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Puzzles for January, 2020
with Jeff Chen comments

Wed 1/1/2020
OHFUNARTCLIP
LEAFSRAMAAONE
MAKOCLINICLOLA
ODESEAUCAVIAR
SSNKELPREVIEWS
PARISEDEN
JAMALTHEEBLOW
ICEITY2KWAIVE
FESSDIOSELVES
EVENPALER
FINDINGDORKALP
ALOHASADOSLOE
MULEENDOFSTORK
EVILREARRANDO
DUELASSOBESE

I enjoyed going back and forth with Christina on grid filling once Will approved the current set. She pointed out that it'd be elegant to not have any other Ys in the grid, so I wrote some quick code to eliminate any entries containing Y.

But it wasn't working. It should work! I told the computer to do everything right! Why the frick would Crossword Compiler tell me that I asked it to accomplish an impossible task?

Ah. The Y in Y2K was already fixed in place. I instructed my computer to use anything that fit a ?Y??? pattern (at 31-D) … using a word list containing no Ys.

It's a good thing I don't work in computer science.

This was the third or fourth puzzle Christina and I developed together, and her speed up the learning curve was amazing. Usually, by this point, I'm still leading the gridding efforts with a newer constructor, but it was Christina's suggestion to insert CALVINBALL, with the surrounding areas tested to make sure they were fillable. So much of the color in the grid is all her.

Thu 1/2/2020
SEALSCONESLET
PLIEEFFECTALE
AFRAIDOFTHEMAN
SPCASTOPGAPS
WAITUNTILHORSE
ORNOITEMPRES
MIAACMEUAR
BEINTHENSTORMY
AVEJAKEEEO
CASKZIONAGAR
AFTERCHOCOLATE
TRADESINURAL
NITTHEDARKSIDE
ACERESORBKNEW
PANOATERSAGEE

Who's afraid of the DARK? Not Ed! We've written in the key words (see grid below), which hopefully makes the concept clear. I've seen a bunch of "black squares mean BLACK or DARK" themes, but I liked how the revealer made this one distinct. THE DARK SIDE calls to this uber-nerd, and it describes the concept perfectly.

We wrote in the four DARKs below because I had a hard time picturing where they were. Was the problem that a couple of movies I either didn't know or had forgotten ("Wait Until Dark" and the unfortunate "Darkman")? Or was it the awkwardness of BE IN THE DARK? Or NSTORMY as the only partial-looking theme entry? Whatever the case, I kept on losing track of the four special squares.

For this theme type, I like it best when those special squares stand out more. The best way is to make them the only squares that are by themselves (like the one between SPCA and STOPGAPS), but that does create filling challenges.

Making all the themer pairs span the entire grid helps make them stand out, but there's a tiny NIT to pick, that NIT isn't part of the theme.

I wondered if it would have been better to use only three sets of themers, which would have allowed for a cleaner puzzle. However, in the end, I decided I liked Ed's decision, which gave the puzzle a (dark) meatier feel. A couple of ORNO ARIE UAR blips were worth it. Along with some JOHN DOE STOPGAPS AIR SINAI bonuses, it's a reasonable set of trade-offs.

A couple of more recognizable entries like A SHOT IN THE DARK, DARK MEAT, WENT DARK, would have helped sharpen the solving experience. Overall though, the apt revealer helped pull everything together.

POW Fri 1/3/2020
AIMOPHELIAGUN
STAGFLATIONRNA
TUNATARTAREAFT
UNITSPARMUNRO
TEASETBINDI
ESCRITZCRACKER
ACHORUSLINE
BTWOCARETEDDY
THATSUNREAL
WETHEPEOPLEHUM
FEELSISMENE
LORRECOATALPS
ORBCROPCIRCLES
ACETAKEREVENGE
FEDSEERESSOSS

★ Sometimes all it takes is a single entry or clue for a themeless to sing to you. For Jim Horne, it was a clue whose cleverness I missed the first time around. "One" is its final number? I had already filled in most of A CHORUS LINE, so I didn't stop to think about it. I'm so glad Jim pointed out what a great misdirect this is! If you didn't notice the quotation marks, the clue would feel deviously mathematical.

For me, it was STAGFLATION. The MBA in me gets tickled by econ terms, especially one so colorful. (It describes when economic growth is stagnant, but inflation is high — a double whammy.) You'd think that economists are boring, but I have a lot of econ friends who are hilarious.

"Hilarious" in quotes might be a better description.

I had two hesitations before giving this one the POW!:

  1. IOR is a particularly gloopy gluey bit, less in the camp of "minor crossword blip" and more "three random letters stuck together." Inelegant to say the least; glad Will Treece recognized this.
  2. The other was more subjective — STAGFLATION is a downer already, then you add in ANEMIAS, UNFRIEND, BRUTALITIES, and TAKE REVENGE? Make love, Will, not war!

However, I greatly enjoyed the novelty of the grid design, neither a standard "triple-stacks in each of the four corners" nor a "wide-open middle," but something neatly in between. The smart black square placement allowed for smooth solving flow, while also making it constructor-friendly to fill. I like the trade-offs.

I had been vacillating, POW! or scow, and the conversation Jim and I had pushed it over the edge. It's not easy to cater to a hugely varied solving population.

Sat 1/4/2020
SWEARWORDACLS
HAMBURGLARBLIP
OCTOBERSKYFAKE
TOSSNETDRAPED
YESSIREEBOB
SPASMSNARFMUG
TILTATETCBETH
ALLEGESSUZETTE
BLAMCPRPIGEON
SOBSHEETTURNT
WORLDWARIII
SLUICEDIMLICK
CATSMISSSAIGON
ACMEONTHATNOTE
TEENTOADEGREE

Debut! The HAMBURGLAR always makes me laugh. Of all the things in the world to steal, you target a McDonald's hamburger? So many machinations, so many plots, all to burgle a buck's worth of food? Just give it to him already, Ronald, you cheap-*ss b*stard!

Speaking of seeing stars in SWEAR WORDs …

Intriguing choices for the marquee 11-letter answers. YES SIREE BOB is an oldie but a goodie, so it surprised me to see that it was an NYT debut. I enjoyed WORLD WAR III, but I wonder if it'll be divisive, considering today's political climate. Knowing who has the nuclear launch codes and said person's penchant for ranting tweetstorms at leaders of nuclear powers … I don't love this entry as much as I used to.

The SE corner spoke to me, as I'm fascinated by TECH DEMOs, and ON THAT NOTE / TO A DEGREE both had a fun *ahem* throat-clearing flavor. Toss in MISS SAIGON, and it all became BEGUILING. Great work.

There were too many entries that I didn't connect to, though. CLAP-O-METER is self-explanatory, but I can't say I've ever heard the term. Same with PILLOW LACE. I'm glad the clue for OCTOBER SKY used the anagram of "Rocket Boys." And while that was an interesting piece of trivia, neither sounded familiar. Along with almost (but not quite) being able to pull the RYDER CUP out of the nether regions of memory storage, it wasn't quite TURNT.

I probably used that last word wrong. And I'm proud of it!

Not the cleanest themeless debut — DAK EMAG INT SLC is a lot for a 70-word puzzle — but enough color to offset that. I'd hit the LIKE BUTTON (if I knew what social media platform I was supposed to be on these days).

Sun 1/5/2020 STRESSED OUT
LARDSSWAGFROGSNASA
AFOOTAIDEIONIAOPEC
PROJECTGUTENBERGHOAR
SOSORRYTVSALEESSO
ESTEARACHEERSALTON
DOGPRESENTCOMPANY
URGESUPONYOHOHOTAM
PERFECTSCORESUNREELS
SHEATHEDIFSTOOL
HEATERICDUMAULTRA
OASPRODUCELABELSHER
TRYTOEROSGENESEAR
WOLFSHOPANATOLE
MAHALIACONTRACTTERMS
ARETENSORCOLTTRYST
DISCOUNTSTORESEEN
ESSAYERADUGOUTSPSA
ATITADAPOITATTLES
BIASCONVERSEALLSTARS
EDNATUGONERIETONGA
TESTSTEWSRELYOPTED

It's a shame that this one comes so close on the heels of another stress-change puzzle. I enjoyed Will Nediger's today, although it didn't feel as creative since there are tons of lists out there containing dozens, if not hundreds of words whose meanings change with a shift in stress. I appreciated Will's effort to tighten the theme, but I'm afraid I missed every layer he described. Hopefully other solvers will be more astute.

