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Puzzles for October, 2020
with Jeff Chen comments

Thu 10/1/2020
EPICUNPCDLATE
NANONORADELVE
GRAONTROLOFFAL
TAOISMGIRDS
SADIESINGES
TRUEBETMIA
EGGSUMOOGRES
TOUCHTONEPHONES
SPOOLICETLAP
NEECONTALU
MANTRASTIED
SAVERFILMIR
TRICETWEENAGER
AGATEROARCAKY
GENGSANDSKLEE

You know you've done too many crosswords when there's a four-letter word, _ALU, the clue is [Geography blah blah blah] and you roll your eyes before confidently entering YALU.

You know you've been quarantining too long when you spend five hours reading about the YALU river, dreaming about getting outside the house, even if it's to visit North Korea.

I admired Adam's audacity today, this gimmick taking me forever to crack. We've hopefully made it clear in the grid below — for example, 17-Across is GR(AB C)ONTROL while 3-Down is IN 2. On old phones, ABC is over the 2. See?

At least we older folks see. I wonder if some Millennials will have ever seen a TOUCHTONE PHONE. Back in my day, you had to take two high-voltage wires and zap them together to generate a number on your phone. We got shocked to hell, which would explain some things about me, but that's the way it was and we liked it.

Ah. Some solvers still may not get what's going on. Who are the MNOERS, you ask? That's the religious puzzle-solving NBA team who scrambled SERMON. Ha ha, no, it's the 6ers. No, not the GERS — that's the International expansion team located in Berlin — it's the (SIX)ERS.

You know, the 76ers' nickname? No, you don't know that?

It's a good thing Adam cut down on the levels of trickery!

This is a rare case of a puzzle I'd like to see super-sized into a 21x21 Sunday. It's a neat idea, but so tough. Placing the special squares (roughly) where they would appear on a keypad would have sharpened the a-ha moment — something like Liz Gorski's one from years ago would have been great. It wouldn't have been possible with 7 as PQRS, but plenty of old phones used PRS, which could have been in PR STUNTS.

Fri 10/2/2020
AMBERRELYBETA
CAIROAXIOMATIC
MINEOZENMASTER
ENGFROCKCAUSE
SCOOTERSSAL
ONLOWSCUTTLE
QUIDPROQUOHIT
URGEIDBETDIVA
ISHTESTSCORES
KETTLESMOLDS
WESPRECEPTS
AMBITPLANKARA
JAILBREAKPORES
ANKLEBONEIOTAS
RYESGNARTHYME

Debbie! I've had the pleasure of working with Debbie on a few crosswords, always a pleasure. I loved BINGO NIGHT, already a strong entry, but it's even better with that "… people making a row" misdirect. That's row, rhyming with low, not with now.

Great to get some rare letters, too, the two Qs in QUID PRO QUO worked in with buttery smoothness. Note how Debbie placed that entry so the two Qs begin down entries, giving her much needed flexibility.

I also liked the X and Z up above. Most editors value multi-word answers because in general, they can be more colorful than single-worders, but AXIOMATIC is interesting (even if I couldn't remember what it meant).

I just finished watching "The Last Dance," the gripping, ten-part series about the Chicago Bulls' sixth and final championship run, so ZEN MASTER resonated with me even more strongly than it usually would have. It's hard to imagine how Phil Jackson kept these huge personalities and egos in check, keeping everyone headed in the right direction. Even harder to imagine why Jerry Krause broke up the team. Not giving Michael Jordan the chance for a seventh ring? There aren't enough Os in the world to spell BOOOOOO properly.

A 72-word themeless has to have nearly flawless use of long slots, and virtually no dabs of crossword glue, so a bit of weirdness in GNAR, RAKER, and the tough ARA kept this one from achieving POW! contention. Still, a lot of great color in the long slots — JAILBREAK in the sense of unlocking a cell phone, THIRD PARTY, LIVESTREAM were standouts — kept my solving experience lively.

Sat 10/3/2020
SILKBOXERSATVS
ONEFINEDAYUHOH
PETCARRIERDELI
SSTNESTICICLE
FCCHEARTIES
PHARAOHSNOOTY
LUCYRUSTCRABS
AMTADSPEAKDAH
NAIADTARNPELE
NORMALSTROLLS
SENTINELEEL
ERVINGLOLASFO
TRESECOLOGICAL
TORTROSEPARADE
ORBSSTAGENAMES

Doug! Come on, my comic book nerd buddy, no X-men clue for SENTINEL? I've generally been disappointed by the X-Men movies (save Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen's dynamite onscreen chemistry), but "Days of Future Past" was surprisingly well done. The backdrop of the Nixon-era xenophobia applying to the mutant homo superior threat—

Fine, I'll stop! Party pooper. But SENTINELs as mutant seek-and-destroy machines — powered by the DNA stolen from a mutant — is a compelling storyline I'd love to see tapped again.

Brad! So much smarter than I — er, me — but never SNOOTY about it. Sometimes I worry that I won't be able to figure out the more erudite touches in Wilber puzzle, like LLOSA, but I appreciate the way he classes up a joint. I can imagine him seeing PHARAOH and figuring that it has great cluing potential, like its meaning of "great house." Such a memorable clue!

I recently rewatched some "Schoolhouse Rock" episodes, getting a fun throwback to my childhood. Neat to see ACTION VERBs innocently clued as [Spring or fall].

An even more brilliant clue was [Quick buck, say]. I was thinking about con games, get rich quick schemes, but a literal buck never crossed my mind, even though I'd made a puzzle using this same trick!

The grid had a bit too much of TARN (yikes!), SST, XERS, especially for a 72-word themeless. A lot of fun marquee answers, though, and I always like seeing the creations of two of my favorite crossworld people.

Sun 10/4/2020 YOU'RE TELLING ME!
ADMIREACTUPHOTDATE
GODSENDDIANETRUEDAT
OCTOBERMAKINGMEBLUSH
MUMBAIEQUALSALTO
OUTOFYOURGOURDBYTES
WHARFBLARNEYOJOS
LUMPALISHOOGAS
SHAHSMISSINGTHEPOINT
THATDERAILROAR
BOOHOOSFLOWERPETCO
INFORITNOWDARNTOOTIN
GEHRYIROBOTOURSONG
TOESHANGRYSTET
ONLYASGOODASTHEAMITY
PEPBIOSAHAACRE
FLAGDIALINGCREEL
CAMRYCOMPANYYOUKEEP
OTOESAIDNONURSES
SOMETHINGELSEOATMILK
TWOPAIREXAMSSKIAREA
ANARCHYSTRUTAPNEWS

What, no YOU'RE … PUSHING IT for a woman in labor?

Okay, that might be pushing it.

I appreciated how on point it was for a free throw shooter to be MISSING THE POINT. I used to scoff at Shaq's well-known free throw problems (career 53% shooter), such a huge hole in his game. Then I tried it myself, shooting 100 from the line. Let's just say that YOU'RE KIDDING ME was apt.

I didn't find many other themers to be as apt, though. A cosmetician is MAKING ME BLUSH? Like, he/she is formulating cosmetics? A produce vendor is OUT OF YOUR GOURD? What kind of seller brings a single gourd to his/her farmer's market stand? Why would an aspiring entrepreneur be only as good as the company they keep, when many entrepreneurs are all about successfully selling their companies for a huge profit?

I did like how Sam tightened his theme by narrowing the scope to professions. It would have been great to have a few more spot-on ones, perhaps ONE TO TALK clued to Siri? OUT OF THIS WORLD as an astronaut? Soldiers MAKING A MESS?

Some delightful fill, HOT DATE GODSEND TRUE DAT HANGRY ANARCHY forming quite the storyline. Reminds me of some of the groanwrothy dates I went on back in the day.

I had trouble with much of the grid through, slowed by SHANYU, GIOTTO, DR BOB, along with OJOS (which I still confuse with OSOS), and the creaky PORTA STET KAS BYA CREEL etc. As a whole, it made for a choppy solve that might give solvers too many opportunities to put down the puzzle and go do something else. Going up to 140 words (Sam used 136, quite a construction challenge) would have helped add in more color as well as smooth things out.

