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Puzzles for October, 2015
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (26)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (3)Hide comments
Thu 10/1/2015
WBODYETSLID
ULTRAARCHMINI
PATESRAREAMFM
MODSWSEYEVIEW
BEDDEDKEYSTRI
MOIREBNASCENT
INXSMESSEUROS
PASSWHINT
ARNAZTSOSEMIR
NAIROBITAPICU
TNTTEARWAPNER
FORTHERECRAUL
AVIACITIIDTAG
RELYHERAAMINO
MRESOLHEADC

Now here's something I haven't seen before: a word ladder incorporated into rebus squares, WARM changing to COLD one letter at a time. I liked John's layout, the WARM WORM WORD CORD COLD progression flowing (sort of) along the diagonal. Sort of like a titration curve, with its inflexion points.

The "Aberdeen Bestiary"

A lot of nice long fill. SCREEN SHOT and BESTIARIES = excellent use of the longest two slots. BESTIARIES reminds me of my old D&D days. Nerds of the world, ride our gryphons to world domination!

Nice selection of theme entries, too. PASSWORD HINT has a modern feel, and FOR THE RECORD and WARM BODY are great. WORMS EYE VIEW … I glossed over the clue and put in the only thing that seemed possible: BIRDS EYE VIEW. Given how many tricky ways people are rebusizing the crossworld these days, I figured this was some sort of BIRD gets the WORM rebus — maybe a BIRD to WORM word ladder?

Guh.

Now I appreciate WORMS EYE VIEW as a fun and interesting answer, but boy oh boy it didn't sit well with me when I was struggling to figure out the BIRD to WORM word ladder.

I liked John's care in short fill. For so much strong material packed in today, a bit of TSOS, TAY, I SAW is darn good. TSOS is minor, and I SAW is actually perfectly fine to me, as it can be clued relative to Caesar's famous boast.

AZOTH is an outlier, but it gets a neat clue related to alchemy. I like it.

I might have liked all the four-letter rebuses to be hidden better, as with FOR THE RE(CORD), since those are harder to uncover and thus a little more fun for me. And I bet solving on paper would have been a better experience — in Across Lite, it's hard to see rebus entries, since they show up truncated as "WA." and "WO." I know the technology is old and limited, but it sure makes for a less than satisfying solve sometimes.

Especially when you're trying to figure out how to change a BIRD to a WORM and you can only see the first two letters of each rung.

*headdesk*

Fri 10/2/2015
GARBSHELFASTA
ALOUPALAUCHOP
STAGNATIONRAMS
MEDLEYGFORCE
ERREDMEDIABIAS
TEARLOVECRAFT
EGGSBENEDICT
ROEINTRUDEEBB
LETATCESTMOI
CLARINETSSANG
IRONCLADSTUNED
WENCESPANAMA
IAGOORIGINATED
STEMUNFITMEAD
HEREPASTYIDLY

Hardly anyone attempts 4x8 corners because they're so hard to fill cleanly and snazzily. And that middle, such a giant chunk of space to fill, would break a mere mortal constructor's brain.

Where LOVECRAFT's "The Call of Cthulhu" was first published

I really liked the upper left. The triple of GAS METER / ALTER EGO / ROAD RAGE in that 4x8 stack is very nice. None of these answers are flashy, but they're all assets amenable to great cluing. And not a gluey bit!

The other corner certainly works, but it doesn't feature much besides BIG DADDY. I think it'd be hard to argue that EMANATED or ORIGINATED is more than just a neutral entry, for example. I am impressed by how clean that corner is, but it wasn't as much fun to solve as the usual Berry experience.

The middle is my favorite of the three mini-puzzles, given the colorful MEDIA BIAS / LOVECRAFT / L'ETAT C'EST MOI. CLARINETS is fine too, and to me it gets elevated to an asset by the wickedly clever [Black winds] clue. I was so sure this had to be some sort of OMEN or "Game of Thrones" type storm or something.

And when EVERTED is your weak link in such a huge section, that's a win. I'm personally fine with EVERTED, as "eversion" is medical lingo, but I can see how others might raise an eyebrow. No doubt, it's not as common or in the language as DEDUCTS or INTRUDE.

Going down to 66 words is a tough task, and often the neutral stuff like EMANATED and EVERTED creeps in if you want to keep the short fill smooth.

I get the attempted wordplay of an ACROBAT having a "flexible schedule," but it feels like it's not as spot-on as usual PB cluing. [You again?] for ALTER EGO, similarly so (maybe [You as well?] might have been more apt?). [Fits on a hard drive?] ... "hard drive" equating to "tough commute" or something doesn't quite do it for me. Seeing Patrick's byline sets my expectations extremely high for clever clues, often delighting me, and I felt like overall this one fell a little short.

Sat 10/3/2015
MINSKCUFFLSTS
SPYONOKIEATIT
DANTEFRONTPAGE
ONESELFSWEATER
SAXBEESASTERN
DECENCYFSU
SCENARIOSALEM
QUADRUPLEPLAY
CULLSSPOILAGE
HEMTHEREIS
RAIDERTWITRTE
IKNEWITHOEDOWN
STALEJOKENOBET
TOTOERIEDRIER
OYESTEALSANDY

Interesting layout. As I solved, I thought there weren't very many long slots, but it turns out there are quite a few — just more spread out than I'm used to. I really liked the colorful KNEE BENDS and SPLIT ENDS types of entries. Nice to see a few more in STALE JOKE, FRONT PAGE, and COLOR WHEEL. Spacing the great stuff around the grid has the beneficial effect of not having all your best material only concentrated in the four corners.

House of Cleopatra at DELOS

QUADRUPLE PLAY is going to be pretty ho-hum to the solvers who complain that crosswords feature way too much baseball. I personally like rules — more accurately, trying to figure out loopholes around them — so I had fun trying to understand this one. Seems like a fourth out can be declared in many different ways, all of which depend on extremely unlikely circumstances.

I'll admit, I still don't really get how any of them actually work.

Given that some of the long slots were filled with neutralish answers (SCENARIO and SPOILAGE), there were fewer feature entries than I like to see in a themeless. So it's a shame two of them fell slightly short for me: SQUEAK TOY is a legitimate term, but SQUEAKY TOY sounds so much better to my ear (and it gets almost twice as many Google hits). COFFEE RUSH is a concept I understand as coffee is an important part of my day, but it doesn't sound quite right. CAFFEINE RUSH? COFFEE BUZZ? COFFEE HIGH? Hmm, not sure — none of them sounds dead-on perfect.

Some tough entries/clues in the puzzle:

  • FiOS apparently is a Verizon service, apparently standing for "Fiber Optic Service."
  • How is TWIT a [Goose]? I believe it's in the "silly goose" sense.
  • OYEZ! is a term I learned from crosswords. I didn't know it could be spelled OYES, which made it very hard to guess correctly, especially considering ...
  • DELOS. Dang it, I got fooled by knowledge that Barry likes to work in J Q X Zs. I filled in DELOZ with such confidence. Sigh.
Sun 10/4/2015 SOUND ARGUMENT
TATARAITTFIRJLO
IVANDODDERETOBLUES
FICKLETHERAPISTRAJAH
FATHOMDANCINGCUISINE
ISNOTSEETONESTEA
NYCARCSOLISSS
BEAASABEAVERDECKOUT
CALLONIFEVERTEED
BUYONEGETONEFRIZZY
SNONAHLAMERPLEAS
CODEDHARKPOORLEDGE
ABORCELENAICUSSR
MURRAYLOVESCOMPANY
ORELSATIVASKOKIE
PARDONSDIGUPDESSERT
YENMOATMSUNEA
ETALIATWISTISTOO
AUTUMNSPECTRUMHAGGLE
SNOREAREYOUFORISRAEL
TIMEDWETREOPENEMIL
YAYSPYESSEXSEAS

A ton of theme material packed in today — eight long ones plus the symmetrical IS NOT / IS TOO revealer. It got a little confusing to me, including a few I had to really think about, so here's a listing in order:

Add or Subtract "IS"? Themer Base Phrase
Subtract FICKLE THERAPIST PHYSICAL THERAPIST
Add DANCING CUISINE DANCING QUEEN
Subtract BEA AS A BEAVER BUSY AS A BEAVER
Add BUY ONE GET ONE FRIZZY BUY ONE GET ONE FREE
Subtract MURRAY LOVES COMPANY MISERY LOVES COMPANY
Add DIG UP DESSERT DIG UP DIRT
Subtract AUTUMN SPECTRUM AUTISM SPECTRUM
Add ARE YOU FOR ISRAEL ARE YOU FOR REAL

I really liked DANCING CUISINE, a crazy sound addition from DANCING QUEEN. FICKLE THERAPIST was my second favorite, as it took me forever to figure out that it subtracted the sound of IS from PHYSICAL THERAPIST. Neat how every one of the eight themers utilizes a huge spelling change, not just adding/subtracting the letters IS.

