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Puzzles for October, 2014
with Jeff Chen comments

Wed 10/1/2014

Liz gives us the INSIDE DOPE today, four instances of DOPE broken across two words. A 10/11/9/11/10 in a 74-word grid is a tall order. Five theme entries already increases your level of difficulty, making the middle one nine letters ratchets it up further, and shooting for a 74-worder puts the triple hurt on a constructor. Bruce

I like the ambition of it, especially in all the long fill Liz had to incorporate. You'll almost always win my heart with BRUCE LEE in the grid, one of the few true Asian superheroes. Many a time in my youth I got saved from getting into a fight because kids assumed I knew kung fu. I didn't correct them, and I'll leave that ambiguous in case any of those people are reading. (If you are, I do.)

In the same vein, PHASERS in the same puzzle? You had me at BRUCE LEE, but dang! If only BRUCE LEE had been armed with two PHASERS in his movies, people would still be intimidated by me.

I had quite a bit of trouble finishing, actually giving up in the NW corner. I don't think I've ever been so happy to see a RRN (random Roman numeral) as I was to see LII. Even then, GRAND OPERA is something I'll have to add to my vocabulary, and the proximity of the random river and the Madonna song I had never heard of made it tough. If only I had paid attention in art class with BERNINI, everything might have fallen. As much as I like the high-class nature of BERNINI and GRAND OPERA, it would have been so nice if they hadn't crossed each other.

I tend to prefer hidden words when there isn't solely one single hidden word. Synonyms for DOPE would have been a nice touch, perhaps ASS, FOOL, TWIT, etc. hidden? It was good to read Will's comment about this puzzle being three years old. The crossword art form evolves so rapidly these days.

But overall, a good amount of fill tickled my fancy today, BUYS OUT one of those finance terms I personally dig, and a great clue for LIME TREE. "Why on earth would you pick fruits when they're still green?" I asked myself, just before head-desking.

POW Thu 10/2/2014

★ So many layers on this clever puzzle. I have a feeling many people will be at the point I was at, irritated at the "inaccuracy" of seeing E equal mc, not mc2, so I'm going to break it down even more than in David's comments. I must have thought about this for a full day, wondering how the NYT could possibly allow such scientific and mathematical error. Heresy! Why not at least make the other side of the rebus MCC to represent the C squared? It finally dawned on me that mc2 is read as "mc squared" — the letters MC are "squared" into a single rebus cell. It adds another level to the already cunning idea of E equaling MC in a two-way rebus. EINSTEIN-level genius with wordplay.

Very neat how David incorporated the special squares within some of the theme answers. Yet another nice touch. What would have made it Puzzle of the Year quality for me was some rationale built in to explain why there were six special squares. Not absolutely necessary, but man oh man that would have been the icing on the icing already on the cake. If the number six were somehow integral to the theory of general relativity...

I love it when a puzzle makes me think more about what could be done. How cool would it be to have some sort of physical representation of the bizarre effects that occur when one approaches the speed of light? Hmm...

One small nit I'll pick is that I found it slightly odd that half the special squares worked one way, and half were flipped. On one hand it made it more challenging to uncover them, but it felt to me like having them all work identically would have been more elegant. Personal preference.

A final note, on vocabulary. As much as I like current slang or fun terms, entries like PLUTARCH never go out of style, in my eyes. A timeless entry, appropriate for the educated tone of the New York Times, and especially appropriate for a puzzle with this EINSTEIN-ian theme. I doubt I'll ever gripe about seeing PLUTARCH, whereas I can't say the same thing about the latest "celebrity" who may be fun for small niches of people to see, but who may not have long-term staying power.

Fri 10/3/2014

Tracy and I recently exchanged thoughts about themelesses, so it was fun to do her themeless debut. She uses a lot of nice vocabulary, such entries as NOT SO FAST, a SURE HAND in leadership, and ALPHA FEMALE. The last one I wasn't perfectly familiar with, but it explains itself so well. Along with the brilliant clue [Leading lady?], that's the type of debut I love to see.

Tracy uses a variant on a standard type of grid, one with the stairstep going down one diagonal. More often we see the black bars in the middle row (on either side of MOHS and PONE) shifted up or down, in order to generate more 8+ letter slots. Today's arrangement leaves Tracy with only 12 of those 8+ letter slots, forcing her to choose those entries wisely. Seven-letter slots can be good too, but they often need to be more neutral entries like IN A LINE or PROMOTE to hold the puzzle together.

Although I didn't know the term GOAT RODEO, I loved uncovering it (thank goodness the crosses were fair!). It's so colorful and hilarious, it makes me want to start throwing it around during finance committee meetings. Well worth the confusion I had during the solve.

For me, REGGAETON didn't work as well. Part of it (REGGAE) is inferable, but I struggled mightily with the STASSEN crossing, debating whether REGGAE TOR, REGGAE-TOS, REGGAETOL, or REGGAE TON seemed least implausible. Ultimately that corner seems fair but not terribly satisfying.

It leads to a question Tracy and I discussed — what is desirable in debut entries? As much as I like that people have such esoteric interests — a huge part of what makes the world fun — it's hard to headline with these types of entries, given that the size of the NYT solving audience is somewhere in the eight digits. I will try to listen to some REGGAETON to get a feel for what it is, but I don't think most people are open to that next step. It's tough to be in Will's shoes, trying to keep so many people entertained and happy.

Solid work from Tracy, just a couple of RUS / DC CAB (Adam Baldwin really is an actor?) / ROUEN crossing NEAME (fair but not very satisfying for those who don't know either) / OST minor dings. And conversing with her helped me to clarify some thoughts. I love contract bridge, but even with millions of active players and Rich Norris of the LAT a partner of mine, bridge terms are going to be too esoteric for a broad crossword audience. So much for the colorful marquee SPLINTER BID; sigh. Good thing there's the (warning, shameless self-promotion) self-publication route.

Sat 10/4/2014

Five things I think I think:

1.) Beautiful NW/SE corners. It's so hard to stack four long entries atop each other and keep them both lively and clean. BROMANCE / EASY POUR / NTH POWER / TEAR GAS with MY PRECIOUS is beautiful work, with just the tiny EER as a blemish. Just about the prettiest corner I've seen in a long time. How is it possible to pack so much great stuff into such a small area?

2.) Julian does deploy a lot of his black squares in order to segment those corners. Perfectly fine, but it does make filling the rest of the grid a bit harder. That central section is a biggie — awfully tough to fill an open area featuring a lot of 7's and 6's. He does well there, using a bit of neutral stuff like VARIED and SERIES to cement some nice answers in place.

3.) For those of you who don't know what DURIANS are, they're a divisive power in Asia. Some people (like Julian) go crazy for them, others (like me and the rest of the sane world) say they don't pass the breakfast test. They smell so horrifically bad (sorry Julian!) that some hotels in Malaysia have "NO DURIAN" signs. When Jill and I were there two years ago, a cabbie talked about how sad it was he couldn't eat his beloved DURIANS in his car because he would lose all his customers for the day. Go figure.

