fun clue referring to the heart shapes many baristas form), TSA AGENT, TWITTER ALERTS, FRIEND REQUEST, etc.

I didn't know what BITMOJIS were, but it was a fun term to learn. One day I'll get on Snapchat … (That's the day that everyone else realizes it's not cool anymore.)

FOAM HATS! Oh, wait. FOAM … HAND? Right, the oversized novelty things you see at ballparks. It felt like there had to be a better, more catchy term for that, but alas, no. My gut originally said "foam fingers" was more in the language. But that doesn't make sense, given that it's not just a single foam finger.

Though the puzzle was expertly made, I didn't end up giving it the POW! because I felt far outside out of the target solving audience. I appreciate a FRIEND REQUEST. I don't totally know what TWITTER ALERTS are, but that entry makes sense. Throw in BITMOJIS though ... three feature entries focused on one area of life felt like too many to me.

I can certainly see how social media wonks would love this one, though.

Tue 7/11/2017

POWER COUPLE interpreted as "phrases with an AC and a DC in them." Too bad the puzzle doesn't have the awesome lightning bolt found in the AC/DC (rock band) logo! How cool would that have been?

I love the phrase POWER COUPLE, so snazzy. I wish it had related more strongly to the themers though — finding phrases with an ACDC string in them (no break) would have been perfect. As is, these feel like the POWER COUPLEs are far apart. Maybe that's how it is in real life, especially with movie stars spending so much time physically apart while filming movies?

There's the little matter of no phrase containing the *ACDC* (unbroken) string, too. Right. The crossword gods strike again.

I did like C.C.'s selection of phrases, each one so juicy. SACRED COW is great. ACTED COOL is fun, maybe because I used to go around saying "Aaaaaa!" like the Fonz. (Needless to say, I wasn't popular.) There are surprisingly few other phrases that contain an AC and a DC in that order — MAC AND CHEESE was the only other great one — which makes C.C.'s presentation even more impressive. It'd be too easy to give up and go with ACID CELL or something equally dull.

C.C. always does so well injecting color into her puzzles, both through theme choices and bonuses. Love OPULENCE, DNA LABS, PEAT BOG. EL CHAPO also made me pause, but he is no doubt newsworthy. So much packed in; such great use of those mid-length slots.

A couple of blips here in there on short fill, but nothing egregious. OPE, AGA, OPTO is all passable, well worth the price of all those great bonuses in the fill. This is especially appreciated given how tough it can be to get a grid to behave with five themers, the middle one such an awkward 11-letter length.

Overall, a strong construction, but I would have liked the themers better tied to the revealer. The separation of AC and DC makes me a little sad for these POWER COUPLES.

Fri 6/16/2017

Neat middle section, with four strong feature entries: GENDER FLUID, HEAT SENSORS (maybe a bit less exciting than the others, but this mechanical engineer likes it, anyway), SOCIAL MEDIA, SECRET SAUCE. A puzzle like this can live or die based on the strength of its long feature entries, so I thought C.C. did well here.

It's a shame that C.C. got scooped on GENDER FLUID, but kudos to Will and Joel for spacing this puzzle out so that there was enough time between these puzzles. It's not easy to keep track of things like this, but this solver much appreciates the effort.

(I have a themeless in the queue featuring one of C.C.'s four feature entries — I usually don't like having to wait months and months to see my puzzles in print, but in this case, I'd welcome it!)

Excellent work on the short fill today, everything doing its job by not being noticeable. SCI is easy to overlook, and the only one that I hitched on was OPI. Tough for me to judge what nail polish brands are popular, but considering my 2.5-year old is curious about mom's lip pencils, perhaps I ought to hold OPI in memory. (Sigh.)

Where I thought C.C. shined in this puzzle was in her mid-length fill. This particular grid layout, featuring big stairsteps of black squares, is heavy on those 6- and 7-letter entries and that often worries me, since these can be tough to convert to snazzy material. But stuff like TEA TAX, WARTHOG, ALL GONE, SO THERE, even BIG IF = excellent bonuses. And single-word answers can often be dull, but BAUHAUS and SASHIMI are good additions.

And some constructors lean all too heavily on "+ preposition" phrases to fill out those mid-length entries. SLIP IN and BOO AT aren't going to win any prizes, so it's great to see this type of entry limited to just these two.

Entertaining, smooth solve. If there had been a couple more feature entries of the caliber of SECRET SAUCE, this would have gotten the POW! The bar for themeless puzzles is so high these days.

Tue 5/23/2017

Neat idea, C.C. giving us intersecting items that usually come in PAIRS. I uncovered SOCK / SOCK first, and that gave me a smile — amused me to see those SOCKs (sort of) knotted together. (Although, my style is to cram SOCKs into a drawer. Who needs matched PAIRS?)

Some great themers, too. TONGUE LASH is a fantastic answer on its own, and it hides TONG well. Same goes for PANTOMIME and PANT, and SOCKET SETS and SOCK. Excellent finds.

I hesitated on HAS KITTENS. Google says that this is a real phrase, meaning to lose one's cool, but I'd never heard it before. Perhaps it's a generational thing?

I also found it odd that two of the PAIRS were normal terms — SOCK and SKI — while PANT and TONG are rarely used in the singular. For me, it would have been much better to make all four of the same type. I might lean toward the PANT and TONG direction, as a previous puzzle played on this concept very well.

I also would have liked the PAIRS of items to be parallel rather than intersecting. As neat as it was to have two SOCKs knotted together, it's odd to see SKIs like this, as well as PANTs. (TONGs could go either way.) But running parallel theme PAIRS atop each other is much, much harder to do than intersecting them.

Don't get me wrong, intersecting theme pairs does cause all sorts of problems around the intersection. The lower left is a perfect example — PANTOMIMES / PANTRY are hard enough to fill around, but when you add in some more long slots with IM IN AWE and IN RETURN, you're bound to have trade-offs. In this case, OTROS / EME / RWY (railway?) is a heavy price to pay.

What could C.C. have done to ease this? Tough call, but compare the white space in the lower left region to the upper left — much easier to fill that upper left. Perhaps putting a black square at the first E of EME, and removing the black square between EME and AIWA? Constructing is usually a delicate balance, trying to make sure not one of your regions suffers too greatly.

I enjoyed the concept — very creative — but felt like the overall execution could have been better, especially given my elevating expectations around C.C.'s work.

POW Mon 5/8/2017

★ LGBTQ getting its due today — that's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning — using homophones to disguise those five letters. How fortuitous that each letter has a real-word sound-alike! It's so common for a constructor to get a beautiful idea … but a single element ruins the idea. Thank goodness it's not LGBTR or LGBTM.

Excellent selection of themers, GEE, YA THINK? my favorite. Those colloquial ones pop for me. CUE THE MUSIC was fun too. Not familiar with BEE BALM — BEE STINGS or BEE POLLEN might be better — but it's much, much easier to work with a central 7-letter answer than a central 9-, 11-, 13-, or 15-letter one.

BEEHIVE might have been more known, but it is a single word, which would make the theme slightly inconsistent. Better to have each of the key homophones be single words.

Speaking of consistency, it would have been so perfect to have each homophone be exactly three letters — ELLE sticks out in this way. But sometimes you have to make do with what you have. I did like that C.C. made the effort to work in two themers with three words, rather than just a single one — something about a two/three split that's so much more pleasing than a one/four split.

I know, I'm so anal!

I normally like revealers to be placed in an elegant spot — the lower right corner, or dead center of the puzzle — but there's something nice about crossing LGBTQ through one of the themers.

I didn't remember MALIK right off the top, but he does seem to be crossworthy. So even for a Monday-puzzle, I think that's fine, considering how easy the crossing answers are.

The only real hitching point for me was in the north. Ian McEwan's "Atonement" was big enough to warrant crossworthiness, but OTERI, not so much. And GOL … oof.

But overall, a well-executed tribute to the LGBTQ community. Love it.

Mon 4/3/2017

Debut! Great to see C.C. work with so many new constructors.

Baseball theme, a BATTER, COACH, PITCHER, and a FAN making up BALLPARK FIGURES. I liked how they concealed those words by using different meanings, i.e. BATTER as a coating, not as a hitter. BEER BATTER was my favorite — a snazzy phrase, and one that threw me off the scent.

It would have been nice to get the revealer, BALLPARK FIGURES, at the very end, though. Right in the middle of the puzzle is a logical spot to place that entry, but that did give away the game halfway through my solve.

I usually prize consistency, and one form of consistency is having all plural or all singular themers. In this case, though, it felt odd with just a lone FAN. Perhaps this represents a Dodgers game. Hey-o! (Lifelong Giants fan here.)

Getting multiple FANS in could have been done with WINDOW FANS, but that phrase doesn't resonate as well for me. (Perhaps it's because my two-year-old has a strange fascination with CEILING FANs. Don't ask.)

Tough to build around five long themers. Looking at the layout of black squares before starting, I guessed that two of the roughest spots would be in the north and the south — those are areas where there's a lot of overlap between themers.

In the north, PATEK is tough, and I don't think Cheri OTERI has made a crossworthy mark yet. In the south … as much as I love Superman, I'm not sure it's fair to expect most novices to get the KALEL / LEA / TOILE crossings.

I did appreciate the effort to incorporate some long fill — RACHAEL RAY and ILL BE THERE are both nice additions. They make for some difficult filling challenges, since they both intersect two theme answers apiece, but the results are pretty good, especially in the lower left. Very smooth there.

I'm not sure the prices of INE / NATL / RHEAS / SCRAG (those last two are tough vocab for a Monday) are worth RACHAEL RAY, but I'm sure her fans will disagree.

