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Puzzles for October, 2017
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (26)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (2)Hide comments

Not sure the best way of expressing this concept — mincing one's words? I've heard "it's not a problem, it's an opportunity" countless times in the business arena, so it was fun to get a [Layoff] termed as a CAREER SHIFT OPPORTUNITY. (Note to self: think about adding "crisitunity" to my word list.)

I think these are meant to be not as much humorous as wry, so not many of them entertained me. Guess I'm looking for something more upbeat in my crossword than an alternative way to say [Dead]. I ended up with an error in PAST RETIREMENT instead of POST-RETIREMENT, but both of them made me feel uncomfortable.

Unusual these days to get a wide puzzle — 22x21, to accommodate ECONOMICAL WITH THE TRUTH and CAREER SHIFT OPPORTUNITY. (Most editors are fairly well constrained to work with 21x21.) It could be argued that the max word count should be allowed to float higher than the usual 140, perhaps proportionally to 146 or 147. But Sundays are so big to begin with that I'd rather see it kept at 140, to make sure solvers don't lose interest, what with so many clues to wade through.

Robert went up to 148, which did allow him to get the fill perhaps a touch smoother than average Sundays. Yes, there are SEHR API EFS SIE STET EDT HADA PLUMR LIMN, but that's not too bad for a Sunday grid.

What it didn't allow for though, is much bonus fill, which is so important in keeping my attention if the theme isn't achieving that purpose. There's not a single 8+ letter piece of fill, and those long slots are so important, much easier to make into colorful entries than 7-letter or shorter slots. I did like AL DENTE, RAT RACE, MACHETE, CHEAPOS, but that wasn't nearly enough for me.

Overall, a good seed of an idea, but none of the themers tickled me.

Mon 10/2/2017

Tough concept to fully explain. The best I could come up with: think of a Venn diagram, "letters of the alphabet" in one circle, and "some other set" in another. Got it? The intersection is today's theme. A B C D F are LETTER GRADES, A B O are BLOOD TYPES, etc.

I liked that Trenton used all crossworthy phrases for his theme. It would be too easy to resort to dictionary-sounding entries like NOTES OF A MUSICAL SCALE, which wouldn't be acceptable as fill in a normal crossword. Cool finds too — MOVIE RATINGS is something I'd be happy to uncover in a themeless.

(CHEMICAL SYMBOLS isn't something I'd preferentially use as fill, but I can imagine other constructors thinking it's great.)

I also liked the execution. There isn't a ton of snazzy bonus fill, just SHOT TO HELL and FROST NIXON, but at least there's a little. More importantly for a Monday grid, the short fill is super smooth. HESS isn't going to be on the tips of everyone's tongues, but it is a major energy corporation, and all the crosses are easy enough.

As Trenton mentioned, it would have been great to get another pair of long downs somewhere — taking out the black square between ALONSO and BALI or between HANSEL and MEATS might have been easier than what he tried. These seem doable without compromising short fill quality, but I'd have to do some serious testing to be sure of that. (It'd mean moving some black squares around to find snappy entries that cross three or four fixed theme answers.)

I would have been more drawn to the concept if it had been easier to explain. "Letters of the alphabet that are contained within another set, although not quite the full set, i.e., AB is missing from BLOOD TYPES" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But I enjoyed the novelty of the idea, something rare for a Monday puzzle. I like it when a puzzle forces me to think.

Tue 10/3/2017

Not being into home improvement, it was a fun exercise to guess what could fill in "___ ISLAND." I guessed DESERT, MIDDLE, STANDING, even ISLAND, (really, Jeff? ISLAND ISLAND?) and more ridiculous things before using the crossing answers to get CENTER / ISLAND. Apparently, that's a thing! I've seen them before but never known their proper terminology.

The engineer in me liked Chuck's firm interpretation of the theme, with the islands be smack dab in the middle of theme phrases. Note that TIMOR has exactly the same number of letters before and after it, as do the others (highlighted below to better illustrate).

Chuck could have gotten away with finding islands at any old position — say, ELBA in PARALLEL BARS, but that wouldn't technically be a CENTER ISLAND, not being exactly centered.

The writer in me preferred the snazziness of PARALLEL BARS compared to the lesser snazz factor of BUSHEL BASKET, though. The latter does appear to be a real term, but it's not something I'd strive to use as fill.

FORMAL TALKS did a better job of playing to both the engineer and writer — it's a great phrase, and it contains that exactitude of center alignment. Great find, too. Not easy to come up with 5+ letter hidden word discoveries like this!

Both personas also enjoyed the black squares in the center of the grid — they (sort of) look like a CENTER ISLAND. The writer approved of the kooky shape, and the engineer appreciated how much surface area that island would give the cook. Functionality!

What with such awkward themer lengths — 11 / 12 / 6 / 6 / 12 /11 — not a surprise to need some crossword glue. It wasn't terrible, but with I AM SO, SNEE, MTNS, NATAL, etc., I'd be curious to see if going up to 78 words would have resulted in a better grid. As much as I enjoyed MESMER, I'd personally have revised, maybe by shifting the two black squares above MESMER to the left and adding a black square at MESMER's first E.

Overall, I would have liked more sparkle in both the themers, even if it meant less rigidity. Take that, engineer!

POW Wed 10/4/2017

★ Fun debut! At first, I thought it was a simpler concept I'd seen before — listing the very next word in the dictionary AFTER HOURS as the clue (perhaps "house arrest"?) — but Evan's idea is so much better. Not only does "house party" come shortly AFTER HOURS, alphabetically … it's also described by AFTER HOURS! "Flanked" comes UNDER(neath) FIRE in the dictionary … but it's also described by UNDER FIRE! Loved it.

I appreciated how solid all the themers were. BENEATH ME was the only somewhat iffy one (sorry, Evan!), feeling like a partial without "That's" or "It's" preceding it. Five out of six is excellent. (AROUND NOON is a tad arbitrary, but I've heard it plenty to describe lunch plans.)

Tough task to debut with six themers. Evan did a good job with his layout, placing AFTER HOURS above NEAR MINT, and keeping UNDER FIRE well away in another corner. It's a variant on the "windmill" pattern many constructors use with just four themers, and it usually makes for good spacing.

I was worried about execution when I quickly ran into OER, RAH, SDS, all at the top. And there was quite a bit of crossword glue scattered about — DER, EDY, GAI, IRR, MES, ORI — but at least there wasn't another section quite so dense with it as the north.

And Evan did give us some strong bonuses in BROWNIE MIX, SONIC YOUTH, LEONARDO, DARE I SAY. I'd personally have preferred a smoother grid with fewer snappy bonuses, especially because the theme already tickled me. But I think this trade-off is a reasonable one.

Overall, a great idea, taking a concept I'd already seen to another level. The theme, plus all the great bonuses, plus the fact that it was a debut, were enough for me to overlook the glut of crossword glue. POW!

