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Puzzles for January, 2015
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (23)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (5)Hide comments
Thu 1/1/2015
ASTUDENTPICKUP
CARPARTSIRAISE
THETWOHASLANDED
LYONSTENON
HEROEEGS
THEONEMANYAW
POOLPARTYHABLA
AULAITDELEON
STYNEWATERPARK
TETBYEBYEONE
EDENEARS
RANATIMAGO
PARFORTHECOURSE
GROTTOOVERRULE
ATRAINPEEKABOO

Original gridThe grid to the right is what happened when I tried to do this one on my own. (I felt there had to be a progression from BOGEY to PAR to BIRDIE to EAGLE.) I didn't really like the themers. The fill. The layout. The solving experience. The author. But I proudly showed it to Jill.

"Hmm," was her reaction.

She's very considerate of my feelings. Canadian-esque, I might say.

Thankfully, I had the wisdom (dare I say, genius) to bring her on board so we could tear it down and create something a whole lot better. Sometimes I wonder how my wife's brain works. Normally when someone says "I need a seventeen-letter phrase incorporating the word EAGLE," you don't expect people to respond. Ever. (Then again, people often ignore me. For good reason, I'll admit.) But Jill blurted out THE EAGLE HAS LANDED within roughly 16 microseconds. I did some puffing out of my chest and blurting out things like "well, that one's kind of obvious, isn't it?" But I deigned to go with it. So generous am I.

The gridwork was a bear. Stacking PAR above or below each of the themers proved incredibly challenging. There was no intention to purposefully have POOL PARTY and WATER PARK be such long answers — short answers like PART and PARDON failed miserably in roughly a thousand-billion different ways, none of them quite working. Finding this particular arrangement was just a stroke of luck, one of those things where if you try a thousand different things, one might actually work.

Hope you enjoy! (And for those still confused by the theme, EAGLE, BIRDIE, and BOGEY are golf terms for two under par, one under par, and one over par.)

POW Fri 1/2/2015
TEACHJETLIPAR
ADULTMOVIESODE
HISEMINENCETAW
ITSALLINTHEGAME
NOIRATAD
IREPINCUSHIONS
MINORPLANET
TATTLETALES
REDHOTPOKER
MINESWEEPERTEK
OPEDDYNE
DEMOCRATICPARTY
ENELEGERDEMAIN
LENINEXISTENCE
ARTPORTSESTES

★ My wife's favorite themeless experience is when you go through a first pass and turn up nearly empty. A feeling of despondence consumes you, but one of those toeholds suddenly trigger a thought, and you can enter another answer. And another! Chunks break open, and neurons fire. Ten minutes later (20 in my case), a seemingly impossible solve is cracked. Tremendously satisfying.

I had that experience today, daunted at first by those gigantic white spaces. I entered three answers in my first pass and wondered if 1.) I'd be able to finish and 2.) how much glue I was going to encounter — I often find that these wide-open grids require a lot of glue to hold them together. To my relief and amazement, I encountered virtually nothing ugly the whole way through. Yes, there's a HALER and a TEK from Shatner's esoteric "TekWar," but what else? The cleanliness is astounding.

Pluto and Earth, volume comparison

And what nice long entries. Often with this style of crazy-wide-open puzzle, you see neutral words depending on –NESS or –ERS. But to get ADULT MOVIES, HIS EMINENCE, PIN CUSHIONS, MINOR PLANET just to start? Really nice selection. If the worst of your 11 long answers is IN EXISTENCE, I call that quite the success.

As is usual with some of these types of stunt grids, I don't love the feng shui. The puzzle is broken so distinctly into three parts. I know from the constructor's viewpoint how much easier it is to make a low-word count puzzle when you can section areas off and work on them one at a time. But, as a solver, it bugs me to see such fragmentation.

Overall though, a puzzle in the Patrick Berry mold — uber-clean with a smart selection of long entries. I really like David's desire to experiment with themeless grids; it's cool to see the variety in his products. I don't always love the solving experience his more experimental stuff, but I thought this one was a big winner.

P.S. For those of you who don't get the brilliance of the CDS clue, it's referring to ultra-low interest rates. I work in investment management, so it got a big smile from me. Reader Greg Johnson points out that it can also refer to music CDs, which are falling out of favor — doubly cool!

Sat 1/3/2015
BOTCHSEVENIRON
RHODAALANADALE
AINTIFULLTIMER
IFYKEELSOBIT
NODOUBTBACONS
GRAYBYTHEBY
AGNESBOOTYLES
MOZZARELLASTICK
ETAPILEDSAVOY
SOFTTOPRELY
BOGARTNEMEROV
ORLYGHANAAGO
TOYSTORESREDID
HUPMOBILETRASK
ATHEISTICSERTA

It made me sad when TGI Friday's announced their "bottomless appetizers" — I would have been all over the MOZZARELLA STICK when I was 20, or even 30, but I couldn't handle it now. Stupid digestive system getting more finicky and (description redacted due to breakfast test violations).

Sam goes big, not only using the standard four sets of triple-stacks in the corners but also connecting them, running MOZZARELLA STICK across the middle and SAFETY BELT and HOLD ON A SEC from top to bottom. Even with all that, he manages a really nice SE stack: LIVE RADAR, ECOLOGIST, and the crazy looking SKYY VODKA. Great answers, well done there.

So much interconnect all throughout the grid often causes filling problems. Check out the NW. Even with TONY DANZA's Z, working through that triple-stack on its own is not super hard. Now, throw in MOZZARELLA STICK to constrain things, fixing that M and O into place. Sure, you can still come up with some great answers like BRAIN GAME and OH I FORGOT, but can you do it without the ugly –IFY and AINT I next to each other? Tough task once you fix a few letters into place.

Alan-a-Dale

In the NE, SAFETY BELT is a pretty good answer. But once you fix the S A F in place, your choices for marquee answers drop by a big factor. I like FULL TIMER. ALAN-A-DALE isn't really in ROBIN HOOD's stratosphere, though. Or MAID MARIAN. Not even FRIAR TUCK. ALAN-A-DALE has such a friendly alternating vowel consonant pattern that it's quite useful in crosswords, but this guy seems pretty far down the list.

And while the SEVEN IRON is a useful club, so is the SIX IRON. And the FIVE IRON. (ad nauseam) I'm not a golfer — that's what other golfers tell me on the course, anyway — but if anyone knows of a type of shot only a SEVEN IRON can make (a trick shot, even better!), that sort of specificity would have elevated this to a great entry / clue.

Loved the clue for ABYSS — unfathomable, indeed. The fact that it didn't need a question mark (which would have given away the game) made it even better.

Sun 1/4/2015THE DESCENT OF MAN
JANFBIPALMOFFISH
ANATURNATEAMPOUNCE
COMEONINXWORDEARTHY
OMENSNEGROIMONLYHU
BILDUNGSROBLASEEMI
SAYSROSEMARYCROWBAR
BEAUAGENDAPRANK
ASFARTHENOWARRAIGNS
NORRISELAPBRELS
OHOTERRAPUREEDTINA
DOYOUWANTTOBUILDASNOW
ETONSEAEARNAMIBATM
ECUNSCACSTALISA
CRASHPADKISHKACARON
AIMEEDOOLEYLAIN
SCATTEDTERMITESDOLL
SEZVESTSMORGANFREE
WONDERWOVENALSODOM
LINEARAMBITMACARENA
SNARFSPARERPSAMAIN
DESOTONOSYSSNLAS

A literal interpretation of THE DESCENT OF MAN, Darwin's seminal treatise on evolutionary theory. Neat how those five theme entries seemed incomplete … or was it perhaps a rebus? I first turned up WONDER WO, and wondered (pun intended) if how in heck a MEN IN BLACK theme could possibly relate to the theory of evolution. (insert conspiracy theory here)

The misdirection made me appreciate even more Tom McCoy's puzzle from a few weeks back, where he intentionally placed a black square at the upper left corner, intending people to think that it was a rebus theme — BLACK squeezed into a single square. I hadn't even seen that trap, but now that I fell into today's, I realize how it would have been fiendishly clever for those encountering it.

I appreciated how Finn placed his themers symmetrically. Sometimes with this type of "bending" puzzle, the constraints become too difficult. So much real estate is required, and the constructor ends up spreading the themers at random. I find that inelegant. Even though I was a little put off by the fact that there are only five themers, I think it's a better solution than cramming a bunch in willy-nilly. Of course, the optimal solution is to still have seven(ish) symmetrical themers, even if they were a little shorter. Very tough to do, since those "bends" take up so much space.