4.) Just EER / RTE / AGNI / A GOB felt like a fairly low price to pay for the sheer quantity of great entries — I count roughly 15 entries toward Julian's assets; a huge number. If it hadn't been for that pesky DRURY / IDY crossing, this would be POW material for me. Even for a Saturday puzzle where solvers are expected to know more, to be able to figure out crazy wordplay, I find this crossing unfortunate. Even if it might be deemed fair because Drury Lane is well-known enough in the theater community, I think this corner's going to detract from overall solver satisfaction.

5.) A shame that contract bridge isn't as wildly popular as it used to be. One very useful bidding convention is called "reverse DRURY." As I keep on telling anyone too slow to run away, bridge would solve all the world's problems.

Sun 10/5/2014 TIMBER!

Happy Arbor Day! Wait. Arbor Day is end of April, six months away. Happy ... unArbor Day? Anyhoo, Sam gives us seven trees today, hidden within seven snappy and bendy phrases. I've highlighted them below so you can see the nice symmetrical arrangement.

Puzzles with short theme entries like ETHE/ELM/MERTZ are not for the faint of heart constructor, because using up your shot slots means you'll be required to incorporate a lot of long fill. To make things even harder, any time you have themers crossing each other (in this case, a quasi-Z-shaped arrangement) the surrounding fill is going to be a challenge due to relatively heavy constraints. Sam lays out his grid very well, spacing apart each of the seven themers so that there's not much overlap between any two. Notice how you could work on any one theme region without influencing any other too much? That's excellent use of black squares to create separation.

I really like what he did around ETH/ELM/ERTZ. To run FULL TILT, IN SPIRIT, and STEEL TRAP through that precarious region is strong work, especially considering the lack of glue required to pull it off. The other regions are also pretty good, although each tends to show minor signs of stress, an OMN here (in pharma development, "QD" is what we used; Dr. Denny-wife confirms OMN is unusual), a DSO there, a NOP loitering like a NOP-goodnik. That's to be expected with these constraints — note that these little offenders occur right at the heart of Z-bends.

I liked the general theme idea, but I think my stupid brain is preventing me from fully appreciating it. Jim explained it as the answers moving right and dropping down for a TIMBER! wordplay moment before continuing right. I can buy that, and it works better for me after I thought about it for a while. But my noggin can't get over the idea of a tree toppling over, not falling straight down like a building being demolished. I aspire to Jim's more flexible big-picture way of interpreting the world — he has always been better than me at seeing the forest for the trees.

(insert groan here)

Overall, a smooth puzzle, with just a little glue to hold sections together. A lot of great long fill like ONION RINGS and AS EASY AS ABC — well worth hitting the "Analyze" button below to see how much great long stuff Sam worked in. He has quite a few themelesses under his belt, and I bet that experience helped immensely with this grid.

POW Mon 10/6/2014

★ This puzzle delighted me. Many of you know my idiot-level knowledge of pop music, so I confess I was a bit skeptical when I uncovered LYIN' EYES. Luckily, I knew SINGIN' IN THE RAIN from playing trombone in the pit orchestra of my high school production, and who doesn't know PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ? What pulled it all together for me though, was thinking about MISSING parsed as MISSIN' G. Such a fun moment.

Additionally, Robyn goes the extra mile and reduces her word count to 74. The NE and SW corners add so much meat to the puzzle, with those juicy parallel 9's. Normally I prefer multiple-word colorful phrases, but HERCULEAN pops, and organic CHEMISTRY was one of my favorite subjects in school. Tack on a smile-inducing clue for the latter and I APPLAUDED. (Way to trigger subliminal feelings of appreciation, Robyn!). Great use of cheater squares in the two corners to help smooth out those corners, really just an MCI as a ding.

The one section I was plus/minus on was the north, with Cheri OTERI and ESSEN. I'm perfectly fine with OTERI as an answer; I just wish she were more NYT-worthy. Her friendly alternation of vowel-consonant makes her much more crossword-friendly than her co-SNL-alum Kristen WIIG, who I think has earned it much more so than OTERI.

And ESSEN is definitely a place, but I wish it were historically or culturally more important for all the xw-exposure it gets. Those E's and S's make it crossword gold, but I remember the first time I uncovered it, wondering what other esoteric geography I'd have to know. I'm of the opinion that once a term crosses the threshold of NYT-worthiness, I don't much care how often it gets used (I'm perfectly fine with ONO any time I see it). Before then, I prefer it to be used sparingly. It's unfortunate that the ??E?I pattern at 6-D is so constraining — I might have moved a block around to avoid that pattern.

That's pretty nit-picky stuff though. Overall, this is the type of puzzle I like to show newbies; pointing out 1.) the specific, tight, clever theme and 2.) how doable it is. Really well done.

Tue 10/7/2014

Oktoberfest! Hard to argue with drinking ale while getting dressed up in neon-green lederhosen and frolicking like a Vegas leprechaun protecting his/her gold. What, you don't do that? Um. Me neither.

Seven festive themers today packing the grid chock full. How jovial is it to TOAST six themes in a single puzzle? Some beautiful entries, DOWN THE HATCH and BOTTOMS UP so bubbly. To me, TO YOUR HEALTH doesn't feel quite as juicy, but that might be a generational or a cultural thing? I've actually used all of the TOASTs except this one. To my ear it sounds stilted; a rare case for me where a foreign translation — A VOTRE SANTE! sounds so much better.

I did wonder why people were using these non-German toasting phrases (especially L'CHAIM!) during Oktoberfest, but sometimes I find it's best to drink, be merry, and put on glow-in-the-dark lederhosen.

People have to scratch their heads when constructors talk about the difficulty of certain arrangements. "OMG, they attempted a 5/12/6/9/6/12/5?" probably sounds not only like gibberish but also probably elicits a "why make such a big deal about entry lengths?" Today, two factors around this are huge. First of all, the central 9 splits the puzzle in half. Ratchet up difficulty level once. Then, the 12's are in rows 4 and 12, where they create not just six, but 12 little three-letter words (in the NE and SW).

"And this matters… why?" you ask. Generally, it's best to keep the three-letter word count to around 20, because they can chop up a solver's flow and feel inelegant. I had a bit of a hitch in my solve, and seeing that there were 28 three-letter words made me understand why. Plus, if you have so many of them, the ones which usually get glossed over become noticeable. AAR, AGT, DER, ESA, INA, NCO, REO, STA, TEL, UNE are all fine on their own, but when lumped together create an inelegance.

All in all, a fun theme with some cheery entries, with some compromises due to a very tricky theme arrangement.

Wed 10/8/2014

Working with Mary Lou is a pleasure. She exemplifies one quality I think all good constructors must have: the ability to generate and sort through a ton of ideas. I find it takes maybe 10-20 ideas to discover one worthy of publication. Many times a person will give up after two or three theme ideas, but not her — I admire her determination and drive. When people talk about hard work leading to success, that's ML they're talking about.

As for this puzzle, I honestly was only lukewarm on the general idea at first. But when ML found five strong themers that worked, I thought twice. I'm a sucker for Muhammad Ali — "When We Were Kings," a documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle, cracked my vaunted Tier 2 list of favorite movies. (I only have 28 movies listed in my Top Tier; the most recent addition was "The Fighter.") The final hook was when she pointed out the challenge of executing this grid in a way that was both smooth and fun for solvers. I'm also a sucker for a challenge.

