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Puzzles for December, 2014
with Jeff Chen comments

Mon 12/1/2014

Such a nice way to start off the week, colorful phrases akin to "enthrall me" getting wacky connections to careers. My favorite was ROCK MY WORLD, perfectly tied to a seismologist. (Also very nice would have been a diamond seller, using the slangy meaning of "rock" in an engagement ring.) Love the consistency; each of the four themers having a (verb) MY (noun) structure.

Typically the "pinwheel" arrangement doesn't allow for a lot of great long fill, as it's too easy for the theme to get muddied up. After seeing the grid, I girded myself to get theme and not much more, but boy, was I pleasantly surprised. John gives us a clinic in how to wisely use your moderate-length fill. I thought I was lucky to get CAMP OUT, ALL TOLD, and PAIR UP right off the bat, and the goodness kept coming. ZEPHYRS and LIP SYNC anchor the other corner, and STIR FRY puts the exclamation point on the end with its fantastic clue, playing on the "walk" and "wok" homonyms. Newer constructors — heck, all constructors — ought to study how carefully John picked his moderate-length fill, maximizing the sizzle.

Drawing of a redoubt

I didn't know what REDOUBT was, but I liked learning about it. This is the right way, in my eyes, to introduce a new term to people's vocabulary — 1.) all of the crossings are perfectly fair, none of them even remotely possible to get wrong, and 2.) having it be the only odd duck in the grid. I like learning a thing or two, but like most lazy folks, one is better than two for me on a Monday.

I might have given it the POW! if it hadn't been for a few things. LIGHT MY FIRE clued to an arsonist … that's not really a career, is it? (Don't tell any of the kids I work with if it is.) I like John's pyrotechnician, which could have also been candlemaker. LED designer? Cinematographer? I understand the difficulty of not being able to use "light" in the clue — lighting expert, light designer — but this one inconsistency sticks out in a big way to me.

It would have been nice to see a couple of longer bits of fill, too. (If the square between BUILT and FAB had been taken out, for example.) This theme is so overt that it'd be tough to confuse long fill and themers. That may have not allowed for all the fantastic mid-length fill, but given how well John executed on it at 78 words, I bet he'd do just fine at 76 words too.

Very fun solve, a pleasure to write about.

Tue 12/2/2014

What an amusing theme idea, a word / phrase describing an outburst in the across direction and a normal word in the down. And each pair crosses at beginning or ending letters! I'm not totally sure I understand the concept — some sort of revealer would have been very helpful to clarify the idea — but I liked it enough that I was willing to go with the flow.

Amazing job of filling. In the past, I've gone on and on about the difficulties of peripheral theme answer layouts, and I've also warned about crossing themers causing distress. Here, Tim goes big by drawing a little from both — quite a challenge. I kept on expecting to see piles of glue glorped all around, especially in the NW and SE corners, but to my surprise, it never really came. Sure, there are some awkward spots like ONE EYE / AYR / ENOUNCE, but even that was fairly minor. ALGAL feels like an odd duck even though it's a perfectly cromulent word, and the ECU has long gone by the wayside, but a few of them here and there are well worth the crazy amount of interlocking goodness.

The Mandelbrot set

And check out the center, the piece de resistance. With two long slots to fill, plus BLAST and SHOOT already fixed into place, there's not a lot of freedom there. But Tim works in PAT BOONE and my favorite answer in the grid, FRACTALS. He even tosses in FAN BELT off of the F of FRACTALS. It's beautiful work.

I would have loved some sort of "does double duty" type of concept connecting everything together, but I'm not sure what that would be. Seeing as how I had to rewrite my first paragraph six times before really feeling like I got the explanation correct (am I still missing anything?), a revealer to give me a quick and description would have been ideal. But overall, I enjoyed the solve.

Wed 12/3/2014

Baby panda squee! Fastball straight down the middle, a tried and true theme type but executed well. Initialisms have been done over and over again, so I think it's important to add another level of complexity to gain interest. Patrick uses a nice revealer, PANDA parsed as P AND A, to tie together four themers starting with P and A. This was familiar to me, since Mel Taub regularly constructs "Puns and Anagrams," also known as PANDA, so there wasn't much of a surprise factor.

I liked how clean the puzzle was. There were few, if any, moments where I slowed down to note gluey bits. Exactly what I'd expect from a veteran constructor with Patrick's chops. Even going back over it with a fine-toothed comb, all I could see in addition to the aforementioned IT HOT was SSNS, and I personally think that's a fine answer, as it's such a common abbreviation in high usage for HR and tax filing purpose. So smooth, like butter.

I could have used a little more snazz in the fill, though. I loved UNLEADED because of its clue referring to decaf coffee — what a colorful use of the English language — but there wasn't as much snappy material as I would have liked. BASE PATH is probably the best piece of fill in the grid, but its clue left me shrugging. "Separate" certainly can take the meaning of "a big space separated first and second base," but the clue felt like a real stretch. A BASE PATH connecting first and second feels accurate, a BASE PATH separating first and second feels like the wordplay / misdirection was awfully strained. It's too bad, it's such a nice entry in the grid.

I enjoy when constructors go for interlock. It's pretty neat how Patrick intersected PARK AVENUE and PARTY ANIMAL — and not at a dead-easy crossing like the A starting the second word, which will already be present given the theme. I didn't notice the interlock until I had finished, and it definitely added a little bit to my appreciation. Based on some comments over the years, I think Will values interlock more than I do, but still, it's kind of a neat little feature.

Thu 12/4/2014

Crosswords evolve so quickly. Each time a quantum leap appears — quantum crosswords, for example — everyone rushes to copy the new development. The best constructors, though, do something different by aiming higher, seeing how they can build on a great concept and push it even further. I appreciate what debut constructor Kacey and veteran DQ did today, not just making a Schrödinger, not just making one with three possible answers, but making one with three words that all have three possible solutions. Neat concept, using SCRABBLE and ANAGRAMS to tie it all together. Scrabble game in progress

It's mind-blowing that they were able to pull this off. The construction challenges are immense. And to go big by incorporating three separate instances of a Scrabble rack? Well laid out and executed; I sat back and marveled at the construction. Quite a feat.

Peter Gordon once gave me really useful feedback on a Schrödinger I submitted to him. He commented that they've been done enough now that both solutions really have to be spot on. If it's a stretch for a solver to possibly enter one of the solutions, it's not good enough for him. I thought he hit the nail on the head.

Take GEE and DEE, for example. This one is perfect, as the clue clearly is wordplay hinting at entering the first letter of Greenland. Or is the last letter? I put in GEE right away, but later I went back, wondering if I should have put in DEE. Beautiful. [Black ___] also worked really well, as black bear and black bean fit perfectly.

Others felt strained to me. NOTARY was the obvious solution, once I got a few crosses. But why would the clue reference a lawyer if the ROTARY (telephone) was the answer? It would have worked so much better as a Schrödinger if it had been predominantly lawyers that used rotary telephones. Same with AID / AIR, where AID station felt much more "correct." I didn't care for BUD and BUR for a different reason, as BUR is a bit of glue I avoid like the plague.

Overall though, really nice work, especially in the big NE and SW corners. I don't play Scrabble so the impact wasn't as strong for me as it might be for others, but I can certainly appreciate the difficulties involved in the construction.

I'm setting the over/under for someone to execute on a Schrödinger with four possible answers at ... 256 days.

Fri 12/5/2014

Some beautiful long entries today. The NW and SE stacks contain such goodness! Six answers, all pure gold. A colloquial bit in GOD I HOPE NOT, something newer in the ITUNES STORE, a hippish guy in STEVE CARELL and another one for previous generations in EVEL KNIEVEL (with its A+ clue!). That's some great feature entry work.