There's also the ground-breaking stress-change puzzle from 2010 that was so brilliant. The best puzzles take ideas from disparate areas and combine them in fascinating ways. Stress change + entry duplication = memorable.

A few weeks ago, Evan Birnholz wrote to me, offended (rightly so) by an offhand remark I made about high word counts leading to "crapfest" puzzles. I was surprised since I wasn't at all talking about his Washington Post Sunday Puzzle — I'm a great admirer of Evan's themes and gridwork, which often outshine the NYT's Sunday puzzles these days. He made a great point, that he usually goes up to 144 words in his grids, and no one's ever complained to him about word count.

That doesn't mean that word count is irrelevant, though. Take the notion to the extreme, for example. If you made a Sunday puzzle with 200 words, it'd be chock-full of nothing but short entries, and it really would resemble the crapfest you see in your local small-town paper.

And look at today's 140-word grid — Will did a fantastic job of adding a ton of color. The NE corner is beautiful, for example, APOSTATE / SEASONAL / ACRONYMS so fun. Many constructors would be happy to break up ACRONYMS to make filling easier, going up from 140 to 142 words, and I wouldn't want that.

Is 140 or 144 words is a better target? The short answer is that I don't have the answer. If you can fill with enough color at 144 words (which Evan and few other constructors can do), then I say go for it. But if you can fill with color AND cleanly at 140 words (like Will and even fewer other constructors), I'd always opt for that. I enjoy having biggish areas like today's NE, which 140-word puzzles are better at allowing for.

Mon 1/6/2020
VACATEGENTGEM
ARABIAELIAANY
RUBIESEMERALDS
GATTUNICGLUT
SUNSNARETORE
ELASTICASAPER
WASHEDUPFUSSY
AMETHYSTS
SCAMPDECREASE
COGEEGSHADIER
ACIDALLENLAG
NATORAISARES
DIAMONDSPEARLS
ANTWELTPANOUT
LEEEDYSSTINGY

I suppose I'll have to settle for my daughter being the second Tess published in the NYT crossword. Get your butt in gear, said the tiger dad to his five-year-old!

I kid. Sort of.

Despite my spite, I admired so much about this double-debut puzzle. Tess and Kathy managed to distinguish their effort from other hidden GEM, birthstone, rock-themed etc. crosswords I've seen. Three notable points:

  • There are so many different birthstone listings out there, many of which include exotic gems like peridot, alexandrite, tanzanite. Although these are fun-sounding words, they'd elude a large swath of newer solvers. Sticking to basic stones that most everyone will know is perfect.
  • Check out Wikipedia's list of birthstones. Note how Tess and Kathy focused on the most relevant sub-list, the 2019 US one. They could have easily branched out to draw from everything — CARNELIANS or CATS EYES might have been useful — but focused, making the theme tight.
  • Most of the time, they concentrated their hidden letters, taking pairs at a time whenever they could. TH and ST within AMETHYSTS is fantastic, because it lends an elegance that wouldn't have been present if T H S T had been strewn about one by one.

It's far from a dense theme — 40 theme squares is much lower than average — so I'd expect a squeaky-clean grid packed chock-full of color. Solid performance on the latter criterion, with so much SCHNAPPS WASHED UP ARUGULA CABANAS MYSTERY SCANDAL SEA SLUG material. It's rare to get so much mid-length snazzy fill on a Monday, and it was a solving pleasure.

The cleanliness factor needed improvement. Monday puzzles ought to be uber-welcoming to solvers of all levels, and crossings like ELMIRA / ELIA and RES / RANI can scare people off. Along with an inelegant collection of AGT ASA EEG ERG and VAR at the important 1-D spot, it needed another round of revision. Having a central 9-letter entry does create a lot of filling difficulty, but with so few theme constraints, both color and clarity are achievable.

Overall, a debut that I enjoyed more and more as I studied and thought about the themer choices. It would have been great to get an additional layer of clever wordplay, maybe playing on STRATA (rock layers!) + GEM = STRATAGEM, but that could have pushed it into mid-week territory.

POW Tue 1/7/2020
BBOYINITTRAP
REVUPNORAHUGE
ADELEMROCTOBER
THREEPOINTER
SOSPINBICIAM
GHOSTOFACHANCE
AWAYERSCTRL
BURNTCDSSHEET
ERIESOUECON
LANDSCAPEPHOTO
ALGPORLEIIPO
OUTSIDESHOTS
STEPNIECEMANIA
PAVEALESSLACK
AXEDNYETELSA

★ This is a fantastic example of one of my favorite early-week theme types, where seemingly unconnected phrases suddenly link together in a surprising way. I completely failed at "Name that Theme," and pleasantly smacked my forehead when realizing how OUTSIDE SHOTS described the three themers:

  1. The usual meaning of OUTSIDE SHOT is a long shot; an outside chance. Ross could have gone with a dictionary-ish definition like LOW CHANCE OF SUCCESS, but finding a sizzly in-the-language phrase like GHOST OF A CHANCE is dynamite.
  2. I ruptured my Achilles tendon taking a THREE POINTER (sadly, with no one guarding me, even more sadly, it bricked). I'm all too familiar with what an outside shot I have of making any given three, given my heaving, grunting form.
  3. LANDSCAPE PHOTO isn't as strong a phrase as the others, but it works. It also gives a completely different meaning of OUTSIDE SHOT, this one a literal interpretation.

Together, the three form a trifecta of near perfection.

Speaking of perfection, the grid shows a master at his best.

  • Color: OVERSHARING BEDHOG, INTENTIONAL SCHISMS, IRON BARS, along with MR OCTOBER and STEPNIECE.
  • Cleanliness: just a minor blip in ALG.

Not only is it a friendly grid for newbs, but it's so juicy. There's no magic to what Ross has achieved, but the time, care, and hard work are much appreciated. All constructors working with four themers can and should be outputting grids as excellent as this one.

This crossword put a huge smile on my face. I'd gladly give it not just to newbs, but to more experienced solvers as well. I love lauding art that's on par with Ansel Adams.

Wed 1/8/2020
ISHMRTOADFETA
MOEMORRIEAMAN
ALARMBELLSVICE
COLOMBOSORROW
AGEADELE
AURORABOREALIS
BASSOMATTULNA
RNADABESCASP
EDGERIALAGNUS
AWESOMEBLOSSOM
STYNECTU
ETCETCHALIBUT
YARNABPOSITIVE
EXECMARLINREN
SIDEPHOTOGDAN

Blood donation is near and dear to my heart (ha). On those days where I feel like I can't do anything right (there are many), at the very least, I'm a red cell-producing vessel (see what I did there?) good for six units per year. Blood types as crossword fill make me smile more than they should, and blood themes often pump (sorry, not sorry) me up.

Matt Gaffney did a blood type puzzle a few years ago that was brilliant. I had been on the fence about his meta-contest series until then, and it hooked me. If you're not a subscriber, you're losing out on incredible fun (and mostly delightful head-desking).

Initialism puzzles aren't my thing, given how overdone they've become in crosswords. Using rare letters (JQXZ) can redeem them somewhat, or a fantastic revealer, or some other layer of creativity. A + B gives a ton of options, though.

So many danger spots — TREO / COLOMBO, AMBIEN / RIAL, STYNE / OTT, OCASIO / CTU. That last one is particularly problematic, exemplifying why Will Shortz is so against not-that-well-known initialisms. If you watch "24," Counter Terrorist Unit might be obvious. If not, better call Jack Bauer. Perhaps that's meant to be meta!

joon sent me a note about this puzzle a few days ago (before Amanda did), and I pretended to sagely understand it, like I had instantly figured out what he meant. Roughly eighty-eleven hours later, I recalled that puzzle Amanda mentioned. Ah! Amanda and Brendan, it all made sense.

Sort of.

Okay, I had to ask joon. There are some neat elements:

  1. A+B initialisms make a ton more sense now!
  2. Impressive that Amanda managed to work in such a touching message through the first letters of these clues, without making any sound forced. I usually have great spidey-sense for this sort of thing, so it's a mark of success that she didn't trigger it.
  3. AMAN + DAB + REN + DAN = a unique way of including the happy couple. I'm not sure why the clues for those four entries weren't starred today. That would have been much better.

Overall, reading joon's note (and his explicit explanation after I failed to figure things out!) made me appreciate the puzzle more than before.