It's hard to pack in eight themers, and really hard to pack in eight long ones. Check out the pairs of themers, either directly stacked or just one row apart — that's crazy hard to do with so many pairs. I'm not used to seeing the smattering of glue like SSR, SSS, YSER, A B OR C from Jeremy, but it's understandable given how difficult it is to pack this much theme in.

Overall, I would have liked to separate the IS NOTs to the top half, and the IS TOOs to the bottom. The word transmogrifications were hard enough to figure out that I couldn't keep straight which themer was *starred and which was **double-starred. Additionally, some of the sound changes felt a bit strained to me. MISERY to MURRAY for example — the UR sound in MURRAY doesn't really match the ER sound in MISERY.

Finally, Jeremy is so good with his fresh fill that I might have preferred just three themers of each type in order to get more of the KERPLUNKS and OH HELL NO kind of material.

Some neat themers though, and an entertaining solve.

Mon 10/5/2015
CRESTSTOPZEST
HOWTOTHORUVEA
ISAAKARLOLIAR
PENNYDREADFUL
ZOOELSEGNU
MATACOCARHEAS
ONERILEAMENRA
NICKELANDDIMING
IMHOMETIOSUIE
CANDOOPELPSAS
ALIRONIPSI
QUARTERHORSES
FOURLACELANZA
ADENOPENATARI
NESSNESTREGAL

PENNY DREADFUL, what a colorful term! Along with common phrases NICKEL AND DIMING and QUARTERHORSES, the puzzle nicely covers the first four US coins.

What a cool-looking coin! Too bad THREE CENT PIECES are out of circulation.

I liked the long fill, too. EVIL GENIUS is a snazzy enough entry on its own, but referencing the great Lex Luthor makes it even better. (Boo, goody-goody Superman!) TECHNIQUES isn't as strong, but I appreciate getting a Q worked smoothly in.

THREE CENT PIECES … my initial impression was that it felt out of place, because it's out of circulation these days. There is something cool about a bonus quasi-themer crossing each of the three main themers, but it also muddied up the theme for me. I would have preferred either 1.) having an unrelated long down run through all the themers, or 2.) doing away with it so the middle entry could have been NICKEL AND DIME, for a cleaner set of PENNY / NICKEL / DIME / QUARTER.

Check out how many neat six-letter words there are today. REMORA, FERMIS (common units in engineering), the full AMEN-RA, MONICA, PIRATE, STANZA. They added so much to my solving experience. It reminded me of something Joel's been emphasizing with his lower-count puzzles: mid-length entries can greatly spice up a puzzle.

I also appreciated how smoothly Mike worked in the Z of ZULU / ZEST. Too often I feel like a J Q X Z gets shoehorned into a Monday puzzle, resulting in gluey bits galore. Some may argue that UVEA is esoteric, but as one of my previous careers was in ophthalmic pharma development, I'd have to politely disagree.

ADEN might also raise an eyebrow, given how that corner could easily have been TOUR / EDEN / NESS. But ADEN is a major port, and it's nice to get a little diversity, especially since we see EDEN all the time in crosswords.

A theme that made me think, very good fill with just minor OLA and TIOS kinds of stuff = an enjoyable solve.

POW Tue 10/6/2015
INFOCSISDOGS
PARRTRITERANI
OPEDWENTTOOFAR
DANECOOKILOST
CRYLIONEL
RAHNOENDSOCAL
IGOTITGOVVASE
CAPECODROBERTA
EVENHEFCURLED
SENDSFEDEXORS
EASTEROKS
STRUTLETMESEE
STEALAKISSSLAV
PANGGINSUHIRE
ANTEEDGYAMPS

★ Today's puzzle gives us a SINKING / FEELING — four of them, actually. Fun to have four different feelings "sinking," i.e. positioned vertically. I really liked the themers, too, CARLOS SLIM my favorite. Pretty incredible that his net worth is estimated to be around 6% of Mexico's total GDP. And although he hasn't embraced philanthropic goals nearly as fully as Gates or Buffett, I do appreciate his efforts in that arena. Neat to see the wealthy giving back.

Hey, CARLOS SLIM is a fellow engineer!

As with most all of CC's puzzles, I really appreciate her long fill. Usually in puzzles with vertically oriented themers, you can't use much long across fill, for fear of confusing what's theme and what isn't. Today, the circles make it obvious what is theme, so CC takes full advantage, going hog wild with WENT TOO FAR, DANE COOK, STEAL A KISS, LET ME SEE = all very nice material. Even a little BUXOM and FEDEX add color.

For most constructors, this theme conceit would be good enough. But given how skilled CC is, I would have liked to see an extra element tying the four feelings together. How cool would it have been to have all of them from a famous quote? Or even if they were all synonyms of "sinking feeling," like LOSS, SORROW, etc. that would have been perfect. As it was, I found the inclusion of HOPE to be a bit strange. Shouldn't that one be rising?

I also would have liked SINKING FEELING to come toward the end of the puzzle. It was a bit disappointing to encounter it within the first minute of my solve, giving away the game. Perhaps a mirror symmetry arrangement would have been useful, allowing SINKING / FEELING to placed toward the bottom of the puzzle? Some themers would have had to intersect SINKING FEELING, but I bet that would have been possible.

Overall though, a nice early-week theme, and a very well-executed puzzle with added bonuses in sparkly and clean fill. I had to look up TSU — Texas Southern University — but that and RANI are awfully minor.

Wed 10/7/2015
MARCDURANTDJS
AREAINALIEYAO
TICKLEDPINKNIL
TATERTOTSTALE
MORNDOOM
PRINCECHARMING
HOAXABMSCIA
USBPROBONODVD
BIBKOOLHUES
STINGOPERATION
TUSKEDEN
JOHNDRIVETHRU
EGOTRAINEDSEAL
ELLMADMENALGA
ZEEINSERTTMEN

One-named singers worked into common phrases with kooky results. TICKLED PINK worked well for me, now that I actually know who PINK is (learned about her recently ... from crosswords!).

Shouldn't PINK be, well ... pinker?

I did struggle with PRO BONO. I think the other singers are all pronounced exactly the same as the normal word, right? But isn't pro BONO pronounced with a long O, while BONO is a short vowel sound? If that's correct, it felt like an outlier to me. I did get a smile out of the BONO pun, though.

Nice to have a bunch of long fill, DYNAMIC DUO my favorite. Yes, it is a [Nickname for a high-achieving couple], but it'll always be Batman and Robin to me. Man oh man, I hope Joseph Gordon-Levitt reprises his role as Robin from the recent "Batman" trilogy.

Great to get TATER TOTS and DRIVE THRU, too. Even CAKE MIX.

I also liked the tightness of having the singer's name at the start of the first themer, the end of the second, the start of the third, etc. The consistency is elegant.

There are definitely compromises, though. That upper left corner with RECT, the awkward L RON, the partialish IN A LIE, and Shatner's "TEK War" makes for a rough start. I wonder if shifting the black squares on top of L RON to the right would have made for a much better entry than L RON, a ??LR?? pattern amenable to things like OIL RIG, KILROY, WALRUS, etc.

Other gluey bits in the grid, too. ABMS reminded me that little-known acronyms are something Will really wants to avoid (this one may or may not pass his test; I'm not positive). Sometimes I think the entry can be rescued by making all the crosses totally fair, but here, I couldn't quite recall what ABMS were (anti-ballistic missiles). ABRS sounded equally good, with DARN crossing it. Darn it!

Overall, the themers didn't quite do it for me, as they didn't elicit as much of a laugh as I want out of a theme like this. But I did appreciate all the long fill, well-chosen for colorful appeal.

Thu 10/8/2015
AHEADGAMGRAPE
SOCHIEXOLOMAX
SPOONFEEDASONE
TINSELDESSERTS
OTROSMINT
OHMOPTSMOORED
COILSOHOSPACY
UNCOPYRIGHTABLE
LEASEMLLEZBAR
IDLERSLEARITS
OMOODRIFT
QUEUEINGSTIFLE
USLTATORTUROUS
IMHOTALEAMOCO
PAINEPDFLADES

Word trivia is a gold mine for crossword themes. I ran across the DESSERTS / STRESSED reversal a few years ago, but it was nice to learn that it was the longest common word showing this property. Nice to have the flexibility to put it in the grid as either one of the two words!

The knights, becoming RABBIT FOOD

UNCOPYRIGHTABLE was another one I learned of in my years of crossword research. There are other 15s — HYDROPNEUMATICS, DERMATOGLYPHICS, and MISCONJUGATEDLY — but it'd be hard to argue that any of them are common.