Overall, though, still an entertaining idea, a fun way to present a wide range of YOU'RE ___ phrases.

(Answer to Sam's puzzler: ONE TO TALK.)

Mon 10/5/2020
PINPATENTFDIC
ESEOLIVERTERI
RAWFOOTAGEMBAS
PIERREASPER
SARIMITRAIMI
HALFBAKEDIDEAS
LIEGEWOEFUL
ANGTMIHERSIA
CORONAPOETS
COOKEDTHEBOOKS
TRUSSEDSDICE
PISANSOOTHE
PRIGBURNTUMBER
EDENBREYERAMI
PASSRENEWSGEE

Standout "progression" theme. RAW to HALF BAKED to COOKED to BURNT — and each one so well integrated into a colorful phrase! Every single themer is an entry I'd happily use as fill in another puzzle. HALF BAKED IDEAS is especially strong.

(In my case, quarter-baked is usually more like it. If only four quarter-baked ideas added up to a full one.)

I wasn't as sold on the gridwork. None of ABBR ACCT EDS ESE is unpardonable, but in total, it felt inelegant.

Then you have the ISLA / SIA cross, which screams "It's a trap!" for newb solvers. A few weeks ago, my next-door neighbors — they're highly educated wordplay enthusiasts but have done few crosswords — attempted one of mine. They got stumped at 1-Across, not knowing what "Abbr." in the clue meant, and then decided they'd rather read a book.

How are newer solvers supposed to decode [Majorca, e.g.: Sp.]? Or solve that crossing square if they're not familiar with SIA?

Along that line, including NOOR, SARI, FTMEADE, AMI, PISAN, even ASPER (which could look bizarre if people don't know to look for unmarked spaces) … that's a tough ask for even an intermediate solver.

Now, it's far from a WOEFUL grid execution — there are plenty of bonuses like GROUPIES, OK SIGNS, DEBRIEFS — and some would argue that NYT solvers should be held to higher expectations. That's not my philosophy, though, given how many alternate forms of entertainment exist these days. Don't give solvers any possible excuse to put the puzzle down and go do something else.

Take that all with a grain of salt, though, since if it ever came down to the choice of a great theme or a great grid, I'd take the former any day — especially when the theme phrases are all stellar. It's a shame that we didn't get both today. With four themers of convenient length, it's 100% possible. Better deployment of black squares to separate the theme phrases would have helped.

Tue 10/6/2020
HISSPATYADDA
ACTIARCHELIOT
LEONSOLESAMOA
FRIGHTFULOWNER
SCOURMME
FRACKANDRUIN
CODTYPEIODINE
AVIDUSCSEXT
LEVIEDHAHASSS
FRANKAMATEUR
ERAIDEAS
FRISKYBUSINESS
PIANOTAFTARGO
ANJOUAMOSMOTH
MEANTGASESSO

Not all "add-a-letter" puzzles need a revealer — something to explain why the letter is being added — but they often help elevate a concept. Jim Horne and I were chatting in our weekly discussion of the puzzles, brainstorming what could be fun for today's. After many failed ideas, we decided it was a waste of time. F that, man!

Hey … F THAT, indeed!

Amusing results for half the themers, FRISKY BUSINESS the big winner. The image of kitties sitting around in business suits is priceless. FRANK AMATEUR is entertaining, and it's even better in the context of FRANK Costanza and Festivus.

FRACK AND RUIN … too close to reality, considering the environmental / economic debate around fracking. Will Shortz tries to stay away from politics, so I'm surprised to see this one pass muster.

FRIGHTFUL OWNER is another big yikes. Maybe it's not a problem if you've never had a scary landlord, but that power imbalance is no laughing matter.

I did appreciate the consistency of 1.) always adding an F to an R word, and 2.) always doing it at the beginning of a phrase. Perhaps alternates like (generating computer code to discover other possibilities … stand by …) FROCKED THE BOAT? FRIDGE LINE? FRAIL SPLITTER?

Today's themers are harder to work with than yesterday's because the longer lengths make for gridding awkwardness, but any time you have just four themers, there's no reason that there should be so much AEROS ICERS SSGTS ATA MME RDS SSS. More black squares separating themers 1 / 2 and 3 / 4 would have helped — there are too many separating themers 2 / 3, so they could have been redeployed.

Overall though, any humor is so valuable these days, so FRISKY BUSINESS made up for a lot.

POW Wed 10/7/2020
TWASPIGGYPITA
GALAOSHEAEROS
ITLLPLOTSREUP
FETALASSRINGS
RODENTHBLEH
NCOSADSONGACC
ALTGEHRYDRE
NORMERITEDLOO
ACURASPYENEWS
KEELSTBIRD
TEALBARN
LOOKMANOHANDS
MUIRBUENOIRON
MINTAGREEEASE
ASKSSHOTSSTOW

★ I had zero chance of winning at "Name That Theme" today. With mirror symmetry, if there are no long across slots in the top half of the puzzle, the themers usually are in the long down slots. So, how are ALL TOO TRUE, GHOST SHIP, IRENE ADLER related?

If you can answer that question, Tribond has a job for you!

Even though I failed to figure out the theme (and even failed to identify the themers), I loved it. It's not just "seemingly disparate things that have hands" theme. Ross took it one step further and found neat examples where the lack of hands is notable. Such great theme phrases, too, each of them colorful. GHOST SHIP, TOUGH CROWD, and WATER CLOCK …

I did hesitate on that last one. I vaguely knew what it meant, but something like DIGITAL CLOCK or DIGITAL WATCH would have made for a sharper a-ha. That sent me down the rabbit hole of searching for an alternate themer set, involving ABANDONED SHIP 13 to match LOOK MA NO HANDS 13, and maybe DIGITAL WATCHES split 7 / 7 and TOUGH CROWD 5 / 5, but that would require an unconventional —

Right, you don't care about my unconventional obsessiveness. TOUGH CROWD, indeed.

Curious choice to include the long bonuses of ALL TOO TRUE and IRENE ADLER. While they are both excellent entries, they muddy the waters of what is fill and what is not. Maybe shading the three theme answers would have helped?

Generally, though, it's better to find a layout that makes your themers pop. Scooching WATER CLOCK and TOUGH CROWD inward one column might have helped.

Even with my hesitations, it's still a winner of a concept with a solid, interesting grid to boot. Great to get some delightful wordplay clues, too, like both OINK and INK = things that come out of a pen.

Thu 10/8/2020
ALOEHOWIESIS
BABEBARONYTMC
SPARECHANGEARE
SMIRCHADDSIN
PIANOACAONICE
STEEDHARDCASH
PURSEDNCR
PASSEDTHEBUCK
KEAWANING
TWOCENTSLITER
SHOALYAPSTREP
HORRORONACID
OUTTIMEISMONEY
UGHHOOPLASEED
THYSTPATTSPS

I thoroughly enjoyed working with Francesca, appreciating her nose to the grindstone approach on both themer exploration as well as gridding. Our original submission got positive feedback from Will Shortz and Joel Fagliano, but they expressed concern with some of our themer finds. They were skeptical if it would be possible to find solid replacements, and frankly, I was too.

Thank goodness for Francesca and her optimism! Many people would have taken the feedback as "thanks but no thanks" and dropped it, but she chose to dig in — from Spain, where she had been quarantined at the start of the pandemic! It took us several weeks of back and forth, but we eventually uncovered enough alternatives to get the go-ahead.

Gridwork is often troublesome for newer constructors, so I was impressed by how quickly Francesca took to it. I showed her a couple of alternatives for grid skeletons — I hope a few people noticed the dollar-sign(ish) S in the middle of the grid? Anybody? Bueller? She jumped right in, working her way up the learning curve, asking all the right questions about what makes for solid or undesirable fill, doggedly filling chunk after chunk, iterating time after time, never despairing over all the rounds of feedback.

A delightful experience. Hopefully, the finished product is worth some of your spare cash. Er, spare time.

(In case you're still baffled by the theme, TIME has been replaced by different synonyms for MONEY, forming different but also in-the-language phrases.)

