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Puzzles for December, 2016
with Jeff Chen comments

Thu 12/1/2016

Three types of BEAN take a DIP today, inside LOADED BAKED POTATO, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, and THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS (highlighted below to make the idea clearer.) I liked Tim's consistency, as

  1. all three phrases have the type of BEAN in the middle somewhere (not at the beginning or end), and
  2. all three types of BEAN are five letters long, allowing for the exact same pattern of scooching underneath a black square.

It was a little odd that BAKED bean and GREEN bean are actual types of bean, while MAGIC bean is not. Or is it? I just happen to have some with me, available for extravagant trade…

I also thought it was a little odd that the themers weren't quite symmetric. I guess you could make a case that the first and last are contained within symmetric rows (3/4 and 12/13), but the annoying engineer in me really wanted the bulk of those two themers in symmetric rows (4 and 12, whereas they're in 3 and 12 right now). I know, I'm so annoying! (My poor wife.)

Those three dips might seem like they're pretty easy to fill around, but don't underestimate them. Instead of working with just one long answer, now you have two long-ish answers plus three more crossings, i.e. LBAR, ADORN, and WADE around the first dip. I particularly liked how flashy the middle of the grid was, with AXIAL right in the thick of that second dip, along with OZZIE. Great stuff!

Some nice bonus fill, too, a bit of I, ROBOT, WET KISS and BASS LINE. I wasn't sure about PELAGIC, but what an interesting word when "in the sea" isn't fancy enough.

A couple of hitches in short fill — SCAD seeming weird in singular and SKEETS weird in the plural — but other than a CRAT, smooth results.

Fri 12/2/2016

Not many themelesses feature 11-letter entries because they tend to force 3-letter entries, and those bitty guys are hard to make interesting. So it was fun to get some entries that felt pretty fresh — they were either completely new to me, or I had only seen them once or twice in the past year. I do remember SATELLITE TV from just a few months ago, but EDITORS NOTE and especially PRIZE INSIDE did a good job anchoring their respective corners.

I really enjoyed the long entries in that upper right corner — GAME FACE / OSCAR NOD / TEA ROOM, crossed by SHE BEAR and ROMCOM = yes, please! There often is a price to pay with such goodness crammed together, but ASE and MCA ain't that bad. (ASE is iffy along with all the other chemistry suffixes like OSE, ISE, ENE, etc., and MCA is outdated.)

SPANDEX also shined, not just as a very good entry, but because of its neat clue — Andrew brings up a good point about how great clues tend to be undervalued among constructors not named Patrick Berry. What a great piece of trivia, that SPANDEX is an apt anagram of EXPANDS! Some marketing geniuses at work right there.

Curious 1-Across in LAVABO. For me, 1-Across (and 1-Down to a lesser extent) tends to set the tone for a puzzle. LAVABO is a perfectly fine word, but its Wikipedia article does use the word "ewer" to describe it in the first paragraph. Ewer is also a real word, but both of them give me a sense of "words I only know because of crosswords." I've learned to be okay with this concept, but I wonder if other solvers still find these types of words unappealing.

ORLE is another entry that gave me that sense discomfort. I don't mind a few minor SSE, ONT, ANON, STL, dabs of crossword glue, but as a whole there felt like there was quite a lot today.

But overall, still enough snappy entries like CEASE FIRES and even some good mid-length stuff in HELIOS (love me some Greek myths!), CHATTEL, HAS DIBS, SIXTIES to keep my interest.

POW Sat 12/3/2016

★ I generally shudder when seeing quad-stacks. Because there are so many inflexible crossings to work with, it's inevitable that there are going to be at least a handful of groan-worthy globs of crossword glue holding a quad together.

Or is it? There's hardly anything in this super-smooth grid. SEE IT is a partial in disguise ("Now you ___ …") and the ORY / OR M middle made me cringe, but that's all? Couldn't be.

Well, if there's very little crossword glue, then the long entries are bound to be dreadfully boring.

Or are they? Besides SYSTEMS ANALYSTS, which I've seen anchor stacks many a time, the other seven are very good to great entries. MASTER CRAFTSMAN kicking off the puzzle? Yes! CREATURE FEATURE! Heck yeah! EMANCIPATION DAY! I didn't know what that was, but what a great occasion to learn about! I'm using a lot of exclamation points because I really enjoyed how snappy those long entries are!

(The engineer in me even admits to liking SYSTEMS ANALYSTS, much to the chagrin of the constructor in me.)

And getting ETERNITY, FEED LOT, ART STUDIO / SLEEP AIDS, HASIDIM, SOY PROTEIN running through those stacks, making for a wide-open solve … whoa!

I didn't totally get the RENTS clue: [Gets things on time?] I imagine it's sort of an "on borrowed time" type of wordplay? Anybody? Bueller?

After making hundreds of crosswords over the years, it's rare that I sit in such awe of a construction. Even after emailing back and forth with Jason to try to learn some techniques from him (neat that our Finder helped him discover TARDIS when he needed a six-letter word starting with TARD??), I'm still well out of the realm of total comprehension. I really enjoy getting a peek into a master's head.

I've made some triple-stacks before, even some with snazzy entries and clean crossings (don't ask about all the other stinkers), but this my friends, seems like real-life magic. Loved it.

Sun 12/4/2016 ACTION STARS

Apt title, ACTION STARS hinting at TV/movie stars whose last names are a verb. I like how Bruce modified those verb tenses so the results could be a stand-alone sentence — ORLANDO, BLOOM! feels a bit stilted as a directive, but ORLANDO BLOOMED sounds much more natural. Good stuff.

Nice to get a mix of men and women, although SHELLEY LONG has been out of the spotlight for a while. Too bad Bruce didn't include any Asian actors … BECAUSE THEY'RE AREN'T ANY, THANKS A LOT, HOLLYWOOD. Well, many. Okay, fine, it's pretty tough to find a well-known Asian actor whose last name is a verb. Although CHENNED I'm pretty sure means "kicked ass and took names."

Well, it should.

Great gridwork! Wow, I was impressed, especially given that Bruce has had some rough patches in past puzzles, and Sunday 140-word puzzles are so tough to get smooth. Bruce told me that he was hesitant to help get the word out on our XWord Info Word List because it gives people who have it such a huge advantage over others (his words, not mine!). And because people who do are much better looking. And make more money. And are more humble.

Seriously, though, it's tough to work in great bonuses like BOOSTER SHOT, LSD TRIP (mind you, some editors are very anti-drug references), AS ALL GET OUT, while keeping the gluey bits to … to … heck, I can't find anything to point out. EATABLE (edible?) is a funny word, but it is in the dictionary and legit. It's been a long time since I couldn't find a single small gluey bit to point out in a Sunday 140-word puzzle.