QUEUEING and SPOONFEED are really interesting finds. I hadn't considered "the most consecutive vowels" or "all letters in reverse alphabetical order." Alphabetical order, yes, with CHINTZ and BIJOUX being nice ones. But cool to find a long reverse one in SPOONFEED.

TORTUROUS was a little more, well, torturous for me. The last 12 letters of the alphabet … doesn't that seem awfully arbitrary? Feels like it was supposed to be "... the last half of the alphabet" and then someone found a longer one including the letter N.

I like the effort to put in six long themers. This is a tough layout, with GLASNOST and ROSE TOPAZ abutting. This parallel down structure has the tendency to result in 1.) neutralish entries like LOSE OUT ON and/or 2.) gluey crossing fill like USLTA and IDLERS and OMOO. I do really like RABBIT FOOD, such a colorful answer. But I would have liked perhaps just four long pieces of fill and more cleanliness, given that there's already some ESOS / OTROS / SO I / DYERS kind of stuff around the rest of the grid. Each one of these is a pretty minor offender, but taken as a whole, it felt like a lot.

Some interesting finds; I especially liked the QUEUEING one.

Fri 10/9/2015
RATAOPELBLOC
ADORNBODYGUARD
LETGOGENIUSBAR
PLAYBOYMANSION
HELLIONERGO
EDHLASERPEN
OPTSLAYMANOAR
SARCAHOOTSODE
ALAPLANKSBLED
METHLABSUZI
ASTIIMITATE
TOPLESSDANCERS
AIRHOCKEYGOTAT
ONIONROLLSINCE
LEAPURALNATE

Very nice construction from the recent Stanford matriculate. I very much appreciate his quest to stay further and further away from gluey bits while not compromising on featuring colorful fill. I liked the modern feel to this one, featuring BITCOIN, Apple's GENIUS BAR (which I've been extremely impressed with when my wife has needed consultation), and METH LABS. That last one is pretty edgy, but it does relate directly to the very popular "Breaking Bad." Man oh man, that series was way too much for me, never able to go to sleep after watching an episode.

A GENIUS BAR in NYC

On a related note, TOPLESS DANCERS and PLAYBOY MANSION form a quasi-mini-theme of "making some NYT solvers uncomfortable." I'm personally fine with both of them, especially PLAYBOY MANSION, which (for better or for worse) is a cultural touchstone, but TOPLESS DANCERS sort of tips it over the line for me. I like getting a bit of edge in my crosswords, but this one feels like it steps outside the NYT's core focus. I suppose a little shock value can be healthy.

With just 12 entries of 8+ letters, it's important to nail each and every one of them. (Sure, the seven-letter entries like HELLION and BITCOIN can add color, but it's not easy to do.) I liked a lot of the fresher material like AIR HOCKEY and LABOR POOL, but ONION ROLL and ORANGEADE feel a bit stale to me. And a LASER PEN … is that better than or different from a LASER POINTER? Even after researching it, I couldn't say definitively. So definitely agree with David.

Nice and clean short fill. EDH sticks out as the only gluey blight in my eyes, but then again, it's cool to have something that's represented by the curious letter "ð". SAR is apparently the "Sons of the American Revolution" — pretty minor though.

A bit too overtly raunchy for my taste, but I'm sure it will appeal more to David's teenage demographic.

Sat 10/10/2015
HOMAGESDINGBAT
EPAULETALTOONA
REDDEERSAWTOIT
ENDINARATUTSI
ISAOSTINGPITA
AESWEENIESEON
MAHJONGGCESSNA
OKEYDOKEY
PARSECIPODNANO
ASONANNIESSED
LASESIGNSPKWY
ORALBPSIPHEWS
MULLETSONEIDAS
ALIENEENOTLIVE
REENTRYSWEENEY

With just two entries connecting each corner to the center of the puzzle, we have five mini-puzzles today. I liked how MAH JONGG served as one of the connectors — great to feature one of your best entries in such a critical spot. I haven't played that much MAH JONGG, but I've always found the tiles so interesting. There are not only four winds, but four seasons, three dragons, and even four flowers. A friend of mine says that experienced players don't even need to turn the tiles over, rather just a quick feel underside the (etched) designs is enough to tell them what they've selected.

MAH JONGG tiles

Such little connectivity in the puzzle made for an extremely difficult solve for me. As usual with this type of arrangement, the center was my favorite, with MAH JONGG, RING DINGS, OKEY DOKEY, and even GECKOES and WEENIES adding to the zing. (The Cal fans are nicknamed "the weenies" for the annual Stanford vs. Cal Big Game. Don't ask me why.)

In the upper left, I didn't like EEE and the old-timey AES (Adlai E. Stevenson) and the not-quite-crossworthy ISAO Aoki, but getting MAD DASH and OPEN SEA helped make up for those gluey bits.

Similar trade-offs through the rest of the mini-puzzles. MULLETS, yes! ASO and TER, no thanks. NEW WAVE and ODYSSEY, yes! PKWY and the curiously pluralized PHEWS, not so much.

I finished up in the upper right corner — or I should say, didn't finish. Not being familiar with ALTOONA or TATIANA killed me. But it's good to be humbled once in a while. I'm not sure ALTOONA is worth the memory slot in my brain, already slowly losing its bits and bytes, but "Eugene Onegin" is an important enough novel that I'm glad to assign TATIANA to precious storage space.

BTW, ALIENEE apparently is a "dated term for GRANTEE," according to Oxford dictionaries.

Sun 10/11/2015 FOR VARIETY'S SAKE
PASSABEADTRASHIBM
ALTAALUMNAHAGUECEE
LIEFPORTABLESHELTERS
ENVELOPSSIRATTACKS
REELEDTAGALOGETAS
MYAMYAUTOBIOGRAPHY
EVASPINALELHIPIE
CORNELLSAIDMOCERA
ALTESNLGRANDSTANDER
STIESEEKAREATSU
HANDWARMERCARROTCAKE
NEIMREDTEEELLES
EASTERPARADESPAEELS
ANTTIOLEANARTICLE
RTEELMOSOFREEBIN
LIVEFROMNEWYORKTWA
DEARMETHANEBRILLO
CONTESTANYISLANDER
ITSSATURDAYNIGHTIWON
GEOKOREAETCHESNINO
SSNSANDYSHUTSGNAT

Tribute to Saturday Night Live, a crossword standard in its "SNL" form. We get the following stars found within themers:

  • Amy POEHLER
  • Eddie MURPHY
  • Gilda RADNER
  • Bill HADER
  • Chris ROCK
  • David SPADE
  • Tina FEY
  • Kristen WIIG

Good old Roseanne Roseannadanna ...

Nice to see a mix of old and new, male and female. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are notable omissions to me, but that's to be expected from this huge "Blues Brothers" (and "Animal House") fan. And getting the letters A Y K R O Y D inside a phrase would have been much harder than R O C K or S P A D E.

We also get two bonus people, the two most frequent guest hosts in STEVE MARTIN and ALEC BALDWIN. Fortuitous that they're both 11 letters long! And of course, the famous LIVE FROM NEW YORK / ITS SATURDAY NIGHT. That's a ton of theme material packed in.

A lot of compromises in the short fill in order to get such high theme packing, though. The middle is so tough to fill what with all the theme jammed in. Not a lot you can do in the ALOP / A POD area, and when you pack in STEVE MARTIN right next to SAFELY. It's not a surprise to get a heavy dose of glue in the old-school LIEF.

Sure would have been nice to get the SNL revealer in a more elegant place. The very first across answer, the very last one, smack-dab in the center, any of those would have been better than a random spot that happened to fit (56-Across).

It would also have been nice to present the cast members in a less overt and more deliberate way. I found all those circles strewn about the puzzle to be visually unappealing. I'm not sure what would have been better though — there are a few like ROCK and SPADE which can easily be hidden in phrases (HARD ROCK, SPADE WORK), but not many. Likewise, FEY can be hidden in FRESH PAIR OF EYES, but try doing that with WIIG.

Perhaps hiding the syllables within phrases, like RADNER in RADIANT ENERGY, would have at least cleaned up things a bit? How fortuitous that this phrase actually describes Radner! Seems like there's a seed of a theme right there ...

POW Mon 10/12/2015
PROWSASSYJUDAH
LAVATITHEOZONE
AGERARIASKITTY
NURSERYRHYME
AUGOARSMAN
WRAPPUPEURO
ETAILBLIMP
APOCKETFULLOFRYE
LIBYAASBIG
PLEAAPTSMOG
SLYNESSETA
SPACESTATION
JAMESLOSEROSLO
ADAGEMAPLEREDO
BOTOXSTYLESEEK

★ What a great start to this "breaking the mold" theme week! I'm a sucker for puzzles with visual elements, and I love Patrick's unique style of art, so this one worked very well for me. A snippet from Patrick's "Zep" bookThe theme — spoonerizing A POCKET FULL OF RYE into "a rocket full of pie" — is simple enough for a Monday and it made me laugh. Plus, Patrick's drawings are just nice to look at.

