This web browser is not supported. Use Chrome, Edge, Safari, or Firefox for best results.


Puzzles for November, 2014
with Jeff Chen comments

Sat 11/1/2014

I've attended several ACPTs now but always judging, never competing. Is that because I take a perverse pleasure in watching as the poor suckers — er, contestants — struggle with one of the hardest puzzles of the year in what's come to be spoken in a hushed tone: "THE DREADED PUZZLE #5." Maybe. Okay, yes.

Trip's puzzle was scheduled to be that crazy Puzzle #5 this past year, but due to an unfortunate videotaping, it got pulled at the last moment. And man oh man did it live up to reputation. I ended up finishing most of it after the better part of three sit-down sessions, and boy oh boy was it worth it. Trip gives us a few "arithmetic clues" like 33 — 21, but those numbers refer to the specific entries in the grid. For instance, 33 — 21 = NET SALES — COSTS = GROSS PROFIT. Clever idea! Even better were ones where the symbol was disguised, i.e. 61 + 86 = PERT PLUS RIVAL = NEUTROGENA. I love that sort of cunning trickery.

From a constructor's viewpoint, it's amazing to see how much theme density Trip packed in. Each of the four themers requires a set of three entries. Not only that, Trip laid them out so that none of the secret theme entries starts on a square starting both an across and a down entry. For example, a natural place to sneak a bonus entry is at 1A or 1D, but those are both no-gos since doing so would leave the solver confused as to whether 1A or 1D is the bonus answer — what an elegant touch.

And to do all of this with a relatively smooth fill is pretty incredible. Sure, we see an LA RAM here and an ORA there, but those LURER type entries are minor. There is some freedom in that Trip was able to place his pairs of bonus entries in multiple places, but achieving a smooth fill with this many constraints really shouldn't be possible. I've highlighted the triplets of theme answers for solvers' benefit, so everyone can visualize just how jam-packed this grid is.

And some devious clues. ERASE, how could that be [Cut from a log]? Much more logical when you think about a ship's log. [HE is one] makes sense, but only after thinking of He as the symbol for helium.

Seriously hard solve for me, with a neat a-ha moment.

Sun 11/2/2014BP STATION

Sound change puzzle today, Bs morphing into Ps, thus a "BP STATION." What I really like about BEQ's execution is the surprising nature of the word changes. It would be easy to replace Bs for Ps straight up (in the vein of BERTH to PERTH), but BEQ gives us a selection of complex changes. BLACK HEART becomes PLAQUE HEART, BLAZE OF GLORY becomes PLAYS OF GLORY, etc. Excellent way to give a traditional type of theme a little extra zing. Birch beer still

I nearly didn't finish the puzzle, due to the wide-open NE and SW corners. Sometimes I cringe at Sunday puzzles with such big swaths of white, because they're so difficult to fill cleanly. More often than not, they'll need a crazy –ER (RECEDER = one who recedes) or something to make them work. What beautiful work in those corners today. 7x4 blocks are rough enough to fill cleanly, but BEQ gives us extras: TINY TOT, HEMLINE, SHOP FOR, GIRL SHY, and the full IDI AMIN. That's the kind of extra meat that gives heft to a puzzle.

It did feel a bit odd to me that PERCH PIER was the only themer with a double change (BIRCH BEER), but if you're going to have one stand out, that final theme position is a good one to utilize. Sort of stamp of finality on the puzzle: a SportsCenter "boo-yah!" if you will.

And with most constructors, I'd be perfectly fine with non-theme Bs floating around the puzzle. I'm sure it would have been even harder to achieve a clean fill with the constraint of using no Bs, period. If I could pick a handful of people who could pull off this nice bonus though, BEQ's name would be on that short list. Ah, the onus of high expectations brought on by consistent excellence.

Good, solid Sunday puzzle which will likely appeal to a wide range of NYT solvers due to its accessibility and its strong execution.

Mon 11/3/2014

Initialisms kick off the week, theme phrases starting with CC. Such a shame that Zhouqin "C.C." Burnikel wasn't somehow involved! (One of my first LA Times puzzles was a similar CC theme, directly inspired by C.C.)

Many novice solvers like simpler themes, and initialisms can serve that purpose well. I find that these types of themes land most solidly when 1.) the theme phrases are all colorful, 2.) there's some selectivity or completeness to the themers, and 3.) an extra element gives the solver an additional layer of complexity. Back when this type of theme appeared on the scene, none of these criteria would have been important (to me, at least), but crosswords rapidly evolve.

Cletus from The Simpsons

On the first criteria, I like COLBY COLLEGE and COLOR COPYING quite a lot. Neither is sizzling hot, but they do the trick. I hadn't heard of COUNTRY COUSIN, so that's hard for me to judge. Sounds fun, anyway, and anything that gives me a laugh by thinking about Cletus from The Simpsons is good in my book. COMPASS COURSE (93K Google hits)… isn't it a COMPASS HEADING (257K Google hits)? That's what I'm used to, at least.

The second criteria: it might have felt tighter to me if the initials were something harder like JV, or if a specific subset of all the CCs out there had been selected. CC is a pretty easy set of initials to work with. Many ways to uncover potential candidates, but a "C* C*" search over at turns up quite a bit (even with the "Common words and phrases" option). My favorite might be CREDIT CRUNCH, given my personal interest in corporate finance, but I bet something like a COVER CHARGE might be more universal.

Finally, some je ne sais quoi element could have helped. Four CCs, stat! Hmm — that doesn't quite work. Maybe a little three-letter entry like CCS (as in email CCs:) could have tied it all together? Other ways might have been packing the grid with six or even eight crossing CC answers. Many possibilities, anyway.

I really like some of the extras in YOINKS! and DON'T ASK. That, along with TY COBB and OH YEAH = Janet taking great advantage of her shorter pieces of fill. Many constructors focus all their efforts on entries of 8+ letters, and let their sixes and sevens slide. Not Janet! Well done there, excellent bonus material to help beef up the solve.

ADDED NOTE: oftentimes, I'm a doofus (dare I say, a COUNTRY COUSIN?). Perhaps more often than "often," actually. A few people, including Will, have pointed out that the theme is actually CO* CO*, which definitely helps with theme tightness. There aren't nearly as many options when it comes to that letter pattern. I'm curious to see how many people actually recognized this CO* CO* pattern vs. those on a COLLISION COURSE with my blunderous assumption — I've heard from people on both sides of the coin! Sorry C.C. — I'm pulling you from my Notes and pinch-hitting (the Oakland A's outfielder) COCO Crisp to bat for you.

Tue 11/4/2014

Another solid offering from Joel, this one reinterpreting common phrases as words from a critic. Exceedingly smooth given the five themers and all the long fill he treats us to.

Really nice use of the pinwheel arrangement, which is often easier to fill cleanly than normal horizontal theme layouts, since it separates four themers into quadrants that can be filled one at a time. I personally like to use it, but only when the theme is readily apparent, so I can toss in a lot of long fill without worrying about confusing a solver with regard to what's theme and what's fill. Given that the themers are so distinct from the rest of the puzzle, Joel does well to take full advantage of the pinwheel today, tossing in bonus long entries all over the place — while doing it with sparkling cleanliness. These days I expect to get at least one pair of long fill entries, and two pairs is a nice bonus, helping a puzzle to stand out. To get three pairs (including THE WAVE and ALL DONE!), with virtually no crossword glue, is a real treat.

I often think about consistency when assessing a puzzle. I thought Joel had struck gold when I first uncovered LOVE BITES and MOON ROCKS, as both start with a rocker and end with a word of commentary. So it confused me when I got to BIG STINKS, making me wonder if BIG was some rocker I didn't know. In general, I'd prefer to have everything from the same category, or everything different, but not a mixture. Even switching MOON to reference Warren MOON would have made things copacetic for me.