I would have liked something more dynamic in this theme — something more flashy in the cluing, some story arc tying all the themers together into a narrative, something that screams ACTION! and makes you want to use a lot of exclamation points!!! — but overall, a nicely consistent if not super-exciting theme, and exceptional gridwork.

Mon 12/5/2016

You know that kids' song "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes"? No? Be glad you don't. As a parent to two youngsters, my head is nearing explosive detonation what with the unfortunate earworms. Someone help me!

Ah right, the puzzle. Ned does a nice job keeping an ordered progression, from HEAD to NECK to CHEST to KNEE to TOES. (I'm SO thankful "shoulders" wasn't in there!) Paints an organized picture of the human body. Very consistent in his themers, too, the second word always ending in -ER.

I liked KNEE SLAPPER and ANKLE BITER a lot. The former is a bit old-timey, but I like quaint terms. (Thankfully I haven't gotten bitten on the ankle yet. Several fingers, yes, ankle, no.)

I wasn't sure about HAIR RAISER (I tried to put in HAIR RAISING first). And NECK SNAPPER felt odd — HEAD TURNER is better, but obviously doesn't fit with this theme. I tried to put in CHEST THUMPER for CHEST BEATER. Hmm. So although I appreciated the consistency of the -ER endings, it forced some unfortunate phrases that didn't quite hit for me.

Five longish themers are tough to work with, and here, Ned doesn't have any flexibility to swap pairs because of the ordering. There are some unfortunate gluey bits here and there, starting with OTRA and OTIC in the north, the outdated STENS (so crossword-friendly, so novice solver-unfriendly), a tough D'ANGELO / AGA crossing, LDS (Latter Day Saints) …

… and the realization that I finished with an error at OTRA. My fault — I probably should know that TARINO is not a city — but yikes, that's going to be tough for novices. I'd say it's borderline unfair, with high potential for dissatisfaction.

Overall though, I did appreciate the consistency of the theme and the proper order from HEAD to TOES. Thank goodness there's no such thing as a SHOULDER BUMPER. (If there is, please don't tell me.)

Tue 12/6/2016

Warm fuzzies evoked by this puzzle, a beautiful PA-RUM-PUM-PUM-PUM refrain of "The Little Drummer Boy," ending with ME AND MY DRUM. Love the song, as it reminds me of family, holidays, year-end reflection. Good times, good times. (Mostly.)

My first reaction to the themers was that I would have liked the PUMs incorporated into longer entries, as PUMPER and PUMMEL aren't exactly thrilling. Hmm, PUMP ACTION SHOTGUN isn't terribly holiday-esque, is it? Maybe PUMPKIN PATCH, PUMP IRON, PUMPERNICKEL, etc.

But after thinking about it, I decided I liked how the syllables were all lined up so nicely, sort of how they might be on a musical score. (Sort of. Very loosely.) Using longer themers would have staggered the five syllables, and that might have given them a more haphazard appearance. So although I'm still not wild about PUMPER, the overall grid aesthetic is pleasing to my musician's eye.

Well executed in terms of smoothness, just a few AMS (does anyone use plural AMs in real life?), minor EER and NAE stuff. Negligible.

Not a ton of bonus fill, but RED MEAT and JURY RIG were very good uses of those mid-length slots. And the J in JURY RIG plus the two Zs made for some spice. Each of those Zs carried very slight compromises — AZT crossing PROZAC might be rough for some solvers, and ULTIMA is an odd but certainly inferable word — but since Ed did such a nice job of keeping the rest of his grid smooth, I don't mind these prices at all.

I love when a puzzle gives me a warm, happy feeling inside. If all the themers had been a snazzy as PARTING SHOT, this would have been POW! material for me.

Wed 12/7/2016

Great theme idea — both words in each theme phrase are also verbs in the PAST TENSE. I'm sure I've seen something similar before, but I really liked that David 1.) found snappy phrases, and 2.) hid the meanings of all those PAST TENSE verbs. LEFT HANDED is a perfect example, a solid phrase that disguises LEFT (departed) and HANDED (passed (out)).

I bet FIXED COST is going to raise some eyebrows and maybe even draw some complaints that it's a dry phrase, but this MBA really likes it. I enjoyed all my finance classes, so it was really fun for me to see FIXED COST. Okay, I admit that any time you have to use a dictionary definition, you're treading on somewhat thin ice, as there's absolutely no opportunity for clever wordplay or trickery in the clue. And I can see that it might not be a ho-hum or worse answer for some solvers.

CUT ROSE was the only one I didn't care for. CUT here doesn't disguise the PAST TENSE meaning of the word, and the phrase itself feels a bit stilted to my ear.

Great execution, such smoothness with excellent bonus entries. I especially liked that URBAN ART / DEAD DROPS (love me some spy lingo!), done without any crossword glue. (Okay, IS BAD is bad ... hey, David stole my line!) I love it when a constructor can pull something like this off — it's like when you see a sculpture constructed out of many parts, but you can't figure out where the joints are, or how the artist even assembled it.

STOPS PLAY wasn't as snazzy for me, but RUSTLERS gives that opposite corner some GUSTO. Again, beautiful gridwork in that lower left, nary an awkward or inelegant short entry holding it all together.

Super-solid mid-week puzzle, giving me a nice a-ha when I got to the revealer. I really like when I have no idea of what's going on until the lightbulb flips on at the end.

Thu 12/8/2016

Two-letter wordplay, with initials reinterpreted as whole words. The results amused me as a whole, LA DODGERS the best of the bunch. Funny to think about a singer who goes straight from sol to ti, avoiding the dreaded LA. Great choice to kick off the puzzle theme. IT SUPPORT (information technology) is a great phrase in itself, and I liked the idea of Stephen King getting a little help with his famous book, "It." And ID CARDS was another good one, making me think about Louis CK joking around about Freudian concepts.

PA ANNOUNCEMENTS felt stilted as a phrase — "overhead announcements" hits my ear better — but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to make a grid work.

Speaking of making a grid work, seven-letter themers are often awkward, as it's tough to make them stand out naturally as part of the theme. Damon does a nice job — note that there are no other seven-letter (or longer) entries in the across direction. This helps, but I still lost ID CARDS and PO BOXES in the background, especially since they're entries you might see as fill in other crosswords.

I wonder if putting them across the middle, separated by a black square, would have helped? That means PA ANNOUNCEMENTS might have to become PA SYSTEMS or something, with another themer needed to match it. Never easy!

Damon did a great job of making his grid smooth. Just an INTRA and TRI (although I've done some triathlons, and TRI is commonly used for the event); that's beautiful execution on short fill.

I would have actually been fine with a bit more glue if it meant a little more long fill. I did like MOTLEY, DEAD ON, MESS UP, PHENOM, but IN THE ZONE and RADIOHEAD are such great entries. Maybe moving the black square between URLS and IPA over to the left, to create another set of eight-letter slots? That would also have opened up the upper left and lower right corners, both of which are slightly choked off from the rest of the puzzle.