Thu 10/5/2017

Four "uplifting remakes," movies with "average" modifiers upgraded into "outstanding." "Ordinary People" to SPECIAL PEOPLE, "The Kids are All Right" to THE KIDS ARE SUPER, etc.

Not sure why this runs on a Thursday. Will has said that all he's aiming for in a Thursday puzzle is ... something harder than a Wednesday. Sure, going down to 72 words made for a tougher solve. But there was no tricksiness to the theme, and it didn't provide me with much of an a-ha moment to warrant the extra work in solving clues made Thursday-tough.

I did enjoy the bizarre "Madly for ADLAI." (Not hard to see why he didn't get elected!)

I didn't enjoy all the crossword glue. For a four-theme puzzle, there shouldn't ever be more than four or five dabs. With ADLAI, AMEBA (variant spelling of AMOEBA), ATTN, ERNO, LTDS, POS, SHEB, etc., it felt unpolished. I can at least understand that if there's enough great fill to balance it out, but I CANT WAIT and MGM LION weren't enough for me to consider it a reasonable trade-off.

My guess is that Alan decided to make it a tougher solve by going down to 72 words, and Will thought this would help him fill out his Thursday slots, which tend to get fewer submissions than most other days of the week. Sometimes the realities of supply and demand are difficult.

I would have much preferred a clean 76- or 78-word grid with four great pieces of bonus fill, run on a Wednesday. Even though the theme didn't tickle me personally, at least I could have enjoyed the grid more that way.

Fri 10/6/2017

PB has been focusing on low word count themelesses over the past few years. A 64-word puzzle is notoriously difficult to execute on with both color and cleanliness, and I wonder if his work has suffered a tad by staying within this genre.

There were a lot of strong entries — METEOR SHOWERS / SOCIAL STUDIES made for a nice middle crossing pair — and CAT HAIR and RED APPLE are pretty good too. But there were so many entries that didn't do much for me. As a solver, I don't get much out of piecing together something foreign to me if there's too much of it.

It would have been fine — great, actually — if it had been one new person/thing, perhaps BARBARA JORDAN, for example. I loved learning about her! Leader in the Civil Rights Movement, so many firsts in politics, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, etc. I should have known about her, and I'm glad the puzzle prompted me to want to learn.

But then you toss in ROBERT ALTMAN. Okay, I should have known him, too. LEO FENDER? Huh. ACOMA … the historic pueblo? "Tony n' TINA'S Wedding," the off-Broadway play? MOREY Amsterdam? Coolidge's VP … DAWES?

I often hear from non-crossword people that they don't do crosswords because they're all about trivia. That's mostly incorrect, but I can see how a puzzle like today's might reinforce that idea.

It still mostly has the masterful PB touch — an average 64 worder might contain 5-10 dabs of crossword glue, whereas PB uses fewer — but it didn't give me the same elation as PB's themelesses from a few years back. I'd love to see him go back to higher word counts.

Sat 10/7/2017

Low 66 word-count offering from Byron, a toughie to fill, especially in those giant NW / SE corners. It's tricky enough to get both color and cleanliness in a triple-stack of long entries, but it's so much harder in a quad-stack. I thought the NW came out particularly well, HELLSCAPE / AXIOMATIC / IDA LUPINO / GARAGE SALES pretty darn good. EX DA felt arbitrary — what's next, EX TSA or EX ESQ? — but no other crossword glue required.

I didn't like the SE as much. If you're going to need REPORTAGE to make it work, I'd prefer to stick a black square maybe at the T of REPORTAGE, and squeeze more snazz out of the remaining three long slots. ADULATION is a fine entry, as is BEE SEASON, but they're not nearly as snappy as PSYCHODRAMA to me.

Going up to 68 words could have helped the puzzle in another way, by increasing flexibility to get rid of a couple of iffy mid-length answers. OSTERIA … hmm. It is in the dictionary, and it probably will be apparent to foodies or European travelers. ON THE UP … double hmm. Maybe that's more common to Brits, but this is the New York Times, not the London Times, by gum!

A constructor's tip: see that black plus sign in the middle of the grid? Makes it so much easier to construct a low word-count puzzle like this. There's something about the way the plus sign breaks up the middle that allows constructors to breathe more easily. It's kind of like how cheater squares help along the perimeter of a puzzle, but the visual effect isn't as noticeable as a pair of cheaters, at least to me. Trick of the trade.

Great clue for EPEEIST — not a touch-phobic person, but a swordsperson who loses points per enemy touch. Love the innocent-seeming misdirect; no telltale question mark needed.

And hand up for the KENNEDY ERA trap. Beautiful!

Overall, a pretty good low(ish) word count puzzle. A couple of great feature entries, very little crossword glue, and mostly fine fill otherwise. Would have been interesting to see if Byron could have caught by POW! by revising it into a 68-worder.

Sun 10/8/2017POWER BALLADS

SUPER GROUP played upon today, various bands/singers amusingly interpreted as a particular superhero's favorite. I'm a huge fan of the Flash, so I got a laugh out of imagining Barry Allen squeeing at a TAYLOR SWIFT concert. Of course, the Hulk would love GREEN DAY, and Thor would be a fanboy of MC HAMMER.

I'm a huge superhero nerd, so all the characters came to me quickly. (In a Flash, you might say … *rimshot*) I appreciated that Erik and Alex executed the concept in a way that even if you don't know superheroes well, the puzzle still might amuse you. They could have easily relied on fringe characters like Hawkman or Plastic Man or Zatanna, for instance.

The nerd inside of me cries for Zatanna's exclusion, but what are you gonna do.

And even if you're a person who likes neither superheroes (infidel!) nor music, the grid was still interesting and clean enough to allow for a pleasant solving experience, treating it as a giant themeless puzzle. COIN TOSS, ETYMOLOGY, GOING PLACES, SACRED COW, SAN FRAN, PREGGERS, MUD PIE, and my favorite, SON OF A …! Something so entertaining about phrases implying a swear word, like "Why you little …" and "What the …".

All of that without much crossword glue: minor ARAT, CARO, CEST, DEO, DOI, NEO, SEI, etc. Notice how careful Erik and Alex were to keep their glue limited to very short words of mostly three letters? That's a great way to minimize their potential for feeling inelegant. Almost every Sunday 140-word puzzle will need some crossword glue, but sticking to very short (3-4 letters) stuff is a good way to make it seem less consequential.

Loved Erik's voice coming through in ALLEGEDLY: [legally covering our butts here]. He's so great with his memorable cluing. (ADDED NOTE: I would have bet $1000 that it was Erik's clue ... good thing I don't bet very often! It was Will's.)

The only things I wasn't wild about were the 2x2 chunks of black squares in the SW and NE. It's a subjective assessment, but they look so heavy and unnecessary to me.

Fun connections between two disparate sets of interests, and excellent gridwork. Strong offering, especially considering it's Alex's debut.

Mon 10/9/2017

I wasn't sure what CALENDAR REFORM was, but interesting to read up on it. Sure covers a ton of possible changes to a calendar system!