Fri 10/9/2020
ECONMAJORHANGS
MANOAMANOEXERT
OLIVEPITSLEVAR
BIOLOYALATE
ACNETSPNOIDEA
NODSTOOATMASK
DEICERFLITS
SPACESTATIONS
PHISHARMATA
GAMENEENEARER
WHODATWOKDYER
BIBGODOTAPE
USTENIRONCROSS
SEINESLEEPONIT
HEEDSHDSCREENS

The IRON CROSS is such an awe-inspiring feat of strength. One of my life goals is to hold an IRON CROSS for five seconds, but given that I start shaking uncontrollably after opening my arms about 20 degrees, then collapse into a puddle of sweat … it may be a while. The world record holder's nickname is "Muscleball," and he looks the part!

The finance wonk in me loved kicking things off with ECON MAJOR. Crash course … get it? Economic crash? Too soon, given the pandemic-induced bankruptcies? Yeah, maybe so. Still, a valiant attempt at humor, even if it tweaks some noses.

I loved that ON TOP OF THE WORLD / SPACE STATIONS cross. Now that's a way to seed a themeless! Sam's original clue would have made it even better, at least for all us nerds out there who dork out over issues like artificial gravity induced by forced rotation.

Okay, maybe not for mass audiences.

Those crossing features create some structural difficulty, though, forcing big corners in the NW and SE. Whenever you have a triple-stack intersecting another one — ECON MAJOR/MANO A MANO/OLIVE PITS weaving into EMO BAND/CALICOES/ONION DIP — you're bound to have some compromises. In the NW, CALICOES and ONION DIP don't do much for me, more neutral than positive, but that's fine.

The SE didn't hold up as well, with ARMATA / DYER / OTOES and the boring STEEPS IN. If it ain't one corner, it's the symmetrical one. Shake your fist at Crucivera, the goddess who demands symmetry!

Along with more neutral wastage in TORE INTO, US TEN (rarely written like this outside crosswords), ESCAPED / ARRESTS, there was some potential left on the table. That'll almost always be the case with a layout like this, though, and the overall impact of ON TOP OF THE WORLD / SPACE STATIONS helped overcome these issues.

Sat 10/10/2020
WHAPMAMASASIF
HOVERCRAFTRENO
EBOLASCARETITO
TONICAMONGJED
CYANBOOBIRD
SOFACEDEBIOME
PLANETJACUZZIS
AMTMOJITOSALE
CASTIRONITSWAR
ENDONEGANPANT
PROPELSISLA
RIMMACJRIMHIT
OVIDTHEBAMBINO
BENDIMSUREOFIT
EROSNOUSETITS

EBOLA SCARE? Too soon! I know it's not the same as coronavirus, but man, I don't need any reminders of pandemics right now. Maybe when we're all clear of these worldwide disasters, like election security, forest fires, hurricanes, racial injustice, climate change …

I'll have to cut this short, so I can go work on my underground bunker.

I'd much rather have crosswords provide an escape from daily woes — perhaps in a HOVERCRAFT! Better yet, a SPACE PROBE, given the way things are going.

Seriously though, it's a downer to get serious issues brought up in crosswords, where I turn for a brief moment of joy in my day. OL' MAN RIVER seems to be controversial. FOOD DESERT, that's a problem, no doubt. IT'S WAR?

Aaugh, I'M HIT with so many woes!

Much more satisfying were clues like "getting into hot water" in JACUZZIS. Entries like FATS DOMINO, close to EMINEM. Fun phrases to say like JOE SCHMO and IM SURE OF IT. That's more like it, I'm sure of it!

It's tough for me to connect with a puzzle that features a bunch of entries I can only vaguely identify — SEIJI OZAWA I learned from crosswords, and INTERMILAN was a mystery — so even though these are fair entries and likely to elate some others, this wasn't my favorite of Brian's products. Thankfully, there were enough moments of joy, like figuring out that a pouch referred to a PELICAN's beak, to help overcome many of these issues.

Sun 10/11/2020 &pi;r<sup>2</sup>
DOTTEDISMOSTPUMPON
ORNAMENTALLENIGUANA
CONSPACYTHEORYNANTES
SEDALIAUSESSELA
HOMESENLACEPESTS
UNATWOTISHVAMPEBAT
BARGAINSATEANAEROBE
CULOTTESASSIGNSOBA
ATONEGOUTINLAWTIT
PONESPRUCEENOYES
RESPATORYSYSTEM
SPAMAOINNATEAMAL
HAWUSUALNAPSBRAVE
AREASEPTETSPOAGNEW
REIGNITELOCOINBOUND
PENNANTSLOOPTOYAGE
SURGEBITMAPABLER
TAPSSOUPFLONASE
OXIDESMISSISSIPPIVER
RENEWSALIKEELSINORE
EDGIERTSARREENGAGE

Little known fact: my first NYT puzzle submission was a PI rebus. I thought it was a shoo-in — what more could you want than a bunch of PI squares that formed the shape of an upper-case letter PI! Will Shortz was extremely helpful in his feedback, saying that 1.) it's an idea that's been tapped too frequently in crossword history, and 2.) made-up filler entries like SUNSON aren't acceptable.

Ahem. You know, like Asclepius? The SON of Apollo, the god of the SUN?

It's amazing, the things that dunderheads will convince themselves are perfectly fine.

Although there have been a slew of PI crosswords over the decades, this math junkie has admired many of them. A PI DAY celebration and a Sunday tribute came to mind right off the bat. I liked Gary's approach too, although I wonder how many solvers will be as confused by the rationale as I was when first encountering an equation-based rebus. It still doesn't sit quite right with me, since PI in (PI)*R^2 isn't squared — that would be (PI*R)^2 — but since it's commonly said as "area equals pi r squared," I can give it a pass.

I'd have loved a PI graphic, maybe the rebus squares in the shape of the letter pi, or forming the numbers 3 1 4. Gary chose to focus instead on working in colorful theme phrases, and he was successful — great choices in CONS(PIR)ACY THEORY / EM(PIR)E STATE, BABY AS(PIR)IN.

It's a shame that there weren't more that broke PIR across two words, like MISSISSIP(PI R)IVER. This is usually a requirement for Will, an entry like DRIP IRRIGATION hiding the PIR string so deviously.

Enjoyable solve overall, though; locating those hidden PIs was entertaining. Solid gridwork, too — only the repeat offenders of REIGNITE, RENEWS, REENGAGE stood out — and the bevy of delightful clues. I counted a half a dozen wordplay gems like [Doesn't sit right?] for SLOUCHES. Those help so much to elevate a solving experience.

Mon 10/12/2020
BESTFRANBANAL
AVERLEGOALIBI
BARITONESNACHO
ENVOWEETDHON
ELLEBROILERS
RATEDRAINTI
AMITYBINGACDC
MMMAMALGAMRUE
POETALESAMINO
ACIDYGRATES
ENDZONESAGRI
KIAASABROCOE
EVILSGOODTHING
BERETLANEISTO
YAYASETONDMVS

Joe paints such a pretty picture today, four FLOWERs in a GARDEN. They're placed with utter precision, six-letter flowers arranged in a perfect square, not a petal out of place.

Now I'm even more ashamed of my backyard (read: dumpster of kid toys).

I also appreciated his effort to pick (ha) FLOWERs whose last three letters form a valid word. VIOLET, AZALEA, ORCHID, DAH … well, three out of four ain't bad. There's an old constructors' joke, that if you need to use LIA, that's a Fail.

Maybe you had to be there.

Perhaps ZINNIA would have been a better choice, although working around that Z could prove challenging.

Speaking of that, Joe make some great decisions to minimize gridding troubles. For puzzles forming a shape out of circles, I've heard constructors say that it's inelegant to place a black square within the shape. I generally disagree, and I like their look today, making the flowers more ... well, florid. They also make gridwork about ten times easier.

Having just FLOWER / GARDEN and the four flowers felt thin, but I'd much rather have a smooth, sparkly grid than one jam-packed with more flowers or something. Another wise choice — even with a thin theme, it's still challenging to fill around those fixed patterns, resulting in a bit of AINTI, ACIDY, AGRI, ASA ...