Five 15-letter themers is so rough. Four of them is hard enough because there's so many areas that get constrained, and five adds a real kick in the pants (not the good kind). There are so few places that aren't affected by two (or more) themers. The NE and SW were especially painful — there are five parallel answers from STATS to LEE which run through the same two themers; usually a situation you want to avoid like the plague. I don't much care for A TUNE and the visual of those lone cheater squares in the corners, but all the alternatives seemed worse. Grid-making is often an exercise in iteration, trying to sort through hundreds of possibilities in an attempt to figure out what would be most interesting / least grump-inducing for solvers.

It took us a lot of iterating, plus helpful feedback from Will, in order to get it to a place where we felt like it would be a fun experience for solvers. I wish we could have worked in some long fill besides ASHANTI, OH THAT? and IN ON IT, but every arrangement incorporating 8+ letter entries caused too much stress on the grid. As always, construction is rife with trade-offs.

Thu 10/9/2014

Uniclue! It's been quite a while since we've seen one of these — surprising how rare this type of theme is. When Will asked us to assemble a list for this theme type, I would have set the over/under at 7.5, maybe 8.5 — good thing I'm not a Vegas bookie. Seems like a lot of potential in this theme category, given how few have been done. I think it's really neat to break a very big convention; compressing two sets of clues into one.

I enjoyed getting ten full themers today. Since each one fixes both an across and a down entry, I'd guess more than about six instances would be pushing it. In fact, Joel could have gotten away with only eight. Note the "cheater square" to the left of CAPE? Typically cheaters make a grid easier to fill, but this is a rare case in which it makes things much more difficult. It means that Joel had to find two separate theme pairs which crossed each other at two points. The result is impressively smooth.

A similar case in the center of the grid — if Joel had taken that black square to the left of FEEL and instead put black squares where the two T's are, it would have made filling much easier. So again, to only have an OEDS as a very minor issue is impressive.

Given that the first Shortz-era uniclue puzzle had a similar theme concept, it would have been nice to have an additional layer somehow, perhaps if all the double-use letters had spelled something? Or if they had all been the same letter? Or a number, like "1"? A lot of potential there, so I'm sure Will will now get more unicule-type submissions. I'm hopeful that if he does, they all take it to another level of complexity, pushing the boundaries.

We've seen the usual two columns of clues for regular puzzles, one for uniclues, and even three (for ones with diagonal entries). I'm curious to see if FOUR columns of clues or ZERO comes first. Not quite sure how either would work, but it's a lot of fun to think about.

Fri 10/10/2014

David has been exploring with this stair-step, low word-count themeless grid style, as you can see in his thumbnails. It's hard enough to fill these huge swaths of white space with colorful and clean entries, but David takes it one step further with his bigram experimentation. I like the efforts to achieve something new.

I also like that David used two strong, snazzy entries to connect the three segments of his grid. YOU CHEATED! and CHATTERBOX are my favorite entries — it's nice that they're the ones that meld the puzzle together. It's not ideal that the three segments are so partitioned, so it's much appreciated that these two entries both got relatively easy clues. Not sure that I would have actually broken into the SE mini-puzzle without it.

I also like the heavenly mini-theme running through the SW. The clue for APOLO is nice enough in itself, but having Helios and Mars both referenced is a nice touch.

As with quad-stacks or other stunt grid types, I tend to give them more leeway when they first appear on the scene, and I gradually revert to normal criteria as I see more and more of them. This one has some nice entries, but there aren't quite enough fantastic ones for my taste. So many of the seven-letter entries across the middle are one word, and are not necessarily standout. CHOCULA was fun, CHINNED sounded forced (did a one-armed chin-up = yes! chinned = ?), but the rest fell more into neutral territory for me.

All in all, a interesting continuation of this 62-word grid style, with not as much colorful language as I'd like in a themeless. I'm impressed that David has the self-awareness to recognize that this style limits his freedom. It's a rare constructor that can break out of established patterns and continue pushing the envelope in new ways.

Sat 10/11/2014

Debut! Always impressive to see a debut in a themeless grid, as the competition for themeless slots is fierce. I like what Evans did today, connecting two sides of the grid with GREASE THE WHEELS, appropriately enough. Often that connectivity requires a compromise, reducing the number of long (8+ letter) slots, but we get 15 of them today. All sorts of potential.

That SE quadrant was both fantastic and bittersweet. Seeing KEVIN DURANT brings me painful memories of our beloved Sonics being ripped away, but he's such a crazy good player, plus he manages to keep his humility and even donates to charity. For this NBA addict this entry was a gimme, but I can imagine that a lot of folks are going to have trouble, especially crossing ADP. I personally know that company well, as they're a major player in payroll handling, but it's not something I would expect many to know.

Kevin Durant

It brings up some questions interesting to me. Yes, Durant gets millions of Google hits, but is he 1.) fair game for crosswords and/or 2.) desirable as a debut entry? I generally shy away from entries that either a solver either knows or doesn't — those in the latter camp often leave with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Even if all the crosses are perfectly fair and the solver learns something, KEVIN DURANT might be only as relevant to their life as the latest rapper or the boy band of the week. So I think any MVP is fair game, but I personally favor entries like the colorful FROG MARCH when it comes to a debut. Much more likely to appeal to a bigger number of market segments.

All the connectivity throughout the grid brings great flow, no section cordoned off from the rest. That does bring trade-offs though, as connecting the quadrants in so many different ways brings the little glue entries like SOC, SER, AT ME right in those transition regions. Generally I sense inelegance when there's roughly more than five glue entries in a themeless, so when you're going to need some TRAVE, LII, SGTS stuff as well, it can be a tough call as to how much interconnectivity is optimal.

All in all, a nice debut with quite a few strong entries and clues. BARTENDER is a good entry in itself, and using a clue like [Manhattan architect?] really makes it sing.

Sun 10/12/2014 INNER WORKINGS

The Burghers of Calais by Rodin Nice wordplay theme today, literal interpretations of "X in a Y" phrases, CANARY IN A COAL MINE transmogrifying into COAL CANARY MINE. This is a theme type that hasn't been done too many times before, my LAT debut and Parker's weekday puzzle coming to mind. I like that Pawel tried to do something different with it, expanding to a Sunday-size puzzle. He sent me a shorter version of his notes, but I asked if I could run the longer version — I liked reading about his entire process.

I like the balance Pawel struck today. There's not huge amount of sparkling fill — FAT CHANCE, MT EVEREST, PARODIST, RAW DEAL, CADDIES — but it was enough to add zest to my solving experience. And I appreciate how I didn't run into too much glue. I hitched when I got to SONDE, an odd little bit, but that fell pretty quickly. Some might have trouble with CALAIS, but that town does have historical importance so I think it's fine. Keeping things to a smattering of CPO, EIN, NNE, OON, SFC, OESTE, etc. isn't too shabby.

Since three of the theme entries are essentially identical to Parker's 2011 puzzle, I would have liked more time between the two. How much is enough? For a crossword-OCD person like myself, Parker's puzzle came to mind immediately, so perhaps something more like five years? Of course, most people will have long forgotten even things like their ... their... (well, I forget) over the course of three years.

Anyway, a fun puzzle with some nice long themers.

POW Mon 10/13/2014

★ Delightful offering from Greg today, a listing of seven common games, all with seven letters, thus GAME SEVEN. Fun interpretation of a timely phrase. I always loved Reggie Jackson's "Mr. October" moniker. I only get called "Mr. Denny," as in "Dr. and Mr. Denny." Harrumph.

