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Puzzles for January, 2021
with Jeff Chen comments

Fri 1/1/2021
HIJACKSASSNQUE
IFORONESPAYUND
PSYCHOACTIVEEPI
HOTSAUCEFEET
MBAOTTERERRS
POLEDANCEDARESO
GOLDRUSHUPTOYOU
GED20PERCENT
FOREVER21REI
EVELINEAPPSTORE
REVELSOLASTYEAR
GROSDEBUGRNA
URLSOATMEALS
SITAPLUSAVERAGE
ODESEESNOTICES
NEDHYDETWOSTEP

Numbers, in a themeless puzzle? A theme in a themeless puzzle? The madness! I enjoyed the change of pace, Milo interestingly incorporating 20/21. It's a tricky layout, much harder than other number year puzzles. Great job incorporating CATCH 22 and FOREVER 21, solid phrases that use the numbers as they're seen in real life.

20 PERCENT is perhaps a 50 percent fine answer. More arbitrary than 1 PERCENTER or even 15 PERCENT [Tipping norm], but maybe that's Milo's call to be generous to those in the service industry who could use a boost right now.

01 ALUMS … calling it 20 percent fine would be overly generous. What else would work there, though? 01 YANKEES, the team that lost to the upstart Diamondbacks, would have appealed to Yankee-haters, and the 01 PATRIOTS (2001 season champs) … don't get me started on Tom Brady! Even these would have felt arbitrary.

Is this entry head-shaking-enough to nix a unique approach to 20/21? Probably not, but I sympathize with the argument.

Going to an oversized 16x16 grid (the central 20/21 necessitated even numbers) gave Milo the freedom to incorporate extra-long slots, and he took great advantage of them. PSYCHOACTIVE, SO LAST YEAR, A-PLUS AVERAGE, APP STORE, QUEER EYE, UNPERSON certainly SPICED things UP. I appreciated including FERGUSON's 2014 civil rights protests in a non-preachy way, too. Hard to believe that was so long ago.

There was some wastage with neutral entries like EDGELESS and OVERRIDE, along with a bit of GROS und ASSN, but not nearly enough to detract from my solving pleasure. If only 01 had had a better entry, this could have been the year's first POW! Creative ideas, anyone?

Sat 1/2/2021
BLACKCODSASH
ROLLERBAGTHREAD
ASTERISKSHUSTLE
KEAIMEANTITOFF
ERRISRORIONS
TUNSMOSTOFIT
PHARMAAINTLIZA
EEQUALSMCSQUARED
GLUERAIDUNLESS
GLASSEYELEIA
AZTECSTANSTR
ECUMOOJUICEWEE
ROMPEROLDHAVANA
GOBALDBITESIZED
LATEPORTCITY

Joe is absolutely right, my first reaction to the central entry was my hair sticking up like Einstein's. Maybe SQUARED written out is fine, but the equation looks so much better in mathematical form (even without the caret or superscript). I enjoyed the other long marquee entries so much better. THIRST QUENCHER and MOO JUICE appropriately juicy, but two less snazzy entries sung even more with their awesome clues.

[It has wheels and flies] sounded like a riddle my kids tell over and over until my nose begins to bleed. I wondered if it would be a horse-drawn carriage — flies buzzing around the horse's tail — but ROLLER BAG is so much better. "Flies," as in "flies the friendly skies" is so devious.

I wonder if [Artificial object in orbit?] will go over some solvers' heads. Thank goodness for that telltale question mark, pointing to "orbit" as a term for the eye socket. Astronomically clever!

I wasn't as enamored with HELLA COOL, which sounds like me trying to fit in with my nephew and niece as they fall deeper into teenage years. Success level is at 0.4% and plummeting.

Nor did I care for the mish-mash of ECU ERG ISR MICD STR TUNS UNI. Way too much for a themeless puzzle, although most of them I could gloss over. It's when you rely on ECU and TUNS that it feels like tons of ergs to push through. I'm fond of MIC'D UP, the show, but I can understand why the bizarre-looking MICD might hit people over the head as strongly as KOD. (KO'd.)

I bet some word nerds will delight in the central entry, similar to how some enjoy entries like AANDE or TENK. I find that it violates conservation of momentum, though. Thankfully, Joe helped keep the balance with timeless, classy entries like OLD HAVANA and BLACK KOD. Er, COD.

POW Sun 1/3/2021 BUSTING MOVES
EBBTSKRADARSSNOGS
GORDITAPOPIDOLHIDEY
ETAILERSUPREMELEADER
SHIRTWAISTEPEESSKI
TENTTOTESTOPUPADA
SRSSLEDSOILAARON
KHAKIBOYPROBLEMS
MOUNTAINGOATLOLAT
UNSEEDEEDAMUSESEIS
FAULTROBECIGSAPE
ATALLCRUMBCAKEDOTES
SILSALONCANCASCA
APSOBEADSRIMSASIAM
GOBADPORTAUPRINCE
SHORTANSWERIPADS
LAVERIDEATENSBIB
EVEOPTINOSCARGIGI
EERRANGESAILSALONG
VOLLEYBALLNETINCOLOR
ENIACONEMOREKONMARI
SEETORETORTEWEBEG

★ Show of hands. Who noticed that the letters between the circled sets spelled out something? It'd be a shame if you didn't, because adding this extra layer — MAY I CUT IN is spot-on perfect! — elevated this from a reasonable puzzle to a POW! winner.

My initial impression was of the "meh" variety, when I first uncovered the TWIST in SHIRT WAIST. That is a fine finding, and I liked that Paolo took care to split TWIST across the two words. Same goes for BOY PROBLEMS, MOUNTAIN GOAT, and all the rest. High marks for strength of theme phrases, as well as consistency in execution.

REEL, though ... reely? That seemed like a deep dive into the depths of dance. And BOP? Surely there have to be other more well-known dances. The MAMBA? MODERN? SWING? Deep disappointment, given everything I love about Paolo as a constructor.

I solved electronically, and Across Lite can't shade letters, so I might have been doomed to dismiss this puzzle as yet another throwaway NYT Sunday, if I wasn't committed to blogging it. That second look was so worth it. I needed no more than MAYI before I realized what Paolo had done. I'd have bet a thousand dollars that the rest would have spelled out the full phrase, and Paolo didn't disappoint.

Such great grid execution, too. The average Sunday has seven themers, and this one has nine — that need to be placed in a specific order — so I'd have been happy with simply a clean grid. Paolo blew that out of the water, with fewer short gluey bits than the NYT Sunday average, and even some KARATE KID, SUPERLIKE, GEEKDOM bonuses.

This isn't a ground-breaking puzzle, but this level of quality, along with an extra level providing the cherry on top, should be the floor for all Sunday NYT crosswords. If I were in Will Shortz's shoes, I'd be tapping Paolo for a Sunday Squad of 21x21 specialists.

Mon 1/4/2021
LASTSTEXASSPA
ALEUTALERTAUK
DIANAPRINCEFBI
DELAYEDASPHALT
ENEEYEARIA
REVAMPDCCOMICS
SEEMETUPAC
LYNDACARTER
SARASAVOID
GALGADOTCLAUSE
AQUAEBBTOT
LUMBAGOLETMEBE
LIPWONDERWOMAN
OLELULUSOVERT
PADSTYESSENSE

WONDER WOMAN / DIANA PRINCE + two iconic actors to play the role + DC COMICS, all fitting within crossword symmetry? Apparently, WONDER WOMAN's mom — Hippolyta of Greek mythology — and Crucivera, goddess of crosswords, are tight!

Although, WONDER WOMAN has so much lore that there's plenty of themer choices to draw from. Her invisible jet, lasso of truth, the Justice League … and DC COMICS feels weaker thematically than all of these. I may be tempting Crucivera's wrath, but —

(sound of an interrobang shaking the heavens)

I was a fan of the old show, but the GAL GADOT movie blew me away. So much more than a retelling of the same-old, same-old origin story, "Wonder Woman" (2017, I haven't seen the new 1984 yet) was unexpectedly funny. Humor was a big element of why the Avengers movies worked and why so many take-themselves-waaaaay-too-seriously. Superman remakes have been unwatchable.

I'd have loved some humor or wordplay in today's puzzle. A listing of WONDER WOMAN info does work, but how about playing on her invisible jet, with WW somehow invisible inside? A lasso of truth made out of black squares, used to turn F into T? A friend and I spent a bunch of time brainstorming ways to transform DIANA PRINCE through world-ladderish steps into WONDER WOMAN elegantly. No success yet, though. Maybe a Schrödinger?