Well-disguised theme plus a spot-on revealer makes for a nice Monday puzzle.

Mon 2/27/2017

I've seen a lot of homophone themes, and I've seen a lot of word swap themes, but I can't remember quite this combination. Neat finds in STARES DOWN and DOWN STAIRS, PEACE TIME and TIME PIECE — I like that those create very different meanings.

PLAIN PAPER and PAPER PLANE wasn't as compelling for me, since you can make one out of the other; just not as interestingly transformational. Plus, PLAIN PAPER seems like an awfully plane answer. Er, plain.

Nice job of executing on six themers. C.C. wisely intersects two sets, i.e. runs PAPER PLANE through PEACE TIME, which helps maximize spacing throughout the grid. This arrangement — if interlocking is possible — is much easier to fill around, compared to running six themers all in the horizontal direction. That latter arrangement means you have to cram all the themers together with bad spacing.

It is missing some of the trademark C.C. long fill, though. It's to be expected given how much real estate the themers take up, but I always enjoy seeing what new phrase C.C. will introduce, like VIP ENTRANCE from her last one.

Ah, the spelling of Georgia O'KEEFFEE. Er, O'KEEFFE. Dang it. Up until a few years ago, I was sure it was O'KEEFE … sure enough to use it as fill in an easy crossword. Whoops. Glad for editors who catch that sort of idiocy!

Pretty darn smooth for a six-themer puzzle. INSP(ector) isn't great, but there's otherwise only minor bits such as EINE Kleine Nachtmusik (I suppose it's not so minor if you're an early-week solver who doesn't listen to classical music) and RTE. And it's neat to get MOANA, the Disney flick featuring some brown faces. Can't wait to see that.

It would have been incredibly awesome if C.C. could have found pairs where BOTH of the words changed to their homophone, with every theme answer being real phrases. (Matt Ginsberg did a variation on that a while back.) As it was, it was still entertaining.

ADDED NOTE: Sam Ezersky noted that there are actually two more themers — RED SEA and SEE RED. Drat, can't believe I missed those. Thanks, Sam!

Mon 1/30/2017

Neat hidden theme, MALE LEADS interpreted as "entries starting with male animals." Not too-obvious-that-it-isn't-fun, and clear enough to give a nice a-ha moment. A great balance for a Monday puzzle.

(I highlighted the hidden terms below. Elegant touch that they're all four letters!)

Interesting themer layout. Direct overlapping (STAGNATED sitting right atop COCKTAIL HOUR) can often help out greatly when a puzzle has high theme density. As long as you don't have any weird letter pairings, overlapping can often be easier than spacing themers out, surprisingly enough. It becomes like working with three very long themers, instead of five longish ones.

C.C. did a great job of themer placement. I bet anything she originally tried MALE LEADS in the bottom right corner — the typical place for a revealer — but the letter pairs in the overlapping sections weren't friendly. I spend a huge percentage of my gridwork time in testing themer placements and black square layouts to make sure the entire grid will work. I imagine C.C. did a lot of that before landing on this arrangement.

Good choice of themers, COCKTAIL HOUR, BULLETPROOF VEST, BUCKEYE STATE all great. STAGNATED stagnated for me though, feeling more like a neutral filler entry. A shame, considering it kicked off the puzzle. Not sure if there is a better alternative with STAG — STAGNANT WATER isn't a very pretty image.

I usually am a big fan of C.C.'s bonus fill, and VIP ENTRANCE was another example of that. OLD VIC worked well for me, too. EPIC FAILURE though ... I've seen mostly the EPIC FAIL meme. Given that there are only two long bonus entries, it's so important to make those shine. To my ear, EPIC FAILURE didn't work very well; a bit out of tune.

Pretty good short fill given all these constraints, although there were gluey bits like ETE, APAL, ANAT, MST, TRE. Thankfully, all minor, but as a whole, it was on the verge of being too much for me.

I really liked the theme concept. Would have been a POW! contender if STAGNATED had been replaced with a more interesting themer, and EPIC FAILURE had sung more.

Sat 12/17/2016

And C.C. hits for the cycle! I admire people who can do it all, and C.C. is developing into one of those folks.

I liked entries like TWITTERBOT, DOUBLE TALK, ALL THE RAGE, and GLASSY-EYED — C.C. is so good with her bonus fill on themed puzzles, that it's no surprise she can feature some real winners in a themeless. ORDER NOW and ANY IDEAS helped flesh out the puzzle, as did ECOFREAK.

I did pause at ECOFREAK, especially without a "disparaging" qualifier. While it is a colorful word, it does seem a little offensive. Perhaps it's my Seattle environs, filled with dirty hippie ecofreaks.

I mean, super-passionate people trying to save the environment! Ahem. Please don't blow pot smoke in my face.

Usually, the most wide-open space in a themeless will be the trickiest to fill. Here, my eye was drawn immediately to the LENDS / SELL section (and the symmetrical SAMP / PLEAT). They might seem innocuous, but those two triangles of space have to work in concert with their adjoining triple-stacks — not easy. At the top, I thought it was a little inelegant to get Brett RATNER and Ben BRADLEE next to each other. I do think both are crossworthy, but they make for an ungainly pair for solvers who don't know the hard-to-spell names.

But that was the only spot I thought was a bit inelegant. Yes, SAMP is a toughie, as is RSS FEED (Rich Site Summary), but all the crossings are fair (although reader Gerry Wildenberg points out that JSS and JAM IN work equally well — I hadn't thought of that!). I do wonder if RSS FEED is an asset to the puzzle — not only is RSS a seemingly Random Set of Stuff, but I stopped using RSS FEEDs a few years ago when Google Reader shut down. Hmm.

There weren't as many great feature entries as I usually want in a themeless, especially one using a fairly standard pattern of black squares — HEALTH PLAN, SO FAR AS, MEDICATE, PROMISED, and TEANECK were more neutral than assets for me — but C.C. sure did a nice job of filling smoothly around the ones she did have.

Mon 11/14/2016

Nice and consistent "animal + ING + preposition" pattern today. MONKEYING AROUND and SQUIRRELING AWAY are particularly fun.

C.C. (Zhouqin) is one of the best constructors around in terms of delivering fresh, long fill. This comics fan struggled a bit with DC UNIVERSE, thinking that it had to be METROPOLIS or GOTHAM CITY, but I love the notion of a full, detailed universe DC created for its enormous cast of characters to live in. PEARL S BUCK gets her full due too; neat to see.

Not a ton else in bonus fill, but I enjoyed the mid-length stuff in NO PROB, KENNY G, SHAMAN, NUTMEG (a slang term for passing a soccer ball or basketball through a defending player's legs, BTW). Great use of these mid-length slots.

It's so tough to deliver a super-smooth Monday grid, but C.C. does well today. She's done a great job sharpening her skills over the past years. There are a couple of minor offenders in AVEO (tough to get if you don't know it, and it's an out-of-production car make at this point), NES (although I love me some Super Mario!), and IWO (basically a partial). But keeping a Monday grid to just that is great work — no major globs of crossword glue makes Jeff happy.

I wish something had tied the four themers together more strongly — although they are all mammals, it would have been nice to have all rodents, all animals starting with the same letter, all fish, whatever — but a solid start to the week. MWAH! (that's the sound of an air kiss)

Thu 10/13/2016

Some fun finds, phrases where one word is contained in the other. I'd seen ALE in PALE ALE and AVERAGE AGE used in a similar way before, but GARBAGE BAG and especially WHOOPIE PIE gave me a smile. I've never had a WHOOPIE PIE before, and I don't even know what it is, but hoo boy do I want one. What a great name.

I liked that Don and C.C. found so many themers, packing the grid with interesting wordplay. I didn't care for some as much as others, though. INSTANT TAN feels a little off to my ear — SPRAY TAN or FAKE TAN sounds better — and MADE MAD doesn't seem quite like a crossworthy entry.

Then there was EARTH ART. The Wikipedia article is titled as "Land art" (not that Wikipedia is a definitive source), and all the pictures of show a type of art I've never seen before. It was fascinating though, to get exposed to something I'd never experienced. Some of the art is amazing!

Pretty darn smooth grid, considering how many long entries Don and C.C. had to use in their fill. Since so many of their themers appear short in the grid (PALE ALE only takes up four spaces, for example), they had to rely on much more long fill than usual to stay under the 78-word maximum.

So many 7-letter entries, all around the corners — and pretty much all of them are solid to excellent! RAW BARS / ORIGAMI / STAN LEE / DNA TEST are all lively. They do rely on a tiny amount of crossword glue — OCS = officer candidate school, TNN = channel of the past, OEO = Office of Economic Opportunity — but it's all pretty minor and inconsequential. Well done.

Neat idea and solid execution. If all the themers had been as strong as WHOOPIE PIE, this would have been the POW! As it was, having so many themers, some which were a bit blah, sort of watered down the impact for me.

Sun 10/2/2016PAPER JAM

Common names of newspapers, smashed into single squares to make literal PAPER JAMs. I had to double-check my interpretation, as the first one — PRESS — didn't quite resonate. But quick searching revealed that yes, there's the Detroit Free PRESS, the Daily PRESS, etc.

As always, C.C. incorporated a ton of lively fill into her grid. I particularly liked PASTICHE, SALSA BAR, ICED LATTE, SANTA HAT (crossing SAINT NICK!), all long, vivid entries. Hugely elevated my solving experience. (I wasn't sure what ICLOUD, DETECTO, or HD RADIO were, but sure enough, they are real things.)