I did lose steam right from the start, since FLOWER gave away the game much too quickly. I'd have loved a revealer like FLOWER ARRANGING, which could have been more fun, and could have also been placed lower in the grid (perhaps using mirror symmetry).

Overall though, the delightful visual appeal of the floral arrangements outweighed the hyssops — er, hiccups — in execution.

Tue 10/13/2020
EBAYBETAFALSE
BELAEPICETAIL
BLOWININTHEWIND
STENCILSALADS
EGOSSORE
KNOWINGWINKYOS
CONANEMODENT
USERCRAFTASEA
PEATHARBLOBS
SSNTOWINGWINCH
DROPNORA
LOONIESONATAS
WINWINSITUATION
EFLATPREPOMNI
STYNENAPSMEET

Earlier this year, Will Shortz mentioned that he sees too many "hidden words" themes. I think there's still room for exploration within this theme type, but you need some extra element. An offshoot has been "two of the same hidden words," but even that is reaching saturation, especially because solvers can tire of finding the same string over and over.

A great example of what can make one of these stand out is a DOUBLETREE puzzle. It's hard to find strong phrases that hide two types of well-known trees, so the discoveries are interesting, they feel rare, and the variety is great.

Today's theme does score points on that "rare" criterion; few phrases fit the *WIN*WIN* search pattern. I only found TWINKLE TWINKLE, but that only exacerbates the theme's repetitive feel, WINNIE WINKLE, which is esoteric to say the least, and the WINKLEVOSS TWINS. I might have used that last one, since that duo has been in Facebook-related news recently. Still, such a small selection of possibilities makes for a "tight" theme, lending some elegance.

I appreciated Amanda's care in gridwork. I did hesitate on BWANA and STYNE. They're both fair game, but they might cause newer solvers to stumble. Not ideal, but acceptable.

Although the theme was more of a drawing to a close than a win-win, the bonuses of BENIGN, ONE AND ONLY, STENCIL, LOONIE and the mostly smooth grid help elevate my solve.

POW Wed 10/14/2020
ASSAYALPPLAZA
CHUTESHEOATES
TANTOHANGLOOSE
IMGAMESARIPTA
VULCANSALUTE
AKNOTEGGON
MOSSKUSHLOIRE
OKSVICTORYVEX
ARESOKYRANEST
BASICAFROS
CANIGETALIFT
APULYLESPITON
HOPEFULLYIMAGO
OLDERBIODIGIT
KOOKYEDUSTONE

★ It's rare for me to have a magic solving moment, and Rich gave me one today. This wordplay enthusiast read [1st and 5th] and thought about 1st letter? 1st syllable? 1st theme answer? Even when I uncovered VULCAN SALUTE, I still had no idea what was going on. Not many Vulcans I know refer to the SALUTE in such a lengthy way as [1st separate, 2nd and 3rd …] That would be illogical!

It wasn't until I hit DIGITS that it all fell into place. Aside from my confusion that of course 1 and 5 are DIGITS, well duh, why would you even point that out … oh, that kind of DIGIT! Brilliant!

The theme set isn't perfect, since CAN I GET A LIFT doesn't seem like something a hitchhiker would say. Maybe CAN I BUM A RIDE? And then there's the question of how a Vulcan hitchhiker would try to bum a ride.

I'd make a terrible Vulcan.

What, no THE BIRD to match VICTORY? I wondered if that would be too edgy, but the NYT did print one a few months ago that … I mean, come on. MIDDLE sticking straight up? 3rd indeed!

I also got bogged down by some gridwork issues, a bit of AKNOT ARESO here, IMAGO there, and the super-tough crossing of ENOKI/KUSH. I do think those last four entries are fair game (most every editor would ding AKNOT), but in more moderation. A 5x5 corner like the NW is usually easy to fill, but allowing it to expand toward the center makes for a challenging swath of white space.

A fantastic theme doesn't come along often, especially for us die-hard daily solvers. Yeah, some issues in execution might normally take a puzzle out of POW! consideration, but a concept this fun makes Jeff incredibly happy.

Thu 10/15/2020
EFLATSPECBOAS
PLATYNADALIME
SESUPAUSTRALIA
OUTLIERSTUB
MRSFREEDOMMEA
EISFAYKANG
COFFEEPOTSOORA
AWORDTRUTAROT
VEGETRAMPOLINE
ETIMHAMSRA
SONREPOMENTAP
OAKMACARONI
DOWNUNDERDIDGE
OPRYOINKOODIR
STYXTOTSSTYES

I have the pleasure of chatting with Jim Horne once a week, dissecting a week's worth of upcoming puzzles at a time. One of the best things about it: although we're from similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, we often have drastically different takes on any particular theme or entry.

Sometimes I worry, though, that our weekly quarantine chats teach him a bit too much about my idiosyncrasies. The conversation around today's puzzle went something like this:

Jim: I enjoyed this one.

Jeff: Same here, although ...

Jim: Let me guess. You felt like there wasn't enough rationale to have half the theme answers "bend backward" underneath.

Jeff: (pause) No.

Jim: Hmm. I bet your mind went to LAND DOWN UNDER and then started to brainstorm how various countries could be hidden underneath somehow.

Jeff: (extra-long pause) Noooooo.

Jim: Ah. Then it must be that you objected to KOALA in the grid, but not folded over at its centre like the rest. Maori, too. Although, that's more New Zealand than Australia, isn't it?

Jeff: Shows what you know! You didn't get that 100% correct!

Jim: ?

Jeff: You spelled "centre" wrong!"

Jim: You do realize you're the one doing the typing, not me.

Jeff: (desperately smashing ctrl-alt-del)

I enjoyed the Aussie flavors and feel of this one. While the DOWN UNDER revealer didn't explain enough why bottom halves were entered backward, mate, Lindsey took good advantage of the long slots, incorporating beautiful bonuses in COFFEE POTS, TRAMPOLINE, TORNADOS, making me PAUSE FOR A MOMENT at their devilishly clever clues. I had ___LINE for [Bouncer's equipment] and was baffled; what a delightful misdirect toward a bouncer at a bar.

There was a bit too much EDS EIS (!) MEA PSEC SRA, but overall, I appreciate when a puzzle transports me away. I enjoyed the reminders of my fantastic trip to DOWN UNDER, almost 20 years ago now.

Fri 10/16/2020
HONORSORSEDAM
AMAZONBATFLIPS
LADYDIIMALLSET
THEMSTHEBREAKS
SARAISLES
NEEDEDHELMS
HEADTRIPMORE
ACCIDENTSHAPPEN
NCAAACIDTEST
SEISMICETSY
UTAHNSASS
JUSTASITHOUGHT
ZEPPELINEMIGRE
ENCODINGENTREE
EASTAGEDISOWN

Now, this is the way to use long feature entries to your advantage! THEMS THE BREAKS, ACCIDENTS HAPPEN, JUST AS I THOUGHT, such colorful, colloquial phrases. Love ‘em all.

(Although, I gotta ding ACCIDENTS HAPPEN for personal reasons since my kids say it even after they do something on purpose. THEMS THE (literal) BREAKS, too.)

Working with three long feature entries is rarely easy, but Damon makes it look almost effortless. Smart quasi-segmentation, breaking up his grid into six chunks while allowing enough entries and exits to each region.

Check out how well he equalized the subsections, too. If someone showed me this grid skeleton for review, I might pause briefly at the NW / SE corners since they're biggish, with two long entries running through them, but I'd say it should be fine. And while AGGRO ETD, MRES, MST, UPCS isn't outstanding smoothness, it's all both solvable and passable.

I wasn't sure how I pulled out OZYMANDIAS. More accurately, OZYMAN … D? something. Still, it made me feel smart, even if I didn't actually know who that was. I mean, of course, I knew it was … a Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. I totally didn't copy that straight out of Wikipedia.

When I added BAT FLIPS to our list years ago, I scored it at 60, meaning it's an outstanding entry. Shortly after, I mentioned it to my wife, who gave me the side-eye and asked if it was some lewd gesture, like flipping the bird.

I reduced it to our nominal score of 50.