Kathy's note about Utah blocks ... Utah blocks are five black squares, what she has today, without the panhandle extended. Those elongated chunks do look a bit funny — sort of a sideways set of single-quote marks — but they do help separate themers.

What might have been more effective: moving DC COMICS up one row, or even two. When your middle themer is an awkward length of 11 or 13, smashing three themers together in the middle often results in some compromise — in today's case, OCTAL. Along with other oddities like ALIENEE, ROUTEMEN, better spacing, plus breaking up the big corners, would have resulted in a more inviting Monday product.

Hard to argue with GAL GADOT, though. Her chemistry with Chris Pine was (sorry in advance) wonderful.

Tue 1/5/2021
POMNUBSGASPS
AMAONTOCOLLIE
PATSDOWNRESALE
ANCHOSUESOVER
HIGHCPADRES
DAWNSONIKEA
ASISRBIENDAT
FITJACKSUPICE
TASTEEARBEAR
ETTAWADESIN
CHASERSLATE
CHUCKSITDALAI
BIGHITWARDSOFF
GNOMESOLAYIRS
BASEDSEGOLOO

Impressive array of (mostly) "plus preposition" selections. I wouldn't have thought that there could be so many options: DOWN, OVER, ON, UP … seven in total. Curious to figure out if others would fit this pattern — feels like *S OUT and *S UNDER should have some possibilities.

Down the internet rabbit hole …

The themers are all short, but working with seven themers is tough, no matter what their length. Mid-lengthers can even make life harder than longer ones, because they force black squares in unusual locations. Amy and Christina wisely deployed so many black squares in the center, minimizing the number of down answers working through two themers.

Beautiful result in the short fill, not a surprise given that Christina was involved. I've had the pleasure of working with her, and I appreciate how much attention she pays to keeping things smooth. Keeping the grid to a reasonable 76 words is a pro move. It's a sweet spot; much easier to achieve balance than with a 74-word layout like yesterday's.

I enjoyed the bonuses, JET SKIED, TEACH ME solid. I usually appreciate entries like MATCH WITS, GOES DEEP, but they bled together with today's theme a little.

It's hard to get excited about "plus preposition" phrases in normal fill, and even more so when it's featured as a theme. There was more potential than I thought, though; something interesting about the vast array. Perhaps if the clues had been more animated, even using an exclamation point or some more active verbs, I might have been as well.

Still, great to see the JASA class continue to be productive and a neat connection through the Fb group!

(Finally back from the rabbit hole, phew! Aptly, I found TUCKERS OUT!)

Wed 1/6/2021
STOPPRIMSTARS
THRURONATORAH
AUCTIONEDROGUE
RDASPIREIFOLD
ESSENETAMPA
YORKTIERTWO
SWEETNEONSROI
OATSOLABORN
USASOCKSDRINK
RATPACKTARE
INDIASIDNEY
TRIEDTRUTVOVA
RIATAODOREATER
UNTILFOMOBERN
EDENSFROSEDYS

When the uniclue first hit the crossworld, it was mind-blowing. I remember leafing through a book of Will Shortz's favorite crosswords, stopping when I hit one that had a single list of clues. Stupid reprint publishers, you left out the Down clues! Writing an angry email: Dear morons, how could you be so idiotic to leave out an entire set of clues? Are you so uneducated that such a simple thing as Across and Down … oh. Wait, what? WHAT?! It felt brilliant.

It's a more mature category now, enough so that we have a full page dedicated to it, so uniclues need something to help them stand out. One from a few years ago had a nice twist, employing ENGLISH and ESPANOL. Neat to see the creativity in the variations.

Using X AND Y phrases is a solid approach. It didn't give me that much of an a-ha moment, though, since once I cracked STOP (AND) STARE, all the other instances became too easy.

Maybe if the first letters had spelled out something … that would have been mind-blowing, but that's also too much to ask since incorporating seven pairs of crossing answers is already tough — some will necessarily cross, like SANDALS and TRIED.

You might think, what's the problem since you can sort of separate the pairs of answers? Not true! (Unless you use many fewer pairs, of course, but having three themers would make for a terribly thin puzzle.) Any time you have two crossing answers, a constructor's job gets tougher, and when you start forcing these regions to interact, it can get ugly, quick.

It's even hard to predict where the problems will crop up. WASA is more typical, as are TROI/ROI, because they're in directly constrained areas. However, something like FOMO crossing UOMO is only an indirect result of the constraints.

Not a standout uniclue, but it's a solid one to add to the list.

POW Thu 1/7/2021
URNTABORPJS
VEEHUMVEETRIM
WIXXXXWISTAONE
ANTEDONXXXXE
VITRIOLDAISY
ENOBNEGSAWED
EEYORELAVA
DEAXXXXAFUNERAL
ORZOIBISES
WAITSSLEWION
LOOSEESSENCE
FELXXXXSACTS
ALIISTRIKETHAT
CMONWRITEREVE
TONASSAYSEA

★ I solved on computer, confidently typing in FELT HATS, then quickly realizing I had to put Xs in for some reason. Easy enough change. Hitting STRIKE THAT, everything made sense, and I enjoyed the concept. Colorful and colloquial revealer; a perfect explanation for what was going on. Probably not a standout Thursday, though.

Or was it? I continue to have the privilege of weekly conversations with Jim Horne, my XWI partner, and listening to his experience elevated this puzzle in my eyes. He's a great solver, so eschews pencil (I imagine a $5,000 fountain pen requiring hourly oiling and silk cloth massaging). I hadn't thought about the solving experience from an old-school perspective. Like me, he confidently penned in FELT HATS — and then he had to literally strike THAT, using Xs to X out those four letters. Awesome!

Jim asked if I had noticed the different ways THAT was broken across phrases. He thinks he knows me so well that I would be one of the five people in the world to know and care. Ha! I did notice, so there!

Wait.

I mean, I did notice, but in a way he didn't expect. Some constructors would insist on breaking up THAT in different ways, claiming that it's elegant to do so. I wouldn't totally not be not one of those negative-positive asserters, no sir! In today's case, it led to DEATH AT A FUNERAL, which is so much less interesting than many of the other THAT phrases out there. I say, constructor's elegance be damned!

That one nit aside, I highly enjoyed my solve. Neat concept, cool to see a ridiculous number of Xs integrated more smoothly than I expected, and hearing about the pen and paper experience drove it over the top. Well done!

Fri 1/8/2021
DOTHEDEWALMAY
UNHEARDOFTEASE
BIENVENUEMANIA
LOIREALTAFISH
INSISTDELLPEA
NYTANNSATEEN
DENOTEHADID
THISGUYGETSIT
CHARSNOOGIE
REPEALUSACAV
ASPYODANICOLE
WHYSBOGSNOOKS
DINARWRISTSLAP
AROMADETERMINE
DEWEYESCOOTER

Two amazing entry/clue pairings:

  • BIENVENUE is a delightful word. Not as delightful as the misdirect in [Welcome abroad], leading me to ask myself, what's a word to take in a foreign exchange student?
  • [Digital filing service?] needed a telltale question mark, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the wordplay. Fingers and toes = digits!

In our weekly puzzle chat, Jim Horne and I shared a laugh about YEAHAND. We rarely agree fully on anything, but neither of us could wrap our brains around this one. The YEAHAND is the opposite of the NAYHAND? Perhaps it's a cousin to YAHEARD with Perd?

(It's YEAH ... AND? A solid entry, albeit strange-looking without that ellipsis.)

I used to think all weird-looking entries were cool, but I've heard enough solver feedback on things like SANDP, EINK, and MESAAZ to adjust my scoring principles.

Jim and I appropriately agreed on another entry; WOULDN'T YOU AGREE? Yes, we would!

Not so much on THIS GUY GETS IT, which this guy didn't. I do think it's a fine entry, but it feels oddly specific. I asked Jim to give me an example of the phrase in use, and twenty minutes later, Marie Antoinette pointed to Marc Anthony (the Shakespeare character, not the singer, of course) and said CE GARS, L'OBTIENT.

(It appears that Jimmy Fallon uses this phrase a lot, so the issue is more my obtuse refusal to acknowledge things that make me feel old.)