And perhaps today is a case of "less is more." As much as I admire the difficulty level of working in the fifth themer, HOUSE / RULES, I found it almost a bit dilutive, detracting from the simplicity of having themers around the perimeter. I think I would have preferred just four themers, with half of them bad reviews and half of them rave, or all one or the other.

But overall, another admirable, audacious construction from Joel; a fun solve with great bonus material.

Wed 11/5/2014

I was glad to read Gareth's note, as my ineptitude with pop music did me in today. I was trying to figure out if the four songs were all ones that had repeated words? Or maybe the artists all tied together somehow? Now it makes more sense, all of the themers being ones featuring sound effects. And I was a little embarrassed to find out that there are actually six themers, including IKO IKO and SHBOOM. Pop music, my arch enemy!

I really appreciate Gareth's comment about not trying to do too much. Shows a level of self-awareness and maturity that not a lot of constructors (or people in general — sigh) get to. I was all set to comment about the flow of crossword glue around the EMI / RMN / CSA region, but now that pile-up makes more sense given how many constraints Gareth put on himself. Just dealing with a huge string of M's is a tough enough task. Throw in IKO IKO and SHBOOM as further challenges, and I'm impressed that Gareth got the grid as clean as he did.

All those constraints in the middle of the puzzle did force him to deploy a lot of his black squares, which is a reason why we see big swaths of white in the NW and SE. Working with a maximum word count of 78, placing a lot of short words in one region usually means having to fill a few longer spaces elsewhere. So getting the unfortunate pile-up of ONT / OTT / DEO is a side-effect, in a way, of the huge theme density and high constraints.

It's tough for me to assess pop music puzzles given my fourth-grade level of knowledge there, but I think I would have appreciated this one more if there were a more overt way all the themers tied together. Even a music moron like myself can grok the repetition factor of IKO IKO, MMM MMM MMM MMM, and DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO. Not as easy for me to tell how the others fit in. I don't often like being hit over the head with a metaphorical hammer (or a real one, for that matter), but in this case a little noggin-tapping would have been a good thing.

POW Thu 11/6/2014

★ I really enjoyed this one. Sometimes puzzles trying to do too much fall flat, but this hybrid of part tricky Thursday and part themeless-style fill worked well for me. There's not a huge amount of theme — PARTING of the RED / SEA, plus PHARAOH, ISRAELI, MOSES, and EGYPT — but the visual PARTING of the unclued entries RED and SEA was a neat added bonus.

Although there's not a huge theme density at 37 theme squares, the fact that there are essentially five seed answers (four short ones plus RED / PARTING / SEA across the middle) ups the level of difficulty. Matt does well to spread his themers around, placing the four loose ones into different quadrants of the grid, which allows for high flexibility in fill. Take for example, the SE corner. With just EGYPT fixed into place, Matt has great freedom to place colorful entries like SAO PAULO, TIRE IRON, and PEEPER, working that corner through dozens of possibilities.

And the clues are strong, with themeless-level cleverness. YETI gives us a really interesting bit of trivia. [Snake's place, in part] mystified me, until I realized the "snake" was actually a capitalized "Snake," i.e. the Snake River. Great use of placement, hiding that capital letter at the very beginning of the clue. BERG also gave me a great a-ha moment when I realized 4/14/12 was talking about 4/14/1912, not 4/4/2012. Excellent piece of deception.

Just like any puzzle, it's not perfect, with its smattering of OSTE, IDAS, ALEE, A MAN. But notice how these four bits of crossword glue are spread out? That deft touch made those four bits less apparent for me during my solve. And I did find PESACH a bit of an ODD ONE, but it was buried in the recesses of my memory banks somewhere. A Jewish buddy of mine confirmed that it's totally legit.

Overall, a highly entertaining solve for me. I like puzzles that break molds and conventions, and I found the mixture of the trickiness of a Thursday and the chock-full goodness of a themeless to be spot on.

Fri 11/7/2014

In writing, there's an elusive quality all the greats have, termed "voice." It's so tough to figure out what that term really means, because when you ask publishers, editors, agents, critics, they say they can't describe it, but they know it when they read it. Frustrating!

When it comes to "voice" in crosswords, I ask the question: can I figure out who wrote the puzzle? Probably 99% of the time, I'd be taking wild guesses way off the mark. But I bet more often than not, I'd be able to pick out Patrick Berry's work out of a line-up. Today's is no exception. Exceedingly smooth fill. A lower-word count grid than mere mortals can successfully achieve. Not a lot of Scrabbly letters, but more than made up for with wickedly clever cluing (exhibit A, B, C: INDENT, MOOED, ALKALI). More "neutral" long entries than on an average themeless (EMBARGOES, OCEANSIDE, THREEFOLD), but each one turned into a positive via a really well-written clue. Quintessential Berry.

Flipped grid

A small suggestion: I might have "flipped" this grid, along a diagonal from the NW to SE (see left). Normally this isn't a great or even viable option, in that solvers tend to like to enter their long answers from left to right, not from top to bottom. There's something about human vision that makes it much easier to see answers in one's mind if they're oriented horizontally, not vertically. But Patrick has so much good long fill in both directions, I think it would have worked fine to flip the grid. The big bonus for me is that the one weak link in my opinion, DEMOB, gets buried in the middle of the puzzle, hardly noticeable in comparison to its currently featured position at the top of the grid.

A friend once told me that it's not uncommon for new writers to spend a few years copying other writers' voices, either consciously or (more commonly) subconsciously, before developing their own unique voice. I'm personally still developing my themeless construction skills, and I'm not ashamed to say that copying Patrick (or attempting to, anyway) is helping me to develop my own themeless voice.

Sat 11/8/2014

Nice offering from Barry today, a good example of his "crossword voice." A lot of strong material — EARTHRISE, BIOWEAPON, BLOOMBERG, what a great triplet — along with a smattering of crossword glue, plus a nod to the Phillies. Quintessential Barry Silk.

I'm usually not a fan of themeless layouts featuring seven-letter words, as constructors often fill those slots with neutral entries rather than colorful ones. But look what Barry does today in the NE corner. The triplet of LA BAMBA, STEP MOM, and AIR TAXI is really strong, plus everything around it is solid. He does sacrifice a little in terms of grid flow in order to achieve this, as there are only two entries that can help the solver break into that corner. But when those two entries are super strong ones like CEREAL BOX and GAS TAX, I don't mind as much.

A note on "clue echoes." Repeated clues work really well for me when they refer to completely different things. For example, POOL ROOMS and AILERON both are clued with respect to banking, but that word has wildly disparate meanings in the two clues. For POOL ROOMS, it's talking about banking shots off of rails; for AILERON, it's referring to a plane banking to turn. That sort of creative connection is a huge plus in my book.

I personally don't like clue echoes as much when they're within the exact same wheelhouse. [Searchlight element] for example, clues both XENON and BEAM. Along with (the awesome!) BATSIGNAL also being clued in a similar fashion, this repetition gets a bit tedious for me. Personal taste.

Alternate middle section

There aren't any ugly entries, just minor offenders. It's a shame that the weakest entries — L RON, SOLS, EL AL (SHEB Wooley ... he seemed to reach decent fame during his time, so he seems okay) — are concentrated in one region. L RON might have been something like FRED or FRAN (TAIL becoming NAIF; most of that section changing) but it would have required PICT, the ancient Briton, in the place of PACT (see left). I have a peculiar distaste for partials, but I can see how others would deem L RON as "gettable" and PICT as "too esoteric." As always, subjectivity is such a big part of construction.

