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Puzzles for January, 2018
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (26)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (2)Hide comments
Mon 1/1/2018
MARCOMOATSMIG
OWNUPVANDALACA
BLAZEOFGLORYKEG
CRAWONTPECS
PTBOATAAAAANAT
FEEBURNINGLOVE
CALAMARIPOSER
ETERNALFLAME
SPATEOILSANDS
LIGHTMYFIRESHH
AQUAROANWISELY
SUETPUTSYNC
HARDISCOINFERNO
ENEIBEAMSENVOY
STDABETSRESTS

Wordplay on "torch songs" today. Given my severe deficiencies in pop culture, I was thrilled to have recognized Jon Bon Jovi! But BLAZE OF GLORY? Maybe that was some witty reference to his … horse named Glory? BURNING LOVE ... maybe Elvis burned … Valentine's Day hearts? You know ... showing his disdain for the holiday?

Okay, maybe you don't know.

For those who haven't already snorted their way out of reading the rest of this post, these are all famous songs involving some sort of fire, thus making them a "torch song."

Putting aside my deficiencies, I imagine this could be a perfect Monday puzzle for pop music fans. Nice and consistent, each song title relating to fire somehow. And each of the songs Matt chose seem famous enough to be crossworthy.

I would have pegged it for a Wednesday puzzle, though, especially given a couple aspects of the fill:

  • The trio of PALOMA, OIL SANDS (an "unconventional" petroleum deposit), LLEWYN might elicit a "I have to know trivia" response from novice solvers
  • The ONT / ADONAI crossing could be rough for newbs
  • ANAT, AAAA, PFC, ENE, STD is more crossword glue than I think a newer solver should be subjected to

I did like some of the bonuses, PIQUANT, BELEAGUERED, ICE CAVE, PT BOAT, FAT CAT helping keep my interest through the solve. I'm okay with the trade-offs, paying all the aforementioned prices for all these lovely entries … in a later-week puzzle. Not as much for a Monday.

Nice idea, good wordplay riffing on the term "torch song." Didn't resonate with me, but I think a certain segment of solvers will love it.

Tue 1/2/2018
COMAORCASPREP
SLAMNEALECOME
TAKEITSLOWSOAR
VOLGALENSKIT
INPENPAIL
SINAIMOVEAHEAD
AHATAIWANLYLE
RAPEGGLDSEEL
ADAMERNESTART
HAVEASEATAORTA
BATSISBNS
ALLKIEVOZAWA
BALDSTEALAKISS
USESPATIOARIA
TTYLSLEDSNEAP

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"!

Wed 1/3/2018
JAZZSLAVFLAG
ALEEOCALAAURA
ITSNACHOPROBLEM
LOTRTESINFUSE
ITEMCATO
LETSTACOBOUTIT
SALTYHALRONA
TUBGAILYTON
ARODELMOPENS
YAWANNAPIZZAME
TOESTOAT
RIDEUPGROWSIP
ICANNOLIIMAGINE
PERUOOZESURGE
SENTLOADVEEP

Food puns! Not sure why these four were chosen since there are thousands of foods out there? Maybe ... NACHOs as a starter, with some TACOs, then PIZZA, wrapping it all up with CANNOLI?

Sounds like a recipe for heartburn!

Man, I'm old.

I'm terrible at judging puns. "It's not your problem" becoming ITS NACHO PROBLEM felt somewhat amusing, although grammatically it felt tortured. Same with LETS TACO BOUT IT.

Shouldn't the resulting phrase be at least remotely grammatically correct? I mean, "it's A nacho problem" sounds okay. "You wanna pizza?" kind of works. But of course, those would be riffing on nonsensical base phrases.

This is probably why I've had so few pun themes accepted over the years. Stupid brain, stop being so irritatingly logical!

Loved getting FAB FOUR, GENE POOL, even DATE NUT, and kicking off the puzzle with some JAZZ.

Only a bit of fill sticking out as construction glue: RTES, IN ONE, ALP, OCALA. The lone exception was INGE, easily avoidable in the unconstrained SE corner. But even that I can understand — he's a famous enough playwright that he's crossworthy in some minds, and I can see that GUV / VEEP might be worth the trade-off to some. Strong execution overall.

That clue for RIDE UP made me laugh. Dunno why it's so funny to see my three-year-old yank at her underwear.

I would have liked more laughs out of the puzzle, or at least a natural meal progression like SOUP, SALAD, PIZZA, CANNOLI. Still, some bonuses and the mostly smooth grid kept me engaged.

Thu 1/4/2018
12DOWNARFACT1
STEVIEREACRE8
IOLANIMACARENA
ERAELLMELACC
SENSLABCASTER
DOTETARANTINO
ENTERERANTS
4WARDINGADDRESS
4AGEMEANSIT
ALLOWEDINDUOS
CRISISNEVPRES
RUTETSXIISAW
OSTINATOENRICO
SEEDMAXDMINOR
SSRSPRY48DOWN

Dan asked me to look at this in its early stages. I felt it had a lot of potential, but I found it so hard to explain the theme. Let's see if I can do it without discombobulating everyone:

  • Entries refer to other entries (1-Across is 12 DOWN, which points to the entry at 12-Down)
  • The clue from one reference is the entry at the other reference
  • Numbers are used, but as homophones in the crossing direction
  • It's all tied together by 4WARDING ADDRESS

Still with me? Didn't think so.

Okay, 1-Down isn't 1SIES, but ONESIES. 2-Down is 2TORED = TUTORED. And 1-Across is clued as [Ten cents], which is the entry at 12-Down. And 12 DOWN is the entry at 1-Across.

Whew!

Plenty of puzzles have used cross-referencing, numbers in grids, homophones, even clues duped as entries — but the combination feels like something different and unique.

One point I made to Dan was that it would be a lot better if it weren't random entries that were duped from clue to entry. Why SEA COW, MACARENA, etc.? "Just because they fit" usually isn't a good enough rationale for me. It'd be orders of magnitude harder — maybe impossible — to work in entries that hint at the puzzle's theme (maybe DUPLICATION, CLONING, EVIL TWIN, etc.). So I like the balance he achieved, giving us some snazzier answers in TEN CENTS and MACARENA.

I liked a lot of the bonuses in the fill — TIME STAMP, STARTUP, TARANTINO, CREATINE. And Dan kept his short fill fairly smooth, a tough task given all the themers packed into the grid. SSRS and WIEN were cringe-y outliers, but ELL, NEV, PRES, SENS are mostly ignorable.

I would have liked more bonuses, as things like REANNEX, ENTERER, ALLOWED IN all felt neutral to negative, but that's tough to do given how much real estate the themers take up.

All in all, I appreciated the novelty of the solve. It felt different. I think different is a great thing for crosswords.

Fri 1/5/2018
SMACKDOWNWHALE
TAMALEPIEHOMEY
RHINEGOLDIRENE
ARTEARLITSSAD
YEOWSTANDEE
BAHOREOSSPF
BALLETDONATETO
ONALARKSOLOCUP
WEMADEITTETRIS
EWECAROMSEE
NOTSPAMSTAT
BADGUYGRASWHO
OCEANBEACHCOMB
ORBITCACAOTREE
ROTOSCRAWDADDY

SMACKDOWN above RHINEGOLD — talk about something for everyone! Love the variety.

A 72-word puzzle has to be jazzy, with every single long slot used to its max. I used to watch a ton of WWE as a kid (sad, I know), so SMACKDOWN made me smile. I'm not an opera fan, but I appreciate Wagner. And RHINEGOLD is an interesting word.

BEACH COMB, yes! CACAO TREE yes! (Have you ever seen cacao fruit? Disgusting, hard to imagine how it transforms into chocolate.)

