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Puzzles for December, 2013
with Jeff Chen comments

Sun 12/1/2013 TWO HALVES IN ONE

What an impressive concept and execution for Alan's debut Sunday NYT. A visually stunning puzzle; seeing that giant dividing line down the center of the puzzle gave me a smile. I knew something had to be going to to connect the two halves, and I couldn't wait to find out what it was.

GREAT DIVIDE makes for a perfect theme entry, and fortuitously it's the same length as BACK IN BLACK. That's pretty cool! I would have fanboy squeed if those two entries were more related, like if AC/DC had a song called the GREAT DIVIDE. I suppose that would have been asking for too much. Plus, no one wants to hear me go "SQUEE!".

When I first uncovered the trick, I thought it was pretty cool. It was hard to keep track of where the four BACK squares were though, which took away a tiny bit of solving pleasure for me. It would have been really nice if there was a way to distinguish the crossing points. Perhaps flattening the diagonal somehow at those points? A way to write in "BACK" somewhere? Not sure.

But then I realized that Alan crossed his theme answers (TURNS BACK THE CLOCK intersects HUMPBACK WHALE, WONT BACK DOWN intersects THERE AND BACK AGAIN) and I marveled at it. It's hard to intersect themers like that, and to do it in four different locations is really cool. Even more impressive that the fill didn't really suffer around those four crossing locations!

DENTAL CARIES ... glad that Alan already addressed that. Ahem. Generally there are limited long fill spaces in a grid, and it pays to take full advantage of them. Yes, there are some great entries in that region, notably MENTAL NOTE and MOTOR POOL, but DENTAL CARIES is a bit of a It Who Shall Not Be Named entry. Ah, Sunday grids are so, so, so hard to put together.

Speaking of difficult, hopefully solvers either got on the TPAIN train or really know their geography in PEEDEE. Yikes!

An ambitious Sunday debut, hope to see more mind-bending puzzles from Alan.

Mon 12/2/2013

Hiding a four-word phrase with a revealer is a tried and true theme type, and what makes or breaks it is 1.) the quality of the themers and 2.) the interest level / a-ha factor of the hidden phrase. On both counts I think Adam does pretty well. Four very nice long theme entries today, all answers I'd be glad to use as fill in any of my own puzzles. I especially liked HOOD ORNAMENT and RED HERRINGS, fun and snazzy answers.

Curious to put the revealer at 1-across though. I think if I had encountered WOLF at the very end, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD would have been a fun hidden phrase. As it was though, having WOLF at the beginning sort of deflated my balloon. It is interesting to break conventional patterns once in a while, but for me, this didn't quite work.

I loved seeing INERTIA as long fill, a great use of a seven-letter space. Even better that it got a real physics clue! ON A TEAR is a nice one too. But with only a few places for long fill, it feels like a waste to use a slot on ERELONG. I suppose it could be a favorite entry for some people, but it felt like an ERE, but LONGer. (That sounded a lot more brilliant in my head.) How's this: it felt like filler stretched out on a medieval rack.

Finally, I do like a bit of bonus theme content every once in a while, but having BIG / BAD felt haphazard to me. It's not symmetrical with anything else, and it forces some fill compromises in the East section, the IDEES/GARDE/SSE/COE pileup. Call me conventional, but I would have preferred for the final theme answer to be BIG BAD WOLF. That would have necessitated five theme answers though, which of course is much harder to execute on than a puzzle with only four themers, so who knows how something like that would have turned out.

Trying something new is important to advance the state of the art. Who knows, perhaps I'll look back on this day as the dawn of a brave new era. And if not, I'll just appreciate the four minutes of puzzly diversion plus some very nice long entries.

Tue 12/3/2013

It's not often that a Tuesday puzzle surprises me, but here's one that did! Because it must be relatively easy, often times a Tuesday theme must be so out in the open or have a straightforward revealer, but not today. I really appreciated having to sit back and figure out what tied the theme together; perfect example of a puzzle that's better off for not having a revealer. Puzzle mogul Henry Hook sometimes calls to oust the tyranny of the revealer, saying that solvers are too smart for such blatant overtness, and thus in some circles, a revealer is also known as a ... (ahem) "Hooker". Today is Henry's day! Henry, I'm buying drinks if I ever have the pleasure of meeting up with you, you delightful curmudgeon*.

What I liked best about this puzzle was that Phil hid the horse-related terms in plain sight. CROP CIRCLES is a great entry in itself, for example, and has nothing to do with a riding crop. Beautiful. The others followed suit well, although I can't speak to SADDLESHOES as my knowledge of fashion couldn't fill a buckminsterfullerene molecule.

I have a feeling we'll get the usual listing of crosswordese in the blogosphere today, and some entries are decidedly inelegant. As much as I love BEBOP**, BSA over OER over PTS is not pretty, for example. But while some will denounce DOBRO, I find it to be an interesting entry. No, I didn't know it even though I was and continue to be an unabashedly proud band geek, but the crosses were fair and I enjoyed looking it up; learning about something I might try playing one day.

I'll point out one more thing I thought Phil did well: he gave us some interesting 6-letter fill in the north and south sections. Often a stack of 6's like this suffers because it's that much harder to cleanly fill stacks of 6's than 5's. IN OIL feels slightly partialish in the north, and the N or Norris makes an unfortunate CTN, but overall, I imagine Phil spent a bit of time smoothing these sections out, polishing them up to where they stand.

Overall, nice hidden theme and some really good long fill; a few compromises along the way.

*If you haven't read Matt Gaffney's book on crosswords, "Gridlock", it needs to go on your To Be Read (TBR) pile. Great overview on crosswords including a nice story about Henry.

**If you haven't read Miles Davis's autobiography, it also has to go on your TBR pile, just as long as you don't mind every other word being the F-bomb and the remaining words being variants of %$#^! and %#$^*%

Wed 12/4/2013

Nice theme, changing the SK to the SQU sound. I'm not sure why I found the theme answers so amusing, but I still giggle when I think about SQUID MARKS. I recently read a middle-grade book about a young comedian who said K is the funniest sound in the alphabet, but I'd open that up to the SQU chunk any day.

The base phrases are so solid, too, more so than other sound-change puzzles from recent memory: SKID MARKS, SCARE TACTIC, SKIRT CHASER, GREAT SCOTT; each one an entry I'd be proud to include in a themeless grid. It's almost a shame to not include them into the puzzle as is, but luckily the morphed phrases are very amusing.

Dani* does something interesting with his grid today, including four 7-letter pieces of fill in the across direction. It's usually easier to break things up more, just counting on your downs for longer fill, but not always. Today, some mixed success. I really liked having TEASERS as a bonus, but the other three, OUTLAID, NEWSIES**, and THEISTS fell flat for me.

Let's look at NEWSIES and THEISTS. I'm sure a case could be made for both (if you're big into theater or religious studies), but I'd bet a majority of solvers would see both of them as average to lesser-than average entries. It's unfortunate that they sit in such constrained positions, giving few options at those locations. NEWSIES for example: it sits atop SQUARE TACTIC and intersects two nice long downs, GRADE A and MR SMITH. I'd almost rather it be broken up into two 3-letter entries, so it doesn't detract from the really good stuff around it.