I ended up finishing with an error due to a devilish clue for TENET than made me outthink myself (not hard, really). [Canon element] had to be tricksy, right? Surely the printer brand Canon was hidden in plain sight at the beginning of the clue? So with the T and the N in place already, I plunked down TONER. I figured RELEASE DARE was one of those things I'm not hip enough to understand (that's a big universe). And it was so EVEL KNIEVEL sounding. D'oh! Fun to be caught by my own "brilliance."

Ah, the old issue of excessive three-letter words. There is one case where I actually like seeing a lot of 3s, and that is when going to such a high three-letter word count means that there's way more long fill in the grid than usual. If the average word length stays roughly the same, more shorter words means more longer words, yeah?

And if this isn't the case, I think the frustration of the choppy solve brought by excessive 3s can be mitigated by making them as unnoticeable as possible. Avoiding unsavory glue like ENE, GIE, ITE, NOE, and the curious BIS would go a long way toward that.

I usually don't mind one or maybe two things like S AND L and B TWO (entries which are never seen in real life this way). One is kind of fun; kind of tricksy, making the solver think outside the box. Getting two of the same type, B TWO and A TEN, was not ideal. I would have much preferred A TEN being clued as the (somewhat esoteric) Egyptian sun god, although I can understand why Will chose the riskier path, in hopes of squeaking A TEN by.

Some beautiful clues really enhanced my solving pleasure, though. OTTER's clue made me worried, thinking about a different type of "oyster cracker" and why it might be furry. Great repurposing of the term. And GOWNS, TREE RINGS, even ELS twisted my brain around, producing great moments of clarity when the answers finally fell into place.

All in all, a puzzle on one end of the spectrum, one with a lot of sizzling entries made possible by enough glue to hold them together.

POW Sat 12/6/2014

★ This puzzle exemplifies the reason I love giving out my Puzzle of the Week. I enjoy crosswords and puzzles in general, but I do so many of them that I run the risk of getting complacent, of losing my appreciation for all the hard work that goes into making even a single puzzle. So it pleases me to no end to be able to gush about what I think is a stellar creation.

I'm biased in that I like Josh in the first place. We've only met a few times at the ACPT, but he's fun to hang out with and exudes that sort of younger person's vibe, excited about the cool life developments still unfolding in front of him. Sometimes I get cranky about constructors trying to go "too hip," but that's not at all the case with today's fresh-feeling puzzle. Bunk, from "The Wire" LINKED IN is quickly becoming an essential business tool, ZOOLANDER was hilarious (and is popular enough that "Zoolander 2" is in the works!), and PO-PO is fun slang for the po-lice (I imagine PO-PO being said in the voice of Bunk from "The Wire""). Three pieces of strong, fresh fill is right at my sweet spot, not giving me the feeling of too much "stuff I'm too uncool to know" crammed into one place.

And the grid engineering is fantastic. Josh starts with four sets of triple-stacks, one in each corner, but he does so much more. Not only does he extend two great answers toward the center in KIM JONG IL (although I sure wish he had been clued to the state's outrageous claims of his golfing prowess) and ZOOLANDER. But check out what he does in the north and south — sets of three 7s extending off his stacks! And not just neutral entries, but NEOCONS with its clever clue, the snappy EGG WASH, and the historical and glad-I-learned-something-today SALT TAX.

So much interconnect shouldn't realistically be feasible, but Josh somehow pulls it off. Check out the raw number of slots for long answers: 14 of 8+ letters, 8 of 7 letters. And he takes great advantage of these slots, converting almost all of them into assets, with very few left as what I would call neutral (LOOKED AT, INDIRECT, BLESSES, SCIENCE). He was extremely picky about his use of these longish slots, and that was much appreciated.

I'm not a big fan of the "only seen like this in crosswords" entries like B TEN (B-10) and H AND M (H & M), but I can understand that some people like them for how bizarre they look inside a grid. Two in one puzzle is a bit much for me, but I do appreciate that they were at least from different walks of life.

Along with the great clues for EYE OF NEWT (a different sort of microbrew ingredient), ALARM (back to the hooch with a "buzz" misdirection), JERSEY (SF Giants, represent!), and RABBI (a party at many a wedding), this puzzle sang to me. Such a tremendous pleasure to be able to write about it.

Sun 12/7/2014HOLDUP MAN

(Will is in D.C. for the North American Teams Table Tennis Championships, so I (Jeff) thought I'd relate Will's acceptance letter:)

"The MacArthur Foundation missed yet again this year in its 'genius grant' awards, overlooking your obvious once-in-a-generation — nay, mystical — abilities. It is a true wonder that people do not bow reverently to you as you walk down sidewalks — or may I more accurately say, veritably hover with your angelic beatitude. People will surely recount with misty-eyed fondness where they were the day they finished this puzzle; when they acquired a magical moment in time, surpassing even the births of their offspring."

(Or something like that.)

Mon 12/8/2014

Dorkus malorkus Nice start to the week, a vowel progression using S + the five long vowel sounds. I like that Kevin and Acme choose some wacky spellings like SIOUX instead of the straightforward SUE. Kept me on my toes. And the themers are well-chosen, a quintet of strong phrases. It's hard to argue with SCI-FI CONVENTION. I've never been to one, but I'm hoping my brother and I get a chance to use our Spock and Evil Spock (one guess as to which one I am) costumes again.

Great layout today. Vowel progressions necessitate five themers of course, which usually makes gridwork a little challenging. Many constructors would section off the grid into bunches of short fill to make things easier, but Kevin and Acme do well to leave four slots for longer fill. WHERE AM I, TIME FLIES, NON TOXIC, GET OVER IT! Four for four, if you ask me. Also, just as they've spaced the theme answers out, they've spaced these four long fill entries out too. Good spacing often is key in achieving sparkly, clean fill.

The Say Hey Kid

Since this theme type has been done quite a bit in the past, I would have liked a little more tightness. The first three had me smiling (aside from SAY HEY KID missing the important "THE" start), with identical three-word phrases (allowing for hyphenation is fine by me in this case) and three-letter starts. Perfect! The fourth made me pause, as the SO broke the pattern. Why not SEW? I wondered.

And the fifth went completely different with SIOUX. That's perfectly fine, but I think I would have really liked it if all the themers had fit identical patterns, or all of them had been completely different. Personal preference, of course.

Nice work in the fill today, really just the NE corner giving me a slight pause with its ONE TO, OR A, and OTERI. The last is a perfectly fine entry, and the SNL tie-in helps, but until she does something with her career like Kristen Wiig, I'll usually try to avoid using her in grids.

Tue 12/9/2014

Neat idea, trying to form the shape of a shoe by using shoe components: HEEL, SOLE, ARCH, SOLE, TOE, TONGUE, and LACES. I especially liked the ARCH forming the shape of an arch — a beautiful little touch.

Diagonal theme entries are notorious for being difficult to pull off. Fixing two of them in place — and right next to each other! — is usually a recipe for disaster. One of them constrains the across and down fill so much, and two of them wreak havoc on your flexibility and freedom. But Paul does quite a nice job here, even working in the NBA's D-LEAGUE into the mix. EERS is an ugly piece of glue to be sure, but to get away with only that in the center is not bad at all. DEUCEDly good, I might even say.