What most impressed me was how smooth Greg managed to get this puzzle. I think Mondays ought to be accessible to newcomers — not necessarily easy, though. That's a big difference. I didn't see any little bits that an outsider would scratch their head at, and that's such an huge accomplishment in a Monday puzzle. Extremely tough to achieve, as so often a constructor must rely on a little glue to hold the grid together.


Some people are going to cry foul at OKAPIS, and I agree that it's a tough entry to figure out. But as much as I think the Monday puzzle should be accessible, I don't want it to be palp, either. Each of the crossings is fair, and it reminds me of a story about a guy I met in El Salvador. He was from South Africa and had recently traveled to America for the first time. When I asked him what the highlight of trip was, he said "seeing those funny animals, with the cute little noses, and the fuzzy tails… you know..." (He couldn't pull the name out after five minutes of trying, and it took me forever to figure out to what he was referring.) I'm sure OKAPIS are as well-known to him as SQUIRRELS are to us. I like Monday crosswords that expand one's world view, as long as they do so in a fair way.

I wondered why the six themers around the perimeter weren't all the way on the edge. Seems to me that would be a more elegant way to execute this idea. I can see that the V of REVERSI is much easier to use in the ????V? pattern than the horribly constrained ?????V pattern though. I almost always prefer themers in elegant spots, but if it's a choice between elegant spots or clean fill, I'll almost always opt for the latter.

Interesting idea, well executed. So hard to make those 7x3 chunks smooth, but Greg did it six times around the perimeter with nary a hiccup.

Tue 10/14/2014

Interpretations of common phrases as if they described a career; fun stuff. Being a former mathlete PLOT POINTS made me smile. And in my last career I had a lot of work in patents and copyrights, so seeing TRADE SECRETS repurposed in a kooky way also gave me a laugh.

Typically I'm not a fan of sectioning off parts of the grid, like the NE and SW today. I find that it often messes with grid flow, potentially stranding the solver in a tiny section with few ways of breaking in. But I like what Adam's done today — by separating those two little areas, he gives himself wide freedom to do most anything he wants in there. I like the little bonus of GIVE / AWAY and DOWN / EAST; something a little novel. Losing a little grid flow felt like a worthwhile trade-off to me.

One aspect that I found a little odd was that only one of the themers was a single word. HANDLEBARS sticks out in my mind, as TRADE SECRETS, PLOT POINTS, and COVER STORIES are all nice two-word entries. I do like how Adam made sure each resulting themer was a present tense verb plus a plural noun — that's the kind of consistency I like. If the theme concept were more constrained, that would be one thing. But it seems like there are enough phrases in this ilk that HANDLEBARS could have been something else that fit with the other three perfectly.

The grid felt fairly smooth to me, with one exception: the west, containing AMAIN, and AMANA crossing both LAHTI and ALERO. The latter three are perfectly reasonable answers, but proper names can be tricky (especially when they cross), potentially leaving the solver with a sense of malaise if he/she doesn't know both. I realize Christine LAHTI is pretty famous, and there are a lot of people who own AMANA appliances and old ALERO cars, but perhaps swapping out BANDSTANDS for something else would have produced a smoother experience for more subsets of solvers.

Entertaining Tuesday.

Wed 10/15/2014

CHUCK BERRY stars in today's grid, both as an entry and an instruction, to chuck BERRY out of four theme answers. These types of puzzles can be a little hit or miss since the results neither makes sense nor get kooky interpretations. It's a nice change of pace though, especially when something like HUCKLEFINN can't get much of a wacky clue.

A 72-word themed puzzle is tricky to pull off. Doing that with a central 11-letter entry is even more audacious. Giant white spaces loom in each of the four corners, each one a difficult task to fill colorfully and smoothly. I really like what David's accomplished with the left side of the grid. Neither the NW nor the SW corners have ultra-snazzy entries, but they also don't have much glue required. And entries like TOUCH UP, BIKINI, TYPESETS are pretty darn good. Not themeless-quality material in my book, but sometimes smoothness beats snazziness.

And the right side of the grid turned out pretty well, too. The old ELOI are lurking up in the NE, and after I looked a few things up, I thought the SE turned out well too. I didn't realize that ANODYNE was now a general term for pain-reliever, and my total lack of fashion sense made BOLEROS a head-scratcher, but they were both interesting to learn.

Where I might have made different decisions: in the north and south. I never heard SONE at all in my time as a mechanical engineer (although I didn't get too deep into acoustics), and this region has many different options. The south is harder since the beautiful RED HOT make the area less flexible, so that's a more subjective area in my book. Does HONEY / OTOES produce a better result, for example? That does include OTOES and CEE — is that pair better or worse than OTROS and UKR? I think so, but my Ukranian friends would likely disagree. Subjective decision there.

Wide-open puzzle with a themeless count, making for a tough but interesting solve. I was so happy to realize I actually knew a theme answer, Prince's "Raspberry Parade." D'oh!

Thu 10/16/2014

Tricksy stuff today, REPEAT hinting at the fact that certain three-letter words do double-duty. Took me a while to cotton to the gimmick, but PERCY BYSSHE (SHE)LLY cleared it up. Nice find there! I liked how the overlaps were all actual quality three-letter words: PIE, LET, SHE, DON, PAL.

Interesting point to me today was the placement of the revealer — it's so hard to get a six-letter word down in the last across answer. Seems like an odd statement, doesn't it? How hard could that be, considering many, many puzzles use five-letter revealers in that location without a hitch? But when you have a five-entry theme, the addition of that sixth letter on the revealer makes for a huge change in difficulty.

Why? With five themers, you're almost always going to have some overlap between one of your themers and your revealer. Look at how much real estate there is between the end of LANDONOVAN and REPEAT. That 6x4 SE corner is no joke. John does well to make it a 6x4 block rather than a 6x3 (as he could have by moving LANDONOVAN down one row), since the extra space gives him more flexibility in that SE corner. Impressive that John nailed it.

Whoopie pie

I found it a little odd that WHOOPIE PIES turned into WHOOPIES was included. The others have three-letter words unrelated to the base phrase, so to see PIES and PIE felt odd. Consistency is something I find elegant in a puzzle, and WHOOPIES felt like the one that didn't seem like the others. I do like how hilarious the term sounds (yes, I'm a fourth-grader at heart) and how delicious it looks, though.

Smooth offering today, with just NEBS making me scratch my head (but apparently it's a real thing!), and a couple of nice variations on clever clues for short answers (ANODE the favorite for this physics junkie). I would have loved if the beautiful PRIME RIB and CORNUCOPIA could have gotten clever clues as well, since devilishly hard clues for those nice long entries make them even better.

Fri 10/17/2014

Today brings us a grid based on the common four-quadrant design, which Michael extends by sticking in a pair of long entries in the middle. I like the efforts to go the extra mile. And entries like MOBILE APP and SEEN IT ALL are the types of debuts right up my alley. It took me a while to piece together that NW corner, but when I did, those two answers sparkled like nuggets of panned gold.

Why did it take me a while to finish that NW? One reason is how sectioned off it is from the rest of the puzzle. It does have two entries that can get you in: ESTATES and PYLES, but since I already knew PYLES was going to end in an S based on the clue, that really only left me one entry point. I did really like the clever clue for ESTATES; I just wish I had had an additional shot to break into that corner, as I couldn't see ESTATES for the longest time.