I liked how NURSERY RHYME and SPACE STATION apply to the two drawings, too — great to get some bonus theme material to flesh out the puzzle.

What with effectively five theme answers (including the big spaces for the two drawings), it's great that Patrick works in some colorful fill. There's not a lot of long stuff, just LIME TREE and STARGATE, but a dose of geography in BOGOTA, WARSAW, and LIBYA zest things up. Even the six-letter entries like EUREKA! and YES YOU serve their purpose well.

I personally dislike partials more than any other sort of glue (except random Roman numerals), so I didn't care for IF AT or AS BIG, but otherwise the puzzle is so smooth. Very well executed.

It stinks to be an Across Lite solver today (which I usually am). The puzzle makes absolutely no sense what with giant chunks of 3x3 black squares; no way to display those comic strip panels. Might have been better to just do away with the .puz file completely. Get into the 21st century already, crossword software!

Great idea to work cartoon panels into a crossword grid, something I can't remember seeing before. BTW, there's another puzzle this week that I also loved, so there'll be two POWs! this week.

Tue 10/13/2015
SEISMICMANETS
ARMHOLECLOTHES
CRAYOLAFOGHORN
HOGNEEDYERGO
ARESSSEALLNEW
HISJANE
ASWANPASTEBOA
CHARLIEHERMANS
TEXORATEAUTOS
VILEETC
DOWSESALTHAMS
ERIEOMAHAMIA
LILLIANWASHING
INCLUDEANOINTS
TOSSESNETCOST

Two-word phrases, where most of the letters in each word are the same at the corresponding spot. Beautiful example is CRAYOLA CRAYONS, which only differ in their last two letters. Additionally, the crossing answers use both two of the differing letters, i.e. the final A and S of CRAYOLA and CRAYONS get integrated into CEASES.

(FL)(OE)GHORN

A picture explains the idea so much better. See the grid below for a visual representation.

I really liked Patrick's top two theme answers, CRAYOLA CRAYONS and FOGHORN LEGHORN. It's neat how the two special cells are right next to each other. I'm not sure why, but that seems elegant. Same goes for HERMANS HERMITS.

Patrick makes a good point about trying to tighten up the theme. The other themers still feel a little haphazard to me though, especially the ones with three special cells. Seems like it'd be much easier to find examples with three differing letters than with only two. Having only super-constrained ones like FOGHORN LEGHORN — only two special adjacent cells — would have been my preference.

Just like all of Patrick's work, it's ultra-smooth, adhering to his exacting standards. This is not at all an easy construction, especially in the bottom corners. Having three patterns fixed into place—the WM, the SC, and the GE special squares — highly constrains the area. That ??WM?? pattern especially … what else besides LAWMAN works? Only LAWMEN, BOWMAN, BOWMEN, NEWMAN. Talk about very little flexibility! To fill this crazy of a grid with virtually no gluey short entries is amazing.

As with great PB puzzles, his clever cluing shines:

  • SNOW gets the bizarre-looking [Fall in winter], not needing a giveaway question mark.
  • A little shout-out to Barbara Bush with [Barb in a bush] for THORN.
  • [You might put a fist through it] feels aggressively violent … except when it refers to an ARMHOLE.

We've seen concepts similar to this one before, so for a "breaking the mold" theme week, it didn't go as far as I would have liked. Still though, a well-executed puzzle.

Wed 10/14/2015
CASACHEWSCLOT
OMENRENEWHERA
METAEAGLEIMIN
ONTHEDLFRYCOOK
DOESITHAVEANN
ISTHEREAG
BALMFRIOCHO
ERAIGUESSMAOL
AEROSOLMCENROE
DAKOTAHAIRDO
HOWABOUTH
NIKEANYASIMDB
SKIDYOURSLADY
FENCAT
WAGHANGMANEYE

HANGMAN! Neat to see the seven-letter word cordoned off at the bottom of the grid. There have been very few puzzles where a single word is isolated — I can only recall one off the top — so I liked getting another. And the hangman-style guessing, along with the apt HANGMAN revealer, made the puzzle fun and unique.

The gallows

I understand why Joel put so much variety in his "questions," and I'm glad he did. But some of them are more successful than others. DOES IT HAVE AN N is plausible. I GUESS M not as good. How about HOW ABOUT H ... not so much.

Very tough construction. All odd-numbered themer lengths (13/9/7/9/5) makes it perfect for mirror symmetry, but trying to get it all to work out is a nightmare. Themers of length 9, 11, or 13 force black squares at their ends, and that causes layout problems. Joel gets around it nicely by stacking some pairs, notably the DOES IT HAVE AN N and IS THERE A G. Trying to thread long downs through that stack plus I GUESS M is sure rough, though. HEALTHFUL and WELFARISM are legitimate terms, but I find these more neutral than assets.

I liked some of the mid-length fill much better, FRY COOK and ON THE DL especially. Even some of the MCENROE DAKOTA SWERVE was nice. And as with all of Joel's puzzles, I appreciate so much the smoothness of his short fill. So nice to keep it limited to a minor ANO, ESS, FRI.

I liked the concept a lot, but it was a bit strange to have the "face" made of black squares look like it was smiling instead of frowning. I also felt weird not to have the stereotypical hangman's gallows used when playing the game. That would have called for an asymmetrical grid, but that could have been an incredibly cool rule-breaker for this (very cool!) theme week.

Thu 10/15/2015
HOEDSPAMAMS
ITEESULNELEIE
TOSCASNAILSHEL
OTSTRCAOIK
YLELOGGLDES
ACESSATREV
RATFITTWLC
FLMBWILOORALY
NESAEITLAA
ROKPEETASY
SHDDRMILKWA
AMIMIDSTEO
GUGENHEIMGAUZS
AGSGATNAEMRLA
DTSDRYSSLAW

A very impressive construction given the elaborate theme concept. I'm used to seeing multiple letters in squares on Thursdays, but to have EVERY SQUARE within a long spiral contain double letters? It's a crazy idea, only doable by a select group of constructors. Kevin uses his own custom construction software, so I imagine he coded some special functions to help him fill this one.

Inside the GUGGENHEIM

Neat to get some theme material besides just the idea of "spiral where every cell gets two letters." SNAIL SHELL, GUGGENHEIM, and WHIRLPOOL (and YULE LOG and MILKY WAY!) are good examples of this shape. (The GUGGENHEIM's famous architecture already was memorialized by Liz Gorski, so it didn't have the power for me as it might have had.)

As soon as I cottoned to this theme, I worried about how much glue Kevin would need. Yes, he's a top-notch constructor and programmer, but the level of constraints here are incredibly difficult. I could hardly believe my eyes to get such little glue, only a STATAL, FIT TO, N TEST = nothing major. Well, HUMBUGGED and SIDELINER felt sort of made up, and BESTRODE … okay, maybe that one's fine. Still, for a grid that works in a mind-boggling 25 words of seven letters or longer, it's great work.

As a solver, I found this one really difficult, my brain struggling with trying to fill in two letters at a time. The NW was especially difficult, with the unfortunate STATAL being one of the few entries into that section. I thought the idea was really cool when I first encountered it, but it became so hard to solve that my enjoyment level decreased toward the end.

Overall, I appreciated Kevin's not just pushing the boundaries for this theme week, but demolishing them. I don't know that I ever would have come up with such a crazy idea. Even if I didn't have as much fun solving it as I would have liked, I do admire both the concept and execution.

Fri 10/16/2015
PABRVHF
ROLLOVERANIRA
OOPSIDIDITAGAIN
CEOSSITPHIL
ZENTECATESSIX
DPTMILEYLIN
CURATEDREVENGE
RIVERTANGS
GEMINISMENOTTI
MASTACOSSHU
JARDAYRATEEDU
NIPASANGABE
QUEENSOFENGLAND
ASALASTRESORT
LKMYWTS

Note anything unusual about all those unchecked letters around the perimeter? Not surprisingly, this puzzle is a pangram! At first, I wasn't sure why so many single letters were strewn around the perimeter, but the concept finally dawned on me, helping me to fill in the M of MENOTTI and the J of JAR. Neat idea to make it seem like there are 26 unchecked squares, while secretly tying them together.