Today, Joe gives us "impossible" time events that would require CALENDAR REFORM to make them happen. Ah, what I wouldn't give for EIGHT DAYS A WEEK … although I'd probably spend the eighth day goofing off and then wish for a ninth.

I wasn't as keen on LAST WEEK TONIGHT, as it's not the same type of time impossibility as EIGHT DAYS A WEEK. To me, it's simply describing that tonight, we'll go over what happened last week. Yeah?

It was also jarring to get WEEK repeated between two themers. I don't personally mind when a short word, like ONE or IT or UP is repeated in a grid, but to have a key component in the theme duplicated … hmm.

I hadn't heard of A MONTH OF SUNDAYS, but I enjoyed learning about it. Apparently, it means "a very long time," as in a long, boring stretch of days of rest? Heck, I'd take 30 straight days of rest, thank you very much!

Some nice bonuses worked in, WAGES WAR, REVERSI, NAIL GUN, Toni Morrison's incredible "BELOVED" all standouts. I appreciated all these extras, helping hold my attention through the solve.

The short fill … too much crossword glue for my taste. A Monday puzzle ought to be welcoming to novices, sucking them in. TMS for multiple trademarks isn't really used, and EDS, ELOI, AMIE, BLDG, ISO, NON, ETH. The one I object to most is ELOI, as the others are mostly figure-out-able by normal folks. ELOI is more a Maleskan-era throwback to where you could only do crosswords if you memorized these bizarro short answers.

I'd much rather have sacrificed a couple of the long bonuses in order to clean up the fill. Sorry ROD CAREW, but I think it would have been better to break you up into two answers. (I'm sure Twins / Angels fans will disagree!)

The theme reminded me of Mercury, whose day is longer than its year. Would have been awesome to work that into the theme somehow!

Tue 10/10/2017

I'm a chemistry wonk. Dunno why I loved chemistry so much in school. Or why I bombarded our chemists with so many curious questions at our pharma startup. (Some advice: don't bug people with easy access to strong acids and bases.) Cool to get some chemistry love today, the puzzle featuring the NOBLE GASes … each positioned at its proper atomic number! HELIUM at 2-Down, NEON at 10-Across, etc.

It would have been jump-out-of-my-seat-worthy if each had also been placed to the right of the grid, as the NOBLE GASes are in the periodic table (in light blue in the pic). The periodic table is all about proper organization, positioning elements in columns that make sense, ordering elements into families. So the chem nerd in me frowny-faced at the haphazard-feeling placements.

It's impossible to put HELIUM both at 2-Across (or 2-Down) AND put it on the right side of the grid. But a guy can wish.

It was also weird to omit radon. I can understand not giving oganesson any love — sorry Og, your atomic number of 118 is way too high — but radon at 86 might just have been possible.

Okay, it's mathematically impossible in a 15x15 grid, considering that the max number of words is usually 78. Harrumph. Fine! But the omission of radon feels so notable, like naming six of the seven dwarfs, and pretending Doc doesn't exist.

Laying out the five NOBLE GASes so that they sit at the proper numbers, plus the inclusion of NOBLE GAS and ELEMENT and ATNO = tough task. With so many themers fixed into place all over the grid, it's tough to avoid some REVE, MTN, ERGOT, STA, etc. crossword glue to hold everything together. Along with the oddball AGGRESS, the grid left me with an impression of inelegance. I'm not sure ATNO added much, and it's a piece of crossword glue in itself.

But taking a second look, I am impressed that Mark managed to get the NOBLE GAS / ELEMENT region pretty darn clean, especially considering KRYPTON and XENON are packed right in there.

Tough to balance so many constraints and demands. Audacious thinking, but it didn't all come together for this annoyingly OCD chem nerd.

Wed 10/11/2017

GUNFIGHT AT / THE OK CORRAL visually punned on, with four "okay" synonyms squaring off in the center(ish) of the puzzle. I always forget that JAKE can be used as in "everything's Jake" (okay) — probably should remember that since my son's name is Jake!

Was anyone else jarred by the slight off-centering of the "gunfight"? Of course, it's impossible to center a pattern of four-letter words like this in a 15x15 grid. Perhaps it would have been better to look for three-letter or five-letter synonyms (I couldn't find enough, rats!)? Or make the grid 16x16 or 14x14?

I have such OCD when it comes to crossword symmetry. So annoying!

Some nice bonuses in TOEHOLD, REUNIFY, MINNOWS, WILLOWY, MONIKER, BAOBAB. Nothing spectacular, but enough to help hold solvers' attention if they're not Jake with the punny theme.

Not as Jakey (is that a thing? it should be) were SNARLER and SALUTER. I could maybe let one slip by, but I think it's important to not draw attention to any one type of gluiness or oddballity in a single grid.

It is a tough set of themers to constructor around, no doubt. The four long themers are a piece of cake, especially when laid out in the "windmill" pattern. But when you add in the central gunfight square, each side is forced to work with one of the long themers. That's another story completely.

Especially tough when you have to work around a J — not a surprise that the east section came out the roughest, with SALUTER LUI ETE KOD. I think KO'D is probably fine, but it just looks so cringe-worthy inside a crossword grid.

Given how colorful the lore around THE OK CORRAL is, I would have loved something more than a bunch of okay themers squaring off with each other. Seems anticlimactic; like a duel using wet noodles. I did appreciate the impressive finds though, four solid "okay" synonyms that can be defined in misdirecting ways.

Thu 10/12/2017

Loved this idea, cluing all the across answers using a homophone of a real clue. My favorite was MOBILIZED … how could that mean [Mustard]? Ah, it meant [Mustered]! Clever.

[Instants] for CASE also gave me a nice a-ha moment. I hadn't cottoned to the trick, so I entered in a terminal S because of the plural clue. Got me! It's [Instance], singular. Perfect.

So, so, so tough to pull this off so that every single across answer is cluable in this manner. That means no partials, no proper names, no trivia, etc. Have to stick to all regular words and limit yourself to ones that might somehow be cluable to a single word that had a homophone. I can only imagine how many times Alex had to reboot. If just a single across entry didn't work ... yikes!

Although Alex did an amazing job of making most of them solid, enough jarred me that overall, I felt like I couldn't give this the POW! The biggest offenders were the ones that broke crossword conventions, like [Flour] for PEONY. Yes, a PEONY is a type of flower, but the clue would always be [Type of flower] or something to that effect. I struggled so much because that convention is in the very marrow of crosswords, and breaking it without explanation doesn't seem fair. Same with HAM = [Meet] = [Meat], RYES = [Lickers] = [Liquors].

Also odd to get [Re] as a clue. What is "Re" in real life? I can't imagine a normal clue looking like that — maybe [Re, e.g.] for "musical note." [Dun] also would be a weird clue in a normal crossword, as would [Missal].

And LANES doesn't quite equal [Rhodes] ("roads"). Too much of stretch for my taste.