CRAWDADDY … mostly yes? Seems like this is a term in use, although it didn't ring true to my ear at first.

STANDEE ... not so much. DONATE TO is fine, but it's not going to win any awards.

AM I TO BLAME … I'm not sure on this one. I like it just fine, but is it a standout? NOT SPAM is the same. I see this phrase all the time with Gmail, but there's something about it that makes it seem slightly iffy as a crossword entry.

And HEADCOUNTS … occasionally people ask me how many plurals is too many in one puzzle, and I scratch my head. Why does it matter, if they're all normal words / entries? HEADCOUNTS does feel more sparkly in the singular, though. Totally subjective, since the plural HEADCOUNTS is dictionary supported.

Short fill. A 72-word puzzle must be ultra-clean. A bit of NEOS, GRAS, ROTOS, ACRO wouldn't be terrible in a tougher construction. But a 72-word themeless is not much of a challenge (unless you're working in a lot of rare letters, grid-spanning entries, etc.). So it's way too much in this puzzle.

That SW corner was particularly problematic for me, with ACRO / ROTOS jammed in. (I think NGAIO Marsh is crossworthy.) Maybe a cheater square at the S of HEADCOUNTS would have solved the problem.

Some nice feature entries — love me some SMACKDOWN! — but not quite enough sparkle or cleanliness to make the puzzle stand out.

POW Sat 1/6/2018
BELTWALTZACTS
ONEATATIMEZAHN
BRAKEFLUIDEPEE
CADENTSTRIFE
AGUASEESHATER
TEPIDGNOMEADS
MAJORLABELS
DARETODREAM
LITTERBOXES
COGGRIEFBYLAW
HAIKUPDFSRENO
INCANTPLINKO
COATVOODOODOLL
HUMEPOWERLEVEL
ITSYGFLATROSY

★ A triple of MAJOR LABELS / DARE TO DREAM (love it!) / LITTERBOXES with a funny "kitty corner" clue makes for a great centerpiece. Getting DART GUN, EGO TRIP, EASY RIDER, and THE BEEB (nickname for BBC) running through it makes it outstanding.

Stairstacks like this depend on the NW / SE corners to give extra sizzle, and Peter delivers on both counts. VOODOO DOLL was my favorite entry, and the awesome "sticking point" clue made it even better. POWER LEVEL was a fun one for this huge "Clash Royale" player (giant + night witch is my deck of choice).

Not as wild about TAKE AIM AT in the other corner — felt more neutral than an asset, given that added preposition — but ONE AT A TIME makes me imagine some poor bureaucrat imploring people to wait. And BRAKE FLUID is pretty good.

Stairstack puzzles can finally eke out a bit more juice in the SW / NE corners, but this is a tough task, given that these corners are already constrained by that middle stair stack. CAPITAL M was good, especially since it misdirects to the ENVELOPE in the Gmail logo — sneaky that both are eight letters! — but DIGICAMS and LOAN OUT didn't do much for me.

I normally love THE FEDS as an entry, but the minor dupe with THE BEEB nearby felt inelegant.

Such a smooth puzzle, maybe just INCANT a bit of an odd duck. So few constructors can get so much snazz packed into a 68-word grid without relying on any short crossword glue as a crutch.

Overall, another beaut from one of my favorite themeless constructors.

Sun 1/7/2018VOWEL PLAY
JULSPASSMARMCORA
UNITORTALOADERAPEX
DEALAMEALANNALSRIDE
ASSESSDIEMSPICYFOOD
HYENATRIJETSKIDS
ITOSTINESUMER
DAMNFOULCALLPOSEDAS
ELISATSEALIPOSSALT
VANTAGEMINEDNBA
TOREATSATINSUBGUM
WHOMITRICKSTERPREMP
HERBALAMICALAGEAR
ELESAHIBRADIORA
LLODCANITIRWINDUIN
POSITEDCHOCHANGESPN
GOYASETHELSAD
TRIGGAINSONTRAIT
WHATATOOLERISLAUNCH
HELISTROBESTRINGTIE
ATOZKISSEDHOUNDESS
MANESTEEDPESTSTP

Some VOWEL PLAY today (a nice pun on "foul play"). Entries work two ways, using different sets of vowels, and both two vowels in each of the special squares are used in the crossing direction.

Terrible explanation.

An example: 22-Across can be either DEAL A MEAL or DAILY MAIL. That second square, either E or A, uses both E and A in the crossing word, UNEASY.

Some fun finds, MINT OREOS / MANTA RAY my favorite. Not as impressed with things like DANGEROUS / DUNGAREES, as both are fairly utilitarian words.

I wish there had been a better way to present this. In the grid below, it's so tough to see the words MINT OREOS and MANTA RAY. Maybe if all the themers had been laid out in the across direction, and the diagonal slashes were replaced by horizontal ones?

I liked some of the bonuses in the fill, LENINS TOMB the standout. DIGITIZE was good, too. But I'm used to seeing more in David's puzzles.

Granted, the theme constraints are huge — an enormous number of double-letter crossings to work through — but along with some oddballs in RHENISH, ATANDT (AT&T), and SUBGUM (I eat a lot of Chinese food, but I struggled mightily to fill this in), I might have preferred fewer themers and better overall fill.

I did appreciate how smooth David kept the grid, a tremendous accomplishment given the theme's technical difficulty. To keep it to some UNI, ESS, JUL, HELI shows a ton of attention to detail.

Some interesting finds in a concept that I don't remember seeing before. Reminded me a little of "Split Decisions," a puzzle type Fred Piscop has been making for a while now.

Mon 1/8/2018
DOTEGOADELKS
ETESHORSEMALA
AHASISTHATOKAY
RECUHOHNYJETS
GLASSOFOJCIRCA
OLDWESTIDOSHH
DODOFLUBS
YOUWILLOBEY
PRICYLETO
RASBIBSTCLAIR
AVEDAMILOOSHEA
SILENTPERMFIN
CAFEAULAITZING
ARIDLODGEANTE
LYESLUSHCEOS

Rhymers, OKAY / OJ / OBEY / OSHEA / AU LAIT at the ends of themers. Bonus points for ending an entry with a J. That ...FOJ string looks so neatly bizarre! AU LAIT was an interesting one too, tougher to uncover than the others. I was expecting an O' somewhere (Cafe O'Lait = Irish coffee?).

Rhyming words have been mined for many crosswords, so it's important to go above and beyond with some extra layer. Here, I like Sam's tightness, nearly covering the solution space of O-?AY rhymers. The only other ones I could think of were OIL OF OLAY (oil of au lait?) and ANITA O'DAY. Something elegant about using a complete(ish) set.

CAFÉ AU LAIT is a great entry in its own right. MILO O'SHEA is definitely crossworthy, although he might be on the cusp of what an educated solver (especially a newer one) ought to know.

GLASS OF OJ … I hesitated at first, as the phrase didn't feel solid enough for my taste. But it's something I've said at diners, so I'm not sure why it didn't strike me as strongly as CAFÉ AU LAIT.

I had the same reaction to IS THAT OKAY. It doesn't feel like something I'd strive to work into a crossword. YOU WILL OBEY left me with the same feeling. Maybe I haven't been to enough hypnosis acts?

Audacious layout. I said DEAR GOD to myself when I turned up ETES and ESS within seconds of starting the grid — neither is friendly to beginning solvers. Thankfully, OTHELLO and TEA CADDY felt worthy of those prices.

KLATCH might be a toughie for newer solvers, as might be MALA fide. And the crossing of URBANA / AVEDA could be a trap that takes away a solver's feeling of accomplishment … if they guessed URBINA or URBENA I would be sympathetic. All in all, I would have preferred a grid layout that didn't push the Monday boundaries so much. Breaking up the four corners more would have been my preference.