Thu 1/9/2020
PCHELPCOSELL
BROODERONEREEL
HEROINEPICANTE
ALORAIIMS
JUNORIPLEREES
IDESUGBOAANGO
SETTEESTRENTON
ANDOMS
MISREADRUPIAHS
INOROUROU
ASCORAPSEIMID
STOUOPTHARESS
MARLOWEDURANTE
ALROKERIRONIES
LONELYENDEAR

Long ago, the "Four T Puzzle" hooked me on physical puzzles that require clever manipulation. It's so satisfying when after a long period of intense study and logical reasoning, you finally crack an elegant stumper. (It's less satisfying when you crack the darn thing with a hammer, but there's still something to be said for that.) If you don't know about Chris Ramsay's YouTube channel, it should be the next URL you check out. Heck, stop reading and go there right now; he's way more interesting than me!

The "Four T Puzzle" is my go-to when someone exhibits a seed of interest in logic, craftsmanship, and/or puzzles. It broke my mind when I first experienced it, blowing up my entire sense of dignity. I had never seen something so elegantly breaking the rules I had assumed, showing that sometimes solving a problem takes a dramatic shift in mindset.

Alex gave himself a major challenge with this construction, fitting in his four black Ts while requiring EVERY SINGLE ANSWER that abutted one (or two!) of them to use said T. I've seen plenty of puzzles like this — I made one a few years ago — but this goes above and beyond. As a constructor, I love experiencing a puzzle where I can't quite figure out how I'd make it. I'll be studying this for days; so many interesting two-T entries like TUGBOAT, TRAP SET, TRUE DAT, just TO START. I doubt I could TOP THAT.

I'm studying it all again, and I'm even more impressed than before. Twelve entries that needed to work with two of the black Ts? And 24 more that have to work with one T? That's such a ridiculous level of difficulty, like attempting a 720 triple tail whip on a dirt bike — without shoes! Or feet! I'd be impressed even if Alex had wiped out. Far from it. Given the severe constraints, it's a fine result.

I wanted to give it the POW! because it's so crazy, so incredibly audacious. So why didn't I?

  1. My solving experience was tainted by the oddballs SOROCCO, TOULON, HOISTER, ONE REEL, SUDSES, PRERIGS. Some (all?) are worth knowing, but as a whole, it left a bad taste.
  2. One of the NYT's production people, one of the best solvers in the world, didn't get what was going on. If she couldn't grok the concept, how many others would be left sending angry emails (not to me, no not to me, please!)

Overall, wonderful execution on a concept that made my constructor's eyes pop out of my head, Looney Tunes-style. Hilarious observations by Alex, too. I couldn't get the solver in me to set aside all his hitches, unfortunately.

Fri 1/10/2020
BITMOJISOPSUP
OMNIBUSOAKLAND
RAUCOUSPIRATES
ONTHELASTDAY
ESPISHAPR
ITALOOPICRIED
POPIDAHOCENSE
APPLESHORTCAKES
STLEOUNCAPINK
SEETHEOAKSETS
NTHALFEPT
AFROFUTURISM
SPYRINGCHRISTO
IDAGREESEEPIER
LAWYERBLESSME

Four contenders for clue of the year in this puzzle; such cleverness:

  1. Being an Oakland A diehard in my youth (anyone else follow Rickey Henderson's stolen base count in that exciting 1982 season?), I grinned at [A home in the major leagues?]. That's "A" home, as in where an Oakland A could be found. (Sorry, baseball haters!)
  2. I didn't understand the p's and q's reference on PINKIE. How does a PINKIE mind p's and q's? I was about to question Jim Horne when I looked down to find the Q to write "question." D'oh! The PINKIE indeed types p's and the q's.
  3. [Term for a group of (insert animals here)] usually makes me groan. I have to know the zoological term for a group of moles? BEQ WHY MUST YOU … oh. Mole, as in a spy. Ahem. I knew that.
  4. LAWYER going through the (literal) motions — brilliant.

BEQ's Monday themelesses (on his website) are usually too edgy / bleeding-edge for me to figure out. Not infrequently, he seeds them with some piece of latest slang that I'm too uncool to know. (Insert sound of teenage snickering here.) Today, that was AFROFUTURISM, BITMOJI, JUUL PODS, and TAKE THEL. Turns out THEL is a made-up word like YAS in YAS QUEEN, which I just learned a few months ago! THEL is short for … huh? It's THE L, as in TAKE THE LOSS?

I knew that, too. I was simply testing you. Boy, are you uncool!

Along with not being familiar with APPLE SHORTCAKES and ON THE LAST DAY feeling contrived, I didn't connect that well to the puzzle. A lot of that might be on me — I'm so uncool that I can't even figure out exactly how much the opposite of EPT I am. Sure appreciated those four brilliant clues, though!

Sat 1/11/2020
RUBYTINADEPTS
ONEONONEROARAT
ADSLOGANREVERE
DEMOTAPESESPN
MREESPEURTOO
AGARSPVCPIPING
POREGUARDDOGS
BEERLEAGUE
BOLTCUTTER
WERETHEREEGAD
ORANGEADEADOBE
MIRYRSCALFIB
ETCHEMILEZOLA
GELATOEPICURES
AMAJORNECKLINE
SEWINGUSEUTES

Most of the time, Andrew produces triple stair-stacks — three long answers atop each other, shifted over in a stair-like pattern. Today he went double or nothing, using six of them in an extra-tall grid. I call it a winner! From PVC PIPING to ORANGEADE, each of the six answers is somewhere between solid and juicy. I wasn't aware of the BEER LEAGUE slang, but it makes sense. I'm hoping the sports in said BEER LEAGUEs are more of the cup stacking variety, not so much drunken flag football. I'm pre-calling the E.R. …

A football-shaped middle is hard enough to pull off, but to run two fantastic entries through it? SECRET RECIPES is snazzy, and the clue's misdirection toward a Tupperware lid makes it even better. IN-APP PURCHASE has that crazy string of three Ps.

Any constructor would be immensely proud of that central creation. To do it all with just minor EUR and YRS is jaw-dropping.

I wanted to give Andrew another POW! on the merit of the middle alone, as exciting as the Marshawn Beast Quake. I stutter-stepped too many times to do it, though:

  • I didn't know BEER LEAGUE, and that's fine. It's two words I recognize, and it makes sense as a whole. Toss in EPICURES (isn't it "epicureans" usually?), though, plus old-timey STENOG and TARPONS, and I got a vibe of weirdness.
  • ADEPTS AGARS OMEGAS, pluralizations that felt inelegant.
  • I enjoy a good BEAR CLAW. I also enjoy a great Saturday wordplay clue. But do bears have fingers? Aren't they toes? As much as I enjoy trivia, this clue generated more confusion than devilish head-slapping.

Don't get me wrong; it's still a fantastic puzzle. If Andrew hadn't already won so many POW!s, I'd probably give him this one. I love when constructors stretch themselves, and going from three to six stair-stacked answers certainly qualifies.

Sun 1/12/2020 STATE OF CONFUSION
MAZDASHERODHMOSEAS
ONEACTADOBEEELUCLA
ANSWERINGMACHINEROAR
NUTSEGGYMAUNASELMA
ALSORANSAFRICANLION
NEMOIRELEEWAY
PATAERATORSWINGBY
SQUIRRELEDAWAYLOOIE
AULDEMSEVESTOTO
TAILINGCROAKEDDEW
PERSUASIVEWRITING
PCBSALINASTAPERED
UHUHFROGAHAHILO
GALASSWORDANDSHIELD
SIBLINGEDUCATEFAO
FLORALASLMRED
AVOCADOROLLDIALECTS
SOLOSATEITWEANBOOP
ACLUKNOWSATHINGORTWO
HAIRLEIPLIESEDITED
IBETMRSSKEETRESALE

Sometimes I look back upon my early crossword solving/constructing days, when the crossworld was filled with wonder. Thankfully I still take great enjoyment in puzzles, but my obsession with crossword construction has pulled back the wizard's curtain (speaking of TOTO). A decade ago, I might have been awed by the find of CALIFORNIA mixed-up inside AFRICAN LION. Magical! How the frick could someone have possibly figured that out?

(Pushing glasses up nose) Actually, it's fairly simple:

  1. Consider each entry in your word list that's longer than 10 letters.
  2. Consider each string of 10 letters within that entry.
  3. Do a frequency analysis of said 10-letter string. Does it have exactly 1 of C L F O R N and exactly 2 of A I?
  4. If so — and the 10-letter string is different than CALIFORNIA, to avoid false positives — write to an output file.