She also did a nice job with her theme entry choices, THE CHECK IS IN THE MAIL and WHAT IN THE WORLD particularly strong. The only one I wasn't sure of was FIRST PAST THE POST. Apparently it's so common it even goes by FPTP.

I would have liked the grid to flow a little better, the NW and SE corners only connected to the middle by a pair of answers apiece. This sort of segmentation does make grid filling much easier — much easier to tackle a Sunday-sized grid section by section. The flow would have been much better if a couple of black squares had been shifted or eliminated to open up one of the long diagonal lines of black squares, but that would have made it much harder to just work on those corners in isolation.

It's a common trade-off. Given how juicy C.C. made those big corners, chock-full of great material like PATOOTIE, SWAN SONG, BIOMASS, CANUCKS, NO PROB, I think it's a reasonable choice.

And SHONDA Rhimes! I just finished "Year of Yes," very interesting read. I do wish the crossings had been easier — if you don't know that unusual name already, you might end up with SPONDA / TOSP or SKONDA / TOSK. I'd much rather people get that square undoubtedly correct and then have the interest to look her up, rather than get an incorrect square and come away with a sour first impression.

Overall, I would have liked a stronger "hey, these are all newspaper names!" moment, but the great long entries made my solve fun.

Mon 9/19/2016

Such a fun idea, HOLLYWOOD SQUARES interpreted as films that have perfect squares in their titles. Neat that C.C. was able to uncover a set that worked perfectly with crossword symmetry.

I really liked that C.C. strove for a tight(-ish) set, using just the first four perfect squares. There probably are a bunch of movies with HUNDRED in their title, and maybe some with MILLION or 49 or even a GROSS (=144, which just happens to be a perfect square!). So sticking to the first four is pretty nice.

I would have loved for them to be presented in numerical order, though. I know, it's a lot to ask for, and likely impossible given the constraints of crossword symmetry. But it would have been so elegant to get the ONE, FOUR, NINE, SIXTEEN progression. It would also have been great for all these movies to be more … well-received? To have made more at the box office? How impressive would it have been if all four movies were Titanic-esque blockbusters?

A tough set of lengths to work with. If C.C. had kicked off the puzzle with THE FOUR SEASONS, it would have had to be in row four instead of row three (in order to prevent a ton of black squares in the NW and SE corners). That would have squished all the themers together, and good spacing is key to most puzzles. As it is, this placement of themers is just about as good as you can do, but it forces a ton of vertical entries that need to interact with two long themers.

Check out how much overlap is there is between THE FOUR SEASONS and HOLLYWOOD SQUARES, for example. C.C. uses her black squares to separate the two as best as possible, but there's still a OENO in the middle. Fine by itself, but when she squeezes in DONUT HOLE (mmm!) in the NW corner, all the constraints force her into an AMOI and an unfortunate AKELA / BAHA crossing, perhaps a killer for novice solvers.

A smile-inducing idea, but with a couple of inelegancies forced by the lack of flexibility in themer choices.

Mon 8/8/2016

C.C. and Don try to see the BIG PICTURE today, interpreting the phrase literally to hint at "movies with a synonym for BIG in their title." SUPER-SIZE ME is perfect (and a great movie!), and although I wasn't familiar with the 1932 GRAND HOTEL, it sure fits. TITANIC and GIANT are two bonuses right in the middle of the grid, neatly crossing each other.

The GREAT ESCAPE is one of my favorite movies — just one of 25 or so on my Top Tier list — but it did give me slight pause as I solved. My first thought was that the word GREAT here means more "excellent" or "skillful" than "immense," whereas the other movie titles meant the latter.

But thankfully I'm a GREAT ESCAPE aficionado and remembered that GREAT does actually refer to the fact that our band of heroes plans an "immense" escape, trying to break out not just a few people from the prison camp ... but every single one of them! So I think the theme is consistent.

C.C. and Don are known for their ability to work in fresh-feeling bonus entries, and ET VOILA! fits. CALL A CAB has a less contemporary feel to it, since Uber seems to be taking over these days. But I did like how the clue, [Eschew Uber, say], recognizes that. Along with some interesting words in MANDATE, LASAGNA, IGNOBLE — with just a few dabs of IRR (is this abbr actually used?), STET (editorial jargon), ATRA (one of dozens of razor names), the fill is pretty good.

I'm not sure it was worth putting GIANT in the grid, as it's not nearly as a box-office success as TITANIC, and it felt sort of strange to have such a short themer. But it was kind of neat that it intersected TITANIC.

Fri 6/17/2016

C.C.'s themeless debut! She's always impressed me with her ability to introduce new entries in her puzzles (as long fill), so it's a natural progression to themelesses. She's now just a Saturday puzzle away from hitting for the cycle.

Any bets on when this will go the way of the Zune?

I remember C.C. using ANDROID ONE a while back — curious if tech is her thing? I was surprised to see WINDOWS PHONE, since that's a distant third platform to the iPhone and Android. Still, I was amused by the WINDOWS PHONE and VOICE COMMAND symmetrical pairing. Fun to get the quasi-mini-theme.

With a fairly standard themeless pattern, the triple-stacks in the four corners have to shine. I really enjoyed the leadoff corner, with ESPN RADIO the source of much personal entertainment, and STONE COLD / TAKES HOLD reading like a poetic STONE COLD Steve Austin headline. There's something so cool about two stacked answers rhyming like that.

I also enjoyed BOOK SCAN, as digitizing the world's books is a fascinating Google project. The rest of that corner didn't do as much for me though, as OTTOWANS and WEST END aren't quite as snazzy.

There were a ton of clever clues today. My favorite was [One multiplying by division] for AMOEBA, combining math and science in a witty way. [Not act conservatively] seemed to imply "take a risk," but it referred to ham actors and their tendency to EMOTE. And I thought the [One with eye patches] had to be pirate-related. So fun to realize that PANDAs also have eye patches, of a sort. This is the type of great cluing that really adds to a solve.

Overall, there's too much crossword glue holding this 70-word themeless together for my taste — nothing major, but a lot of minor NNE, A CAN, TERIS, SWE, ADD IT. Still, there was enough colorful BEET SALAD type of material that I enjoyed the puzzle.

I'm always impressed at how hard C.C. works to continually improve her already strong construction skills, so I'm looking forward to more themelesses from her.

POW Wed 5/18/2016

★ This one triggered a smile in my heart, as one of my very first puzzles used a similar pronunciation twist. I liked C.C.'s interpretation, FORESEES describing the four letter Cs in ANTARCTIC CIRCLE, FORTIES = four Ts in THAT'S A MOOT POINT, and FORAYS = four As in FANTASY BASEBALL. Nice touch to have each "descriptor" cross its theme answer.

The OORT cloud

C.C. does a very nice job today with her grid. Not easy to work with crossing theme pairs, and to use three sets is tricky. FORESEES is particularly challenging, since it's so long. Good work in incorporating FORESEES, so it crosses both ANTARCTIC CIRCLE and THAT'S A MOOT POINT.

Even with those constraints, C.C. still worked in some bonuses. STRIKE TWO and STREET ROD were much appreciated bonuses during my solve.

I've noticed that C.C. has really been cleaning up her grids. It used to be that I'd notice a good handful of gluey bits here and there, but today's grid is very nice. Not even much minor SRS or TOR kind of stuff — well done. Some might balk at the OORT cloud, but it's a huge "object" in astronomy, and the crossings are fair.

Well, KESHA / VEDA and AVA / VONAGE might be tough for some. Even I've heard of KESHA (not that I could tell you if she's an actress, singer, or dancer), but I paused for a long moment before typing in that V of AVA / VONAGE. I wonder if VONAGE is more ubiquitous in other regions of the country.

And I did wonder why these particular theme phrases. There are a ton of phrases containing exactly four Cs in no particular order, same with T and A. It would have been nice to get more tightness, like if there were two words with pairs of Cs, or phrases with four Cs spaced every other letter apart, or something.

But it was really fun to see how a different constructor started with the same seed idea, and took it in such a different and interesting direction. This puzzle is my favorite of the week, so congrats to C.C. for her fifth POW!

Mon 4/11/2016

Congrats to Ron on his NYT debut! I used to play trombone in various jazz bands, so it was fun to chat.

Those are some POCKETS, all right

Neat to see C.C. work with so many folks — and she was recently honored by being chosen to write a puzzle for the ACPT! Quite an honor. Today, she and Ron give us "things with POCKETS," from CARGO / PANTS to a POOL TABLE to PITA BREAD and … a BOWLING LANE? I like to bowl every once in a while (I purposefully aim for the gutters, and I'm sticking to that story), but I had to look up what a bowling pocket was. It's that gap between adjacent pins, most notably between the one pin and the three pin, where many bowlers aim in order to increase their chances of a strike. Interesting!

I like the aesthetic of mirror layouts, and it's been neat to see C.C. use it quite often. It's a puzzle-saver in this case, because the themers don't fit within a usual pattern of symmetry: lengths of 10 / 10 / 10 and … 11 = constructor screech. It's great that CARGO PANTS splits into CARGO / PANTS 5/5, which makes mirror symmetry a real solution.

I also like how they put CARGO / PANTS in a prime location, helping it to stand out — I think it's so elegant if theme answers stand out on their own, rather than needing to be starred. In today's grid, ENCHILADAS and SOUR GRAPES are beautiful pieces of long fill, but they sure make the starring of the clues necessary. As much as I like those two entries, it might have been better to jigger the grid to shorten them, so the themers pop more.

I especially wanted that since C.C. tends to be so good with her mid-length fill. GO POOF, REAL ALE, SKI BAGS — that's really nice.