I usually don't care about a lot of proper names in a grid. It's a plethora of esoteric ones I find bothersome. Let's say it was just LEONIA, INNESS, JACOBS. Totally fine! DOOLEY and NAMIB and NORRIS with a rough clue? Hmm. AMAZONAS taking up a precious long slot? And even having watched most of "Game of Thrones," being expected to know TALISA? It's tricky — propers are so useful because people spell names in odd ways; super useful for constructors in need of a jam-saving entry. Easy to go too far, though.

Overall, I liked the theme, and my solve was enhanced by a number of really strong clues. If you missed their impact, go back and look at TERMITE, BREW PUB, WRISTS, and ABACI. So worth an extra look.

Mon 1/5/2015
SORERPEAFAQS
ENEROVIEWEMUS
LEGALEAGLELEAN
DWIELLAINT
OAFSOLDBUZZARD
MYTHSIRESTBAM
APUATEELIZ
SPRINGCHICKEN
AHATHOUTAN
LONTITLENIKES
BUDGETHAWKTIRE
TENDEATMAD
MOMASILLYGOOSE
OUISOPALINNER
ITCHPOXFOODS

Nice start to the week, five colorful phrases ending with a type of bird. I appreciated the consistency, each of the phrases containing exactly two separate words, none of them hyphenated. An elegant touch.

Dr. Tim Whatley, the original regifter. Recognize him?

REGIFT could be one of those eye-rolling add-an-RE-to-the-beginning-of-anything, i.e. REOIL or REPEN or REBURP. This one is not just acceptable, but desirable in my eyes, because it's a lively entry that's entered the lexicon in a big way, perhaps first popularized by Seinfeld. Silly goose Americans.

This is a very difficult grid arrangement, what with a 13-letter themer smack dab in the middle. I often do everything I can to switch out the middle themer for a 7-letter one. That's often impossible, but once in a while you'll luck into something useable, which makes grid-building so much easier.

John deploys a lot of his black squares to separate themers, but there is only so much you can do with a 10/10/13/10/10 arrangement. The middle suffers, what with I REST / A TEE / USE IT all in one region. Too many partials for my taste, period, and way too many in a tiny area. It's so tough in the middle columns of the puzzle — you can either choose to separate LEGAL EAGLE and OLD BUZZARD, or OLD BUZZARD and SPRING CHICKEN, but you can't really do both. I might have leaned more toward the latter, due to the constraints the Z puts on that rocky I REST / A TEE / USE IT region.

I do like the NE and SW, nice and clean even though those parallel downs cause many constraints. John does really well to quasi-separate them from the rest of the puzzle through smart black square placement, and also does it in a way which doesn't make the puzzle flow suffer. Doing all this with a QUATRAIN and a PANDEMIC along with an extra Z worked smoothly in deserves a SHOUT OUT. Kudos!

Tue 1/6/2015
BOTTLEAMPSGYM
OHIOANMEATOOO
ONTOURYOGAOWN
POSTDOCWEDIDIT
HELLODISNEY
ATBARALPALA
BARNARDORATAD
IPADMINTYNUDE
TENNSCALEDRAW
DABEVEENEMY
GENIUSYALTA
REALTORFERTILE
ARMTRODGAINON
PIEETONIDOTOO
HESDATATENONS

DNA! I often feel ambivalent about "a single word hidden in phrases," because once you've found one or two of them, the rest is repetitive. An exception is when I can't see it coming. I don't know if it was the graceful black square curves, or the themers running vertically, but I was pleasantly surprised to have to go back and look for the DNAs. Well done.

What a smooth execution, especially considering the huge constraints. Once you fix those curves into place, you don't leave yourself much room for themer placement. Joel wisely squeaks a 7-letter one right in the middle, and then has to tackle the high overlap on the left and right.

Normally, a few letters of overlap is pretty easy, if the letter combinations are friendly. Here though, there are seven places, running from the BA of AT BAR to the AL of REALTOR. Seven places means seven potential pitfalls where you might be forced to deal with a strange UO or a LW combination. Luckily, there are a good number of *D NA* phrases to choose from; plus, the puzzle symmetry allows you to swap BRAND NAMES and GOOD NATURE or TOOTH AND NAIL and ISLAND NATION.

With all those constraints, to finish with just an ENROL is impressive work. I imagine it took Joel several iterations to find themers and placements that allowed friendly letter combinations.

Visual of a DNA molecule

I wish the visual had done a little something more for me. As much as I like the oddity of removing the side black squares in the print version — I almost always like something weird and new — as a whole, it doesn't look a lot like DNA to me. Those black curves are very pretty, yes, and they sort of twist around. DNA-like? Hmm. And as with Liz's previous DNA puzzle (see Jim's note), I would have LOVED to see A-T and C-G base pairs somehow. Ripe for crossword goodness, people!

Love, love, loved the clue for GRAPH. It doesn't have the plural of "axe," but it does have the plural of "axis." And to get a brilliant clue right on a themer — someone give poor Eisenhower a baseball glove or vacuum BRAND NAME already — added so much to my solving pleasure.

Wed 1/7/2015
SOBPDAASTHMA
THESEUSTHREAD
INTEARSSHOULDA
ROSAAARPUTLEY
LABYRINTH
ISHCLERKSSCI
TWEETEDYAMMERS
SOAMIMARIEL
ARRIVALARTISTE
TDSNEWBIEMET
KINGMINOS
APRONODDSOOPS
LOADERSJETBLUE
ESCAPEARIADNE
SEEKTONSCSTP

One of my childhood favorites As a kid, I spent many hours, many days, many weeks, poring over "D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths." I love Greek mythology. I mean, I REALLY love Greek mythology. So it was fun to see the legend of the MINOTAUR featured in today's puzzle.

I like that Greg was able to work in quite a bit about the myth. One compelling feature of this story for me was the THREAD that ARIADNE gave THESEUS, which helped him find his way back through the LABYRINTH. I still picture with fascination a hero winding his way through the world's most complicated maze, a ball of thread in one hand, a sword at the ready in the other.

And with all the constraints, I liked that Greg managed to keep everything pretty clean. There's an A DAY and an ITS AT, plus RINSERS to accompany LOADERS, but given how much theme is worked in, that's really not much at all. KING MINOS did come easily for me thankfully, since that ABIDJAN / KING MINOS crossing would be rough for someone not familiar with the legend. THESEUS or the MINOTAUR, yes, those are names I think the NYT solving population really ought to know. KING MINOS is pushing it, so I would have liked to see fair crossings on all of those letters.

Wondering about ABIDJAN, listed in Wikipedia as the second-largest French-speaking city? Will and Frank and I had a long exchange about that, deciding that the "metropolitan area" definition of city is better here than "administrative city center." Seems odd to say that Paris has only two million residents, yeah? So although some reliable sources say differently due to their implied definition of "city," the best order seemed to be 1.) Paris, 2.) Kinshasa, 3.) Abidjan.

Overall, I wish there was a better visual representation of the legend — it's too bad Greg's original was just too different from the crossword mold. And the poor MINOTAUR, penned into a single square like a cow.

Finally, great clue for LEGOS. Getting all of the Greek mythology was a treat in itself, but to get the misdirection of thinking about which kids might stick together in a playroom was another highlight.

Thu 1/8/2015
IMREMRTOADCAW
SOARFIANCEADO
LIVINGPPERSROW
ARETEWOKCHORE
SANREMOVEILED
ERABLANC
COMAHAROLDCCER
ARCTAHINISILL
REGGERATEDPDFS
INITSLUI
KARATSCYCLOPS
EXAMSEEOLEVEL
SISHALFMEASURE
HOPOYSTERULEE
AMYWRESTSPEST

I like new rebus ideas. To me, rebuses have been done so much that a single rebus, even one with a rationale (CRUSHED ICE explaining ICE in a single square, e.g.) is a bit passe. So although I struggled mightily to figure out what was going on here, I eventually cracked it and appreciated the clever idea, two pints — PINT PINT — making a QUART, CUP CUP making a PINT, GILL GILL making a CUP. Nice revealer too, HALF MEASURE hinting at the concept.

Gill measuring jugs

Let's address the elephant in the room. What the heck is a GILL? The unit has gone by the wayside (except apparently in measuring alcoholic spirits). Does that make it off-limits for crossword use?