Perhaps it would have been better if the one-word constraint had been lifted, replaced by "a homophone anywhere in the clue"? If even half of those awkward clues had been fixed to seem normal, I would have given this the POW! I admire Alex's big thinking.

Fri 10/13/2017

I often debate whether I should prioritize quality or quantity in my assessment of themelesses. I remember when I first broke into solving Fridays, I was delighted to uncover SAY THE MAGIC WORD — it was such an amazing entry, so snazzy, something a huge chunk of solvers would recognize. Didn't even matter to me what the rest of the puzzle was like. These days, I tend to do a straight-up count of how many above-average entries there are.

No entry of SAY THE MAGIC WORD's caliber today, but a couple of solid feature answers in WENT BERSERK, OPERA HOUSES. Those are ones I'd personally consider as seeds for a themeless.

I felt like there wasn't enough in the grid besides those. DIGITAL DATA is a thing, no doubt, but the difference between analog data and DIGITAL DATA isn't that interesting, even to this data junkie. I've seen a few episodes of AMERICAN DAD, but it didn't stick with me like "The Simpsons" or "King of the Hill" or "Family Guy." And I follow the stock market (although I'm 95% an asset allocation / passive index fund guy), but MARKETWATCH wasn't that interesting to me.

So many short answers, too. Some shorties are necessary to hold most grids together, but with only eight long answers (of 8+ letters) and six mid-lengthers (of 7 letters), there's little capacity to snazzify the grid. It's so difficult to make those shorter answers sing. BAR TAB is nice, SCARAB good, but so much of the short stuff tends to be of the LOWS, SWAB, OYL, NIGHT neutral quality. Overall, it's fine — especially considering there's virtually no crossword glue, except for RIS — but not much of it added to my solving experience.

Now, there were a few standout clues that helped make some of that short stuff sing — [Opposite of downs] was a great misdirect toward "nadirs," instead of "gulps, as a drink". AD HOC similarly, the clue [Not standing, in a way] befuddling, until I realized that an AD HOC committee is the opposite of a standing one. Great stuff.

But all in all, I would have liked either one or two sizzling standout entries to make the puzzle memorable, or a whole lot more long answers to give the puzzle more meat.

Sat 10/14/2017

Nice work from Sam today. He starts with typical triple-stacks in the NW / SE, but I like how he sort of stacks a fourth long answer in NAME BRANDS on the top and PINA COLADA on the bottom. Offsetting a fourth long answer like this makes the stack much easier to build around (compared to putting four long answers atop each other), but it gives a similar feeling of jam-packed goodness. LEFT BRAIN / UGLY BETTY / TRAP QUEEN / NAME BRANDS = huge impact!

Well, huge impact for Fetty Wap fans. But even for us music idiots, at least TRAP and QUEEN are recognizable words, if not a recognizable song.

Also loved the featured SUMO MATCH and LOGARITHM in the other corners. I imagine there isn't that much overlap between Fetty Wap fans, Yokozuna enthusiasts, and math dorks, so it's nice to get something for everyone. Great to get those fantastic entries spread around the grid, giving an overall feel of being chock full of goodies.

TYRA BANKS and her term, "smizing" ... so impressive that she made it big in the modeling business, then parlayed that into business moguldom, and now a new word that actually feels interesting? Standing O for her!

A couple of blips in the short fill, A TEST the most notable. I feel like A BOMB or H BOMB is in the language, but A TEST (with all its constructor-friendly letters) … REUNES is a similar story. It is in the dictionary, but I'd feel silly saying I'm reuning with my MBA class this Friday (15th-year reune!).

XWORD I don't mind, although it felt a bit too insider-y. But mixing it up with the old NYNEX and BWAY = hmm. Maybe if these shortenings had been spread out, this trio wouldn't have jumped out as me so much.

Overall, enough great material to keep me satisfied.

POW Sun 10/15/2017WISE MOVE

★ WISE MOVEs indeed, two-word phrases where the Y sound is moved from the end of the first word to the end of the second. Some great results, doggy treats to DOG TREATIES my favorite. Such an amusing visual of dogs sitting around discussing settlement terms (maybe while playing poker?). Gravy train to GRAVE TRAINEES also worked well for me, as 1.) the base phrase is great, and 2.) cemetery interns, now that's something I'd write a book about! Great stuff.

Most of the others worked decently well, too. County fair to COUNT FAIRIES gave me a fun visual of census takers doing their darndest to get an accurate count while all the fairies flit about. Smartypants to SMART PANTIES made me laugh, too — not exactly sure what data a pair of SMART PANTIES collects. Probably don't want to know.

The only one that I was plus minus on was GROCER STORIES, which seemed duller than the others. A little too close to the base phrase of "grocery stores." YMMV.

Mostly strong work in the grid. Loved CHEEZ IT, EASY NOW, EVEN STEVEN, MAIN MAN, MEDIA STORM, NOSE JOB, OLD SALT, POWER NAP, SOUR MASH, and more. It's rare to get this much bonus material in a Sunday grid — four-ish bonuses is passable for me, so this is well above and beyond. Even if the theme didn't amuse solvers, all these great bonuses provide entertainment.

Not that many blips in the short fill, too — ETTES, IN AS, SDS, etc. is overlookable. Didn't bug me as I went.

The only sticking point for me: the oddballs in NEEDER and TUYERES. That first one is hard to imagine ever using in real life. The second … this mechanical engineer didn't recognize the term. It is a real thing, but it's not the type of mid-length word I'd strive to debut in the NYT crossword. Thankfully, John and Mike made the crossings fair. And I did like learning what a TUYERE is.

I liked this twist on the standard "sound change" type of theme. Done consistently, with a bunch of nice bonuses, and the grid mostly executed well. A nice example of a Sunday that can cater well to a wide audience.

Mon 10/16/2017

I enjoy seeing how different constructors approach a similar idea, appreciating how the same seed of an idea sprouts into two different grids. I did this same concept for CrosSynergy back in 2015. It wasn't a surprise to me that Jennifer used mostly the same themers — I remember the search space not being very big, and only a select few phrases being snazzy, like LIQUOR CABINET.

I liked Jennifer's revealer, KILLER WHALE, better than my oblique one (a POD of orcas). I used POD because I wanted to prioritize smooth and colorful fill rather than pack in too many themers, at the risk of straining the grid. But KILLER WHALE is a more direct revealer, making the concept very apparent, a good thing in general for newer Monday solvers.

Jennifer packed in a whole lot more themers than me, and still managed to make the grid colorful. MS DEGREE, CODEWORDS, RACETRACK crossing DERBY — that's a lot of great bonuses, especially considering that it's hard to work in ANY bonuses when you have six themers to work around.

She did have to pay some prices, though. The top of the grid was so smooth, but then I hit NGO (non-governmental organization). I've wondered if educated solvers should be expected to know this? And then the bottom of the grid suffered more, with ALEE, AGUE, and BIER.