George Lindsey

I didn't know there was more than one PYLE, and I found it amusing to read about Gomer Pyle and Goober Pyle. There's something so comforting about the simplicity of old-timey sitcom characters.

Joel Fagliano's comment from a week ago help solidify some thoughts I'd been mulling over. I'm sure there are die-hard RITA MORENO and ALAN MOORE fans out there, but I so much more enjoy uncovering entries like STRUCK DUMB and SOLO SHOTS, as the latter two give me personally so much more satisfaction. It's tricky — full names can make for beautiful feature entries. But I personally like to see only one (or maybe two if they're very well-known) such proper name feature entries in any given themeless, especially considering short fill will often require a lot of propers. When a solver hits a lot of "you either know it or you don't" entries like DIRAC, BRODY, WAITE, AMAHL, PYLES, ERIS, GAEL, etc. it has the potential to reduce overall satisfaction.

And while I like the clue echo of I AM AMERICA and THE KINGDOM both being from 2007, those do lend the puzzle a slightly outdated vibe. I remembered I AM AMERICA after getting a few crossings, but I wonder if it will be a classic. I haven't heard of THE KINGDOM, and after reading up on it, it still doesn't seem crossworthy, especially for a prime real estate location in a themeless.

All in all, a very tough workout today, especially given my high level of ignorance of most things pop-culture. Some beautiful clues; a huge smile to my face for a great one, [Was ducky?], cleverly hinting at WADDLED. And saving the very best for last, TESS has such crossword-friendly letters as well as inquisitive, hard-working, uber-strong, thoughtful, ambitious, creative, considerate (and dirty-rotten-stinker-who-keeps-her-new-parents-on-the-brink-of-fall-down-exhaustion) connotations. I have a very good feeling about that name. Except for the stinker bits.

Sat 10/18/2014

A really nice construction job today. I appreciate how well Evan planned out his grid, the entire thing flowing so beautifully. There are so many strong entries and so few weak ones. I'd personally put the count at 14(ish) ASSETS and 4(ish) LIABILITIES, making for a puzzle easily hitting my criteria for a strong themeless.

The puzzle has a younger vibe to it, more current than an average NYT themeless. I like that Evan features KICKSTARTER and AUTOCORRECT, two high-visibility topics among the Facebook and Twitter crowds. I really like both of entries. It's true that KICKSTARTER may eventually lose out to Indiegogo or Fundly other crowdfunding sites, but it seems to be well established enough that I'd guess it falls closer to Facebook than to Friendster. Thumbs up. I imagine that if this puzzle was up on Evan's site, AUTOCORRECT would have gotten a much more hilariously risque clue, perhaps even more so than the hilarious one he mentioned.

The puzzle also has an edgy vibe, one that lives up to Evan's Devil Cross name. I didn't totally connect with the ambiance it generated. It's completely personal preference, but I like my crosswords to be uplifting, to leave me optimistic after I fill in that last square. Liz Gorski's weekly crossword for example, tend to leave me with a buoyant, pleasant feeling. Uncovering CROTCH (not literally, thankfully) made me pause, and while PSYCHOPATH is a colorful, snazzy answer, I find it a little unsettling, especially when there are other elements like DIRTY HARRY, AMIN disguised as a partial, strongman Mobutu SESE Seko, and RAS clued as the Batman villain.

But that's what's great about a daily crossword featuring a huge variety of constructors. If one day doesn't hit your sweet spot, come back tomorrow for something different. And overall, this is a beautiful piece of work, with fantastic grid flow, chock full of colorful answers and strong clues. A product of a constructor who's clearly honed his craft, paying close attention to every last detail.

Sun 10/19/2014 WHY NOT?

Homonyms today, with an extra layer of theme complexity: each of the nine themers has a word including the letter Y, and that word gets replaced with a homonym not containing the letter Y. WHY NOT? indeed.

For a relatively simple theme, it's critical to choose themers that both 1.) have a snappy base phrase and 2.) entertaining results. This is always a challenge — so hard to stick 100% of your themers. I quite liked CHAISE REBELLION, for example. It took me a while to remember what SHAY'S REBELLION was, and the fact that I pulled it out of long-term storage gave me a "I won!" feeling. The amusing picture of a guy throwing a hissy-fit over the patio furniture more than satisfied the second.

NO RIME OR REASON was on the other end of my spectrum. I got confused as it seemed like it ought to be NO RHYME NOR REASON or NO RHYME NO REASON, plus the resulting themer fell flat for me. Perhaps there would be a way to improve that in my eyes, a more entertaining connection between RIME and REASON — something to do with Jack Frost, perhaps? As it was, it felt like two random things thrown together.

I like the shoot-for-the-moon approach David takes on his first Sunday NYT puzzle. Most first-timers adhere tightly to the 140-word maximum, pulling their hair out to do anything they possibly can to drop from 146 or 144 down to Will's threshold of 140. It's very, very hard to do. Going down to 138 words gives him the potential for a little more long fill, and I love seeing BOO HISS, UNITARD, TENDRILS with its brilliant clue, and RICKROLL. Mind you, I didn't know what being rickrolled meant until I encountered it in an earlier NYT puzzle, but I find it hilarious for some reason.

I do think there's some missed potential though, as ULTRAHIP and ALLEGER feel a little made up to me, and ALBANESE was one of those names I shrugged at after uncovering. With so few precious 7+ letter slots, I want to see them all filled with juicy material.

As Will mentioned, sometimes a perfect title pulls everything together, and today is a case in point.

Mon 10/20/2014 A SIGN OF THE TIMES

Contest week! Jim and I decided to keep everything quiet until the contest is over, including the grid solutions. I doubt we'd give anything away by publishing all the clues and answers, but this method better preserves the mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, this week is an appropriate time for me to delve into some of my favorite cryptological mysteries throughout history. None of these write-ups have anything to do with the contest, I promise (I'll put up a post summarizing how I solved it afterward, assuming I solve it). I simply like sharing my obsession with unsolved coded puzzles throughout history. And my posts will need to get shorter anyway, as a certain eight-day-old little dictator is giving me the stink-eye.


I love that one of my interests connects me to like-minded folks all the way back in the 15th century. Filled with curious drawings as well as cryptext, the Voynich manuscript was thought to be created during the Renaissance. It's been over a century since Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich unearthed it, but it still remains largely uncracked, despite the best minds all over the world to uncover its secrets.

And what secrets! Imagine what might have been discovered during that amazing part of history. From what we know, it likely covers topics from herbal medicine to astronomy to biology to even pharmaceuticals. Perhaps everything buried within the text of the Voynich manuscript has already been rediscovered by modern science, or has already been rendered obsolete. But what if the coded information contains, say, an easy way to prevent cataracts, bringing gigantic quality of life improvements applicable to those all over the third world suffering from the affliction?

What makes the Voynich manuscript especially compelling to me is that the C14 dating puts it definitively in the early 15th century — whether or not it contains useful information, it is definitely not a 20th century hoax. Sure, it could be full of failed attempts at alchemy or backwards medical treatments like the use of lead, but the possibilities are endless. Who'll be the first to learn the true messages straight from the best scientists and thinkers of the Renaissance? It makes me want to visit Yale for even a fleeting chance to inspect the original manuscript.