I was stymied for the longest time, especially since MCGILL is only somewhat recognizable (sorry to all Canadians including but not limited to Jim and Jeffrey!). The more I think about it though, it feels not only reasonable but even desirable. I like a challenge in my crosswords, and figuring it out, even not knowing what a GILL was, gave me a great sense of accomplishment. So, thumbs up.

I can understand the desire to section off the difficult PINT PINT area up north. Working RIP IN TWO and TAP INTO side by side is no small task. However, creating a 6x3 section up north / down south often causes difficulty in normal circumstances — check out EEO, EFTS, AYR, ERS down south, for example — and with these added rebus-driven constraints, the need for glue becomes high. MFG isn't terrible, although it's not super familiar to me. ACR feels equally wonky though. And throw in a ONE K — I'm okay with an occasional FIVE K or TEN K, which are vastly more common in real life — and it feels like a lot of glue in just one area.

For all you pop culture idiots like me, KESHA apparently is very popular. Who knew? (Answer: everyone in America but me.) Thankfully, everything felt fair and I don't mind learning another person I really should know. (Sorry IMRE Kertesz and MOIRA Kelly, KESHA already filled up my new-person-learning brain cells for the day.)

POW Fri 1/9/2015
FLOTSAMCHEOPS
RARAAVISHELDIN
INEXPERTELMORE
SKIESRAHALMAE
KEDSGOTATBENZ
SRAPERILBATHE
BALMOFGILEAD
SPACEINVADERS
STARTERHOMES
TONESROLESNIL
ARIDFOULSCAPE
NYCCURSEALPHA
ZABARSEYECOLOR
ARARATSEANPENN
SCREWYDRESSES

★ I don't know how he does it. Stacks of 12/13/12 are hard enough to accomplish in one direction. But to do it in both the horizontal and vertical directions, crossing each other? It's an impressive visual feast, executed with both smoothness and lively fill.

Space Invaders screen shot

How is this possible? Maybe Patrick leans heavily on the RSTLN E common letters, as he has sometimes done in the past? (Not that there's anything really wrong with that, as he always picks out colorful entries.) Well, no. There's a V in the marquee SPACE INVADERS, making it both a semi-Scrabbly and a lively entry.

Another trick constructors employ is to section off tricky areas in order to work more easily with them. Nope, that's not it — check out how much real estate floats around the middle. The flow is not choked off at all, and that middle is chock full of five-letter words, not a four or a three serving as a crutch.

Black magic is the only remaining answer.

And he doesn't stop there — each of the four quadrants is packed with almost the same level of goodness as any normal person's themeless corners. EYE COLOR and SEAN PENN make a great pairing in the SE. And STORY ARC and PANIC BAR are such lively answers. Even the potentially neutral ODOMETER turns into an asset with its colorful clue, related to the "clocking" crime.

Sure, there is a bit of wastage in the long slots, entries like DRESSES and … well, STATION HOUSES is a little dry. (Plus it feels somewhat duplicative of the HOMES in STARTER HOMES.) But overall, there's a double-digit count of snappy entries, a visual wow factor in the middle of the grid, and super-smooth fill. I resolved to spread around the POWs a bit more this year, but I couldn't help myself with this one.

Sat 1/10/2015
CTEAMSTHEMRS
ARABIANCHEROOT
SARONGSREYNOSA
UNTOETHANSNIT
ASHCHAITEALEI
LASHERDERSITO
TCCHENVAUGHN
ITISSWEDETHEM
EIEIOAMITETRA
SONARDUDASSIN
ONTEPIIVSOVA
FDICINICEONEG
WASHINGTONSTATE
ATTENTIONGETTER
RESTSONONESOARS

Neat pattern! A visual treat to drink in this sort of wide-open grid, the likes of which I've never seen before. I love that Joe takes advantage of underused mirror symmetry to do something cool, running a set of full triple-stacks through two other sets. Eye-popping.

Han in carbonite

This new type of development is something I'm willing to bend the rules for. Typically, my themeless solve becomes troubled by the presence of five(ish) or more gluey bits. Feels inelegant; too rocky for my taste. So usually I'd give a puzzle the stink-eye if it contained AS SIN / ONT / EPI / ABOO / NSTAR / ASA / SES / ERNS, and especially the oddball IN ICE. (If only Han Solo had been frozen in ice, not carbonite!) Although I did notice the preponderance of glue globs, the huge asset of such a cool visual impact outweighs the liabilities for me.

Still not understanding the great clue [Natural thing to feel] for ONEG? I was equally ired that only people with O NEG blood types feel natural! I mean, how blood-ist can you be! Oh. It's ONE G, as in the force of gravity? Well, that's a bit more natural.

My distant relative?

I do wish there hadn't been quite as many esoteric names. DIDI CONN and REYNOSA … huh. And as much as I like seeing CHEN in the grid, I had no idea who this TC CHEN fellow was. Felt familiar, but that's just because all us Asians look alike.

And there was the RESTS ON ONES LAURELS. Er, SOARS. OARS, dang it! A quick Googling shows only about 1,000 hits (with RESTS ON ONES OARS in quotes). Not a great sign.

Overall, a neat new development with a high wow factor. Would easily have been my Puzzle of the Week if the liabilities had been cut roughly in half.

ADDED NOTE: Matt Gaffney pointed out T.C. Chen's record collapse in the 1985 US Open. After reading more about him, and seeing some clips of how good-natured he is, I decided I like him.

Plus, he probably is related to me.

Sun 1/11/2015PERSONAL STATEMENTS
JAFAROLORDPRISMBAT
EPOCHMASAILOTTOIDI
SHARONSTONEASSINZAG
SIMONESLOGANPROTEGE
EDSDASENOSSLAUGHTER
BATHESHOOTPAR
ESAUEAVESENGMEWLS
BOBBYSHERMANTOYSHOP
BARBETEOSPAARHOPE
SPALLLOCKAOLMECLED
SYLVESTERSTALLONE
PEISEALEUHURANOMAD
AMOSANODLISENTIRE
PENCILSBEVERLYSILLS
ARSONAFRARNIEOKOK
RAPSHEETASLAN
MYLESSTANDISHPITROO
COLDWARLATTERFLOORS
IGAELENALORETTASWIT
NIMAMAINELOPESHANE
GSATSKEDDENSETANGO

Famous people treated as if the first letter of their last name was a possessive S. I loved the SYLVESTER STALLONE to SYLVESTER'S TALL ONE. Great wordplay. I can see why Pete placed it smack dab in the middle of the puzzle; a marquee entry.

Bobby Sherman. Or Bobby's her man?

BOBBY SHERMAN was interesting to read about. I had no idea who he was, or why HERMAN was a teen idol. "Perhaps it's an ‘American Idol' thing?" I thought to myself, before shrugging and moving on. I wish the clue had better gotten to the HER MAN parsing, as I thought that was pretty clever. I wouldn't have appreciated though, it if I hadn't taken the time to go back and figure it out so I could explain why it made sense.

The rest of them didn't do a lot for me. But Jim and I had a fun back-and-forth, as he loved the themers, each one presenting him a new nugget of goodness. Go figure.

Ah, NYT Sunday puzzles are a tough beast to conquer. Even at the maximum of 140 words, even with the average-ish seven themers, there are so many open areas to fill. I tend to notice roughness after about five gluey entries, so I was a little worried when I ran into ACRO, O SOLE, DIEGOS, and O LORD right off the bat. Pete kept the teeter-totter flipping, as I'd get a great SHOOT PAR and then a LOCKA and then a nice TOY SHOP and then an OREL / TAMLA.

It's so tough to smooth out a 21x puzzle. Overall, I felt like there was too much rough stuff and not quite enough assets, the balance sheet tipping toward the liabilities. I'm starting to feel like some other criteria than "140 words max" might be better for Sunday puzzles. "At least six additional colorful pieces of fill"? "No more than eight gluey bits"? I'm still forming this idea in my head, obviously. But I'd much rather have a smooth 142 word puzzle than a bumpy solve on a 140-worder, even if that meant sacrificing a bit of nice fill.

Nice concept, a couple of fun themers, and some liabilities weighing it all down.