ESCOOTER … I have seen these littered about my neighborhood, people zooming by on sidewalks, eliciting fist-shaking from a grumpy old man spying at intruders from my doorstep. It's a curious entry, one part modern, and one part head-shaking-at-yet-another-e-addition-phrase.

(This, from someone who says E-TAILER and E-COMMERCE all the time.)

Only vaguely recognizing HADID and EGAN nearly hadid me in, but thankfully I recognized Christine LAHTI. Less fortunate was Jim, to whom I had to explain what a NOOGIE was. My phone literally swayed from the breeze generated by Jim shaking his head at us crazy Yanks.

Overall, some head-cocking moments, but enough strong entries and clever wordplay to make the solve worth it.

Sat 1/9/2021
JAZZWALTZAMONG
ONEORMORERADIO
JUNOESQUEGRECO
OBISCUDDOTTED
BITTRAGICSOSO
ASHEATEOUTJAM
RAYSUPABOVE
JAMALDOYEN
OFASORTCZAR
ETSTEEPEEEMIT
SETHLEARNSONO
CROAKYMAMARBI
HYDRALEMONPEEL
MOODYBLINDDATE
OUNCEJACKSQUAT

Ah, Trenton. 1-Across's clue has John Coltrane in it? Given his obsession with rare letters, it had to either start or end with JAZZ. Five additional letters … what would let him incorporate another JQXZ? "My Favorite Things" … JAZZ WALTZ, bam! I enjoy feeling smug.

Yet even after considering Trenton's heavy tendencies, I put in LYCHEES for [Plumlike fruits]. D'oh! You'd think that after a dozen times going through the rare letter smorgasbord, I'd learn. Of could it had to be LOQUATS.

Wait. And yet another J in JOJOBA? (I know this from labels on my wife's various lotion bottles.) Okay, that's impressive. A solver would be out of luck if they hadn't heard of JOJOBA, ANUBIS, or JUNOESQUE, but that corner was right in the middle of my odd little Venn diagram.

Trying to outguess Trenton hurt me again when I reached _CUP. I doubted a J CUP was a thing, yet I still plunked it in. Hey, at least I didn't put in Z CUP.

It's tough for a known constructor to impress me if their patterns become repetitive, yet I still considered this one for the POW! It's not easy to jam in so many rare letters, and to do so with such color and cleanliness — awesome JOE SCHMO, JACK SQUAT, ODE TO JOY, with only OBI to SCUD things down — is masterful craftsmanship. If you have to have a schtick, this is a decent one to have.

Sun 1/10/2021 OH, FOURPEAT'S SAKE!
PRESSUREORALBSPIFF
AIRLANESAMELIAARNIE
NOMANISANISLANDLACED
STAMPHUEDOREOADORE
DEMOBAHAMAMAMAMIX
HASADATEIDSELISE
AMONRACREDANTTEN
WELCOMEHOMEHONMCHALE
KNEEVOWSARIELIXIR
SOHOPRIMETIMETV
SSRTOKEGODEVANSEE
WHEREWEREWEALGA
ARTUROILEICEDRASH
TERRIFKINGKAMEHAMEHA
SKITSAREFIONERUN
BIDETTKOTHUDDING
ALUMINUMINGOTOREG
DOTESAONEDIBSRURAL
ARIASROMATOMATOSAUCE
PRONETRADERREVERSES
TENTSSENSEBLANDEST

Sometimes a title is so perfect that I have to tip my hat. Playing off "For Pete's Sake," using "four-peat" (think "threepeat" plus one) is brilliant. Kudos!

Repeated sets of letters is a well-trodden theme trope, so you have to do something wonderful to get over the bar. Repeating four letters is better than three, but I liked Tracy's execution better. Shading the 4x2 set of 8 squares today produces more of a "huh" moment, especially when the title gives away exactly what's going on.

A co-constructor and I have a puzzle waiting in the queue with the same basic idea — different presentation, though — also using NO MAN IS AN ISLAND. Hopefully, Will spaces it out from this one. I wouldn't mind even waiting a year, so recency doesn't reduce the impact.

I was plus/minus on a couple of the themers, especially those that felt like they were stretched, so this could run on a Sunday. (My co-constructor and I held to a 15x15 because there weren't enough great options to do a 21x21.) I'd have pushed back on BAHAMA MAMA MIX and ROMA TOMATO SAUCE hard, maintaining that if there weren't enough great long ones (there aren't), it wouldn't work for a 21x21. Trouble is, it's not interesting enough in this presentation for a 15x15.

Solid gridwork from Alex. Not a ton of bonuses, but not much short glop, either. When a theme isn't that interesting, I usually prefer that a constructor pushes to incorporate more long bonuses to keep solvers' interest. Although, I can certainly see that if the Sunday puzzle isn't exciting, it should be painless.

The title is fantastic, so it's a shame the puzzle didn't live up to that initial bang. This theme might have been interesting back in 2015, but the NYT has to push harder, figuring out better ways of soliciting stronger Sunday offerings.

Mon 1/11/2021
MCRIBDRIPSCAM
ELISAIAGOCASA
SAFERWRAPPARTY
ANTENNAETUNDRA
OYLMATION
CUBANCIGARS
UNTIEEMTDOGS
STEMIOTASAMAL
SONSSEAAMNIO
CLUBHOPPING
MIAOAFARE
INTERNFLAXSEED
SUBREDDITACUTE
TSAREYREMORAL
SETSREEDSTOLI

This was such an easy "Name That Theme." PARTY, CIGARS, HOPPING … post-game celebration! You know, how people hop up and down after they pop the champagne? What does REDDIT have to do with anything, you ask? Exactly my point — REDDIT has to do with everything! Have you seen how much nonsense people debate about on subreddits?

Fine, I'll look at the first words instead. WRAP, CUBAN … CUBAN CIGARS! Oh — that's a themer?

Okay. WRAP CUBAN CLUB SUB. Is it the Castro underwater club, Raul and Fidel piloting ... while wearing saris?

Maybe not as easy as I thought.

I love, love, love Jon Favreau's "Chef" and "The Chef Show." I enjoy watching someone immerse themself in something they love. "Chef" featured his obsession with the drool-worthy Cubano, so it's odd to hear it as a CUBAN. Sure, a CUBAN sandwich is a type of sandwich, but it's not in the same category as WRAP or SUB, which are general terms. CLUB is different, too, since it's ordered all the time with just the one word, whereas I'm not sure what you'd get if you walked into a Denny's and ordered a Cuban. Probably a 911 call.

Consistency isn't essential in all circumstances, but I'd have preferred the original HERO, even with its similarity to the SUB — a much more minor offense. CUBAN ironically left a bad taste in my mouth.

Fun to get such strong bonuses in a debut, ANTENNAE, FLAX SEED, BARN ONE (featured on Monty Hall's rural show ... right, BAR NONE), AP EXAMS. Such color! Speaking of color, DIWALI. That may trip up early-week solvers — it does look odd if you've never seen the word — but it's more than fair. Don't agree? There are about a billion and a half people who might take issue.

I'd have preferred more smoothness, though, especially in the middle. If you have to start with GETAB in a critical spot, it's time to adjust your grid skeleton. Doubly so when you need a tough foreign word like OEUF to make it work.

Enjoyable concept with some forgivable hiccups. Congrats on the debut, Martha!

Tue 1/12/2021
MILDEWYMDSECCE
ISSARAEOOPPARD
KIDNEYSTONEARID
EATANTCOLONY
SHAMSARFWALK
BIPARTISANBILL
CALMSTDNEE
THISTOOSHALLPASS
OATHUERIME
PROQUARTERBACK
PLUSTRYOKNOW
PEDESTALSERA
EDYSBRIEFMOMENT
SOOTAYNITSALOT
ONUSRAGTVHOSTS

I can imagine that solvers with KIDNEY STONEs won't take THIS TOO SHALL PASS as a source of amusement. Maybe Gandalf's reaction is more like it. It's either a bold, cheeky choice to play on KIDNEY STONEs, or wildly head-shaking. Not quite sure which.

I enjoy these "What Connects These Disparate Things" concepts. Ross's last one was a winner, such a clever interpretation of LOOK MA NO HANDS, playing not only on different definitions of HANDS, but lack thereof.