And let me emphasize, there is a good amount of nice long stuff here. LANDSCAPER, SENSITIZED, Casey STENGEL, in addition to the aforementioned GRADE A and MR SMITH. But I tend to prefer when a high percentage of long fill is quality, even if that means that there isn't a huge quantity of it.

All in all, a funny sound-change puzzle that I much enjoyed. Often times, sound-change puzzles resulting in supposedly wacky phrases aren't nearly wacky enough for me, but this one did it for yours truly, still giggling like a wienerschnitzel at SQUID MARKS.

*Dani says his name is pronounced "Donnie" and is the Hebrew form of "Danny". Maybe I'll just go with "What up, D?"

**ADDED NOTE: Dani wrote that he loved NEWSIES (the movie) as a kid. I think good crosswords should elicit positive feelings from solvers, and this obviously does so for Dani. So perhaps I've underestimated NEWSIES. For any NEWSIES groupies out there, my apologies!

Thu 12/5/2013

A clever idea for a theme! CONFUSION parsed as CON FUSION, i.e. requiring the fusion of CON to 10 perimeter answers in order to make sense of their clues. And to top it off, each of the 10 perimeter answers is a word in its own right. Pretty neat.

It's not often that we have puzzles with perimeter theme answers, and there's a reason why. Each corner is difficult to construct in its own right, and it's very difficult to get the fill from one corner to mesh cleanly with that of the other three corners. Toss in a middle entry and you've made your life very, very difficult. I keep on telling myself that I'll never do another one again, but I have a short memory. The eternal optimist in me says "It really isn't so bad, just do it!" And then I mentally disappear from everything else for five days. Clearly I need to go all Memento on myself*.

Dan has his best filling success in the north and south, where he's wisely used black squares to semi-segment these areas for easier filling. As a result, he puts in BATTEN DOWN and IN LA LA LAND while keeping things mostly clean. The south isn't quite as nice (LAR next to TATI) but including NBA DRAFT I think is worth the price. Nice stuff there.

The difficulty level ratchets up in big corners where the perimeter answers don't have a lot of options. I bet Dan came up with a list of possibilities and then figured out what he could intersect in the corners. The fact that the themers cross in the four corners is awfully elegant (cheater squares in the corners make things easier by opening up many more themer options), but it also makes it very difficult to fill those sections cleanly. Dan does a nice job in the NW, with VESPERS something I didn't know but enjoyed looking up.

The SE had me stumped though. ELEAZAR is fair for a Thursday, but PES and ON AN crossing it is unfortunate. Same sort of issue in the SW, with CMI atop RIBBER, with CIEL in close proximity. I can imagine Dan tried dozens if not hundreds of possibilities in these sections, and kudos to him for adding in cheater squares in order to try to make things work better. But man oh man, this type of construction is a bear to keep smooth.

Fun concept and terrific theme; some success and some bumps in the execution.

*NOTE TO SELF: it really isn't so bad, just do it!

Fri 12/6/2013

What a treat to get a themeless puzzle from the Sunday master! More often than not, themeless constructors use triple-stacks of 9's, 10's, or 11's in the four corners, but Liz throws that all out to feature two 13's and a 15.

Not many people do this because it's tough to work 13's into a themeless, seeing as how they quickly constrain the grid. Note those two black squares at the end of CREAM AND SUGAR and at the beginning of HARAJUKU GIRLS: they're stinkers. Dirty rotten stinkers! Typically it's best to retain maximum flexibility in your black square placement in case you run into problems (or opportunities), but fixing four squares in this way ties you down right off the bat. There's a good reason why you don't see a lot of 13s in themeless grids.

But Liz does well to work around them, incorporating all sorts of good stuff. GLORY BE is a great answer, and STORYBOARD has a great clue. TILT A WHIRL sure makes a nice cross to HARAJUKU GIRLS. I like that the long answers are in little pockets rather than stuffed in the corners like usual. Nice change of pace.

I had a very hard time with HARAJUKU GIRLS, mostly because I used to do a lot of work in Japan when I was a mechanical engineer. We had clients in Shinjuku, so that word stuck in my mind. Rats! HARAJUKU GIRLS is one of those fun terms which I'm glad to have learned (although man oh man some of those "fashion" choices are highly questionable), and extra glad that all the crosses were easy for me. Woe to the solver who hasn't had a KIR Royale before though.

And as usual, there's a smattering of crosswordese to hold the puzzle together, the AGENA, SNEE, APAR kind of stuff. Speaking of the short stuff, what makes this type of grid a little more difficult to "wow" with is that it starts off with a lot of short across answers, placing a less-than-ideal first impression in one's memory. It's not really fair, but by now I'm so used to themelesses starting off with a stack of long feature answers.

A lot of great stuff, with a perspective in gridwork and clues different from any other constructor. Love the variety. Hope to see more themelesses from Liz!

Sat 12/7/2013

Nice work today from James. A ton of great fill, highlighted by BUG ZAPPER and its associated clue. I wonder if SANDAL TAN is going to get criticized as "not a thing", but I really liked uncovering it. And having a risque clue made it even better to me. Tee hee.

This is a 72-word puzzle, the maximum number allowed for a themeless, and some constructors / critics will probably pooh-pooh it as the easiest type of themeless to construct. But what matters to me is the solving experience, and James incorporated enough long stuff (triple-stacked corners plus longer fill coming out of those answers) that I didn't notice the high word count. A win in my book.

The NE corner is a great example of the tradeoffs that themeless constructors must make at every step along the way. What a nice stack of BUG ZAPPER / GLEE CLUB / USER NAME, all intersected by OLD GEEZER! Four very nice entries crammed into a small space makes for a great solving experience. However, that ultra-high density of goodness usually means that there will need to be ugly bits to hold it together. Some will argue that OGEES is totally fine as an architectural term. Some will even say give me my BPOE or give me death! (Okay, maybe not.) But having both of those along with NES in a single corner is tough to swallow in a themeless.

A discussion on cheater squares. Typically I don't mind cheaters at all (Rich Norris at the LAT calls them "helper squares" for good reason as they usually improve fill quality a lot), but sometimes I pause on a high-word count themeless. It's of course a subjective call, but the cheater just before PUMA (and its symmetrical pair) makes the grid look less elegant to me. I don't mind the one after PROACTIV (and its symmetrical pair) as much. Again, a subjective call. Generally I highly value smoothness of fill in a themeless, so I appreciate James's choices here — I can only imagine JEZEBEL would have been tough to work in without incorporating that central set of cheaters.

Nice work today, good tough challenge.

POW Sun 12/8/2013 TWO OUTS

★ I've been hesitant to give Patrick Berry POWs! even though most of his puzzles deserve them, in order to give others a chance. But this week I couldn't help it, as I found this Sunday puzzle so very entertaining. Extremely well done.

It took me a while to figure out exactly what was going on, but it finally dawned on me that Patrick selected phrases/long words, which form different phrases/long words when you delete two letters. For example, "Red wine drinker's paradise?" is SHANGRI-LA SANGRIA. I'll admit that at first I thought it seemed arbitrary to just pick any two letters to remove, but as I went along, it felt more and more like a puzzle within a puzzle; like I was in The Matrix. Darn glad I took the blue pill, because each of the 12 (!) theme entries was a fun challenge within itself.