WILL YOU JUST SIT DOWN ALREADY, SMART ASS, AND ENJOY THE MAGIC SHOW!

Ahem. There was one other entry that met the query criteria besides AFRICAN LION(S): TROPICAL RAINFOREST(S). I like that one better since it doesn't invoke a proper noun, which possibly muddies the theme, given that the US states are locations—

STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP!

But ... I haven't even begun to discuss the technical merits of this grid construction--

STOOOOOOOP!!!

Ahem. Maybe I should stop my analysis of ridiciminutia here?

YOU THINK?!

Some neat finds, and the clues helped to pull everything together. I don't know that I'd have figured out that CALIFORNIA was within AFRICAN LION without "Golden State" in the clue, for example.

Mon 1/13/2020
MEATYPUMADAIS
ALPHAIRASONTO
PIPEWRENCHCYST
EELERNENWAH
SPACOMESOFAGE
ALLOTGAITRYON
DUTCHAIRLINE
EMOTEDBESTED
ALOTTOMANAGE
PIANOASPROMAN
ITSTOOLATEEDY
LAWPOLELFIN
OLEOMIDDLESEAT
TILLPEDIELSIE
SALEADENTESLA

Hidden word themes can be judged by three criteria:

  1. How long (and/or interesting) is the hidden word? It's easy to find most three-letters words within a phrase, like PEW. It's much harder, and therefore more notable, to feature a seven-letter (!) word like OTTOMAN.
  2. Is the theme phrase in-the-language; natural-sounding? PIPE WRENCH, absolutely. COMES OF AGE, great! DUTCH AIRLINE made me pause, but in the end, I didn't mind, since KLM is, in fact, a DUTCH AIRLINE. A LOT TO MANAGE … I confidently filled in A LOT TO HANDLE, and it was a lot to handle to change that.
  3. Does the hidden word touch every word of the phrase? Not all editors care about this, but Will Shortz is strict about avoiding words that do no work. The initial A in A LOT TO MANAGE isn't part of OTTOMAN, for instance. (Since A is such a minor word, it's fine.)

None of Alan's findings are perfect — PEW in PIPE WRENCH is a shortie, CHAIR inside DUTCH AIRLINE is a neat finding but DUTCH AIRLINE isn't a great phrase — but overall, it's a crossworthy set with a perfect revealer in MIDDLE SEAT.

A lot to manage in the fill, though. (Okay, it's growing on me.) There's so much to turn off newer solvers, an OLEO (or is that an olio?) of toughies like EDY, GAI, NEN. These aren't nearly as overlookable as something more minor like DDE. Crossing NEN with MACNEIL makes it even worse.

Six themers are rarely easy to pull off, especially when you're building an early-week grid appropriate for newbs. I did like the variety of the themers, though, so I hesitate to suggest cutting one out. What might have helped produce a better overall product: stacking themers, like PIPE WRENCH and COMES OF AGE in subsequent rows, for example. That can require a lot of trial and error, arranging and rearranging themers to form friendly letter pairings, but it would have been well worth it.

Tue 1/14/2020
ANNETREESACED
PEONRURALCANE
PUTTANGRYBIRDS
TAOSNOTADAGE
GROUCHYHANMAR
MANRAYIDLEEMT
CLEARMAEALES
GRUMPYCAT
CODEHALWASTE
AVEROSYSENIOR
BUMAHHLADYBUG
ALIBIAHABREC
RAGINGBULLARAB
ETONALGAETINA
TEDSMEOWSEASY

Memorial puzzle! It made me grumpy when GRUMPY CAT passed away recently. Or wait, is today Garfield's birthday? I hate Mondays! What, it's Tuesday, you say? The only thing I hate more than Mondays are Tuesdays!

Why is catty crankiness so amusing? Sometimes the only thing that puts a smile on Catwad's face is making other people miserable, so I bet he smiled — a little — at today's theme. I know I did. Ah, schadenfreude.

At first, the loose-seeming collection of animal book / movie titles made me grouchy. Ah! (Animal) + (synonym for irritable) = a tight theme, indeed. ANGRY BIRDS was a huge hit, and if you haven't heard of it, it's two words that you can infer from the clue. Same with GRUMPY CAT, although who wouldn't love a mug like his?

The GROUCHY / LADYBUG gave me a long pause, though. I've checked out about 2,000 kids' books from our library, and this one didn't ring a bell. "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," yes. "Brown Bear," absolutely. Maybe "The Grouchy Ladybug" is to Eric Carle as "The Twits" is to Roald Dahl. Not every book by a superstar writer is going to stand the test of time. That said, it does work in the interest of a solid theme, so I'm okay with it.

One aspect of the puzzle that made me the opposite of grumpy was Jim Peredo's gridwork. Four excellent big corners, chock full of CABARET / OVULATE / DEMIGOD and AT ANY RATE / SIBERIA / TOUCANS? With just a bit of ERG and TEDS to hold it all together? Favorable trade-off, to say the least!

Although, the CARR / MANRAY borders on unfair for newbs. Especially given the unfamiliarity of GROUCHY / LADYBUG, I'd have asked for a revision there, looking for something less flashy but more oriented toward allowing a victorious solve.

Jim lives about an hour away from me, and with some crossword people coming into town this past weekend, it would have been perfect to get together. Two sick kids + a sick wife + a sick and exhausted Jeff = having to pass, which made me cantankerous. Nice to have a puzzle like today's to take away a little of the cat scratch fever.

Wed 1/15/2020
SCOTACERSPIED
CHAILOWEMACED
HITBELOWTHEBELT
UMBERAAAS
SPARRINGPARTNER
SSRDOLESANO
ERITUANNUL
THEGLOVESAREOFF
HANGSPANSY
ATTKIOSKTMC
THROWINTHETOWEL
LOLLENOLA
PULLONESPUNCHES
AVOIDTHUGUIES
CAGEYSETHETSY

Who knew there were so many boxing-inspired idioms out there? Wait … all of them exactly 15 letters? It's a crossword constructor's dream!

Such juicy phrases, too. HIT BELOW THE BELT all the way to PULL ONE'S PUNCHES; each one is snazzy, albeit violent. I'd insert commentary about America's dangerous obsession with all things head-smashing here, but you've already heard it, I'm sure. Doesn't stop me from watching football highlights, anyway.

SPARRING PARTNER did stick out, feeling a bit "one of these things is not like the other." The rest of them are figures of speech, widely used in other aspects of life. SPARRING PARTNER works with debate practice, etc., but I associate it much more strongly with the boxing world than outside of it.

Huge constraints — 5 themers of 15-letters is usually a recipe for disaster. That's so much real estate taken up that there's rarely any room for bonuses, and a big bottle of crossword glue is often required to hold everything together. I finished with an error, ERETU/IDEO instead of ERITU/IDIO, and although it is my fault, I'm sympathetic to others who made the same mistake.

I'd have also liked a story in the crossword, created by a strong sequence in the themers. Maybe THE GLOVES ARE OFF!, let's go, I ain't gonna PULL ONE'S PUNCHES! Guh, you HIT me BELOW THE BELT?! Fine, I'll THROW IN THE TOWEL!

Maybe I've been reading too many "Highlights" magazines to my kids. The "put the four cartoons in the proper sequence" always seem to trip me up. I mean, trip up my kids! I always get them right. Sometimes.

I might be pulling my punches because I'm a big fan of Mary Lou's, and I'm hoping for the best for her medical condition. This wasn't my favorite of her puzzles due to a lot of issues in execution — close to a TKO — but I did enjoy the eye-opener of just how many boxing-related figures of speech there are.

Thu 1/16/2020
FETASPRIGSCHAI
AARPTOETAPRODS
UTEPANGORAORAL
NIALONGBROWNIE
ATTENDELDERS
JOURNEYMAN
MEGAPEEWEEOTIS
EXECSSTOWPIANO
LANKATSKSASKUP
MESSYGREEK
ETAHONEYBEEATL
BALTDIRELYOKIE
OBOEUNITASANTE
OLGADECIDEFEUD
KEYSERASERSETS

Tough grid to figure out, with awkward themer lengths. Interesting finds, but of length 10, 8, 9, 9, 7, 7? Bleh! Good thing I happen to enjoy mirror symmetry ...