A lot of tough but clever clues in this one. For those of you still mystified by [Binder?], think not of a school binder, but a bind-er, as in "something that binds."

Finally, I wish crosswords could evolve faster with respect to new technology. I hadn't looked up the "Earthrise" picture until Barry mentioned it. Super glad he did, because I forgot how breathtaking it is. How cool would it be to have a visual clue, just the picture, similar to Jeopardy? No idea how to do this given the medieval state of the art in crossword programs, but a guy can wish. Seems like this is a huge opportunity for someone enterprising, given the rapid evolution of crosswords.


Such a clever concept! Tom has only recently emerged onto the crossword scene, but I've been as impressed with his body of work as any other newish constructor coming to mind. Today he treats us to "COLORFUL CHARACTERS," i.e. words that collectively FORM LETTERS. I've color-coded them in the grid below to make the idea more apparent. My favorite was BLUE JAY, composed of (BLUE) BERRY, (BLUE) RIBBON, and (BLUE) MOON.

What most impressed me was the cleanliness of fill in the grid. Sunday puzzles adhering to Will's 140 word maximum are hard enough to put together, and when you throw in crossing constrains all over the grid, it becomes so much more difficult. Very few people are up to this task — I would expect to see some or even a lot of glue required to hold sections together, particularly around the giant letters. For example, that huge yellow C is highly constrained, and really ought to need some crossword schmutz to hold it together. But Tom deploys black squares and cheater squares wisely, figuring out how to assemble the corner using only RTE. I imagine that must have taken a lot of iteration to get right. The entire grid is so well executed.

One thing I would have liked was more connectivity between the giant letters and the phrases they represented. Like many other solvers, I don't care for cross-referenced clues, especially when their answers are physically far apart in the grid. A similar principle was in operation here. YELLOW SEA is so nicely in proximity to the big yellow letter. BLUE JAY however, was so far away that I sort of lost interest in that connection.

I'm not actually sure if this issue could be redressed, given how many constraints this concept required. Since there are very few FORM LETTERS that would work (RUBY DEE is the only other one I could think of), and the lengths of 7/8/8/9 necessitate the mirror symmetry, there's not a lot of options to work through. But perhaps instead of placing the four big letters in the corners, they could have been positioned in the north, west, east, and south, along with their respective "revealers" nearby. That might have meant removing FORM LETTERS, but I think "COLORFUL CHARACTERS" is such a perfect title that FORM LETTERS almost dilutes the effect.

A very tough order, but I bet Tom might have been one of the few up to the task.

But overall, a great idea, very fun solve for me, and that's what matters. Perhaps if I could have turned off my annoying constructor's brain I would have given it the Puzzle of the Week. It was a close call and a tough decision — I love having those types of problems!

Stupid brain.

Mon 11/10/2014

"Donnie Brasco" easily made it to my Tier 2 list of movies, and I remember struggling with the decision whether to elevate it to the vaunted Tier 1. Loved, loved, loved FUHGEDDABOUDIT! It almost spoils the rest of the puzzle for me, since as soon as I uncovered it, I was off to Youtube, watching that clip roughly 143 times.

Strong theme answers, each of them ones I'd be happy to see in a themeless puzzle. I was hoping to see AINT GONNA HAPPEN or ARE YOU HIGH, but what are you going to do. Fuhgeddaboudit!

And what nice clean fill. As I solve puzzles, little ORTS or OLIO give me slight cringes as I go, but I had exactly zero of them today. I went back to evaluate afterward, and I was pleasantly surprised to see really nothing I'd personally avoid. Even the partial FOR A feels perfectly fine to me, since it can be clued to the plural of FORUM. This puzzle exemplifies the type of crossword gluelessness I like to see.

Back when I worked as a mechanical engineer, I'd tell people they could have two of the following three things: cheap, fast, high-quality. (There's a similar principle in macroeconomics called "The Unholy Trinity," which I'll just link to since it's bound to bore everyone except me and exactly one other person.) I'm working on a parallel concept for crossword fill: you can have two of the following three: clean short fill, Scrabbliness, and quality long fill. It's THE CROSSWORD UNHOLY TRINITY! Now, if someone could only figure out how to make a CUT above the rest.

Today, Bruce goes hog wild on the first two. I often worry when I see a lot of JQXZ letters, since these tend to compromise the "clean short fill" criteria, but he does great in these two categories, with nary a piece of crossword glue, and one each of the Big Four of Scrabbly letters (JQXZ). Ah, then the Impossible Trinity kicks in, the quality long fill going AWOL. I would have liked to see at least one pair of long down entries, perhaps by taking out the block between VEND and HIP TO, and its symmetrical partner. Or even extending 5D to seven letters — seven letter answers are harder to fill will sparkly stuff than 8+ letter entries, but it can be done.

Nice start to the week, four really fun themers, with a very clean fill. Off to watch that "Donnie Brasco" clip a few more (dozen) times.

Tue 11/11/2014

Cool find today, phrases with two UP instances in each. I like when I'm surprised by puzzles, and it was a nice aha moment when I got to the revealer. I had no idea what all the themers had in common, and finding the simple UP / UP pattern gave me a smile. Chupa Chups logo

Simple pattern… or was it? Out of curiosity, I went back to see if this was actually a task difficult enough to required the odd CHUPA CHUPS (which I now realize is pretty commonplace, especially outside the US — James said he remembered the brand from his time in London). To my surprise, all I could find was CUP OF SOUP (which sounds better to me, but CUP A SOUP is clearly a thing), SUPER DUPER, and SUPPORT GROUP(S). Sometimes I have a theme concept and I just can't figure out that fourth themer and have to let it go. Kudos for digging deep to uncover both CHUPA CHUPS and its culturally interesting clue. (He mentioned to me that he tried to keep all the crosses very fair because many solvers might have trouble with it, and I think he did well in that regard.)

I liked a lot of the longer fill, too. LOUIS CK isn't my thing, but he's definitely crossworthy. And as much as I liked AFTER DARK, LOVE CHILD, APPLE TV, and ALL CAPS with its appropriate clue, I loved MACULA. (Bruce Haight, who constructed yesterday's puzzle and is an ophthalmologist, got scooped on this one.) I know, you're thinking, "What the what?" The company I helped a friend start, Acucela Inc., the one we built from two people to now a public company, is focused on addressing dry form age-related macular degeneration, which affects more than 10 million Americans. Seeing MACULA brings me back to those days, and keeps me crossing my fingers for emuxistat's potential. I like when a crossword leaves one a good feeling, and so many entries can do that.

The shorter fill suffered a bit, but only with minor offenders like EST, NCO, ON AN, OISE, etc. And I'm mixed on "SOO…?" Feels a bit arbitrary. Overall, it seemed like a tad much, but I was okay with it because of all the nice longer fill it enabled.

Overall, a fun solve, tinged with a bit of "what is this" when I got to CUP A SOUP and CHUPA CHUPS. But considering those were needed to round out the theme, I can overlook my personal feelings of ambivalence around those two answers, and appreciate all the other aspects this puzzle has to offer.

Wed 11/12/2014

RECORD gets "broken" across multiple entries today, with a BROKEN / RECORD revealer. I can see why Will pointed out the long down entries he liked — with HORSE CAR, BAT AN EYE punnily placed next to ROD CAREW, CHEERIO, TURN RED, VIAGRA with its fun Hef-related clue, that's a lot of added bonus material.

I liked the diversity in how Daniel broke up RECORD, too: RE / CORD, RE / COR (although I don't care much for this little bit of glue) / D, R / ECO / RD, REC / ORD. I can see how it would have been a challenge to figure out how to do this, and I appreciated the difficulty of the task. Some of the "theme answers" are pretty good, too: GRANDMERE was fun even though it reminded me of my five grueling years of high school French, of which I remember rien. It would have been nice to get a few sizzling "theme entries" though — perhaps something like CORD BLOOD or BUSH V GORE.