Normally when there's such high theme content, the fill breaks down all over and Agent Smith is signaled to clean up the glitches in The Matrix. I mean, Patrick stacks theme answers atop each other, and then overlaps more themers atop those! But instead of glitching out, he went all Neo on us today, smoothing the experience with a WEST BERLIN, KLUTZ, CSI: MIAMI, AT REST, OSPREYS, etc., showing us that he knows crossword-fu.

It wasn't perfect, but as we all know from The Machines' experience, total perfection makes humans skeptical, and we think that there's a conspiracy going on. So the TEENA MARIE / ELAM / MARNIE crosses in the southeast corner placate us, leaving us with the impression that our slightly flawed world is still real.

A final note of technical commentary: look at all the cheater squares (black squares which don't affect the word count) Patrick uses. Some have said that cheaters make a puzzle less elegant; that they're a crutch. In some cases, like in some themeless puzzles, I find them to be visually inelegant. But Patrick has said a few times that he'll always choose to add cheaters if it makes the fill smoother. I did notice the preponderance of cheaters (five pairs) at first, but I completely forgot about it as I went. 21x puzzles are so much harder to fill cleanly than 15x's, so I think for this puzzle, Patrick's decision to use so many cheaters is sound.

Fantastic work . Often times I get tired in the middle of doing a Sunday puzzle because it feels like the same old thing over and over again. But even though today's puzzle took me well over my usual time (about 30 minutes vs my usual 15-20), I relished the experience and looked forward to writing all about it. More smooth, fun, uber-professional Sunday puzzles like this, please!

P.S. If you haven't seen The Matrix a few hundred times yet, I forgive you. Maybe. And don't take the red pill.

Mon 12/9/2013

We don't see many of the "words which can follow X" puzzles these days. A few years ago Will said that he was cutting back or even eliminating this theme type because it had become overdone. Now and again I appreciate seeing a throwback for variety's sake, so I enjoyed this one.

In this day and age of crosswords rapidly improving across the board, jockeying against more and more competition for mindshare, puzzles must constantly up their game. For this theme type, that means using extremely strong themers and/or employing a new trick, perhaps using an unusual word to tie everything together or a clever revealer. On the first point, Nina does very well. In my solve, STRONGARM was a, well, strong way to start. LIONS CLUB, ULTRA HIGH, SPEAKEASY, UPPER DECK are all very well-chosen answers.

CHAIR as the revealer didn't quite do it for me though. As I mentioned, this theme type will tend to be judged at a higher baseline than others since it's been done so many times before. Not only are there many types of chairs that could have been used, but CHAIR's placement in that non-final position seemed a bit inelegant to me.

The fill reminds me of an interesting discussion on Jim Horne's blog. I like a lot of what Nina's incorporated today, notably TESSERA, NUT CASE, PEN NIB, NEBULAE, SPLASHY, PICASSO; stuff that we rarely see en masse on a Monday. But with almost any puzzle, there are tradeoffs to gain such tasty goodness. Entries such as ELBE and TYR have a Maleska feel to them, and newer solvers may have trouble with the ENIAC/JEU and the ADEN/ERTE crossings. My personal leaning is for Mondays to be super-clean, ones that I could pass to newbies as a way to get them hooked. But today's balance could easily appeal to a more experienced solver; someone looking for something harder in a Monday. Nice to have the variety.

All in all, it gave me four minutes of pleasant diversion.

Tue 12/10/2013

I'll admit, I was underwhelmed by this puzzle theme at first, thinking it was composed of straightforward M and M phrases. Not that I dislike those, but they usually leave me wanting more if the X and Y are common letters — the fact that so many phrases start with M and M made it feel too easy to pull off; not tight enough. But then it dawned on me that there's an additional layer to the puzzle: each of the five themers incorporates a vowel progression! That is cool.

And what snazzy theme answers, most of them I'd be happy to use in a themeless. A little MODEST MOUSE for the younger crowd, MUCKETY MUCK for us who like to say humorous swear-word sounds without actually swearing (tee hee!), and the weird looking MISS MISSISSIPPI. The entry MISS MISSISSIPPI, I mean, not the actual Miss Mississippi. I'm sure her mother thinks she's very pretty.

Bold decision to incorporate long across fill today. These 10-letter answers are shorter than all the theme answers, and they are both really nice. The bottom section is awfully hard to construct though, with MODEST MOUSE overlapping SERPENTINE which hovers above MUCKETY MUCK and below MISS MISSISSIPPI. See how that severely constrains the fill? It gives few options where AIMS FOR sits, which results in the unfortunate CAN OF partial. Now if CAN OF had been clued "___ whoop-ass" that might have been a different story for me.

But Bill otherwise does really well to navigate through that section, tossing in UP HERE and ENVY to complete the south in clean fashion. That's strong work. In the SE I'm not so sure about KYL. Yes, he was the Senate Minority Whip and one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2010, but is he crossworthy? Maybe, maybe not. And more importantly, is he worth the URI tradeoff? I say no, but that's a matter of opinion (Jon Kyl and the URI alums I just offended might disagree).

A bit distracting to have the M AND M entry in the grid (which led me to think it was a not-so-subtle revealer for a straightforward M AND M type puzzle) but I can overlook that. Overall, a neat idea to combine two theme types to form something new. That's hard to accomplish in this day and age of so many ideas having already been used.

And go URI Rams!

Wed 12/11/2013

As Will mentioned, the state of the art has evolved so much that a quote puzzle must have something extra to make it worth the variety factor. This quote is pretty good, plus it's something I hadn't heard before. Nice to get that mental image of EINSTEIN with his awesomely goofy hair quipping this to eyebrow-raising listeners.

Although ALBERT and EINSTEIN are a bit oddly placed (no themers in the symmetrical locations), it is pretty neat that EINSTEIN intersects two chunks of the quote. Interlock is usually hard to achieve, and to be able to place EINSTEIN like this impressed me. Having ALBERT connect to EINSTEIN was pretty cool too. And to top it off, that section of the grid, with so many crossing and overlapping constraints, is awfully clean, with even DEEJAY and YENTL making appearances. That's some nice very nice fill work. Still though, I think from an elegance standpoint, I would have preferred to see just EINSTEIN as the last entry in the grid, or ALBERT EINSTEIN as the last theme entry.

It was as if time itself was relativistic, slowing like molasses, when I hit H TEN. "Coordinate in the game Battleship" I thought meant "coordinate" as in "work together". I was outraged that the NYT suggested that people should cheat by coordinating in a two-player game! (not really) Luckily I realized what was going on before emailing my smarmy note to Will: coordinate is used in its location meaning. Oops. Nice misdirection, almost making up for the arbitrary nature of the entry. That area is tough to fill (the best alternate I could come up with is HYMN which forces DELI to become something like MMLI (but I personally dislike random Roman numerals, especially ones longer than three digits). Does having BORDELLO in the grid make up for HTEN? Hard to say. No right, no wrong, more a matter of opinion.