Visual puzzles are tough to pull off, especially in a 15x puzzle where the canvas is very limited. Even after finishing, I wasn't sure what I was looking at. It's sort of shoe-like. The TONGUE and LACES are both sort of in the direction they usually are, perhaps in a hiking boot or something. But both of them together made the picture awfully busy. I wonder if just having the LACES would have made for a convincing pic? Perhaps it would have been better to use shaded squares instead of circles to form the shoe?

Ah, what about the GUM, you might ask? That quirky little finish to the puzzle was simultaneously fun and icky. Not a huge fan of being reminded about all the times I've stepped in gum. But why not reverse the shading and circles? Might have been fun to have the GUM in circles; a sort of bubble(d) GUM, if you will.

Not sure I buy the partialish IN THE EVENT or the "have I heard that before?" COLLEGE MEN, and I didn't care for the shared etymology of OVO and EGG CELL. I can understand the difficulties in the first two, trying to come up with anything that would fit into those slots given the constraints. The last one felt eminently preventable.

So some hitches here and there, but I like the pushing of the boundaries to do something different.

Wed 12/10/2014

P. D. James Timely theme, what with the recent passing of P.D. James. I've never read any of her work, but all the news stories about her makes me want to explore. And a nice concept, using symbols from the periodic table, switched out for famous writers known by their first two initials.

The periodic table has been mined for crossword Au over the years, so we went through a spell where this had become overdone. It's nice to see a little chemistry back into the NYT xw (said the chemistry dork). I found it a little odd that the chemical symbols didn't typographically match the initials — Cs is not the same as C. S. — but I was able to suspend my hitch and enjoy the puzzle. Cool that Tom found 1.) enough authors that share this feature (I really like the consistency there), and 2.) matching pairs. A nice discovery.

When you don't have much flexibility in themers, the gridwork sometimes gets tough. I can't imagine Tom had many (if any) alternate name pairs ready to use, so a 12/14/14/12 pattern it was. These "unfortunate lengths" are tough to incorporate, because the themers have to be squished together to the middle of the grid due to black square issues. I quite like what Tom's done in the difficult middle of the puzzle, needing only a SOCIO and a STOA to connect the central two themers. Puzzles with themers so close together often come out with globs of EPOXY holding the middle entries together, so this turned out well.

And especially given that it's a relatively tough grid, it's great that Tom worked in a few long pieces of fill. (I always love reading about a constructor's solver-first mentality.) The proximity of DEBRIEFED and DRAWERS made the fourth-grader in me laugh. Along with some ROUND EYED awe at the cool extra chemistry content in LIQUEFY and INERT, I felt like the fill added to my solving experience.

Some excellent clues, too. It just takes two or three to make me notice and appreciate, so SHIH TZU (I triumphantly plunked down SHAR PEI), ONE A (way to make a normally blah entry interesting through the use of wordplay!), TESLA, DOT, all did the trick. If only TESLA were alive still, he'd be a current current researcher.

POW Thu 12/11/2014

★ X through Y phrases, visually represented by two crossing answers. CUTS (through) THE CLUTTER, PULLS (through) IN THE CLUTCH, SLIP (through) ONES FINGERS, GOING (through) THE MOTIONS. Fun to get the a-ha moment of what was going on.

Having a good memory for crosswords sometimes interferes with my enjoyment of puzzles. Here, my initial thoughts turned back to an earlier puzzle as soon as I figured out the concept. It's no problem at all to have two puzzles with a similar (or the same) trick, but I would have liked to have more time separating the two; a year at least. Could also have been different if they hadn't both been Thursday puzzles. If one had been a Wednesday and one a Thursday, people who never attempt a Thursday puzzle wouldn't have even noticed.

Beethoven, looking slightly ... constipated?

Putting all that aside, it's very nicely executed. Joe does a great job of inserting strong long fill without much or a price to pay. I particularly liked the SE corner, with DINGBAT and CLUB SODA straddling the themers down there. And ODE TO JOY along with GROOVES (and a gold star clue!) in the opposite corner? Yes please! It's not easy to stick the landing like this when you're working with crossing themers (even if one of them is short), so Joe does well to keep it to really, really minor stuff like ANON, PEI, ISR.

I would have liked more symmetry (both the long answers and the shorts answers), but having the pairs intersect is really cool. Perhaps it's too much to ask that the short ones be paired in symmetry as well. I do remember sifting THROUGH the total solution space and noticing that it was smaller than I would have thought.

Finally, I love the extra touches. The clue echo of SMUT and SKY, both "blue" things but in very different ways — that's the kind of "clue echo" that works perfectly for me. IQ TEST and its [Measure of brightness]. HOE being something that could loosen up a lot (of land). Excellent stuff adding pleasure to my solve. I really enjoyed it, and likely would have absolutely loved it if it had run six months from now.

Fri 12/12/2014

Jimmy Page playing "Stairway to Heaven" Nice work from one of the young guns today, KEEP(in') IT REAL. It took me a long time to get toeholds into the puzzle, but it all came together after several passes through. I liked the classic vibe of the puzzle, replete with strong entries like PLOT TWISTS and SIDEKICKS that won't fade over time. Even the either-you-know-it-or-you-don't stuff was strong — great to see ELISHA OTIS, the elevator magnate, as a full name in the grid. And shame on you if you don't know LED ZEPPELIN, given that even this pop music Luddite can pluck out "Stairway to Heaven" on the guitar. (It sounds terrible; sincerest of apologies to Jimmy Page. Please don't come over and smash my guitar.)

Nice, wide-open layout. It features just 8 entries of 8+ letters, but all those entries are strong; a 100% conversion rate. Great job of not leaving anything on the table, with the entries already mentioned along with the Scrabbly JACK SPRAT and the festive OKTOBERFEST. A lot of assets anchoring the puzzle.

The top and bottom of the puzzle feature 7s, often more difficult to squeeze goodness out of. There are some strong ones to be sure — AMPED UP, BASEMEN, HIJINKS, RARE GAS, THE WIRE — overall though, I wanted more to be upped from simply neutral (BELIEFS, COLGATE, SALTINE, etc.) to a colorful asset.

I wonder what would have happened if the black squares at the top and bottom of column 8 of the grid were offset, creating blocks of entries 6 and 8 letters long. Hard to say if the 68-word layout would have accommodated more strong 8-letter entries or not. The 68-word grid can often be tricky — it often allows for a more wide-open flow than a 70-word grid, but it can also make packing in a high quantity of assets more challenging.

Just a couple of gluey bits, the minor ERN, ETE, and AEROS. I imagine some people would argue that the last is just fine as the Houston hockey team. I'd agree if it was an NHL team, but the AEROS are part of the AHL. Check that — were part of the AHL, folding in 2013. Ah, well.

Overall, I enjoyed the workout, coming up with virtually nothing (only ACME with its awesome Wile E. Coyote-ish clue) during my first pass. I love it when something that seems impossible at first unfolds bit by bit, allowing you to piece it slowly together. Very satisfying.

Sat 12/13/2014

A lot of nice entries today packed into a 72 word grid. I especially liked what was going on in the NW quadrant, given the LIQUOR UP / TEQUILA crossing as well as ONE ON ONE and BUTTOCKS squeezed into a UNITARD. Love the intentional connections; a nice touch of which we don't see enough. Such nice packing density of colorful entries, especially given how large that L-shaped quadrant is. It's daunting to work with a triple-stack of any kind, and when one turns the corner into other long entries, things can get rough.

Often I'm not a fan of grids leaning on 7-letter entries, but I liked a lot of what I saw today. That SW corner especially exemplifies what I personally like out of 7s: SWEE PEA with a neat trivia clue (all these years I thought he was a she), the colloquial HIT ME UP and OF A SORT. Excellent triplet, even featuring AP TEST running through them.