Sometimes I wonder if my stupid memory spoils puzzles for me. Around the time I first started dong puzzles, I ran into this tricky Thursday puzzle and was just blown away. It made me realize how clever crossword themes could be; how they could be a true expression of creativity, and how I badly wanted to become a part it. This puzzle unfortunately comes to mind every time I see a theme type with words broken across multiple entries, separated with a black square. It's completely unfair to today's puzzle, but it is what it is.

There are a lot of constraints Daniel had to work with. Five themers is hard enough. But when you split four of those themers and fix black squares into place like this (between EIRE COR DESERT, for example), you deplete your allotment of black squares much earlier than usual. Makes for big, wide-open spaces in the four corners. It's good to hear Daniel say he perseverated (my wife had to tell me what that meant) over the short fill, as I definitely noticed the globs of glue during my solve. I don't mind A BONE here (hey, ULNA is A BONE!), ORAMA there, etc. but it felt to me like there was quite a bit. And the partial TAKE ME… most editors these days disallow 6+ letter partials (Merl Reagle being the only one I can think of who's okay with them), so I was surprised to see the exception.

Nice to hear constructors aim for higher and higher standards. I love that type of continual quest to make oneself better.

Thu 11/13/2014

Cool concept, phrases with the "*ON *" pattern literalized into two stacked answers. It came relatively quickly for me when I got to CARS(ON) CITY, but that didn't hinder my enjoyment. Very neat that Tracy picked all themers that when put into their arranged pairs, read as regular crossword entries! CARS, SEAS, SURGE, CORD, HARRIS are all fine answers in their own right, so at first glance, the grid looks like nothing tricksy is going on. Well done; a touch of elegance.

The asymmetry in the center did bug me a tiny bit. I liked this concept well enough that perhaps with a few more touches, it would have been my Puzzle of the Week. I don't know if it would have been possible to have a three-word stack in the center, but that would have been a gigantic bonus. As it was, I wondered where the symmetrical entry to SURGE was. Perhaps this is asking way too much — after a quick search, all I could find that was remotely close was MASON DIXON LINE.

The Mason Dixon line

But of course, MAS doesn't symmetrically pair up with LINE. Rats! (Such a shame too, since Mason "The Line" Dixon is a hilarious movie name.) It would be interesting to hear from someone with a clever idea on how to discover a workable central entry. Perhaps a genius programmer, like Alex Boisvert or Bob Klahn, perhaps?

The stacked entries did force some compromises in the fill, too. Stacked entries almost always bring challenges, as we see that embodied in OLEA, ORTS, SAHEL running through theme pairs. I think some of those might have been alleviated by a little more space — counterintuitive, perhaps? In this type of situation, a 4x4 chunk like in the NW can actually be tougher than a 5x4, in that a little extra space allows for more possibilities.

I might not have even blinked at the compromises, knowing that the cool theme would likely result in a few, except that there were other bits spread around. SERE is the worst offender in my eyes, being a word very people ever use. If there had been just one of ORTS and SERE, two of the examples people tend to point out when they talk about "crosswordese," that would have been much better.

Finally, I loved several clues in here. [One pulling strings?] is great, for a piano TUNER. And SURGE(ON) GENERAL did double duty, as a nice themer, and with its clever clue. [… head doctor] made me immediately think of ENTs, which is exactly the type of misdirection I like. Beautiful stuff. Overall, such a fun solve.

Fri 11/14/2014

Nice mini-theme; really enjoyed it. I'm beginning to reconsider my position on mini-themes — before I've said that I like them once in a while, but I've been more and more appreciating the extra juice they give, goosing up my solving enjoyment. This one was a little kooky in that the B -> B♭ -> Bb6 progression is slightly marred in my eyes because a flat symbol is not equivalent to a lowercase "b," but I admire the audacious approach. A triple stack of this nature is no small feat.

Speaking of no small feats, there's a reason why mirror symmetry is rare in themelesses. Why? Because a basic tenet of many themelesses is to use four separate stacks of 8's, 9's, or 10's, one pushed into each corner. This isn't possible using mirror symmetry — four sets of stacked 7's yes, but anything higher, no — so a constructor must break new ground. Takes a bold person to venture into largely unknown territory.

Dog-eared page

Some beautiful clues, too. [They might catch some rays] has nothing to do with UV rays — it's referring to manta rays. DOG EAR has a brilliant clue, playing on the "turn over a new leaf" idiom. PRINCES succeed to the throne, not succeed in life goals (although some do both, I suppose). Even the little AVE shines; States Ave. getting its capital letter camouflaged at the beginning of the clue. A lot of cleverness imbued into the cluing today.

Interesting point Will brings up. I lean toward the test-solver who frowny-faced at the LETTER quasi-dupe. On one hand, Will is the editor and gets to make the rules. On the other, the quasi-dupe feels inelegant to me. I realize that's a completely subjective assessment based on my own biases, but it is what it is. Not a broken law by any means; perhaps more of a hitch.

Same goes for the number of three-letter words. I did feel like the solve was slightly choppy, and I'm guessing this was partially due to these little guys. Most of them are fine, but the effect en masse took a little away for me. Similarly, I tend to notice when the crossword glue count gets over about five. Here, the combination of ENOL, ALL BY, A TALE, IN HER, LOLAS, ESA, etc. felt like too much.

So, some compromises, perhaps too many for me, but overall I appreciate Joe's neverending quest to do something different. There's very few people who push the envelope as much as he does.

POW Sat 11/15/2014

★ Loved this puzzle. Perhaps I'm simply on Peter's wavelength (although he's younger, a much better Ultimate player than this recently retired handler, and makes much more colorful themelesses — harrumph), but this grid sang to me.

Let's start with the raw quantity of assets. I count (roughly) 18, an amazingly high number. Typically I enjoy a themeless if it has ten assets as the very least, and the NYT averages 12(ish). I'm in awe of how smoothly Peter worked AFFLUENZA through that pair of MOONWALKS / PIZZA PIES. Beautiful but very difficult way to up one's asset count. Same goes for HONEY BEAR running through TAX CHEAT / WORKHORSE / HOLE IN ONE.

With such a high asset count, I'd expect some liabilities on the ledger making this possible. Sure, there's XKES, and … ETD? LTR? Let's put the liability count at two, since those last two are so minor. An (assets — liabilities) count of 16? Takes sky-high expertise to make this happen. I'm satisfied when that (assets - liabilities) number is over ten, so 16 is just silly.

And Scrabbly letters: the JQXZ count is four, pretty high. Dare I say, Peter has already broken my CROSSWORD UNHOLY TRINITY (CUT) principle? Damn you, Wentz!

I don't like to give unbalanced reviews — there's almost always some good and some not so good in any puzzle — but I feel like I'd have to stretch to ridiculous nits to say more about the puzzle's drawbacks. Maybe say something about how THE FED (great answer) isn't really a market leader (or shouldn't be, more accurately) so should have a question mark? I could have used a few more clever clues, perhaps something about PIZZA PIES being a "toss-up," or an interesting bit of trivia for a HOLE IN ONE?

Eh, forget it. With the sizzling grid and clues like ASNER referencing Lou Grant, KNEE PATCH extending the life of pants, not the length, and TAPS echoing Eine kleine Nachtmusik, I near 100% loved this puzzle.


Easy-breezy theme, people reinterpreted for jobs that would be horrible for them. Man oh man, would I hate for my mohel to be STEVIE NICKS! (Don't look up "mohel" if you're squeamish.) Entertaining bunch of themers, BRAM STOKER and GLORIA ALLRED my favorite because of their surprising interpretations.