It would have been to get more diversity of "things with pockets," but all I could think of was my poor periodontal health, and gum pockets are kind of gross. So, given all the nice bonus fill along with STOA the only really fusty entry, a fun solve.

Tue 3/22/2016

I highlighted the appropriate letters below, to make this puzzle's theme stand out — the consonants in rows three, six, and nine appear in alphabetical order, reading from left to right and top to bottom. Like Don mentioned, I had an inkling something was up when I saw HOJO, and then again when running into the awkward abbreviation ELIZ. Given the very tough theme constraints, having just those two rough spots is pretty darn good.

PELLA? Sure, why not.

I got stuck in the bottom, having plunked in ALPHABETIC ORDER. That seemed not as perfect as ALPHABETICAL ORDER, but the former is too long for a 15x15 grid. When I finally ripped out ALPHABETIC ORDER, I sorely wanted ALPHABETIZED. ALPHABETIZATION is a word, to be sure, but it felt awkward as a revealer.

I went back and stared at the 21 critical letters after I finished. There is something interesting about the concept, although it feels somewhat inelegant, given the random vowels strewn about to make it work.

Perhaps it would have seemed nicer if all those consonants were spaced in exactly every other column? As it was, it felt like those consonants were placed wherever they needed to be to make it work. Granted, it's a tough constraint to get those consonants in ALPHABETIZATION order, but I would have liked some extra layer of elegance.

Still, I enjoy seeing concepts I haven't seen before, and I definitely had not seen something quite like this.

Some notable clues:

  • PELLA appears to be a big name in windows. Perhaps it'll be a gimme to homeowners who have redone their windows?
  • Loved the clue for COOK, [Pan handler] repurposing "panhandler" so innocently.
Thu 2/11/2016

What cool finds, single words parsed as "person's initials + gender-specific identification"! I had completely filled in MARIE ANTOINETTE but had no clue why she was a [Malady?]. Parse that word as M. A. LADY = "lady with the initials M. A." — that's so much fun! Great that C. C. (Zhouqin) was able to find four strong examples, "tamale" = T. A. MALE, "Roman" = R. O. MAN, and "legal" = L. E. GAL.

That's one hot T. A. MALE!

I imagine it was difficult to find four perfect themers, and a lesser constructor would have given up after concluding that there was no way to attain crossword symmetry with themers of length 15, 10, 10, 9. Enter mirror symmetry! I find this style aesthetically pleasing, and it sure saves a puzzle now and again.

C. C. runs the matching lengths of ROY ORBISON and LINDA EVANS in the down direction, taking advantage of some of the flexibility mirror symmetry allows. Works great, although it does muddy up what is theme and what is not a bit — ATM INSIDE and TIMESINKS are awfully nice as bonus fill, but since both are of equal length to TOM ARNOLD, the themers don't pop out as much as I would have liked. SPITTAKE and OKEY DOKE work much better for me, since they're shorter than all the themers.

LAYETTE is such an odd word. I ran across it one day as I was searching for what might complete the ???ETTE pattern. Apparently it's a common term for a set of baby's clothing, who knew? Making crosswords has helped me a ton as a solver — entries like this stick in my head.

Loved the clue for TABOO, as it gives the puzzle a C. C. flavor. Apparently "giving you a clock" sounds like "attending your funeral" in Mandarin? Neat trivia.

I've been really impressed with C. C.'s rapid rise as a crossword constructor. Even just a year or two ago, we would have seen more of the EEOC / TRAC kind of entry. But she's really cut the crossword glue down, while still maintaining colorful long fill. Most importantly though, she comes up with some really neat themes. In many other weeks, I would have picked this one as the POW.

POW Tue 1/12/2016

★ Very cool idea, names of fashion designers hidden within phrases (highlighted below), with INTERIOR DESIGNER as a perfect revealer. I'm a little tired of the "same word hidden in four different phrases" theme type, but it's a different story when four different (but related) words are hidden.


It's especially neat when the hidden words are pretty tough to hide, i.e. 4+ letters or ones that contain tricky letter sequences. Finding ARMANI within FARM ANIMALS is a great discovery, and the KL in KLEIN makes it tough to identify a phrase across which KLEIN can span. I thought ANKLE INJURY was the weakest of the themers since I hear "sprained ankle" or "twisted ankle" much more frequently, but it is something you see in the sports pages.

With wide 16x15 grids, it's important to keep the solver's attention. So I appreciate C.C.'s (Zhouqin's) efforts to work in BITTER END, STEADY JOB, OSCAR NOD, even things like BOCELLI, GOOGLED, DELAWARE, TOLD YA. All makes for a more interesting solving experience.

I wondered if the MUSCAT/BOCELLI crossing would trip people up, although I think it's perfectly fair. NYT solvers are expected to know, or at least recognize world capitals. And BOCELLI being one of the most famous opera tenors of all time means a NYT solver really ought to know him.

The ALOMAR / LEDA crossing was more questionable for me. On one hand, Roberto ALOMAR is in the Hall of Fame, one of the most storied second basemen in baseball history. On the other hand, I feel for people who grouse about crosswords having way too much baseball in them. And LEDA, the Queen of Sparta, is a toughie even for this Greek mythology lover.

There's also too much of the S STAR (feels like cheating what with the two starting Ss), ENL, ITI, OEDS (odd to pluralize it), AMT, SRA for my taste, but that's the price to pay of working in so much good long fill into a puzzle with five long themers. If I had my druthers, I'd like to see fewer gluey bits at the expense of not as much nice long fill, but I can appreciate the balance C.C. struck.

Very nice theme concept with a perfect revealer.

Mon 12/28/2015

S T S initialisms, the abbreviation for "streets" serving as the revealer. We don't see a ton of initialism themes these days — I think it has to do with a combination of factors: there have been a lot of them, it's usually a little too easy to find examples that fit, and after two or three themers, the idea tends to get repetitive.

Dang, that's a cool-looking patch!

I like what C.C. (Zhouqin) has done today, picking a set of three initials (it's usually two) that are a little tricky to find good examples for. I thought of SEE THE SIGHTS, SET THE SCENE, STEAL THE SHOW right off the bat, but if you don't want to repeat "the" within themers, it becomes more difficult. SEAL TEAM SIX is a colorful phrase, and there's something nice about the connection between SINBAD THE SAILOR and STEM TO STERN. (Given that SEAL TEAM SIX is within the US Navy, it would have been cool to have all the phrases relate to the sea!)

Interesting short fill in HOMS. I can't remember seeing that before, in any crossword (it was used in the pre-Shortz era a handful of times). Upon some research, it seems perfectly legit to me, and perhaps even desirable, given its place in current events. I'm very glad C.C. made each of the crossings crystal clear — it's a great way to introduce a "new" proper noun in a way that likely won't irritate solvers, and might even get them to go learn something new.

Nice execution. With five long themers, many constructors would be happy to just come up with a mostly smooth grid. I love C.C.'s efforts to include TELLS TALES and ANNABEL LEE. There's a slight price to be paid in the south — given that this region has to work around two themers and is wider (at six letters) than usual, it's not surprising to get some ELO / OLEOS / OCS. Nothing that objectionable in itself, just a little more concentration than I'd like to see.

Fun clue for ATOM. "Small matter" feels more fun and in the language to me than "little matter," but I really like the idea.

POW Sun 12/27/2015BINARY CODE

★ Loved this puzzle. C.C. (Zhouqin) and Don's wide range of plays on double-letters is really cool. I vaguely remembered NN as MINNESOTA TWINS from somewhere, but most of the others felt fresh. OO = the Os in ONION RINGS ("rings" within ONION) is such a clever find. PP = the central letters of SHOPPING CENTER. AA = NCAA FINALS, i.e. the final letters of NCAA. So many different discoveries, all using in-the-language phrases!

Boris and NATASHA

LEADOFF DOUBLE did throw me for a second — shouldn't "leadoff" mean that the double letters are at the front of the word? — but after thinking about it, it's just that the FF is a "double" within LEADOFF. It works, but the unintentional mislead made me feel like it was the weakest of the bunch.

But I'll pause here to repeat how much I loved the idea and the nine themers.

The execution was very nice, too. A 140-word puzzle is so tough to cleanly and snazzily fill, especially when you have nine themers. Not much long fill, but what great usage of their 7-letter slots. HALFCAF, AIR FARE, OH GREAT, LUDDITE, NATASHA (with a clue from "Rocky and Bullwinkle"!) = all wonderful entries. I wasn't sure what SANGRITA was (sangria, anyone?) but I don't drink much besides beer and scotch these days.

A great majority of the time, I see too much glue in NYT Sunday crosswords for my taste. It's understandable, as a 140-word puzzle is just really darn hard to put together without some glue. So to keep it to really minor ENS, EST, INTL, SPEE kind of stuff is excellent work. I really dislike DNAS, since it and RNA are rarely pluralized outside crosswords, but that's the only real standout.

Again, incredibly fun idea with a wide range of findings for those double letters. One of my favorite Sunday puzzles of the year.

Sun 11/1/2015FRAME JOB

Jobs "framing" themers, split so they appear at the beginning and end of the phrase. Nice finds with ACTUARY framing ANIMAL SANCTUARY and BARBER framing BARBARA BOXER. It's cool to see these longish professions at the ends of these in-the-language phrases.

BARBARA BOXER, the boxer from CA. Er, barber. Er, senator!

I always admire C.C.'s inclusion of colorful long fill, and I'm impressed at how many modern entries she chooses. I'm not sure that AMAZON ECHO will last — will it go the way of the AMAZON FIRE phone? — but in Seattle, we hear a lot about what Amazon (and Microsoft and Google) are up to.