These days, Will Shortz can be pickier than ever with themelesses; the acceptance rate is about 5%. I can see why he picked this one, chock full of not just solid entries but colorful, long ones. Even if you're a heathen who doesn't know that an OZYMANDIAS is obviously a place for Ozzy Osbourne to give speeches, there's a ton of HEAD TRIP, ACID TEST, EMPTY SUITS to delight. A definite POW! contender.

Sat 10/17/2020
QUINCUNXCAIRNS
UNDERSEAANTEUP
EMOTICONSALTII
BANSGNASHLUST
EDTADARAT
CELTSTUDSANNA
IRATERESTOCK
ICKIERLABFEE
CLEMSONNEWAT
EATSPUMASTHOR
CFONIHENE
HOBSENSUEDJED
EUROPEHATFIELD
STALAGATTENDEE
TIGERSPLUSSIGN

Fantastic RETURN OF THE JEDI clue! Talk of an emperor's fall had me bamboozled. And that's even more impressive, considering that "The Empire Strikes Back" is one of my all-time favorite movies!

Brad and I are huge fans of "The Great British Bake-Off," discussing it at length at past crossword tournaments. It's crazy to think that me, an uncultured brute, not only knows how to make choux pastry but has actually made it. The pastries tasted delicious, although, on the scale from looking like turds to resembling eclairs, they trended toward the former.

Thankfully, it turns out you can polish a turd with a little icing.

CLAFOUTI, though … yikes. It reminds me of watching "Monty Python" as a kid and being puzzled by a skit where a blancmange terrorized the countryside. I had that same terror when trying to complete CLA_OUTI, where the missing letter could have been E, F, I, M, or T. Crossing a specialized foreign term with an undisclosed member of a C suite — CEO, CFO, etc. ...

(I did figure out that the "millions" in [Overseer of millions at work] referred to millions of dollars, but not quickly enough to prevent my stock price from plummeting.)

I generally dig mini-themes, but today's didn't land well. While I did like the visual, PLUS SIGN was way too easy, and QUINCUNX felt like some sort of horcrux split out of Voldemort's soul. At least, when I struggled with QUIN_UNX and a random French word.

I struggled mightily with this one, and I DON'T LIKE TO BRAG, but in the end, I finished, with near 100% certainty I was right.

If you round up from 52%, that is.

A lesson in humility was useful for my long-term growth. And I did love many of the clues — HATFIELD not being the real McCoy, that's fantastic! Worth the price of admission right there.

Sun 10/18/2020 TITLE BASIN'
YOSHIMAUDETOAST
ASTONSLUGFESTSELBOW
LSATSLIFEOFPIEADORE
LORDDEAFICEDCUTE
TENDERISTHEKNIGHT
INASNAPNUKESIDEATES
MONKEYSNOMTOEPICK
ARECANDIEDMRI
YAWNSORLYNUITTEEUP
OHSTOPROOMED
INSEARCHOFLOSTTHYME
ADOEGOAWRAPEVEOOF
ROVERSNIDEELENA
FLAXGAPILLAVAETSY
THELITTLEPRINTS
SWEARSTOHEADSLAP
HEARSTSPEEDOSSHIRAZ
ENSNAREGOTONSCIENCE
ISAJULIUSSEESHEROKS
DEBODEONSPENTLET
IIIBEANALESDRY

Confused about the bookish theme?

Don't read too much into it.

Wonderful gridwork out of a newer constructor! On average, a Sunday grid will have about a dozen ugly bits holding it together. It's a breath of fresh air to see only a smattering of EDY ISA NNE OTRO. I did finish with an error, putting in ASTIN Martin crossing HIT DESK, but after the taste of sour grapes went away, I realized I should have known that HOT DESK fit better.

Unless you work at the WWE.

I enjoyed the bonuses, which helped keep me chugging through my solve. AND … SCENE. OLD CHAP. ABOUT TIME! (Although it was strange to have TIME and THYME, which riffed on TIME.) SENSEI next to WASABI, TOP GUN, that's a lot to love.

Miriam did use a ton of "cheater squares," i.e., extra squares that don't affect the word count. I'm all for using cheaters if they don't look too ugly, but those four black squares surrounding MAUDE are unsightly. A slew on the bottom, forming a thick podium … it's too much.

Perhaps eliminating two or even four cheaters could have made for a better trade-off. That said, I'd much rather constructors err on the side of too many cheaters in exchange for smoother, sparklier fill.

The theme felt inconsistent, given that most were direct homophone swaps, but CANDIDE to CANDIED was not, JULIUS SEES HER split the word, and PRINCE to PRINTS can be pronounced differently in parts of the country. It did make me think of the late great Merl Reagle, who always gave us so much fun with groany puns like these, so I enjoyed reminiscing.

Mon 10/19/2020
BUSHCAIROSAM
ANTEALDERWINE
STORMCLOUDARTS
AIRDATEPEEVISH
LEERUNSRAY
LASOVERLOAD
CIVICSAIDIDLE
OMEGACNNSNIPE
MATHFADETENOR
EMOTIONSSOS
BAROPELGAP
LEGUMESEPITOME
OVALSWEATDROPS
LIMBEARLEOSLO
ALEEGRETTEES

I have fond memories of quietly sneaking the Sunday comics before my brother woke up, hiding out, savoring those moments when I could have them all to myself. When my brother eventually realized I'd squirreled them away and demanded half, the two of us turned into a big cloud of dirt with four fists emerging, &*!@#$! characters floating above.

Family Circus, indeed.

I loved how today's theme took me back. LIGHT BULB is a classic visual, a cartoon character coming up with a bright idea. WAVY LINES works well too, a few simple curves perfectly illustrating a rank odor.

I had to think about STORM CLOUD for a moment — I couldn't remember seeing that in the funnies — but indeed when someone's in a mood, a dark gray cloud gets that across.

SWEAT DROPS … it's a functional answer. No doubt, they illustrate nervousness. My issue is that "sweat drops" feels less in-the-language than "beads of sweat." It's also less comical — pardon the pun — since it's common in other media to show a person's anxiety with sweat. Hard to imagine an author describing a character with WAVY LINES coming out of their head.

Fred is a gridding pro, working in some excellent mid-length bonuses like PEEVISH, SO AND SO, EPITOME, LEGUMES. However, there's a major trouble spot that makes this grid incredibly newb-unfriendly. I'd hesitate to use OPEL, PEALE, and EARLE in a grid and having the three of them cross … oof. I wouldn't give this one to a newer solver.

Hilarious SIRI clue! I don't have an iPhone, but I'm going to have to sneak my wife's phone and ask SIRI to talk dirty to me. That should make my wife's targeted ads interesting.

Great theme, innovative and fun. It is tougher than an average Monday concept, though, since you have to work to figure out what [Nervousness, in the comics] might suggest. Along with the tougher fill, it could have made for a better Tuesday or even Wednesday puzzle.

Tue 10/20/2020
ALDASTUSTRAFE
PORSCHESPREPAY
TOOKHEEDYUPPIE
EMOELMOSEAR
SPLIFFTROLLED
TASKBLEEPLSU
EASYALATETO
BACKORDERED
SIESTAGOTTA
ARFITSONMIAS
WOOKIEEROOMBA
NUNTIMIDASU
TOLIFESPOONFED
PREFERSATRIANI
SEDERSAASANTS

I love programming challenges — some of the most ecstatic moments in my life have come from working on difficult coding problems. One puzzle hunt challenge stands out, where the organizers left a tiny loophole in one of the instructions, and every team achieved the optimal 100 — except ours. Nothing can compare to that smug feeling you get when people yell how the #$%#! did you score 124?!

Oh yeah. Except for getting married. And having kids.

Now, if I could just score 124 on any parenting test.

Today's problem — discovering long words and phrases where all the letters are in reverse alphabetical order — is fairly trivial. The main challenge is figuring out how to smoothly translate letters into numbers in a data structure that allows easy—

Oh, right, you don't care. Better if I say it's magic and leave it at that.

It was much more of a challenge to figure out how to present as many interesting finds as possible. I was disappointed there weren't more long ones besides TOOK HEED and SPOON-FED. That meant featuring a bunch of 7s and even some 6s. It's notoriously difficult to create a smooth grid around a slew of shorties, but the theme might have felt too thin if I had packed in less.