Overall though, some fun results, if not as groundbreaking as I like Thursday puzzles to be.

Fri 12/9/2016

Tough to get down to 64 words in a themeless without requiring some compromises. I enjoyed this puzzle, although there weren't as many multi-word, snazzy answers as I like. MELISSA MCCARTHY is fun (hilarious in "Bridesmaids") and CHICAGO SUN-TIMES always makes me think of one of my idols, Roger Ebert. ALOHA OE (so weird to see that -AOE ending!) was nice too.

One-word entries can also sing, but I personally find them harder to gush over. PYREX, VACUUMS, ANTHRAX, SHIMMY, NOONERS pique my interest, but not so much for more workmanlike entries like SCIENCE, DICTATE, PERCENT, ASCEND, ITERATE, etc. that I hear every day. Personal taste, but those one-worders tend to feel more like neutral filler.

Great clues can elevate these more boring one-worders, though. I loved the SCIENCE clue, for example: "The great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition" is something I wish all people would remember in this day and age — it's so hard to argue with someone who discounts SCIENCE.

And ITERATE is better with its clue: [Say, say, say?]. It's not perfect, since "say, say, say" isn't as strong a phrase as I would like (how about employing the song "Sing Sing Sing" for the clue!), but it gets to the concept of ITERATE obliquely and playfully.

Smooth results in terms of short fill. I'm impressed that I had to work to pick out any gluey entries. ASEA is sometimes derided, but I think it's perfectly fine, if a bit old-timey. ALPES might be the only culprit, as the semi-esoteric foreign word. That's great work for a 64-word themer.

Ultra-low word count puzzles often rely on odd words formed by RE- prefixes or -ER suffixes, often have a ton of neutral filler that doesn't excite me much, and/or rely on a ton of crossword glue to hold everything together. It's a mark of success that I didn't actually realize that this was an ultra-low word count effort until I looked at it more carefully. Nice craftsmanship, if not super exciting.

Sat 12/10/2016

Love some of the long multi-word entries! EXHIBITA looks so cool and bizarre (it's "Exhibit A"), I'M TOO SEXY is unfortunately very catchy, and the kid in me absolutely giggles with glee over the SLEEPER HOLD. (I watched way too much WWE as a kid.) Along with a PARTY BUS, PED XING, EXIT POLL, and SKI LODGE, that's some strong material throughout the puzzle.

Like I mentioned yesterday, I tend to find single-word entries less interesting than multi-worders. Part of it is that years ago, Rich Norris of the LAT imparted upon me how single-word entries can make a puzzle feel more like a school test rather than entertainment. For example, AMORTIZE doesn't wow me, even though I spent way too much time studying amortization in my accounting classes. And it's hard to do much with words like KNEADERS and SNOOPERS, which feel so contrived what with their -ERS addition.

But Byron does a good job working in some single-worders that I do find fun in themselves. Something really interesting about the words CAVALIER, EBENEZER, MAROONED — they all bring up interesting images in my head. Personal taste, of course.

This isn't to say that multi-worders are always better than single-worders — STAND NEXT TO doesn't do a lot for me, for example.

Byron always does such a great job of clue writing. There's a standout in [Leader in a suit?] for EXHIBIT A, making an already great entry even better. Love the misdirection, "leader" here more meaning "leadoff" than "head honcho".

As with some of Byron's other puzzles, some entries made me stop and think. PET HATES was one of those. Pet peeves, sure, but PET HATES? It does have a good showing in Google searches, so perhaps it's a new term that's gaining ground?

Also a couple of oddballs: ETTORE Bugatti seems esoteric (I knew him from crosswords — so useful with all those common letters), ESTHETE which I always knew as AESTHETE before I started doing crosswords, SNOCKERED (schnookered?), and SCHNOZ, which to me looks so odd without a double Z in SCHNOZZ. They are all fair game, though, I think.

POW Sun 12/11/2016 RETRONYMS

★ RETRONYMS are words/phrases that are coined after a technological leap has been made, i.e. before email was invented, SNAIL MAIL was just MAIL. I love how Tom 1.) found so many good examples of these, and 2.) used a "non-existent" across number to refer to the old word — neat how he puts a black square above the M of MAIL so that he can refer to "34-Across" for MAIL.

Also really enjoyed the bonus entries Tom worked in. CAPRI PANTS, THAT HURTS, COW TIPPING, SUIT AND TIE — great stuff. Some may wonder if EPIC BATTLE is a real thing or not, but this Lord of the Rings fan says to haters YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

Ahem. Ignore me.

The bonus entries were much appreciated, since halfway through, I had already figured out the trick, and the impact of the theme didn't quite last all the way through the puzzle. It's a good thing I kept hitting nice entries, PET CRATE, SAYS ME, ALL MINE, ROBOTIC, and DEAR GOD giving me lifts everywhere.

There was just slightly too much crossword glue for my taste — AGUE is so old-timey, CMDR, CTS, the odd EFT, along with more minor stuff — but I'm totally fine with it as the price to pay for getting so much good bonus fill.

That amount of crossword glue is atypical of a Tom McCoy puzzle — I think he's one of the best in the business when it comes to entertaining, smooth, Sunday puzzles with bonus fill. He brings up a good point about the "fake across entry" trick giving him a little more inflexibility than usual. I built one with this trick a while back, and it was surprising how much more difficult the grid became. It's already so hard to execute on a Sunday 140-word puzzle, and any additional constraint, like cementing so many black squares into place at the outset, makes the gridwork even tougher.

Although I wondered if that would have been better as a Thursday puzzle, where the impact might have more easily lasted all the way through a 15x grid, I still enjoyed it a ton. Love experiencing concepts I've never quite seen before.

Mon 12/12/2016

Six literal foreign LANGUAGE BARRIERs today, a black square breaking up HIN/DU, UR/DU, etc. It's a ton of theme material to work with, and it was fun to see so many different languages. I especially liked the longer ones — POL/ISH and GER/MAN, since it's really easy to work in short chunks such as TH and AI.

Not a surprise that Mark went up to the max of 78 words, given the high theme density. He uses his black squares pretty well to separate his themers, but it does make for a fairly fractured grid. There's a big chunk of puzzle in the upper right, another one in the lower right, and a diagonal running from the NW to SE, with the three sections barely connected. This type of layout makes constructing much easier, since you can tackle each chunk one at a time, but it made for a pretty choppy solve for me.

Also a ton of tough vocabulary and names. I don't think there was anything unfair, but I wonder if TOPOL, LILLE, and MASUR might turn off some newer solvers.

Throw in some crossword glue of DO A, HUIT, I LAY, YELLO (only one way to clue it), RIAA, and it didn't feel as elegant as I like a Monday puzzle to be.

I did enjoy the bonuses of MERCUTIO and GIFT SHOP, though. Tough to work in long bonus entries with so much already going on, so that was appreciated.