72-word grids sometimes have a danger of feeling restricted, and I noted that today. Usually I'm fine with a set of cheater squares, and even prefer them since they often make smoother fill possible. Today, the squares after HAIL and before ALTS felt restrictive to me, nearly dividing the puzzle into halves. I can see how difficult it would have been to get those giant NW and SE corners filled though — 8x3 chunk intersecting a 7x4 is something I stay away from because of the difficulty involved in getting colorful and clean fill. Always the trade-offs.

Curious, the decision to connect MORE / OR LESS and BAD / EMS. I personally don't like seeing cross-referenced partials, seeming like a desperate save to make something like OR LESS acceptable. As much as I liked the NW quadrant, I didn't care for OR LESS, maybe even liking it less for the cross-reference. Ants on a log And BAD / EMS … whoo. Nearly made the puzzle impossible for me. Saturday puzzles should be hard, so maybe this is fine. It was a very unsatisfying moment for me though, when I finally did enter those BAD / EMS squares after struggling over them for so long. Not an a-ha moment at all.

Fun anchor phrases, ANTS ON A LOG such a snappy entry. It's too bad it's not more well-known that it required such a definitional entry. And I think I liked STREET MEAT a lot. I think. I would put a picture of it up, but all the images Bing showed me were of a different (NSFW) ilk. Ahem.

Sun 12/14/2014"WELL, GOLLY!"

Sometimes a puzzle surprises me, and that's a very welcome occurrence after ten years of solving. Reading a title like "WELL, GOLLY," my mind immediately went to Ian's very recent puzzle and continued with 1.) it must be an add-a-sound puzzle with "GEE" likely involved 2.) I really hope it's something more complex than just adding the G sound. Given that I didn't actually uncover a themer all the way until I got to BEE GEE LINE, I prepped for the worst.

But wow, was I pleasantly surprised. Next themer up was OH DARJEELING, which made me laugh with its hilarious visual of a guy batting his eyelashes at looseleaf tea (I read between the lines of the clue). Another funny moment came when I got to GPS I LOVE YOU, and another with GENIE JERK REACTION. Kanji art KANJI ARTIST felt a bit too much like a real thing, but the rest of the themers felt above average to strong on the humor scale; KITTY LITURGY not a ten only because of missed LOLcat potential.

The themers also had nice base phrases, from WEIRD AL to KNEE JERK REACTION to CON ARTIST. OH DARLING felt strained to me, like it was contrived to make a length for symmetry requirements, but six out of seven is quite good. And to have each of the G sounds be spelled differently was really well done. I especially liked the JI in KANJI and JEE in DARJEELING.

Jim did very well with his fill, well above par for Sunday debuts. It's audacious to attempt the difficult task of dropping down to 138 words, and to pull it off with not much glue is impressive. The lower word count allows longer fill like MAIL ORDER and NETIZENS crossing, as well as the cool DIAL A RIDE and regal WHITE GLOVES.

There were some bits I hitched on though, notably the area containing OPP and PROEMS and CONG. The first is minor, the second straight from the Weng/Maleska eras, and the third not only cluable in one way, [Viet ___], but bringing up bad memories for many. I would have either liked 1.) more work in that section by changing the curious but not interesting (to me) TETRAGRAM to something else, as there's a lot of flexibility there in the ?ET???R?? pattern, or 2.) splitting up TETRAGRAM at the A and reworking. (Can't say I like Jim's original grid any better, given I believe it would have AT YA at 70D crossing/duping LOVE YOU, and OODLE doesn't feel crossworthy even to this tech dork.)

The rest of the puzzle has fairly minor stuff (aside from LEAL, also straight from the Maleska era), things like ENUF, EUR, NIE, ETYM, spread out through the puzzle to be fairly unnoticeable. It would have been great to have the entire puzzle equally smooth, without that one section sticking out. Thumbs up to Will for reworking it, but I would very much have liked to see the efforts go even further, maybe kicking it back to Jim for a more in-depth fix.

Finally, I really liked many of Jim's new-to-the-NYT-xw entries, but BESTIE made me pause. I read a lot of middle grade and young adult lit for research, and I personally don't want this to open the floodgates to such similar vocabulary as ADORBS (adorable) and TOTES (totally). Feels beneath the NYT.

But all in all, a well executed theme, demonstrating that a simple concept can be pulled off with strong base phrases, humorous impact, and a range of clever sound changes. Since the solving audience is so wide and diverse, it's smart to aim some NYT Sunday puzzles to the straightforward side.

Mon 12/15/2014

Easy breezy start to the week, and we welcome another debut constructor to the mix! Some really nice "S to P" themers today, highlighted by STANLEY CUP and its brilliant clue. Way to repurpose the word "goal" in a way that's both accessible to early-week solvers and still amusing for more experienced solvers. SKINNY DIP, SKI TRIP, STEEL TRAP, SUMMER CAMP, they're all solid to great entries. Well chosen.

Themes built around a word parsed into pieces (ALADDIN goes to "AL add in," for example) have been done quite a bit, so I like to see either a clever parse or a tough constraint. S to P isn't bad on the former, a nice and unexpected separation that has the added benefit of not giving the idea away until the very end. Pretty tough to see what's in common between STANLEY CUP, SKINNY DIP, etc. without knowing what you're looking for. So a pretty good reveal.

Sure would have been nice to have a tighter set of themers, though. Not essential as the current themers work fine of course, but there are so many phrases starting with S and ending with P, it feels a bit too easy to me. What if the revealer had been STOOP, for example? A much harder constraint, perhaps resulting in more of a "hey, that's really cool!" moment. (If it's actually possible.)

Alfa's "badge"

Smart grid design, spreading out the five themers and revealer well. Adding that final revealer makes things challenging when you already have five themers, so kudos for adding in a set of nice long downs. ALFA ROMEO is a nice colorful one. RACE AHEAD is good, too, and even ties in with ALFA ROMEO for a little fill echo. I like the thoughtful touch.

I did notice an excess of esoteric(ish) proper names, though. I don't mind at all to get a bunch of BETTE, EURO, EROS, ATKINS, ELAINE, EMMA, as they're all well-known and beloved by many. It's the pile-up of ESAI, OAKIE, MEHTA, ERL, ARTIE that I feel hurts the puzzle. Any one of those by itself is perfectly fine, as they're all valid (albeit a bit esoteric) entries. Even two or three of them = no problem. But I'm much rather see a few of them changed into partials, abbrs., acronyms, etc. — having so much of one type of glue makes it more noticeable.

Congrats to C.C. on another one, and to Dennis for the debut. Hoping the two of you will SADDLE UP (or SET UP SHOP) to do more.

Tue 12/16/2014

For those Bee Gees fans out there, I'm sure this one resonated well. Not knowing the names of THE BEE GEES though (I might — ahem — or might not have thought each of their last names was "Beegee"), made it a little confusing for me. Barry White cover

I enjoyed uncovering the themers. Who doesn't like a little BARRY WHITE to get you singing "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," a tribute to ROBIN WILLIAMS, and a nod to one of the most beloved children's book authors of all time, MAURICE SENDAK? I had trouble figuring out why THE BEE GEES were related to these three, and I got especially confused by the final GIBB revealer (are you sure "Robin Beegee" doesn't sound familiar?), but a quick search made sense of things. A head-scratcher for me, but 1.) I liked learning a little about THE BEE GEES, and 2.) I found it a nice discovery, that three famous people shared THE BEE GEES' first names, even though they're not exactly Tom, Dick, and Harry kind of everyday names.