I struggled mightily in the NW corner, unfortunately, the most important corner in most crosswords, since it sets the tone for the rest of the puzzle. I was already at a high number of three-letter words (editors balk at more than 22), so I couldn't break up PORSCHES.

I switched the theme answers and/or shifted their placements umpteen-thousand times, but nothing worked better than what you see. It pained me to use a partial as ugly as US DO, but at least I could use a great original quote from "Star Trek VI"! Ka'plagh, Starfleet scum!

Huh? "If you prick us, do we not bleed" is Shakespeare?

(insert WOOKIEE roar here)

Wed 10/21/2020
BEEFPHOBIALIE
AGRABARUCHOCT
BERNBRIDGESCAR
USOFAMELCANE
TRIBEREDEALT
CANNESOPENER
GTEHADGENEVA
REVDABESEWEI
ALISONKOISNL
DELHICOUNTER
TWOTERMSLEWS
IHOPIQSSTOOP
MOMSEOULSEARCH
UNAAULAITIMHO
SSNPRETTYLYIN

Debut! Great to see yet another new constructor this year.

Homophones are in the top five theme types new constructors ask me about, and puns on nationalities are in the top ten. We've seen a ton of these over the years — searching for an obvious one like CZECH in our Finder (type in *CZECH*) uncovered half a dozen instances of this one alone, including ones from 2001, 2002, 2017, 2019.

It's a well-worn idea, but as with other tried-and-true approaches, there's usually room for another, if you add in something new.

I like Dory's goal here, aiming for multiple layers of consistency, of 1.) always using a city homophone, 2.) making those cities start a solid phrase, and 3.) having the homophone be a direct substitution, i.e. no loosey-goosey wordplay.

He did great on the first two criteria, but I had to think about the third. Some Americans pronounce CANNES as in "can of beans," but I've always heard it like "The Wrath of Khan." Some French friends confirmed that it was most definitely the latter, though they took umbrage at my comparing Cannes to Khan Noonien Singh.

Something got lost in translation.

Fantastic bonuses. A new constructor treating us to FANFIC, TELETHONS, EVIL WOMAN, KUMQUAT, DOG SITS, LOCAL NEWS?

I CANT EVEN!

All the wealth did come at a price, though. Adjacent long downs like TELETHONS / EVIL WOMAN often require trade-offs — GTE UNA, plus EPEE CAEN WEI in the opposite corner isn't great. I'd have asked Dory to dial back the snazz factor, aiming for more smoothness. Perhaps splitting TELETHONS, or doing something else to reduce the size of those SW / NE corners?

It's also more elegant in a theme like this, to avoid other cities in the fill: AGRA, GENEVA, SOCHI, CAEN. Not a must, but eliminating these Cannes make the themers pop.

Overall, a puzzle type I've seen too often to be memorable, but I did appreciate Dory's efforts to elevate through consistency and sparkly bonuses.

POW Thu 10/22/2020
STRAPACDCWOW
ERODESLIEUOOH
LABORUNIONSUZO
LYETABLES
DUVETSCAD
BOASDRUNKDIAL
WANTEDJETE
HYPEATONEOVEN
IOUSTAJTAKEIT
GURUNANAKDERN
SNIPES
PEPPERLAXJUG
OXORUNSONEMPTY
OPSVEILSCREAM
FOEESPYSIGHS

★ How often do constructors hope that their work leaves solvers with an empty feeling? I enjoy the occasional "leave some squares blank" puzzle. Two from 2013 stand out, one playing on "Wheel of Fortune," and David Kwong's ingenious puzzle Sid mentioned above. Another from 2015 also won a POW!, but this trope goes back a long ways.

Today's RUN ON EMPTY theme worked well, the consistency of RUN atop (three squares to be left blank) so neat and tidy. I particularly enjoyed LABOR UNIONS above what was before the Big Bang: an empty space. Perfect!

Will Shortz is usually pickier about "hidden words" themes; that the hidden word must span across two words of a phrase — DRUNK DIAL wouldn't be acceptable. Despite DRUNK DIAL's evocative nature, I'd have preferred something like BOBS YOUR UNCLE, MR UNIVERSE, OVER UNDER, etc.

Will has also told me that he shies away from puzzles with squares intentionally left blank, saying that solvers expect to put in something, so it's unsatisfying to leave a square untouched. It's like listening to an unresolved penultimate chord in a piece of music. You feel on edge, unsatisfied, until that last note hits home, and then all is right in the world.

Thankfully, there were so many bonuses in the stellar gridwork to overcome those reservations. Sid's craftsmanship is so strong. See how he leans heavily on down entries for bonus fill, and spaces them apart? AD EXECS to BAD JOKES to WOULD I EVER is a perfect example of great spacing.

I also enjoyed Sid's featuring of GURU NANAK. I hate being forced to learn things when all I'm looking for is entertainment, but GURU is a word, and NANAK looks like Pakistani names I've seen. Although I didn't know this person, that didn't affect my ability to finish the crossword, and I ought to know who founded a religion with 25+ million devout followers.

A huge number of clever wordplay clues. GYM as a place where you might see "squatters" — that's people doing squats. [Gear for the bench] had me thinking about baseball, not a judicial bench and ROBE. Delightful!

Some Thursday crosswords focus on being hard for hardness sake, but I like this type much better. A reasonable trick, a colorful grid, and a slew of headslap-inducing wordplay clues to make the solve crunchier? That's my jam.

Fri 10/23/2020
PANELMIMIAPBS
ASIDEEVERLSAT
TAKEABREAKLONE
SHORTLISTFORK
YINHOTARTIST
CEOACNEAHA
WORDPROCESSOR
PINSTRIPESUIT
FAKEEYELASHES
CPIAPPSTIS
CAPOTECOPAKA
BEDSSTARPOWER
REDORISKSITALL
PAIRBRAENOISE
IRASGIRDGETON

Jim Horne and I chat about puzzles once a week, and we had a fun exchange about "crosswordese." It's too general a term, encompassing everything from entries called out in editors' spec sheets (partials, abbrs.), to things seen much more in crosswords than real life (ONO, ENO), to words that perhaps NYT solvers ought to know. The first category is clearly to be avoided, the second is fine by me. It's the third that's of real interest.

ARILS. Jim mentioned it's an odd plural. I hadn't heard of it until a few years ago when it was in one of C.C.'s puzzles. I was outraged upon filling it in. Outraged! That is, until the next day when at the grocery store, I picked up a pack of pomegranate seeds … marked as "Pomegranate Arils."

BRAE. I haven't laughed this hard in ages. See Jim's notes below.

The point is, this category is the toughest type of "crosswordese" to judge. One person's CPI is another's RPI. Someone inflamed by OTOE might not blink at EDER.

I enjoyed this "stairstep," a mature themeless category in which Robyn has only worked once before. The triplet of WORD PROCESSOR / PINSTRIPE SUIT / FAKE EYELASHES is fantastic, as are the crossings of LEATHER SEATS and FREE SHIPPING. Along with some WIKIPEDIA / PAPA BEAR and BANK SHOT in the corners, there's a lot to love.

And there's the star clue, [Initials of the person who said "Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you]. It's a fantastic mantra, too many people preaching in styles that are not only ineffective but that turn the other side further away.

Sat 10/24/2020
RIFFSCOVERART
AVILAURBANAREA
ZONALNEATTRICK
ORGYGIMMEEASE
RYECOTEACH
STROLLCHASSIS
HOTRODDERICANT
AWINGANDAPRAYER
REPOSAUTODRIVE
PRSTUNTSOFTIE
PAYLESSPDT
ABCDSPADETREF
BREECHINGKRONA
BADBOUNCESOUCI
AGETOAGEUNDER

The name Byron Walden strikes both awe and fear in the hearts of solvers around the world. Byron is known for his wide-open grids, especially his pooh-poohing of extraneous black squares, making his puzzles some of the most difficult to solve.

Then there's his ability to concoct the most devious of clues. [Share a course, perhaps] has to be GO DUTCH, right? Especially when you have a few letters already in place, the ?O???CH pattern reinforcing your initial thought. Such a clever trap. It might help to remember in the future that Byron is a college prof, so COTEACHing is more in his bailiwick.