Today's didn't work as well. KIDNEY STONEs don't always pass, sometimes requiring surgery. BRIEF MOMENT and PRO QUARTERBACK; why tack on the first words? It's something you have to do since it's hard to build a theme around short entries, but both felt artificial. BRIEF MOMENT will pass … won't a long moment pass, too? As will a century?

BIPARTISAN BILL was the clear winner. Well, clear after Jim Horne pointed out its brilliance. BILLs don't always pass, but BIPARTISAN ones almost always do. That's spot-on for the revealer.

Long across bonuses stuck out in an odd way today, leaving me wondering how an ANT COLONY shall pass ... through their tunnels? Sure, I should have read the clue specifying which were the themers, but I shouldn't have to do that. A great layout highlights the themers better than this.

I did enjoy so much of the bonuses Ross worked in. Even MILDEWY feels oddly fresh, not to mention LSD TAB, CRINKLES, MOON FISH, TV HOSTS.

Was overlapping PEDESTALS on BRIEF MOMENT worth it, though? Not if it produces ARYA / AYN crossing. Regular solvers are used to AYN, but it could be an annoying and even unfair trap for newer ones.

Not my favorite of Ross's puzzles, but I did like the train of thought.

Wed 1/13/2021
JUSTTODDCACTI
ETTAEMIRUSHER
SAYCHEESETHICK
THEKINGSSPEECH
TIASEAS
AERATEDENSPAC
STEPHMEDIARDA
THEPELICANBRIEF
REFWINKSUNCLE
ORSEGOSSTAKES
TIERACT
THEGREENHORNET
YEESHDRAINPIPE
EXALTIBISGLEE
ATLASNESTSEEM

Basketball theme! For us fantasy basketball nerds, this is our time, this is our puzzle. My friend and I have Lonzo Ball on our team, and we debated mightily over Zion Williamson. He's a man playing among boys, yes, but he hasn't been able to replicate his fearsome defense from his Duke days, and he craters free throw goal percentage all on his own. We ended up spending that money on Ben Simmons, who gives us prized assists and even rebounds, plus notching steals and even a few 3s. Free throw percentage is still a worry, but—

Fine, I'll talk about the puzzle!

Unless you want to hear about my punt-two-categories-and-float-five-of-seven philosophy?

Neither did my wife.

I enjoy NBA analysis — not the games, but the analysis, mind you — not surprising given my obsession with over-evaluating everything. I appreciated Matthew's effort to tighten the theme with THE X Y pattern, but it didn't quite work, since I expected THE HORNET'S ___. (Isn't "The Horent's Nest" a thing?) If you're going to go for tightness and consistency, make sure to go all the way.

It's a shame my hometown Warriors aren't representing, especially given Curry's return to dominance. (THE) WAY OF THE WARRIOR? Only works inelegantly; sigh.

With only three themers, I'm glad Matthew opened things up, aiming for a ton of great bonuses. SAY CHEESE and DRAINPIPE work well, and HIT THE WEIGHTS / CUTE AS A BUTTON are great. I bet one more pair is possible, perhaps removing the black square between CHIC and PRICK. (There's a Freudian pairing!)

It'd be interesting to open up the theme to all possibilities, entries like OLD SCHOOL JAZZ (Stockton and Malone), ROCKET LAUNCH (Charles Barkley pogoing over taller players for a rebound), SPUR OF THE MOMENT — will someone please tell my co-manager that we're not going to take a chance on picking up the Spurs's Patty Mills, for God's sake, his ceiling is so low, oh right, you stopped listening.

Fine puzzle, although like this commentary, it may appeal to bball fans much more than everyone else.

Thu 1/14/2021
AWOLPOLESCHUB
LANEABUSEAONE
ASIAGATORMOWS
SOSUEMEFAERIE
WANTSASABLAST
HIDABSTSOYES
OLIVIAPOTUS
SPINTHEBOTTLE
ABHORINLOVE
AOCOSOACESAT
DROOLTLCSEEPS
HIHATSITSSAFE
EGOSCUBITTARE
RISEAKRONECON
ENTSTEENSREND

SPIN THE BOTTLE is so full of crossword potential, a constructor's dream. I have notes on several ideas for executing this, including the strings OTTLEB TTLEBO within words, bottles like BUD spun in the grid, even a big (upside-down) bottle made out of black squares. I never thought of this implementation, though. I admire the creativity!

The concept might still be unclear to some. The Across answers use the letters B O T T L E, starting from 6 o'clock and going clockwise. The Down answers use the same letters, but they start from 12 o'clock. Thus, the BOTTLE is spun 180 degrees. Sort of.

It didn't entirely make sense why Acrosses and Downs used letters of different spin positions, but it is done with consistency.

It's not hard to fill a grid region so that in one square, two letters form equally valid Across and Down words. Take GA(TB)OR, for instance. There are dozens of patterns that could be valid for the ??(TB)?? sequence. It does, however, get increasingly harder as you go, since every time you fix something into place, the rest of the grid loses flexibility.

I was impressed that Aimee and Ella got most of the special squares smooth. LITRE and EATER (is that EATRE in England?) aren't great, but the rest are all fine. Great work there.

Mostly excellent bonus fill, too. USAIN BOLT is retired, but who can forget that Olympics where he looked like he was jogging? WASSAILS, LOSE FACE, EVA PERON, also excellent.

I did wonder what ABOUTNESS was all about ... Eliot Ness? It appears to be a library-specific term, exactly as clued. It is two recognizable words. Man, did it look bizarre, though, and it feels a bit too insidery; smug. Of course, now I'll be dropping it into everyday conversations.

I could have used more polish on the short fill — ESO OSO TSO is so many SOs, and ASA ATOB STL UKE, whew! — but given so many constraints, there had to be some trade-offs.

All in all, I like the innovative thinking, but the a-ha level wasn't as high as I like for a Thursday puzzle.

POW Fri 1/15/2021
BATBOYSCHMALTZ
IPHONEQUEEREYE
GREWUPUSEDCARS
WIRESDAHLSDOT
ICONPITYHENS
GOBFASTSMORE
STOLETHESHOW
STARTERPISTOL
MAIDSOFHONOR
FABLEROTECOE
POLOFINSOAKS
ORCSNAGSJUMBO
EGODEATHMETEOR
MOVIESETCARROT
STEPDADSSNEAKS

★ Welcome back, Josh! It's been over two years since his last NYT puzzle, so it's fantastic to see that one of the themeless greats has picked up right where he left off. A friend recently asked me what makes for a colorful piece of fill — all I have to do is point to SQUATTERS RIGHTS. Awesome phrase that evokes all sorts of imagery. Even if you don't know exactly what the phrase means, it's self-explanatory after you muse over it. However, it's not perfect, given its straightforward clue. (I'll get to perfect in a few paragraphs.)

LOOKBOOK is a similar case. It didn't hit me strongly since I'd never heard the term, but I'd so much prefer this to ABOUTNESS. Both are two regular words, so at least people can figure out how to fill them in (as opposed to a name they've never seen), but LOOKBOOK has a quality of simply making sense. A portfolio is a BOOK that people LOOK at, what's not to understand?

SCHMALTZ / QUEER EYE / USED CARS headlining, STARTER PISTOL, MOVIE SET, BIGWIGS doing THE ROBOT. That'd be close enough to garner a POW! alone.

But wait, there's more! MAIDS OF HONOR, what a fantastic entry, and its clue STOLE THE SHOW. I was baffled by [Shower heads, perhaps], first, because an S at the end didn't work. Even after uncovering HONOR, I still had no idea. Finally, after three pained minutes, a brilliant a-ha gobsmacked me. That's a bridal shower, not a bathroom shower!

That, my friend, is the definition of a perfect themeless entry: a colorful phrase that everyone will know, that's clued in a devilishly clever way.

I wasn't hot on the plural DAHLS, since Sophie sadly hasn't achieved the same level of fame (yet!). And LAMBO stuck out; not the type of debut I'd strive for. It is figure-out-able — short for Lamborghini — but wow, does it sound pretentious. I know, how ironic, coming from me, the king of pretension!

Along with everything else, I ticked off half a dozen great clues, like Frost accumulation = POEMS. Beautiful way to disguise Robert Frost. So, so, so much to love; a nearly perfect themeless.