It would have been really cool to employ very long languages, using more colorful entries — aMANDA / RINgtone, lifeSPAN / ISHmael, gentleBEN / GALIleo, etc. — but I did like seeing so many languages from around the globe worked in.

Now to figure out how to make AZERBAIJANI work with this theme ...

Tue 12/13/2016

Debut! Kooky interpretations of legal-sounding phrases made for an entertaining solve. My wife and I are hooked on "The Grinder," where Rob Lowe plays a TV lawyer-turned-pseudo-real-one, so I really liked this theme. THREE PIECE SUITS read as lawsuits involving too-easy jigsaw puzzles made me laugh. Same with BOXER BRIEFS as legal briefs about pugilists.

The only one that I hesitated on was DENTAL RETAINERS. I liked the wordplay using the dual meaning of the word "retainer," but don't most kids call their mouthwear just a retainer? The phrase felt manufactured to fit into the theme.

Debuts often suffer in their short fill, as smoothing out a grid is a skill that can take a while to get down pat. But David does amazingly well, really just an ENE here, some ERNS there. WINEY did seem a bit iffy, but it does have dictionary support.

There were a few mid-length entries that felt inelegant to me, though. SCORERS … I guess I could see Kevin Durant or Steph Curry called a SCORER. An INBOARD motor … I was so sure it was ONBOARD. But INBOARD does also have clear dictionary support. GO FETCH … not just FETCH? After consideration, I think these three are all probably fine, but I wouldn't go out of my way to use them in another crossword.

What I would go out of my way for are WHEEDLED and VARMINTS, excellent choices for long bonus fill. Both are such vivid, interesting words. Both make me think of Looney Tunes characters, and for me, that's a great thing. (Not as much for my poor wife.)

Very enjoyable early-week puzzle; looking forward to more from David. I'm sure his great-grandmother is beaming with pride up there somewhere.

Wed 12/14/2016

Second debut in two days! I enjoy watching the ever-growing ranks of constructors earning their NYT "Shortz number."

Alan gives us five things that can be followed, a DOTTED LINE, a GOOD EXAMPLE, the YELLOW BRICK ROAD, a TWITTER FEED, and an OPENING ACT. I particularly liked TWITTER FEED, as it has a fresh, recent(ish) feel to it, and it's a great phrase in itself. Nice to have a little something for everyone, too, what with YELLOW BRICK ROAD way back from Baum's 1900 novel.

I think this type of puzzle works best when the examples cumulatively cover a huge, varying range. Following a TWITTER FEED (paying attention to) is a different kind of "follow" than following the YELLOW BRICK ROAD (going along a path), but all the "follows" still feel a little too similar for my taste.

Also, follow a DOTTED LINE … at first, I thought nothing of it, but what does that mean? Some research shows it's probably referring to the dotted lines on a map? Like the dotted line Jeffy from "The Family Circus" traces in his delightfully wandering journeys? (Don't ask why I know so much about the Family Circus. It's not pretty.)

Five themers can be tough to fill around, and when you lock three of them into place, it can get even harder. With GOOD EXAMPLE / YELLOW BRICK ROAD / TWITTER FEED and DEBRIEF all knitted together, it's not a surprise that the center of the puzzle is the most difficult to fill cleanly. ONE B is a big glob of random crossword glue, and with FEB / FWD and NCO, it's a bit inelegant in there.

As much as I like DEBRIEF as an interesting word, I wonder if it would have been better to use some black squares to break that entry up at its two Es. That would have forced all sorts of changes in the black square pattern, so it's tough to say if it'd even work.

A couple of interesting bonuses in GOLD DIGGER and POP UP BOOKS, even EMOJI. EDDARD Stark is a great, tragic figure, and I'm sure glad Alan made all his crossings very gettable! These bonuses helped keep my attention through the solve.

Again, I love to see new constructors adding to the diversity of the NYT, so if you — yes YOU! — ever get the itch, drop me a line and either I'll give you a hand or connect you to someone else who can help.

POW Thu 12/15/2016

★ Sam "S Diddy" Donaldson told me a long time ago that he was over rebuses; that they were so far overdone that he couldn't take them anymore. I tend to agree with him, although when they have a little somethin' extra, I still really enjoy them. That was the case for me today, grinning at Jacob's neat FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA entry as an entire row of rebi.

I quickly figured out that there was a rebus element when SP(LA)SH didn't fit in, and that triggered my usual sad trombone feeling. But when a FA popped up, I perked up. Could it be related to FDR's super-cute dog, FALA?

What a neat moment when I got to the FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA finale. Maybe I'm just a sucker for holiday songs and feelings, but I enjoyed that discovery.

From a constructor's standpoint, it's tough to work around so many rebus squares, so I enjoyed the craftsmanship, Jacob giving us a super-smooth grid. I mean, only a bit of IND / RDS around that very tough lower right corner? Great work. And some EASY RIDER, REGULAR GUY, FAJITA, LAPLAND, GRAPPA bonuses, only needing some minor crossword glue (RRS, old-timey SOTS) to make it all happen? That's the type of master craftsmanship I've come to expect from Jacob.

And from a solver's standpoint, it's rare to get an entire long entry made out of rebus squares, so that was a cool surprise. Again, something so pleasing about having that ubiquitous Christmas carol line so tidily packed in.

I'm still not totally sure why most of the themers have exactly one FA and one LA — I liked the consistency of each themer having a FA and a LA, but felt like it might have been better if they had contained the FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA sequence in order or something? Or if the song went, "Deck the halls with boughs of holly, FA LA FA LA FA LA FA LA, FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA" that would have made more sense to me.

The puzzle gave me such a warm and fuzzy feeling, however, that I shrugged off my doubt. Off to find some gay apparel!

Fri 12/16/2016

Not a surprise to get another quad stack from MAS and George, this one featuring some nice long entries. ARRIVES ON THE DOT and HOTEL CALIFORNIA are both great, colorful phrases. LAID IT ON THE LINE is also an excellent one, but my stupid constructor's brain recalls other stacks using it — a quick search shows two of them in the past year, one from MAS. Not sure why that sours it so much for me — hey, I never said I was logical or rational!

I like how MAS and George work to give great entries above and beyond the quad stack, HAD THE LAST LAUGH my favorite entry of the puzzle. I didn't care for the HAD duplication in HAD A HAND IN, but that's a minor little word so it doesn't bug me too much although it is inelegant at the very least. COPACETIC was also a great word running through the quad-stack.

I didn't know LA VIE BOHEME, but what a great entry and song. (Listen to it all the way through — what clever lyrics!) I didn't know ELVIS BISHOP, so he didn't do much for me, but he certainly seems to be crossworthy, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Aargh, ELVIN BISHOP, not ELVIS! Not sure why I finished with an error in TRAISING SEMINAR. That felt like a real thing somehow.