Mon 1/12/2015
PITHONTIMEAND
SOHORAIDERLEI
STEMTOSTERNPGA
TASERHALTHEN
CRADLETOGRAVE
WARYOUETUI
AGESGSANAPS
SEATOSHININGSEA
EMMAMOMEYES
ASAPTILCPA
STARTTOFINISH
HAZYHOELEONI
APUTOPTOBOTTOM
PERAMECHETISH
EREREDHOTOCHO

Five "X to Y" phrases meaning "everything" or "complete" or "comprehensive," clued from the point of view of different professions. I liked the colorful phrases, especially the more specific one. STEM TO STERN is lively (arr, mateys!), and SEA TO SHINING SEA appropriately spans the grid. (I can't wait for Talk Like a Pirate Day, apparently.)

So. Tell me about your mother.

Definitely agreed; fun echo on THE SCREAM and PSYCHOTIC. Along with "Bleak House," it'd be interesting to get Jason in a therapy session and see what's going on.

I like how the glue is spread around, both in location and in type. Most people don't enjoy seeing an ETUI in their crossword, but as long as there's not another thing that's never really used in real life — an OLIO or something — it's passable. And I like that there's one foreign oddity (ORO), an ending (ERN), a partial (AS A), and a not super-common acronym (GSA). So even though there's five gluey bits, the solver (at least this one) isn't really bothered. Sure, I would almost always prefer a squeaky clean, but if you're going to have five sticky bits, I'd rather have a little Elmer's, a bit Krazy Glue, a dab of rubber cement, etc.

One thing I really like here is the cross-referencing of HOMER and APU in a less opaque than usual manner. Often I skip clues that read like [Friend of 62-Across], annoyed that I have to jump around. I usually never go back and see what the referencing was all about. So it was nice to get the word "Squishees" in both clues. I'd still like to see it as [Buyer of Squishees on "The Simpsons"] and [Seller of Squishees on "The Simpsons], but this is a step in the right direction.

All in all, I would have liked a even more consistency/tightness, as all the phrases seemed slightly different to me. I was searching for a word to describe the theme, and the best I could do was to use a combination of terms. Would have been perfect if a single word had jumped out as the unifying factor. Otherwise though, a pretty nice construction job and a fun solve.

Tue 1/13/2015
MISOOCEANCLOT
ARIASUSIEHASH
MONTICELLOINTO
ANGDATOLDER
AMERICANBISON
TAPASPATIO
ABOUTRELEASED
NERDATIMEECRU
GLEECLUBAIRED
TABOONOISE
EPLURIBUSUNUM
QUILLASAMAD
URGENICKELBACK
ASHEFRIARAGIN
LETSLEANSHEDY

Monticello nickel coin I only know who NICKELBACK is by the snarky comments people post about them on Facebook. (I laugh along, pretending to understand.) But no doubt, they make a good revealer for today's puzzle, which contains both MONTICELLO and the AMERICAN BISON, the two images on the tails side of a nickel.

Really interesting clue for ABEL — I like the effort to come up with something new and bold. I'm a bit of a math nut, so I follow the Fields Medal announcements every year (outstanding discoveries in math, awarded to mathematicians under 40). I had assumed it was the most prestigious math award out there, so it was fun to read up on the Abel Prize. Gotta love the Norwegians, blowing the piddly Fields Medal money out of the water with a gigantic six million kroner payday. Take that, Fields Medal!

For a puzzle with only three or four theme answers, I expect very clean, snappy fill. SCRIMMAGE and SINGAPORE and GLEE CLUB are all pretty fun. CUE TIP too. But I could do without the A TIME, AS A, OSTEO, ERES, and especially AGIN entries. I don't mind some gluey bits here and there if the theme is dense, or if the puzzle has kooky constraints, but for a standard four-theme puzzle, it's a bit too much for me. I would have liked to see some rework to get rid of at least half of those gluey bits.

I also would have liked a little more theme density / tightness. Yes, E PLURIBUS UNUM is on the back of the nickel, but it's not specific to the nickel like MONTICELLO. Sort of a filler than takes care of crossword symmetry. (US Mint: take note that JEFF CHEN'S FACE is also 13 letters. Licensing rights readily available, at a reasonable price starting at six million kroner.)

But overall, a fun trip down memory lane for me, back to a time when I was obsessed with odd coins. Wheat pennies, anyone?

Wed 1/14/2015
BOMBSQUASHPRE
AWOLKETTLERUG
LEMONADEMIXIPA
INANESPAWNED
DEGASICES
MAXEDOUTBAKE
INXSOLEIBISES
LOXIVDRUGSSEA
ENRAGEELMIDOL
AMORONASTICK
JUTESACHA
CHINESEALCOA
RUNXLTEESHIRTS
ERGPOTATOCARA
WASOPERASSWAP

Neat idea to pick words made up only of I V X L C D M and use them in phrases with a wacky clue. We've seen a lot of Roman numeral themes over the years, but I like the twist this one brings. LEMONADE MIX's kooky clue relating to the number 1,009 was perplexing at first but gave me a good a-ha moment.

Pretty clean grid too, especially considering the difficulty of incorporating all those Xs. I'll take an ANON and an I GO any day in order to get three Xs. Not as happy to see an EEOC and an OTRA where it feels like it could be completely clean. But perhaps it's difficult to achieve that if ITALICS is set in place, and what a great clue that entry got. [Bold alternative?] might not be entirely accurate, but 1.) it was so much fun and 2.) lighten up and enjoy, people. And realistically, EEOC and OTRA are both fairly minor.

Not only is GO OVER a cool six-letter entry, but I love how it looks in the grid: GOOVER. (Sounds like it might be a geeky Jetsons vacuum.) My brain would not parse that for the longest time; I enjoyed that head-scratching.

The Crown Vic in the Big Apple

Caleb's concept got my gears turning, and kickstarting my brain is almost always a sign of a strong idea. I really liked the general notion of "words made up only of Roman numerals," so it was a bit of a let-down to see XL TEE SHIRTS and XXX RATING. I think I would have given this the POW! if all five had been in the vein of PRINCESS DI and LEMONADE MIX. Tough task though, as I is the only allowable vowel. Still though, maybe LIV TYLER could have made an entrance, or a CROWN VIC? Rats, that last one wouldn't work, as VIC is nonsensical in Roman numerals. FORT DIX or WESTERN CIV?

The more I played with this idea, the more I liked it. Kudos to Caleb for coming up with a cool concept and a pretty good execution.

P.S. IV FERTILIZATION with [Roman menage a quatre orgy?] as a clue. Boo-yah!

Thu 1/15/2015
CULTSEASTTSAR
ATEAMUGLYOLGA
NIMBICHOPMEET
ICOULDHAVEBEDS
TANEERESTOP
LOVEDNEWYORK
UNPINALTOVEE
HAILMARYSPEND
USEDORYSORTS
HADINOTLOVED
PLANTKIACAM
BAILBALTI-MORE
REPSOTOHDINGY
AREAOUSEONCUE
GORYTMENOTHER

What a nice debut. I'm normally not a fan of quote puzzles, as they became overdone a while back, but this one amused me. I like a laugh or a bon mot in my crossword, so who better to quote from than the witty Ogden Nash? I was plus-minus on it all until I got to the last line and its clever use of the hyphen in BALTI-MORE. Very amusing.

In many ways, I found it hard to believe that it was a debut. It's well laid-out, does a nice job of adding in long fill, and keeps things relatively clean. Sure, there's an EER and an ESTOP, an AERO and an AGHA, but those are all pretty minor. It's not quite to the point where I felt like it was super-smooth — that usually happens if there's maybe only two gluey bits — but it's darn close. Even more impressive considering Herre chose to use the difficult "parallel downs" arrangement in MOON BOOT and ART TATUM. So often this requires a lot of paste to hold everything together.

Art Tatum

How I loved seeing one of my favorite pianists, ART TATUM, in the puzzle! Now, I personally tend to avoid proper names in long fill, preferring colorful phrases instead, because if the solver doesn't know the person, it's kind of a waste. That's likely the case today, as I doubt many people know or appreciate ART TATUM's brilliance. (Shame on you, infidels.) I did worry a bit when I saw the ART TATUM, DORY, DARYL crossings — three tough entries crossing each other — but ultimately I think they're all gettable, if not inferable.

Fun use of the hyphen, both as a play on words, and as a crossword rule-breaker. Hoping to see more from Herre.