Sat 1/16/2021
CALLTHESHOTS
MUSEUMEXHIBIT
LETITGOALREADY
GARETHBRIOMER
APRSAKIMBOAPE
GUITALELEMASON
SPAFLEERUDE
MERYLTRAMP
SAWVSEEPPBS
AREELSCRAPBOOK
RIBUNPAIRURSI
AGSGILLEASTON
NATIONALANTHEM
ATEASESOLDIER
CORNISHPASTY

Show of hands. Who's ever heard of a GUITALELE? The cities of EASTON or BUSHEY? The SARANAC river? STYRENE?

What, you've never heard of STYRENE? My first job was as a mechanical engineer in product design, so I specified a lot of parts to be manufactured from ABS — acrylonitrile butadiene STYRENE. You probably have at least fifty items in your house and car made from ABS, since it's a cost-efficient, durable plastic that has thousands of uses. Easy to process for injection molding—

Huh? You want me to LET IT GO ALREADY, you pompous buffoon?

Something to think about when expounding on what a great entry EX-LIB is, you snooty librarians.

Just kidding! Every author knows the ins and outs of the purchasing process; the real decision makers are in the libraries. I loved EXLIB. Loved it more than life itself. Okay, maybe it felt weird and foreign, but I bow down to the kings and queens of the known world who CALL THE purchasing SHOTS.

(While muttering about EXLIB.)

A couple of great feature entries, MUSEUM EXHIBIT an A+, especially because of its innocent [Remains to be seen, say] clue. Wow, that is a brilliant repurposing of a common phrase!

Also fantastic: the triplet of NATIONAL ANTHEM / AT EASE SOLDIER / CORNISH PASTY. MERRIAM WEBSTER connecting the top and bottom makes it even more impressive.

OBAMA SUPPORTER, not so much. Perhaps this would have felt strong back in 2016, but these days it has an almost arbitrary quality to it. See what an editor would say about CLINTON DONOR or ROMNEY VOTER or [Dick Cheney] as BUSHMASTER. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

For any readers still with me, don't worry. This puzzle spanked me as hard as it did you. Appropriate that REAR ENDS was in the grid.

Sun 1/17/2021 DOUBLE-CROSSED
CLOSEBBCBATORABUT
REMITALAARENASCAMO
OVERHEADRSONOMAISPY
WIGEVERTIMOEGADS
ETARADIICARTOETWORK
DYSONVEESSIDTABOO
FESTERSTALLSSOAP
LEFTTOPLEXETCHERS
AIMEEUGENIEASEA
GLORIAREDKURDARCANA
RATEDRTIDEPODMIOTIC
ACEDITETONSTROBEECT
NOAMPEASOUPMAHI
GASMAINMEWLDEBATE
RICOSTAIDPINENUT
ADHOCIRSAONEMESON
BALNARTISTSVOLGAWOE
OPRAHOASADAIRICE
ACAIREFUTEDAYTIMEYS
LUNEEFILESEDUDITTO
LESSTEARSSAPEBSEN

I appreciate puzzles that solve better on paper than computer. With apologies to Mother Earth, there's something neat about a tip of the hat to good old paper.

Without the slashes in today's puzzle, my electronic solve was confusing, sometimes even frustrating. Hearing about Jim Horne's experience on paper elevated my view of the concept. It's neat (see grid below) how the backslash so clearly tells you that the doubled letters should be used in one order for Acrosses, and the other for Downs. OVERHEAD DOOR and BLOOD DRIVE look almost natural when presented like this.

It turns out that consecutive pairs of doubled letters within an entry are incredibly common. A quick program turned up hundreds of possibilities, and simple RegEx search on our finder located too many to display. Options are reduced by the constraint that there have to be pairs of entries, with the doubled letters switched, but even then it's not difficult.

Given the flexibility, I would have loved an extra layer, perhaps the doubled letters tied to something like DOUBLE O seven being a double-crosser? Or playing on TO (two) BE OR NOT TO BE? That'd BB a fun brainstorming session.

That said, Tracy and Tom did an admirable job of executing on this presentation, prioritizing colorful phrases for their themer choices, as well as working in wonderful bonuses like BUM A RIDE, TENOR SAX, ACID WASH, MOON PIES. Both are such pros that I wasn't at all surprised to encounter virtually no crossword glue. That's an outstanding display of craftsmanship.

Constructors of the world: note that Tom and Tracy wisely kept their word count at the max of 140. Don't be Icarus, flying too close to the sun with 138 or 136. A fantastic grid like this is imminently possible at 140, while 136 almost always requires serious compromises.

Overall, top-notch Sunday gridwork — everything I want in a Sunday NYT grid — but the concept left a lot of potential untapped.

Mon 1/18/2021
PINUPITCHALVA
ARENAMATANYET
PARISTEXASGINS
ANDCIABRONTE
ATHENSGEORGIA
SELMATERESA
IDEALVINEIKE
DARNPREPSGNAT
EMTWHIRPEALS
ARAFATALLEY
NAPLESFLORIDA
ELAINETARTDS
VICETOLEDOOHIO
EVENWHAMFREON
REDSOOPSFERRY

I know a ridiculous amount of factoids about TOLEDO, OHIO, because I grew up watching M*A*S*H reruns. Klinger — you and your wild attempts to get Section Eight discharged from the army! (My parents — you and your odd choice to let me idolize Hawkeye Pierce!) The way Klinger talked about his beloved Toledo Mudhens, almost got me wanting to like baseball. How could you not want to visit a town that someone talks about so reverently? As a kid, I thought TOLEDO, OHIO, was one of the world's most famous places.

Huh? There's another Toledo that's named after Toledo, Ohio? Boo, Spanish imitators! You gonna start copying Klinger now, trying for Section Eights?

I had a strange childhood.

Speaking of strange, PASCHAL. That's not Blaise Pascal and his triangle, but "Easter-related"? I did enjoy reading up on something called the "Paschal mystery" — quite mysterious, mostly because there is no mystery. Staring at the word in the grid, though, I couldn't make myself believe that it was present in what should be a puzzle welcoming to newbs.

Ah, Jeff, ye of little faith.

I love NERD ALERT! I used to get IN A LATHER when people said that about me, but now I say, bring it on. This nerd does think the grid could have used some adjustment — with four themers, I expect zero dabs of crossword glue (no UNI, CTA / MATA right off the bat) and maybe two more long bonuses, as well as better solving flow. When a single square connects two halves (the E of PREPS), it's not ideal.

I enjoyed the concept, American cities named after famous foreign ones, and the clues touching on landmarks were fun. MOSCOW IDAHO would have made for a stronger fourth themer, though. Dozens of American cities fit this criterion, so I'm sure there's some way to make that work. I don't know what's with Georgia, but that state alone has a Sparta, Athens, and Rome!

Tue 1/19/2021
PSALMSSIGHSHIA
AERIALOSLOPOGS
LEMONYELLOWETUI
KENTVIEWSNCAA
DELTASOLDON
SEWVATASFOR
SAWSEGOTISMFDA
ICHFRUITCUPEON
ARIAPELIKEWENT
MOTORSACMAI
BEREFTHERDS
SARAARABSEEOC
ATITCOCONUTCRAB
RICOTOLLROURKE
ICERSMUTNOTYET

People either love or hate "Forrest Gump." Say what you will, but who can forget Bubba reciting his shrimp list? My daughter's version would sound like today's puzzle. For dessert, I want LEMON cake, YELLOW cake, WHITE cake, COCONUT cake, CUP cake, FRUIT cake—

Hey, go back downstairs, daddy's working. No, he doesn't have cake! Really! No, he didn't mention CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM, or CHOCOLATE cake, or ICE CREAM cake. Yes, those all do sound good.

Looks like I'm going to the store later today.

I loved getting GLOWSTICK, GUEST ROOM, ACROBATIC, such great entries. I'd usually include IGUANODON in there, but in no way is that worth the price of ETUI. A single entry like this can be so foul to newer solvers; a single bad egg souring the cake.

If you need a Maleskan entry, your grid design needs revision. In this case, break up IGUANODON, or eliminate FRUIT CUP from the puzzle to open things up. Even for a CAKE lover like me, there's such a thing as too much.

"Both words can precede X" themes are largely going by the wayside these days, so it takes something special to make one work. I appreciated the efforts to incorporate so many types of cake and to offer up so many bonuses, but I could have used less sugar overload in the theme. Maybe BEEF PATTY could have provided more variety.