Menotti

All those black squares around the perimeter cut down the average word length of the puzzle. Usually this statistic is not something I care about, but here, it means that there are very few entries of 8+ letters — the ones I usually look forward to cracking the most. Some of these feature entries were great — OPEN PRIMARIES, RAISING THE BAR, AS A LAST RESORT I really liked — but others like FAILING STUDENTS and QUEENS OF ENGLAND didn't seem as in-the-language. The latter seems more like a Jeopardy! category rather than a phrase people say.

And even this investment manager doesn't get super excited by ROLL OVER AN IRA. Yes, it can be a wise action within retirement planning, but it's not an aspect that tickles me. (Yes, there are many aspects of money management that do tickle me. Weird, I know.) And PROCEDURE MANUAL reminds me too much of long orientation days at a new job. It actually has a lot of potential to be saved with a great wordplay clue, but the straightforward [How-to guide at an office] doesn't do a lot for me.

There are a bunch of 7-letter entries which do add a little spice, like EYE TEST. Others like EMERITA and GEMINIS are pretty good too.

I always appreciate how Joe pushes the envelope with almost every new construction. He's a natural selection for this theme week, and this idea is pretty cool. I would have liked some indication of the idea — PANGRAM or THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG or something — but there's already a lot of constraint put on the grid. Already with some LENOS, SAY SOS, MOANER kind of stuff, I wouldn't want to force much more.

POW Sat 10/17/2015
ARCANALAPUTA
DOOWOPIRISES
LUNARECLIPSES
ITSYSOLSETI
BETOUTERNEZ
EERIEOUTRE
ALLSETASSESS
FALCOFLIER
CSASPACEPAM
EATSRIOARLO
ALIENINVASION
SLOGANELISHA
TENANTSINEAD

★ Loved this one; a perfect way to cap off my favorite theme week since the amazing Patrick Berry puzzle suite back in 2011. I've seen OUTER SPACE interpreted many ways in crosswords (phrases starting with SP and ending with ACE, having the word SPACE outside the grid, etc.) but nothing quite like this. Tim's version of OUTER / SPACE includes a ring of blanks all around the perimeter, which visually represents that "region beyond the Kármán line" (an astronomy term). So cool!

Tae Bo, anyone?

I cottoned to the idea quickly (Billy BLANKS is awesome), but what a bonus to get thematic(ish) material in what I expected to be a themeless! The quartet of CONSTELLATION, USS ENTERPRISE, LUNAR ECLIPSES, and ALIEN INVASION would be too loose for a themed puzzle, but it makes for a great mini-theme. And I'm fascinated by the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), so I liked seeing that. SOL was fun too, especially since it's the term for a Mars day. ("The Martian" was one of my favorite reads of the year so far.)

Nice execution on the 13x13 grid, too. I had a tough time recalling LAPUTA from "Gulliver's Travels" and ASSIZES made for an impossible crossing for me, but I liked it enough to ignore that blip. Getting APE SUIT and AFC EAST and some ARCANA SLOGAN ALL SET stuff was nice, all with just a FAIN to hold it together. FAIN is pretty outdated crossword to me, but since it's the only piece of short glue, I didn't mind so much.

I also liked that Tim found so many ways to clue BLANKS. It did feel repetitive to me after a while though, and given that each one of those could have been a synonym of BLANKS like EMPTIES or VOIDS, some variety might have been fun. Not having to intersect those answers with anything sure opens up a lot of freedom! I suppose there is a certain consistency and elegance to having all BLANKS, though.

A great end to this theme week; clever concept with good execution. I always like seeing constructors do crazy and unique things, and Tim's mind-bending concept is perhaps the best of the best this week.

Sun 10/18/2015 BIG NAMES IN E-TAIL
SCALIABASSOASSORT
LABORSCOCOONSHOVEIT
IDONTKNOWHOWESILENTI
MEDESALTYDEENREAM
STEWSHAILIGHTGREENE
OWNSECURESLEX
MGMLIONSOLONESTLES
CHEFSHATBUNSOFSTEELE
JAMESBRASITALINTOW
ONOKOOLONYXBVDS
BARSHOPPINGMALLELAB
INEZHAWSICETORR
DRAINMICAHEADEBOLA
VOLCANICASHENUTCASES
ROSETEAHAREPROCESS
POWIFATALLELK
JOKERSWILDEEEKEPCOT
AGROROSYSCREEACAI
CLAPFORLAYITONTHICKE
KEILLOROHENRYDENVER
STEAMYWANNASTEINS

Perfect title, BIG NAMES IN E-TAIL referring to people whose names only differ from a normal word by a final E. BUNS OF STEEL into BUNS OF (Remington) STEELE was my favorite, and LAY IT ON THICKE was fun too. All of them gave me at least a small smile, which is unusual for this type of theme. Well done, Dan!

What really impressed me was how well Dan used his mid-length fill. Usually the 6- or 7-letter entries are hard to make sing. It's so much easier to rely on 8+ letter lengths for colorful fill, since longer fill means more possibility for multi-word phrases, and more variety in general. I kept a running list of very strong mid-length fill, and I couldn't believe how much I kept adding:

  • BOWTIES
  • STYMIE
  • OAXACAN
  • SENATOR
  • ROSE TEA
  • STEINS
  • MGM LION
  • SCALIA (including a great clue with him referencing fortune cookies!)
  • SHOVE IT
  • I WAS HAD
  • IF AT ALL
  • ELECTRA

Remington STEELE

I see a lot of constructors using prepositions in their mid-length fill — adding ON, TO, IN, UP, etc. — which I find perfectly fine but not colorful. Instead of spicing up a grid, these types of entries just act as filler, IMO. We could all take a lesson from Dan's careful selection of mid-length stuff today.

Good job with longer entries too. NUTCASES, MEMORIALS, CHEFS HAT all added to the quality of my solve. NICE PEOPLE felt a bit made-up, but perhaps that's a more regional term.

I uncovered SHOPPING MALLE first and got LONE WOLFE and JOKERS WILDE after that. Having all authors in an E-TAIL puzzle seemed perfect (I'm a big user of Amazon.com for books). So it was a disappointment to get an assortment of others afterward — a hockey player, singer, actor, etc. I enjoyed the puzzle as is, but I would have loved another layer of elegance and specificity by having all authors. That might not have been possible, so perhaps just one instance of each profession would have been my second choice.

The NYT audience is so broad that I think it's smart to have a range of simpler to extremely complex Sunday puzzles. This is a great example of a "starter" Sunday puzzle, one I'd give friends that are still intimidated by the NYT crossword. Simple idea and very well executed.

Mon 10/19/2015
EKGSALAMOSRAH
LEIAMORONSODE
CABLEOUTLETPIA
INBULKFAMDEER
DUSTSWIREFRAUD
ETALGOAD
PACTAIMSIWONT
EXHORTSKNEEPAD
TEASETAYEREBS
ISNTSPEC
LINEDANCEATSEA
ARMSTERERRORS
PEASTRINGBEANS
UNIOLDBAGAMIE
PALBESETSTIES

Synonyms of TIES: CABLE, WIRE, LINE, STRING, CHAIN, and ROPE. Impressive theme density, with not just six themers but a revealer in the last across slot.

Come to Ravenna Park in Seattle to see crazy Medieval fights (seriously)!

With six themers, I usually expect a few of them to fall flat, since it's tough to pack so much in without a few compromises. I was pleasantly surprised that five of them were solid gold. ROPE A DOPE is such a great phrase, WIRE FRAUD cues colorful images, and CHAIN MAIL gets me smiling (there are a surprising number of secret Medieval cosplay fights in Seattle parks). I wasn't hot on CABLE OUTLET, which is a real and fine answer — to me, it pales in comparison to the others, though. Nice job of packing, Bruce!

The high density does come with a couple of compromises — check out where LINE DANCE and STRING BEANS overlap. The never-seen-in-real-life TER (I've only used TID in pharma dev; my doctor wife confirms this) is a big price to pay. I'm not sure why constructors/editors allow it.

The symmetrical spot exhibits similar strain. Having to resort to an old-timey SST is reasonable, but next to the arbitrary ONE MEG, it's harder for me to look past. Those two sections are tough to get perfectly smooth and clean as I like a Monday to be — so many black squares had to be deployed elsewhere around all the themers, that the north and south end up being relatively big, tough-to-cleanly-fill chunks of white space.

Overall, it would have been nice for the theme to be tighter, as there are all sorts of things that can TIE: twine, cord, ribbon, belt, etc. It'd be one thing if it were limited to direct synonyms for "string," but once you throw in CHAIN, it gets pretty loosey-goosey. This might have been a case for "less is more" for me.

Tue 10/20/2015
ABELDEALBEMAD
PANASONICOVINE
BLACKGOLDSEXTS
ABEAMTENTHS
SNLASTORHARE
ACERBTIPIAPAR
SEDERROUTNEXT
DOMELEAD
BOTSETTERENTS
ANINECONIDIOT
SANATHATSCUE
SNIPESPOKER
ADEPTODDISNTIT
LOSESDARKHORSE
ENTRYSMEEBYTE

A visually represented ROULETTE wheel, fun! I liked seeing EVEN / ODD and BLACK / RED in the themers too, covering the bets most people think about with roulette.