I did the skeleton work, and Erik and I went back and forth, shifting things around, testing, filling it piece by piece. That we have different tastes should come as no surprise — I loved CLOWN NOSES at 11-D but he wasn't a fan, and when I proposed the IRON DUKE (awesome nickname for Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington) I felt his side-eye straight through my dial-up modem.

We were having some issues with the SE, and then Erik magically solved it by incorporating INUKTITUT. My first reaction started with a "what" and ended with "the F is that?" But when I looked it up, I decided I loved it. All educated solvers should learn that word. (Including me.)

Great pleasure working with Erik on this one. And by "working," I mean "sitting back and enjoying being in the presence of jeeus."

Er. Ge-NI-us.

Fri 1/17/2020
AVCLUBPROGTMI
MARINESULUHAN
OLIVIAWILDEEMS
REBECCAISSARAE
MOONNASCENT
ARIADNEGLENS
POSSESSSTREAMS
EARMOE
SMARTTVPREDATE
EERIEREDEYES
UMLAUTSASIF
BUILDUPTOTEBAG
OFTELECTRONICA
ATEAARPTUSKED
TISURSASTEERS

Debut! It's always impressive to see someone debut on a Friday or Saturday since the competition in themelesses is fierce. I always (kindly) suggest that budding constructors steer clear of them since the supply/demand imbalance is tremendous.

One aspect that can make one stand out is a unique grid that catches the eye. A gigantic plus sign in the middle of a grid can certainly do that! Also, most themelesses avoid this sort of "racetrack" approach, since connecting up the start and end can be a bear. Ryan helped himself by constricting two passageways — at the W of OLIVIA WILDE and T of ELECTRONICA — which allowed him to (more or less) work on the grid in two halves.

I enjoyed the right half, chock full of OLD SALT to NASCENT to RED EYES (so hard to parse as REDEYES) to DEFENSE to TOTE BAG to ELECTRONICA. And setting aside my personal politics, there's something audacious about featuring Britain's second female prime minister, THERESA MAY.

Heading into the left half, I was sensing perhaps a POW! coming Ryan's way, an even rarer feat than a themeless debut. VESPERS to UMLAUTS to SMART TV to ISRAELITES to ARIADNE (I love Greek myths!) — great material in a tough grid to fill.

Then I hit the NW. Then I stalled. Then I gnashed. Then I erased. Then I cheated. Then I pretended I hadn't.

I finally did (mostly) finish, but not knowing OLIVIA WILDE or LIVE MAS (Taco Bell's yuletide celebration of existence?) and the tricky AMOR did me in. It didn't help that even as a nerdbot of the nth degree, UNICODE didn't register as a computing standard. The only way the clue could have been less helpful is if it read [Word related to computers].

All in all, I appreciated the innovation; always great to see something novel in a themeless. However, it's critical to make sure that a huge swath of solvers can successfully finish, and I'm not sure that there was enough overlap in the Venn diagram created by the NW entries.

POW Sat 1/18/2020
SLIPSHODWINK
LAVALAKESIRAN
ICEPALACESNUDE
DEMPOPAWHEELIE
IDOSGILINTERS
NOVICESGILA
TIEDONANTISPAM
OLDENBLUESTONE
YOWTAJSTINTS
NAVIDADSNITS
LINDROSGERE
KICKSTARTERDAD
CROATTEARITUP
UMBRAEARFLAP
PASTSSUDSED

Diagonal symmetry is one of the rarest categories in our database. It's a shame, because not only is it distinctive, but it can be aesthetically stunning. That's the case for this sword-ish grid, resembling a medieval coat of arms. My family's crest is currently a set of squiggles drawn by my 5-year-old, so I'm nudging her to, ahem, revise. I'll have to leave copies of this puzzle around to influence her subconsciously.

At just 64 words, this grid almost made our fewest words list. Typically, that makes me worried, since such a feat almost always comes with severe compromises created by the difficulty of filling gigantic white spaces. Ryan did something smart, nibbling away at said white spaces with extra black squares — those three pyramid shapes count for a whopping 12 cheater squares (black squares that don't affect word count), 3 each in the top two pyramids and all 6 of the lowest. Usually, I don't like such a huge count of cheaters, but today's enhance the overall visual impact, without affecting solving flow.

Ryan also left himself plenty of long slots for juicy fill, and wow, was the juiciness overflowing! Beautiful marquees in WINE TASTING, KICKSTARTER, POP A WHEELIE, SIDEWALK ART, ICE PALACES, IVE MOVED ON.

Hilarious clue for BAD DATES, too. Way back when I was in the dating pool, is that why all those people had emergencies come up? No, those were all real emergencies, I'm sure.

A frequent reader, John Sutton, wrote in the other day, asking if I could spend a few lines explaining clues that one might never figure out via Google. You can go to AL JARREAU Wikipedia page if you don't know him, for example, but you can't do that with a wordplay clue. Great idea; here are two I noted:

  • TAJ: The "opening" in [Opening for a Mughal masterwork] is a bit of wordplay, aiming at "starting word," as in the TAJ Mahal.
  • Dalmatian, for one is CROAT? Yes, when you're referring to Dalmatia, Croatia.

I'll try to do this more for tricksy Friday and Saturday clues.

I didn't connect with everything — LINDROS sounded alien to this red-blooded ‘Murican, LAVA LAKES didn't ring a bell, and SUDSES sounded soapy — but there wasn't anything newfangled that turned off this ol' geezer in the vein of DANK MEMES. All in all, a beautiful product that sang like Excalibur.

Sun 1/19/2020 BIOTECHNOLOGY
REFIADSTHEROSEBLOB
ERINMINDVANUATUREPO
HEDGMOORPLANTAGOVER
ALEEARCANALEGGEWING
BOLEYNAFIRERERAN
SNIDEETTLESPADERETS
GOOBERSENSORSENTIRE
MADATSTELESLEROUX
CAFLOLASPADTIRANE
RURALUSAARISENJETS
ITORGENESPLICINGASHE
BONNUPTAKEATMINCAN
STOLESLARCODOROTT
MAPLESSANKASNORAD
EVADESENCYSTSDENIED
REGAERATEHOMOGINNES
ENDUPGMAILEASTLA
HAYDNBLULOTRIMINWET
AVOWERATIONKNEEEITY
TIKIWANNABESEMIONER
EDENSWEENEYSOONESS

I love it when a constructor's personality or interests shine through in a puzzle, and that's certainly the case today. I enjoyed the biomedical engineering classes I took in college and grad school, so seeing GENEs get spliced brought a smile to my face.

We've fixed up the thematic database entries (see below), but the concept might still be tough to see. The best example starts at 57-Down, FRONT PAGE NEWS heading south, going through GENE, and then finishing down. It's a pretty image; FRONT PAGE NEWS threaded through REGENERATION in a DNA-like shape. Sorta kinda helical.

During my solve, I wasn't as impressed with themers like HEDGE NETTLE and EUGENE IONESCO. What and who? (They are fine, crossworthy entries, but nothing I'd strive to feature.) Off to our XWord Info Finder and onelook.com to see what better options there were! Come on; there had to be more that split GENE across multiple words.

No? HALOGEN ELEMENTS, anyone? Want to hear about a snot-filled DRAINAGE NETWORK? Can I get a shout-out to STRANGE NEW WORLDS, fellow Trekkers? Ka'plah!

Ow, stop Vulcan nerve-pinching me!

Given how little of interest fit that *??GENE??* search pattern, maybe using DNA as the "spliced" string would have been better: UNITED NATIONS, GOOD NATURED, HOUSEHOLD NAMES, ad nauseam. Hey, AD NAUSEAM!

Getting themers all in a twist is a tricky business. It's so tough to fill well around those crossings. The SW / NE have choked solving flow, for instance, and other areas show the strain of being constrained by two fixed entries. Exhibit A: the bottom right, ONER being forced by EON and EITY fixed into place within a wide-open region.

This is a case where I'd have said, please redo, allowing for a higher word count / black squares. Long entries like LOTRIMIN and SEAPLANE aren't all that snazzy anyway (and RUB RAW isn't in my asset column), so it's better to aim for a cleaner solving experience. And although a higher word count usually means fewer long bonus entries, the ones that are present can usually be made much more exciting than LOTRIMIN.

Overall, a fun concept that would have benefitted from an adjustment allowing for better quality theme answers, and a mutation in gridding philosophy.