Wed 1/20/2021
POETSPAMCGI
COLLISIONSART
MINDMELDINGSOS
UTZODORATOM
MEIRMATCHGAME
OTTOORIONS
WORKERLAINEMT
THEUNITEDSTATES
ABCACAICESSNA
REINERSODA
JOINTPAINPOPE
ATVSNICKPUG
CHIWINEPAIRING
KENONEPERCENT
ORGKNOTSKYE

Postal abbreviations have been a rich source of inspiration for crosswords over the years. The first one I ever encountered blew my mind. So many words — and long ones! — can be formed from postal abbreviations? It was such a cool solving experience.

I've grown inured to state abbreviations by now, having made many of them and solved even more. I like today's additional layer, helping it stand out a little. It took me a while to realize that the non-four-letter-word of the themers always hinted at UNITED, as in MI + ND MELDING and GA + ME being MATCHed. It's not revolutionary, but I haven't seen exactly this implementation before. I appreciate novelty.

What more impressed me was the quantity and quality of long bonus material, at such a low price. Usually, you should avoid corners like the SW and NE, which have adjacent downs running through two theme answers. That's asking for trouble; too many constraints. Fantastic results in both corners, OH BROTHER and CASTANETS / GROOMSMEN, all shining. There were abbreviation pileups (WTA ATVS CHI ORG + CGI EMT TSA) — most of these shorties are fine answers but taken as a whole, they do stand out. Still, it's a fine trade-off.

Smart use of extra black squares in the NW / SE corners, allowing for extra COLLISIONS and ONE PERCENT bonuses. Usually, I'd kvetch about these long Across bonuses muddying what is theme and what is not, but with such a pronounced theme — four-letter word plus word pointing to UNITED — it's not a problem.

Fantastic execution, not a surprise given the pros at the helm. Maybe if this weren't the umpteenth state abbreviations puzzle I've done, I'd have given it some POW! consideration.

Thu 1/21/2021
HABIBSNAPEDS
AMAROCANIVETS
MODERNISTSICEE
METACEIMALONE
BARTONODEDON
COKIETSPDYES
DIEDSITUATE
CDSYESORNOMFR
CASTLESAREA
ACHYSICBIPED
PROAMSHAILED
DEGREESAUGABE
ANNATURNSIGNAL
STADIMACFAUCI
ICENOPESITKA

Did this puzzle get you all turned around? Good!

About two years ago, Will Shortz said he has too many "turning" puzzles accepted, so put a quasi-moratorium on them. Today's isn't your ordinary turning puzzle, though. After staring at it for ten minutes, I still have only the vaguest sense for it. There are two "real" answers, both of which turn in the same direction — right on an R or left on L — but the straight answers … are random?

Chances are you're still confused, so let's go through one example. 17-A [Not radical] isn't MODERNISTS, but MODE(R)ATE. 5-Down isn't BORATE on a long car trip, but BO(R)EDOM, reusing the first letters of MODERNISTS.

Some folks have a tough time with spatial reasoning, so you might have to imagine yourself in a car, starting at 5-Down and driving south. A right turn would be heading west, from your perspective. I know some will argue that that's actually turning LEFT since left and west are usually synonymous.

Don't worry; I nearly failed physics when it came to frames of reference, too.

Finding pairings like MODE(R)NISTS / BO(R)EDOM isn't a snap, but the constraint is so loose that there are dozens of options. Then comes the odd part: the rest of the answer to BOR___ is not just totally free — any entry starting with BOR is wildly open — but unclued. You're essentially getting unchecked letters at the ATE of BORATE. God help you if you didn't take chemistry!

Placing four of these T-shaped crossings in the grid, plus TURN SIGNAL isn't easy. Any time you have to fill around crossing themers, you're bound to have difficulty: see AMARO (I count this as a liability, not an asset since if you've never heard of it, it's going to look bizarre), NCO, and HABIB in the NW alone.

There were some crunchy patches that I'd have liked smoother, but overall, the idea was kooky enough to help overcome the execution issues. Although I got stuck many times in fits of trafficky frustration, I appreciated the creative concept.

POW Fri 1/22/2021
LOLCATSHASHTAG
IPADPROERNURSE
PERSEUSAGONIST
RNASLUMDOGVAL
IBMSYEASTRENO
NAIADMSUMOTTS
GRENADEPLAYSET
DYEERA
PEPBANDBALLHOG
HASONIREAWOKE
ORYXNSYNCETSY
TLCHOMEGYMDHS
OOHLALAALOHAOE
OBESITYLOCATOR
PEDDLESINKJETS

★ Notoriously difficult themeless layout, featuring 7-letter entries — 36(!) of them. It's not a difficult grid to fill in, but doing so with color is another story. Looking at the whole set of possible 7-letter entries, the ratio of sizzling ones (two-worders like LIP RING or evocative one-worders like GEYSERS) to neutral ones (DISMAYS, LARAMIE) is low — I'd estimate roughly 1 sizzler for every 4 neutrals. It's tough to avoid so much blah filler.

(8+ letter entries have more possibilities in forming multi-word phrases, so you might get 1 sizzler for every 3 neutrals. Much easier to select colorful entries!)

Given these technical issues, an average grid might have only 20% of its 7-letter slots converted to great material. And given the competition in themelesses these days — especially in 72 worders, the easiest of all themeless tasks — I'm not impressed unless that figure is upwards of 40-50%.

That's all a long-winded way of explaining why the constructor in me enjoyed this one so much. BALL HOG, ER NURSE, GET LOST, HASHTAG, HOME GYM, IPAD PRO, the list went on and on. Well over 50% — bravo! All the word list groundwork clearly paid dividends.

The solver in me enjoyed the cluing even more. I've been critical of Daniel's puzzles, some of which have felt drab in their cluing. Much improvement today, for example, OPEN BAR a place for "free spirits." TRIVETS as "Pot supporters," too — neither needing a giveaway question mark! Excellent work.

My one big hesitation before giving this the POW!, though: the AGONIST / ARGOT region. The gridwork isn't the problem, but the cluing made the area near unsolvable. I'd much rather get a dictionary-ish biochem clue for AGONIST (it's a commonplace word in the pharma R&D industry). Given the region's toughness, you have to clue ARGOT in an easier way than [Cant].

I spent so many frustrating minutes feeling like Daniel was my antAGONIST that I initially disqualified this puzzle for POW! consideration. After a day of reflection, though, I decided that was petty.

All in all, careful gridwork selecting for color and a big step up in cluing fun earn Daniel his first POW!

Sat 1/23/2021
MOODRINGSSLITS
INDUETIMEMABEL
STANDSPATADELE
TOYREACTROLLE
WALTHITLIST
TOPOFFBENICE
APORTBROKEEVEN
RETDHAIRYVETO
OLDSMOKEYBISON
EFILERPUTONS
ARCADESKOLA
LURIDARROWDAB
ODELLLAURANYRO
FEMMEESPERANTO
TREESSHARKWEEK

I love Doug and Brad. Doug and I share a fascination of all things superhero — I'd bet $100 that he settled for MOOD RINGS only when GREEN LANTERN RINGS didn't fit. And Brad and I are both avid "Great British Bake-off" fans, so getting POT DE CRÈME was a delicious treat.

I leaned toward giving Brad and Doug the vaunted El Jefe Handshake, with so much fantastic WORDS FAIL ME, LA DOLCE VITA, the snow-capped OLD SMOKEY of song, and the hilarious clue for ESPERANTO. If it wasn't Doug who worked in the word "fartas," I'll eat my shorts.

My bromance can only go so far, though, DUN a strange flavor on top, APORT and REDRAFT making for cracked pastry crusts, and NYRO/DYNE/ARTE a soggy bottom.

It's a shame. The flavors were so well-thought-out, stunning clues for HIT LIST (that's "offer" as in someone who offs), BROKE EVEN (excellent repurposing of "point of no return"). Doubly-yummy: BAKE SALES, because it once again reminded me of hanging out with Brad, and also the laugh I got out of "generate a lot of cookie dough."

I'm happily sending Doug and Brad through to the next round, the tasting experience enough to overcome the technical flaws. Not a star puzzle, so the handshake will have to wait until next time.