WTA TOUR (Women's Tennis Association) isn't as modern, but what a great entry that highlights women's tennis. Serena is such an incredible athlete. SILLY GOOSE isn't modern at all, but it's a fun entry that added to my solve.

At first I thought the shorter professions like MAID and COOK weren't as interesting because the MA___ID or CO___OK patterns are easy to fill. To my surprise, I couldn't find that many on first glance. So kudos for these finds.

Some of the themers felt forced though — PLATE NUMBER and PRIOR ARREST in particular. I see that these are real terms, but they don't feel nearly as zippy as CLEAN AND JERK or MAIL FRAUD. People more write down a "license plate" and talk about "priors," right? I can see a case for PRIOR ARREST, but "he has one prior" seems much more colorful than "he has one prior arrest."

Would have been nice to get a few modern professions, too. Maybe a CODER? A QUANT?

Pretty clean puzzle, although I would like to see C.C. continue to reduce her number of gluey bits like BAR OF, I LET, AS I. REMS and GEDS are pretty awkward plurals too. It's so tough create a super-smooth Sunday 140-word puzzle.

POW Tue 10/6/2015

★ Today's puzzle gives us a SINKING / FEELING — four of them, actually. Fun to have four different feelings "sinking," i.e. positioned vertically. I really liked the themers, too, CARLOS SLIM my favorite. Pretty incredible that his net worth is estimated to be around 6% of Mexico's total GDP. And although he hasn't embraced philanthropic goals nearly as fully as Gates or Buffett, I do appreciate his efforts in that arena. Neat to see the wealthy giving back.

Hey, CARLOS SLIM is a fellow engineer!

As with most all of CC's puzzles, I really appreciate her long fill. Usually in puzzles with vertically oriented themers, you can't use much long across fill, for fear of confusing what's theme and what isn't. Today, the circles make it obvious what is theme, so CC takes full advantage, going hog wild with WENT TOO FAR, DANE COOK, STEAL A KISS, LET ME SEE = all very nice material. Even a little BUXOM and FEDEX add color.

For most constructors, this theme conceit would be good enough. But given how skilled CC is, I would have liked to see an extra element tying the four feelings together. How cool would it have been to have all of them from a famous quote? Or even if they were all synonyms of "sinking feeling," like LOSS, SORROW, etc. that would have been perfect. As it was, I found the inclusion of HOPE to be a bit strange. Shouldn't that one be rising?

I also would have liked SINKING FEELING to come toward the end of the puzzle. It was a bit disappointing to encounter it within the first minute of my solve, giving away the game. Perhaps a mirror symmetry arrangement would have been useful, allowing SINKING / FEELING to placed toward the bottom of the puzzle? Some themers would have had to intersect SINKING FEELING, but I bet that would have been possible.

Overall though, a nice early-week theme, and a very well-executed puzzle with added bonuses in sparkly and clean fill. I had to look up TSU — Texas Southern University — but that and RANI are awfully minor.

POW Mon 9/14/2015

★ It's always a pleasure when a puzzle surprises me, doubly so when it happens on a Monday. I couldn't even tell what was a themer and what wasn't until I hit CROWN at the very bottom, pulling it all together — the LOS ANGELES KINGS, BUDWEISER, ROLEX, and HALLMARK CARDS all having a CROWN in their logo. Really fun idea.

The "king" of beers (emphasis on the air quotes)

Neat layout, too. I like mirror symmetry, and CC's design reminds me of a Space Invader or the TiVo logo. Mirror symmetry can be really useful, like in this case where the themers don't pair up in lengths, but they all have an odd number of letters: 15, 9, 5, and 11. That's perfect for mirror symmetry.

One of CC's trademarks is to include some snazzy long fill, no matter how difficult the layout. I have a feeling CC keeps a running list of strong fill, incorporating it at every opportunity. US MARSHALS, an emphatic THAT IS A LIE, ANDROID ONE, and LEO TOLSTOY are all beautiful. And even with the difficult parallel down layout of those four answers, there's barely a gluey bit to be seen, just an ESE. It's such fine work.

Although it's minor, IDE up in the north section is easy to polish out. The bigger issue for me is the south, with REY, ERATO, and ADANO. They're all fair(ish), but that pile-up could be very frustrating for a novice solver. It's a tough section to fill — that M??C slot at 54-Down takes away a lot of flexibility.

One option that would have helped is to place CROWN one row higher, at 61-Across. M?C? gives much more flexibility with MICE, MACE, MICA, MACH, MUCH, etc. But having a revealer not at the very end is inelegant. The option I like better is to place CROWN vertically at 50-Down, intersecting HALLMARK CARDS. It would likely require another set of cheater squares (where the C and N of CROWN are now), but that doesn't bother me personally.

A neat Monday theme which kept me guessing until the end.

Sun 8/16/2015AS IT WERE

Nice concept; phrases whose second word can double for a past tense verb. I've seen similar sorts of themes before, but I can't remember MARK FELT as an example. As Don mentioned, there are a lot of examples of this type of word, but he and C.C. did a nice job of picking some strong theme phrases.

Mark Felt, a complicated fella

I found it confusing as to where the themers were, so I highlighted them below. I wish the themers had stood out by themselves rather than requiring asterisks, but that would have meant getting rid of the shorter ones like MARK FELT, which I quite liked. Always the trade-offs.

With nice pieces of long fill like HOME COURT and GAS GRILL, the themers didn't stand out very well for me, so I solved the puzzle as I would a themeless. That's not a terrible thing, as Don and C.C. put in a lot of good entries, but it further confused me when I went back to study the theme — I wondered if COURT and GRILL were somehow parts of the theme too.

What with the stairstep arrangements of black squares breaking up the middle of the puzzle, Don and C.C. were forced to leave big open corners in the upper left and lower left. This is a tough task, as 9x3 chunks are rarely easy. RAIN DANCE is a nice entry, as is BE A PAL, but I found AFFIANCED an oddball to kick off the puzzle. SERENADER could go either way for me — I struggle to figure out if it's truly legit or it sounds made-up.

Perhaps opening up a pair of those stairstep black squares in the middle of the puzzle would have allowed them to work with not as wide-open corners. I'd much prefer a 9x2 stack with one fantastic entry than a 9x3 stack with two neutral or not great ones.

Overall, I liked the idea, but it might have packed more punch as a weekday puzzle. I feel like the best Sunday puzzles are the ones that absolutely cannot be done in the smaller 15x15 format, and this one felt like it could have been a strong Tuesday or even Wednesday puzzle.

Mon 7/27/2015

Last name PALINDROMES today, with our old crossword friend YOKO ONO smack dab in the middle. I was fascinated by "Splash" as a kid, so I enjoyed seeing DARYL HANNAH. And MONICA SELES vaguely made me recall … she had a famous grunt? I don't follow tennis carefully, but a quick search turned up some funny plays on Seles.

You must destroy the ring, Harry Potter. Make it so!

GEORGE TENET is a good find — not someone who would have occurred to me without a lot of prodding. I hemmed and hawed over whether he was gridworthy, finally deciding I was fine with it. Second-longest serving director of the CIA = a good piece of trivia.

The "windmill" arrangement of themers usually doesn't allow for many long pieces of fill, and today is no exception. The two 7-letter entries are forced to carry the burden of providing zing, and while ALIMONY and GRANOLA aren't bad, they're not super punchy in my eyes.

I did appreciate some of the 6-letter stuff, especially (clearly the best Enterprise captain of all time) Jean-Luc PICARD. And NIMROD is not only a fun word, but it always makes me laugh that one of Noah's great-grandsons was named Nimrod. Talk about playground taunting …

The overall cleanliness helped a little in making up for the lack of vivid fill. DARE ME feels a bit off-key — YOU DARE ME? might be better — otherwise, just a few really minor bits like INS and TOS. I do appreciate clean grids, but today, I'd happily take a few more gluey bits in exchange for some zestier fill.

Overall, I would have loved a fresher celeb thrown into the mix, perhaps GEORGE SOROS or JEREMY RENNER, who gave an astounding performance in "The Hurt Locker." (I'm still not convinced he's the right guy to play Hawkeye in "The Avengers" franchise, but what can you do.) And if only his name was of a more convenient length … splitting him up 6 / 6 is certainly possible, but it's sure nice to keep themers together.

Mon 7/13/2015

FACEBOOK BUTTONS hidden today, with LIKE, COMMENT, and SHARE in disguise. I particularly liked COMMENT CA VA? ("comment" is French for "how") although I can imagine people with no French background will be baffled.

Is that a newsboy smoking? Different times ...

LIKE WHITE ON RICE made me giggle. If you Google "is like white on rice racist" you get a wide range of opinions. Personally, I think there's no problem with it, but it amuses me to see people squirm. Reminds me of when I pull the ol' ALL US ASIANS LOOK ALIKE, DO WE? bit when people tell me that my brother and I look alike (we're identical twins).

C.C. has developed into a very good constructor, usually integrating at least four pieces of interesting long fill in her puzzles. I usually admire the new entries she adds to the lexicon. Today, I enjoyed LAKE GENEVA and ALMOND ROCA, but I would have liked another set of long downs, perhaps in the upper right and lower left. NEWSBOY and SUNSETS are pretty good — especially when you evoke imagery of an old timey "Extra! Extra!" crier — but you can usually do so much more with an 8+ letter slot than with a 7-letter one.