Mon 1/20/2020
GOBIGGAMEACTS
UMAMIAMENWORE
SATANGILDONYX
SNICKERDOODLE
YINGREDRESAT
COMEDYSKETCH
PAPAALIEEYORE
SEARSSANDIGIT
AIRACENETNADA
LOTTODRAWING
MUYTIESKAPBJ
GETTHEPICTURE
LEONWIREHURON
BREDARIAONION
JARSREEKSAMMY

Oh man, I was sure I nailed "Name that Theme." SNICKER ... COMEDY ... I'm buzzing in! What are WORDS THAT RELATE TO FUNNY BUSINESS, ALEX?

(Alex looking condescendingly at me over his glasses)

But don't you see, LOTTO is hinting at Little Lotta, who raised people's spirits worldwide with her feats of strength and … okay, maybe not.

Not only did Evan disguise the real theme masterfully, but what a delightful progression, from DOODLE to SKETCH to DRAWING to the BIG PICTURE—

LOTTO DRAWING? Or is it a LOTTA DRAWING!

And don't forget. She is literally a BIG PICTURE in the comics.

I REST MY CASE.

Seriously though, I've seen hundreds of various thematic progressions, and I don't remember anything quite like this. Artists across the world approve.

Regular reader / sub-editor Nancy Shack wrote me a few weeks ago, wondering if I'm being too critical on "hard" vocabulary that might stymie early-week solvers. Shouldn't there be something for crossword zealots, too? Why not sprinkle in some DEKED PURIM UMAMI GINKGO CONESTOGA?

Nancy makes a valid point. Every one of those entries is fair game, something an NYT solver ought to at least have heard of. However, I'd rather err (heavily) on the side of targeting a victorious, fist-pumping solve for newbs. Filling in that last box and staring at the grid, wondering if you've gotten everything correct, is so much less compelling than yelling with 100% certainty that hell yeah, YOUR UMAMI CAN'T DEKE ME OUT, NYT CONESTOGAWORD!

I sense an impending EDIT WAR with Nancy.

Tue 1/21/2020
ISMSCAMPUNCLE
MEATACAISEOUL
GENEPERTIAMSO
ASTERISKINLET
MALLETORGLSD
EWECABALSCAFE
SALINEETON
SIXPACKOFBEER
SECSALLOYS
FLEWFREEOFFED
OFTTABFAMILY
COREDQUARRELS
CANOEBURRBRIO
ARGONRIGAICON
TESTYSPEWGETS

Welcome to the latest installment of "The SWIK Show!" (Shows What I Know) Ari's original idea was more similar to Carl's, and I suggested that more could be done with it. An extra layer would make the puzzle so much more distinctive than just a couple of SIX PACKs sitting in the puzzle.

SWIK! A cleanly-executed puzzle — focusing on those SIX PACKs, with nothing else to potentially distract — made for a punchy visual.

How should the letters be oriented, Ari wondered. Clockwise? Back and forth? Anagrammed? Like a book? Definitely, like a book, I said. It's too hard otherwise — wouldn't solvers be befuddled if we did anything else?

SWIK! Carl's approach is a bit confusing at first, but it's consistent. Better yet, it delays the a-ha moment, piquing and holding solvers' interest. I stared at STEALL for ages, anagramming, wondering if SALT was somehow involved. I didn't figure it out until hitting SIX PACK OF BEER, and that's after having done extensive work researching (read: drinking) various six-letter beers for the previous puzzle!

Ari asked, wouldn't it be better if we had four SIX PACKs? Three might be too thin? I thought about it; a valid point. Having the extra layer would ultimately more than make up for it, though, while four SIX PACKs alone felt like Al Bundy sitting around and drinking empty calories.

SWIK! The four SIX PACKs and a long revealer in SIX PACK OF BEER made for a chewy stout, hardly your average MILLER Lite. The lack of long theme answers running through the SIX PACKs also gave Carl huge freedom in filling around all those letter combinations, and I appreciate the smoothness / newb-friendliness of the overall product.

It's amazing that anyone ever listens to me. (No one tell that to my kids!)

A strong debut, aimed perfectly at early-week beer enthusiasts and more.

Wed 1/22/2020
SNOBRIPSRACED
ABELORGYELATE
CARIBBEANCORAL
NEONCHINA
ADRIATICUPENN
LEENICOISETIP
BALTICICKWEAR
ILENEGNUTINGE
NEATLAOREINAS
ORSCASPIANARE
SENORSNIPESAT
DIODEEMIT
BLACKSEVENSEAS
LATHEOMENEDNA
TWEEDSORTQUAY

Reaction 1: CRITICAL. What's with all the circled Cs? Having the same letter in all the circles makes it too easy to figure out what to put in the next one.

Reaction 2: CUTTING. What, you couldn't cut out the other Cs that weren't in circles? CCCCC the opportunity to make it more elegant!

Reaction 3: CONFUSED. SEVEN SEAS … I have to connect the Cs to form … a picture of a sea?

Reaction 4: CUTE. It's a decent 7. A bit wonky, but there are a lot of stylized 7s.

Reaction 5: CURMUDGEON. Wait. Why the hell not put the 7 in the middle of the grid? Come on! Shoving it into the northwest corner is just plain lazy ...

Reaction 6: CATCHING ON. ... those seven Cs. THEY'RE ALL PART OF …

Reaction 7: CAPTIVATING. … ENTRIES THAT ARE SEAS! I didn't even notice, since every one of those seas had a misdirecting clue. Such a CLEVER execution!

I hope a lot of solvers get to Reaction 7, and the clever conclusion clicks more cannily than it did for me. It's a brilliant set of layers upon layers, all coming together so beautifully — amazing work to arrange everything so precisely to form the 7.

I was leaning toward giving it the POW!, but I worry about how many chumps like me won't get past Reaction 3.

POW Thu 1/23/2020
OCULARETASAP
SONORAYURTILE
TRICEPERGOLGA
ROCKSTHEBOWTIE
INOUTAXISICBM
CARPBRANAMORE
HENGIMMEASINAI
ARKLTD
THEGOODWIFICPA
MAMASRARASHAM
CLIPEIRELAILA
FREEVERSAILLES
TWASIDESTILTS
EATSTUNSENATE
AYEEPSTREXES

★ Regular readers of this column know that I love Thursday trickery. Nearly every single ground-breaking / avant-garde / mind-blowing work of iconoclasm has come on a Thursday, and for good reason — Will Shortz aims for Thursday to be the hardest themed day of the NYT week.

Will has been consistent in his philosophy, wanting Thursday to be nothing more than harder than Wednesday. However, all the clever, unique, crack-the-mold concepts have to be slated for Thursday — and there are a lot of them. Those pesky constructors and their breaking of every single crossword rule! Lawless agents of chaos!

Not every Thursday can break the mold, though — that's unrealistic. And even if it were possible, I wouldn't want it. My brain likes to be challenged, but it also likes success. Solving something hard but familiar can produce a great feeling.

That was exactly the case today. At first, I was underwhelmed by the theme being a simple sound change, and I wrote it off as not POW! material. Chatting with Jim Horne made me rethink, though, giving more weight to some of my first impressions:

  • VERSE to VERSAILLES? Now that's a spelling change! I've brainstormed hundreds of sound change puzzles, but I don't remember such an amazing transmogrification.
  • ROCK THE BOAT -> ROCK THE BOWTIE is not only a neat presto change-o, but what an awesome resulting phrase. Heck yeah, Bill Nye rocks his bow tie!
  • Amazing big corners — from a debut constructor! I'd rarely attempt a 6x7 chunk inside of a themeless puzzle, much less within a themed puzzle with more constraints. The SE is exemplary, super clean while shining with such winners as CHILLAX, PALETTE, T REXES.
  • Such clever clues for ALGEBRA — containing an "X" factor, as in "solve for X, heh heh — and SENATE. I've worked with many non-profits who used Ernst and Young — but that's the auditing firm, not senators Jodi Ernst and Todd Young.

There were a couple of blips, notably that "gimme a sign" as a base phrase doesn't sound as strong as "give me a sign," and there was more crossword glue than I'd like — close to a GROS amount. As much as I enjoyed some of the wide-openness, I'd have preferred a more standard grid layout that would have been easier to fill cleanly.

Barbara did so much right, though. I'm glad that Jim nudge-nudged me to take a second look.