Tue 10/21/2014 A SIGN OF THE TIMES

Contest week! Jim and I decided to keep everything quiet until the contest is over, including the grid solutions. I doubt we'd give anything away by publishing all the clues and answers, but this method better preserves the mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, this week is an appropriate time for me to delve into some of my favorite cryptological mysteries throughout history. None of these write-ups have anything to do with the contest, I promise (I'll put up a post summarizing how I solved it afterward, assuming I solve it). I simply like sharing my obsession with unsolved coded puzzles throughout history. And my posts will need to get shorter anyway, as a certain nine-day-old little dictator has launched chemical weapons against me (mustard gas, of course — other new parents, you'll know what I mean).


As a kid, I was entranced by the quest for the lost ark of the covenant in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." As a teenager, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" captured my fancy once again by making me wonder if the Holy Grail indeed was discoverable. Tales of Indy doing his research and putting together esoteric bits of information to crack hidden codes throughout history made me want to become an archaeologist. (My first ever college class was in Archaeology 101. My eyes opened wide when Dr. John Rick walked in with a scruffy beard, lecturing in the same style as Dr. Indiana Jones — I think he got a kick out of doing that year after year. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had followed him to an ancient Inca dig rather than working for the department of astronomy that first summer.)

As an adult, I flew through "The Da Vinci Code" along with the rest of the world back in the early 2000's — the Holy Grail rears its possibility yet again. The mystery of the Grail has been bandied about for centuries, and so many people have done a nice job with fictionalizing the stories behind it. But who knew there was an actual code built into a monument in England, possibly encoding the secret location of the actual Holy Grail (if it actually exists)?

Even more compelling is the simple nature of the code. With just ten letters set into a particular pattern, plus lore surrounding the Priory of Sion's involvement, the Shugborough Inscription begs for an a-ha codebreaking moment. Yet in over two centuries, no one has figured out the true meaning. Is the secret still with the Priory, protecting the location of the holy artifact? Or is it an inside joke perpetrated by the builders, or is there some other explanation?

If there is a true answer, it has not been made known to the public. Even if it is some clever scheme to encourage tourism to this one town in England, this site is on my list of must-see places.

Wed 10/22/2014 A SIGN OF THE TIMES

Contest week! Jim and I decided to keep everything quiet until the contest is over, including the grid solutions. I doubt we'd give anything away by publishing all the clues and answers, but this method better preserves the mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, this week is an appropriate time for me to delve into some of my favorite cryptological mysteries throughout history. None of these write-ups have anything to do with the contest, I promise (I'll put up a post summarizing how I solved it afterward, assuming I solve it). I simply like sharing my obsession with unsolved coded puzzles throughout history. And my posts will need to get shorter anyway, as a certain ten-day-old little dictator is just sneering at my offer to pay her a thousand dollars if she just stops crying.


I was around 10 years old when my dad let me pick out any book on a trip to a local bookstore. Being the oddity I was, I selected Paul Hoffman's "Archimedes' Revenge," continuing my road toward true nerdhood (Granted, it does have a cool cover. Then again, one of its subtitles is "The Joys and Perils of Mathematics.") A chapter on The Beale Ciphers caught my attention in particular, what with the story of shadowy people and three coded maps leading to a fortune in buried treasure.

To make it even more interesting, after much (purported) work, one of the ciphers was solved! It employed a relatively simple code, using the Declaration of Independence as a key. That one leap of logic (no idea on how anyone would make that leap though) allowed the second message to unfold. I imagined myself back in that age, participating in the mad scramble of what might or might not have been a set of hints to finding a real treasure.

Are the Beale Ciphers real, or the work or a genius who figured out a way to make a bundle by creating an aura of mystery and tantalizing riches just out of your fingertips? Stories even link Edgar Allan Poe, the master of literary terror (if you've never read "The Cask of Amontillado" it's a must), to the ciphers. The evidence seems not to be conclusive, so it remains an enigma to this day. I feel a little bad for all the people of Bedford County who have endured decades of treasure-hungry prospectors of digging up their land. But if I were in Virginia, I'd be tempted to buy a pickaxe.

Thu 10/23/2014 A SIGN OF THE TIMES

Contest week! Jim and I decided to keep everything quiet until the contest is over, including the grid solutions. I doubt we'd give anything away by publishing all the clues and answers, but this method better preserves the mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, this week is an appropriate time for me to delve into some of my favorite cryptological mysteries throughout history. None of these write-ups have anything to do with the contest, I promise (I'll put up a post summarizing how I solved it afterward, assuming I solve it). I simply like sharing my obsession with unsolved coded puzzles throughout history. And my posts will need to get shorter anyway, as a certain 11-day-old little dictator is screeching a long speech lauding the benefits of an autocratic society.


Who among us hasn't wondered who else is out there? I've followed SETI for a long time, especially interested in the SETI at home project. Talk about a cool use of crowdsourcing. (As an aside, a friend of mine is behind another awesome crowdsourcing project, "Fold It," a computer game designed to get millions of people working on complex protein folding problems through the use of a game where contestants earn "points.") I constantly have to resist the urge to put SETI as fill in my crosswords, as I realize it's not something most people are familiar with.

So when I read about the "Wow! signal" a few months ago while researching for a book, I couldn't believe it wasn't more well known. A potential signal from outer space? A real-life "Contact" type of mystery! My wife and I just watched the new "Cosmos" narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson, and given the grandeur of the known universe, it's inspiring to believe that perhaps the Wow! signal might have been a true artifact from another culture thousands of light-years away.

Was it a true signal, one of our own artifacts caromed off the atmosphere, some sort of hoax, or something else? It's unlikely we'll ever know. But along with the rest of the SETI believers out there, I eagerly await new results.

Fri 10/24/2014 A SIGN OF THE TIMES

Contest week! Jim and I decided to keep everything quiet until the contest is over, including the grid solutions. I doubt we'd give anything away by publishing all the clues and answers, but this method better preserves the mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, this week is an appropriate time for me to delve into some of my favorite cryptological mysteries throughout history. None of these write-ups have anything to do with the contest, I promise (I'll put up a post summarizing how I solved it afterward, assuming I solve it). I simply like sharing my obsession with unsolved coded puzzles throughout history. And my posts will need to get shorter anyway, as a certain 12-day-old little dictator has initiated me into a CIA-level interrogation program involving roughly 0.75 hours of sleep per night. There ... are ... FOUR ... lights!

Kryptos sculpture


A lot of people have issues with the CIA and its operations, but one thing I think they did well was to create Kryptos, a sculpture incorporating a still unsolved problem in cryptography. I read about this in WIRED magazine a few years back, and I thought it was some sort of hoax — it was part of an issue-long puzzle contest, after all. But no, Kryptos is real, and only three parts of it have been cracked after 24 years.

Before learning about Kryptos, my interest in cryptology was only surface-level, mostly doing shallow reading about topics like the Enigma machines of WWII. But the article inspired me to go learn how Vigenère ciphers work, as well as to research other common encoding schemes which sculptor Jim Sanborn might have incorporated. If I had read this article earlier in life, perhaps I might have chosen computer science instead of mechanical engineering and American studies. I wonder how many young people it could inspire to go into tech and computer careers.