I liked how well CC chose her mid-length fill, sticking it to Facebook with some TWEETS. And I love how PEORIA has been immortalized, stemming all the way back to Horatio Alger, Jr.'s "Five Hundred Dollars" ... first published in 1890. How cool would it be to have one of your lines repeated for all time?

Generally a clean grid; what I'd expect out of a 78-word puzzle — really not much standing out as gluey fill besides the minor SST and STD. I do wish Cheri OTERI would get a starring role already so I'd feel perfectly fine using her in grids.

Fun idea to camouflage these Facebook terms.

Mon 5/4/2015

Four STEPMOMs today, interpreted as M-A-M-A in a stair-step pattern.

C.C.'s execution gives me all sorts of good things to discuss. She starts by choosing some nice themers. I wasn't familiar with the DREAM ACT, but what a great way to give important legislation some front and center attention. And HAM AND EGGS plus a SAM ADAMS is a great anytime meal!

She continues by adding in a ton of great fill, utilizing those long downs to their full potential. Often times when a constructor tries to put to long downs right next to each other, one or the other ends up being a bit dull. But LION TAMER / AS IF I CARE and RADAR BLIP / AHA MOMENT are beautiful pairs. The MAMA stairsteps don't constrain the grid that much, and C.C. takes full advantage of the flexibility.

As if that weren't enough, the mid-length fill stands out. MARCIA from the Brady Bunch, PORTIA sounding like Porsche, ARAMAIC and GOES MAD. So much texture added to my solving experience.

I would have liked the theme to be a little less apparent — perhaps spreading it out to STEPPARENTS with MAMAs and PAPAS? — since once I hit STEPMOM I could fill in each set of circles. And I AM A CAMERA … it is gridworthy, in that it won Tonys and led to "Cabaret." Its crossword-friendly alternation of vowel/consonant also makes it easy to build around, so constructors have leaned on it in the past. I wonder if it will stand the test of time.

Then again, it did earn the famous review by Walter Kerr: "Me no Leica." So I got a chuckle out of that.

I used to steer well clear of ENERO and ILO, but after researching the International Labour Organization, I think it's an org people ought to know more about. Won a Nobel Peace Prize, after all. And overall, the price of an ENERO, ILO, ILE is so worth all the great entries in C.C.'s grid. Been a pleasure watching her grid skills evolve.

Sun 4/19/2015DOUBLE DOWN

C.C. and Don's Sunday debut! And what a devious idea, a rebus variant that I haven't quite seen before. There have been ones which require you to read the rebus answers twice (in different ways), some where the double letter rebuses were used to double both across and down answers, and many that require reading rebus squares differently across vs. down, but I can't remember anything quite like this.


How to even describe it? Six-letter answers where letters #1 and #2 are identical to letters #4 and #5, i.e. PAYPAL, shown in the grid as PAYL. Perfect title, DOUBLE DOWN, describing the method in which those theme answers must be interpreted. It's tough enough to find a symmetrical set of themers answers that work, so it's impressive that Don and C.C. found such colorful ones as LAUNCH PARTY and PAPER TRAIL and EVENING STAR. HEART WARMING indeed.

As I've mentioned many times, puzzles using crossing themers are tough to fill. This one is even more difficult, because there's very little flexibility in choosing the three-letter answers. With less ambitious ideas, the constructor can often change what the crossing answer is, thus easing the way for smoother fill when necessary. Not so much here, as the entire grid is built around specific placements, i.e. the pair of DIRTY LINEN and PA(YL) are fixed into place like concrete. Alternates for DIRTY LINEN do exist (isn't DIRTY LAUNDRY much more common?), but there aren't many.

So, not a surprise to see that the gluiest bits came around those intersections. Wasn't sure what an AGON was for example, but I as I was solving, I was prepared to encounter that sort of oddball thing around the thematic crossings. ARB will get similar grumbling from some, but I actually love this particular answer. It makes me think about big-headed finance guys brag about driving their ARBs and QUANTs in order to pull off some crazy LBO. (And I smile when the deal fails miserably.)

I would have liked TACO SALAD and FREE RANGE to not be as long as DIRT(YL)INEN and PAPE(RT)RAIL, especially given the difficulty of sussing out the theme. Took me well over twice as long as usual to solve.

Very neat idea, excellent a-ha moment when I (finally) caught on. Definitely some compromises in filling, but some of it's to be expected given the construction's difficulty level.

Wed 4/8/2015

It's a trap, indeed! TRAP gets appropriately hidden in four theme answers. As a bonus, three answers are starred as types of TRAPs: BEAR trap, TOURIST trap, and RAT trap. Sometimes "a single word hidden inside theme answers" gets a bit old, so I appreciated C.C.'s effort to go one step further.

It confused me a bit to run randomly into those BEAR, TOURIST, and RAT traps, so I highlighted them below. Hey! It just dawned on me that I missed an important element: each one of the three types of trap actually intersects a hidden TRAP! It's like the TOURIST actually gets trapped in the TOURIST / TRAP. Very cool.

I feel like "The Icarus Trap" really ought to be a thing

Honestly, I thought at first that the BEAR, TOURIST, and RAT words were haphazardly placed, but now that I see this extra element, it makes me really appreciate C.C.'s extra effort. It might have been cool to get a fourth trap intersecting the revealer — maybe GREASE at 52-down? — but that might be too much to ask for.

Already, C.C.'s grid is very constrained given where the sets of themers had to go. Not a surprise to see some of the gluey bits right in those crossings — EIS right by the TOURIST / TRAP; ACS and TCI by the RAT / TRAP crossing. Before fully grokking the whole theme, I wasn't sure if those compromises were worth the price, but I have a better appreciation for the difficulties now.

Finally, I like C.C.'s use of cheater squares in the very NE and SW. Tough to cleanly fill triple-stacked 8s. Not a huge fan of OTT and ERG and EIN (especially when combined with EIS) but C.C. sure gives us a lot of good material in those corners. ABC NEWS next to RED STATE and ESCARGOT is a lively stack.

Mon 12/15/2014

Easy breezy start to the week, and we welcome another debut constructor to the mix! Some really nice "S to P" themers today, highlighted by STANLEY CUP and its brilliant clue. Way to repurpose the word "goal" in a way that's both accessible to early-week solvers and still amusing for more experienced solvers. SKINNY DIP, SKI TRIP, STEEL TRAP, SUMMER CAMP, they're all solid to great entries. Well chosen.

Themes built around a word parsed into pieces (ALADDIN goes to "AL add in," for example) have been done quite a bit, so I like to see either a clever parse or a tough constraint. S to P isn't bad on the former, a nice and unexpected separation that has the added benefit of not giving the idea away until the very end. Pretty tough to see what's in common between STANLEY CUP, SKINNY DIP, etc. without knowing what you're looking for. So a pretty good reveal.

Sure would have been nice to have a tighter set of themers, though. Not essential as the current themers work fine of course, but there are so many phrases starting with S and ending with P, it feels a bit too easy to me. What if the revealer had been STOOP, for example? A much harder constraint, perhaps resulting in more of a "hey, that's really cool!" moment. (If it's actually possible.)

Smart grid design, spreading out the five themers and revealer well. Adding that final revealer makes things challenging when you already have five themers, so kudos for adding in a set of nice long downs. ALFA ROMEO is a nice colorful one. RACE AHEAD is good, too, and even ties in with ALFA ROMEO for a little fill echo. I like the thoughtful touch.

I did notice an excess of esoteric(ish) proper names, though. I don't mind at all to get a bunch of BETTE, EURO, EROS, ATKINS, ELAINE, EMMA, as they're all well-known and beloved by many. It's the pile-up of ESAI, OAKIE, MEHTA, ERL, ARTIE that I feel hurts the puzzle. Any one of those by itself is perfectly fine, as they're all valid (albeit a bit esoteric) entries. Even two or three of them = no problem. But I'm much rather see a few of them changed into partials, abbrs., acronyms, etc. — having so much of one type of glue makes it more noticeable.

Congrats to C.C. on another one, and to Dennis for the debut. Hoping the two of you will SADDLE UP (or SET UP SHOP) to do more.

Wed 9/17/2014

Great concept today, a neat a-ha moment upon reaching POLLINATION. After seeing IRIS and ASTER, I had a ho-hum feeling, expecting some sort of "hidden flowers" revealer. But to go back and see BEEs atop the flowers was really cool. I love being surprised by a crossword, and that was a delightful discovery.

It's tricky to execute this type of "X atop Y" type of theme, as your difficulty factor goes up by a factor of maybe 1.5. Check out where EYEBALL is — see how constrained that entry is? Fixing two letters within one entry makes things tough, fixing three letters takes away a lot of flexibility. Luckily, E, B, and A are fairly common letters, and that ??EBA?? does allow some options like ICEBATH, IKEBANA, CUE BALL, etc. Nice way to work through a tough section chock full of constraints.

The constraints do cause some difficulty in the north and south regions, though. A 6x3 region is already difficult — there's a reason why most constructors stay away from wide north and south regions like this — and when you constrain things yet more, you end up with combinations like REDOSE and SSE. Either in isolation can be overlooked; crossing each other is not great. I can more easily overlook a lone SNEE in the south, for example.

Finally, I appreciate C.C. and Don's efforts in giving us good long fill. With a highly-constrained theme like this, I wouldn't expect more than two pieces of long fill. But check out the parallel long downs in the NE and SW. I love SWEET TALK as an entry, and getting TENNESSEE isn't too shabby. Usually these parallel long downs make the surrounding fill tough to get clean. But I like everything around that region. People might complain about ENTs, but when you help the Fellowship of the Ring conquer the very embodiment of evil, I think you're entitled to a little crossword love.