I usually don't care about "debut words" — many of them are new only to the NYT, or new but glue-y entries — but today I'm making an exception because Andrew has a really interesting assortment. EXHIPPIES is a true debut (as far as can tell based on the cruciverb database and Matt Ginsberg's extensive clued database) and a fantastic answer in my book. SPIN A YARN is nice, but it's been in CrosSynergy, the LAT, and the WSJ before. CHIME IN ON as well — made its first appearance in the LAT a while back.

Shoe lasts

GRAD PHOTO ... it's a debut, but it sounds odd to my ear, and it's marginal on the Google hit count (122K). If Andrew loved grad photos or had a business doing it, that would be one thing. But I personally wouldn't use it unless I had to, in order to make something really nice work. SHOE LAST, I'm mixed on. Clearly it's a thing and it Googles well, but it feels neutral to slightly ugly to me. Anyway, I appreciate the diversity within the constructor community — I'm sure I'll hear from people saying that I'm crazy; that everyone should love GRAD PHOTO. (I'll agree on the former.)

I often talk about specificity, and this puzzle is a good example of that. It's totally fine as it is, but given how many famous people have a last name that would work in this theme, I would have loved an extra layer. Maybe all singers. All related professions. Some extra layer that pulls everything together even more strongly. I understand where Andrew's coming from though, giving a wide assortment so that there's something for everyone helps play to a very varied and large NYT solving audience. Just feels a bit too loosey-goosey for me, personally.

Anyway, a fun solve, and I liked seeing Andrew's unique voice shine through with his assortment of newish entries.

Mon 11/17/2014

Fun experience today, trying to figure out what these people had in common as I went through the puzzle. I had no idea each of them had a twin — pretty cool, considering I'm an identical twin myself, a member of the UW Twin Registry, and have participated in twin studies. (The electrode experiment was surprisingly mild. And shockingly fun.)

The number 13 carries so many negative connotations in our society, and much of it is based on superstition. But in crosswords, there's a real reason to be scared. Patrick Berry calls the 13-letter entry an "inconvenient length," and for good reason. Alternate grid with more black squares ASHTON KUTCHER and MARIO ANDRETTI force a difficult layout issue: go big, like Tom did, or take the chicken-hearted way out (see grid to left). The latter makes filling so much smoother, but check out the ugliness of those giant black square chunks.

Tom's approach is one I almost always prefer, since it allows for great fill like CHICK MAGNET and MONSTROSITY. But today, because Tom goes really big with the extra entry TWINS, each of those long pieces of fill must run through three themers. Talk about high constraints. Along with IMAGERY and SAUNTER (both nice), the constraints result in a smattering of OBE and IZE, plus a tough crossing of Michael IRVIN and VIN DIESEL. I don't mind IRVIN at all, as he was a game-changing WR for the hated Cowboys, but along with other esoteric names — PATTI, ASHER, EARLE all nearby — it felt like too much.

It's hardly ever easy when you shoot for the moon. But I generally like the trade-off here.

The theme made me curious enough to look up all the not-famous twin halves, and I was disappointed to see they weren't all identical. There's something inherently fascinating about having essentially a clone. My brother's babysitter once saw me and my wife out to dinner and was aghast, thinking that my brother was messing around. Then there was the time one of my brother's friends followed me around a grocery store and out to my car, all the time covertly spying on me. No, that wasn't creepy at all.

It's really neat that MARIO ANDRETTI has an identical twin brother. It's not nearly as neat that KOFI ANNAN had a fraternal twin sister. Now, if she looked exactly like him …

Finally, loved the clue for PHARAOH; a "pyramid schemer" indeed. Great to see that type of playfulness on a Monday.

Tue 11/18/2014

"Both words can precede X" type theme today. Will spaces these out since they've become a bit overused, but today's has a neat revealer helping to set it apart. POWER COUPLE is a great phrase in itself, and it perfectly describes the idea: SUPER power, STAR power, FULL power, STEAM power, etc.

Nice themers, too. MUSCLEMAN is a colorful, fun one — a few months ago I attended a muscle-building contest with friends (one of their employees was competing) and had a lot of fun. (A point of advice: at one of these events, it's not a good idea to walk around with your arms out, flexing your neck in mock poses.) SUPERSTAR and HIGH HORSE are both solid, too. FULL STEAM, though … it's like playing the penultimate chord, leaving out the resolution. Or saying "Shave and a haircut," just daring someone not to yell "two bits!"

AHEAD! Ahem.

I like that Jacob's layout gives the solver no across answers longer than the themers — hard to confuse theme/fill that way. And I bet there were so few choices in themers that Jacob was just glad to get something to work. I've made these types of puzzles in the past, always starting with a giant list of individual words before running through the (huge number of) pairs, insanely happy when something made sense.


Check out 31D: UNCAS. What else are you going to put into a U?C?S slot? "Jacob should have swapped the themers around to get a more flexible start to the puzzle," you might smugly say. But wait — what would you have swapped? Oddly enough, three of the four themers have U as their second letter … and those same three all have A as their penultimate letter! Not a lot of options. UNCAS I think is a fine answer, as it's straight out of history and literature, but perhaps crossing it with non-proper nouns (NIN and LOA) would have been better.

The NW and SE corners perfectly illustrate the constructors' constant trade-offs. Clean NW, but without much sizzle. Sparkly SE — CLAM UP / KIGALI / SPANKS is a great triple — but with ESE, EPIS, and a tough AGA / KIGALI crossing. There's hardly ever a perfect solution. Ah, the eternal struggle.

Wed 11/19/2014

I find that "literal interpretation" type themes are best when they do something unexpected. The ones that are exactly what the solver might first guess tend to get old pretty quickly, so I really liked Jacob's fun twist. THERES NO TWO / WAYS ABOUT IT translates to "phrases surrounded by NO and ON." Fun!

I recently found a new, very useful tool I wanted to share. The problem has been that if you wanted to do a search for themers fitting a simple pattern on, you get a whole lot of crud, and if you select the "common words and phrases" option, you get nearly nothing. Alex Boisvert has come up with a Wikipedia Regular Expression search, which much more smartly works for you.

Using a "NO* *ON" search, I found some neat possibilities: NOISE POLLUTION, NOBEL FOUNDATION, and my favorite, NORM PETERSON. He's probably not quite crossworthy, but this reminds me that I'm still searching for that place where everyone shouts "El Jefe, Galactic Prime Emperor and Sovereign of All That is Divine!" when I walk in. Is that so much to ask?

Groundskeeper Willie

Anyhoo, I would have liked NONPRESCRIPTION and NOMINATION to be more colorful. The former screams out to be OVER THE COUNTER, and NOMINATION is certainly a fine word, but not something I'd give points to in a themeless.

Not a lot of long fill today, but I appreciate the relative cleanliness of the execution. With a high number of three-letter words, it's good that Jacob carefully chose those such that they didn't stand out too much (for me, at least). If you're going to verge on the edge of too many threes — 23 is really pushing it — I think it's important to not use many ESE, ANE, OON, etc. type answers, as that makes them more noticeably stick out.

Here, Jacob does well, with only an OCH feeling a little odd. And even that is passable, as anything that makes me think of Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons is okay in my book. The phrase cheese-eating surrender monkeys never ceases to amuse me.

Thu 11/20/2014

The mark of Zorro today, embodied by nine Zs arranged in the shape of a giant Z. Not being up on my Zorro trivia, I had a tough time finishing this one, but it was pretty neat to see the meta-Z slashed through the puzzle.