One aspect I really appreciate to quote puzzles is if they're parsed naturally. Just like good poetry, it's elegant if the meter flows and the breaks come naturally. This is often very hard to accomplish because crossword symmetry dictates heavy limitations on how quotes can be broken. Specifically, I would have loved to see it parsed IF AT FIRST / THE IDEA IS NOT ABSURD / THEN THERE IS NO HOPE FOR IT. But of course that's 9 / 18 / 22, which works about as well as my perpetual motion machine. Dang thing keeps stopping; can't figure out why.

POW Thu 12/12/2013

★ This puzzle is a thing of beauty. It took me a long time to realize what was going on — ERASERS is parsed as ERASE Rs — and when I cottoned to the trick, I marveled at the fact that the grid is so clean and sparkly, both with the Rs or without! It's rare I come upon a twist I've never seen before, and even more rare when it's this elegant. Bravo!

Note the extremely difficult constraint of creating a themeless (72 words) where all entries with Rs must also read normally with their Rs missing. Because of this, I expected there to be severe compromises in fill. And because the trick is so neat, I was prepared to be okay with some ugliness. I've tried something sort of similar (but easier) and found it near impossible. It caused me to break into tears in front of random people (sorry, dentist) and ultimately land on something that was too ugly to submit. That makes me appreciate this grid that much more.

True, there aren't that many marquee answers that you might see in a regular themeless — PAD THAI, AGES AGO, I SAY SO, M(R) AND M(R)S, SH(R)INE(R) is low for a straight themeless — but there also aren't many ugly bits that you typically see as "glue" to hold a themeless together. To have only TGI, SAE (self addressed envelope), and our friend ISAO Aoki, that's very good in terms of clean themeless fill. I've heard people grouse about Rapa NUI before (same with ULAN Bator) but I personally don't mind those at all. I like stories about those giant stone heads on Easter Island, and I think it's fun to know the name RAPA NUI.

The most minor of nits: I would have loved to see no cheater square after RELY (and the symmetrical one before COHN). I realize it must have made the fill cleaner, which I very much appreciate, but such a beautiful puzzle would have been even more visually elegant without the cheaters. A matter of personal opinion, that's all.

Standing O, David. Er, Mr. Steinberg. El Presidente. Save a job for me when you take over the world.

Fri 12/13/2013

Lots of snazzy entries today, headlined by AN ACQUIRED TASTE and HERES HOW TO ORDER. So many great entries all over the grid, my favorite one was one Will didn't highlight: LIQUORED UP. Those types of colloquial in-the-language phrases get me schnookered every time.

I love the wordplay type of clues which has become the hallmark of a great NYT themeless. VCHIP clued as "Blocker working with a receiver" is pure gold. I went through END, FULLBACK, even QB before realizing I had too much football on the mind (go Seahawks!). Perfect misdirection to go with an already nice answer. Same goes for ITS DONE, with the in-the-language "finish line" being repurposed.

Gary told me that his original clue for ITS DONE was "Hit man's confirmation". I like that a lot too; nice and colorful.

So sad that FOUR COLOR wasn't clued to the four-color map theorem (google it if you're interested). It's pretty esoteric but reading about this some 25 years ago helped trigger my interest in math and puzzles. I'd love to see a crossword about it, but perhaps that's best for a different venue like the Chronicle of Higher Education. If only the four-color theorem, Fermat's last theorem, and Euler's identity (linking e, i, pi, 1 and 0) were part of everyone's standard education. (dreamy sigh)

Tyler Hinman, constructor extraordinaire and former ACPT champ, wrote last week that "'an awesome themeless with a few crappy entries' is simply a contradiction. The fill is all there is in a themeless, so it really has to shine for me to consider it 'awesome.'" Astute commentary. I think it's reasonable that themeless puzzles should undergo extra fill scrutiny compared to a themed puzzle, because so much of a themeless is all about the fill. I wasn't a fan of ENSE, A SAD, OLIO, ANGE, CIEN, but those types of entries almost always are required to make a themeless work. So very, very hard to create an awesome themeless; to make all the snazzy pieces lock together without any gluey short fill.

Nice work today; a very good themeless from Gary.

Sat 12/14/2013

Another wonder from the Sorcerer of Stacks, the Genie of Grid-spanners, the MAS Maestro. What a tough workout today, and what a feat. It never ceases to amaze me, seeing all those rows without a single black square.

As Will mentioned, the crossings are pretty smooth through the quad-stack. Sure, there's a CRAT and I'm not totally sure I buy HEISTING, but NORN, SARGENT, EILEEN FORD, FILIPPO and ALI PASHA are fair Saturday material. It was fun to look up ALI PASHA and discover that his surname was Aslan, (like the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia). And it's even more impressive to see the awesome GO COMMANDO as one of the quad-stack crossers. Amazing stuff.

I like the ambition of adding two more grid-spanners into this puzzle, but neither TERRENCE MCNALLY nor SERGEANT O'ROURKE did much for me (sorry, F Troop fanatics!), especially given that there were so many other names present in the puzzle. Perhaps if one or both of those were more well known to me? Interesting that I found the roughest spots to be in the NW (D TEN / PEETE / ATRAS) and the south (ERB / RMS), both regions outside of the quad-stack. I wonder if having the two extra grid-spanners was worth it? (Or if it was even possible to complete without using the extra grid-spanners?) Tough trade-offs.

As a lover of wordplay clues, I appreciated seeing the fun clues for RIGOR MORTIS and GO COMMANDO. Amusing; it really helps to get a smile when I'm dead stuck. As I was struggling to get a toe-hold in the center, I couldn't help wishing for a wordplay type clue to help me out and divert my frustration. The tough cluing in the middle certainly made this a challenging workout, and perhaps I would have appreciated it even more if there had been a little more cheekiness in one or more of those central clues.

I would comment more on the architectural issues of the puzzle, but seeing as my attempts at quad-stacking have resulted in nuclear meltdown, I'll just sit back and admire. I appreciate the variety MAS gives us through his triple and quad-stacks, but I'm glad not every Saturday puzzle is this tough!

Sun 12/15/2013 A CUT ABOVE THE REST


Wanting another Sunday crossword, I summoned nefarious powers from the darkened netherworld (also known as Canada). To my horror, the dirt and clay outside my house trembled, clods bursting toward the sky. A horrendous form pushed through the surface, two arms of congealed earth atop a trunk of elephantine proportion. I had called forth a golem, a powerful being from Hebrew legend!

Luckily, I had just brushed up on my golem lore (if you haven't read Helene Wecker's "The Golem and the Jinni" please do, it's fantastic). I rushed outside with a scrap of paper with which to animate the creature and wrote "Make me a memorable Sunday puzzle, something a cut above the rest." Jamming it into its mouth, I stepped back with trepidation as the clay monster creaked to life. Golems, after all, have a tendency to go mad and start crushing things.

I followed the great hulk-beast as it tromped down the street to the local playfield. Scratching my head, I watched as it clobbered its fists into the grass, the earth shaking with each of its strikes. After a few minutes, I yelled, "What in blazes are you doing? CUT! Cut? Cut ..." My jaw dropped as I realized it was pounding the word C U T at the top of a gigantic grid. Genius — a literal C U T above the rest! As it finished its task, its eyes flashed a terra cotta red and it ran into the darkness, roaring about how it would smash out all life on earth. That wasn't so good, but its puzzle was.