Joel does quite well with his construction, placing GIBB in a reasonable position. It would have been nice for it to be at the final across answer, but those terminal Bs can cause all sorts of problems given the additional constraints. I appreciated the effort to get in BULL MARKET and TAKE A STAND, two lovely long answers.

Alternate grid

One nit to pick, I feel like the puzzle could have been structurally strengthened by moving some black squares around. Check out the BULL MARKET / HARD TASK region — having two crossing pieces of long fill usually causes some difficulties by itself. Given the CRADLE 6-letter slot in there too, that's bound to result in trade-offs. Not a huge fan of HARD TASK (I put in HARD WORK, and convincing myself that HARD TASK was actually a thing felt like hard work), and ULT isn't great. It would be a different story if HARD TASK had been a strong answer, worth a piece of glue like ULT. I might have shifted the blocks around as seen to the left, and there are dozens of other arrangements that could work as well. 76-worders are so much easier than 74-worders in terms of packing in a few more nice long downs.

I'll likely still mix up whether the more famous ANDY GIBB was a BEE GEE, but now I can say that it's ridiculous to think ANDY BEEGEE was one of the quartet. Er, trio. Hard work, indeed.

Wed 12/17/2014

It's rare for me to not figure out a puzzle's theme. Sure, I miss certain elements maybe once a month, but it's pretty rare that I can't figure out the gist of one altogether. I scratched my head for several days about today's before admitting defeat and asking Jim — he wasn't sure either. We finally decided it was "examples of types of rhetoric," hyperbole, oxymoron, litotes, and simile being some of the major ones. (I couldn't explain the word rhetoric if I got beat over the head with a figure of speech, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.) Kikkoman's creed

Some fun theme answers, ITLL TAKE FOREVER and NOT UNATTRACTIVE not unattractive at all. I wasn't aware of MAKE HASTE SLOWLY, but it was fun to learn all about Kikkoman's story. Then there was THICK AS A BRICK, which rolls off the tongue. Er, AS THICK AS A BRICK, where the first AS feels thick as a brick. Or something to that effect. All in all, some pretty colorful phrases.

72 words in a weekday puzzle is almost always an audacious undertaking. It can be really cool when a weekday constructor tackles the challenge, because these low word-count puzzles have the potential to 1.) offer juicy fill as well as 2.) up the difficulty level by presenting the solver with wider-open areas than usual. Breaking into a themeless-type grid is often tough, and the added challenge today was welcome. Check out those big open spaces in the NW and SE, after all.

But the construction feat gets lost on me if there isn't that much snazzy fill — I personally will take a higher word-count grid any day if it means that I get more colorful entries. I like GALLEONS. I love OLD IRISH. FIVE WS was fun, too. But I didn't get quite the bang for the buck I would have liked in terms of spotlight entries. Sometimes low word-count grids require a lot of neutral entries or even liabilities to hold them together, and that to me usually is a more challenging but not as rewarding solving experience.

Speaking of liabilities, NENE with an extremely tough clue, LUKAS, and RITT felt like a tough combination of names. I probably should know the latter, and I'm glad to learn a thing or two, but when KASDAN gets thrown in from the same walk of life, it makes me hitch. A few more not super-well-known names in UTHER, RALPH, JACOB, KEW … toss in the odd duck of KUE along with DPI, the arbitrary AT NOON, ANIS, UNE, RAF, SNO ... and the effect was too much for me.

Some fun themers, which might have been made more fun if there had been some entry tying the phrases all together in a tighter fashion.

Thu 12/18/2014

Nice sound changes, "X-ray" the PIG LATIN of "wrecks" = a real winner. Took me a while to figure that one out, and it gave me a strong "hey, that's cool!" moment. The others didn't quite have the same effect as the pig latinizations weren't as surprising, but figuring out "airway" into "wear" was also pretty rewarding.

Loved the cluing touches today. There were several that heightened my solving experience. Go back and study the clues for SNOG, DOJO, IRS, EDEN, EXTRAS, and darn you if you're not amused. DOJO as a place to "kick back"? Yes! Even the IRS brought me a smile when I realized the clue was referring to a tax shelter, not a homeless shelter. Each one of those little moments brings me such pleasure.

I've noticed I favor late-week puzzles. It's taken me a while to figure out why that is specifically. And a big reason is because there are more of these clever clues usually included. I assume this is because the more experienced solving audience is more likely to appreciate the wordplay? Well, I say pish tosh, sir! Here's hoping that we get more of these gems in early-week puzzles too. Why deprive novice solvers of the associated joy?

Cool knuckle-dragger logo!

Sort of a "definitional" puzzle today, usually not my favorite as the clues and answers kind of appear switched. I really like this type of theme when the "definitional" entries are colorful, like KNUCKLE DRAGGER and JALOPIES. But RIP TO PIECES ... RIP TO SHREDS yes, RIP TO PIECES ... maybe. (Also, "trash" doesn't seem like it accurately matches RIP TO PIECES to me — I wrestled with that one because I couldn't equate them in my mind.) Finally, LIVE AND BREATHE doesn't sing to me. AS I LIVE AND BREATHE = yes! LIVE AND BREATHE = a definition out of Merriam-Webster.

A nice balance at 74 words, open enough to be more challenging than a 78-worder, but still allowing for some good long fill like ON THE STAGE, REDUCED FAT, and STODGY. I also appreciated the relative cleanliness of the grid, just a few minor MHO, OYE, A DEAL (can't fool me, partial!) kind of things. Always a balance when five themers are involved.

Fri 12/19/2014

Always a treat to see the Wilberson byline. Today's puzzle gives us an impressive 16 entries of 8+ letters. Loved seeing OLIVER TWIST. SEATTLE SLEW and its great clue that misdirected toward an Olympic track star. LEAD VOCALS. JOE CAMEL with a brilliant [Pack animal?] clue. FIGURE SKATE. So much goodness packed into a single grid.

And what a conversion rate! Out of those 16 key slots, really only REST AREA and STENO PADS stand out to me as so-so, mainly because their common letters make them frequently used in themelesses. That's 14 great long entries, a huge quantity for one puzzle. Throw in the confusing OJT???? pattern of OJ TRIAL and it's impressive how many assets this duo works in.

Not without a price, though. The stacks of 11s in the NW and SE corner already force six three-letter words into the grid design, and we get up to a whopping 17 three-letter words in total. That's not always bad if they can be disguised as the normal CRY, ELK, OPS, SPA, TON, YEW types of entries. But when about half of them are of the AFR, AMO, ATO, DIR, NEC variety, it becomes quite noticeable.

It is a valiant attempt to save NEC with a clever clue. But for those who don't already know that NEC sells semiconductor chips, this wordplay clue has more potential to cause further annoyance at seeing NEC rather than rescuing it.

Draco Malfoy

I bet DRACO MALFOY will be a divisive entry. As a huge Harry Potter fan, I knew it right off the top, which was a lot of fun. But as characters go, he's pretty one-dimensional. SEVERUS SNAPE, who's probably as recognizable to non-HP fans as DRACO MALFOY, is my choice for the antihero of our time.

(SPOILER ALERT!) The love of Snape's life slowly outgrowing their childhood friendship. A turn toward the power and social status offered by the Death Eaters. Snape's role in leading to He Who Shall Not Be Named taking Lily Potter's life. Seeing in Harry Potter's face two clashing elements: Lily's eyes, but also the features of Harry's father — Snape's mortal enemy. And the piece de resistance, Snape's final sacrifice.

Oh right, this post is supposed to be about crosswords, (sadly) not about Harry Potter. Anyway, a ton of great assets, offset by a good number of liabilities.