Overall though, I appreciated that Sam gave us something a little more than a standard rhyming theme.

ADDED NOTE: Glad I read Sam's commentary! I didn't realize the short-short-short-long pattern of syllables! That's a neat extra layer. Wish there had been some revealer in the grid to point it out.

Tue 1/9/2018
JOBSSLATSSTAR
ORALPOREPAUSE
HERORAPTANGST
NORTHAMERICA
HAYLIVEALIE
IOSICESEXOTB
ANTITANKSAAB
MEETINTHEMIDDLE
BILEZOOTSUIT
ILLTBSSNOPAS
CLAMBAKEKFC
STROBEEFFECT
INANEROSYLULU
LIMBSTOMEARAB
EXACTSKEDTONE

MEAT IN THE MIDDLE really ought to be a thing. A restaurant chain specializing in turduckens?

A couple of good finds, BEEF in the middle of STROBE EFFECT particularly strong. Always neat to see longer words with rare(ish) letters smack dab in the middle of snazzy phrases. VEAL inside LIVE A LIE was good too.

I wasn't as hot on LAMB inside CLAMBAKE as 1.) it's not as interesting to me to have a word hidden completely inside a single word (across two words feels more fun), and 2.) isn't CLAM another type of meat? Sort of? The other, other white meat? Felt a little odd to have the double meatiness.

And HAM is easier to find within phrases like FIFTH AMENDMENT, LAUGH A MINUTE, ALPHA MALE, etc. Three-letter hidden words don't catch my attention as much since they're easier to uncover.

I loved ANTI TANK and ZOOT SUIT! Great bonuses. Typically I'd be worried about them laid out in the across direction since that could muddy up theme vs. fill. But since there aren't any shaded letters in these guys, it's fine.

Other goodies in SPRAY CAN, SKORTS, and SPACE X. Excellent bonuses for all the vegetarian solvers out there!

Not as smooth as I'd like in an early-week puzzle, though. I hitched early on with ARPEL, but thank goodness all the crossings were easy. I'm okay to learn a new brand name. Not as okay to run into OTB, SDS (I think it's a fine entry, but many newer solvers might not be familiar with Students for a Democratic Society), IT OFF, SNO, ITE, SKED. Two or three of these and a puzzle loses its feeling of elegance and craftsmanship.

It's hard to say what might have helped. Maybe not stacking NORTH AMERICA and LIVE A LIE? Putting LIVE A LIE in row 3 and NORTH AMERICA in row 5 might have spaced things out better.

Overall, a solid hidden-word theme using a fun reVEALer, but I would have liked some rework to improve smoothness, even if it meant reducing some of the snazziness.

Wed 1/10/2018
DIALOGWISEASS
IMPALABANKSHOT
LAPSATORNATELY
ALLEYOOPSTEA
TOEDPSASDMZ
ENTGMCWELCOME
SEVAREIDLEAFED
FASTBREAK
ATHENSLINSEEDS
CROWDEDFATMEH
TIOSEALWINO
KGBFREETHROW
ASSUAGESCREATE
FOULLINEHITTER
TOPPLEDOBSESS

Plays on basketball terms! ALLEY OOPS as a bowling flub made me laugh, as did FOUL LINE = something a censor has to bleep out.

Great to get so much bonus material, too. The grid was packed with such goodies as WISEASS, APPLE TV, HOOKS UP, and an ejected player hitting the SHOWERS. Along with Eric SEVAREID and a fun wordplay clue in DILATES (eye pupils, not student pupils!), that's a lot of good stuff.

It almost felt like a little too much. When your themers all have question marked clues, it's important not to have too many other question marked clues in the grid, for fear of muddying up theme vs. fill. With DILATES and WISEASS in such prominent positions within the grid, I wasn't sure if I was missing some theme material. I mean, Dennis Rodman is a WISEASS, right?

It's unusual to put themers in row 2, so that also muddied things up for me. It wasn't hard to pick out the five themers, but it wasn't easy, either. I would have liked a more standard layout, with themers in rows 3 / 13 instead of 2 / 14.

I know, us regular solvers are so annoyingly demanding about our crossword conventions!

A bit too much crossword glue in SKAT / ESTE, DBL, SOO, GIE. I can understand the constructors' decision to prioritize snazziness over smoothness, but it felt like the prices I had to pay as a solver were too high. I would have preferred a less audacious grid, perhaps breaking up WISEASS / TOPPLED, and/or SEVAREID / LINSEEDS.

As a big basketball fan myself (well, until I tore my Achilles playing one-on-one last year), I enjoyed the hoops wordplay. I also liked that the constructors selected terms that would be mostly accessible even to non-fans. As much as I like more specialized lingo like DOUBLE DRIBBLE, or SHOT CLOCK, terms like FAST BREAK are more accessible to a larger number of solvers.

Thu 1/11/2018
ABRABOPITNTH
SAULJEWISHOUI
PLEASELETMEFIN-
ISHCLASHBASIC
CALPOLYTIDES
HWYARABS
ANTIRETELLBAA
DOILOOKLIKEIMD-
ONEPLEADSDIAZ
MELDSTWO
MAINSMRISCAN
SALMAATEAMRIO
QUIETIWASSPEAK-
INGABLUSHEVEN
NANBOSSYKENO

Lines from someone who was interrupted … and the lines themselves are interrupted! Novel idea, using hyphens for line breaks. PLEASE LET ME FIN-ISH was perfect, as it's so apt to the theme, and ISH ends up being a perfectly fine crossword entry in its own right.

DO I LOOK LIKE I'M D-ONE didn't feel as strong, as the phrase didn't hit my ear very well, and it felt odd to hyphenate a single-syllable word.

QUIET I WAS SPEAK-ING was somewhere in the middle for me — I liked the more natural hyphenation, but the QUIET at the front felt added on for bulk.

Strong choices in the crossing hyphenated words. HI-C, A-Z, NO-NO all solid. I would have liked some longer ones, but due to the layout of the theme — three (almost!) grid-spanning themers, that wouldn't have been possible.

Would have also been nice to get a fourth themer, but again, that's not possible since the crossing entries have to be in the far right column.

Given that there could only be three long themers, Sam did well to use his freedom and flexibility to incorporate a ton of great fill. THE BIBLE, JELLY ROLLS, TALKS TRASH, OPEN A TAB, CAL POLY, MRI SCAN = fantastic work. When you're forced to keep theme density low, this type of great snazziness in fill is what you should be aiming at.

And to do it with just a bit of HWY, SQIN was great. Great attention to detail left me with a feeling of elegance in craftsmanship.

Fun concept. If all the themers had worked as perfectly for me as PLEASE LET ME FIN-ISH, this would have been the POW!

Fri 1/12/2018
THATSATALLORDER
EACHONETEACHONE
ARAISININTHESUN
MAKEAFRESHSTART
MELOMSTSE
REUPPED
SPAREDNOEXPENSE
CAMELIDECLAIRS
INCLASSDIURNAL
OXOTSP
IMACNACREISAO
RABATMLIDEALT
VICTORIASSECRET
INDEPENDENCEAVE
NEEDSTOSLASHER

What an unusual quad-stack arrangement! Can't remember seeing anything quite like this, featuring both mirror symmetry as well as three additional 15-letter grid-spanners. Talk about audacious! I love that Erik continually pushes his boundaries. Kicking things off with THAT'S A TALL ORDER is right!

Quad-stacks are notorious for 1.) needing a ton of crossword glue to hold them together, 2.) containing grid-spanning entries that are a bit dull, 3.) requiring an excessive amount of common letters (E, R, S, T, etc.).