Fri 1/16/2015
INTERROBANGLES
SEEYOULATERAGA
SWEETPOTATOPOI
OTSTARESTIRIN
FEUDFATTEST
AWHIRLSOLOISTS
DIALSPINESMID
ANNEJILTSPICA
MEDTUSKSVEDAY
ACCLAIMSSIGILS
NORELCOMOBS
DOABLEDYERSAP
ELFOBSERVANTLY
VETNATURETRAIL
ERSERYTHROCYTE

The interrobang, a delightful mash-up of punctuation I don't have a lot of construction-specific analysis for today's puzzle, since it fits squarely in the 70-word themeless mold, so I thought I'd go off the beaten path and delve into depth with some clues. And since INTERROBANG is a great example of a lively one-word answer, I'll employ its components as I go, giving EXCLAMATIONS! and question marks?

! [Not beyond one] had to mean zero, a negative number, or some fraction like one-half, right? Crosswords tend to use "one's" much more than "your" in phrases, i.e. ANTS IN ONES PANTS instead of ANTS IN YOUR PANTS. So to play on "one" here is brilliant. [Not beyond you] is much too straightforward for a themeless puzzle, [Not beyond one] is elegant and clever.

! [Take the edge off] is a great repurposing of a common phrase. A FILE indeed takes the edge off.

? A TALL ONE also takes the edge off. Missed opportunity here for a nice clue echo (a similar clue used twice for completely different meanings).

? [Where many arrests take place, for short] had me thinking about police arrests. Even when I uncovered ERS, I didn't understand the clue. Sure, there are police arrests when criminals in shootouts get taken to the ER, but that didn't totally feel right. Then I thought of "cardiac arrests." And then wished I hadn't. Generally crossword editors stay away from death and disease, as they're not something solvers like to see in their diversions. I do appreciate the wordplay, but I personally didn't feel it was worth it.

! [It may be found in preserves] has nothing to do with jellies or jams. Me and my stupid jelly-loving ways! Nice misdirection, away from "nature preserves."

Overall, a good mix of long entries (!) + an average amount of gluey filler (?) = ?!. Strong and appropriate 1-Across.

Sat 1/17/2015
BUFFSUPSIDEBAR
APRIORIUPCCODE
SHOGUNSBACKSUP
KELLSASADAPLO
ERIESNITBOOTS
DECAMPROKBRET
FORCEMAJEURE
BBSLIONIZESYD
RICHTERSCALE
AGRORIOKLATCH
SMACKANKHTALE
SOBMUNGONEPAL
HUBBARDJAINISM
ATLARGEACCURSE
THEATERKEEPSAT

Twelve-letter entries are tough to build themelesses around. You can't typically stack them with other 12's, and they stick their business in funny places, causing all sorts of reduced flexibility. Rotten little stinkers; there's a reason why themelesses much more frequently are built around 8s, 9s, or 10s. Josh does a really nice job today, seeding the puzzle with RICHTER SCALE and FORCE MAJEURE.

That latter term is a favorite of mine, one I learned in the inceptive days of the company I helped start. I remember reviewing contracts with our corporate law firm, coming across this term, and laughing. Yes, lawyers are paid to cover all possible contingencies, and that came in handy a few times over the years. But to have such a fancy-pants term to cover a generic "everything else" amused me to no end.

Not as amused when I received a bill for $35 for the six minutes we joked about it.

For those in need of a cover-up

I really enjoyed Josh's selection of shorter entries, filing his seven-letter slots with some great stuff. Not an easy task, but I'll be adding fresh material like JAINISM, BUFFS UP, FIG LEAF, SIDE BAR to my personal word list.

This one was a near DNF (did not finish) for me, but I pulled through. Thought I'd share a few pro tips on how I finally cracked it. HUBBARD is pretty straightforward, but that was all I had in that quadrant. Finally, I looked at 56D, ?R??, and reasoned out that the first letter was most likely a vowel. Typing in AEIOU one in a time, seeing what might trigger a thought, led to the URGE breakthrough.

A similar technique helped me uncover the brilliant [Noted Greek officer]. I had ANKH in place, as well as KEEPS AT. But K???K just didn't seem like any ancient Greek I knew. So I focused on those missing letters, trying to think like a constructor. Specifically, WWJD (What Would JoshKnapp Do)? Notice all those lovely Js and Ks throughout the grid?

Josh is one of my favorite themeless constructors, and I hold his work to a high standard. This one wasn't as clean as usual — OBE not quite saved by the nice [[It's an honour] clue, along with the odd KELLS, AGRO, and the overused DC CAB — but still made for a great workout and an entertaining solve.

POW Sun 1/18/2015CHANGELINGS
BOSSSTEAMCHOPADREP
OATHTURBOLULUDEANE
THAIANTEDOLINUPFOR
HUGELUGELUGSLOGSLOTS
LOBOLIEEATS
MAIDSAIDSANDSANKSINK
ISLCLEATSANTITOUR
SCOTCHCEEVANONE
CANALSANRIBALDASIF
PALEPALSPASSLASSLESS
ERASRTESCAM
KIDSKISSMISSMOSSMOST
ODIEDYNAMOANOONION
NEDADOLYEBADDIE
GASPALFANONAMEELS
LOUDLOUTLOSTLASTCAST
LUAUETACIAO
WILTWILLFILLFULLFUEL
HANOISEATTEASEFOXY
ONCUECAMIOAKENIMAM
PEATSKHANSNERTNOME

★ Loved this concept. Word ladders got overdone a while back, so Will doesn't run them very frequently. And when he does, they usually require an additional layer of clevereness. This one hit that sweet spot for me, kooky sentences formed by word ladder chains. LOUD LOUT LOST LAST CAST? Yes, please! The ideas I generally like best and remember are those I would have never dreamed up, and this is one.

Not all of them read so smoothly. HUGE LUGE LUGS LOGS is amusing. But tacking on the LOTS at the end makes it feel wonky. And WILT WILL FILL FUEL FULL is gold, but it doesn't adhere to the tight word ladder constraint. Switching those last two words to make WILT WILL FILL FULL FUEL wrenches it in my ear. Still, the difficulty of making any reasonable-sounding word ladder sentence is so high that I reveled in uncovering each one.

Turns out TUNG OIL is very real and very useful!

And what a smooth solving experience. My solve was assisted by the fact that I could piece together the word ladders by comparing four-letter chunks, but the general cleanliness also helped. I really only hitched around the TUNG OIL section, and that was mostly because of the very difficult cluing. ["Was ist ___?"] is admirable in its attempt to do something new in cluing LOS, but hotchy-motchy! that made that area tough. I'd much more appreciate it if it hadn't been next door to that TUNG OIL oddball.

The cleanliness is especially impressive considering Joe made this a 136-word puzzle, giving us a whole lot of 5 and 6s, which often make for sections tough to fill (and crack into). I wouldn't have minded if Joe had gone up to 138 or 140 words, making that TUNG OIL section more interesting, but I do like working my mental muscle.

I also would have liked more clever clues, as many of them felt misdirectional in a not super fun method. [Darn, e.g.] for OATH felt too tricksy to me. (["Darn," e.g.] is what it was going for.) [Arrangement of hosing?] gets points for effort, but it didn't stick the landing, as the clue sounds pretty forced. A final clue I'll point out is [Majority group], which made no sense to me. I was all set to deride it when Jim pointed out the "Age of Majority" is a very real thing. Darn! (The oath, not the mending.)

Overall though, absolutely loved the theme. Great stuff.

Mon 1/19/2015
NEWTALCAPRES
AAHSUSSRPLAZA
GRINSKUANOTER
ATTACHEBREWSKI
THEIRWEBCAM
BLEWPASASHE
ZOOSYBILANNEX
ANATOUSLESOMG
HERBSNOSESWII
NADAINDGUAC
NOTYETMCATS
RANKLESOPENPIT
OUIJAUMPSEPEE
TENOFICESSEGA
SLABSTARTDSL

Really nice example of the "both words can follow X" theme type. Jean appropriately places her themers vertically so that each half is indeed SNOW CAPPED: (snow) WHITE, (snow)BOARD, (snow) PLOW, (snow)MAN, etc. This theme type is getting a bit long in the tooth, but I think this one works very well with the added twist of a sort of "snow fall."

A fun flick!

Some great themers, too. BANK JOB is a colorful phrase, one I'm always happy to see (except when I'm at the bank), and (snow) JOB is equally colorful. BUNNY SUIT also tickled me, as it both elicits a vivid image and works great with (snow) BUNNY and (snow) SUIT. Even though there are plenty of words that can follow snow, finding pairs that form normal phrases is hard work. I quite like Jean's results.