The Z is one of the Big Four of Scrabbliness, a tough little guy to incorporate smoothly. Of course, there are oodles of entries that contain a Z, but there are many fewer relative to, say, M, or even B. Making things more difficult today is the fact that the abundance of Zs meant that Tim had to be cautious about duping any Z words, i.e. if you use ZEE, that takes away ZED as an option somewhere else in the grid, as they have the same etymology.

Tim does well to segment his grid, almost approximating a house layout with nine rooms, in order to isolate each Z. Still, it's tough to execute smoothly with this many Zs. (It doesn't quite make our list of most Z's, but it comes close.) I rarely like seeing NAZI in my puzzles, but that's a personal opinion. And it would have been nice to get more of a ZOO CZAR GAZE feel than a ZEB EZER NAZI vibe.

The structure of benzene

Ah, BENZENE is perhaps my favorite compound in all of organic chemistry. Its hexagonal shape with shared electrons, the legend of how August Kekule ascertained its structure via a dream of Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, its planar characteristic distinguishing it with elegance from cyclohexane's kinked conformations … oh, BENZINE (with an I) is the entry today? Harrumph.

Some sizzling clues today, M AND MS made me laugh. [Little green ones come from Mars]; how perfect, once you realize that Mars is the company that makes them. And [Having a sense of pride?] refers to a lion's pride, not man's ego. Beautiful way to make these middle-length pieces of fill really sing. Finally, reading Tim's account of the Baldur story was a highlight for me today. Loki's trickery made quite an impression on me as a youngster. So tragic.

I wonder if these pieces of Zorro trivia are generally well known? I kind of liked learning DON DIEGO / DE LA VEGA — such an awesome name! — but combined with THE CURSE OF / CAPISTRANO felt a bit too much of learning for my small brain to handle in one day. Loved the Z visual though.

Fri 11/21/2014

Interesting grid today, one that perfectly embodies a standard and timeless themeless-building principle: use four triple-stacks of 8's, separated out into the four corners. Visually, a pleasant grid pattern, easy on the eyes. There's something so pleasing about its symmetry, as Kevin described above.

Nice stacks. The NW corner is particularly fine; JONESING / EMOTICON (Do people really say EMOJI now? Kids these days.) / RED SAUCE. I might have preferred the more colloquial JONESIN', but that's splittin' hairs. Nice that Kevin managed to take pretty good advantage of his eight-letter slots, even the single-word entries carefully chosen to still give some oomph. CATALYST is a strong entry, and STREAMED gives the puzzle a bit of 21st century feel.

Hoosiers' warm-ups

I'd make a funny comment about INDIANAN being a middle-of-the-road entry, but Will is from Indiana. More importantly, so is my wife. And Bloomington, home of IU, is quite a nice place to visit. Not to mention IU's basketball team has the most ridiculous warm-up pants ever. (I may or may not secretly want a pair.)

This layout doesn't have other long (i.e. 8+ letter) entries, so Kevin has to take advantage of his seven-letter slots to gain more assets — often not an easy task. I really like NBA GAME with its fun clue (and schadenfreude against the often big-headed Heat), and BAY AREA spoke to me, as it's where both Kevin and I hail from. It's too bad that the rest of the 7s were just neutral, i.e. PASSION, OPEN ERA, etc.

For non-stunt grids, I like to see five or less glue entries, so getting CDT, SOR, SST, ASST, A TRY, ESAS, NITRE did feel somewhat inelegant. But overall, a nice array of eight-letter entries helped make up for that.

Sat 11/22/2014

Zeppo Marx What a nice seed in ZEPPO MARX. Its Z and X already give it an interesting flair, and Zeppo is not only one of the awesome Marx Brothers, but he went on after his film career to make a fortune … as a mechanical engineer. I realize some people might not like this entry all too much because he might be considered one of the lesser Marx Brothers, but I'm calling him a Jeff Chen special.

Ah, FOSHIZZLE. When it first appeared in the NYT, it caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere. (Rich Norris mentioned to me with a wink that he debuted FOSHIZZLE in the LAT crossword in 2008 and hasn't touched it since). Glad that Will went with a cheeky clue today, referencing how outdated and passé the term is. It's hard to "save" it when it sits at 1-A, but this almost does the job.

Will makes a good point about proper names. I personally don't mind a handful of names and their either-you-know-them-or-you-don't quality, but a mass of them being fairly esoteric detracts from my solve. SUSIE Q is welcome in my grids any day, especially considering how many different ways to clue SUSIE. I like the classical nature of DEIMOS as well as its Greek God etymology. Sketches by BOZ are also something I'm usually happy to see. Even EDWIN Moses is okay by me, given his two gold medals. But when you toss in ELIE, CECE, EERO, along with everything else, it all feels like too much to me.

It's so tough to "be current." On one hand, every business must keep up with the times (pun intended) — evolve or be left behind by emerging competitors. And in that regard, I like the attempts to keep entries fresh; in the here and now. On the other hand, I think it's important for every business to focus on its core strengths; what it uniquely does well. And for the NYT, I believe that's executing clever concepts, incorporating clever wordplay along with timeless substance, pulling from a wide range of constructors and voices to strong, varied puzzles. I don't think being a hip publication is so important.

Droid Razr

Since we've already analyzed FOSHIZZLE to death, let's look at another "hip" entry, DROID RAZR. (I laughed at David's comment ... and it proves that I CAN TELL THE FUTURE. Wonder twins powers, activate!) On one side of the spectrum sits the iPhone, a game-changer affecting business and culture on a grand scale. On the other is the Apple Newton, a forgettable product in every way except for as a marketplace flop. The first RAZR has some historical value in that it revolutionized flip phones with its ridiculously thin profile, but the DRIOD RAZR feels to me like it will go the way of the Newton. Time will tell.

All that said, I do appreciate David's efforts to straddle the line, to both play to the NYT xw's strength as well as try to push it to grow past its boundaries.


★ Another rock-solid piece of work from Patrick today. I told myself I was going to up my standards for certain constructors, as I like the idea of spreading POW!s around. And honestly, I wasn't wowed by the puzzle at first glance — it's just a homophone type of puzzle, yeah?

No! After speeding through the ultra-smooth solve, I began to realize how neat it was. Homophone pair puzzles have been done over and over again, so I think it's important to do something different, or add another layer. Perhaps jam three homonyms together? Or in this case, take a final syllable and find an unexpected homophone for it. ROTC PAPARAZZI was brilliant — the sheer craziness of RAZZI and ROTC sounding the same is really cool. (Note: regular reader Evan Kalish asked about the ROTC rhyme, so I'll clarify that ROTC is indeed commonly pronounced "rot-see.") Same goes for PEWTER and PUTER, LUNAR and LOONER, and COLLIE and CHOLY.


I asked Patrick how he did it — these themers aren't really something you can find through brute force database searching. He said he came up with the idea while eating a pomegranate, and found theme candidates the old fashioned way: paper, a rhyming dictionary, and a whole lot of brainstorming. Very cool.

What's most impressive though, is Patrick's ability to create a Sunday-size puzzle which falls more into the Monday-ish level of difficulty that's accessible to newer solvers. Will generally pegs Sunday puzzles to be pretty difficult (roughly as hard as a Thursday), but I've noticed that there's a fairly wide range over the course of a year. That's a brilliant move, as the Sunday NYT xw has so much more exposure than other days of the week that it's good to put a gradient of difficulty within Sundays. Makes it more accessible to a wider range of solvers; a good strategy to continually increase readership.

But coming up with a super-smooth, relatively easy Sunday puzzle is incredibly difficult. If creating a super-smooth Monday puzzle is like getting a man into space, doing a similar task with a 21x, 140-word grid is starting a colony of lunar ballooners. The much more difficult specs mean that you have to use longer words on average (can't lean as heavily on 3, 4, 5-letter words), and knitting together a grid with roughly twice as much area without duplicating the usual ATE / EAT, ONE, IRE suspects that are so easy to miss … that's a monster of a task.