I thought Erik did pretty well with criterion number 2. THAT'S A TALL ORDER is great. MAKE A FRESH START, too. A RAISIN IN THE SUN has been used in a many a triple- or quad-stack, so it loses some points from me, but there's no doubt that it's crossworthy.

I wasn't familiar with EACH ONE TEACH ONE, but what a neat phrase to learn. Took me a while to grok its meaning, but it's a great way to emphasize the importance of passing on one's learnings, making for an exponential passing on of knowledge.

Criterion number 1 … well, quad stacks are tough. There are so many uber-constrained crossings to work through. Can't say I enjoyed A CAKE, A TIEMPO, LATH, ENURE (inure more commonly, yeah?), TSE, the tough HARAM / MEL crossing, all at the top of the puzzle. About par for the course for a quad-stack.

Quad-stacks usually have so many compromises that I was super glad to wash away some of them with all the other feature material in SPARED NO EXPENSE, VICTORIA'S SECRET, even INDEPENDENCE AVE. ECLAIRS and EAR PIECES also helped make me feel like I got my money's worth out of this puzzle.

The bottom of the puzzle was much more to my taste than the quad-stack, in terms of trade-offs — two strong grid-spanners, with just a bit of RET, DECA, ISAO.

Overall, I like seeing new patterns, new construction challenges in themelesses. The quad-stack didn't quite stand out for me given the liabilities needed to hold it together, but I did like the grid-spanning entries more than in usual quad-stacks. And the bottom of the puzzle worked well for me.

Sat 1/13/2018
FACESMAJORCA
ERAGONUSOTOUR
LANGUORSTATUTE
IMIMPRESSEDGTO
ZINCMAKERPHIL
SEMIARIDPRIMA
SUCRESWRITER
FEARHAID
SELFIEBITSEC
PLAINSORESPOT
EDENEULERALIS
CURUNITEDFRONT
IQTESTSSOLANGE
FUELERSGODEEP
YESISEEWELSH

Eye-catching pattern! Hit my sweet spot of using black squares to create a visually-pleasing backdrop, while not using TOO many. Did you notice that the grid is also symmetric about the SW to NE axis? Elegant!

Some great entries, too. Loved PRIDE PARADE / UNITED FRONT and EGG MCMUFFINS / IM IMPRESSED in the longest slots — now that's the way to squeeze the most out of those all-important spaces!

Not a lot of other long slots, but they were also well-used in WATER DOG / SORE SPOT and NORMA RAE / SEMIARID … well, three out of four ain't bad. SEMIARID is pretty dry. (*rimshot*)

I love how NORMA RAE was elevated by its clue. It's not a movie that sticks in my head, but to clue it so innocently with [Field work] (it starred Sally Field) makes it shine.

Same goes for USO TOUR. Kind of old-timey feeling as an entry, but again, [Hope was once its driving force] obfuscates innocently away from (Bob) Hope.

Speaking of seven-letter entries, Alan did a nice job of using his mid-length slots. They're often tough to convert into snazzy material, but IQ TESTS is lovely, as are ROUGH IT, CUT TIME (classical music is often in 4/4 time, and CUT TIME halves it to 2/2).

EL DUQUE … I vaguely remember him because of his awesome nickname, but I don't know if he's crossworthy? Granted, he won four rings, but will he make it to the Hall of Fame? Not sure if he's someone all educated solvers ought to know.

BIT SEC … I'm somewhat tech-savvy, but this one's new for me. Not sure it's the type of debut entry one should strive for. Mb/sec is more common, yeah?

And Charles HAID … he had his day, back in the day. But not sure he's earned his crossworthiness.

Beautiful pattern of black squares, some great feature answers, mostly smooth flow to the puzzle. If Alan had been able to avoid the aforementioned clunkers (plus OTT, ALIS, AREOLAR, REARER), it would have been in POW! contention. It's so tough to make a wide-open 64-worder like this work without those types of compromises, though.

POW Sun 1/14/2018SUPREME INTELLIGENCE
DANTONINSCALIASES
EMAILEDOPUSNEWWAVE
WANNABEFORTASIATIC
ANNESABOTEURANSEL
RAYSIOSPIBBHEEL
UMPEDGODARKNSA
THEPEARLWARRENTSTO
HENRYVIAIMSIR
ELLISCALLEDITVIOLA
BLINPEELORNATEROC
OBSTRUCTIONOFJUSTICE
SOTIBANEZNUMBHEAT
SYSOPPASADENALENTO
NPRREDHEARTEN
TOHELENAKAGANYMEDE
ATEEGESTSCOLDS
BRASIDOLBOTSHAG
ADHOCCAPUCHINOAHU
ANSONIASOTOMAYORAL
STUPIDSTOTODIETTIP
HOPSTEPHENBREYERS

★ I'll admit, I had no idea what was going on until well after I uncovered the OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE revealer. Okay, I'll admit it was well past filling in the last square-- and re-reading the clue for OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE several times — before I finally figured it out.

Check out row 3 — ABE FORTAS is hiding in there, "obstructed" in two spots by black squares! Same in row 7, with EARL WARREN similarly "obstructed." So cool to see long, full names hidden throughout the grid. ELENA KAGAN within TO HELEN / AKA / GANYMEDE is beautiful.

So although it took some work and an embarrassingly long time to grok, what a neat a-ha moment when I finally cottoned to the idea. I highlighted the six names below, in case you haven't found them yet.

How awesome would it have been to get all the nine current Supreme Court justices? I spent some time wondering if that would have been possible … not really. Not only is it extremely tough to work in 10 themers (nine justices + OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE), but how are you going to hide JOHN ROBERTS? Stupid -HNR- string of letters! And good luck with RUTH BADER GINSBURG.

Still, a guy can wish.*

Grid played out like a solid themeless for me, loving the WANNABE, SABOTEUR, GO DARK, NEW WAVE, TAJ MAHAL, THE BOSS kind of fill (although I didn't care for the THE dupe, THE BOSS crossing THE PEARL). I enjoyed the solve even without understanding what was going on — so many good bonuses, with just a bit of OLA, NEBS, ANSONIA (how else are you going to hide SONIA, I guess), etc. Felt like an elegant, well-constructed grid.

If Joel could have figured out a way to make it work with all nine current justices, this would have been an easy POY! (year) choice. As is though, a fun, smooth solve, with a beautiful moment of clarity for this constitutional law lover = POW!

*I'm lucky enough to count Will as one of my daily readers. He recently wrote me with some feedback, that some of my wish-list ideas come across as too audacious or even impossible, and therefore aren't that useful. I agree that many of my dreamy notions are impossible, like the one today. Ridiculously impossible! But I'm hoping that these lofty ideas spur on constructors, both veteran and novice, to go on to create bigger and better puzzles. Think big!

Mon 1/15/2018
STPCITGOODOR
IHOPONIONLENO
NEWRELEASEINTO
ODESPROAVIAS
ELKTAXEXEMPT
MERLINLEO
ICKMEMORYIRKS
THECOASTISCLEAR
TOGORUBBERALA
SEEEAGLES
BEGPARDONVID
EXALTARIAREA
GILAFREEATLAST
ALLYRICCISLAB
NESSINKEDSPA

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.

POW Tue 1/16/2018
ADIOSBADPRZIN
ROCHEALIENERA
KTOWNSASSAFRAS
SENESCENCEIOTA
LEOSTENGEL
LOLLIPOPAHI
EMOSAIDOTTOI
FOURLETTERWORDS
TOTESHOMEODE
HATNONSENSE
SWEATERALA
OHMSTATTLETALE
RECHERCHEASCOT
TEEPIKESZUMBA
ALEASSETEPEES

My favorite type of creativity is the ability to merge different ideas from multiple disciplines into something new. David excels at that today, using FOUR LETTER WORDS from English and "four-letter" words from cryptology / frequency analysis to produce a perfect Tuesday theme.