So there you have it; that's how a Sunday crossword is made. And if you see a golem rampaging in the streets, I don't know anything about it.

Mon 12/16/2013

Nice work from Greg today, four common (warning, pun alert) bye-lines (groan), with two bonus ones in the north and south, and a revealer in the middle as the kicker. Impressive theme density for a debut puzzle.

DO SVIDANIYA: normally I grouse about tough/esoteric entries in a Monday puzzle, but I really liked this one (and it wouldn't keep me from giving this puzzle to a newbie to try). Bringing back images of Dolph Lundgren and his Cold War movie kin, DO SVIDANIYA was familiar enough I should have been able to get it right off the D. But DAS VEDANYA, DOS VEDANIA, DAS VIDALIA (I like onions, so sue me) later, I finally limped into the correct spelling. Thank goodness all the crosses were fair!

As Greg mentioned, one issue with the grid is its segmentation. Notice that by adding a single set of black squares, you could split the grid into three parts. It's not a big deal since the puzzle flowed reasonably well, but ideally grids are wide-open enough that they don't feel like separate mini-puzzles. It's a much bigger issue for a themeless or a hard Thursday, where it can be very frustrating if there's only one way into a closed-off area, and the solver can't manage to break in through the only possible route.

A nit to pick: for consistency's sake I would have liked each theme answer clued to a name associated with the specified nationality. Not sure what you'd use for SEE YA LATER (Jake? Bubba? Jeff is always good.) but TATA could have been "Cheerio, Wentworth Mortimer Biggleston the Third!" And because CIAO felt like a dupe of ARRIVEDERCI, it might have also been fun to just have one bonus answer, TATA, as (appropriately) the very last answer.

Mondays are so tough to create because the constructor can't depend on a couple of ugly entries to make his/her grid work. After all, it's not really fair to expect the Monday solver to know an ERNE or an OLEO or an AGHA outright, especially if they're crossed. So very nice work from Greg today, delivering a smooth grid with just a handful of the usual suspects plus some good stuff like SKI SLOPES and SINGLET. A nice debut.

Tue 12/17/2013

Impressive to have so much theme density (phrases containing NBA across words), with each themer crossing another. Fancy work from Paula, who incorporated some very snazzy phrases. Checking, there seem to be a lot of options available for the *N BA* pattern, so Paula did well to select what she did. It almost felt like a themeless, uncovering such goodness as KEVIN BACON and PINBALL and SUNBATH all throughout the grid.

It may not be apparent how tough this construction is, but it's a real challenge. Any time you have crossing themers, filling around those entries becomes tricky. Yes, Paula had the flexibility to switch out themers if the surrounding fill got too gritty, but she still had to fill cleanly around four separate sets of crossing themers ... and then make sure they all connected. Very hard to execute on, and she even managed to throw in entries like BIG IDEA and DESPOT as she linked her subsections.

I would have loved to see NBA as the last answer. It usually feels inelegant to me when the revealer is in a strange location, but there are no hard and fast rules about this. I can see how difficult NBA would have been to incorporate into the very SE, considering the crossing themers in that section. As always, there are so many trade-offs in puzzle construction.

Will brings up a good point about the trend to judge a puzzle by its worst answers. I enjoyed all the theme density, but understand how people could find the trade-off not favorable. I don't think any of the entries are terrible, but hitting SAT I right off the bat felt clunky to me. Was it worth the theme interlock up there? I think so, but I could see how people would see otherwise. Anyway, these are subjective calls.

Nice change of pace Tuesday, enjoyable four minutes.

Wed 12/18/2013

Fun change-up today. Only three theme entries, but they're all good to great when re-imagined with one fewer space. AWAY WITH WORDS! was my favorite of the bunch.

A grid with just three theme entries has a great deal of potential for nice long fill, and Ed does s good job with that. Incorporating ESCAPE PLAN and I SMELL A RAT in the across direction adds to the level of difficulty, and a series of snazzy long downs enhanced my solving experience, EYELASH, SHOEBOX, and STALAG in particular. BOATEL was new to me, but a fun term.

I can't help but think that there were many other theme options, but I couldn't come up with any solid ones after a few minutes of thought. Since there were only three themers, it would have been really nice to have all three start with AW, but I couldn't come up with any common phrases that start with A WASH or A WRY. In this day and age where most puzzles have at least four theme answers, it's kind of nice to get a grid with three solid themers and a grid packed with additional good fill.

Sometimes people talk about the first impression a puzzle makes, at 1-across. For a while I didn't buy that (especially because I often couldn't figure out 1-across right away unless it was a Monday puzzle), but I'm starting to see the logic. Just like in public speaking or essays, the first and last impression is often a critical factor in the impression left with the audience. In this case, BUBBA is a great opener and affected my opinion to the positive. The REEDY / DRESSAGE finish was nice too.

Not to say it's all perfect — I'd love for SERE to go the way of ADIT, IRAE isn't great (although passable since DIES IRAE is famous in classical circles), and ATTU might be borderline to some — but overall, cleanly executed. Well done.

Thu 12/19/2013

Whew! Once in a while a puzzle comes along to break all sorts of conventions, and one way or another, it stimulates creativity through both strong positive and negative reactions. Who knows if today's will be looked upon ten years from now as the one that spawned an entire movement using heavy bars? Jim and I (mostly Jim) fixed up the puzzle to reflect the print version, as the Across Lite file seemed not nearly as elegant as print. Hopefully the time Jim and I (okay, 99.9% Jim) spent gives you a nice post-solve experience. And make sure to try the special HTML 5 online solving tool Jim programmed! Or if you're on an iPad or iPhone, you might try out Puzzazz's app.

I enjoyed the idea behind this one, seeded by oil and water not mixing. Perfect for George, who's a professor of chemistry! I had a very rough time with the central entry, because I dropped in LIKE OIL AND WATER with just a few letters and refused to believe it could be anything else. "LIKE WATER AND OIL" actually googlizes better than "LIKE OIL AND WATER" so perhaps this was just my issue (I was glad to hear that George and Michael actually started with OIL AND WATER, which makes me feel less crazy). Also possibly just my issue: the way the top and bottom interlocked, it felt like the oil and the water halves actually *were* mixing (in the central row). Hmm.

Very tough to pull off this construction. Not only do you have the unusual quasi-non-mixing of the top and bottom halves of the puzzle, but there's the rebus factor. George and Michael do well in some of those entries, the lovely HOT WATER BAG and ET VOILA, notably. Rebus entries work best for me when they allow the constructor to work in something unusual, something not typically seen in normal puzzles. But with dense rebus puzzles (or rebus puzzles with high additional constraints), some entries suffered. LOW WATER sounds a bit funny to my ear, and eau de toilette is so much more elegant than TOILET WATER and its slight ick factor.

Lots of good long fill in this one, and the highlight of the puzzle for me: the wonderful clue on MAITRE D'. I was stuck on "two-seater" as a type of car, and was so frustrated I couldn't work my way into that section. But when MAITRE D' (which already looks awesomely weird as an entry) appeared, what a sense of relief + the pleasure of experiencing a great clue. Well done.