These weren't surprising to me — look how many answers have to work through that white space between LIQUOR CABINET and KILLER WHALE, after all. But BIER or AGUE alone might be a turn-off for some newer solvers, reinforcing the idea that you need to know weird trivia to do crosswords.

All in all, I liked Jennifer's execution. I think I would have given it the POW! if those pesky gluey bits had been cleaned up, even if that came at the price of one of the themers, or some of the juicy bonus entries. I know I'm awfully tough on Monday crosswords, but it's so important for them to be welcoming to newer solvers.

Tue 10/17/2017

Locking CON MEN and MARK ANTONY into place made for some teeth-gnashing. After my first pass, I ended up with CON MEN crossing ... NEOCON. Is that a dupe? Not really, since one CON stands for CONFIDENCE and the other CONSERVATIVE, two words with different etymologies.

But every time I tried to convince myself that it was perfectly fine, it bothered me mightily. Maybe having something that looks like a DUPE is appropriate for this puzzle (groan), but I just couldn't live with it. There went another few hours, into the garbage.

Apologies to anyone whose sensibilities were offended by PORKY'S, but talk about a cult classic. It's hard to believe they got away with naming a character "Beulah Balbricker."

I had fun working on the lower right, trying over and over to maximize my impact with those long slots. I'm a fan of Latin phrases, physics, and throwbacks to the 80s, so QUO VADIS, BETA RAY, UNDEROOS made me happy. Talk about a disparate trio of terms.

I also spent a ridiculous amount of time debating the middle section. I was in finance for years, so I've always found the term I BANKER (investment banker) colorful. (Not always ethical, but colorful.) Was it worth ORANG? I've heard people say ORANG before and I'm fine with it, but I realize it's not everyone's cup of tea. I could have gone with something like STINKER instead, but really, isn't an I BANKER the same thing? (*rim shot*)

ADDED NOTE: Jim didn't know what an I BANKER was, and had a hard time convincing himself that it could possibly be correct. Maybe I've spent too much time in finance ... dang it, maybe I should have gone with STINKER!

Wed 10/18/2017

Celeb puzzle! I've been a huge fan of Lithgow since his "3rd Rock from the Sun" days. Fun to get a puzzle that plays on his profession — acting terms redefined in kooky ways. CURTAIN CALL as a drapes-buying decision, CAST PARTY using the "person" definition of "party," etc. And so much acting-related filler material!

I wasn't familiar with SUMMER STOCK. Apparently it's a generic term for any theater production that only happens in the summer? We have a local company that does "Shakespeare improv" in a nearby park — I keep meaning to check it out.

I enjoyed some of the fill in the grid, particularly the long bonuses of SPITTAKE (I seem to remember a lot of SPITTAKEs on "3rd Rock"!), CATFISH, PINE NUTS, even the DOLPHINS with their perfect season, including a Superbowl victory. (Take that, 2007-2008 Patriots!)

I did feel like the grid contained a lot of crossword glue, though. Starting with some ATRAS, ETA, AAR wasn't bad. Toss in some STLO, SECCO, I DON'T, and the crosswordy ERNES, though, and it felt like A HEAP of stuff. (Not sure why A TAD feels fine to me but A HEAP doesn't …)

And then there was the KEYES / KATISHA crossing. Yikes! Perhaps educated solvers should be expected to know Daniel KEYES ... I buy that. And I appreciate that a reference to "The Mikado" fits right in with this celeb collab. But wow, is that a tough name for us laypeople. Rough crossing, tough to get correct.

As with most crosswords, it's a game of trade-offs. Four themers are easy to work with, but it's not at all simple to work a bunch of great bonuses into the fill. Then when you strive to put in more quasi-thematic material (references to theater in this case), it strains the grid mightily. Overall, I would have preferred a smoother end product with fewer bonuses, but I can understand the trade-off here, given the nature of this celeb puzzle.

I like these types of "redefinitional" puzzles. The Isaac Mizrahi one worked better for me, since some of today's themers didn't quite jibe — hard to imagine anyone describing a stage departing by saying the stilted "STAGE LEFT." And a fly fisherman might be a CASTing party, but not really a CAST PARTY.

But overall, so much fun to see one of my favorite actors make his crossword debut, with a profession-specific concept. Love BEQ's description of John tackling this project ... if "method cruciverbalism" isn't a thing, it really should be!

Thu 10/19/2017

Three literal HEADs OVER HEELS. Fun finds, NUMERO UNO, BIG WHEEL, TOP BANANA all snazzy synonyms for HEAD, and SCOUNDREL, DIRTY RAT, and NOGOODNIK juicy equivalents for HEEL. I'd happily use any of those six as fill in another crossword!

It's a shame the NYT hasn't caught the Wall Street Journal's meta contest madness. This would have made for a nice one: "What phrase is hinted at three times within this puzzle?" As much as I liked HEAD OVER HEELS in the center of the puzzle, it did make for a very easy Thursday solve. Would have been a neat a-ha moment, staring at the grid, wondering, wondering, wondering ... and then finally, ba-bam! HEAD OVER HEELS! Love those great moments of discovery.

Seven long themers? In one 15x15 puzzle? Man oh man, that's usually asking for serious trouble. And stacked pairs of answers as well? Along with three themers slammed up against each other in the center? Zoinks! I'd usually not even consider trying something like this.

Not a surprise to get so much crossword glue needed to hold everything together. I stopped keeping track after EUR, DIR, OLA, MTNS, STA, but then couldn't stop my OCD constructor's brain from pointing out OTYPE ("type O," yeah?), ETAT, IND, TOD, TSR, aaugh, stop it, you stupid brain and just enjoy the puzzle!

Luckily, that same annoying brain pointed out the fact that the slew of crossword glue was almost a necessary result if seven themers were to be used. And for the most part, I thought it was a reasonable trade-off, considering the fun pairs along with the revealer. The only part I didn't like much was that BIG WHEEL wasn't over DIRTY RAT like the others. But you'd need an off-size grid (maybe 16x15) to put that pair in the center (and you'd have to move HEAD OVER HEELS somewhere else — another reason to make it a meta puzzle!).

Overall, I thought it was a neat concept, even with the necessary flaws. I would have given it POW! consideration if it had been cleaner — maybe two pairs of longer answers and two pairs of shorter ones? — or if I'd had to work for my Thursday a-ha moment more.

ADDED NOTE: Astute reader Brian Greer pointed out that BIG WHEEL is over HEEL, and HEAD is over DIRTY RAT. Nice catch! It doesn't follow the same pattern of the other pairs, but it's pretty cool.

POW Fri 10/20/2017

★ A few years ago, the movie "V For Vendetta" wowed me. Love it when you go in expecting very little and come out amazed. I was vaguely familiar with GUY FAWKES MASK beforehand, but now I think about it all the time. Must be the times we live in …

Enough of being a downer! Great themeless, with feature entries everywhere. BADA BING starts it off with a bang — a great expression, plus the name of Tony Soprano's hangout in "The Sopranos." EPISODE I was such a terrible movie that the entry was almost depressing for me to see (*shaking fist at George Lucas*), but BODY SURF and ARMS DEAL helped redeem that top corner.