Still haven't figured it out? SASSAFRAS is made up just of A + F + R + S, SENESCENCE = C + E + N + S, etc. As someone who loves trivia and oddities about words, this one was right up my alley. I've heard all sorts of factoids about longest words that can be a different word when read backward, longest words of one syllable, etc. but this was new to me.

I wondered why OMOO would show up in a Steinberg puzzle — he's usually more careful about his short fill ... oh! Seven (!) theme answers is the reason. That'll strain your grid but good.

But! Hardly any other crossword glue. Plus the fun shorties David mentioned, along with Casey STENGEL's awesome nickname, "The Old Perfessor," TETRIS. Now that's the way to make your short fill stand out!

Innovative, entertaining theme + standout execution = POW!

Wed 1/17/2018
ACELASTOAIDEO
DORAGEELSNOVA
DNASAMPLESTWIT
EMAILABUNCH
LAWEXAMDRIFTS
ERATOSEAATE
DRYOFFAVIVALL
GINNIENAPETIA
EVENEMOANTHEM
REGCLOTSERENE
RAHWHOWIRES
STEREOEHOWSET
LATISHRIPON
ORZOAPOSTROPHE
WOKSRUNELIRAS
STYEEPEEDRONE

DOWN FEATHERS … equals "birds hidden within themers in the down direction"? I stared at that revealer for a long time, trying to figure out if I was missing something. Where were the feathers? Perhaps they were drawn onto the print version? Now that would have been cool! We see so many shaded and circled squares — how about some feathered squares!

Some great finds, FINCH inside A GAME OF INCHES, RAVEN inside BRAVE NEW WORLD, etc. Love that Jules went with longish birds. It would have been all too easy to use TIT or OWL or EMU.

The puzzle does need a revealer — something to explain the concept — but DOWN FEATHERS didn't work for me. As much as I love a clever revealer, if you can't find one that feels sharp and/or witty, best to stick with something straightforward like BIRD as your last entry. It won't win any awards, but at least it'll do the trick and not confuse people. (BIRD DROPPINGS is hilariously on point, but it's also pretty gross!)

Good gridwork, especially considering the five long themers. STOA and IDEO up top worried me, but thankfully, just a bit of ESE and RAH otherwise. I would have expected some glop around the EHOW / RIP ON section due to themer overlap, so the smoothness there was much appreciated.

Down-oriented themers … a typical drawback is that the revealer comes too early in the puzzle. Gives away the game! But that can't be helped; just part of a vertical themer layout.

Another problem is that it can be tough to incorporate good long fill, since stuff like DNA SAMPLES (great fill!) tends to get mistaken for theme. Rich Norris over at the LAT frowns upon long across fill like this, and I agree. Best to cap this kind of fill to seven or eight letters, max.

The print edition has so much potential, able to do things that the electronic version can't. I'd love to see more elements like a feather printed lightly atop squares that can help keep the print newspaper alive. Even distinguish it.

Thu 1/18/2018
CAROMBRETTGAP
ONICEOUTERENE
HIGHROBBERYMTA
IMHONBAMOSSES
BATCOEDSULTRA
ALONERUNATRAIN
EMUBOSCTOT
SLOWESTWHALERS
TOVNEEDEMO
ONESTREETPORES
CDROMNEONSEVE
KODIAKPORSVEN
ANOSUBSTATIONS
DENOBOESUNTIE
ERENOWAYBEEFS

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

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

ONE STREET … not kooky enough for me.

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

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

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

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

Fri 1/19/2018
GRABBARPARADOR
RELEASEABILENE
ATLANTALABELED
NOIREPEESSITE
TONBREADEDCOY
SLOPERRRELATE
NITSPYCITES
BEETOVEN
GOPROCOTDEB
ERRORRNAEDATE
MEISTEEPEDLEM
ISNTBASELSAAB
NOTALOTDEFENSE
IMEMINEUNLACED
SERAPESPAYLESS

What's that H doing in the middle of my Friday themeless puzzle? Forming the words BEET(H)OVEN and EARP(H)ONES, that's what! Cool finds, those. EARPHONES aren't totally related to BEETHOVEN — PIANO, MUSICIAN, CLASSICAL MUSIC, SONATAS, etc. are much closer — but the pairing mostly works.

What didn't work for me was running it as a Friday themeless puzzle. It ended up in limbo, caught between three crossworlds:

THEMELESS. I love me a great mini-theme, as long as the rest of the themeless puzzle doesn't get compromised. This mini-theme is pretty good (notwithstanding EARPHONES being not that related to BEETHOVEN). The visual of the H working in the answers is cool.

But I need more snazz out of a themeless than ALL IN ONE PRINTER, DELICATE BALANCE, and … well, that's NOT A LOT. Along with odd BORESOME and PIERO, and some LEM RRR TAMA crossword glue, it didn't meet my (admittedly high) expectations for a themeless.

THEMED. Not nearly enough themage to be a workable mid-week puzzle. It could have gone more in this direction — Beethoven wrote a lot, so there's all sorts of FUR ELISE, MOONLIGHT SONATA, themage possibilities. Even the fact that SCHROEDER of Peanuts was a big fan!

METAPUZZLE. The NYT is missing the boat here. This could have been a fun contest, where solvers submit the name of a famous composer and something that's used to listen to him. Yes! But to do it with a notepad, and have no contest? No prizes? No challenge? No bueno! And if it had been a metapuzzle, David could have gone up to a more reasonable word count of say, 74 or 76, and made the fill more snazzy and smooth.

It's a neat finding, that BEET + large H + OVEN = BEETHOVEN. I wish it had gone solidly into one of the three above camps, though, as trying to straddle these crossword types didn't quite work for me. I can see how others would appreciate the crossover efforts, though. Valiant attempt.

Sat 1/20/2018
BOOPADOOP
SENDALETTER
BIGTICKETITEM
YOSVSHAPESLAP
ESTDTILERSERA
STEEPNINPLAIN
MORLOCKSREASON
ANSELMOHELLENE
SCOTIASALLOWED
TRUESBMIAMATO
EELSPOORSSITU
RAJSYNODALVET
MAJORITYRULES
HOMETHEATER
TEXASSIZE

Beautiful, eye-catching grid! Jim curates our Grid Art page, and he tends to put in more than I would. But this one I have no doubt about — looks like a Magic 8 Ball filled with crossbones! Stunning.

Those corners of black squares (six apiece) don't just help create neat grid art, but they make "turning the corners" so much easier. Those black squares nibbling away, helping stagger the starts of answers, are magic indeed.

Speaking of magic, wow was I surprised to get such goodness in YES MASTER / BOSTON CREAM / SISTER SOULJAH! Heck yeah! That's not supposed to happen with puzzles like this, where so many long stacked answers have to wrap around the full perimeter. (If you're one of those people who doesn't want the magic to be taken away, forget what I said about those black squares in the corners …)

And MAJORITY RULES / HOME THEATER / TEXAS SIZE? Okay, that's equally as good! Seems impossible, even with those chunks of black squares in the corners.

AND BOOP A DOOP (awesome name, even if I didn't recognize it) / BIG TICKET ITEM? Yes! SEND A LETTER didn't do much for me, but so far eight out of nine long slots converted into gold? That's an incredible conversion rate.

Too bad the east section didn't quite live up to the rest. RELEASE WAIVER is okay. MARIONETTES is fun. PANNED OUT didn't quite pan out, those +preposition phrases a bit dull. Still, an incredible quantity of long answers interlocked around the perimeter.