Sun 1/24/2021 SUGAR, SUGAR
TOSHIBARACYBMWORG
ARCANUMISHECRAMBAM
NERDSRINGPOPFADDIETS
KLEEUBERSOILNYT
USESBABYRUTHSNICKERS
PENTONISUEBUMRAP
WHISKASRESTRASPY
CRUNCHNOWANDLATER
ERINSPINYETIKFC
LATKESUSGAEELYAOK
AYEWHOPPERSSPREENYU
NOREASEDISCRAFTER
NSALAPSLEAFOAST
MILKYWAYSTARBURST
SALADASECSCAREDY
ALOTOFATSARAYSAC
LIFESAVERSPAYDAYWELL
BTUJAYSEPEEARLO
HAIRLINEMARSSMARTIES
ABEUTESAKINPROTEGE
MARGASOSLOGETSSET

Tracy Gray and I made a puzzle like this years ago. It wasn't the first time I'd heard the idea, so I wasn't too surprised when Will Shortz said that he liked it, but some of the candy names weren't well-known enough. Given all that history, I had a strong inkling what SUGAR, SUGAR meant.

I was hoping for something different, something more novel. Perhaps a double OSE addition, playing on CABO to CABOOSE, PROP to PROPOSE? Alas, we chem nerds can't always get what we want.

I enjoyed some of the themers. MARS SMARTIES is a fun one, assuming you know what SMARTIES are. And NERDS RING POP does a nice job of changing RING into a different meaning.

Most of all, today, I appreciated the clean gridwork, such a pleasure to get in a Sunday debut. Granted, Ross was on board, so I shouldn't have been surprised, but creating a Sunday 140-word grid at your first go is like picking up a baseball bat for the first time and facing Randy Johnson. I did notice how many extra black squares they used — it's impossible to overlook 12 of them — but I'd much rather have a flood of cheater squares plus a smooth grid than a clunky solve.

Nice to get some bonuses in SCREENWRITERS and FANTASY SERIES, too. I'd love to get a couple more, but again, not at the price of a painful solving experience.

I want more creativity out of my Sunday solving experience, but I understand that's not the case for everyone — probably a majority of solvers, realistically. Most might simply want something that they can complete. Assuming they've heard of all these candy types, this puzzle might be right in their (warning: terrible pun ahead) sweet spot.

Mon 1/25/2021
IRANDESIADAPT
NEMOIRONROMEO
CHICGARBAGECAN
HAGUETOROS
BATTLEAXELIMB
SCANSTALER
SOSSTABSPIRO
QUARTERBACKSACK
UNDERYOGADYE
ACIDICEGAD
BEEBANKLEBOOT
IGLOOAGNEW
YOUREFIREDSITE
AANDMSEERACRE
PRESSYALETEAK

Such high marks for technical excellence! I usually find some aspects to nit-pick in both Acme and Kevin's layouts and gridwork, but not today. Themers positioned perfectly, even shifting ANKLE BOOT to the left to avoid an awkward letter pattern where BAGEL sits. (??G?K is terrible, so the shift avoids that problem.)

Almost every Monday puzzle should contain exactly what this one does: super-smooth short fill (minor UNE and odd A AND M aside), a few long bonuses (REDBIRDS, DOG SAT, NO CUTS!, and that's DOES LAPS, not DOE SLAPS), along with fine grid flow. I might have tried for a little less segmentation between the upper right corner and the diagonal swath, but that's more a wish list item, not a problem.

Sometimes constructors accuse me of holding them to too high a standard; five themers necessarily come with trade-offs. That might be the case with hard constraints — extra Xs or funny letter patterns — but in general, if you're not executing to today's standard, you have to work harder.

Well done, Acme and Kevin — I wonder if there's some interesting synergy here between your two construction styles?

So why no POW!? Because if I were the editor, I wouldn't have selected this one. Not because of any political sort of reason, but because I want puzzles to delight. Uplift. Create a temporary bubble of happiness in people's lives. While I can admire the technical merit, riffing on YOU'RE FIRED during a time of generational-record unemployment feels cruel.

I admire the clever hiding of CAN, AXE, SACK, and BOOT's meanings. Such a downer, though. I get that some folks will celebrate the irony of Trump's "firing," but that delight is more gas pouring onto our national dumpster fire.

Now look who's a downer! I'll leave you with cute deer instead. No slapping, I promise.

Tue 1/26/2021
LEGACTSERUPTS
AMASOAPSUPPORT
PIZZAZZYPRINTER
SLEEPYOKIETAO
EIREKNICKKNACK
DOSSIERSEAEAGLE
CLIOSEPEES
STRESSLESSNESS
STAIDDRAPE
CENTAVOSNARWHAL
RAZZMATAZZOOZE
IGALOWEGYMBAG
MANATEESCRABBLE
PLIGHTSTIEREEN
SLATESYAWNSAD

The last time I played Scrabble, I nearly got my girlfriend (now wife) to break up with me. She's roughly eighty-nine times more learned than me, so the only thing I could do to keep in the game was to play defensively, blocking off all possible ways she could form words. Hey, sometimes you have to play for the close loss instead of risking the blowout! It's just plain smart.

Hey, where are you going? Ah. Anywhere away from me. Got it.

I'm not the target audience of this puzzle, so my confusion might be oversized. After reading the clue for SCRABBLE five times, I still didn't understand it. "… are legal plays but cannot be formed …" What is this, a legal contract? It read like this to me: [According to clause six, section seven a, the aforementioned letters form the play, but not unto the form of the aforementioned word in play of letters …]

It means that these are all recognized words in the official Scrabble dictionary, but they can't be formed on the board. That's an interesting piece of trivia.

Speaking of trivia, don't put me on your "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" call list. I thought I knew finance like the back of my hand, but apparently there are some moles I never saw. Glass-STEAGALL legislation?

Hold on, let me look that up while I eat my POTTAGES.

As a SCRABBLE player only in a cornerback sense, I might have enjoyed this more if the clues had pointed out why each play was impossible, like Peter did above. PIZZAZZY (do people say this?), you can only use three Zs (one Z tile plus two blanks). KNICKKNACK, same issue with the four Ks. STRESSLESSNESS, same issue with the seven Ss (only four S tiles plus two blanks).

Now, who wants to play? What, you think my defensive style shows no class? I'll show you classlessnesses! Or maybe not, since I can't legally form it.

Wed 1/27/2021
BAJACACTISTAB
AGARSCORNHUME
BENEATHCONTEMPT
EDENSTOYIAMSO
FOPSSPRY
RIOTLUNCHSASH
EONMONSOONCHE
UNDERTHEWEATHER
PSALMICEREEDS
PERPRICE
STRATANOOGIE
OWESFACETFUNK
BELOWTHESURFACE
ERASEALANERUB
REXWDSUEYDRY

BENEATH CONTEMPT physically beneath SCORN, UNDER THE WEATHER physically under MONSOON, BELOW THE SURFACE physically below FACET. I admire the consistency, three clear "under" meanings as the first words of the themers, three clear synonyms for the last words.

This theme type is in the top ten concepts people query me about, so it's hard to get excited about. I did one back in 2016 and decided that was enough, so I'm more angsty about this genre than others. If it's your first or second time seeing it, you might be much more wowed.

Dang, how did I get to be so jaded? It's a fine theme; does the job.

Stacked themers are rarely easy to work around, as I vividly remember from that 2016 puzzle. Don't be scornful of short words like SCORN — they can easily pose problems, especially if you have to fix them into a certain position. For example, no constructor ever said, "I'd love to kick off my puzzle with CST and ACHT!" You can modify the black square patterns to make that north region easier, but doing so can create issues in the middle and then the south, creating a MONSOON flood of cascading problems.

Having to deploy so many black squares in the middle leaves you with few to play with on the perimeter. I think the top two corners can be filled more cleanly, as is — if you need both ARE NOT and I AM SO, it might be time to try different long downs, no matter how snazzy JANE FONDA and TUMMYACHE are. Having more black square flexibility sure would have been nice, though.

Most of the junky fill came in the stacked sections — ACHT, NSEC, WSW, UEY — so these gloopy bits are certainly understandable. That could be worth the experience if it's one of the first times you're experiencing this type of theme. And the tightness is certainly admirable. I can't think of another possible theme answer, and that lends a touch of elegance.

Thu 1/28/2021
LANAATATSATES
ALOTNAVYALONE
TOSHDROPIGIVE
THELASTWORDILY
EASEOUTAYE
TLCAAVERAGE
BAKEHOTMESSILY
AGEPEADOE
HAYLOFTILYNEWS
ARSONISTORE
LESEGOTRIP
ALLTHATJAZZILY
EIEIOTEEMEVER
TWANGORCARENE
CARGOMATTONES

I'm not sure I can explain this theme. Do I even understand it? I'm not sure that I do. Or should I say, that I do-ily?