POW Fri 12/20/2013

★ Another beautiful construction from Ian, the first constructor to earn his second POW! during my iron-fisted regime of terror. Er, happiness. Same difference. Almost all themeless puzzles require trade-offs, with snazzier entries or lower word counts coming at the price of ugly fill. Today's is a beauty, a huge amount of lively long fill and almost nothing by way of subpar answers. Almost Berryesque, I daresay. Sacrilege, I know!

When Ian sent his commentary, I thought at first he was joking. Start with the short stuff? And fill in the longer stuff from there? Ha, that's funny! And then I started to wonder ... is this madness, or genius? (Such a fine line.) And to my surprise, Ian said indeed, he was being serious, trying a new approach to minimize ugly short fill. Heck, if the long fill is so nice with such a minimal amount of dreck, maybe he's onto something.

The only hiccup I saw was in the SW corner, with VAYA/VARIG/AGITA. I had to look up the last two, and was glad I did, as they seem like pieces of information I ought to have in my knowledge base. I knew VAYA (con Dios) from spending way too much of my 20s steeped in King of the Hill episodes when I could have actually been doing something useful (like watching Simpsons episodes). If a solver hadn't been exposed to KotH though, Dios help them in the VAYA/VARIG crossing.

One issue I had was it was over too quickly. Perhaps I'm simply on Ian's wavelength, but my solving experience flew by. I would have liked more wordplay clues like "Touch-type?" for BRAILLE (brilliant!), and it felt like too many clues were leaning too far into the straightforward side (SEATBACKS and LEATHER seem ripe for clever wordplay clues, for example). Oh well, if nothing else the variety in difficulty level is good. Great work from Ian today!

Sat 12/21/2013

Ah, oh great crossword puzzle, what would my life be without you? You've given me an obsessive hobby, an excuse to hang out with my wife when we first met, a community of supportive and uberinteresting people, and a creative diversion that takes my mind off of work.*

FUN idea today, superimposing the shape of the very first American crossword onto a now-standard grid. It even has the word FUN in the proper place (albeit hidden inside FUNGICIDE = a tiny bit icky IMO). And even though the word count is low enough to make it a themeless, David and Todd work in NEW YORK / SUNDAY WORLD, ARTHUR WYNNE, and MCMXIII. Neat to find a symmetrical set of themers.

With such a a wide-open grid and four locked-in themers, there are bound to be compromises. In terms of long fill, we get some goodness in the form of DALAI LAMA and GREENLAND, but also have the awkward SOLEMNER. These rarely used type of words aren't so harsh when they're shorter pieces of fill, but it's less than ideal when one of your long slots is taken up by something like this. As David mentioned, working with a themeless grid is hard enough, but when you take away flexibility by locking in four answers, it really ups the difficulty.

Neat concept. I would have liked a stronger tie-in to the original puzzle (besides just its shape) but I'm not sure what else there would be. Reproducing the entire puzzle would automatically saddle you with ugly stuff (construction was pretty primitive back then), and trying to extend the original answers into a 15x grid would likely have been impossible.

*For the sake of the big anniversary, I forgive the fact that you've cost me countless hours of sleep in marathon bouts of construction, you bugger.

Sun 12/22/2013 GOOD ONE!

A Liz Gorski puzzle! One thing I know for sure with a Gorski construction is that it will almost always contain some neat visual element. Always a treat to see her byline, especially on Sunday-size grids and their big palettes.

A beautiful holiday puzzle, Liz uses her trademark "connect the letters in alphabetical order" theme to form an angel. She then defines ANGEL in several different ways, i.e. GOLFER CABRERA. It's a neat twist on a standard theme type of "switching" the clues and answers, i.e. "Angel" is the clue and GOLFER CABRERA is the answer instead of the other way around. The picture of the angel itself is really pretty, and surprisingly hid itself from me until the very end. Jim mentioned that he likes connect-the-letter puzzles when it's not obvious what the end result will be. Fully agreed!

For this theme type I tend to prefer in-the-language phrases, as it can be a bit disappointing to run across made-up sounding phrases in the puzzle. But in this case, it's pretty difficult to come up with even one in-the-language phrase to define ANGEL. So overall, I think the nice picture of the angel is still worth it.

From a construction standpoint, you might wonder why Liz didn't use L-R (mirror) symmetry on this one like she typically does for her holiday Sunday puzzle, like the gingerbread man one from 2011. Surely the (almost) L-R symmetric angel would best be shown with a L-R symmetric puzzle, yes? Typically it would, but the fact that Liz uses one 21-letter theme answer, MICHELANGELO SCULPTURE straight down the middle prevents L-R symmetry from being used.

Why, you ask? Because with a L-R symmetric grid, a grid-spanning central vertical answer forces the constructor to have a triple stack of grid-spanners right down the middle. Think about how you would break up columns 10 and 12 (on either side of the middle column 11): anywhere you put a black square in column 10, you must put a symmetrical one in column 12. That results in a one-letter word in between = no good! Typically L-R symmetry is no harder to use than normal (rotational) symmetry, but it has its own idiosyncrasies.

A final comment: any time you have letters fixed in certain parts of the grid, you're going to up your level of construction difficulty. And with 21 fixed letters, that's a lot of constraints! Look at the "angel's head" region, for example. With A E O L fixed in place AND a themer running down the center, it's very tough to fill that area cleanly. A NET crossing A LOOP isn't great, but it's not bad considering the severe constraints in that location. And generally Liz does well to escape with a TOA here and a ESE/ENE there, while managing to work in snappy stuff like EXIT ROW, OUTTAKES, and GENE POOL to spice up the solve. RENVOI was a toughie for me, but as Frank Sinatra often did, I enjoyed adding the term to my lexicon.

What would the holidays be like without a Liz Gorski visual puzzle?

Mon 12/23/2013

Fun start to the holiday week from Michael and Andrea. With a bit of cheekiness in SPERM WHALE (and its SPERM bank theme answer), it's also the start to a week with a touch of the risque. Unusual for the Gray Lady, but I wholeheartedly approve. Stay tuned ...

The "word that can follow" theme is not something Will accepts much these days, but if there's a twist or an additional element, it can be workable. A really nice revealer like TAKE IT TO THE BANK is a bonus, giving the puzzle an extra layer of depth. Having four additional theme answers, each a snappy entry in its own right (FOG MACHINE is great!), is another plus.

Ah, the pangram discussion is sure to rear its head in the blogosphere today. There are many different philosophies on this, and I don't think any is objectively right or wrong. Andrea's thinking: the relatively rare letters (JQXZ) give a puzzle extra zing, a meatiness that fills the solver's belly. And I can understand the argument that OJO happens to be in the crossword relatively frequently, so why not toss the solver into the deep end right away, forcing them to learn something that will no doubt help them with harder xws?

But my personal philosophy is that I want Monday puzzles to be a gateway for novices, getting them hooked into the NYT daily puzzle without feeling like they have to learn a totally new lexicon. So OJOS (the Spanish word for eyes, which most people are unlikely to encounter outside of xws) is something I could do without on a Monday. And as much as I like COQ, it seems to come at the price of MASC, which to me doesn't seem worth it. Anyway, different strokes.