If there hadn't been quite so much in the way of esoteric mid-length entries — ANSELMO, SYNODAL, HELLENE, SARAI, the deadly AMATO / PELLA crossing, this would have been a POW! level themeless. But this type of grid arrangement is so tricky, bound to force compromises somewhere. As much as I loved the perimeter, the middle let the rest of my solving experience down.

I think it's a reasonable trade-off though, as you're bound to have to give up something somewhere with a layout of this difficulty.

Sun 1/21/2018SUBSTITUTES
SCUBAGOPROALOPTWEE
TENOROAREDCAREBEARS
PLAYFORTIMEENDTABLES
ALLSDEEMSNOGGROK
TOLLEDNOTSAFEFORWORK
AIDESEACHUAENEO
CRYFORHELPLEANTTWAS
EPEEALIENANGNEAR
LIDRECIPEFORDISASTER
BASKSLOTSHELENA
ASSENTSGOGOSCANARDS
CHEESEGALANOVAS
TEMPORARYEMPLOYEESNL
DIEMCABEIEIOQEII
SFPDTUDOREARTHQUAKE
HURJUTROTCEATIN
ELIZABETHANERADREYER
VICEBONOEDITTONE
PIANOTRIOTELECOMMUTE
TOTEBOARDEMILEMANED
SUESPHDSSITESANGRY

FORE!

Er, four.

For. No!

Four FORs today!

(I'm definitely not four for four.)

Victor and Andy pair up theme answers, RECIPE FOR DISASTER transforming [Recipe that entails a lot of shaking] into [DISASTER that entails a lot of shaking] = EARTHQUAKE. I like that the clue reads naturally both ways, making it seem so innocent as presented. Good stuff.

The only one that made me hitch was PLAY FOR TIME modifying [Play of Shakespeare] into [TIME of Shakespeare] = ELIZABETHAN ERA. "Shakespearean play," yes. "Play written by Shakespeare," yes. "Play of Shakespeare" … not really. Even without the telltale "remember X-Across" hints, I would have known that something was up.

There are so many X FOR Y phrases out there that this theme initially felt too loosey-goosey for my taste. Yes, crossword symmetry limits the pairings, since it's tough to get everything to match up in length. But it felt too easy to come up with examples, given the dozens of X FOR Y options to work with.

After some thought though, I appreciated that they chose long X and Y words, much harder to work with than "in for it" or "free for all" or things that are less specific. Length matters! Ahem.

As Andy noted, the element today that stood out for me was the bonus fill — so much of the long bonuses sizzled, elevating my solving experience. It's not easy to incorporate eight themers into a Sunday 140-worder, and they did extremely well in grid execution. A ton of fantastic bonuses, while keeping their crossword glue to only a small smattering of minor ERE ESS etc. Very few constructors can execute on a Sunday 140-word grid with such craftsmanship.

Fantastic clues for TESLAS and CHEESE! [They're charged for rides] = people who take cabs and Ubers, right? And [It's said to cause a smile] had to be some happy thought? (It is weird that the word CHEESE forces you to smile. Bizarre.) Beautiful misdirections.

Would have been great to have a sharper a-ha moment — the "remember" hints gave away the game much too easily — but I liked the concept.

Mon 1/22/2018
SCAMSDAMEAFTS
OHFUNRIALCLAP
XACTOEMMASTONE
LEERSABITOLE
QUARTERTONERID
VPSSTEELNINO
CATOATMSMATES
METRICTON
OCTADODORASEA
BLONDERIGPRY
LASIMEANCOMEON
APTEARNEPICS
STANDINGOANTIC
TODOLILASCROD
SNAGSEEKTEENS

EROSION wearing away at the last words of themers today, STONE to TONE to TON to ON to O. Neat how well this works, always shaving off a letter from one of the sides (not from the middle). And the EROSION revealer, so appropriate! Great Monday theme.

I debated whether this should get the POW! or not. Simple theme, just right for a Monday, but also clever and interesting. Pretty strong themers, too, I MEAN, COME ON delightful and STANDING O just as good. Not a lot of crossword glue, either.

And the clues! Loved the one for ERNIE, hinting at the possibility that they're more than just roommates. APT giving an example of "Robin Banks" for a criminal? Paolo's "Seinfeld" obsession showing through again, with details on ELAINE's job at J. Peterman? Delightful!

So why did I pause? While I think the fill is ultimately all fair — I don't see any squares that might seem equally plausible if filled with a different letter — CHALUPA is a toughie. Educated solvers ought to have heard of CATO before, so entering COTO / CHALUPO or CETO / CHALUPE feels like it'd be the solver's fault, not Paolo's. But it's close.

OBLASTS, too. OCTAD is inferable given the OCT- beginning, so no ambiguous squares.

But along with SCROD, the RIAL, LILA Wallace, the grid left me hesitating as to whether I'd give this one to a novice, attempting to get them hooked on crosswords. Didn't pass that test for me, so I felt like I couldn't give it the POW!

Overall though, strong work in the theme idea, themer selections, even in the bonuses like CLAPTON, SPECTRE, FLOOR IT! So close to earning my nod.

Tue 1/23/2018
TWOREIGNSSLOG
AIROCTANETAKE
CPAWHERESOEVER
TENSIONSABRADE
GENCMON
AVENGERRELUVW
MARSGAZAINNER
ELIEOPEDSOPRY
MINDYIDLERAGE
ODDACEEMPTIER
CHARLOD
SOSOONISTANBUL
PREMONITIONITO
EZRAEMERGELEA
COBSSPREADLSD

Everyone, SPREAD out! At first, I was turned off by the visually jarring shotgun spray of circles strewn across the grid, but I ended up liking the general effect after figuring out what was going on. The longer ones — MAGAZINE and MIDDLE AGE spreads — were particularly nice.

I've seen this concept with various letters SPREAD through a single entry many times, most recently a few months ago, but never spread across a full row. Nice way to get the longer SPREADs worked in.

Being able to spread letters across an entire row gives a ton of flexibility. Look at how many spots the letters W I N G can go. Shift them all around to heaven and back!

Using six theme rows — plus the SPREAD revealer! — takes most of that flexibility away, and then some. It's particularly difficult in the middle of the puzzle, where you have so many MAGAZINE and MIDDLE AGE letters that get crammed into those two close rows. Not a surprise to get some A MEMO SEM OBOLI there.

And UVW, oof! These types of crutch entries are so inelegant that I would have restarted the entire puzzle if it ever came to something like this. Will has his own "puzzle-killers" that DQ a grid just by themselves, and this would have been one of mine.

There's way too much crossword glue needed to pull this audacious grid off. Given how much more impressed I was with MIDDLE AGE (compared to WING), I think sticking to just the four long SPREADs would have resulted in a better puzzle. Might have also allowed for a snazzier long entry than WHERESOEVER — something like CHECK PLEASE or HEATED SEATS or HORSE SENSE.

I like the twist on the SPREAD idea though, using entire rows to accomplish the goal. Great way to pull off the longer SPREADs that other constructors using this concept haven't been able to use.

Wed 1/24/2018
ASPSDIMDRWHO
SIREITALAAHED
AXILSCREENTIME
MAMMOTHCAVEAT
IMPALAEPIEMU
ESTATECARAT
BUSHTAUUPONE
ANTIGENSTEPSIN
TIARAEURSEAN
HONEYCOMBAT
ENDORBMETALS
FORWARDPASSAT
PIANOSTOOLACRE
ROSINEIREROVE
OUTTALADSTAR

Nice example of a standard theme type done well. Kathy adds AT to the ends of four themers, giving kooky results. MAMMOTH CAVE to MAMMOTH CAVEAT was amusing, as were most all of the transformations.

Sometimes people ask me to clarify what I mean by "consistency." Today, Kathy adds AT to the very end of each theme answer. Consistency! She also makes sure that the pronunciation of the changed word gets a big change — CAR and CARAT are very different-sounding words, for example. Consistency!