And I can't wait until the fourth piece gets cracked. It's so impressive that someone created a puzzle so difficult that the last part has eluded everyone. The title of "Best Code-breaker in the World" is still up for grabs.

Sat 10/25/2014 A SIGN OF THE TIMES

Contest week! Jim and I decided to keep everything quiet until the contest is over, including the grid solutions. I doubt we'd give anything away by publishing all the clues and answers, but this method better preserves the mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, this week is an appropriate time for me to delve into some of my favorite cryptological mysteries throughout history. None of these write-ups have anything to do with the contest, I promise (I'll put up a post summarizing how I solved it afterward, assuming I solve it). I simply like sharing my obsession with unsolved coded puzzles throughout history. And my posts will need to get shorter anyway, as a certain 13-day-old little dictator has grown quite strong. Won't be long until she starts pounding a shoe against a podium.

Cicada 3301


I only ran across Cicada 3301 a few months ago, as I was researching a topic for a book I'm mulling over. It's such a mysterious project that I'm not even sure how to describe it. Part puzzle, part sleuthing operation, part recruitment tool — but no one has a definitive answer for who's even behind it. Not even whether the goals of the organization are for good or for chaos.

Back in 2012, an enigmatic set of posts were released to lure in the cryptanalysts throughout the world. It looked like a "puzzle hunt" in the vein of The Game at Stanford or The MIT Mystery Hunt, but it came with connotations of higher-level consequences. Imagine a real live version of The Matrix, if you will, where Cicada 3301 was searching for Neo.

And the level of difficulty of the puzzles! I enjoy puzzle-solving, but when it starts to involve higher-level cryptanalysis, I find myself well out of my league. Simple Caesar shifts, Vigeneres, usage of primes in security keys, yes, but much of Cicada 3301 went well beyond. To make it even more interesting, whoever is behind Cicada 3301 wove in references from literature and philosophy, eliminating people who are one-track-minded hard-core programmers, looking instead for well-rounded individuals able to pull information from numerous areas of knowledge.

Some have claimed to have solved it, but reports are varied. I eagerly await an announcement of the "winner," except that whoever Neo is, he/she will likely remain as covert after discovery as the entire Cicada 3301 organization.

Thus ends our exploration of cryptological mysteries throughout history.

Sun 10/26/2014 Winners' Circle

It's pretty rare that I see a new type of theme I don't remember seeing before, and today's concept gave me a great big smile. There have been a lot of Schrödingers now as well as pairs of answers crossing for various reasons, but this idea felt fresh and new to me. I love seeing the innovation. Caleb picked pairs of well-known adversaries; the crossing squares contain a different letter in the across and the down directions; one set of letters spells CHAMPION and the other spells DEFEATED. Made for a really enjoyable solve for me.

Caleb's not kidding — puzzles with crossing themers are tough. It's especially difficult to create smooth fill right around those intersection points, so I was impressed that he didn't really need more glue-y answers than average. And check out the HERCULES and HYDRA region, excellent construction. The letters right around the special square — Y / U / R / R — create all sort of constraints to work with. I love what Caleb has done with this NW corner. It's a big chunk of white space to fill; an audacious target given how difficult it usually is to work with crossing answers. And to kick off a puzzle with SCHLUBS is beautiful. Great use of a cheater square in the very NW corner.

Caleb also does a nice job of separating his themers with black squares. Enough separation to be able to fill around one pair of themers at a time, but not too much as to choke off puzzle flow. The only area that gave me a pause was where KING KONG / GODZILLA and TORTOISE / HARE flowed together. COERCIVELY is such a long slot to fill (not a lot of flexibility) that it's hard to avoid odd bits like OTILDE (although I'm still undecided as to whether it's actually awesome). Similarly, in the symmetrical section, that region where two sets of themers flow together gets us the awkward partial IS MAN and the sticky bit of AME. However, that region is adorned with the beautiful ACID JAZZ — impressive to work that in.

I would have liked for there to be more symmetry in the theme answers. I know how challenging that would have been to do — it must have been hard enough to simply find enough pairs that worked with the required letters. Even to have the longest ones paired up = I wouldn't have thought twice. Or to have all the CHAMPION letters used only in the across direction, and all the DEFEATED letters used in the down? And I know it would be a huge stretch, but even better would be if the eight special squares had been symmetrically paired — could have made for amazing elegance.

All that said though, I admire the novelty of this puzzle. What's most important for me these days is the delight level a crossword provides, and I had so much fun solving this one.

Mon 10/27/2014

Crossword veteran Stan Newman works to bridge a generation gap (or two), tying older DVDs together with a DVD RECORDER revealer. I didn't quite understand how the revealer worked at first, but it started to make some sense after cogitating over it. A DVD RECORDER (different than a DVR — thanks to Josh Saks for pointing this out) in this case is a person recording DVD entries into a crossword grid. Doesn't totally fire on all cylinders for me, but it's nice to work a little bit to understand a Monday puzzle. Sweet Valley High

I used to be a big fan of the Patty Duke Show (I'm an identical twin; what do you expect?) and have seen every Gilligan's Island episode roughly 16 times, so this puzzle made me want to go back and check out DICK VAN DYKE. I've never heard of DEATH VALLEY DAYS — I put in DEATH VALLEY HIGH before turning red, admitting that I knew what SWEET VALLEY HIGH was. Anyhoo, both nice answers.

With just three theme answers, this puzzle has lower theme density than today's average of four themers. Additionally, most puzzles with only three themers have 13-15 letters in each, which makes this feel even slimmer. It's pretty hard to make DVD RECORDER anything else than that, though, and I think a relatively thin theme can be just fine. To me, I would have loved to see one more DVD entry — but is that possible? Challenge issued! Can anyone think of one in the same vein? I'll put the winning entry or entries at the end of this post.

Low theme density does open up a puzzle for both clean and lively fill. Stan does the first in spades, really not having much of anything stick out. APACE is kind of an awkward word, and Gay TALESE isn't in my wheelhouse, but he does seem crossworthy, at least from his Wikipedia entry.

I would have loved to see more long fill in this puzzle, given the low theme density. Stan's point about going up to 78 words is well-taken; that definitely makes it easy to fill a puzzle smoothly. But it also means that there's not much room for additional meat in the puzzle. PAPA JOHNS and NERVE CELL, that's the kind of fill I like as bonus material. I personally might have played with removing black squares, the ones between MOBS / FEAR and SAPS / LADY, for example. A pair of 9's in those two slots could have helped a lot. In today's quickly evolving crossword market, I think beefing up a thin theme is near essential. Not enough to "just" have smooth fill anymore.

So far the best DVD candidate, by Mike Black: DALLAS VS DENVER [Super Bowl XII matchup, the only NFL Championship game with its initials]. I also like Bruce Haight's DALLAS VIA DENVER [only airline route from New York to Colorado that has those initials]. Creative thinking!

POW Tue 10/28/2014

★ I love being surprised by an early-week puzzle — what a neat a-ha moment when I ran across the NBA revealer. Even though I'm a long-time NBA fan (draft day used to be my favorite sporting event of the year, due to the gravity of the decisions the GMs have to make), I've never thought about the fact that there are only four teams with a singular name. How cool is that?