BASS ALE in the background of a Manet painting

I also liked the big swaths of white space in the four corners, giving the puzzle a themeless vibe. I imagine that was more of a by-product of having spent so many black squares around the center, but still, it gave Sam a chance to work in juicy fill like BASS ALE and NICE TRY. Strong mid-length fill.

Big spaces often come with compromises, and it's not ideal to get AN IN and SANA (Rich Norris doesn't accept this spelling of SANAA) in one corner, and a smattering of A PAR, OSH, ENO … I'd actually be okay with that amount of glue, but when you toss in ABEAM, it's harder to overlook.

My favorite types of puzzles are the ones that spur my brain on. How cool would it have been if the black squares in the middle of the puzzle were in the shape of a circle? As it is, those black squares form sort of a figure 8. Not very roulette-ish.

Making a more circular pattern of black squares would have meant the center would be much harder to fill, but I would have been forgiving of a few more compromises to get it. I wasn't too happy about getting a variant (TIPI) and more importantly ETTE when the theme is ROULETTE (the "ette" in "roulette" is a diminuitive for "roue," or "wheel"). Give me a circular pattern of black squares and I'd happily brush those concerns aside.

I would have also liked BLACK and RED to be opposite, and EVEN and ODD as well — makes for a better feeling of symmetry. And while I'm ticking off a wish list, how cool would it have been to dot the grid with some black squares and some red ones! Sigh, technology not keeping up with the times …

Overall, a very nice idea and some strong mid-length fill. Several gluey bits here and there, but on the whole, an enjoyable solve.

Wed 10/21/2015
ACDCGPSSMARTS
OHOHOOPKODIAK
LETAFOOLINIDLE
HOLDHISTONGUE
SIBTOOLEST
IMPTAZSWIT
TALERAGUTOLL
DUELSMREHUEYS
SALEBUMSTALL
EXPOEARKEY
KOASANETIA
ANDHEWILLPASS
PERILSFORASAGE
PAELLAIKEAVOW
ALMOSTNIPYEOW

ML brought me in on this one late in the game. After I declined to work on it (I've sworn off word ladders for the most part), she showed me Will's message to her (see above). She knows me too well — there's nothing I like more than trying to pull off something that might not be possible.

Felonious GRU from "Despicable Me"

So off I went, trying out skeleton arrangement after arrangement. Working with four long themers plus another six short words proved to be quite a challenge, but I just hate giving up.

I finally came up with something I liked, something that looked like the word ladder "flowed" from FOOL to SAGE. I wasn't a fan of the "jump" from the right to the left side, but I did like how TALL and TALE naturally served to link the two halves. I sent the rough skeleton back to ML, and she filled it in with a lot of nice stuff.

It's important to me to include at least a little bonus fill in every puzzle I work on, so I'm glad MONOLITH (huge "2001: A Space Odyssey" fan), SO SUE ME, and SEX SELLS made their way in. Even though I've become a bit snobby about candy these days, I do like me a Mr. GOODBAR every once in a while.

Both of us are big "Despicable Me" fans, so I'm glad ML pushed for GRU to get his 15 minutes, despite my hesitations.

As always, a pleasure working with ML!

Thu 10/22/2015
LOLASTILIMITS
OSCRNODUNADON
ALDAMATOSEMITE
NOSCOREATABOIL
CREMECRAMEL
SLOESTANS
NOTPCOCOMECFO
APOTHECRYSSHOP
GEEORCASTAINT
BOSUNFADS
DALECRNEGIE
ARETHASTOMCATS
METEORPOTHOLES
ENBLOCUNTOTAN
SAYSSOPSATOKS

CARs hidden within themers, falling into "POTHOLES." I totally missed Tracy's intention though. I thought the "A" just disappeared into the black square in the middle of each phrase. Glad I read her note, understanding that the "A" actually dropped down a row! A bit confusing, but it can sort of work either way.

French APOTHECARY SHOP

Nice choice of themers. CRÈME CARAMEL is delicious, DALE CARNEGIE's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" has sold millions of copies, and OSCAR NOD is a jazzy phrase. The only one I wasn't sure of was APOTHECARY'S SHOP — Google gives a ton of hits without the ‘S, and very few with. APOTHECARY SHOP is only 14 letters, so it wouldn't serve as a perfect central revealer of a 15x puzzle, but to me, it's SO much better than APOTHECARY'S SHOP. Going to a 14x15 grid would have allowed it.

A crossword breaking symmetry conventions without good reason tends to irk me. Check out the location of POTHOLES and OSCAR NOD — not symmetrical! One thing that could have been done: placing POTHOLE in the center, and then A LA CARTE or BACCARAT opposite OSCAR NOD. Would have made for perfect symmetry.

Check out those upper right and lower left corners; big chunks of white space. I don't often leave 6x5 open spaces in my grids, because they're tricky to fill cleanly and snazzily. Tracy does a pretty good job with them, working in good stuff like EN BLOC and CHOO CHOOS, but the plural ARETHAS is still gluey to me even with the save in the "___ Best" clue. BETELS also feels a bit wonky — BETEL NUTS, not BETELS, yeah?

I love Japanese food, but UNADON didn't float into memory. TOTIE and SNELL not only give the puzzle an old-school feel, but those crossings with UNADON will be a killer for some solvers.

I prefer the original way I thought of the black squares as the potholes — the visual of the "A" dropping down one row didn't work nearly as well for me; not really evoking the image of a POTHOLE. Still, a fun solve, albeit a few bumps in the road.

Fri 10/23/2015
COWTIPPINGIHOP
AMENCORNERMAGE
FANTASYFOOTBALL
ENDNICOUSAGES
KNEESPACE
RADIOSDOORKNOB
OPARTJEANSDNA
LANKTURKSBARR
ORCFRIESSUZYQ
STEPBACKWUSSES
CRONYSENT
LARAMSSKIDDIP
PLAYBOYMAGAZINE
GAZEMEETHEADON
AWEDSWEETSPOTS

JUICY puzzle from one of the young guns. We see his Devil Cross vibe in some great entries like COW TIPPING, STEP BACK, FANTASY FOOTBALL, and finally … the NYT xw debut of F-BOMB! I'm glad to see Will finally give it the nod.

Talk about SWEET SPOTS!

At 72-words, this puzzle is at the very limit of what's allowable for a themeless. I'm often wary of 72-worders, because all the black squares make it difficult to incorporate as much long material as I like to see. Roughly 12 long slots (8+ letters) is my bare minimum when I construct a themeless, and I much prefer something along the lines of 16-18. It's tough to convert every single long slot into something great, so I like a little wiggle room if I need an entry that's more neutral than colorful.

Evan only has 12 slots for long material today, so I bit my fingernails as I solved — not converting even one or two long slots into something good is a huge loss, percentage-wise. I should know better, as Evan has serious themeless chops. Okay, TRANSOMS is just neutral to me, and GROUPONS have become passé given all the daily deal sites now, but HAAGEN DAZS. MEET HEAD ON. DOORKNOB with a nice clue. Talk about SWEET SPOTS! Toss in SUZY Q crossing BARQS and that's pretty good.

With a good but not outstanding number of assets though, I want to see extremely few liabilities in the puzzle. A LAW is unsavable as a partial. SMEE is borderline (except to Peter Pan fans!), and LA RAMS … this one seems so outdated to me, but the clue about Merlin Olsen does a reasonable job of attempting to rescue.

I actually like PELS a lot, as it's modern and gettable with the crosses (the NBA's Pelicans). PRYCE crossing NICO would usually be a no-no, but the clue for PRYCE [… whose name sounds like it's worth something] helps a ton. Thumbs up for solver-oriented cluing today, which helps to rescue some of the liabilities.

POW Sat 10/24/2015
NIQABARABATMS
INUREDORASHOO
EVOKEUBERHERR
CITIBLEARSBAR
EVENBETSEOCENE
SODLDSALLHAIL
LATINLOVERS
VANITYPRESS
KICKMESIGNS
AIRACESNATGPA
GRINDSDENSEFOG
ESLSTEELSMOTH
OTISORCAPARTA
NETSROOKDICES
ENYAYOREALERT

★ Really dug this one. I like odd grid patterns, and this one has a cool-looking middle. Slant-stacks (answers on top of each other but shifted) are easier to create than straight-up stacks because the ends have fewer constraints, but they're still hard. And running EIGHT long answers through them — that's notable.