I understand the challenge of fitting in six themers, and I like how Jean laid them out, but I did experience some crunchiness, enough to note during my solve. So as much as I like a BREWSKI after a run, I'd be curious to see if BREWERS, BREW PUB, BREWERY, BREWING, etc. would have produced a smoother NE (without NOTER and EZEK). In the SW, the J of BANK JOB certainly reduces flexibility. But I scratched my head, wonder why IND / ITE wasn't made into AND / ATE? Gets rid of two little gluey bits, yeah?

Fun to see a bit of the constructor come through. I smiled at GUAC, reminding me of one of Jean's puzzles from last year. (I realize GUAC and pesto aren't technically interchangeable, but that doesn't stop me from doing it. Guacapesto is surprisngly edible.)

Overall, I enjoyed the twist Jean put on this theme type, a pleasant solve to start the week. Made me feel like I was in the (snow)CAT(snow)BIRD seat.

POW Tue 1/20/2015
PEROLDHATCMAJ
AXEROWENALANE
JOTCAESARSALAD
ADOSMESPHIAL
MURPHYBEDEMMYS
ASTROODDUZI
AGEENEETES
CRYSTALGEYSER
BAASCUDMOC
EMSCHEYARDS
LEHARROCKOPERA
ROBOTRANEVIL
COMICRELIEFEVA
HOODIRONERREM
ANNESANELYELI

★ I looked at 1-Down, [Word before top or party], six letters, and filled in POOPER. Took me few seconds to realize that POOPER TOP 1.) wouldn't pass the breakfast test, 2.) isn't a real thing, and 3.) is a funny phrase evoking images of double-story outhouses that I'll be using more frequently. Talk about COMIC RELIEF!

Onto the puzzle! Four famous comedians hiding at the front of phrases, Sid CAESAR, Eddie MURPHY, Billy CRYSTAL, and Chris POOPER TOP. Er, ROCK. I couldn't personally identify Sid Caesar out of a lineup of him plus four Lilliputian Taiwanese orcs, but the name is quite familiar. And I like how he helps spread the puzzle's appeal to the older generation who might not recognize (or choose to ignore) the more recent guys.

Cho mama's so funny ...

It would have been great to get a more recent comedian, and a female one or two, but who else would fit this theme pattern? If only there were such a thing as a CK AIRPLANE or a CHAPPELLE BERET or a CHO MAMA.

Hey, CK ONE! That "a thing," isn't it?

Really nice gridwork today, Susie producing a smooth solve. All throughout I was impressed at how little glue I encountered, only hitching at the ELD / ENE area. OLD / ONE would be so much better! But OLD HAT sits up at the top of the grid. Ooh, I hate when that happens!

And I really liked the way Susie worked in so much Scrabbly goodness. Sometimes I feel like Xs and Js are jammed in with a big shoehorn and hammer, but I love the smoothness around the J and X in the NW, and the selection of Vs in the SE. I can imagine the temptation to try to squeeze a Q in the SE, resulting in EQUI or something. Vs aren't as spicy as Qs or Xs, but they still do the job of adding seasoning to the puzzle.

You know what was funny for me? The use of the question mark in the clue for COMIC RELIEF. Just when I thought I knew when it should be deployed. I mean, those comedians do provide COMIC RELIEF, yeah?

Overall, a very well-executed puzzle causing me to amuse myself to no end.

Wed 1/21/2015
JUTSWATERFAQS
ANONABIDEAGUE
WIKILOGICRUIN
STEPKAHLOLAPD
PASTTENSE
AFTEROFTEN
BLATANTINUTILE
OASPEIMOLMEW
MRTAWNPUFENE
BEECHESAROUSAL
FORMATION
TITLEIDIDUTCH
ORRATSEAROO
LEADETHNBATEAM
ENCORESTAXRATE
TAKEINBESTIR

Neat concept; I almost missed a layer. Once I uncovered FORMATION, I stared at it, trying to parse the revealer as "form a T ion." That would explain the T-shaped pairs (highlighted), yeah? Now, I'm not as well versed in chemistry as others, but I have a reasonable background. So I struggled to remember what the heck a "T ion" was.

A common T formation. (Yes, I know it doesn't really look like a T.)

Thankfully I (finally) figured out that the T of black squares in the middle of the puzzle precedes FORMATION, to make T FORMATION the revealer. Makes a whole lot more sense! Nice idea, the missing T of T FORMATION (a common football offensive configuration) not really missing at all.

And very cool to have the added touch of each pair of themers cross with the letter T. Nice touch.

So many constraints today, resulting in some gluey fill. I can ABIDE by A BOAT in the north section, as that area would be rough to fill smoothly. Once you fix WATER and TIGHT in place and need a long piece of fill with PAST TENSE, that area become terribly inflexible. I don't like EDILE much at all, but I'm willing to put up with a bit of ugly stuff for a neat idea.

Similar issues abound, around the other T pairs, especially those ones in the bottom corners. I absolutely loved [Something in brackets], a brilliant clue for TAX RATE, as well as [Hacker's need] for AXE, having nothing at all to do with a computer hacker. Love it! I didn't love TRS or BESTIR or ABAB, though. Tough trade-offs with this type of crossing answers theme.

Where I would have liked a bit more finesse was in the top two corners. Since those sections are so isolated, they could have been executed without ANON and AGUE (while still keeping the J and Q). As much as I like the Shakespeare reference in ANON, that could have been changed easily to AVON. And AGUE could have been ACT I, when Romeo and Juliet meet!

Overall, a strong idea requiring a lot of constraints, with a bit too much INUTILE stuff. Aw(n)!

Thu 1/22/2015
JOSSAPPWAFT
UNTOCIAALOOF
PEELMESACARPI
ITEVERSUSNERF
TILDECAGESPAT
EMEEREDENHATH
RERUNBOASEWE
TEARNEAP
ATEDOGSMAGIC
BURRLSATBRUNO
OREOINGAEDSEL
ROANBARBERTRU
ORSONNULLMARM
NAOMILEMAVON
ENYAESSYERS

FIFTH COLUMN is a great term, one I wasn't completely familiar with until today. And an appropriate crossword interpretation, columns which describe the fifth occurrence or instance of the clue. The clue [Planet] usually would be too vague to be usable, but here it's perfect, as the (fifth) is implied from the FIFTH COLUMN revealer.

Love how Tim drew from an eclectic set of areas. Greek mythology, the Space Race, James Bond players, the Bible, the elements, the planets … it reads like a scattershot Jeopardy board. No matter what your background, you'll probably know at least a few of the subjects. Makes the solver feel smart, which is a great thing for a puzzle.

The circle of fifths might be a bit harder to represent in a crossword

It's such a shame the term isn't COLUMN OF FIFTHS, isn't it? That would have been perfect. As it was, FIFTH COLUMN felt a bit rickety as a revealer. It so badly wants to highlight column five (VERNE and NIA), or the fifth of the five columns (ALAN SHEPARD / MAY). There is a term in music called the CIRCLE OF FIFTHS, but that would be an entirely different implementation. So hard to come up with a perfect revealer sometimes.

For those of you who don't understand [Dot-dot-dot], it's referring to the Morse code pattern for S. I remember it from that old S-O-S cleaning pad commercial. Short-short-short, long-long-long, short-short-short! Catchy, and now I've just saved your life in case of a desert island situation. (I'll send you a bill.)

I liked that clue a lot, but I think it could have been even better if it hadn't had the dashes. [Dot dot dot] implies ". . ." (the ellipses). What a neat misdirection that would be, hitting as strongly as AD LIB and BARBER's clues did. [Go off line?] tries to get the solver thinking about the internet, and [Cut-rate worker?] is more about the cost of a haircut, not being cut-rate.

The piece the resistance, though: [One involved in phone tapping] confused the heck out of me. It had to be CIA. Or NSA. Maybe FBI. I tried everything before getting APP through the crosses. Finally, it dawned on me that APPs often require people to tap on their phone screen. Absolutely perfect.

Nice idea, very good execution, would have been a POW! candidate if the revealer didn't feel slightly off to me.

Fri 1/23/2015
ESKIMODOGZILCH
ELIMINATEIDAHO
KALAMAZOOMINER
STOLEEECBODED
HORNSAGAMORE
PRESSONCOBS
LORENOSHOWROM
EXTRAICIEFILE
XYZNOSINGANEW
SAVEGERITOL
FACEPALMTERI
AGILEEISDINGE
LOAFSVALVESTEM
DROITEMAILLIST
OASESLIGAMENTS

A lot of great material packed into today's grid. Not as many great long entries as I usually like to see — FACE PALM, ZIMBABWE, RIN TIN TIN and GEOCACHING being the four standouts in my eyes (with LIGAMENTS breaking into the top five because of its awesome [Hip bands] clue) — but the short stuff added a lot today.