POW Sat 12/20/2014

★ As a solver, I've come to fear the 64 and 66-word themeless. At 68 or 70 words, there's huge potential to cram a huge quantity of assets into a puzzle with not many liabilities. And grids with 62 words or fewer may not have as much in terms of spotlight entries, but they can look jaw-dropping, giving a tremendous visual impact with their wide-open tracts of white space. Too often, the middle ground means not enough assets, a slew of mostly neutral entries, and/or too many liabilities. So a puzzle like today's 66-worder packed full of assets and low on liabilities, is very welcome. Great feat of construction and a very enjoyable solve.

When I opened it up, I wondered how those NW and SE corners would turn out. Not many people attempt quad-stacked 8s, because they too often require pots of glue to hold them together. Kevin has done at least one before, and the experience shows, as both of those corners come out clean as a whistle. Better yet, the long answers are generally fresh and snappy, not at all the neutral types of entries I expected. POT FARMS, AFROBEAT, STARBASE, TENTACLE makes for quite a quartet.

The other corner is anchored by NET SALES, a bit dull since with its common letters, we see it quite often in themelesses. But otherwise, to get PRENATAL with its great clue, HATE MAIL, IPAD MINI with clean crossings is really impressive work.

Normally I'm not one who notices how Scrabbly a puzzle is. Patrick Berry quite often stays away from the Big Four (JQXZ), and his work is almost always standout. But he does usually pepper a grid with a few Vs or Ks to keep things interesting. With just one K, this puzzle did feel a bit "Wheel of Fortune" to me, leaning heavily on the RSTLN E.

Ulster coat

And there were a few entries that I didn't care for. UNO DUE TRE felt like a wasted slot, not nearly as in the language as UNO DOS TRES or UN DEUX TROIS, but of course I'm sure Italian speakers enjoyed seeing it. ULSTER was interesting to learn about — a type of coat worn by Holmes — but the clever clue was lost on me, as even after filling in the letters, it didn't make sense until I went to go look it up, and at that point I had forgotten what the clue was.

That's all nit-picking though, as my enjoyment level was really high. To get such a high quantity of assets and few liabilities in a 66-worder is an impressive feat. Along with Will's in-depth commentary of how he analyzed and edited the clues, it was a real joy from start to finish to post-game analysis.


Timely theme, HOs added to create wacky phrases. (So illicit sounding!) Some nice entries, including a favorite movie of mine, DESPICABLE ME, turned into DESPICABLE HOMIE, and the amusing NO MONEY HOEDOWN calling up a funny image that's one part QVC and one part the Beverly Hillbillies. Minions from "Despicable Me"

This puzzle wouldn't have nearly as much impact any other Sunday in 2014 but this one. However, to have two straightforward "add-a-sound" themes in a row was disappointing. If one of them had had an extra element, like this one added HO HO HO to phrases or something more audacious, that would have alleviated the problem. It won't be a problem for infrequent solvers, but for so many people it seems like the Sunday NYT is a weekly tradition not to be missed.

That put aside, I like Joel's efforts to give us a lot of long fill to make up for the straightforwardness of the theme. Seeing so much long stuff packed in — 12 fill entries of 8 letters or longer — is unheard of. It blows most other Sunday puzzles out of the water, as some don't even have a single pair of long fill entries. And he does it without resorting to an overly large number of three-letter words. Impressive.

Additionally, so much of the long stuff makes a great impact. KID GLOVES. WINE LABEL. BAR SCENE. My Starbucks favorite, the SOY LATTE (decaf, extra hot, no foam). EBOLA VIRUS personally took me out of my "puzzles as an escape" zone and INFOTECH is not something I've heard commonly used, but ten out of twelve is a great hit rate. (And I'm sure others will find these two just fine, or even standout.)

That goodness didn't come without a price, though. I can see so many places where it would have been really rough to incorporate both colorful long fill as well as keep everything clean. Take the NANCY PELOSI region. That entry and TORONTO work with HOHUMDINGER to fence off a little area, and the result is the awkward EFGH. Usually one little glue spot doesn't bother me, but EFGH feels like the big glop variety. Others are more minor, but the ACU, SLYE kind of stuff does tend to pop up around the longer answers.

All in all, still a fun solve. Happy HO-lidays!

Mon 12/22/2014

Nice start to the week from Lynn, featuring four PED XINGs, literally the PED trio of letters crossing in four corners (as highlighted below; so nicely symmetrical!). Fun to have the theme be opaque until hitting that revealer.

I liked the touch of having most of the PEDs be part of long answers, and a few of them related to PED XINGs — I pictured a driver hitting the BRAKE PEDAL upon coming to a PED XING sign. (SPED AWAY … well, we won't go there.) SHARP EDGE and PIPE DREAM are both strong phrases in their own right, and they do a fine job of hiding their respective PEDS.

The grid is nice and clean, too, just an ERGS and an ESO in the liabilities column. It's a nice balance for a Monday puzzle; some sparkle but also smooth as silk.

I might personally have liked a little more ambition in the theme execution, though. I appreciated the long phrases hiding the PEDs — such nice NW and SE corners!) — and I might have given this the POW if all eight of the phrases hiding PED were as long and colorful as PIPE DREAM. Given that PEDXING takes up important real estate in the middle of the grid, that would have been really tough, forcing all sorts of extra constraints, with quite a bit of overlap/interlock between themers. (Maybe a set of themers intersecting PED XING, for example?) This would have almost definitely caused more compromises, but I think the extra snazz could have been worth it. I don't mind a handful of liabilities if I can get more pizzazz.

Finally, loved the clue for SNIT, a playful one simple enough for novice solvers to comprehend and appreciate. [Pique performance?] = a wonderful repurposing of "peak performance." Great to see that type of wordplay in an early-week puzzle.

Tue 12/23/2014

Fun idea, JACK and the BEANSTALK theme today, with the GIANT at the top. I like the visual, imagining JACK at the bottom, about to start on his quest to the top. The FEE FI FO FUM also nicely bounced about, echoing back and forth across the puzzle.

We had another Jack and the Beanstalk theme a while back, but I like that Will put enough time between them so that not everyone will immediately remember. Another year or two would have been ideal, so people with annoyingly OCD brains like mine would have a chance to forget, but two years is pretty decent.

This is a tough grid to work with. Placing that BEANSTALK right down the center forces four big corners, often a challenge to fill. The NW corner comes out pretty nice, a Scrabbly X in OXIDIZE, and REARLIT and SET AHEAD aren't bad. I like EZINE as a term too, so overall it's clean enough to do the trick.

Oh, that tricky SW. I'm in agreement with Will (and Bruce) that the original could have used some cleanup. I do like that the new SW is much smoother. I don't like that SARG / FREEH / GERARDO area, though. GERALDO feels totally fine to me, as he had his own national TV talk show. And although "Rico Suave" rings a bell, GERARDO does not. Could just be my ineptitude in pop music, but that region feels potentially unfair to a big market segment of solvers. "Unfair" is such a subjective term, but "satisfaction" is something that can be measured more easily.

Alternate grid possibility with cheaters

Out of curiosity, I tried my hand at it, and with the given constraints, I couldn't do any better. But I don't think that's a good reason to stop, given how important solver satisfaction and that feeling of "fairness" is. I tried adding a set of cheater squares, which helped a lot (left) and still retained Bruce's great NO CAN DO. The visual does suffer slightly, but I think it would have been a better trade-off. I'm sure there are other ways to do it; perhaps lifting JACK to intersect the K of BEANSTALK?