For all you aspiring crossword constructors out there, this is a textbook example of specificity. Many people ask me what makes a good crossword, and this idea of "specificity" is a tough one to grasp. Will explains it well with his use of the word "completeness." A reasonable theme here could contain entries ending in KINGS, HORNETS, NETS, BULLS, etc., but the constructor then has 30 to select from. To have four and only four names that could have been used feels a bit magical — that specificity is mighty elegant. Not everyone agrees with me (Jim and I have differing viewpoints, in fact), but high specificity is something I personally highly value.

I like the unusual layout, too. Acme does use 24 three-letter words, which did feel noticeable during my solve, but I love how it enabled so much long fill: ANSEL ADAMS, GLITTERATI, CATALYST. Adds so much to the quality of solve.

Those parallel downs in the NE and SW do require some crossword glue to hold everything together: IMA, AND I, UTA, DEM, YDS, but that's really not too bad, and it felt like a good trade-off in order to get those long parallel downs. It would have been perfect if DISCOUNTED and SEMITROPIC had been snazzier entries, to the level of ANSEL ADAMS and GLITTERATI, but that parallel down structure usually doesn't allow for such goodness. I personally don't use it too much anymore since it's so difficult to come up with great long downs with perfectly smooth surrounding fill.

Some tough crossings — AZT/ZOWIE (I imagine some will finish with AYT and YOWIE) along with SHTETL/EERO (SHTATL/AERO anyone?), which might have nudged this puzzle out of the Monday spot we usually see Acme's puzzles in. All in all though, such a fun theme with tight specificity and resulting elegance; a pleasure for this NBA fan. Now if we could only resurrect the good old Run TMC days

Wed 10/29/2014

"Word hidden in phrases" theme today, from an old Prego commercial that sounded vaguely familiar. Given how frequently my bachelor dinners used to be 1.) get jar of spaghetti sauce 2.) open said jar 3.) drink, I'm sure that tagline must be laced in the back of my head somewhere.

I like the quality of Liz's themers today. Since ITS is a relatively easy word to work into phrases, she does well to increase theme density, giving us five themers in addition to the revealer. Nice layout to accommodate that — a pair of crossing 7's in the middle is made possible by the "pinwheel" layout. And such a beautiful clue for one of the themers, PIT STOP. It took me a while to figure out why a PIT STOP was a "time to retire?" Made more sense when I parsed it as a time to "re-tire." Love it.

In that vein, today brings us so much of the cluing goodness I've come to love. Our old friend OLEO, a totally fine entry in my book but questionable according to others, gets a bang-up clue, repurposing the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." Yellow sub(stitute) indeed! And although I've seen POET clued in relation to poetic feet (iambs) before, I got tripped up yet again by [Foot specialist?]. Just a handful of these great clues adds so much to a puzzle.

I wasn't wild about seeing the variant EGIS, and the REATAS and DONEE kind of stuff aren't great, but overall Liz does well to keep the puzzle pretty smooth, while kicking in a pair of long entries (SESAME OIL and KNEE BENDS) to boot. The ARIOSO / ORAN / ASSAM section might get people in a bother, but it does reflect Liz's more cultured and artistic bent, which I like seeing in her puzzles. Fun to see a constructor's personality shine through.

Overall, I would have liked a more recognizable phrase as a revealer and a bigger challenge given the standard theme and easy letters of ITS, but it's such a nice execution that I enjoyed the solve. The extras helped a lot for me.

Thu 10/30/2014

Neat idea for a visual puzzle, a representation of a CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE. Nice use of cheater squares in the four corners to make a circle-ish shape out of the normal crossword square. And a fun time searching for those rebus squares, CHIPs dotted around the puzzle. Everyone has their favorite puzzle type, and visual puzzles tend to do it for me. Dare I say... CHIPs ahoy! (groan)

CHOCOLATE (CHIP) COOKIE being 16 letters necessitated expanding the grid past the normal 15x15 shape. I like how the circularity of the cookie is preserved by going up to 16x16, although there is something nice about cookies fresh out of the oven being a bit imperfect, even ovoidal. Going to a 16x16 grid does mean that the revealer has to be at the bottom of the puzzle, with a matching entry at the top. Nice find in (CHIP)PENDALES DANCERS, a snappy phrase in itself.

Cookie idea

Visual puzzles are tricky. I find that the ones tickling me most have a visual very closely resembling what it's supposed to be. I had a hitch with this one in that those 1x3 rectangular black bars around the perimeter disrupted the cookie image for me. I doodled around to see if it would be possible to make a cookie image (left) without long "chips" on the perimeter. I'm not sure how hard it would be to fill — probably doable but also somewhat to extremely hard to fill cleanly — so it's hard to say if something like this would fly or not. Those long answers all around the perimeter would make filling very tough, and would likely necessitate fewer CHIPs. David hits the nail on the head — as always, trade-offs.

It might have been nice to get more CHIPs dispersed throughout the puzzle (I'm that guy who "accidentally" spills three times as many chocolate chips into cookie dough), but it's a good balance between theme density and smoothness. The fill was solid, with a good combination of CHIP as a single word as well as part of a longer word. And for those of you solving electronically, take a peek at the grid below — I was surprised at how much clearing out those corners made a difference in terms of cookie-ness. Enjoyable solve.

Fri 10/31/2014

ML pointed out how the word COGNOSCENTI (or its singular COGNOSCENTE) was both interesting and appropriate to crossword people, and as usual, we were off to the races. After much iteration, we were able to come up with a center triple-stack all (loosely) related to "The Cask of Amontillado," one of my favorite Poe short stories. (Fortunato is a snooty COGNOSCENTE of Amontillado, and Montresor exploits that hubris in his plan for revenge.) When we realized Halloween would be on a Friday this year — ripe for an appropriate mini-theme — it felt like kismet. Alternate grid with more words

We actually finished a first version with more blocks and more words (see left), which surprisingly turned out to be a little harder to fill well. Unusual for that to happen, but sometimes the letter patterns do tricky things. I was a little skeptical of SATE SAUCE, but a quick check with some of my Malaysian friends came back with the result that SATAY SAUCE in fact was the "incorrect" one (along with some appropriately snarky comments about how they wouldn't eat our Americanized Asian foods if they had been BURIED ALIVE and it was the only option). I was all ready to settle for the alternate grid, with its more choked-off grid (the NW flows into the rest of the puzzle so nicely in the original, and feels comparatively sectioned off in the alternate), so it was a pleasant surprise to be able to go with the more wide-open grid.

Sanford and Son

As an aside, Sanford and Son is one of my favorite shows of all time. If I had my druthers, that theme song would be playing in the background 24/7, and all grids would be filled with AUNT ESTHER swinging her purse at FRED SANFORD's face while spouting off her Bible verses, GRADY WILSON shuffling along with his wisecracks, and LAMONT's buddy ROLLO taking the brunt of Fred's ridiculous one-liners. Heck, even the horribly stereotypical AH CHEW makes me laugh. The entire show is so politically incorrect, it gives me an appreciation for how far things have come in 40 years.

I'm usually one for uplifting entries, grids and clues that make the solver finish with a sense of happiness, but sometimes exceptions keep things interesting. (Full disclosure, I had to sleep with the lights on after finishing "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.") Now, who's up for a nice glass of Amontillado? Just follow me downstairs...