Fri 1/24/2020
BLAMEGAMECHUCK
LOVESIMONHANOI
ICANTGOONEVICT
MAIDSIDETRACKS
ELLENYAHRYE
YESDEARDONTCRY
OLAVROILED
ATMPLEASEDELS
DRAWERCIAO
MIMETICAUGUSTA
AMASISSTOWS
BLANKETHOGALES
ARMIERIDESHARE
SUINGOVENRACKS
SNAGSNASTINESS

It's been a while since I tallied up so many smile-inducing clues. Although I still place more weight on grid-making skills than clue-writing, the balance is shifting. I'd love to know who wrote the following, Scott or Will Shortz and team — I imagine at least some of them were Scott's:

  • MENDED = "gave a darn." Tee hee. It doesn't quite work grammatically, but using the "darn" part of darning a sock is genius.
  • I still don't exactly know what TWERKING is, just that involves shaking your butt up and down. (As to why, that's another question.) "Doing some back-up dancing" is hilarious.
  • Ah, [That's the spot!]. As in where you are, a LOCALE.
  • Hot-wiring OVEN RACKS? Ah, the wires forming the oven rack get hot. Groan!
  • Where would I see a display of balance? Again, the grammar isn't quite right, as no financial person would ever say "display of balance," but it's so fun that I didn't care. (Missed opportunity though, the UNICYCLE also showing a display of balance!)

There was so much to love in the cluing that it almost didn't matter what the grid looked like. The strict constructionist in me had to have his say, though. It's typically problematic to place a fourth answer (SIDETRACKS) under a triple-stack, even if it's offset — there are too many constraints. See: AMOI / ENNEAD / YAH in the NW.

Running SIDETRACKS all the way to the far right can sidetrack you, too. When that ACK gets fixed into place, it saps away valuable flexibility from that triple-stack of HAVARTI / UNICYCLE / COCKEREL. A minor YDS is a small price to pay, but when you have small prices all over, they add up.

I enjoyed so much of the BLANKET HOG MAMMA MIA BLAME GAME material, but some of the long slots felt like they didn't carry their weight — neutral entries like WEANING and NASTINESS in particular.

Not a standout grid, but a standing O set of clues.

Sat 1/25/2020
DONTJUDGEMEAMI
EVERANDANONLAM
FIGUREEIGHTMGM
ANGERNEEMANE
TEASESILLTIMED
DOWNSAMATI
SLAGLAGSCOTIA
PALAVERLOOSEST
OBAMASAUSARME
ROBINPIXAR
TRANSFERDEFANG
SIMSLOBVALOR
BOADURANCEVILE
RUNEMILYBRONTE
ASSBEALESTREET

Stella's back! I'm always entertained by her social media posts involving her lifting something gigantic over her head. I was tickled by her profile pic and the mantra on her T-shirt.

Once a week, I have a climbing session with a bunch of folks where we work on stuff that's too hard for us. It usually involves clenched teeth, unexpected falls, taping up cuts, and plenty of pain, but that's the way to get to the next level.

Similarly, reaching for stuff that was too hard for me in today's puzzle left me exhausted. Better off for it, though.

Jim Horne and I enjoy exchanging thoughts about puzzles, and I figured DURANCE VILE was something cultured, literary folks like himself would feel smug about knowing. His impression of the puzzle overall? "Loved it, except I had no idea what the heck DURANCEVILLE was."

I have a feeling it's not as fun a place as Margaritaville.

I know GAMINS from crosswords, similarly with PALAVER. I felt high and mighty that I could plop in that crossing letter with no problem. Take that, non-solvers-extraordinaire! Peons, can't even determine that it's not PALEVER / GEMINS or PALOVER / GOMINS (that's a goblin + gremlin hybrid).

Jim said he felt smug knowing Ravel's "Pavane Por UNE Infante Defunte." I, as a classical cellist, of course dropped that in too, not SES then LES then ILE then UND then AAAAARRRGH! None of those make any sense, of course, only a gamin would even think of them.

Similarly with "lemniscate." Exactly 50% of Jim and I dropped in FIGURE EIGHT without blinking (hint: not the guy who took roughly 63 years worth of math through an engineering masters degree).

One's assessment of a themeless has a large component of "how smart did this make me feel." Sure, there are many other criteria, like quality of snazzy long entries, quantity of crossword glue, solving flow, fairness of crosses, but it's so much about smugness. Things that are good for you don't usually generate the shot of elation that a piece of candy delivers.

Sun 1/26/2020 FOOD ENGINEERING
MRPIBBSPURCARBATM
EARNERHIREACORNSIA
SKINNYJEANSTIMEFLIES
SEMINAANTENDALANIS
ANAITODAISSINE
BARGRAPHSRIPCURRENTS
AMYABUOBITSCHOREO
YODELERNAPESCOTS
ELSEAGEDMINEGRR
OBIEINTERRANDARIA
WHATASTEALLIZCAMBAGE
ANTEACESBONETARMS
DOETVADALOGSLIM
MOONSLENTTOOLATE
TWOBITFLASHHADRUE
CORNERBOOTHEYEPOPPER
HEADEUROAVERIO
ALPACASHOPLONECLIP
COPYPASTEUPANDVANISH
HOERACERFERNALICIA
APRAIDEFAMENICEST

Here are the foods that can be formed:

  • JEANS BEANS
  • FLIES FRIES
  • GRAPHS GRAPES
  • CURRENTS CURRANTS
  • STEAL STEAK
  • CAMBAGE CABBAGE
  • BOOTH BROTH
  • POPPER PEPPER
  • PASTE PASTA
  • VANISH DANISH

Final answer: BREAK BREAD.

I sadly took way too long to figure out this list, and even more sadly, had a couple of errors. Robots eat STEEL! I love me some Pirate's BOOTY. PESTO is as much a thing as PASTA — never mind that it changes two letters, not one I KNEW THAT YOU DON'T HAVE TO TELL ME WISE GUY!

It's so hard creating a grid around a lot of short themers. People tend to think, what's the big deal, aren't ten short themers equivalent to 5 super-long ones? Not even close! The ten shorties force black square placements right off the bat, taking away flexibility. Those pesky black squares can cause all sorts of problems down the road.

I did enjoy the bonuses — GRAMMAR POLICE / PRIMARY DEBATE / PIANO SONATAS make up a brilliant trio (RING THE ALARM not as strong as "sound the alarm") — but there was an average amount of crossword glue. Perfectly passable for anyone else, and things like ABEE ALOG EER ROM are easy enough to figure out. Not as strong as a usual Agard joint, though, speaking to how hard it is to construct around so many short themers.

Fun to see a shout-out to the WNBA, Erik a huge fan. I didn't know LIZ CAMBAGE, but hers is such a useful name for this theme.

Sunday puzzles involving a single hidden meta-answer can be memorable if said meta-answer interrobangs the concept. BREAK BREAD was more of a period or a footnote for me.

ADDED NOTE: Joel Fagliano pointed out that there's an additional meta-layer to this solve, the fact that BREAK can be changed into BREAD by the same one-letter substitution methodology. That's fun!

Mon 1/27/2020
APPSMEALSARTS
TRIPAGLOWNOEL
BOLADRFUMANCHU
AVECLEILAKER
YOSEMITESAMYEP
CABSONAIR
ADWAROPTDOES
SNIDELYWHIPLASH
PANEEELLEDTO
ETAILSTAT
HASCAPTAINHOOK
IMAPCAVERUNE
MOUSTACHESETTA
ORCSNAOMIATON
MEETTWEENTAPE

I'm embarrassed. Ashamed, really. As a child raised by TV, having watched thousands of hours of Saturday morning cartoons, I can impersonate most every character in the TV multiverse. SNIDELY WHIPLASH's sidekick, Muttley, and his wheezy laugh? Heh heh heh heh! Gimme something harder!

Huh? Muttley is DICK DASTARDLY's sidekick?

And DICK DASTARDLY is different than SNIDELY WHIPLASH?

Some creative team was awfully uncreative. Seriously people? Why not make a superhero called "Superguy" or "Green Lamp Man"?

Bah.

The cartoon lover in me loved today's theme, bad guys with trademark mustaches.

The anal constructionist in me didn't enjoy the DR of DR FUMANCHU. He's a doctor? What's his doctorate in? Better be medicine or engineering, or his mom will be letting him know how badly he's let down generations of ancestors who worked so hard to give him this opportunity.