As did COSCO Bay and Robin O'DAIR. Pretty rough crossing. I really ought to have known TRAISING SEMINAR wasn't a thing, but CASCO / ADAIR? Hmm.

A lot of good craftsmanship in this one, with not quite as many gluey ORARE, SEL, HEA, PTL, ETH, types of entries as I'm used to seeing in a quad-stack arrangement. There were a few long entries that really hit for me, but others like OF THE PAST, TOSSPOTS (talk about OF THE PAST!), and SERVICE PROVIDER felt more neutral than exciting to me.

Sat 12/17/2016

And C.C. hits for the cycle! I admire people who can do it all, and C.C. is developing into one of those folks.

I liked entries like TWITTERBOT, DOUBLE TALK, ALL THE RAGE, and GLASSY-EYED — C.C. is so good with her bonus fill on themed puzzles, that it's no surprise she can feature some real winners in a themeless. ORDER NOW and ANY IDEAS helped flesh out the puzzle, as did ECOFREAK.

I did pause at ECOFREAK, especially without a "disparaging" qualifier. While it is a colorful word, it does seem a little offensive. Perhaps it's my Seattle environs, filled with dirty hippie ecofreaks.

I mean, super-passionate people trying to save the environment! Ahem. Please don't blow pot smoke in my face.

Usually, the most wide-open space in a themeless will be the trickiest to fill. Here, my eye was drawn immediately to the LENDS / SELL section (and the symmetrical SAMP / PLEAT). They might seem innocuous, but those two triangles of space have to work in concert with their adjoining triple-stacks — not easy. At the top, I thought it was a little inelegant to get Brett RATNER and Ben BRADLEE next to each other. I do think both are crossworthy, but they make for an ungainly pair for solvers who don't know the hard-to-spell names.

But that was the only spot I thought was a bit inelegant. Yes, SAMP is a toughie, as is RSS FEED (Rich Site Summary), but all the crossings are fair (although reader Gerry Wildenberg points out that JSS and JAM IN work equally well — I hadn't thought of that!). I do wonder if RSS FEED is an asset to the puzzle — not only is RSS a seemingly Random Set of Stuff, but I stopped using RSS FEEDs a few years ago when Google Reader shut down. Hmm.

There weren't as many great feature entries as I usually want in a themeless, especially one using a fairly standard pattern of black squares — HEALTH PLAN, SO FAR AS, MEDICATE, PROMISED, and TEANECK were more neutral than assets for me — but C.C. sure did a nice job of filling smoothly around the ones she did have.


Jim said it best: "I thought (it) was amazing. Many will hate it, I suspect, but I was impressed." I found it to be a bold, audacious idea — EVERY across answer and its symmetrical partner uses the exact same clue — that's memorable.

Some of the pairings were brilliant, using the type of wordplay I love: [Caterpillar product] either a PUPA (think entomology) or a PLOW (think Caterpillar, the heavy machinery manufacturer). Others were spot-on like IRONS and WOODS being a [Set of clubs in a bag], or RIDING-hood or MOTHER-hood both working equally well.

It's just amazing to think that someone would be so daring as to attempt to make EVERY SINGLE PAIR OF ACROSS ANSWERS work this way.

Now, some didn't work for me. READINGS can amount to fortunes, as in a fortune-teller reading one's palm, but SPLURGES amounting to fortunes felt grammatically tortuous. DON and NOD as anagrams for O-N-D … neither NOD nor DON would ever be clued this way normally, so that felt inelegant. Fill in the blanks with "TRIX are for KIDS" felt like it opened up just about any pairing if you located the right quote.

And the fill. Oof. As much as I loved the concept and most of the execution in the across direction — just amazing that so many of the pairs worked so well — I had a rough time swallowing DAZER. Random TEN OZ. Made-up DETAG. Odd partials OF FUN, ONCE I, ET UN. Variant TIPI. Head-scratching SSATS. Suffix -ONYM. Hits most every category that editors ask to steer clear of, and then some. Sapped my enjoyment to hit these sorts of entries throughout the puzzle.

Also, it was unfortunate not to get much bonus fill. Derrick went up to 144 words, four past Will's max of 140, which translates into very little bonus material. Just a bit of SNOWCAT, STATELINE, ANTIVIRUS.

That all said, though, the construction task is so daunting that I wouldn't have even thought to attempt it. The fact that Derrick pulled off so many great pairings is astounding, no matter what prices he had to pay to make it all work.

Memorable, for sure.

Mon 12/19/2016

Who knew so many famous people played Santa? (Don't all raise your hands at once.) ED ASNER is my go-to — I adore "Elf" (people look at me funny when I randomly say "So, good news, I saw a dog today!"). ED ASNER is such a great straight man in this Santa role.

I haven't seen any of the other films, but some nice trivia to learn — curious that FRED ASTAIRE played Santa. And TOM HANKS, too (in a voice role, at least)? Huh. I wasn't sure who this EDMUND GWENN fella was, so it was much appreciated that Jason made all his crossings very easy. Whew!

Nice Monday construction, such a smooth solving experience (aside from GWENN for me, at least). Jason does so well to keep his crossword glue to minor stuff like MMI, RIN, ETATS, MIN. And I don't mind MMI quite as much as Completely Random Roman Numerals such as DCXI, since MMI has actually been seen in recentish movie title screens.

And what nice bonus material, NPR's FRESH AIR, SHOWMANCE (didn't know the term, but it sounds so fun), FACSIMILE, TRICKSTER, INSINUATE, even WALL-E — that's a ton of extras. It was much appreciated, since very few of the Santa-players elicited much of a reaction in me.

Minor nit, it would have been great to not include PESCI, since he's an actor who sort of muddies the theme. I paused briefly, wondering if he played Santa in "Home Alone."

I love the holiday spirit, how it tends to bring out the best in people, how it inspires me to express my appreciation for those that have made my life better (thank you all for reading my random musings!). So I feel embarrassed that I haven't seen many of these movies! I'll have to get on that — I bet people who have seen all of them will have a much more poignant reaction to this puzzle, which felt a bit too much like a listicle to me. It might have been to have something extra, like just using the movie titles in the clues, with SANTA as a revealer.

Tue 12/20/2016

We're PUTTING THINGS ON ICE today … er, ON THE ROCKS. I've heard SCOTCH snobs say that ice destroys single-malts, but I'm an infidel. So what if I want to put some cold cubes into my MacAllan? And beer? And red wine?

I really shouldn't be allowed to drink.

Tim gets us not only a SCOTCH on the rocks (ICE), but a BOURBON and a TEQUILA. I liked how he hid SCOTCH and BOURBON — TEQUILA was a bit disappointing in comparison since a TEQUILA SUNRISE (not surprisingly) overtly has TEQUILA in it. Would have been really neat to have some hidden alcohols, like STRING INSTRUMENT and CALENDAR YEAR over ICE. I'm not sure you're supposed to put ICE in those liquors, but I'm-a-gonna try it!