Toss in his tendency to be okay with entries some might cock their heads at — AUTODRIVE? ZONAL? AGE TO AGE if you're not religious? — and you'd better be ready for a workout. A WING AND A PRAYER is right!

I was so thankful for that central entry, not simply because it's fantastic, but because it helped me get a critical toehold in so many regions of the puzzle. When you have the obfuscating [Digital access points] pointing away from FINGERTIPS — think of a finger as a "digit" — I'll take any help I can get. Delightful wordplay there, like with its next-door neighbor, IVORY TOWER clued with the repurposed term, "intellectual property."

BREECHING … Jim Horne and I had a lengthy discussion, trying to figure out what [Going from petticoats to pants, once] meant. We think it has to do with graduating to breech pants used as a verb. Even then, it still doesn't click. Hey, it is a Saturday puzzle, and a Walden to boot. Perhaps we shouldn't even have breeched (pun intended) the subject.

Finally, I enjoy the insider touches Byron adds in. To most, cluing ABBA via the song "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" wouldn't set off anyone's spidey-sense. It made me appreciate my years of struggling with Byron's puzzles, a nod to one of his most memorable themes.

Answer: Zephyrhills, FL. Out of 498 urbanized areas, that was one of the few names I'd never heard of.

Sun 10/25/2020 AT THE HALLOWEEN PLAY ...
SLEPTMMSAIMEMAILS
MANORSMYLANTANESTEA
AUDIENCEHISSEDGNAWAT
CRINKLEEPHEMERAPANE
KANTMARIOIRVSTE
BAREBONESRENDITION
DEBGENLTANGELO
AVARIETYOFPARTSLUCAS
SECONDBOLGERSERAPE
HUGPAIGEEATSLIE
SPEXWARTSANDALLGLAD
EELWARMSAUTEIRE
TROJANHATERSANORAK
HURONNOBODYTOACTWITH
ETAILERSIREDMZ
REFLECTEDONHISROLE
ELODOTOATESSAGS
TEXTLIVEOAKSERITREA
AVIARYATTHEWRAPPARTY
PEERATCARSEATMOTETS
ENRAGEALAMREDETOO

I enjoy when constructors take two ideas that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, and mix them in an interesting way. Halloween creatures … and theater? Cool! It reminded me of "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah." Solvers becoming wolves, wolves becoming play-actors!

I'd heard many of these before, witches referenced with respect to WARTS AND ALL in particular, but also VAMPIRES and their lack of reflections, and mummies at a WRAP PARTY. Still, there was something fun about linking them through a play-centered story.

Hoo boy, did I have trouble finishing. The theme answers mostly aren't "in the language," which is fine given the theme, but it's tough to fill in NOBODY TO ACT WITH until you have most of the crosses in place.

ADDED NOTE: Pete mentioned that it's "NO BODY," not NOBODY — makes more sense!

Then, if you don't know BOLGER, MYLANTA, SERAPE, MOTETS, HAKEEM Jeffries, ARRET, ANSE, APIA, and/or get tripped up in the usual suspects of ACRO, ELO, GENL, MME, MMS, MRE, OSSE, among OTRA gluey bits, too …

A 21x21 140-word grid is nothing to sneeze at, even for the most experienced of constructors. It'd be great if Will relaxed his specs, perhaps amending it to 142 or 144 words if you have long theme entries.

I was baffled by ASHOE's clue, too. Why is A SHOE apt to wear in allergy season? Probably … because it prevents your feet from picking up pollen? Jim Horne explained this one to me, that it sounds like "achoo."

Speaking of nothing to sneeze at …

It's not my favorite of Peter's work, but I did appreciate the entertaining juxtaposition of creatures playing roles in a Halloween production.

Mon 10/26/2020
WASIHOPESTATS
ALLMODELERNIE
SOYCODEBREAKER
PEAPODRAESLIT
SELLSATHENA
STANDUPCOMIC
CAFMARXCABIN
AROMACELKNIFE
NEXUSEDITTSA
CHIROPRACTOR
DASHESSADIE
IDEALASIAGREE
GETCRACKINGEVA
ALOHATEPEENES
TENONSEARSDRY

During our weekly chat, Jim Horne and I had a fun exchange on this puzzle.

Me: I love this theme genre, seemingly disparate things connected in an unexpected way. It's a shame that two of them worked much better than the third.

Jim: Fully agreed. Who tells a CHIROPRACTOR to GET CRACKING?

Me: (meekly) … me?

Jim: Excellent humor. Perhaps you're the one who should GET CRACKING with your comedic career.

Me: No, no, no! You might tell a STAND-UP COMIC to crack jokes or make wisecracks, but you'd never use "cracking" by itself. Never. Never! Jeff is getting angry!

Jim: (pause) Another definition of "cracking" is "losing one's composure."

Me: There you go again, the comedian always cracking.

Jim: Didn't you say that when it comes to comedy, you'd never use "cracking" by itself?

Me: Time to crack some heads.

I enjoyed thinking about what other meanings of "crack" could have been used. All of them were terribly inappropriate, though. Even LION TAMER, which I probably wouldn't have balked at twenty years ago, seems cruel these days.

Fantastic gridwork from a newer constructor! I enjoyed all the bonuses, SLY AS A FOX, MUCHACHO, HOODLUM, TRASH CAN, BITTER END. In total, it felt a bit dark, but no doubt, it's all colorful.

The one nit I'll pick: I normally don't care about duplications of short words like "I," but IM COLD I HOPE I AGREE … a bit of an I sore.

With just four themers, every constructor should aim to have this much bonus material while keeping glue to a minimal NES, SKEE, TARE. Solid layout, spacing out his themers as well as his long downs. Great start to the week, definitely some POW! consideration.

POW Tue 10/27/2020
KISSPLUSSLO
AMOKMIAMIUPON
POLITICSASUSUAL
UNOINCHNANNY
TIADUHJODI
TREASUREHUNTER
TELESMEAVA
PAILBRATSABET
ITSSAILDHL
GETTINGMARRIED
ARKSLIELUV
HENCEELSAIRE
TRAININGSEMINAR
TILTLUGESPENS
PEAKNOTANTE

★ I've solved about 3,500 NYT crosswords over the past ten years. That's either impressive or sad — probably a bit of both. What is definitely impressive: a theme I've never quite seen before. It so rarely happens that I had to sit back and marvel at today's.

Puzzleheads are familiar with "letter bank" brainteasers, those where you must form long words using a small set of letters (the "bank"). We've seen plenty of crosswords like this, and the fun NYT "Spelling Bee" feature also depends on the letter bank principle.

There are also plenty of "words within entries that describe the entry" puzzles. Heck, there's even a term for this puzzle type, called "kangaroo words." I'd never have thought to combine these two genres, though. Luci and David did a masterful job of doing just that, in an interesting and elegant way.

POLITICS AS USUAL formed out of the letter bank of US CAPITOL? That's perfect! Each of the four examples works so well, the resultant phrase described, or at least hinted strongly at, by the letter bank phrase.

There's even something for dedicated puzzle junkies who might pooh-pooh any sort of letter bank theme: the letter bank phrases use no duplicated letters. It won't matter to 99% of the solving population, but check out how US CAPITOL doesn't duplicate any letters within itself. Neither does UNEARTHS, or any of the others. It would have been fine to do so, but that would have made it much easier to find usable examples. The fact that Luci and David unearthed four great examples while under a tough constraint makes it even more impressive.

And an exemplary grid, to boot? It's everything I want from a four-themer grid — a couple of long bonuses (SOLO ARTIST, TABLE LINEN), some solid mid-length material (IM ON IT, ALL SET), and short fill that JB Smoove would approve. Not only is there little glue (SLO), but I enjoyed the tie-ins of PIG/RAT in consecutive downs, and PLUS/MINUS in the same region.

An all-around delight from these two Stanford products.