Wed 8/20/2014

I had no idea what the theme was until I hit FREE — very nice a-ha moment. Six theme entries, each starting with a FREE Wheel of Fortune letter, and they're listed in order. A nice touch.

Six themers are no joke; quite bit harder to work with than five. It's that much more impressive that C.C. was able to also incorporate the FREE revealer, and do it in an elegant location. It's not the last entry or in a bottom corner (my subjective preference), but that lowest middle slot is still pretty nice. Cool how she interlocked it with E STREET BAND, too.

That FREE position doesn't come free, though. The interlock creates an additional layer of constraint, and thus the south section becomes harder to fill cleanly (one of the two areas Will changed in her original grid). I wasn't sure what NOMEN were, but the term was interesting to look up. I bet C.C. was thinking more of NO MEN, as at a bachelorette party? I imagine it would have been clued as such if this had been pegged into a Monday or Tuesday slot.

I admired the idea behind this puzzle and its cool reveal. It would have been nice if all six entries were longer than the rest of the across answers so they didn't need asterisks — that would have been more elegant in my opinion. And how awesome if N DIMENSIONAL made its crossword debut! (Sorry, the math geek in me overfloweth.) But six long themers would have been much, much harder to execute on — imagine if S STAR became (WARNING: chemistry dorkout alert) S ORBITALS, how much interaction it would have had with R RATED MOVIE and T ROWE PRICE. A much more difficult task.

Tue 7/15/2014

A business-oriented puzzle, right up my alley. And specializing in entrepreneurs, even better! Back in 2002, I had the good fortune to help a friend start a company from ground zero, Acucela Inc.. The start-up experience was rough, costing me many 80+ hour weeks and taking several years off my life, but I wouldn't change it for the world. Who knows if emixustat will end up working for dry form age-related macular degeneration, but if nothing else, being able to create jobs for dozens of people was pretty cool.

I enjoy communicating with C.C. — it's always fun to hear about her process. She mentioned that she originally wanted to focus on high-tech entrepreneurs — I love that desire for a "tight" theme — but couldn't make the symmetry work out. So I like the fact that she retained crossword symmetry by choosing four titans on industry for the long theme spots (highlighted below). We both lamented the fact that she couldn't make my main man JERRY YANG and YAHOO work. (I didn't know him, but he graduated a few years after me.) What can you do.

Crossing themers will always up the difficulty of a puzzle. C.C. does well to choose the pinwheel layout, which helps a lot with spacing. I really like her use of cheater squares in the very SW and NE — any open 5x5 section gets hard to fill cleanly, and with the J of JEFF BEZOS in place, things are even harder (J in the middle of a word limits one's options). Generally I like to see those 5x5 sections broken up or sectioned off, i.e. with a black square at the intersection of A DARE / OVERFED. This would cause a big cascade of changes in the puzzle skeleton of course, but it sure would be nice to avoid the ODELL / ALTE crossing and the A DARE partial. The rest of the puzzle is pretty nice and clean, so the NE corner stuck out to me.

Business themes aren't going to be for everyone (this one was memorable to me but certainly didn't appeal to everyone), but today's was right in my wheelhouse. Although it would have been fantastic if C.C. could have achieved her goal of being more specific (focusing only on high-tech or dot com entrepreneurs), it still made me smile.

Tue 6/17/2014

Neat idea from C.C. today. We've seen many puzzles based around silent letters, but I really enjoyed how she added an extra layer on top of that by choosing SILENT movies, e.g. ones which start with a silent letter. Clever concept and really cool that she managed to find an iconic one, PSYCHO, which happened to match the revealer, SILENT, in length.

A six-letter revealer might seem trivial, but it's one of the harder things to integrate. Seems bizarre, doesn't it, that a teeny lil' ol' six-letter word would cause so much trouble? But typically, a revealer is most elegant at the very SW or SE of a puzzle. And when you stack another theme answer on top of it (KNIGHT AND DAY over SILENT in this case), look at that 6x3 chunk, constrained on both the bottom and the top. It can be quite a challenge, especially if the letters aren't friendly.

I like the NE quite a lot, a real feat of cleanliness given those constraints. The SW is surprisingly fun with AMBIEN and BOOTIE (BOL is sadly not clued to my favorite bball player of all time, the stick-thin Manute Bol, often seen heaving up three-point shots), but SPINET as a small piano is going to be a roughie toughie for many. Even as a former cellist and trombonist, I hadn't heard this term before. At least all the crossings are fair.

Speaking of fair crossings, that MEHTA / MEADE cross is going to be a hair-puller for some. I think both are more than fair game, especially for the NYT solving audience, but that's a challenging square right there. I love JOHN GOODMAN and "The Big Lebowski" reference. I abide, after all. But I wonder if a different choice of long down fill might have been better there. It is quite a pile-up of names, with GOODMAN, MEADE, MEHTA, and ALITO all in a small subregion.

And POWER PLANTS, that's a beautiful piece of fill. It does create some filling challenges in the NW though. I think I might prefer C.C.'s original fill up there, although both ATRI and AFORE are tough pills to swallow. Perhaps a cheater square at the A of SCHWA could have helped things? I tend to play fast and loose with cheater squares (extra black squares which don't affect the total word count).

Really nice to get a clue I haven't seen before for ALI. Nice piece of trivia. And SHARK clued as [Jet fighter?] was just brilliant. Good stuff, especially for an early-week puzzle.

Wed 4/30/2014

Neat idea for a puzzle from C.C., who's becoming quite the force in the crosswords. Hard to imagine doing a language-based art form in a non-native tongue — extremely impressive how prolific she's become.

Ah, MAC VS PC, the old debate. I really like the crazy MACVSPC string and the overall concept, and the intersecting PC / MAC pairs are an interesting way of doing expressing it. Whenever I think of MAC VS PC though, I hearken back to those funny "I'm a Mac" Apple ads with sort of a split-screen approach. So expecting the puzzle to half be filled with MACs and half with PCs (deciding which you'd put in the "right" half would be an interesting statement in itself), I scratched my head at the crossing MAC/PCs. There is more overlap these days what with operating system emulators, but to me there still seems to be much more a chasm than an intersection.

That being said, C.C. does well here in many aspects of grid execution. Look at how elegant the PC themers are: all four are two-worders, all of them snappy, and all of them split the P/C, rather than incorporate the PC within a single word (like HEPCAT JIVE or IPCRESS FILE). She then selects short MAC themers which hide the word well, as in SMACKS.

It's hard enough to fill a grid with four "pinwheel" themers plus a central entry, but it's that much harder when you have four additional crossing answers to deal with. True, she had some flexibility in using different *MAC* words, but still, all the overlap makes things rough. She does well to deploy some cheater squares through the grid to facilitate smoother fill. There are a few issues like AS RED, but note how SUMAC overlaps POP CULTURE. Not a whole lot you can do with the ?SR?? pattern. The only other area that made me pause was the ARILS section — ENAMEL and LIP BALM are both nice entries, but I'm not sure they made ARILS worth its while. Botanists may disagree, of course.

ADDED NOTE: I had forgotten about "pomegranate arils" until C.C. mentioned them in her notes. Although the wikipedia article doesn't mention the word ARIL, POM (a large manufacturer of pomegranates) features it on its packaging. Perhaps I've been too hard on the poor ARIL.

Finally, I liked seeing iTunes in the grid and was hoping to find more MAC and PC related entries. It felt a little weird to have just one thing by itself. Perhaps if you squint really hard, REPRO is a description of all the copycat products PC makers have put out?

Now to await all the angry emails from Microsoft people...

I jest, of course. Microsoft does an amazing 1-for-1 match on XWord Info's year-end donation to Treehouse for Kids, and their ability to double our donation is both much appreciated and to be applauded.

Finally, a really nice little pair of entries: BRUCE right next to BATMAN, great stuff. Never easy to put adjacent related entries into a grid. Well worth the cross-referencing!

Thu 2/20/2014

WOODROW parsed into WOOD ROW today, i.e. rows of short answers, each of which can follow the word WOOD. Who knew there were so many words that go with WOOD?

This may seem like an easy construction, given the short theme answers, but it is no mean feat. In some ways, it's actually harder to use short theme answers than long ones. Counterintuitive perhaps, but this sort of arrangement can be very difficult due to crossword norms, both related to integration of long fill.

First, the 78 word maximum. Today's grid would have been a piece of cake if C.C. and Don could have used 82 words. That would have let them break up entries like GOING OVER, PREDATORY, etc. But there's a reason for that 78 word maximum — those types of long entries are a big part of what makes a crossword spicy and interesting. Of all the entries today, my favorites were I DON'T BUY IT, POP DIVA, and RUBINSTEIN (I'm a fan too, Don!). Breaking up those entries would have been a real shame.

Then there's the presentation of said longest answers. Typically, solvers tend to think that the theme of a puzzle is contained within the longest across answers. And for good reason — that is the case 90% of the time! So when there's an anomalous grid like today's, the constructor(s) have to be careful not to mislead the solver. No doubt that the shaded (or circled) entries help distinguish the themers from the non-themers, but I couldn't help wondering what PREDATORY and ORIGINALS had to do with WOOD at first.

Finally, in this type of arrangement, the puzzle's zing is highly dependent on the long down fill, since the theme is basically a "words that can follow X" type of theme. In addition to I DON'T BUY IT and POP DIVA and RUBENSTEIN, CLAY COURT is particularly nice. But GOING OVER seems to me like a missed opportunity. Nine-letter spaces are meant for snazz. I realize that it might not have been possible due to the high constraints today, but that still doesn't keep me from wishing that entry had been something more splashy.