Barrel organ, sadly with no monkey

Now, Andrew doesn't have a huge number of long slots in this grid — just 13 that are 8+ letters long — and most of them are located in that tough-to-build middle section. With only 13 long slots, it's important to me to get most all of them converted into great material. Andrew delivers, with KICK ME SIGNS and BARREL ORGANS my favorites.

The only one that's neutral in my eyes is SOLVENTS, and even that could have been made into an asset with a more interesting clue. With a more esoteric chemistry answer like ENOL or AMINE, you need a straightforward clue. SOLVENTS I think is well-known enough to be fair game for a clever clue, though.

I think a great puzzle should have (assets minus liabilities > ~10), so did Andrew hold his liabilities to three or less? EROO sticks out like a sore thumb, an inelegant suffix. Hard to avoid in that tough south section, what with BEDTIME STORY, ALPINE LAKE, and DENSE FOG bordering it. But other than that … SSA is minor (Social Security Administration), and AGE ONE is iffy to me. It is an important age milestone though, so I give it a pass.

Some might complain about NIQAB — I plunked in HIJAB as I think many will — but I like how these ported words have multiple acceptable spellings.

The NW corner, which was too sectioned off from the rest of the puzzle for my taste, had the one real worry for me. As I was solving, I had 14-A [Toughen] as ?NURE. I was rooting so hard for it to be the spelling I knew from before I started crosswords: INURE (not ENURE). Whew!

Overall, enough assets to overcome the small number of liabilities, plus a cool-looking grid. A great solve.

Sun 10/25/2015 HALLOWEEN COSTUMES
VICARSINPIECESAMPLY
ORECARFOOTNOTENOLIE
WEREWOLFBLITZERGOALS
TIDOYSSWEAPRYAM
ISITAGOSINPRIES
SETTOMBSTONEPHILLIPS
SEURATLAVEREMYSTIC
UPDOADOLPHETAESTA
EYEOFNEWTGINGRICHAMP
SLALOMMAONYUFEE
SOLTIINITPOOHMIENS
TOANILNHLDROOPS
RMSGRAVEDIGGERPHELPS
UPTOOHOQUAINTNAIL
NATHANUSSCMDIODINE
GHOSTBUSTERKEATONDUD
LOLASONAENTRAPS
ROEERARENRUEHIN
TRALABLACKCATSTEVENS
EAVESLEGALAGEADAGES
SLEETEVENEDUPILLGOT

Fun Halloween theme, famous people "in costume." I dug the image of BUSTER KEATON in his porkpie hat … and proton pack! Also amusing to visualize Wolf Blitzer doing the "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah." EYE OF NEWT GINGRICH stuck out a little since it was the only themer with two words appended to the person, but it was a funny enough answer that I didn't mind. Six solid themers.

Into the containment unit with you, GHOSTBUSTER KEATON!

Bill's long fill worked well for me, too. I tend to get a little bored doing a 21x21 puzzle, so uncovering juicy fill is a real treat. LAST TO LEAVE was really fun — so amusing to think about that last clueless guy who doesn't know he's supposed to git. LAID AN EGG, SALT MINE, GOOD GAME, even CERTITUDE are all colorful entries. It's not often that we get so much good long fill in a Sunday puzzle.

As with most anything good, there is a price to pay. I hitched several times when solving Bill's mid-length stuff. I did like looking up COZENER, PITMEN, and TINHORN, but I scratched my head at these during the solve. A little cocking of one's head in confusion is fine, but it can easily get to be too much for me.

And the short fill — if you choose to include a lot of long entries, it often comes at the price of a lot of super-short stuff. The usual minor gluey bits like ETE and ESTA and TO A are negligible. Adding UP TO right over TO A, the awkward plural LOLAS, ILL GOT(TEN?), and the hard-for-me-to-process CMD (command) crossing GUCK (not GUNK?), the ancient Hebrew measure HIN …

Generally, you need some minor gluey bits to hold a 140-word Sunday puzzle together. I personally find it's best when you stick to the lesser offenders and steer clear away from the Maleskan-era ones.

A very fun Halloween theme, with some hiccups in execution. Going up to 142 words, or breaking up some of those nice long pieces of fill, would have been a better trade-off for me.

Mon 10/26/2015
WORKSSHABBYSAW
ADIEUOOLALAUMA
CITYBYTHEBAYPAL
ONAUTOOXENSENT
PLUGALCATRAZ
PEPEWOKJAM
OBOEINEPTAROAR
GOLDENGATEBRIDGE
ONAIRSNAPENERF
RBISEASLAS
CABLECAREMIT
ISEEORIGATRAIN
SKASANFRANCISCO
CURSTALINOBIES
OPSWIZENSMEATY

SAN FRANCISCO honored today, the CITY BY THE BAY near where I grew up. Nice to see additional theme around iconic SF CABLE CARs, ALCATRAZ, and the GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE. Not sure what this puzzle commemorates, considering SF was founded on June 29, 1776. Hooray for ... its 239th anniversary?

The GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE

I like Bruce's execution. In some of his earlier work I've seen more gluey fill than I care for, so it was great to run through the solve so smoothly. It's so tough to do this for a Monday puzzle, and even tougher when you have five themers.

The only hitch I had was around the south section, and that's understandable given the overlap of CABLE CAR over SAN FRANCISCO. That type of arrangement, especially leading into a southern section that's six letters wide, can be very tough to fill. So getting ORIG + SSW + ANS isn't too bad. Some may complain about COATI, but I like seeing non-North American animals, when the crossings are all fair. Learn something, people!

Pretty good longer fill, too. POLAR BEARS and SUPERMODEL are nice choices, and even the mid-length YOU WIN, SITCOM, WIZENS are not too SHABBY. With a wider-than-usual puzzle at 16 columns, it's so important to keep the solver's attention, and all these extras did that for me.

So overall, a well-executed puzzle, but I sure would have liked some rationale, some important date in order to justify running a list-like tribute puzzle. Without that, I would have liked something more to push the envelope, especially given how much SF has going for it. With its huge variety of nicknames (Fog City, Frisco, The Paris of the West, etc.), its current significance as the center of the dot com explosion, even its incredible history with the Gold Rush, it's ripe for themes that think bigger.

I would have loved to see a bridge made out of black squares (if it actually looked like a bridge)! That would have called for more trade-offs, I imagine, maybe enough that it couldn't be a Monday puzzle, but I love that idea.

Tue 10/27/2015
GRIDINCASCRUX
AUDITOALLHOSE
ISLEATRIAEYED
THEHOLYBIBLE
ALIEDRESS
DIRECTSUNLIGHT
BONDSTAUOGRE
ROWHEARTSIP
ADABIRKBEANS
GARLICNECKLACE
ADDONAGER
SILVERBULLET
BAGSEARLSYOGA
ALPOSNOOPODOR
TEAMTESTYNEST

A STAKE running through the vampire's HEART in the center — what a clever idea! Fun to see the collection of things that vampires hate. I wasn't aware that a SILVER BULLET was appropriate for more than werewolves, but some Googling shows that apparently SILVER BULLETs are good for all sorts of monsters. Off to invest in silver!

Coors Light, "The Silver Bullet" — be afraid, vampires!

Such a fun concept for the run-up to Halloween. It'd be great to have it on Halloween, but given the simplicity, it really does belong as an early-week puzzle. I sure would have liked some type of CROSS incorporated — WOODEN CROSS perhaps? — as that's much more iconic to me than either SILVER BULLET or HOLY BIBLE, but I'm not a monster movie aficionado. (I get scared by Harry Potter.)

With four long themers and the STAKE through the HEART, this is a tough layout. I usually don't care much about themers interlocking, but I found the STAKE intersecting DIRECT SUNLIGHT and GARLIC NECKLACE pretty cool. It also helps with the spacing, very necessary today given that none of the themers can go in rows 3 and 13 like usual — if you move THE HOLY BIBLE up one row, you create a nightmare of black squares in the upper right. So the interlock here is not just nice today, but almost essential.

Given such constraints, Kurt does pretty well to keep his gluey bits down to a minimum. It's unfortunate that A LIE, TO ALL, and A DAB all fall in the "partials" category though, making them stand out for me. A cheater (extra black square) up in the north, perhaps where the S of INCAS is, might have allowed Kurt to eliminate TO ALL. But that would have forced him to change the south for symmetry reasons, and that might force him to lose the very nice KGB SPY and/or CAR LOT. Always with the trade-offs.

Nice idea with a great finish in the STAKE through the HEART. I find the theme to be POW! material, but I'd need to have a tighter set of themers and maybe a slightly less gluey solve in order for it to make the cut.