Wed 10/28/2020
TRICKYTOPSTSAR
REMOVEOBOEHURT
IMARETMIKEPENCE
COMPLICATEDAND
ERALSATICEAX
ACREYOURENEVER
ODDZAPSIRA
GABEDEFINECLOY
EGOFALLEMU
REALLYSUREARFS
METOOETTUOPS
YOUGOTTHERIGHT
TRATTORIASEABEE
SORELEVILENORE
KIDDFOOLANSWER

Quote puzzles take so much heat from so many solvers. I constantly hear complaints about them: they're boring, tedious, annoying. The genre may be overdone — "step quotes" go way back to Eugene Maleska — but as with most every genre, there's room for examples that are well done.

Since the quote makes up all of the theme material, it has to generate a big smile or laugh — it's an all or nothing proposition. Today's was too insidery for me, sort of the NYT patting itself on the back for being a pop culture reference, but I can see the amusement factor for others. And it was nice to get the throwback to "Sex and the City" — I shamelessly admit that I watched every single episode. Go Harry!

As with all quote puzzles, I struggled for traction since you can effectively only solve using the Down answers. However, if you make the Down answers and their clues interesting, that makes up for a lot. Some standouts:

  • Campbell's first soup was … TOMATO! Nice bit of trivia that I guessed with no letters in place.
  • That ODD clue felt odd at first. Two-thirds of all Fibonacci numbers? Why should that be? I sat down and wrote them out — 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 — realizing that an even, odd, odd pattern emerged. How is it that this math nerd never knew this?
  • Jon AGEE, the palindromist, clued with such a fun title. One of my daughter's friends is named Otis, and I'm going to go tell him to sit on a potato pan. How does he come up with such great material? (Jon, not snot-nosed Otis.)
  • "The War of the Currents," what a title! Took me a while to determine it had to be TESLA vs. Edison.

It's not a perfect grid — right off the bat, REMORA, IMARET, KVELLED are tough words, and to cross them is borderline unfair — but there was enough to enjoy: SUN DEVIL, BOATYARD, the curious FOGBOW.

I have low expectations for quote puzzles, and this one exceeded through its strong cluing, holding my attention.

Thu 10/29/2020
FREEZESOTBACH
DARNITHURALOE
AMALGAMATEDIAL
ISLANDERBRO
BIASLEOODIST
INSTALLDAISES
DOTBEERODD
NOMATTERWHICH
USBPESOAAA
SCATHEPEGASUS
PAYEEAMOPALP
AVESUPERCOP
RIALFASTASLEEP
TAYEORSEMERGE
ARESSTYNOTNOW

NOT NOW often would indicate "take away the letters NOW." What a fun idea to interpret it as NO T, NO W! I appreciate that a debut constructor make such an interesting mental leap.

I also appreciate that Kurt recognized the prior art in this theme genre. I had also thought of Robyn's puzzle, as well as several others, like this fun one from Tim Polin. It's great to see when a person has done their research.

Some of the clue/entry pairs worked better for me than others. The best ones are those where clue feels so inapt, or better yet, wildly incorrect — so much so that you want to dash off an angry email to Will Shortz.

"Tawny" means NO MATTER WHICH? No matter, my butt! Dear Mr. Stupid Shortz … (diatribe) … hit send!

Oh. That's "Tawny" going to "any"? Retract send!

I started in the upper right, knowing BACH's B minor mass, and I was off to the races. I filled in COARSE, imagining that sure, [Wrought] iron could be COARSE. Makes a lot more sense when you realize that the clue is actually [rough]! I bet a lot of solvers will miss that, though. We've highlighted the affected entries below. It's great that they're symmetrical, but it would have been better to make them stand out better somehow. Starring the clues would have given away the game, but that's better than solvers not realizing that there even is a game.

Not the smoothest grid in the world, with some wrought — er, rough — entries like OSMO, AMO, ERN, PALP (which I always confuse with PAP). It's an unfortunate byproduct of cramming extra short themers into the grid. Long across bonuses like SUPERCOP often create problems because they have to work in parallel with themers — no surprise that AMO and OSMO are direct results of the layout.

Overall though, great to see a debut from Down Under, and a fun one at that.

Fri 10/30/2020
NAZARENERAJAHS
ORALEXAMAMULET
DOMINATEDESADE
RUBELTRAINTBA
ASEATESLADEEM
MEZZOROOTBEERS
ASIANSNEERING
LEISIT
DEEPSIGHSILEX
KALAMAZOOKEANE
AYESBOOTYSTAR
PTAMEDDLESEMO
LINTELJASONFOX
AMORALOVERHERE
NERUDABASELESS

Ah, Trenton and your love for rare letters, I got you figured out! Copies, in a way? Say no more, it has to be XEROXES! Heat-resistant glass? PYREX!

D'oh! Or should I say, DEEP SIGH(LEX).

I've become a little jaded with Trenton's obsession with rare letters, but I enjoyed today's puzzle. I do appreciate those JQXZs, when they're worked in with buttery smoothness. NAZARENE, ORAL EXAM, MEZZO … some might argue that MEZZO is iffy, but anything that reminds me of Parks and Rec is a plus in my book.

I did hesitate at JASON FOX. I used to be a devout Sunday comics reader, and I own several compilations of various strips. Heck, I even gave my niece a "Foxtrot" book a few years ago! Recalling Jason Fox didn't come easy, though. The entry is two recognizable names, so it feels fair, but the "huh factor" isn't worth the J and the X.

I finished in the top right corner, and I did appreciate that once I put in Mitch HEDBERG, I knew [Some Eastern dignitaries] would have to be RAJAHS. What would a grid like this be, without a single rare letter in that corner, after all? Having the insider knowledge about Trenton did make me feel smart, even smug, and who doesn't like a little smugness with their morning coffee?

The cluing was dynamite. [Flow down a mountain] did a great job of misdirecting toward the verb sense of "flow." The innocent [Spoils] made me instinctively put in an S at the end, not realizing that it could be BOOTY. And although I've seen some "decrease" = "de-crease" clues before, I still appreciated it in the STEAMS clue.

I can imagine solvers who aren't as attuned to the preferences of longtime constructors loving this one, marveling at all those Js, Xs, and Zs.

Sat 10/31/2020
BESTSELLERSCAR
ACCENTAIGUCANA
CHARLESTONARID
KORNARTSRAMI
EECALGERTAPAS
DREAMONICEBATH
COSAPAMCEE
MALLETSPEEDS
ALABIBSTUN
TOWPATHAEROSOL
TUNASULTRAVOL
RESTSTEPREDO
ETATCAERPHILLY
STLOUNDERRATED
SEENDISPOSSESS

That clue for PATTON! I read it five times and still didn't understand. PATTON suggested that you shouldn't die for your country? Make "the other dumb bastard" die for his country?

Apparently, I'm the dumb bastard (who still doesn't get it). Great clue, I'm still chewing on it!

Fun clue for ALOUETTE, too. I started by swearing up a blue streak, how the #$%@! am I supposed to know French songs … ah, right. Jaunty ALOUETTE, indeed!

A week and a half ago, I had the NYT Tuesday puzzle, and I got a flood of angry feedback about crossing SATRIANI with ISSA. Completely valid vitriol; I let my personal assumptions blind me, instead of going back and carefully assessing whether or not I was setting up solvers for a win.

Similarly, I ended up with one error today, although I didn't feel confident about several spots. A cloud might SPUD across the sky … since clouds look like mashed potatoes? PAERPHILLY, sure, why not?

That cheesed me off.

Thankfully, my high school French came back for ACCENT AIGU. If ETE wasn't beaten into my head through crosswords (same with TERN), that could have made a guess like ACCEN' L'AIGU seem possible. Not probable, but possible.

CARAPACE is a surprisingly common(ish) crossword entry. Although it's a bit esoteric, it has such beautifully strict consonant/vowel alternation, making it ideal for the middle of crossword stacks. I remembered it from a previous crossword, but I'd be sympathetic to solvers who put in CORAPACE / CONA or CERAPACE / CENA.

I got an exhaustive workout from this one, appropriate given Stella's CrossFit studliness. I don't imagine I'm the only solver who she smashed with that keg (pictured above) today, though, so it's not my favorite of her products. Still, it's useful for me to swallow a big mouthful of humble pie once in a while. Getting crushed only motivates me to improve my solving skills.

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