As usual, Patrick sticks the landing, even giving us a bevy of ALI BABA, EVIL EYE, RIB CAGE, SANDLOT (what great use of seven-letter entries!), while keeping the glue to an … ERNO? That's about it, for an entire Sunday puzzle? (Actually, ERNO Rubik is a bit of a hero of mine.) Patrick is one of the best when it comes to navigating the trade-offs between sparkly fill vs. clean smoothness.

So this puzzle might not look like eye-popping, but it's pretty close to the epitome of a perfect easy-level Sunday puzzle inviting in newer solvers. Really well done.

Mon 11/24/2014

Strong phrases hiding today's theme, ROFL. Hard not to like a puzzle featuring ROLLING PINS being swung while on LAUGHING GAS. Dare I say, Stooge-esque? (That should definitely be a real word.) I like when a puzzle amuses me, and this one did just that.

Rob brings up an interesting point regarding ON vs. ON THE. I actually had a different issue at first, hitching upon seeing ON THE grouped into one phrase, rather than split out into two (using a total of five themers). Heresy! Inconsistent! Blog rants! But then I realized the cleverness of this method, covering all his bases, letting the solver interpret the O as either ON or ON THE; their choice. And with the awesome phrase ON THE DOWN LOW, I realized that 1.) it's perfect and 2.) so aren't me.

Alternate grid w/o cheater squares

Normally I don't mind cheater squares one bit, but today the pair gave me a pause. That black square below MCGRAW chokes off the east section so much, leaving only one way in. Same goes for the square above RASHES with the west. Perhaps this wouldn't have been so noticeable if the rest of the puzzle had a bit of a segmented feeling — the NW and SE seem like closets in a house layout, and the NE and SW could be little panic rooms. Take a look at the grid to the left — removing that one set of black squares does so much to let the grid breathe.

And boy, wouldn't it have been nice to have ROFL be at the very end of the puzzle so as to better hide the theme? Or even if there were a symmetrical entry to ROFL. Hmm, now if we could just think of something good … obviously not NYT appropriate, but I can rarely resist wikipedia pages featuring lolcats.

Just a tad too much AGA, SEN / ENS, CMI, OCT / ESTER glue for me today, but overall, a fun theme concept with strong theme phrases.

Tue 11/25/2014

I thought I was so smart. As soon as I uncovered HITTING STREAK, I raced down to 62-Across to enter one of the greatest hitters of all time … TED WILLIAMS. As it turns out, TED WILLIAMS was not only a left fielder (not a CENTER FIELDer), but he wasn't a YANKEE.

It's amazing that anyone actually listens to me.

Tribute puzzle today, lauding one of the greatest accomplishments in all of sports, a record likely never to be broken, the historic HITTING STREAK of the great TED WILLIAMS. Gah! JOE DIMAGGIO had such a place in the forefront of American culture back then, not only being one of the premier sports stars of his time, but gaining even more notoriety with his tumultuous relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Definitely a crossworthy guy.

A tough grid today, forced by the plethora of short themers. A 11/7/6/13/6/7/11 pattern … that string of seven numbers looks just crazy, doesn't it? Four black squares must get deployed right off the bat to split up HITTING / STREAK and YANKEE / CLIPPER, and spending your black squares early usually makes things difficult. Often, that sort of segmentation leads to excessive three-letter words or necessitates unsightly glue bits to hold sections together. I also find that having so many little themers makes things feel choppy, having to jump around from one themer to the next to the next.

Themers connected

It's technically possible to do a 11/13/13/13/11 arrangement, which would help the flow of the solve (a rough skeleton sketched out to the right). But that'd call for some ugly chunks of black squares on the side — not really visually appealing, is it? Hardly ever easy; always the trade-offs.

As with most straight-up tribute puzzles, I finished wanting a little more. It would have been incredible if JOE DIMAGGIO had somehow crossed MARILYN MONROE, yeah? Or maybe FIFTY SIX GAMES had appropriately come at 56-Across? How about featuring his other great nickname, JOLTIN JOE? I like a tribute puzzle every once in a while, especially if it's around a timely anniversary, but the best ones usually have that je ne sais quoi that make them stand out.

Finally, some really nice pieces of fill in the NE and SW. Those themeless-like stacks can be really rough to fill when one themer runs through them — it's way more than twice as difficult when two themers constrain them. With STREAK and FIFTY SIX GAMES handcuffing that corner, getting SUSPENSE / ON HIATUS / SHOCKER with very little price to pay is a treat.

Wed 11/26/2014

WAR GAMES today, theme answers relating to war getting kooky interpretations. I liked PRESENT ARMS as something an RN might say, although I think I've seen that before somewhere. Ah yes, Michael Dewey's puzzle from earlier this year. SHORE LEAVE was fun too, a smile-inducing "description" of an ebb tide.

Mickey sure did a nice job in those NW and SE corners. I like long fill in my crosswords. Getting both the usual long downs as well as long acrosses that don't confuse the theme? Yes, please! That NW corner is so nice, SPITBALL and LISTEN UP featured at a very low price of admission in BSA. The SE does have SSW and STS, but those are so minor. I bet there are other good possibilities for where ANAGRAMS sits, ones that don't cause the terminal SS? problem at 60D, but ANAGRAMS is such an appropriate word for a crossword.

And some constructors would go whole hog, removing the black square between ISLE and BSA and trying for a themeless-like triple stack. I'm glad Mickey didn't. I really like the balance in those two corners, getting a good amount of nice fill without having to suffer through very much glue.

Man oh man, that NE corner did me in. I gave up after ten minutes, randomly guessing the last squares. (I'm pretty sure Jay BORNEY is a person, dagnabit!) It's nice that there are two ways in (LAVALIERS and SHORE LEAVE), but LAVALIERS was a random string of letters to me. Fun word to learn when I look at it now. During my solve though, I felt like there were too many random-ish guesses, one involving that LEM author, but much more so in the ACA/CARNEY/LAVALIERS pile-up. I would have much preferred if one of those had been clued much easier; if Art CARNEY had made an appearance ACA (here, in Spanish).

Educated Americans really ought to know the Accessible Care Amendment, though. Er, the Accelerated Coverage Act. Dang it! The Affordable Care Act. (Don't worry, I had to look that up too.)

All in all, the theme felt like it didn't quite cohere for me. Maybe more consistency would have helped, i.e. each of the themers could be reinterpreted as commands? Still, a fun solving experience … aside from the frustration involved with that NE corner.

Thu 11/27/2014

Nice little trick today, using the holiday to create misdirection. "Thanksgiving phrase" has nothing to do with the Thanksgiving holiday, but instead refers to "giving thanks." Appropriate for the day, and a fun twist of wordplay. Judge Judy

I had no idea JUDGE JUDY was the highest-paid person on TV in 2014 — not sure whether to applaud her for the empire she's built, or groan for what this says about America. That's a really cool piece of trivia, one I enjoyed learning and which will stick with me.

Stan's Saturday Stumpers in Newsday are regarded by some to be the most difficult puzzle of the week, and I'd have to agree, rarely (if ever) finishing one (even the one I wrote!). Often he uses oblique clues, single-word clues chosen for their ability to accurately describe roughly half the words in the English dictionary, shenanigans relating to dictionary definition #86, and SAT words to up the difficulty level to 11 and beyond. As a solver, it's usually not my favorite type of puzzle, in that it sometimes feels to me more like a homework assignment than a diversion.

But I can understand people loving that type of uber-challenge. And I definitely got a strong sense of satisfaction when I finished today's puzzle; that I was able to actually complete what felt like an incredibly difficult Thursday puzzle felt like a big win. Finally piecing together things like PARE from [Take a coat off] gave me a huge sigh of relief.