On that note, I would have liked more oomph to the visual. It's neat that the BEANSTALK is growing down the center of the grid. But I find it odd that it's sort of suspended in midair. How is JACK going to reach it to start climbing? Additionally, it would have been great if MAGIC BEANS had somehow been incorporated, perhaps percolating under the earth. Regular crossword symmetry of course prohibits this sort of thing, but maybe mirror (left-right) symmetry could have enabled a crisper and more lively image.

Anyway, an interesting take on the fairy tale. A good idea to bring it to a 15x picture, with a fun visual of JACK, the BEANSTALK, and the GIANT.

Wed 12/24/2014

I really liked the idea here. GOBI TWEEN and GO BETWEEN — what fun! PARIS ALE and PARASAIL were pretty clever as well. Neat concept, taking common phrases / words and pronouncing them as if they were geographical in nature. Extending Will's point, I wish there had been more examples of this. To only get three was a bit of a disappointment, as I really, really enjoyed GOBI TWEEN. Wah wah!

Additionally, I really wish the RIVER in CRY ME A RIVER had been transmogrified like in the other themers. To see it left as is was a letdown. So overall, it felt like I only got really two examples of this neat concept.

It was a relief to uncover GO BETWEEN and see how it related to GOBI TWEEN since I hadn't figured that out. But afterward, part of me wanted to struggle to figure it out. It's a good theme concept, and I would have liked to have earned the a-ha moment, rather than having it spelled out for me.

All that said, Adam does an admirable job of executing with six longish themers. Five themers is hard enough, and six usually requires some overlap. Check out the bottom, where PARIS ALE overlaps with CRIMEA RIVER. That's four overlapping letter pairs, four places fraught with potential danger. But Adam does a nice job of filling in that south section with not just fine words, but an MRI SCAN and SPARTA. I'll pay the NATAL price for that any day.

Of course, if you nail one side of a crossword, you have the other side to contend with due to symmetry requirements. And to me, A RIP and the awkward plural foreign ENEROS without any bonus material is not the best of trade-offs. It definitely works and is fair, but I would have liked more than just that.

Finally, a great clue for ATOMS. Element-ary indeed! The chemistry dork in me approves.

Overall, a strong idea, a great example in GOBI TWEEN, and a pretty good one in PARIS ALE. Two or three more in a similar vein could have made this puzzle great.

Thu 12/25/2014

I really enjoyed this solve. I don't think rebuses as a genre are completely trite or tired yet — there is a reason that Will spaces out his rebus puzzles these days though. So I do think that it's important to push the boundaries a bit. I like what Xan has done here, using MIXED (NUT)S as a rationale for six rebus squares, each one containing a unique permutation of the letters N, U, and T. Sputnik

Some of those sequences are easy to work in. There's a ton of phrases incorporating *TUN*, for example. But UTN? TNU? NTU? Those are much more difficult. I really liked the assortment of strong phrases Xan picked out, from DOW(NTU)RN to SP(UTN)IK to OU(TNUM)BER to WE(TNU)RSE.

I felt slightly uncomfortable at the [Milk maid?] clue for WETNURSE, BTW. I'm not sure why that is. At first glance perhaps it seems like it could be a fun bit of wordplay around a common phrase? But it didn't sit quite right with me, perhaps feeling a bit too off-color for the NYT.

I'm impressed with Xan's gridwork. Aside from the start, where I never know if I should love or hate YEGG, and the awkward ETCHA, I appreciated that I kept on going and going without hitching over gluey bits. All the cleanliness, with even GO VIRAL, ARCHWAY, TAP WATER, DEVIL RAY, etc. worked in = admirable job.

I might have even given it the POW if it hadn't been for the aforementioned items, plus one aspect I usually care nothing about: the number of black squares. That in itself is meaningless to me, but there are two issues in the way Xan lays out his grid: 1.) the choked off feeling from subsection to subsection, and 2.) the visual impact of all those chunks of black. Those two central crosses do a number on the feng shui of the grid.

But overall, I appreciate the fact that Xan pushes the rebus genre a little here with a well-executed grid which gave me a very pleasurable solve. And that [Break down in tears?] clue was gold. I didn't understand it even after filling in RIP UP, but I loved that headslap moment of realizing that "tears" meant "rips," not "salty discharge."

Fri 12/26/2014

Ah, such a pleasure to see Patrick's name on a byline, indicating that I'm in for 15-20 minutes of an awesome PBJ (Patrick Berry Jam). It's also really neat that he's continually shaping, experimenting, trying new things with 66-70 word grids, introducing new patterns which will undoubtedly be copied by lesser mortals such as myself.

There's quite a bit of strong material here, highlighted by a quartet of nice long entries. 14s are notoriously hard to build around, and given that both of them are new to the NYT xw, I bet Patrick started by placing these two bad boys and arranging black squares from there. Most people would try to separate two 14s with more than just a single row — that wide open center is daunting as it is. To get the 14s strung through it all is an audacious undertaking.


It's interesting to me that PB takes more risks in this puzzle than usual. That center section is really nice with the SOFT SCIENCES and GRAMOPHONES running through everything as well. But I was a bit surprised to uncover the STEN gun, a piece of glue usually to be avoided. And then finding the odd duck, LONGIES … some trade-offs involved. Still, I applaud the master's desire to try something extremely challenging.

Similarly, it was great to see the three Xs, not something PB usually aims for in his puzzles. A great success in this regard, as they were all integrated so seamlessly. Love the striving for more Scrabbly goodness.

Usually PB's themeless flow so beautifully, but I felt like this one didn't quite do that, as the NW and SE were more sectioned off than desirable. It does allow the constructors to work on each piece individually, a huge boon, but it also can leave the solver stranded in an individual chunk.

Another aspect I've come to expect from the PB themeless is great cluing. The clue on WINE was a fantastic use of a fun quote, for example. And [Page with many views] pushing the solver to go down the road of a web page? Excellent. I did feel like a few uncharacteristically didn't hit squarely, though. [Letter's capital?] is a nice idea, hinting at a "capital letter," but it wasn't close enough for my taste. Same with [Stand-up guy Dave]. That one had a lot of potential to play on "stand-up guy," but the phrasing felt off.

So perhaps not the usual PBJ today, but I like his pushing of the boundaries.

Sat 12/27/2014

Nice debut themeless today. David's a young 'un, and I like the vibe he brings to the puzzle with GRAND THEFT AUTO, MTV MOVIE AWARDS, and ADULT SWIM, doing a good job of making the puzzle feel contemporary without feeling like it's trying too hard.

And I love the quest for continuous improvement. It was fascinating for me to study David's original grid, which I felt had more compromises and fewer assets. That RESPIGHI / NEI crossing alone might have been enough for me personally to reboot the corner, not to mention to have A RAG in the same corner. I'm sure it makes a lot more work for Will to consider these upgrades, but I found the effort well worth it.

An early lolcat

As much as I personally hate to lose LOLCATS and DWEEBISH from the original, I loved the addition of SKYMALL and its great clue, plus HES BACK, LONGBOW, TRAIN FARE with its nice clue, and oddly enough ... DAYS INN. That last one could have easily felt dated (not unlike an actual DAYS INN; apologies to any DAYS INN shareholders, zing!) but that clue made it really interesting to me.

And it's funny how different constructors see certain entries with such different perspective. To me, ETAIL is a perfectly fine entry, something you see in the WSJ and business page regularly. But I can understand how someone not really interested in online businesses might think ETAIL is more at the level of EMAG or ELOAN.