Tough construction challenge today with relatively smooth fill. Good workout.

Mon 1/6/2014

Really nice to have a Monday with an additional layer of complexity. During my solve I couldn't tell what was going on, and even after I filled in ROMAN, still wasn't sure. WARNING: SLEDGEHAMMER ALERT A pretty cool moment to realize MMXIV was a little shout-out to the new year, 2014. Nice concept!

As always, C.C. does a nice job of choosing her theme answers. They're all strong phrases, and I appreciated the nod to Sue Grafton and her very useful "_ IS FOR _" series, which has been either a godsend or a bane, depending on how you see the A IS, B IS partials. I personally consider them more evil than tofurky sausage (don't ask), but I can see how some solvers would appreciate having a gimme to start them off, especially with harder puzzles.

I like C.C.'s layout too. She allows for four long downs, all nice entries, although I could see how people might react negatively to KIRK GIBSON (if you aren't into baseball, or if you're a diehard A's fan STUPID KIRK GIBSON AND THE SLEDGEHAMMER WAYS YOU RUIN PEOPLE'S DREAMS). Ahem. YOGA MATS and THE ALAMO are very nice.

I considered this puzzle for the POW! because it's innovative and well-constructed, but my personal preference for ultra-smooth Mondays made me hesitate. ELOI is on my personal Do Not Call list (although it's gotten me out of jams in the past), and the smattering of ANIM (awkward abbr), our old xw friend ISAO Aoki, along with a SCH EER ONCLE felt like a touch too much. I love GOKART as an entry, but ONCLE and TNUT feel like a high price to pay on a Monday.

Starting the daily constructor comments has been an incredible privilege, and seeing the human side to puzzles has made me appreciate puzzles even more. Hearing about C.C.'s troubles with the SE made me want to investigate further. And sure enough, once you lock in the last theme answer and THE ALAMO and decide you're not going to use cheater squares, that little chunk becomes tough to fill cleanly.

I realize I'm extremely picky about smoothness on Mondays, and many constructors/solvers don't share my values, so I'll stop there. Overall, I really enjoyed today's offering EXCEPT CURSE YOU KIRK GIBSON.

Tue 11/26/2013

Another strong puzzle from an emerging powerhouse duo, Don and C.C. Very fun theme, something I was vaguely aware of while solving (I had some intellectual property responsibilities at my old company, Acucela Inc.). A nice a-ha moment when I hit the TRADEMARKS revealer.

What I like best about this puzzle is that Don and C.C. could have easily listed the themers as individual words: ESCALATOR, YOYO, GRANOLA, thereby making room for others that fit (ZIPPER, LINOLEUM, ASPIRIN, etc.), but incorporating them into snappy phrases served two purposes: 1.) making the puzzle livelier with the inclusion of more in-the-language phrases and 2.) camouflaging the terms.

An unusual choice in grid layout today, to overlap pairs of themers. It's usually much easier to have some space between themers, but nothing suffers here. It's impressive that with seven down answers needing to cross both GRANOLA BAR and TABLOID BUZZ, the crosses are super clean. Well done; a bit of construction flair.

As is becoming Don and C.C.'s trademark, lots of long fill. With five themers, long down fill can be difficult to achieve. But entries like SCOOBY DOO and ITS A GO really spice up the solving experience. I wasn't as hot on TOO TOO as Will was, but perhaps I'm a bit lowbrow (no "perhaps" about it). LANDSAT and ECOTONE are not as nice as the other long fill IMO, but they certainly provide additional color.

The short fill is generally pretty good, although I winced a tad at the NE, with ABAB, I ATE, and OSIER all in the same location. There's nothing wrong with any of them, and some people might even really like OSIER (shout out to my basketweaving peeps!). But for me, these types of crossword-glue entries are easier to swallow when spread out (same issue for ATA and ASSNS in the SE). This can't always be achieved, especially with audacious grids.

Fun, well-done puzzle with an interesting theme. Curious quandary that companies with popular trademarks find themselves in. They obviously want people to recognize and use their brand name, but if the public starts doing so in a generic way, the company runs the risk of losing their trademark rights. If you're curious, go google it; google google google it hard*.

*This message brought to you by Bing.

Mon 10/14/2013

The constructor community is amazing. When I was just getting started with crosswords, I read C.C.'s blog religiously, making sure I gleaned as much information as possible out of each puzzle. Both C.C. and Scott (Argyle, as he's known over there) were so supportive, always saying kind things about my puzzles, being gentle in their thoughtful critique. The entire commenting community was so nice, too, which made me look forward to checking in as much as I could. I even wrote one puzzle after getting inspiration from C.C.'s name. Blessed to be a part of this community.

Nice opener to the week, theme answers which all start with US, using the revealer US OPENS. Clever idea! The theme is nice, with five long entries, but a more notable aspect is what's becoming C.C.'s signature: inclusion of lots of good long downs. PIANO BARS, NOT FAIR, TALK RADIO, OIL RIGS, MALL RAT. That's a ton of good fill for a single 15x puzzle.

I also appreciate how C.C. and Scott use cheater squares to improve the fill. The four corners are relatively big white spaces, so without the two pairs of cheaters, they would have been harder to fill cleanly. As it is, the NALA/LOIRE crossing may give some beginners a problem, and the inclusion of two French rivers could cause some grousing. People probably ought to know LOIRE (or learn something about it because it is France's longest river), but I could understand if ISERE causes grumbles.

Another issue I notice: the placement of the theme revealer feels slightly inelegant. The revealer itself is very nice, but its off-center placement in the lower corner gives the puzzle an asymmetrical feel. It would have been very nice if it were in the last across theme spot, in the middle of the middle row, or in the middle of the middle column. That's more difficult to do, though — almost every puzzle construction calls for trade-offs.

Finally, a challenge to C.C., who's rapidly becoming one of the most published constructors (counting the NYT and the LAT): I always look forward to those beautiful long downs, but I'd love to less entries like ESAI, YEE, EDINA, IRAE, ULEE, and the aforementioned NALA, LOIRE and ISERE in Monday puzzles. These are all acceptable crossword answers, but I would love to see C.C. join me in my quest to make more Monday puzzles that true beginners can tackle. What better than a silky-smooth Monday solve to kickstart a lifetime love of crosswords?

The ability to make Monday puzzles with an interesting theme and filled clean as a whistle might be the rarest talent in all of construction.

Tue 9/10/2013

Fun change of pace from C.C. today. She has an interesting story, growing up in China and only starting crosswords back in 2008. Her blog, L.A. Times Crossword Corner, covers the LA Times puzzle on a daily basis. I started doing crosswords back in 2008 as well, but can't imagine doing them in my non-primary language. Very impressive!

Anytime a theme uses shorter theme entries (seven letters or less), it increases the difficulty level for the construction. This is because the word count maximum of 78 stays the same, so the rest of the surrounding fill must be longer than usual. Note the stacks of 7s in the four corners, the 7s in the middle, and ARTICHOKE in the middle. It makes for a quasi-themeless type of filling challenge, incorporating many more seven letter words than usual. On the whole the fill is pretty good, although DCCC and QID show how difficult it can be to get those wide-open corners to work.

Finally, it would have been nice for the theme answers to stand out a bit more, perhaps by isolating them into five rows? That would have made for a extremely challenging construction (and may have called for different themers), but would have made it easier to see afterward which were the words of Chinese origin. As it is, SILK and CHOW blend into the puzzle a little too well (I've highlighted them in the grid so they stand out better). Typically Will likes the theme answers to "pop" and for good reason, but sometimes it just isn't possible. Today's puzzle reasonably trades off "theme pop" for the fact that I found it interesting to learn where these common words came from. Nice work from C.C.

Tue 8/20/2013

A goal of the early-week puzzles is to make crosswords widely accessible, thus drawing newer solvers into the fold. So I think a Monday or Tuesday puzzle should have little to no "crosswordese" entries (words that are rarely seen/used outside of crosswords), and if it contains esoteric answers, the crossings ought to all be fair. An amazingly difficult task considering there are usually 74-78 answers to squeeze in.

Making an early-week, beginner-level puzzle is one of the toughest challenges in crossword construction, and CC and Don have largely succeeded here. The "word that can follow both halves of the theme phrases" theme type has been done many times before, but the addition of the clever revealer really adds to the puzzle. DOUBLEDAY is a perfect last theme entry to the puzzle.

Plus, I absolutely love their long fill: MR HYDE, LAB COATS, SNIPED AT, ABS SYSTEM, PATTY DUKE. These sparkly answers spice up the puzzle, increasing the chance that a solver will smile or be wowed during his/her experience.

But there's a price to pay for all the great long fill: the PBA/ASSAM/KUNTA crossings. While none of these entries are "crosswordese", if the solver isn't a bowler and isn't up on their Indian geography, will they fill that square in with an "I"? If a beginning solver ends up with KUNTE and ASSEM or (KUNTO and ASSOM), they may learn something useful and/or interesting from their mistake, but will it sour their feelings about crosswords?

So even though PATTY DUKE and ABS SYSTEM are fantastic answers, I might have broken them up, putting black squares at the "D" of THE ROD and at the "S" of SONNET. This would result in 78 words instead of 76, with less sparkly long downs, but would also allow for a cleaner southwest area, thus increasing a novice solver's chance to finish accurately and with satisfaction.

Just this constructor's opinion; there is no right or wrong answer. Difficult trade-offs! ADDED NOTE: thanks to Will for his thoughtful response (below)!

Mon 6/10/2013
Tue 11/13/2012