(Something amusing about DIMWIT running through EPISODE I … where's the Jar Jar Binks emoji when you need it?)

Not being much of a TV watcher these days, HODA KOTB didn't come easily. But I do think she's more than crossworthy. And that bizarre -OTB ending makes for such an interesting grid entry!

USB PORT and GRAY AREA + BB SHOT and ODDS ARE … = excellent entries everywhere.

And Peter is so good about his craftsmanship, not willing to use any crossword glue if at all possible. I sailed through, coming away with a feeling of elegance in design.

The one hesitation I had before giving this the POW! was FAIR SEX. It's an outdated term and made me wince a bit. I appreciate the attempt at making fun of itself with the [Dated women?] clue, hinting at the old-timey, fustiness of the term. But I'd prefer to leave out of the grid completely.

All in all though, a highly entertaining solving experience. It's so tough to achieve both perfect cleanliness in short fill plus a ton (10+) of long, strong entries, but Peter hit both marks.

Sat 10/21/2017

I haven't enjoyed a debut entry as much as COSMIC JOKE in ages. Not only is it a beautiful, existentialist, Vonnegutesque term, but I struggled so mightily with the -MICJ- string in the middle. It had to be wrong. Had to, had to, had to! What a joy to finally piece it together, sitting back and admiring the awesome entry.

HOSTESS TWINKIES and HOT PEPPER EMOJIS made for delicious feature entries. I know the former is bad for me. But gosh darn it, they're so satisfying. Especially when deep-fried. Twice. The latter wasn't entirely familiar to me, as I'm still not much of an emoji user. Aren't there a million emojis these days? Doesn't it seem arbitrary to choose these specific ones to feature? There's probably some hilarious special meaning to HOT PEPPER EMOJIS (that all the kids are giggling at me for not knowing).

Along with some MC ESCHER, SEA SNAKE, TINKERER, GREENLIT, there were enough strong entries to keep me happy.

Brad's Saturday Stumpers and themelesses in general are some of my most favorite and most feared puzzles. (That's how I'll define "Wilberian" from now on.) He has such a wealth of information, being a librarian and all, that I always pick up something new from his puzzles. He's usually good about not introducing too much, making sure that all the learning doesn't turn off solvers.

Today, it was STANHOPE. I enjoyed reading up on it, basically an old-school term for a horse-drawn carriage, named after an old English dude. I'll tuck this term away for trivia nights. STANHOPE being the sole new term for me, the puzzle didn't come across as teachy.

COACH K might be tough for some, but the longtime Duke bball coach (you might go by COACH K too if your last name was Krzyzewski) is no doubt crossworthy. Five NCAA championships!

I enjoyed COSMIC JOKE so much that I thought about handing out the POW! based on that alone. But with some wastage in MAIN GATE, SYSTOLES, RECAST, IMARETS — all fine entries, but all paling in comparison to COSMIC JOKE — and a bit of CEE, TO BED, NAES, it didn't quite make it.

Kind of a COSMIC JOKE that COSMIC JOKE made everything else seem less interesting in comparison!

Sun 10/22/2017SELFIES

SELFIES featured today, tourist attractions all with the M-E string — get it, ME in a selfie? Fun idea. Some neat finds, too, the JEFFERSON MEMORIAL, MADAME TUSSAUDS, TIMES SQUARE all places people go to visit.

BTW, I cringe every time I hear people say "usie," as in a selfie with more than one person. Old man hanging on to the past, kicking and screaming at newfangled terms!

What with so many tourist attractions across the world, I wondered about some of the ones Tracy picked. People go on vacation to see the MALL OF AMERICA? (Sadly, probably yes.) MET LIFE STADIUM I hear is a neat ballpark, but it felt like it paled in comparison to the grandeur or historical value of the three I mentioned above.

RIVER THAMES felt not as strong, too. Don't people tend to take pictures in front of various tourist attractions, with the Thames in the background? Hard for me to imagine going to England specifically to see the Thames.

The theme clues … tl;dr. The puzzle would have been greatly improved by more concise cluing. References to Facebook felt unnecessary. Also, all the kids tell me Facebook is only for old people now, so that made the puzzle feel behind the times. (They won't tell me what is in, for fear that I'll get on.)

Nice gridwork. Tough to get a Sunday grid perfectly clean, but Tracy got pretty darn close, just a bit of SEM and ORANT (a praying figure). That may not seem like such a feat, but most Sunday grids contain well over 10 gluey bits, making those puzzles feel inelegantly crafted.

And how about those great bonuses? OVEN TIMER as a "dingy" thing … as in it dings! RAT TRAP as a [Bad joint], joint = slang for "place." RED TAPE, CAPTCHA, TETRIS, ALARM BELL, LEFT AJAR — all those helped keep me solving. Tracy did so well with spacing out her themers, using black squares wisely to create good separation for easier filling. She's a pro.

Overall, I thought it was a fun idea that got repetitive much too quickly. Also, the mix of places, statues, river, mall, gave it a lack of tightness that "all places" or "all statues" would have allowed for. I think I would have loved it in a 15x15 puzzle, where all these issues could have been addressed.

Mon 10/23/2017

Fun with parsing, words ending in -AGE split as if they were a historical age. Some neat finds, SHRINK AGE as a time when psychiatrists ruled, that's good stuff! PILL AGE as a time when sweaters pilled up also amused — dramatic transformation from PILLAGE to PILL AGE. Same with BONDAGE to a time when James BOND ruled!

I wasn't as hot on the ones that were more similar to their base phrases. WRECKAGE and WRECK AGE both relate to wrecks. COVER AGE was a little better, clued to cover bands, but "cover" still has similar meanings in both the base phrase and the resulting one.

The relatively short theme phrases allowed Tim to go crazy with great long fill. Love DUCK BLIND, TEEN IDOL, LAWMAKER, SAFE SPACE, ZIGGURAT! Okay, that last one might be tough for novice solvers, but it's something educated solvers ought to at least recognize. (I admit, I thought it was a type of popsicle.)

Especially well done in the NW / SE corners, what with two long down answers next to each other. Rarely easy to fill around something like DUCK BLIND / BEHEADED 100% cleanly, but Tim got close. That clean of a result often requires countless iterations, trying pair after pair after pair of entries until you land on two giving friendly letter combinations.

I wasn't sure if PIE SHOP was a thing — do some bakeries focus only on pies? Apparently, the answer is yes! Man oh man oh man, this is the type of thing I like learning from my crossword.

A couple of MOUE LAMS blips, but overall, a fun, well-constructed puzzle. If more of the themers had delighted me along the lines of BOND AGE or SHRINK AGE, it would have been a strong POW! contender.