A tough SE corner, one I ended up guessing on. ATARAXY wasn't familiar to me — maybe it should have been — but crossing it with ADAWARE felt unsatisfying. Then to have the oddball ADAK right there … I can totally understand the desire to work in SKYMALL, as well as that juicy X, but it makes for a tough trade-off though.

Nice overall vibe all in all, David's voice feeling like it really came through.


★ I really dug both the idea and the execution. Joe takes in-the-language phrases like MISSING PERSON and finds a word (or phrase) it could be missing from. SU______IC was baffling at first, but finally uncovering MISSING PERSON gave me a great a-ha moment. WITT = Wish I'd Thought of This.

I appreciated Joe's selection of themers, all in-the-language. There were a few obvious ones like DELETED SCENE and ABANDONED SHIP, but I had to do some serious thinking to figure out what DROPPED ???? was. At first I tried DROPPED (the) BALL and felt outrage that Joe could let such an inexact phrase go through! Then I just felt silly when I realized it was DROPPED CALL. Great stuff (Joe's choices, not my idiocy).

The grid is so nice, too. I worried upon seeing the eighth theme entry running down the center of the grid. This sort of interlock is visually impressive but often produces compromises. Aside from BOP IN (which I think I actually like after an initial wince), the center is clean, just a CURST (I think I also like this too, upon further consideration) and an ETO. Strong work.

Joe does spend more black squares in that center section though, because of said interlock. Those two smooth curves help frame that difficult central area, making it easier to fill cleanly. Spending black squares like means that the rest of the puzzle must contain more white space, upping the level of filling difficulty (20 8-letter fill words = unheard of!). Check out the four themeless-esque corners. They're all pretty good, even featuring such nice entries as APP STORE and PANDEMIC, but each one does have a bit of THE TOP, LENOS, ERTES, INTL glue.

Not one of these globs is a NO NO NO! type infraction of course, but that all-important NW corner did set not the greatest tone for me. THE TOP feels partial-ish, with ETAS and HEMI making me worry what was to come. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded.

A neat concept + strong execution = a really enjoyable Sunday solve. Might have been one of my all-time favorites if each of the fill-in-the-blanks had been as mystifying and then hugely rewarding as SU(PERSON)IC.

Mon 12/29/2014

Super fun punchline, playing on the old joke of "spelling it out" as I T O U T. Hits my 4th grade funny bone right on the spot. And what better to accompany it than the next installment of Pete's "Benjamin Button" photo act? Hello, John-John!

Great clues today, a wonderful bonus for a Monday. READS gets a witty one, playing on (James) Joyce, (Lewis) Carroll, and (Joyce Carroll) Oates. (I'm sensing a theme in there somewhere.) MOUSE made smile — a real squeaker indeed. And my favorite — being a bit of a math nut, I froze, trying to figure out what sort of higher-level polynomial expression 2n + 1 referred to. Wiped my brow (and smiled) after realizing it's simply a way of expressing ODD numbers.

Lychees at a market

Six themers in a 15x puzzle causes all sorts of difficulties. So many areas where down answers cross at least two themers. Thankfully, there wasn't one hot spot with a myriad of gluey bits, but they did crop up enough that I noticed them as a whole: the odd LITCHI (I gorge on LYCHEE whenever I can), ON IN, STE / MLLE / ETE, SOPPY, etc. Notice that many of these unsightly bits sit in an area where two themers cause high constraints.

I often find that a better way to incorporate six themers is to stack pairs on top of each other when the letter combinations allow. Take EYE CONTACT and TEE TIMES in rows 3 and 5, for example. It's doable to squeeze those two answers next to each other (in rows 3 and 4), because the letter pairs where they would overlap — *AT*, *CE*, and *TE* — are all friendly. This abutment allows the constructor to effectively treat two themers as one, giving a lot more flexibility in black square placement.

It would take away the nice "every other row" pattern currently in the themers, but I'd take silky-smooth fill over that. Personal preference.

Overall though, a punchline giving me a laugh, along with some nice long fill in BOB MARLEY and LOW IMPACT and STYMIES. There's nothing more important to me in a crossword solving experience than getting a smile.

Tue 12/30/2014

As soon as I uncovered the first set of L O O P circles, I raced to the center to fill in LOOPS THE LOOPS. Well, that didn't fit. LOOPING THE LOOP? LOOPY LOOPY LOOP?

So much for my utter genius.

I liked the aesthetics, L O O P circling in eight locations, and those eight locations circling as a whole. Nice consistency too; L O O P always going clockwise, and the starting position shifting over one spot in each set of new circles. Elegant.

These types of puzzles can be tricky, because so much care must be taken to fill cleanly around those quartets of circles. I like how Jeffrey worked many long entries through the circles: POOL PUMP, CANOODLE, LAB ROOMS, DIET PLAN. They're not all superstar quality, but they're all nice.

Impressive that the short fill was relatively clean, given the high level of constraints. Really only the north and south sections stuck out, what with the CPL / ILO and REN / TEN OF combinations. Often, these little spaces utilizing three-letter words are harder than ones using four-letter words. Surprising, yeah? You'd think a smaller section would always be easier to fill. But there's a larger inventory of "good" four-letter words than three-letter words (by a factor of 2-3x). I try to stay away from these little squirrely areas chock full of 3s.

Given that the NE and SW are daunting chunks of open white (HERAT and AREOLE, I see you), it might have been useful to equalize space a bit. Expanding the south area at the expense of the SW could have made filling easier in both regions.

Loop the loop roller coaster

I'm not familiar with aerobatics, so I wasn't sure if the visual was "accurate." My mind sees something like the pic to the right, with a lead-up, a loop, and a pull-out to horizontal. I liked Jeffrey's imaginative description of a stunt pilot doing an insane looping-within-looping maneuver, but I'm not sure if LOOP DE LOOP DE LOOP really describes that. The puzzle's visual is more like a "4-D" roller coaster to me.

In the end, I was able put that aside and have a fun solving experience.

Wed 12/31/2014

I like not seeing a theme coming. Neat to reach the end of this one and smack my forehead, knowing that I could have figured out the themers, related to STICK positions: PARK, REVERSE, NEUTRAL, DRIVE, LOW — or PRNDL as it's commonly seen.

David does a great job of masking the themers. I really liked how they all have different-ish meanings from the car-related ones. THEME PARK is a solid entry in its own right and has nothing to do with a vehicle being in PARK. DOUBLE REVERSE and GENDER NEUTRAL don't achieve the disguise as well, but they both 1.) do the trick and 2.) serve as very colorful entries.

Impulse drive - make it so!

INTERNAL DRIVE certainly disguises DRIVE. I'm mixed on how much I like it as an entry, though. Yes, it's a real thing, but I doubt I'd pick it as a marquee entry. OPTICAL DRIVE feels a little more colorful. And the sci-fi nerd in me jumps up and down to use IMPULSE DRIVE. If I had been constructing this one I'd have had to force that dorkasaurus to realize that 1.) it's too similar a meaning to a car's DRIVE, and 2.) most humans won't know what this is.

Ambitious grid. Those three central entries cause all sorts of problems, 13 being the most inconvenient length. I do like getting such goodness as MALLCOP, LIMA PERU, and RACE DAY, but I'm not sure the parallel downs of LIMA PERU / ONE CARAT and DETECTOR / EYES ON ME were worth it. That sort of arrangement is almost always hard to fill cleanly (PLAT / OMARA and ARRAN / ORO), and the long entries are often not stellar. I'd prefer to have LIMA PERU and EYES ON ME broken up with black squares, and a focus on getting A+ entries where ONE CARAT and DETECTOR sit, along with cleaner fill.

Fun theme concept giving me a "hey, that's cool!" moment at the end.