As usual, Tim does a nice job incorporating some bonuses: AMPHIBIOUS, EPHEMERA, and OBSEQUIOUS are colorful, interesting words. EPIPEN is a great mid-length entry, and the pairing of CANTORS and HILLEL is fun too.

Tim had a slightly harder job than usual today, given that he had to place ICE under three words, reducing his filling flexibility. Although those are common letters, they still constrain the grid quite a bit. It's unusual to get a SNERT and an ELOI--both esoteric--in one of Tim's puzzles, but it's understandable.

Also a bit esoteric are SEA CARP and ROARKE. The former is a fine entry, just not as stellar as I would hope for out of a precious seven-letter slot. And although I used to watch "Fantasy Island" (and dream about those tropical drinks — with ICE of course), I'm not sure Mr. ROARKE has stood the test of time.

Overall, I would have liked a little more from the theme, at least disguising TEQUILA in the same way as SCOTCH and BOURBON. But I do like me a refreshing (cold!) drink, so the puzzle gave me a nice visual.

Wed 12/21/2016

I love working with Seth — we've had 10ish puzzles accepted in various media so far, and we continue to work on more.

Sneaky devil switched the order of our byline just before sending this one in, though. This puzzle was his idea, so he deserves to be listed first.

I grew up playing cello and trombone, so this classical music-lover didn't even hesitate when dropping in Die MOLDAU, Smetana's famous composition. Seth gently nudged me, asking me if that might be replaced?

Nonsense! I said. Surely, Die Moldau is in everyone's consciousness, or should be. Plus, it was critical in holding that corner together, allowing for nice goodies like MAGNUM, APROPOS, and the DEATHLY Hallows.

Will and Joel thought we did a very nice job on the grid … except for the odd entry, MOLDAU, which "they had trouble swallowing."

Yet again, shows you just how much I know. It's a mystery why anyone ever listens to me.

ADDED NOTE (from blog reader Mark): "Glad MOLDAU remained. Instant answer for me. One of the first musical compositions I adored all because of a marvelous high school Music teacher who taught … wait for it … Music Appreciation!! FYI: I'll be 78 in January. The memory still lingers."

POW Thu 12/22/2016

★ (AL)UMINUM SIDING added to today's puzzle, featuring the chemical symbol for aluminum, Al. Check out the grid below for the deets. We've also corrected the appropriate answers so they match the clues. We wouldn't want to add ERT or LEGE to our database!

Neat concept. (AL)BERT EINSTEIN MED(AL) is such a great feature entry for this puzzle, just perfect how 1.) it has an AL on either side, 2.) it's 19 letters long, making it exactly 15 letters without the ALs and 3.) it's such a great-sounding entry. Reminds me of another puzzle featuring OUTSIDERS.

The first step in this construction is quite easy — you start with a 19x15 grid, with AL down each side in columns 1, 2, 18, and 19 (and black squares appropriately extended out to the sides). After you're done, you can lop off those extra columns, and voila!

HOWEVER … the execution is not easy at all. There are a reasonable number of words that start / end with AL, but limiting yourself to just that subset makes things so rough when constructing the sides of the puzzle. I was impressed that Mark, a debut constructor, was able to work in some great long entries like ALOHA SHIRTS, COLOSSAL, and PURITANICAL, without resorting to that much crossword glue. Yes, IN LA and REMAT are not good, but those are minor prices considering how tough those sides must have been to construct.

I would have loved for ALUMINUM SIDING to be one long entry, as it felt inelegant to split it up, but to do that, Mark would have needed a matching 12-letter entry. It would have forced the puzzle to be more open; less segmented, as 12-letter entries are very inconvenient to work around.

On that note, I would have liked the puzzle to breathe more — it's very partitioned. It was smooth overall, though, and if I had to choose between smooth vs. good puzzle flow, I'd tend toward the former.

I thought about this puzzle a lot after finishing it, and that's a sign of an excellent puzzle. Great stuff, especially from a debut constructor!

Fri 12/23/2016

Robin, you had me at TRACTOR BEAM. Not everyone will know what this, but those of us that do will screech HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW WHAT A TRACTOR BEAM IS? Probably in Klingon.

(It's a sci-fi beam using a graviton interference pattern to draw in an object. Duh.)

A lot of strong entries, highlighted by TRACTOR BEAM, CASH ADVANCE, GREEN SCREEN, and SECRET SANTA. Also nice: STARGAZER and IMPRESS ME anchoring the other two corners.

I wonder if some solvers will be offended by SECRET SANTA? It's fun for me, but it's certainly possible that it'll bring up unpleasant feelings of being outside the Christmas-focused culture in Murica.

It's tough to make your mid-length slots sing, but Robin does it in spades with BATCAVE. Not only is this a fantastic entry in itself, but the clue is so innocent. [Robin's refuge] surely means AVIARY? Not when the clue hides the capitalized R of Robin, Batman's sidekick. Awesome!

For me, the black square layout would have been a non-starter. That diagonal across the middle cuts the puzzle in two, only a single word connecting the halves on each end. Some constructors use a rule of thumb that if placing a pair of black squares anywhere results in two disconnected puzzle halves, that's a no-go.

For me, much more important is: how many answers connect the halves? If the black square above BETSY was turned into a white square, that would have allowed for a pair of answers to connect the halves at both top and bottom. Right now, if you can't figure out CBATTERY or NOSTRILS, that wall of black squares might as well be the Berlin wall.

Robyn uses such great entries — last time it was MIRACLE MAX and JEDI MASTER — right on my wavelength. Like the last one, there's too much crossword glue in this puzzle for my taste — ENE, MST, RELET, HRE, ACTA, SITA — making it feel rough around the edges, but I have a strong feeling that soon, Robin will be turning out themelesses that have the same sizzle without these crutches. The Force is strong with this one!

Sat 12/24/2016

What an awesome lower right corner! David makes such great use of all his limited slots, with 1.) vivid, colorful answers in JURY BOX, BBQ SAUCE, and LOVERBOY, and 2.) three rare letters finessed in. CARTE feels like a minor ding, but "a la carte" is super common. And DC CAB is outdated, but those two are minor blips in an otherwise standout corner.

A lot of terms/names I didn't know in the rest of the puzzle:

  • SEXYBACK. Tough for this pop music idiot to figure out. I guess it's catchy, in an annoying sort of way? But as a #1 hit, I'm glad to put it in my mental arsenal of crossworthy titles.
  • OLE ELO. Again, not surprising that I didn't know this, but very cool that these guys were into wordplay enough to create a palindrome ... with the common-in-crosswords OLE!
  • TRYHARD. Trying hard to believe that this is modern lingo — it sounds so silly to me. I don't remember young people ever using the term, but considering two of my hobbies are crosswords and bridge ...
  • SHAWTY. Seems to have become commonplace in music; tons of rap songs come up in Google search. Along with fresh-ish terms like "bae," I like knowing what this means now.
  • DEMON RUM. Loaded with connotations! Immediately brings up images of Prohibition, the "wets" and the "drys" fighting a battle for the very soul of America.
  • CHOLER. Apparently, this was one of the "four bodily humours" in medieval science, the one associated with a peevish temperament. I love me some alchemy, so this was fun to read about.