A final point, look at the nice mid-length fill, a feat difficult to achieve when there's such high theme density. TOMCAT, SCRIBE, EPOCHS, AXIOMS all enhanced my solve. And I would make a juvenile joke about BREASTS, but that might be too titillating.


Tue 12/24/2013

Tribute puzzle to a great man, NELSON MANDELA. It takes a lot of speed and coordination to come up with a good tribute puzzle and push it through the editorial process of a major newspaper. Kevin Der did the last one, a tribute to Steve Jobs, and it was sad to hear some people accuse him and/or Will of vampirishly sitting on a pre-written puzzle. Lest you think David or others morbidly prepare puzzles about people likely to die in the near future, it's not how it happens*.

Will's point is well-taken in regard to tribute puzzles. Once in a while they help solvers remember the life of a truly inspirational person, and factoids like Mandela spending 18 years in ROBBEN ISLAND prison is something worth highlighting. I hadn't known the name of the prison, so I enjoyed learning it. Yes, tribute puzzles can run a bit dry, being more informational than entertaining, but most everything in moderation provides variety. The great thing about doing a regular daily puzzle: if one day isn't to your liking, chances are one in the next day (or two) will be.

Note the parallel long downs at 2-/3-down, and 40-/41-down. Typically this sort of grid arrangement is difficult to fill cleanly, and often requires ugly short fill which makes it seem like a bad trade-off to me. WALLOW IN is a great entry but CIE is something I'd like to see less of. And the SE is nice and clean, although LIES OVER feels a bit out of the language. Trade-offs as always.

A final observation about the subjectivity of "ugly fill". I personally dislike TWOD since you never seen it written as anything other than "2-D", but to my surprise, more than one constructor I've collaborated with has purposefully targeted entries like ONE-K or PG-THIRTEEN because they look so cool written out like that. And I have to admit, something like VH ONE seems perfectly fine — even desirable — to me. To each their own.

*Although I have written and filed a tribute puzzle for myself, which includes the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, my ELEVEN OSCAR WINS, and the date of my death, which is NEVER because I discovered/invented the FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH. A truly magnificent life. Now back away, vampires.

Wed 12/25/2013

Debut! Neat to see another constructor enter the ranks of "published in the NYT". To me, it's much more an honor than the Fields Medal, a Newbery Award, and a Burger King crown all rolled into one. Although if the Newbery committee wants to make me an offer ...

A visual representation of FIVE GOLDEN RINGS; a nice Xmas day theme. I particularly liked the middle golden ring, "golden SLUMBERS", circling around the middle. Neat effect. The other four aren't quite as ring-like, looking more like golden squares than golden rings, but you can't always get what you want (plus, incorporating five rings like the middle one would likely have led to too many trade-offs in fill quality). "Golden MEAN" in the NE was especially cool; phi (the golden ratio) is one of my favorite irrational numbers (and the feature of a previous NYT puzzle!).

Anytime you have crossing constraints, as in each of the four corners, the difficulty level ratchets up. Jacob does well, impressively so in a debut, in these areas. I was about to make a comment about not caring to see HULOT, which seemed too esoteric, but I looked it up after reading Jacob's note and gained an appreciation of Jacques Tati. And thinking about it more, there's likely an entire generation for whom HULOT is not only a no-brainer, but a revered entry.

So putting that aside, getting out of those four tough corners with just an ALEE and a CYSTS (which carries negative connotations for some), while being consistent in the way the four-letter theme words (each of the four starts in the bottom-left corner and runs clockwise) is excellent work.

I typically like learning something new from xws, so any one of SYRIAC, OSSETIA, or HULOT would have been very much welcome. But to have all three in a single puzzle felt a bit like drinking eggnog from a fire hose to me*. They're certainly all fair game for a Wednesday though, especially since the crosses all seem reasonable to me.

There's a lot of good stuff in this puzzle, notably KABUKI, ICARUS, and LACROSSE, with the trade-offs of a couple of long partials (ILL DO and EAU DE). All in all, a nice debut. Merry Xmas!

*Mmm, eggnog out of a firehose ...

POW Thu 12/26/2013

Tim Croce is most well-known for his wide-open themeless grids, but he also works on themed puzzles, and today's is a stonker. GENERAL DISARRAY is interpreted as "phrases which contain GENERAL anagrammed", and Tim comes up with some beautiful theme entries, POTENTIAL ENERGY and NUCLEAR ENGINEER being my favorites (I'm a physics dork, so sue me).

At a certain point in their careers, most constructors tend to get comfortable with the basics of gridwork. Many stay at that point indefinitely, but some choose to push the envelope, trying to see what new and exciting developments can happen. I love Tim's effort today to give us a wide-open solve (only 70 entries!), imbuing the puzzle with a quasi-themeless feel. The theme itself doesn't contain the typical trickery we've come to expect from Thursdays in the Shortz era, but the addition of the wide-open grid really enhanced my solve.

Typically, most constructors would break up rows 1, 2, 14, and 15 into three entries apiece, but Tim has split them only into two entries apiece. This gives us the juicy TIA MARIA, MESS TENT, EMIRATES, OLD SAW, etc. And in addition, RAN RAGGED and SEAFARERS appear in the NE and SW; excellent entries. There are a few prices to pay, notably IERI and BEGEM which both seem to me like icky bits, but overall the trade-off is well worth it to me.

And there's the combination of ANAL and AREOLA clued as a site of some piercings. Buh-bye, old Gray Lady! I'm sure there will be some whose sensibilities are rankled by this, but count me among those happy to see more cheekiness mixed in. I also appreciated the vibe of the cluing, notably "Brobdingnagian" for LARGE and "Search for, in a way" for GOOGLE. A really fun solve today.

Fri 12/27/2013

I wrote Ian a month ago, in mock surprise that his name WASN'T on the list for upcoming puzzles that week. His response: "If it ain't broke ..." I'll have what you're having, sir.

Seriously, when you're this good, I don't mind seeing a name pop up this frequently. Today's themeless is a collaboration with his J.A.S.A. Crossword Class, which sounds like a blast. It's hard for me to imagine anyone in the class knows INSTAGRAM or DJANGO UNCHAINED well, so it's pretty awesome that this puzzle has a relatively recent feel to it, what with INSTAGRAM, OBAMACARE, and texty OTOH (on the other hand). Good mix too, with RED SCARE and NEWSREELS; something for everyone.

Themeless puzzles have an interesting race-like quality amongst constructors: "who'll be the first to debut X?" OBAMACARE debuted in the NYT in a 2012 David Quarfoot puzzle and has appeared two more times since (three including today's). Seeing it once recently is fine, but seeing it four times now gets a little tiresome. It's such a tough thing to figure out, since the delay in getting themeless puzzles can run in the range of two years.

A rule of thumb I use in my own themeless submissions is based off a comment Will made last summer. He puts checks by snappy answers (DADS TO BE, VETO POWER), and minuses next to ugly fill (I would consider NAOH, EST, plural UNOS, TAE, and TAI in this category), and that helps him figure out whether or not to accept. I like to have at least 10 checks (preferably 15), less than 5 minuses, and zero "automatic disqualifications" (recently I tried to sneak RSI (repetitive stress injury) by, but it didn't fly). This is all subjective of course. ONE IN TEN seems awfully arbitrary to me, but perhaps someone else would see it as desirable, especially if they could come up with an awesome clue for it.