With a 72-word puzzle (the max allowed for a themeless), you're naturally going to have a lot of 3, 4, and 5-letter words in the grid. This puts the pressure on the clue writer to come up with whimsical or clever wordplay to liven up entries seen all the time. HORN's clue is well-executed, [One of a Satanic couple], making us think about various (insert your favorite snarky political statement here) duos.

[Blind spot?] takes a nice phrase and uses it in a totally different way, as a SLAT indeed is in a spot of a blind. Makes an otherwise dull entry stand out.

Got tired blood?

And GERITOL is an okay entry in itself, but it does feel a little fusty. Throw in a fun [Tonic for "tired blood"] throwback clue and it becomes sort of retro chic. (As if knew what that meant.)

RED ELM is not a fantastic entry in itself, but [Crate and barrel wood] fooled me but good. What a difference a capital B makes.

Finally, OLEO. Jim and Jill and I had dinner with Rich Norris of the LAT a few months ago, and he made a comment that OLEO is a perfectly fine entry. I don't do a lot of cooking so I have no idea one way or another, but I went to the store that weekend to see what's marked on "fake butter" packages. Sure enough, OLEO was printed right on there on the "Imperial" brand of OLEO. [Imperial bars?] makes for a delicious clue with its fakery.

In this day and age where I expect a 72-word puzzle to be clean as a whistle, it takes a lot of extras for me to overlook entries such as EIS, DROIT, MIMERS, and the crossing ICI / SCI. But even though I noticed these little buggers as I solved, each time I hit a great clue it served to reset my internal counter. Made for a pleasant solving experience.

Sat 1/24/2015
BYGOSHAWEANTS
LEANTOLETSDOIT
UNICUMALHAMBRA
STUDDEDDEFILER
HASIMEDLEXEME
LOAVESFAA
LOSTONESSHIRT
DETECTIVEWORK
KIDSTHESEDAYS
EVASONANT
NESTLENUTSUTA
TITHINGPINESOL
INREVOLTVELURE
STATELAWECLAIR
HOYAADOSKYLIT

I might start a series on how to break open the NYT Saturday crossword. For the longest time, I wouldn't even attempt a Friday, because it seemed too daunting. Kevin writes some of the toughest puzzles around, so today's a perfect place to start.

Namesake of Enola Gay Tibbets

My first pass through Kevin's wide-open grid gave me just an S at the end of 11-Down. One. Letter. Filled. That's it. Daunting! But I've since learned to try a few things, and a guess will often open something up. For me, that was [Gay partner?]. Perhaps ENOLA, but it could easily be an LGBT term, or a reference to Zorro, the Gay Blade. But with no other toeholds, why not try it out?

Off ENOLA's A came A?? with the clue [Scene]. Not a lot of A?? words, so some thought about what a "scene" could be had me tentatively try ADO. And 45-Across, [Requirement of Mormonism] felt like it ought to be MISSION … except that ENOLA wouldn't be right then. Could the N of ENOLA be part of an –ING ending? Wracking my brain, I dredged up information on how rich the Mormon church is, due to required 10% TITHING. 38-Down, [Certain Sorority member] had to be some Greek letter, and THETA fit the ?H??? pattern. Bingo bongo, it all felt right!

I got lucky with trying DETECTIVE WORK off the D — the "case-by-case" language got me thinking. And the –TCH ending of 6-Down, combined with the "win" part of the clue felt like the entry would end in MATCH. Little things like that, maybe two dozen trial and error points, eventually helped me crack the puzzle.

Because of the huge difficulty in pulling off a wide-open 64-worder — check out how well every section of the grid connects up — I might have given Kevin the POW! But Kevin Der is Kevin Der, and I tend to be pickier with the greats, docking points for the tough KENTISH / AVA crossing (you mean KANT(ish) wasn't British?), a DEFILER, a DENISON, the odd VELURE, and a UNICUM. Everything is perfectly reasonable for a wide-open 64-worder, and if it had been anyone but Kevin …

A tough solve, perhaps the hardest Saturday in months. Dang was I happy to finish! (With a bit of cheating. Or maybe a lot. Ahem.)

Sun 1/25/2015TWIST ENDING
UPSWEEPSUBROSAFTDIX
NICEONEORIENTSTRUCE
ICANNOTTELLALEICIDER
TORTSTHUSMEETSREPS
ETESEERCOALCIERA
DOTARDYOUVEGOTMALI
BAYLORATASTEARSENAL
ENCOREDWWIREWCCL
LGARAISINGTHEBRAHEY
AISLESEATNEONSRA
YETIMUTEATEMROTC
DPSNEARIREMEMBER
EMSAQUARTERTOTOWTMI
LAMSURCUESLIPUPS
OPENSEAPLASMAANISES
ILLEGALALINEBURGLE
ELSOLMANEIBNLAST
STATSPENDARODSANER
ARRIDANNIEGETYOURGNU
KEANUCREEPINEDMEESE
SETGOSARDINEDOODLED

Phrases ending with a real twits. Er, twist. I found many of these amusing, RAISING THE BRA having both a great base phrase as well as a resulting wacky one. SCAREDY CAST also meets both criteria, a winner in my book.

Asturian cider pouring tradition. Really!

A lot of great clues today. My favorite was [Something hard to drink?], as in hard CIDER, not as in SARDINE JUICE. Speaking of that, SARDINE also had a nice one, [One in a tight spot?] indeed. And although PASS GO feels awkward (DO NOT PASS GO = do, PASS GO = do not) a beautiful clue, [Reach the Mediterranean, say?], referring to the property on the Monopoly board saves it.

I CANNOT TELL A LEI sounds a bit forced, but what a cool and bizarre letter sequence in –LALEI. Had me bamboozled. Took a long time to figure it out even after I was 100% those five letters were correct. Extremely satisfying when I got it.

Speaking of solver satisfaction, I believe it's one of the most important criteria, if not the most, to hold in mind while constructing. And Sunday NYT are hallowed ground, with solvers doing everything from solo speed solving, to group solving over a full day on the kitchen table, to entering a few answers and feeling good about that. To me, the SW corner does a good job of creating a nice solving experience. With the pretty amusing ILLEGAL ALINE and the great SMELL A RAT, it was great fun for me to eventually crack.

Not as much for the NW. I love WENT SOLO and NICE ONE as answers, and SCAREDY CAST was so satisfying to finally get. But I worked so hard to figure out that corner, only to eventually fill in the wonky PETTER, a kooky DOTARD, someone named THEDA (granted, that one I really should have appreciated learning given that she apparently was extremely famous in her time). I applaud Alan's use of a cheater square to the left of EER, and attempting a 136-word puzzle is always audacious. But I'd personally much rather have a clean 140-word puzzle, giving me a non-PETTER type reward upon filling in that last square.

Overall, some nice themers, a few that didn't resonate, some great fill like DUDE RANCH and ICE PALACE, balanced out with some gluey bits like the illy ILLY. As always, construction is full of trade-offs (and solving is full of subjectivity!).

Mon 1/26/2015
GOERSRAPSKIP
AGREEAIDEELMO
FLIPWILSONNIPS
FEESALEPINES
ESCSMARTCOOKIE
APISHRUER
MONACOPERTPLUS
LOADAOKREST
BOLDTEXTBOOMED
YORECOSMO
FORWARDPASSNPR
ILIADLUCSTYE
SLAGFRESHSTART
TITOROBEPARER
SEANODEANTSY

Themers starting with sassy synonyms, all disguised using other meanings: SMART as in smart-mouthed, FLIP as in flippant, FORWARD as in "that incredibly good-looking Asian crossword blogger was a little too forward but man did I flip at his bold commentary!"

Or something like that.

It's been great following Ian's puzzles over the past years, seeing him constantly pushing his skills. It wasn't enough to be able to execute a five-themer puzzle as clean as a whistle. Next came five-themers with four long downs — still clean. Then six themers was the new challenge. And now six themers, plus four long downs? I love seeing that drive to push one's boundaries.

Ian does something really interesting today with his themers. Usually it's best to alternate them left right left right etc., but he stacks SMART COOKIE over PERT PLUS on the right side. Makes for a very hard overlap in the RUER area. With six themers, an alternating pattern often makes grid design very difficult — especially when an answer is as long as SMART COOKIE — because it creates many areas where you need to work around three themers at a time. This arrangement, while still very difficult to nail cleanly, reduces the number of said areas.