Overall, a solid construction. A bit too many entries out of my wheelhouse — I like learning, but too much learning in one puzzle feels like a lesson instead of entertainment — but David sure managed to pack in a lot of interesting entries, only needing a bit of EDO, AMBI crossword glue. And man, that lower right corner is a real standout.

Sun 12/25/2016 MARRIED COUPLES

It took me forever to figure out what was going on here, so lemme try to explicitly explain it. Kevin started with common phrases, i.e. [Handle with care] and [Calm before the storm], and ... first word ... second definition ... two-letter overlap ... I can't figure out how to explain this!

So here's how it worked in practice: [Handle with care] = handle + care = alias (as in one's CB handle) + assistance (as in giving a bit of care) = ALIASSISTANCE. It's tricky since you have to figure out that "handle" and ALIAS are synonyms, as are "care" and ASSISTANCE, then cram everything together.

I'm usually against "definitional" entries like Go being a CHINESE BOARD GAME, but in this case, these dictionary-sounding entries were key for me to be able to solve the puzzle. Not sure I would have figured out what was going on, otherwise.

My favorite one was SERENITYPHOON, just perfect for [Calm before the storm]. It's so easy to see that "calm" and SERENITY are linked, as are "storm" and TYPHOON. And SERENITY and TYPHOON have that two-letter overlap! This is the type of creative, innovative wordplay that I like to see in crosswords.

Some nice bonuses in TOFUTTI (sounds a whole lot better than it tastes, ick), JUNGLE GYM, and ESPN RADIO. Good stuff there. CLUB SODA and OFF COLOR, brilliantly clued as [Salty or spicy], were nice too.

And with just a little AREAR and OLA kind of stuff, the rest of the puzzle felt smooth, which was a good thing given how much I struggled with grokking the theme.

Overall, I would have loved this one if every themer had been as strong as SERENITYPHOON, but there were too many stilted-sounding definitions and synonyms that felt like a stretch (ABIDE = stay?). I do admire Kevin's innovation — I don't think I've seen something quite like this.

Mon 12/26/2016

I wish we got cool holidays like BOXING DAY in the US. But maybe that's just my ongoing post-Harry Potter Anglophilia speaking because BOXING DAY turns out to be just the day after Christmas when "Christmas-boxes" are given to service personnel. Grumble grumble. I was hoping to see Hagrid enter the ring against a boggart.

Jules literally boxes up days: LEAP day, ELECTION day, SNOW day, GAME day, PATRIOTS day, HUMP day. I liked how consistent he was, always starting in the lower left corner and then continuing clockwise. It's little touches like that can help make a puzzle sing.

It's always tough to fill around big chunks of letters fixed into place, so Jules did pretty well in the upper left. Note that he deployed a lot of his black squares in the middle — separating BOXING DAY from the six literal boxes makes for easier filling overall — which means he was forced to work with relatively long answers in the corners (to keep to the maximum allowable 78 words in total). Love EDAMAME, BELARUS, BAPTIST around that LEAP day. MUSERS is a made-up-sounding, pluralized -ER entry, but ESTA is the only other gluey bit. Pretty good there.

The bigger boxes are naturally tougher to fill around, having eight instead of four letters to work with, so it's not a surprise to get an old TELEX and a rough -ATION up top. SILOING sounded a bit odd at first, but it does seem to have real usage.

The bottom also shows some strain in a partial-ish THE NOW and the esoteric French ETAPE. But I did like GET RICH and POP STAR.

Overall, I liked the homage to BOXING DAY, but it would have been nice to get a little more tightness than simply "any word that can precede DAY." Maybe all holidays, or all slang terms for days of the week, or all Wizard-based holidays, etc.

There really should be Wizard-based holidays. Grumble grumble.

P.S. As Jules pointed out to me, there really ought to be a NIB 'O EGGO day (check out the center of the puzzle).

Tue 12/27/2016

"Both words can follow X" type theme, Herre using DOUBLE TAKE to indicate that X = TAKE. HEART SHAPE = TAKE HEART and TAKE SHAPE, COVER CHARGE = TAKE COVER and TAKE CHARGE, etc.

I think Will has been spacing out his remaining examples of this theme type, which is a good thing because we've seen a lot of them over the years. Considering that this one has been sitting in the queue about two years now, it stands up decently. It's tough to incorporate six themers in any 15x puzzle, so to end with just a few gluey entries ain't half bad. Nothing egregious, just some minor ERE, AMARE (if only AMAR'E Stoudemire had become a Hall-of-Famer — his alternating consonant-vowel pattern is so useful!), IS NOT, DST.

And some nice bonuses! Many constructors working with six themers would simply settle for a reasonably smooth product, no bonuses. So SUPERMOM (shout out to my wife!), LOLITA (my wife's favorite book!), SMART ALEC (my wife's husband!) and OGDEN NASH were awfully nice.

One common knock on these theme types is that the themers can often be dull. Not the case for COVER CHARGE, which works so beautifully to create TAKE COVER and TAKE CHARGE. Herre does have the advantage that there are a ton of "TAKE ___" phrases out there to sift through, but COVER CHARGE is a great example of a themer that stands out within this theme trope.

HEART SHAPE … hmm. It is a thing, but HEART SHAPED sounds so much better to my ear. Too bad TAKE SHAPED isn't a thing! And BACK AWAY, DOWN HOME, AFTER EFFECT are decent, but I wouldn't go out of my way to work them into a puzzle, at least not nearly to the extent as COVER CHARGE.

Apparently, AGING is the preferred spelling in the US, and AGEING is used outside. Learn something new every day.

I'm a bit oversaturated with this theme type, so it was a disappointment to get to the revealer. But overall, a nice job of execution.

POW Wed 12/28/2016

★ Such a fun idea, THE CARPENTERS potentially made up of people with carpentry-sounding names: ELIJAH WOOD, STUDS TERKEL, BRAD STEVENS, and MIKE HAMMER. Nice touch to use two first names and two last names.

Five themers of length 10/11/13/11/10 is tough to build around, especially since that middle 13 tends to force big, wide-open corners. I wasn't surprised that the old pro BEQ had no problem filling those corners with panache and cleanliness — a ton of great fill everywhere I looked. OIL RIG, STIGMA, CUJO in the upper left. SLINKIER, PATTERNS, and SPOOLED are pretty good in the upper right. And my favorite = WHAMMO, SAVE IT, and the hilarious-sounding PLOTZ! That is a fantastic use of mid-length slots, which too often get filled with blah entries.