Enjoyable solve today. J.A.S.A. Crossword Class, keep up the good work!

Sat 12/28/2013

What an incredibly tough solve today. It's great to have a variety of difficulty within Saturday puzzles, but this one kicked my butt down the street, stuffed grass in my mouth, and asked me why I was hitting myself. Looking at the finished grid (I had to reveal some answers to finish), there's a lot of entries to love here, RIP-SNORTER and GUNSLINGER being my favorites. Talk about awesome in-the-language phrases! LETS PARTY crossing JUST PEACHY was another highlight.

The snakiness of the grid makes it a bit like the serpentine brownie pans where each brownie has some edges to it (I'm an edge man). It's visually attractive, but it does cause some segmentation which happened to interfere with my solving experience. I punched through the middle section, but that left me with the NW and SE as separate blank spaces, two mini-puzzles that didn't have many ways to get in. That's totally fine and within crossword rules, but I personally tend to prefer puzzles with a lot of interconnect; multiple ways of getting into each area.

Oh, the NW corner, stumper of stumpers. It certainly contains some great entries. That stack of JUMBO FRIES, ONION RINGS, and GUNSLINGER is a great triplet. But it does come at the price of SMA, MINA, INGE, EGER, SSR, which feels like a heavy price to pay, especially considering they're all composed of mostly high-frequency letters (RSTLN E). And when you throw in the tough cluing, it was all but unsolvable for me. Had to throw in the towel for the first time in ages.

In comparison, I really enjoyed the middle (diagonal) section. Even though it didn't have quite the quantity of marquee answers, I found the experience much smoother (only BARI and SRTA as hiccups) and more pleasurable. I'm sure there will be solvers who prefer the crunchiness of the NW though.

Been a while since I've been stumped so badly. Good lesson in humility; a reminder that I still have a long ways to go to become a top-notch solver. I look forward to the ride ahead.

Sun 12/29/2013 TAKE A BREAK

Beautiful work from Joel, as usual. Not only does the puzzle take the shape of a pool table, and contain a pyramid of POOL BALLS, but it also has theme answers that end in pool terms (verbal CUE, sidewalk CHALK, etc.). Talk about lots of layers! I almost missed the additional theme answers, but it eventually dawned on me that while some constructors would find the first two elements to be enough, Joel must have packed in more than just the rebus squares and the POOL BALLS triangle. Glad I thought twice about it.

Very smooth solve today, a testament to how much work and time Joel must have put into this. Even with the three layers of theme answers in the puzzle, there's SO much good long fill (HAS A GO AT + BARBELLS + STOOLIE right in the POOL BALLS section (super impressive fill given the extremely heavy constraints!), plus ILLUMINATI, FAQIR, TS ELIOT, SUDOKU, KUMAR) and relatively little undesirable stuff (DREI with UNE, ETH, ATA, ESTOP) for a Sunday puzzle. It's very difficult to fill a Sunday-size puzzle cleanly, and with this many constraints, Joel does an outstanding job.

It's inevitable that multiple constructors will come up with a very similar concept. Unfortunate that Joel's puzzle is so similar to Michael's, but I appreciate today's execution. It's true that I remembered doing the old one — that memory did detract from my solving pleasure a little — but I still appreciated the ultra-smooth solve and the neat L-R (mirror) symmetry in the grid. And seven years does seem like a reasonable time to wait. Fun Sunday experience.

Mon 12/30/2013

Meaty start to the week, a vowel progression from David with an unusual grid pattern (not the first four-letter progression though!). It played much harder than a Monday for me, but sometimes the variety is nice. I like it when constructors try something new, and working high-density themes into low word-count grids seems like a new wave of experimentation in the NYT.

I was a little mixed on the theme answers, as PUNT RETURN is a great (and aptly-timed) answer (go Seahawks!), but PANT-SUITED felt a little off. Wearing a pant-suit yes, pant-suited … hmm. PINT MEASURE also feels out of the language to me, but my idea of cooking is eating a jar of spaghetti sauce straight out of the refrigerator. PONT LEVEQUE is a super-toughie. Yes, I like learning new things from crosswords, but I personally wouldn't give this puzzle to a novice. And the crossing with RUBATO is going to be really tough for some.

Where David shines is his long fill. Sticking POWER NAP, POP TUNE, and SO WHAT in the SW is really nice. I would have loved it if the latter had been clued to the "So What" track off Miles Davis's blockbuster "Kind of Blue", but perhaps that's best saved for a later-week puzzle. OUT THERE is also a great entry, not at all out there.

Was the low word-count grid worth it? I did appreciate the snazzy fill, but in the SW we see OPE, SOAPER (is that really a thing?), ATCO and RTS. Nothing is a terrible entry in itself, but all together squished into a small region the effect is less than ideal. I would have preferred breaking up the SW and NE with a set of black squares (you'd have to lose the cheater squares before POSE and after GARY). Snappy long fill is a great thing, but sometimes I feel like the price to pay is too high.

All in all though, an enjoyable solve. I think pushing the envelope is rarely a bad thing.

POW Tue 12/31/2013

★ I often say how hard it is to construct a smooth but interesting early-week puzzle, and Tracy has succeeded today. I really liked the theme (phrases whose final words are anagrams of each other), and the solve was silky smooth. Beautiful work!

Note how snappy the theme phrases are. It's rare to see a puzzle with such strong themers, because most of the time a theme is heavily constrained by demands of consistency and/or specificity. But here Tracy picks out five winners, each one a phrase I'd be happy to use as long fill in one of my own puzzles. Some might deem ROCKETS RED GLARE as a partial, but I think it works on its own quite well. As an aside, notice how Tracy chose a 15-letter middle entry, which makes the grid construction MUCH easier than if she chose a 9, 11, or 13-letter entry.

And really nice use of Scrabbly (JQXZ) letters in the fill today. Sometimes a constructor will shoehorn one in where it doesn't really fit, causing a jarring solve. But J in DEEJAY, Z in ORZO, and X in XANADU are really nice. JUNCO was unfamiliar to me, but since it was the only thing I had to look up (and it's a common bird), it was welcome. Sure, nobody likes to see ULE in their puzzle, but since there's not much else on the offenders list, it gets a pass.

Interesting that the toughest part for me was the SW. I took six years of French in high school, but could barely pull out PLAGE. Then again, I can barely keep "Chen" and "chien" straight. (Makes for awkward family reunions.) I have a feeling there will be complaints today about PLAGE (and how the corner could have been "better" filled), but sometimes a constructor uses certain words for a reason. Perhaps they have a special fondness for the entry, or they like the similarity to the Spanish word PLAYA and its Burning Man associations, who knows*? If this were a Monday puzzle I might object, but I found it to be a useful exercise in recall.

Very well done!

*ADDED NOTE: Tracy and I exchanged emails, and she said: "I absolutely did choose the word french word PLAGE for the lower SW corner having just been to the French side of the island St. Maarten when I constructed this puzzle. Since it translates to 'beach', I thought it tied in nicely with my mini-theme of islands/beach towns such as Ibiza, Malta, and Avalon." Cool!

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