Surprising tightness; difficult to think of others that fit the theme. Besides DICK DASTARDLY, there was BORIS from "The Bullwinkle Show." JAFAR from "Aladdin" sort of qualifies, but his is more a goatee.

As a goateed Asian person getting "randomly selected" for further screening at the airport EVERY SINGLE TIME, I don't love FU MANCHU included today, perpetuating the "evil Asian" stereotype (Ming the Merciless, anyone?). I wondered if that was a real thing when I was younger, but along with TSA eyeballing my every move, I've been stopped and hassled by cops twice now, so I'm starting to doubt it less.

The fact that FU MANCHU is the only non-toon in the theme set also makes him stick out.

Solid Monday offering overall, though. Tim's gridwork is newb-friendly, has a lot of flavor in ROCKY ROAD and WINE SAUCE, and shows loving care in its craftsmanship. My personal feelings about what FU MANCHU has done for people like me aside — you go get a PhD, and this is what you do with it?! — I'd consider the puzzle for the POW! It could have been a ton of fun if it stuck only to cartoon characters.

POW Tue 1/28/2020
AHHSHAMUGATOR
COYRANONELOPE
COMPOUNDWLAPEL
EDNALEERSMONA
SOARMALCOLMX
SOLOCUPPROORE
LASERYOGIS
GENERATIONY
EGRETWASTE
NRAORCTHESAME
CONTROLZERIN
LADEBEAKSLENT
ONEALFINALFOUR
SEUSSTROVELEE
ERREDSEXEDATE

I love it when artists combine two disparate concepts into something unique. I've participated in so many FINAL FOUR pools, created so many single-letter puzzles for crosswords, yet I've never thought of combining them. W X Y Z as the FINAL FOUR of the alphabet — and as final parts of the four themers — is so fun.

Glittery gridwork, too. For those who might not love the theme as much as me, how about some colorful OPEN MRI / TOPOLOGY and GROANER / GRANDEUR in those big corners? Lovely stuff.

Some may argue that TOPOLOGY could be tough for early-week solvers, but educated solvers should at least have heard of a topo(graphic) map, so it's inferable. And if you've never heard the term before, go check out Martin Gardner's work. His Scientific American columns fascinated me as a kid, and my shelves are chock full of his books.

HOODOO … okay, that might be tough, and I'd be more sympathetic to complainers. I'd lend even more an ear to those kvetching about the CANTOR / ORC crossing.

(The inner nerd in me says HA HA HA ALL THAT TIME I SPENT PLAYING D&D PAID OFF! Not surprisingly, I always had low Charisma scores in my character sheets. Even less surprisingly, I didn't care.)

Wed 1/29/2020
BFFGASCAPLIMB
ELIIDEALSARIA
LONGFORNIABANK
LEERRIDTOQUE
PINEFORCHRIS
SOLESIOU
PHILSPOOLGRAB
JONESFORJANUARY
SOTSIKEAAMIGA
ODEIAMSO
YENFORDONNIE
TAROTEPAEAST
OHIOHOPEFORBOB
MOCKULTRONEFS
BOASHASAGOTAP

Did anyone else put in GADOT FOR GAL? No? Me neither, ha ha, only a total buffoon would do that!

Who would have thought there would be five actors, each with a last name meaning "want"? What a constructor's dream, to have such a tight set of people, all of whom are crossworthy — and who fit the rules of crossword symmetry!

Will Shortz often shies away from running people-based themes, because they can feel trivia-heavy. If you don't know JANUARY JONES and DONNIE YEN, for example, it's not going to be a lot of fun to uncover these names.

Even if you don't know Yen, though, it's so awesome to see another Asian leading man in the movies, especially in the "Star Wars" franchise. Not that it makes up for the SEA aliens (stereotypically evil Asians) in Episode I, but it's a start.

At first, I wondered if the theme would have been better done in a straightforward way, listing NIA LONG, CHRIS PINE, JANUARY JONES, etc. Then I realized you'd need some revealer to make the concept clear — maybe WANT as the last entry?

Would that make the theme clear, though? You almost need to add (for) after all of them, since JONES FOR is so much better a synonym for "want" than JONES.

So if you're going to add FOR anyway, why not go with Jeremy's kooky approach?

The POKER clue ... you see, when POKER was first invented, chips were non-existent, so people used checkers, and that's why to this day they're often red or black--

Huh? "Checkers" as in "a person who checks"?

I knew that.

(Joel Fagliano is a poker player, so I'd go all in that he had a hand in this clue.)

I noted zero blips in the grid as I went, not a surprise given Jeremy's gridding skills. Smart themer placement, wise deployment of black squares to separate them, and the best of all, the sagacity to stick to a highish word count, not trying to do too much.

Overall, a tidy set of five actors with something fun in common. Enjoyable presentation as well.

Thu 1/30/2020
ICOUPLEGATEWAY
SUBTLERONELOVE
ARIZONACSHOWER
JAWDISSEEN
ORALNETTLECOD
BENINDAYSMOKE
BECTREAVIS
PLAYHIDEANDSEEK
LIMAOAFDOC
OMENSMAGNONPC
WONASPIRETARO
WUPREDHGOV
PARSNIPTITRATE
AGITATEELEANOR
LEGOSETLEANONM

My son often wants me to play with him, in a game I call "Jakearades." It's sort of like charades, except you have the bonus element of having to read the mind of a three-year-old who can't quite express his continually morphing ideas on the rules of the game or lack thereof. It usually ends in tears. And Jake cries, too!

Jim Horne, who grew up in Canada, said the theme mystified him and that he was looking forward to my explanation of this mysterious endeavor leading from IT to COLD to COOL to WARM to HOT to ME. (He didn't know what DUCK DUCK GOOSE was either, eh.) I was going to make up something elaborate, but I'm not sure I could imagine something as kooky as what was going on in today's puzzle.

I like the concept of integrating the game of "finding a hidden object by saying warmer or colder" into a crossword, but combining it with HIDE AND SEEK didn't make sense. Perhaps it's a non-Canadian / non-West Coaster thing?

Jake sometimes hides and then yells, "I'M HIDING IN THE BATHROOM" and then wails when I find him, screaming "YOU WEREN'T SUPPOSED TO FIND ME!" Maybe he's today's target audience.

I did enjoy some elements of the gridwork, though — such goodies as LEGO SET and ITS A JOB helped keep my attention (and helped me ignore EDILE) as I tried in vain to figure out what was going on.

Fri 1/31/2020
SRIRACHAMAMMA
PENDULUMECLAIR
ANDSCENEASKING
REITETRISALDO
SWAMISIMYLOB
COECOWGIRLS
ASWANFAKIRDOA
CHINESEANYNEWS
MELEMERYFERNS
ELDORADOAFT
LPNCMSDISSES
ASIFKEENONTNT
GOTIMEBOLDMOVE
EUCLIDUNFOLLOW
ETHELDOORKEYS

If you haven't tasted The Rooster, you haven't lived.

That sounds dirtier than it is.

Those of us hooked on SRIRACHA sauce call it The Rooster because there are plenty of knock-offs, but there's only one original SRIRACHA with the Rooster logo. No, it doesn't have any rooster in it!

Or does it? Maybe that's why it tastes like chicken?

(rimshot)

I also loved MIND … BLOWN! It sure could be tough to understand, though, if you've never used or seen the phrase and thus don't know to insert the implied ellipsis and exclamation. A clue with parallel structure could have helped, along the lines of ["That was ... UH-MAZING!"].

Two clues I should probably explain:

  • Temptation to steal is a WILD PITCH? Think about baseball, where a pitcher's wild throw opens an opportunity to take off running. What confused me was that I thought a baserunner advancing due to a wild pitch was recorded as an error, not a steal. (Turns out that an anal overthinker analyzing a clue to death takes away all of its cleverness. And a wild pitch doesn't result in a stolen base or an error. Man, is baseball weird.)
  • SWAMIS are know-it-alls? Aren't the wisest people those who know only that they don't know everything? (What was I saying about analyzing a clever clue to death?)

A lot to enjoy, notably marquee entries like AND … SCENE! (again with the implied ellipsis and exclamation point), BOLD MOVE, COWGIRLS, and GRYFFINDOR (I'd be an undistinguished Hufflepuff), but I like 70-word themelesses to be squeaky clean, avoiding the little dings of IMY, CMS, RDS, LPN, etc. as well as the perilous crosses of MCAN / COE and ALKALI / ALDO.