BEQ's puzzles often have a very fresh, contemporary feel — sometimes too much so for my taste. I wasn't sure whether I loved HOWRU = HOW R U, or hated it (probably more the former). SOO I've seen before as in the SOO locks in the Great Lakes. That's minor-ish for me in terms of crossword glue, but SOO… as ["Your point being…?"] left me with a groan. It seems like that opens up a Pandora's Box of WELLL and NOOO and OOOOPS.

VIKES looks odd, but it does appear to be the term the Minnesota Vikings' fans use.

A couple of standout clues = a real treat on a Wednesday. For me, the best was [There might be a spat about this]. Mystifying, until I realized "spat" was talking about decorative spats worn about shoes, not quarrel-type spats. Beautiful how it didn't require a telltale question mark.

I initially wondered why BEQ chose BRAD STEVENS out of all the BRADs out there (BRAD PITT the obvious choice), but his commentary makes sense of the decision. I like it when constructors inject some of their personal tastes into a puzzle, just as long as it doesn't result in too esoteric entries. BRAD STEVENS is relatively new as a coach, and I wouldn't feature him as a theme entry, but I can see BEQ's rationale.

An entertaining concept with standout execution.

Thu 12/29/2016

Who knew Prince CHARLES had so many titles? The PRINCE OF WALES, yes, but how cool to be the DUKE OF CORNWALL. And the EARL OF … CHESTER? The BARON OF … RENFREW? Huh. You'd think that being a prince and all would allow you to make up your own titles. LORD HIGH MAGE OF THE HOLY BRIGADE ... I call that one!

Pretty cool that all the letters in CHARLES's name can be found — in order — in these four titles, and that the titles just happen to exhibit crossword symmetry It's almost like the British had planned all this out several centuries ago, waiting for just this moment. Ba-bam! *mic drop* (Or, scepter drop. Whatever it is that the British royalty does.)

Note how little flexibility Kevan had in placing his themers. EARL OF CHESTER and PRINCE OF WALES are 13 letters apiece, what constructors call an "unfortunate length." That's because they can't be placed in rows 3/13 like usual — those black squares at the end create problems — so they must be squished into rows 4/12, taking away flexibility by reducing spacing.

Note then how tricky it is to fill between/around EARL OF CHESTER and BARON OF RENFREW, given how close together they are. Same goes for DUKE OF CORNWALL and PRINCE OF WALES. Not a surprise that the northwest and south regions — both need a lot of entries crossing two closely-packed themers — are the roughest. To kick off the puzzle with ENGR and ECOL in one section wasn't great, but sometimes these things happen, and both are relatively minor.

It was all reasonably smooth, though, until I hit KNIFERS. Oof, one of those -ER-added, tinny-sounding entries. And then to get APERS crossing it felt even more inelegant. (RAVER ... I think that is a thing.)

There were a few tough entries like ALECTO, one of the Fates, and TABOR, the type of drum, but I like seeing some new words and vocabulary on a Thursday. (Just as long as they are crossworthy, which I feel strongly that these are.)

Three of the titles were mystifying for me, but it was a nice CH A R L E S find.

Fri 12/30/2016

Exceedingly smoothly themeless, as per usual for PB. There weren't any feature entries that I *squeed!* over, but there were several that were very solid. I especially liked YOGI BERRA, N'EST CE PAS?, and the PURPLE COW / CREAM SODA combination.

When using a standard-ish themeless layout — triple-stacks of 8-10 letter-long answers in each of the four corners — constructors often seed each corner with a single answer and build around them. Each of the four seed entries can help its respective corner sing. This can, however, lead to problems knitting the corners together into a single, fluid puzzle.

I wonder if Patrick started with HOLDUP JOB and maybe PURPLE COW, allowing his filling process to flow eastward without having to meld into other seed answers. I'd bet good money on HOLDUP JOB as the starting point, since it's one of the most interesting phrases in the puzzle, and it's never been used in a major crossword. (Although I did wonder if STICKUP JOB was snazzier.) The fact that MUDFISH crosses it — another new to major crosswords entry — and I'd double down that bet.

The result is as smooth as always. I'm pretty sure that it's a result of a ton of trial and error even for the great PB, and what differentiates him from other themeless constructors is his willingness (relentlessness?) to keep on restarting a section over and over and over again until he finally can create something silky-smooth.

This process also tends to result in a grid that's not always the sparkliest or freshest, but that's the trade-off PB typically makes, and it usually makes for a very satisfying solve.

KILEY was a toughie, but the crossings seem to be all fair. TITO might be tough for some, but Josep Broz TITO is no doubt someone that educated solvers ought to know.

Patrick's themelesses almost always leave me with such a feeling of satisfaction, his puzzles so smooth and solvable. I always feel sorry for the poor sucker who has to follow him. (insert foreshadowing here)

Sat 12/31/2016

I had queried Brad Wilber at the Chronicle of Higher Education with a list of made-up compounds in fantasy: UNOBTAINIUM, KRYPTONITE, DILITHIUM, ICE NINE, MITHRIL. He said it was too much of a list puzzle (imagine that!) for him, but UNOBTAINIUM would sure make a great themeless seed.

I don't make many themelesses these days since everybody and their brother submits a ton of them to Will. Plus, I think it's a much more interesting challenge to come up with a great theme. But when I heard NERD CULTURE in an audio book, I quickly counted it out (stupid compulsive constructor's brain, just let me listen to the book already!) — 11 letters, the same as UNOBTAINIUM! Felt like a mini-theme I could get behind.

Unfortunately, 11 letters is a terrible length to work with in a themeless. It's so stubborn, forcing placement of certain black squares right off the bat, draining flexibility. I tested dozens of possibilities, all of them leading to some dead-end or requiring 70+ words (that's not a very interesting construction challenge to me), before finally arriving at what you see.

I wasn't thrilled about three middle entries — PERSIANS, CADENCE, SANCTION, but each felt like there was possibility for good cluing. SANCTION, for example, is a word that can mean one thing … or its opposite. (I clued it as [Approve … or prohibit].)

The upper right took hundreds of tries before I finally felt that the result was sparkly and clean enough ... with one hesitation, anyway: I love ASCII ART, and it fits great with the NERD CULTURE mini-theme, but would solvers struggle with the SIRENIA (it's the order containing manatees) crossing? I love that SIRENIA term, derived from the Sirens of Greek myth. Hopefully, people who don't know ASCII can think about the term "Animalia" and get the -IA ending that way.

My original clue for ANACONDA was [Sir Mix-a-Lot's "don't want none / Unless you got buns, hon"]. I was pretty sure Will wouldn't be able to use it for the NYT audience. But I had to try.

Shout at to BRAD at 26-Across! Thanks so much for the idea.

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