POW Wed 10/28/2015
JIGRUSTSDART
ACESENNUIAMES
CANNEDCORNMALE
KNEELSTAXDOT
ATRASSPLITPEAS
SOAKBASEELUDE
SOLBONYCROSS
FOODCOURT
SWIGSHULAMOD
ANISEGISTRACE
DIRTYRICEMINOT
OPESETIODINE
NETSBAKEDBEANS
ARALENEROSCOT
ISPYLOYALSRS

★ What a fun idea, riffing on FOOD COURT to describe edible offenders. Hilarious to think about grains of rice making payoffs to politicians. And I laughed at uncovering the BAKED BEANS (baked = high on pot). All four of the "defendants" were right on. Very well done!

For the love of God, AMADEUS!

Because the FOOD COURT in the center sort of splits the puzzle into a top and bottom half, there's not much opportunity for long fill. It's so important to make the mid-length stuff count. I think Jay and Daniel did a nice job there with WIRETAP, SNIPERS, PSYCHIC.

And what a great clue for AMADEUS: [Famous middle name that means "love of God"] Not only is it gettable for Wolfgang AMADEUS Mozart fans, but people who don't know him can work it out from the etymology trivia.

The clue for GENERAL worked well for me too: [Word in the names of two of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies]. General Electric came easily, but I had to think to get General Motors Company.

The clue for WIRETAP — [Invasive bug] — is so innocuous. Some sort of boll weevil, right? Really strong cluing in the mid-length material today.

The shorter fill did drag me down. Even with a tough arrangement of themers like today's, all I want to do is appreciate how fun the theme is without getting bogged down in gluey bits. It started in the north, with UNC and SNO together. I applaud innovating with a tin monoxide reference to SNO, but it felt like putting lipstick on a pig. There was enough ATRAS, OUSE, OPE, ENERO, MINOT, SRS stuff — all minor, but not in aggregate — that it distracted me from the neat theme.

I wish more cheater squares had been deployed, maybe where the R of RUSTS and L of LOYAL are, to smooth out the north and south. I dug the theme and mid-length fill so much that I wanted this to be a perfect puzzle.

A few years of working with Jim has evolved my thinking. Yes, the short fill bugged me, but the big question for me these days: was I delighted by the puzzle? A resounding yes for this one.

Thu 10/29/2015
IHOPEASEDRIPS
POURSLABRADON
SOCIALIFESPIRE
OTHEREERIEONE
SKINSTRUCTOR
MYSTICASAP
UAENEPALSTRAP
CLEFDOVERSORE
HEIDIPIXAROIL
FINKNONFAT
CHICKENOODLE
LUCBLINDEPCOT
EMAILLIONSHARE
FORGOLOREEVEN
TREATANSEWEST

It's very infrequent that I see a debut this smooth, this colorful, this well-executed.

Pretty sure there are lions being shared in there

Fun theme — L I O N repeated in four themers, all at the end of one word and the beginning of another for perfect consistency. How cool is it that the LIONS SHARE revealer exhibits the exact same quality!

Sam doesn't push the boundaries too much today, what with a 78-word puzzle (the maximum allowed), but he executes on it so well. Look at the long fill: IDIOT PROOF and SEE IF I CARE. Great choices; colorful answers. The 7-letter ones are excellent too, DR SEUSS and INKBLOT. Even tossing in some MYSTIC PRIEST helps with zest.

And such little glue to hold it all together. I like that Sam has the self-awareness to point out some of the gluey bits he really wanted to work out, but I actually don't mind AVI. The one-named author (real name: Edward Irving Wortis) is a giant in kidlit, having won one Newbery Medal and two Newbery Honors. Agreed that ANSE is pretty esoteric, but he's more crossworthy than the lesser-known of the Kenan and KEL duo, isn't he? And I don't mind UAE and IGA at all, as they're commonplace acronyms. So I think Sam did a tremendous job in his short fill.

With all the gushing praise, why didn't I give this the POW? As much as I enjoyed the solve, I found it too easy, especially with the circles giving away the game. It also would have been nice to have the five circles appear a bit less haphazardly — probably too much to ask given the constraint of the theme — but I could have forgiven the circles if they had all been in a straight line. Plus, given how smooth Sam made this puzzle, I wanted to see him challenge himself to go with a 76- or 74-word puzzle and incorporate more long fill.

But those are minor details. I debated between today's vs. yesterday's puzzles for the POW. Looking forward to more from Sam.

Fri 10/30/2015
ITSMAGICFIATS
CATALONIAARLEN
BPICTURESMOLTO
MEREDUNSENTER
GAITERPHAT
CARGONOTASYET
ASHRAMSSTARTER
SPEEDYSHIITE
SETTEESBOATMEN
ROADRAGEREESE
BURGSTRATA
ASIANYETILATH
LUCRERASPBERRY
SAABSSTUPEFIED
ALLOTSPITTAKE

Few people can make ultra-smooth 66-word puzzles. PB does a great job of keeping these tough grids wide-open, with the entire puzzle having interconnectedness. It's rare that I get jammed up in a tiny corner of one of Patrick's puzzles.

TIPPI Hedren

I normally am not a fan of one-word long entries in themelesses, but that lower right corner works so well for me. RASPBERRY clued as [Bronx cheer] + the cool-sounding STUPIFIED + a great SPITTAKE = a wonderful corner. And as with most all of Patrick's puzzles, there's nary a gluey answer in sight. Some might consider TIPPI Hedren old-school, but as a frequent star of Hitchcock's pictures, I'd argue that she's very crossworthy.

But I would also argue that the inclusion of the outdated PHAT, kicking off the puzzle with ITS MAGIC as the theme to "The Doris Day Show," RATSO from the 1969 movie, REESE as Jackie Robinson's teammate, this puzzle had an old-timey feel that didn't resonate with me. Perhaps this was on purpose, to cater to the segment of the NYT's audience that skews older.

Speaking of ITS MAGIC, yikes, that make the upper left corner hard for me. It's well-filled, but the oddly non-specific clue for ICBM [Transoceanic flier, briefly] just felt mean, considering I had no idea what that ITS MAGIC song could be. Ultimately, I had to throw in the towel.

I should have been able to piece together CATALONIA, but B PICTURE … that seems to be the same thing as a B MOVIE, which to me is a much more colorful answer. Given that my Google search for B PICTURE turned up a bunch of hits for B MOVIE, I'm not sure the former is a great choice for one of the long slots in a themeless.

Loved the clue for ROAD RAGE — [Driving storms?] works so much better to me than his recent one: [Fits on a hard drive?]. Personal preference. It's such a shame that ROAD RAGE appeared so recently in another PB puzzle. (It's also such a shame that I have a long memory.)

A tough solve for me, with a bit of an old-timey feel and a northwest corner made extremely difficult through cluing.

Sat 10/31/2015
BERETFLAPJACKS
ALONEEASYASABC
SCALESWARMINTO
HADINSONETOON
EMTSREMAXWNYC
DIETSODASHESSE
INSNOUNFAR
NOTRUMPGENESET
ABSDRUGHUH
THUGSTIEDSCORE
VASEMOVESHOOK
IRAQAXONMITZI
DIGUPDIRTOLSON
OBEISANCEPLINK
LOSTATSEAESTES

Always a joy to see Peter's byline — his standards are so high, always striving to work in not just good long fill but great, colorful, entries that are both modern and understandable by a wide range of solvers. Today, he starts with a huge number of long (8+ letter) slots: 18 of them! On average, themeless constructors employ 12-14 slots and then have to work extraordinarily hard to make sure very few are wasted with just neutral, blah entries.

The notorious EL CAMINO

A good conversion rate today, with such goodness as THE KINKS, EASY AS ABC, FLAPJACKS, and the modern RAGE QUIT. Funny to think about gamers throwing their controllers across the room and storming off.

And there's a well-known ultimate Frisbee cheer based on EL CAMINO: the front is like a car, the back is like a truck, the front is where you drive, the back is where you ...

Huck. As in, launch the disc downfield. Was that not what you were thinking?

Although there are no real clunkers in the grid, Peter does let a few neutral entries slip in. I've noticed that more and more constructors are leaning on the "word + preposition" type entry to fill long slots, and those aren't as interesting to me. FESSED UP I really like, but SWARMS INTO isn't quite as zesty. Toss in BASHED IN — crossing INS — along with HAD IN, and I find that set of answers even less interesting.

Peter's grids are always so clean. SONE is an esoteric unit of measure, but what else? WNYC is fine for a NYT puzzle, and some might complain about a bridge reference in NO TRUMP, but this bridge lover gives it a big thumbs up. A couple of local elementary schools have started bridge programs, which teachers have reported to increase mathematical ability, logical reasoning, memory, partnership, and more.

Bridge is clearly the answer to our education crisis.

So a good number of assets today, but not an astounding number as I might expect from a Wentz themeless. Still, a clean puzzle and an entertaining solve.