Two minor inconsistencies: 1.) HONEYCOMB is the only single word base phrase, and 2.) CAR is the only three-letter transformed word (the others are four). Realistically though, not many people will notice (or care) about this.

We perfectionists are an annoying bunch.

And ultimately, the most important aspect by far is whether or not a solver enjoys the theme. I think Kathy did well on that measure.

Strong gridwork. I was particularly taken with how easily she worked in SCREEN TIME and WHITE ROSE without compromises. (U TENN seems to be in use, and I'm a Doctor Who infidel who doesn't care if it's written that way or DR WHO. I know, I just lost all my nerd cred.)

I did want to see a smoother NW corner. A 4x5 region like this, with a long themer and a mid-length entry (IMPALA) sticking out of it, is often tricky. SIX AM felt arbitrary to me, and AXIL — oof. These type of Maleskan words tend to turn off modern solvers in a big way. An extra black square at the I of IMPALA or the S of SELMA could have helped smooth things out.

Even though this is a theme type that's been done over and over and over again, the interesting pronunciation changes and mostly strong execution resulted in a fun solve for me.

POW Thu 1/25/2018
ORESITBYTEC
HITKOREARIVAL
SCUBATANKOLINE
NODEANTSADLOT
ALERTCONCRETES
PASTIMEORSWIG
ONOPHIWINO
ISLANDHOPPING
KNOTOEDTEL
EDUMCSTSELIOT
VERBALISEPIPPA
INNATEUFOAHEM
NIOBEBALTIMORE
SATEDAVOIDNAS
LESMENSAEST

★ Love this theme! Alex interprets ISLAND HOPPING as "skip the island embedded in the phrase/word, resulting in a new word." S(CUBA) TANK to STANK was particularly nice, as was BAL(TIMOR)E to BALE. Beautiful finds.

CON(CRETE)S to CONS wasn't as awesome, as it was odd to get CONCRETES in the plural. VER(BALI)SE to VERSE too — if only we were in Britain! Or VERZE had been a real word. It really should be.

Great execution on the grid. Working with five themers, the middle one sort of cutting the grid in half, is rarely easy. Beautiful results in the big NE corner, EVIL TWIN particularly nice (I'm an identical twin, and clearly the evil one).

The SW corner did contain the awkward pluralised (not -ized, to keep with the Britishising today) KEVINS, but how great are IN DENIAL and SOUR NOTE? Well worth the price of KEVINS.

And two standout clues were the cherries on top:

  • The common phrase, [Back to school], repurposed to describe the typical school email ending, EDU.
  • [Things with entrances and exits] aren't buildings, but (play) SCRIPTS.

Speaking of that, SCRIPTS, TS ELIOT, OH SNAP, MONOCLE, TEFLON — fantastic use of the mid-length slots.

Fun, tricksy theme, excellent execution. I paused slightly before giving this the POW! due to the two themers that made me hitch, but overall, this is very close to my Thursday puzzle ideal.

Fri 1/26/2018
WIKILEAKSSPLIT
ONADOWNERIRONS
RARECOINSTORTA
DNAAKONCINDER
VITALNYRANGERS
OMELETEROS
MAKESAUTURNCAP
ITISOPINEHOBO
TEDSISTERWIVES
APSEEELERS
STILETTOSTORRE
NAPLESLOCKBAS
ALOUDHAWAIIANS
KIDDOEVERSINCE
EASESFIRESIDES

WORD VOMIT! Man, do I know a ton of people with this issue … and COVER BAND, with its fantastically innocent clue: [Act without originality]. That puzzled me for the longest time, but what an a-ha moment when I realized that "act" was a noun, not a verb, in the clue. Two beautiful seed entries.

Themelesses typically feature 12+ longish answers, and constructors try to spread them out as much as possible, for maximum flexibility. Usually, that means putting three in each corner, so that those four stacks don't interact with each other.

Today, Caleb goes big, interlocking six long answers in each of the NW and SE corners. It's so difficult to get six out of six great long answers in a corner like this, without resorting to crossword glue. The NW was pretty darn good — WIKI LEAKS and RARE COINS to go with WORD VOMIT? Yes please! With just ON A DOWNER feeling like a long partial, and some minor IT IS and SRS = very good results.

I wasn't as hot on the SE. POSSESSES feels a bit cheap, what with all those Ss and Es. EVER SINCE takes up room more than shines. ABERRANCE is an interesting word, but it didn't hit me as strongly as COVER BANDS. Still, some nice craftsmanship in that corner to put it together without any crossword glue (EELER generally feels fine to me).

But wait, there's more! Love that Caleb worked in a couple more long entries, MAKESAUTURN looking awesomely French (makes au turn?), and SISTER WIVES jutting into the middle. I wasn't familiar with the latter term, but it makes sense. If a bit icky.

It's too bad that the SW and NE corners felt dull, with so many short words concentrated into those spaces. But a themeless puzzle has to have some shorties, and when you place so many long entries in the other corners, the shorties have to go somewhere.

Overall, a great number of juicy entries. I sometimes feel like a moron doing Caleb's puzzles — I'm not hip enough to fully appreciate them — so I was relieved to only get that feeling from AKON, LORDE, and TALIA al Ghul today. And this Batman fan really ought to have known that last one.

Sat 1/27/2018
MIDMARCHABUT
MARIECURIEHEME
ORANGESODAHELM
ZYNGATWERPRAP
ALIENSTONGUE
ROARTRASHMOUTH
TUNBEANPLANTS
CLAMJUICE
BLOODBORNEJOB
THINKYOUNGPAWL
HUGGEDSHANIA
ETASITBYEMEND
LATEERRATAPAGE
ANEWTEAMEVENTS
WIDEFMSTEREO

A Diehl low-word-count themeless! (insert mixture of excitement and apprehension here)

Love those big, juicy, wide-open white spaces in the NW / middle / SE. Yowza, those are tough to fill with color and cleanliness. All three had some great entries and some compromises:

NW: MARIE CURIE! ORANGE SODA! That's the way to anchor a themeless swath.

TUN, eh. MID-MARCH… doesn't that feel arbitrary? Does it open the door for LATE AUGUST, LAST FALL, etc.?

Middle: CLAM JUICE! BLOOD BORNE! With STEADY DIET and EARTHLINGS running through them? Awesome.

BEAN PLANTS … okay. Not exciting, but workable. TRASH MOUTH? Huh? POTTY MOUTH, TRASH TALK, both yes. TRASH MOUTH … not so much.

SE: TEAM EVENTS are fun at the Olympics. FM STEREO isn't exciting anymore, but it does the trick.

ERRATA PAGE … yeah, I guess it works. Maybe it would have been more exciting with a clever clue?

Overall, a real mixture of great and head-scratching stuff. All in all, fair, but tough. Very tough! It's rare for me these days to not finish a Saturday puzzle, and this one defeated me. On the one hand, it made me feel stupid for not being able to overcome the challenge. But it also makes me want to improve for the future.

Keep ‘em coming, Mark! (But maybe, just a tad easier? Please?)

Sun 1/28/2018SURPRISE ENDINGS
CASITABLACKOPSTAP
AVOCETSEARCANDYAIME
REFERTOHUSTLEANDFLOP
PRIAMIPADVEGEYEDUP
TAXIDRIVELBREWERY
ENOCEDEBERG
OJSAWEILOVEYOUMAO
POPTENDSERINUSURP
THECOLOROFMONETROSIE
SNEERLADLECAN
DOSABOUTABOTCAL
SADECASHEDENS
CRAMSBEVERLYHILLSCOW
ACTORACESSAGETAVA
THEBIGCHILIHAIRAG
LOONTSPSPCP
GORDIANSWAMPTHINS
OBERONABSISLEALOHA
LICENCETOKILTPAROLED
DEADERICIDLEEMPTIED
ASPDATALOSSASSETS

When I ask a collaborator to explore the solution space for a theme, I usually get a couple of ideas. Maybe a dozen. Rarely, a Word document.