Interesting layout today. I usually like interlock, and it is pretty neat that Stan found three themers that connect so neatly. It's so unfortunate that the 13s in rows 3 and 13 require those unsightly triplets of black squares in each corner. Twelve extra black squares introduced into a single puzzle ... I would personally have preferred a straightforward 13/11/13 layout, which might also have opened up the grid for more colorful 8+ letter fill. Subjective matter — there will probably be some out there who think the black squares border the grid nicely.

Finally, I absolutely loved the clue for RETORT, most solvers thinking about a kitchen counter first because "sharp edges" usually refer to physical objects. Use the "comeback" definition of "counter" and you have a brilliant clue. That's the type of dictionary shenanigans that personally does it for me.

Fri 11/28/2014

Ah, the trickery! A rebus puzzle on a Friday will throw many solvers off, but I think tossing in a monkey wrench once in a while is just what the doctor ordered. Keeps everyone on their toes. And how nicely appropriate to have a BLACK FRIDAY theme on Black Friday itself. I appreciated that the theme wasn't immediately apparent even after uncovering BLACK FRIDAY — finding the special squares in a rebus puzzle is like a little Easter egg hunt, and having to figure out what the rebus actually is in the first place adds an appreciated layer of complexity.

Interesting interpretation of BLACK FRIDAY, hinting at four SALE squares. I was so sure that FRI would appear in black squares somehow, similar to a PAINT IT BLACK puzzle from earlier this year. I liked being surprised — nice to be caught off guard. It would have been nice to have a stronger connection to why the SALEs were in rebus squares (like how CRUSHED ICE logically hints at ICE rebus squares), but sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Tracy goes big in the NE and SW corners, treating us to great stacks of long answers alongside the themers. ERIC CARLE may not be that well known outside of picture books, but he's a superstar within that arena. Him plus TEA KETTLE for just the price of a SKEE = big win. Loved that corner. The opposite corner works well too — EILAT will be a toughie for many, and I'll take it any day (with fair crossings) in order to get the awesome TESLA COIL. Beautiful work.

Things get a tiny bit rougher around the north and south, the awkward (var.) tag required for the infrequently seen SHMO, a SYST, a KAT, and RFDS. At first glance, these areas seem like they might be easier to fill than the NE / SW, as they seem like smaller chunks of white space. But 6x3 areas in the north and south make things tough — these bigger blocks are much more difficult to fill cleanly than the usual 5x3 ones. Tracy had to pay the piper — putting a column of black squares so far to the right (directly next to SPRINGS A LEAK) makes things easier in that beautiful NE triple-stack, but harder in the north section bounded by SHMO and SYST.

Still, these glue bits are small in quantity, and only SHMO is really unsightly in my opinion. Overall, I found it to be a really fun experience, enjoying the obliqueness of the BLACK FRIDAY hint as well as all the strong long fill.

POW Sat 11/29/2014

★ What a cool grid today! Normally I associate Liz with Sunday puzzles featuring cool visual effects, but today she shows off her well-rounded constructing chops. Not only does she delve into themelesses, an area she hasn't focused as much of her time on, but she goes all the way into the Saturday deep end with an incredibly hard task: the ultra-low word count themeless grid.

I usually assess themelesses with a ridiculously dorky MBA-speak ASSETS and LIABILITIES scorecard, incrementing ASSETS for each colorful entry and upping the LIABILITIES count for each glue bit. (If there's a "puzzle-killer" — an absolutely heinous entry — the entire grid gets tossed right out of consideration.) One aspect I usually don't account for is a "wow factor." It's pretty rare for me to be impressed just by the look of an empty grid — for example, quad-stacks used to get this bonus from me when they first appeared, but now they don't. I would add perhaps three or four extra points to the ASSETS column today because of the wide-open grid with a pattern I don't remember seeing, and I would also raise my LIABILITIES limit to maybe eight. Sometimes it's worth slogging through more glue than usual in order to see something new and different.

Redwood trees

The danger in ultra-low word count grids is that they're so hard to fill that the constructor sometimes finds it good enough to just fill the darn thing, period. That used to be good enough — take a look at some of the record-setting grids and the swaths of glue they contain — but not anymore. Liz gives us some beauties, including three interlocking grid-spanners, plus a spate of really nice 7s and 8s: OBAMANIA, EVEN ODDS, ADMITS IT, HOGWASH are all great on their own right. Strong, amusing wordplay makes REDWOOD, CORSAGE, DEICERS, even ORDAIN and HORSE stand out as well.

It does have its flaws, as I would expect. There's the weirdly spelled AMEBA (which I've been guilty of using in the past), and a lot of the four-letter words are unsightly. Hit the "Analyze" button below and you'll see that the alphabetical list starts with ABER AROO DORN (although I like me some Worf) and ENTO — not a great sign. And although it's neat that there are no three-letter words in the grid, I would have much preferred a strong grid-spanner to replace THREE LETTER WORD, which feels a tad gimmicky to me, especially given that this sort of thing has been done before.

Overall, I loved the initial impact of the grid — a rare occurrence for a themeless for me — and the solving experience was really entertaining. I was able to overlook all the glue in order to savor the strong entries and playful cluing.

Sun 11/30/2014ZAP!

A Tale of Two Puzzles today. Interesting twist to a rebus theme, ADs getting zapped in the across direction to form wacky phrases. And it was fun to search for those little AD squares, each one a miniature a-ha moment when I uncovered it.

I'm not totally sure I got it, though. Why was the AD zapped in one direction only? And am I using that "ad zapping" term correctly? I did a search for "ad zapping" and got quite a mixture of results. It also felt awkward to have an extra AD that wasn't zapped in the across direction … at 1-Across, right at the very front. I wondered for the longest time if that was supposed to be a hint to the entire puzzle somehow.

Strong choices for themers, both getting snappy base phrases like FIVE O CLOCK SHADOW (something we rarely see because at 16 letters, it doesn't fit into most weekday grids) as well as resulting answers. BRO MINDED gave me a chuckle, exactly the way a kooky-themed puzzle should kick off.

But other longish fill includes ARISTOS, BARDED, EDESSA. Perhaps a case can be made for EDESSA, I suppose, as it has historical significance. I'm curious who uses the words ARISTOS and BARDED. Bueller?

Some brilliant clues to make the short fill really stand out. I kept a running list because there were so many ones that brought a smile to my face. I think it's worth going back through these entries to appreciate how fun their clues were: FIN, PINS, PAROLE, IDOL, COCAS, RNA, MEAL. And the clue for TASS might confuse some, but once you realize it's referring to ITAR-TASS, the old Russian news agency, it sings. I'm usually satisfied if I get three or four of these playful clues in an entire Sunday puzzle, so to get eight blows me away. Very well done.

Yet other short answers were tough, of the type that potentially turns non-addicts away from crosswords. SERE is ranked so low on my word list that I only can access it when I'm in truly desperate measures. OSO is near that level, as is the extended BRRR. It's funny how strongly just a couple of those types of entries can affect a person's experience (subjective, of course). Will recently mentioned SLA and SDI are entries he's very strongly discouraging as near "puzzle-killers," and I feel like there are a few more that could be added to that list.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience, a hunting expedition for those AD squares lurking in the grid (in the down direction, at least), and making the leap that the ADs had to be zapped in the across. As with most Sunday puzzles, some compromises in the eternal quest to bring out the best of times. Dickensian, indeed. (Although Will says he's not purposefully trying to fool Dr. Fill at the ACPT, I love the image Matt paints of Will twirling his Snidely Whiplash mustache as he plots a la Uriah Heep.)