POW Tue 10/24/2017

★ I'm a sucker for math and physics puzzles done well, and this one was right on my wavelength. I've seen this concept before — POINT, LINE, PLANE, SPACE forming a sequence, but it still eluded me during my solve, giving me a solid a-ha moment. Great job of picking theme phrases that were both snazzy and helped obfuscate the concept — PICKUP LINE and SNAKES ON A PLANE were such fun entries, plus they both hid the math meaning of LINE and PLANE. And what a perfect revealer in ANOTHER DIMENSION!

Damon went wide, with a 16x15 grid, to accommodate the revealer. Wide grids can get tricky, as you don't want to risk losing solvers' attention with the bigger, potentially sloggier grid, so it's even more important than usual to incorporate strong, colorful entries.

Damon started off well, with THAT'S NOT THE POINT a great theme phrase, not often seen in crosswords due to its 16-letter length. Then he tossed in some WIND POWER, PAPAL BULL, IP ADDRESS, even AKRON OHIO as LBJ's birthplace. That's a lot of great material to enjoy, even for (you poor pitiable) non-math types.

A couple of compromises to make it all work, in the form of IRR, STET, OONA, ERE, AERO. Given how much I enjoyed the theme and the bonus fill, I didn't mind all that … with the exception of AERO. Usually AERO wouldn't bother me much, but crossing it with LOG ON, where AERI / LOG IN work (almost) as well = no bueno! I hate finishing a crossword with an error if it feels like the error wasn't 100% my fault. Such a feeling of dissatisfaction.

But overall, solid math theme + juicy themers + a lot of bonus fill + not much crossword glue = one delighted solver.

Wed 10/25/2017

Such a horrible time, back in 2008 during the financial crisis. I only vaguely remember the BREAK UP THE BANKS movement, but I do recall thinking how pointless it was — finance people always tend to find ways around whatever new regulation is introduced. Sigh.

Anyhoo, Jules "breaks up" four banks today across words in phrases: RIVER bank across DRIVE RECKLESSLY, SNOW bank across ITS NO WONDER, etc. Amusing that DATA bank got split across SOLD AT A LOSS, a stock-related phrase all too common during 2008.

Well, amusing if you didn't sell at a loss back then.

DRIVE RECKLESSLY didn't feel as in-the-language as "reckless driving." And GIVES PERMISSION … it works, but it's a little dull, not something I'd strive to work into another puzzle.

Jules had to work with high theme density, difficult to fill around themers of length 15 / 11 / 15 / 11 / 15. ITS NO WONDER there was some AGA, KAN, SST, ILIA kind of crossword glue necessary to hold everything together, but that's less than I was expecting. Solid gridwork, especially considering he went out of his way to incorporate CRIME WAVE (nice dig at the finance people behind CDOs!) and FIRE DANCE, some great bonuses.

Overall, I enjoyed the puzzle despite BREAK UP THE BANKS being only vaguely familiar to this finance wonk — granted, I try to ignore politics these days — and it hearkens back to a dark time in recent history.

Maybe still a little too soon, Jules and Will …

Thu 10/26/2017

MT EREBUS parsed as MTE REBUS, giving a nice rationale for why M T E are squished into a square. I've long wondered why we use the term "rebus" to describe "multiple letters jammed into a square" — I'm used to "rebus" describing a picture — but it's just one of those insidery crossword things.

I knew what MT EREBUS was! Honest! What, you don't believe me? I must insist that I … okay, fine. Never heard of it. Glad to learn what it was — southernmost active volcano, that's a cool fact — but boy, was it hard to parse a weird MTEREBUS string when EREBUS sounded so unfamiliar.

Some great theme phrases, FORT SUMTER, FARM TEAM, WISDOM TEETH, ASSAM TEA, WILLIAM TELL, TIM TEBOW all beautiful. I would have liked one more pair of themers like this — just three rebus squares felt a bit miserly — but where would you stick another? I suppose Jacob could have made the revealer (MTE)REBUS with another MTE square, but that would have been plain old mean!

Generally clean gridwork, just some minor CTA, RAHS, RRS type stuff. Not easy to do when you have to work around crossing pairs of themers. But I did feel that the grid was choked-off, with so many narrow passageways. Would have been great to get more of an open feel to the puzzle, with a couple more pieces of bonus long fill. Perhaps by taking out the black square between FDA and FORE, or GMC and ASP?

This would no doubt have introduced some more crossword glue into the fill, but oddly enough, that might have made for a more pleasurable solving experience in places. For instance, I got horribly stuck in the north section, unable to determine what [Anterior] could be. Short answers like FORE and FRAT can be tough to clue in challenging ways, so in Thursday puzzles, they often end up being frustratingly and opaquely difficult, without much of an a-ha moment to reward all your head-banging. (Didn't help that I held onto WRAP party for the longest time; sigh.)

Clever concept to parse MT EREBUS into MTE REBUS. I wonder if it'll be too crossword-insidery for some solvers, though.

Fri 10/27/2017

David started with the typical "four stacks of longish answers, one in each corner" themeless style, but gave himself an added layer of difficulty. Extending an entry in each of two corners — LINKED IN PROFILE and GET AN A FOR EFFORT — forces the four corner stacks to play nice with each other much more than usual. Tough to make a grid work with so much interconnect!

Speaking of work and interconnect, part of me wondered if LinkedIn is here to stay, or if it'll go the way of Friendster. But it seems entrenched ... enough for now, I guess. I think both feature entries work, but I liked GET AN A FOR EFFORT much better. Maybe because I haven't logged into LinkedIn for several months now?

A themeless with this added level of construction difficulty often requires serious trade-offs — either a lack of snazzy answers or a glut of crossword glue. But David was able to integrate a ton of goodies, PALM READER / EVIL EMPIRE, EMOTICON with a great clue about having its head turned, DIRTY TRICK, IT WAS A JOKE, DIARY ENTRY, EPIC FAIL. All with just a bit of minor SGT, EDT glue. Excellent craftsmanship!

Coming from a pharma background, I thought I'd be able to fill in the [Sex drive enhancer …] with just a letter or two. Had to be SILDENAFIL or TADALAFIL! Nope, it was … PINK VIAGRA? That vaguely rang a bell, but I had to look up what it was — ah yes, the drug marketed to women.

As much as I like colorful (pun intended) phrases in themelesses, this one turned me off. Big Pharma marketing can be so evil, pushing people to buy drugs they don't need. There's something so conniving and weird about making this a pink pill. Hard to figure out exactly why, but reading up on PINK VIAGRA left a bad taste in my mouth.

Overall, the grid was well-crafted, strong enough to be POW! quality. But so much of a themeless's impact is personal. PINK VIAGRA just wasn't much fun for me to uncover, nor was LINKEDIN PROFILE. To each their own.

Although, PINK VIAGRA under EVIL EMPIRE is a pretty funny pairing …

Sat 10/28/2017

Whoa! Incredible visual first impression, those gigantic 9x5 chunks of white space in each corner. It's so tough to break into these types of immense swaths — perfect for a Saturday challenge.