Pris created a spreadsheet. Awesome!

The spreadsheet grew and grew … doubly awesome!

… to over 300 entries. HEE HEE HEE SQUEE!

I love it when a collaborator is more than willing to put in the work. There are so many *pretty* good movie titles on that spreadsheet, but Pris was never happy until we found one that made us both laugh out loud. Took a long time to hit on LICENCE TO KILT, but man, do I love that one.

Tough grid to put together. I wanted the circled P L O T T W I S T letters (hopefully you noticed that hidden phrase?) to look like they were twisting, like a DNA helix. Crossword symmetry didn't make that perfectly possible, but I hope this layout came close.

My stubbornness to stick with this twisty layout meant we didn't have much flexibility in themer placement. I ended up using more cheater squares than I like, but hopefully it doesn't look too overrun by black squares.

Nine themers is never easy to work with in a Sunday 140-word puzzle, but we tried to include a little bonus fill for everyone. We debated whether TERMINATORS was too close to the theme? But both of us enjoyed that one so much. And then BLACK OPS, EAR CANDY, SPEED DATE, MUSCLE CAR, CELTIC HARPS, ERIC IDLE seemed like they were from different enough walks of life.

Who knows, maybe there's even some SYNERGY there …

Mon 1/29/2018
GOSSIPTGIMESS
LAMARRREDDIWIP
ETALIIALIENATE
NHLSNOWAGNEW
SLYTELLALL
WEBMDATTEMPT
SHOPPETILRULE
TARADMIRALMIA
ELLSIONROBBER
MODELUNIGLOO
VAMOOSEPJS
ESSESPARKUPC
DOWNSIZEANEMIA
NAUTICALCOMBED
ARMYUPSEXTOLS

Who knew that DOWNSIZE-ing could be fun? I've highlighted the key words to make Lynn's creative take stand out. SMALL to MEDIUM to LARGE to … JUMBO? Hard to find a good phrase hiding the word EXTRA LARGE, I suppose!

Loved SMALL WORLD; great phrase. To me, that was the standout of the four themers. MUMBO JUMBO was the snazziest of the bunch, but JUMBO didn't feel quite right in the size progression. I so badly wanted XL — stupid t-shirt industry with its indoctrination!

(We snooty Seattleites know that the proper term for "ridiculously large" is VENTI.)

PRINT MEDIUM … I'm so used to seeing it in the plural, PRINT MEDIA, that I struggled to stretch MEDIA across those last six boxes. And an AT LARGE RACE does appear to be a phrase in usage, but it didn't roll off my tongue as I said it to myself.

Not as smooth as Lynn's Monday puzzles are. Lynn mentioned many of these already, but kicking off with ET ALII, tough for newbies, some OPEL, LASSI (generally fine, but a lot of possibility to turn off newer solvers), ISA, TGI, both ELLS and ESSES. Oof!

Why so much? This layout is a little unusual — the placement of DOWNSIZE takes up valuable real estate. And check out how SMALL WORLD and PRINT MEDIUM aren't staggered, like adjacent themers usually would be. (PRINT MEDIUM would usually be shoved all the way to the bottom of the puzzle, for better spacing.) That creates problems in the NW corner.

But I did appreciate Lynn's efforts to give some bonuses here and there. MODEL UN was great, as was REDDIWIP and VAMOOSE.

Overall, I felt like Lynn's original idea of just a SMALL MEDIUM LARGE progression, along with DOWNSIZE (perhaps split as DOWN / SIZE across the middle row?) would have made for a tidier Monday puzzle. Neat concept, cool idea that I hadn't seen before — but I wouldn't recommend the puzzle as executed to newbies.

POW Tue 1/30/2018
ASUWELSHLIMIT
MERALOHAAGILE
NABRAMENNOODLE
OLAFLARGEST
TENORMOWCPAS
SAHARANTHETA
APPLETONCHANEL
DERSOWPARNAS
READUPKALAMATA
ELWESLEXICON
PELTNYYETTAS
EPOCHALERIN
HOUSEBROKENADO
OUSTSALITOCEO
WRESTSENORESP

★ For early-week puzzles, I like to play the "guess the theme" game. If I can guess it within one or two themers, I usually feel like it's too simple. After uncovering just AF/RAME, I rolled my eyes and said SPLIT LEVEL HOUSE. What a great surprise to have the much more fun HOUSEBROKEN!

Nice to get a humbling Jeff-is-wrong moment once in a while.

(There are a lot of them.)

Something so pretty about those circled letters. Often, circles in puzzles tend to distract me, but I liked these.

Not a lot of sizzling themers, but RAMEN NOODLE and LEXICON were both strong. (READ UP and OLAF aren't going to win any awards. EPOCHAL … huh. It's dictionary supported.)

If Emily had only broken CHALET into CHA/LET, making way for something more interesting, like CAPTCHA … or I GOTCHA!

Speaking of I GOTCHA, I thought Emily shined in her gridwork. URBAN SPRAWL and PENNANT RACE were both fantastic, as were I GOTCHA and SHERMAN, especially working in his "WAR is hell" quote. I even dug THRACE, a throwback to my favorite world history classes.

And then there was the short fill. Great attention to detail! Emily did have a great deal of flexibility, the ___RAN, CH___ patterns having a ton of possibilities, for example. But with so many of them to fill around, many constructors would have ended up with a lot more crossword glue.

Finally, loved that WELSH clue. What a crazy awesome WELSH name, Llwynywermod.

All in all, an excellent Tuesday puzzle, one I'd be happy to recommend to newer solvers. Nothing flashy, but very solid.

Wed 1/31/2018
OFFSTAGEAVIS
DRONESONSNIVEL
SORORITYPINATA
OMAHAMOMENTS
PERPBRUSHES
OMALLEYCATSORE
MINIOREONESS
OMENVOGUE
ERINEPISTLES
LENOMITSNOJOKE
OCTOPODUBER
PREMEDITATED
EUGENEEMERGENC
SIEGELSIMMERED
TRADTDPASSES

Letter(s)-addition puzzles usually have all sorts of themer possibilities, and OM is a pretty common doublet. So it came as a surprise to me that there were so few possibilities. I thought three themers (in addition to PREMEDITATION) would feel thin, so thankfully, there were just enough that worked.

No constructor is dumb enough to use themers of length 12 / 11 / 9 / 11 / 12 (PREMEDITATED had to come last). It's completely inflexible, forces themers to be squished up and causes all sorts of headaches in the middle of your puzzle. No matter how hard we tried though, we couldn't come up with any shorter themers as replacements. Drat!

There were so few possibilities in the layout that I thought the concept might be dead (or necessitate a larger grid). Thankfully, the one you see seemed to work out … although it had a ridiculous number of long slots everywhere in the grid. It felt like there was no way it could all work out, especially given the pesky J within OMITS NO JOKE.

But somehow, it did! There was precisely one possible skeleton — I like to have at least 5-10 to consider — so it was a minor miracle. NET JUDGES isn't something I strive to incorporate usually, but man, did it save our butts.

I didn't intend to make it a low word-count puzzle, but that's what it ended up having to be.

Josh helped figure out what the best options for each corner might be. Fun to do the optometry test — which is more clean and colorful, A, B, or C? Since Josh is doing plays these days, we prioritized getting play-related material in. Glad to work in OFFSTAGE right at 1-A.