It's unusual to see a RUER in one of Ian's puzzles, given how exacting he is about his fill standards. But look at how much goodness that one entry enabled: SENIOR PROM in the NE (and PADDYWAGON in the SW). Well worth it.

Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights"

Sorry to those of you struggling with that Starship captain crossing BOSCH, but I feel like it's fair, even for a Monday. I'd personally categorize BOSCH as one of the greats, and Jean-Luc Picard is clearly the best of all the Enterprise captains. (Don't even get me started on Captains Janeway or Archer, and Kirk supporters are fresh heathens.)

And congrats is in order for Ian, one of the four new members of CrosSynergy, a syndicate providing daily xws to the Washington Post. The others are Patti Varol, editor of the Crosswords Club, Brad Wilber, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Todd McClary.

Tue 1/27/2015
FORMALDUMBCHI
AVIATEOVALHON
KILIMANJAROOWL
EDENROONOISE
DENISDIDEROT
MERITSEMER
ELISACLIPBCE
SUCHSWEETSORROW
ALEOLAYLEAVE
SPEESETTER
CENSUSBUREAU
ALIENSURRASH
BINJAMESMONROE
LOTAGARONEILL
ETHBEDSNODDED

Row, row, row (row, row) your themers today, row rhymers all with different spellings. Finding five of them must have been quite the challenge.

President Monroe is feeling good, perhaps about his delightful wig

I like James' appropriate choice of JAMES Monroe. Gave me good feelings to see the man who presided over the Era of Good Feelings. Plus, the theme density is already so high — 11/12/15/12/11 creates high demands upon a 15x puzzle — that having MARILYN MONROE's awkward 13-letter length would have likely required a lot more gluey bits that we see now.

I love a clever wordplay clue, and I find it even better when it doesn't need a question mark. So to have one on a themer is pretty much ideal. [Group you can rely on when it counts] is brilliant for CENSUS BUREAU. Plus, it reminds me of one of the best SNL sketches ever.

Wed 1/28/2015
IVEGOTELKALL
RAHRAHROOMRIO
INLATERUNALONG
SEEPJUSTTHEWAY
ERESILO
IWANTTOTAKEKAI
ROGUESHAIRCOMB
AWETYOUODAS
TENSPOTSINNATE
EDTUNDERMYSKIN
IREIPSO
NEEDISLOVELSAT
IMPOSTERAPIECE
TIETEALCONTRA
AREPRYHIGHER

Cross-referenced clues often distract me, and I had a bit of trouble figuring out all the connections. It took me a while to figure out a good way to help visualize the word chains, but some color coding helped me appreciate the symmetry Gary incorporated.

The "cooler" colors show the NW to SE progression, blue-gray-blue and green-gray-green, nicely symmetrical. The "warmer" colors show the NE to SW flow, brown-gray-brown and red-gray-red, also pleasantly symmetrical.

It might look simply like a four-themer puzzle, but those shorties in row 1 and 15 ratchet up the level of difficulty. The six-letter entries in particular are always harder than I expect. HIGHER in that lower right corner, already sitting in a big chunk of white space, has interactions with both NEED IS LOVE and UNDER MY SKIN. Many constraints, all over the grid.

I didn't know I WANT TO TAKE YOU HIGHER, but it amusing to watch Mike Douglas do some very awkward introductions.

POW Thu 1/29/2015
ESASHAIGMACAW
SACKLUNCHALOHA
CUTOUTTHEROMAN
ADORNSRAIN
PINTAPEKINGMAN
ESETEATIMEALA
HITMANGTOS
THEICECOMETH
HELPMANANA
ERAALABAMAASS
MANFRIDAYRANCH
AGUAMODELA
MANDYMIDDLEMAN
EXCELEMAILLIST
GEODESARIEASY

★ Sometimes I miss the cleverness a puzzle brings. Today, I wondered why AGUA was a Latin American capital — perhaps it was a currency unit of Guatemala or Nicaragua? And the theme didn't really make sense to me. I saw the sets of two MAN entries "spread out" from where they were supposed to be, but that seemed like it didn't really jive with CUT OUT THE / MIDDLEMAN. So I shrugged and went on with my day.

One of the many great things about providing daily commentary about puzzles is that it forces me to go back and revisit them. Not only does it help my own construction skill development, but I uncover elements I missed the first time around. So to finally grok that AGUA was actually (MAN)AGUA, with the middle of three MAN entries cut out … yes! A great a-ha moment.

I was SO sure there was an Oscar-winner called "Rain" ...

The same goes for RAIN(MAN)'s middle MAN cut out, and THE ICE(MAN) COMETH as well. I particularly liked that central one, the cut out MAN sitting in the middle of HIT(MAN) and (MAN)ANA.

I'll explain Will's and then John's cryptic clue for ETA, since I still didn't get it after John hinted above at its awesomeness. (I had to ask John about it, FYI.) Apparently when fraternities and sororities launch new chapters at different schools, they label them with Greek letters, i.e. the first chapter is the Alpha Chapter, the second is the Beta Chapter, etc. So although it requires a deep understanding of an esoteric subject, but the repurposing of the bankruptcy term "Chapter 7" is really neat.

I might have liked all the MAN entries to be more hidden as in MANDY and MANAGUA, but overall, a beautiful, clean execution on a great idea. I know it's not currently possible, but how awesome would it be to open up your newspaper and find three chunks physically cut out of your crossword, like so?

Fri 1/30/2015
SHREWDCASBAH
HOTWIREBEDELIA
EPEEISTREAGENT
DESSCHOOLSOUT
PHARAOHS
CARTOONEDMOW
AWHIRLLANDLINE
FAINTLYXEROXED
FINESSESFUMING
ETEALLEMANDE
OFFHOURS
SACRAMENTOMEG
PANTERAGILMORE
ENTERINSTORAGE
PASTESISITOK

Unusual layout today, built around pairs of feature entries intersecting. What a beautiful set in PHARAOHS / WII SPORTS / SCHOOLS OUT / DR SCHOLLS. Something old, something new, something hard rock, something you can put in a moc. I like the diversity of answers from a wide range of subjects; something for everyone.

The good folks at Panera Bread. Er, Pantera.

Jim and I have recently had some thought-provoking discussions about "what is good fill" as we prepare to make word lists available. SANA is an interesting example, as Rich Norris mentioned to me a few years ago that he couldn't justify having it in crosswords anymore, as SANA'A is the generally accepted spelling. But it's perfectly fine for Will, as he's used it several times in recent memory. So much of "good fill" and "bad fill" is subjective.

I had trouble with both the PANTERA / FARIS crossing, as well as the BEDELIA / SEGOS crossing (SAGO and SEGO are so hard to keep straight). I liked learning all the three names I hadn't known, but learning each one separately would have been preferable for me.

Overall, I liked David's vibe, saying YEAH MAN! to the beautiful DRUM SOLO with its hard-hitting [Hard-hitting musical performance?] clue.

Sat 1/31/2015
CARLSJRHEARTHS
AREOLAEORDERUP
NUTCAKEONADIME
AGEMELIKEYSOL
DULYIBMSCTRL
ALLESNEEBLAME
ASSADGUYLINER
BYOBPROP
OHBOOHOOSKOAL
NORSKDPTEFLAT
ETESBYESFOTO
MIACATCHOWHET
ITSEASYIMAWARE
LETSRIPRECROOM
EMSPACETROYENS

So much great material with a colloquial bent. We often get a nice OH BOO HOO type of entry, but to have HOOK ME UP, YES BOSS, HUMOR ME … me likey! (I used to wonder if that last one was a bit offensive to Asians, but me likey it too much not to use in regular conversation.)

The Yeti has been found!

Themelesses featuring relatively short entries often make for very difficult solves, and this was the case for me today. With a grid-spanning feature answer, there are so many toeholds available to drop in a letter here, a letter there, allowing you to crack it. Even an 8-letter entry will often fall, as GUYLINER did for me, with just two crossing letters.

A 7-letter answer often provides only one or two easy crosses, and sometimes there's nary a letter to help out. Trying to get HEARTHS off just the beginning H, or ARUGULA off just the ending A, is a skill I still have not developed. Great brain workout, but very difficult.

As a cat lover, I have to point out the genius of [Himalayan food, maybe]. I wasn't aware of the Himalayan cat breed before. Oh man, that thing is funny looking! (Humor me, me likey.)