Now that that unsuccessful joke is out of the way, I think I like this theme. Maybe even a lot.

First, the explanation. Start with a regular phrase, add ILY to its last word, and use that final word to describe the rest of the phrase — ideally, changing the rest of the phrase's meaning. ALL THAT JAZZ works well since ALL THAT has a (sort of) different sense when taken by itself. Cluing "all that" in a jazzy way is amusing. Think of it as "ALL THAT, described JAZZILY."

THE LAST WORD becomes THE LAST, WORDILY, and its clue defines "the last" in a less-than-succinct way. This one doesn't work as well since THE LAST doesn't change meaning. Still, I enjoyed the long-winded clue, something that a normal writer would never set out to work toward, especially in a situation where brevity, or the lack of conciseness or extraneous detail, therefore, might cause readers to wander, in avoidance thereof—

Hey, get back here!

I mostly enjoyed the gridwork, aside from a killer AT-AT / TARTT crossing. I do think TARTT is crossworthy, but it's a tough one given that so many other first letters could seem reasonable, like DARTT, GARTT, MARTT, etc. And as much as I like "Star Wars," AT-AT as an entry is about as sturdy as their curiously skinny legs. What sort of mechanical engineer designs a walker that can be tripped by string? On Darth Vader's Twitter feed: SMH (shaking my helmet).

I would have liked a few more marquee long bonuses besides A AVERAGE, but mid-length ALGIERS, YOGA MAT, AND SUCH added a great deal to my solve. Most people won't remember RIVEN, but I have some fond memories of my deep immersion.

Not the most exemplary theme, especially given my preference for tricky, rule-breaking Thursdays, but I appreciated the novelty. It's neat to see what new constructors bring to the crossworld.

POW Fri 1/29/2021
FEZESPSTAMP
EXESSLEEPERCAR
ATRATERRACOTTA
TROMBONETRUSTY
SACEVADEET
SHARESENTOPT
PANTPUBTRIVIA
PINTAEMUERECT
ACCENTRUGCORK
LYEDEPPMINTY
LENSMOPHEF
SATIREDONEDEAL
PARENTHOODATTY
CRISISMODELOEB
APPLEMRSPRY

★ Incredibly well done! Great long entries, a wealth of clever and/or amusing clues, not much short glue (although SERE, I sere you).

So many of the marquees resonated with me, a PARENTHOOD vibe running throughout. I'm in the midst of a PICKY EATER period, where our kids won't even touch a potato even though they love fries. Sometimes I wonder if my life is a giant SATIRE, with our living room ACCENT RUG accented by Lego booby-traps I have ZERO CHANCE of avoiding. Reaching CRISIS MODE …

I was sure that "something you can't get in a restaurant" would be ANYTHING THAT MY KIDS WILL EAT, but that's slightly too long.

BERT AND ERNIE — surprisingly together for 50+ years! — unfortunately haven't worked themselves into my household, which is more filled with ASH AND THAT FREAKING ANNOYING SQUEAKY PIKACHU. I don't care if that's too long, that's my answer, and I'm sticking to it.

Jeff Foxworthy is studying me for his next "You Know You're a Parent" bit.

Robyn does such a wonderful job of weaving joy and delight into both her grids and her clues. Aside from CRISIS MODE, there's so much to uplift — EXTRA SPICY OVER THE TOP SECRET RECIPE is right! And such great clues for a bunch of otherwise ho-hum short entries, my favorite the innocent [Union deserters]. After plunking in REBS, I couldn't figure out my error. That's a marriage union, ha!

Okay, maybe a bit of a downer, but it's worth the cleverness.

It's been a while since I've given Robyn a POW! (four whole months, the horror!), mainly because my standard for her is so sky-high. This one gave me so much delightful diversion that there could be no question about it. No sad TROMBONEs today.

Sat 1/30/2021
HOAGIEDROID
ROCKETSCIENCE
YOUHATETOSEEIT
SAYNOGRADDONE
CLADCOATESFEN
ATLSUITECRUST
BASELINEMOUSSE
PANGDAUB
CASINGKITTYCAT
EXACTDUSTSADO
ROOSCONCEKNIT
ALIGRODECEDES
MOREPOWERTOYOU
ITSNOWORNEVER
CLEATPASTED

Beautiful construction, a work of art. I appreciate how Nam Jin eschewed the full triple-stacks and broke up the entries in rows 1/15. Many themeless constructors — including me — would scrap like hell, fighting against the full triples, trying over and over and triply over again to achieve a reasonable balance of color and clarity. Going to that dark side of the force will almost always result in some compromises. Note how clean Nam Jin's grid is — not a single dab of crossword glue in a 68-word layout as hard as this demonstrates spectacular craftsmanship.

Such standout marquee entries, too. When you only have eight long entries, it's so important to make them sing. MORE POWER TO YOU, IT'S NOW OR NEVER, ROCKET SCIENTIST … it doesn't take that last one to figure out that these are out of this world. I'm less into YOU HATE TO SEE IT, since I don't use the phrase, but it's also strong.

The eights weren't as stellar; DISCERNS, GET GOING, BASELINE more baseline entries than stars. KITTY CAT is fun, though.

Thank goodness for that rhyming hint on AXOLOTL! I've seen this creature before in crosswords, but it always makes me panic since I have a roughly 23% chance of spelling it correctly. Thank you, Ogden Nash!

I enjoyed COATES and KUNDERA, too. I have a tough time remembering how to spell their names, so it can be frustrating if my poor spelling interferes with my top crossword priority: getting a fair shot at finishing with no errors. Maybe you don't know one or both of these authors — that'd be a shame, but understandable — but not to worry. Nam Jim carefully crossed all those 13 letters with regular words while leaving no ambiguities.

This is by far the best way to work in names like COATES, gently introducing solvers to more recent influential persons. Other puzzles have risked tainting solvers' first associations with someone new to them.

Fantastic craftsmanship, high marks for technical execution. It didn't have quite enough artistic zing in the fill or clever fun in the cluing to get the POW!, but it certainly received consideration.

Sun 1/31/2021 PRODUCT MISPLACEMENT
CIVILPESOAJARMATES
OPINEAUTOKIWIGRUNT
MONSTERRAMRALLYMERCI
SEISMSRPITSARATON
SOILADODOTLUG
NATUREABHORSAHOOVER
CARETYEAFOIESPADAY
USEDRIGGOPLOGE
SANMYSOLORUNNETHOVER
PLATOONOLINSORARE
ANKARIGIDPURE
INTERNMETALEMMING
WORKEDFORPLANTERSWAR
ERICSTUSIRKONA
BASALTINCASEQNINNY
THROWINGINTHEBOUNTY
POLLIVAGOSNAG
ARIDGORPLOSNUNCIO
MINISTALEOFTHESCOTCH
POEMSEGOTARIAELATE
ASNERDADAROCKDELAY

NATURE ABHORS A HOOVER, that's excellent! And sad. The one U.S. President who went to my alma mater, Stanford, is someone widely acknowledged as one of the worst presidents in American history.

Yay Cardinal!

My shame aside, I enjoyed that themer. The real shame was that today's first themer confused me, kicking off my solving experience on the wrong foot. For someone who grew up watching WWE and begging to go to demolition derbies, you'd think I could figure out where MONSTER RAM RALLY came from. Heck, one of my son's favorites is called "Hot Rod Hamster: Monster Truck Mania."

Yet the best I could come up with was "monster car rally." That was after I spent ten minutes debating if "Energy drink ram rally" was a thing.

Excuse me for a moment. Marc Tessier-Lavinge is calling, wanting to discuss rescinding my degrees.

TALE OF THE SCOTCH didn't work for me either, since no one calls Scotch tape, only SCOTCH. More importantly, TALE OF THE SCOTCH more accurately describes the post-bedtime hours as I try to take the edge off of being at home with two young kids all day. That ain't no Scotch tape I'm talking about.

I liked the idea overall, and Jim did a nice job with his grid, finishing with fewer than average dabs of crossword glue. I did wonder about the crossing of RIGID across and GO LIMP down …

Ahem. Mailing back my degrees now.

Overall, a fun concept, but not enough of the themers worked well. Given that the solution space contains hundreds of product possibilities, there have to be more that pack a bigger Hi-C.

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