I tried constructing something like this a few years ago ... and vowed never to do it again. It's just too hard to fill these types of huge regions with both colorful entries and a lack of crossword glue. Today, I girded myself up for that kind of suboptimal solving experience and ended up being pleasantly surprised.

The SW corner was particularly nice, given the ridiculous difficulty factor. To work in SPARE TIME, TAPE LINES, APPLE TART, with just some RELET, ELEVE, MERCS, ESTES is excellent for this themeless style. (Compare to some of the other low word-count puzzles to get a sense for the usual glut of gluey bits they usually contain.) And even though RELEVANCE and TRITENESS didn't add much to my solve, they didn't take away from it, either.

The other corners weren't bad, just not as good as the SW. The NE had less crossword glue, just AMO and the terrible ABEAM, but not a lot of snazz, either. CAT BALLOU is the only one of five long entries that sings … and that's if you know movies!

The NW is a great example of the other end of the spectrum — so much excellent material in SEAFARERS, GO IT ALONE, EXCELSIOR!, even URBAN AREA … but at the price of the globby AFATE, ARILS, ERENOW.

The SE was similar. Loved PORT WINES, LOSE A STEP, OVEN READY, TENT DRESS — great stack! Needing the rough, rough SWARD and ANTAE though … oof.

I do like a themeless of this style every once in a while — makes for a huge challenge, and a huge sigh of relief after finishing. Like doing your 20-mile run in preparation for a marathon.

Sun 10/29/2017GOING OFF SCRIPT

Ross showed me this concept a few months ago. I liked the general idea, but some themers felt much stronger than others. CRUISE LINE was perfect, as "cruise line" is a real thing, plus Tom Cruise has so many iconic lines! LEDGER LINE wasn't quite as good — "ledger line" felt like something only us finance dorks would know off the bat — but it still worked.

Turns out I was wrong about LEDGER LINEs! They're not related to bank ledgers, but musical scores. Huh. So much for my 20+ years of playing in orchestras ...

LANE LINE … that didn't seem like a real phrase to me. And FORD LINE is a thing, no doubt, but it felt so arbitrary, opening up crosswords to things like HP PRINTERS or EDDIE BAUER SOCKS or whatever. I wouldn't use either of these LINEs in a regular crossword.

FORD LINE at least lends itself to all sorts of possibilities, as Harrison Ford gets quoted so often. LANE LINE … granted, I haven't seen "The Lion King" in its entirety, but it took a long time to figure out who LANE was (Nathan Lane), and what character sang HAKUNA MATATA (… Timon? The meerkat?). So that one felt the weakest to me.

I've been impressed with Ross' work ethic, going at his grids with a fine pencil and a lot of erasing — literally! I always get a smile when people see what a huge help it is to jump from manual construction to computer-assisted. Akin to jumping from a legal pad to Microsoft Word. You still need to do the nut and bolts work, but technology simplifies things greatly.

Nice result, very little crossword glue in the form of ELHI, ALPES, ACS, BANC, ECOLE, ONEAS, etc. No major sticking points there. And to work in such great fill as ALAKAZAM, GRE SCORE, ROYAL WE, THE CURE, FATHER TIME, AMEX CARD — wow! Even if the theme didn't catch your attention, there's more than enough snazzy bonus fill to entertain.

Ross did use more cheater squares than I like to see — the black squares in the very NW / SE corners, the pyramids on the west / east, the little L blocks everywhere. Makes the grid feel inelegant, needing so many extra black squares (16!) to nibble away at the white space to be filled. But I'd much rather constructors err on the side of using too many cheaters, especially since so many tend to end up with Sunday grids splotched everywhere with ugly crossword glue.

Nice idea, wish all four theme pairs worked as strongly as CRUISE LINE / SHOW ME THE MONEY.

Mon 10/30/2017

Happy Halloween! Er, day before Halloween. All Hallow's Eve eve? Anyhoo, phrases repurposed for a witchy good time, SPELL CHECK a witch's tech tool, CHARM SCHOOL where witches go to study charms (under (HARRY POTTER NERD ALERT!) Professor Flitwick of course), etc. Amusing stuff.

Man oh man did I dig Witch Hazel from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Not sure what that says about me ...

Seems like this would have worked better tomorrow. Not only would it have been the actual eve, not the eve eve, but there's a good amount of tough vocab in the grid. I think it's all fair — CAPONS (chickens for good eatin'), SACCO (and Vanzetti), the INCUS ear bone, and Max SCHELL — but that's a lot of potentially head-scratching material for a newb solver.

Given the early-week nature of the theme, I would have preferred only one or two of them in the grid. Even if it had run on a Tuesday, experiencing all four entries could make for an unsatisfying solving experience.

Some fun Halloweeny touches in the grid, a bit of EERIE, "The Ghost and Mrs. MUIR," HAGS, EVIL. I usually don't like when the fill potentially muddies up what is theme and what is not, but these are all such shorties that they more provided additional black and orange color.

Some OBE, PARA, REL, nothing major. Well, OBE could be very rough on newer solvers — tough to keep the Order of the British Empire straight from the other British medals. This is an American crossword, by gum!

Overall, I would have liked a little more kookiness out of the themers, as I had heard some of these before. Perhaps if I weren't such an HP nerd, able to rattle off at least ten charms Hermione Granger can do …

Tue 10/31/2017

Great catch, the 500th anniversary of MARTIN / LUTHER's posting of the "Ninety-Five Theses." Such a transformational point in history deserves commemoration. We get a listing of the PROTESTANT REFORMATION, ALL SAINTS CHURCH, where the theses were nailed onto the DOOR, and the banning of INDULGENCES.

That last one always amused me, INDULGENCES sort of a way to buy your place in heaven. I always imagine priests rubbing their hands together in a cigar smoke-filled back room, cackling about how much money they would make.

*ducking the oncoming lightning strike*

Clean grid, an achievement considering the high theme density. The NW and SE corners are especially difficult — when you have two theme answers running through an open space like this, the filling result is usually no bueno. Super tough to find a word that can fit in between MARTIN and PROTESTANT while making every one of the down crossings smooth. But Alex did it! Not a gluey bit up there.

The SE did suffer a little, what with NHU, but if that's your only gluey bit, it's a win. Some might even argue that Madame NHU of Vietnam should be fair game, as she was an important figure in politics.

A couple of great bonuses, too, in PASS RUSHER, PUGET SOUND, WINERIES, NOSE DIVE. Alex spread these out nicely to give himself a lot of filling flexibility while steering clear of the already crowded NW / SE. Beautifully done.

Tribute puzzles often fall flat, sort of like reading a Wikipedia page. (Which I didn't have to do to know what the PROTESTANT REFORMATION was, honest! Okay fine, I did. Okay fine, I didn't read it, and I'm pretending I know what it is. Are you happy now?) I would have loved something more playful, perhaps riffing on INDULGENCES?

Off to find my cigars …