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Puzzles for December, 2019
with Jeff Chen comments

Sun 12/1/2019ACTUALLY ...
EMUGORKIBABESNAPTO
DIPUCONNASONREPEAL
INSPITEOFRHODEISLAND
TIEONREPOLUVTENTH
STPETERSSQUARELAURA
CARATAUTENDETAT
UPTOPARSTEELESS
TEARINTORIVALEVER
APINGHOLYROMANEMPIRE
HALLAHOREEXITSIGNS
SOLEASLAPEGAN
ATPRESENTIRISESEBB
CHINESECHECKERSRATIO
KENOFLOESATTESTTO
TBASTAIDEASIEST
LOCOTTOARTYEMTS
IPADSARABICNUMERALS
KITESCPRAHASOILED
ENGLISHHORNMETRODOME
NEUTERAMENIBEAMYIN
SSTARSNAPACYANSDST

CHINESE CHECKERS not actually Chinese, RHODE ISLAND not actually an island, etc. What with all the oddities of the English language, it's not hard to see why people believe it when someone yells FAKE NEWS!

Did you get the secret subversive message: CROSSWORDS ARE NOT ACTUALLY NOT CROSS WORDS? How many F-bombs have you seen the NYT xw drop lately, hmm? Not even one S-word!

Huh? The NYT xw does use IRE and IRK all the time, and those are cross (angry) words?

What? Crosswords are so named because words cross each other?

HA! TBA is NOT A WORD. NEITHER ARE SSTARS, NCO, ESTAB AND SO MANY OTHERS TODAY!

Did you know that the HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE was neither Roman nor holy? You can't even call it an empire. I mean, holy moly, it didn't even span a single continent. If the sun sets on your little fiefdom EVERY DAY, it ain't an empire.

All kidding aside, I enjoyed learning a few things from this puzzle.

But wait. REST ROOMS aren't places of rest? I beg to differ! Apparently Patrick has never been in a women's room. My wife Jill spent about an hour in a fancy one with both my kids the other day, where there are couches, loungers, toys for the kids, and so many secret amenities I'm not privy to.

Get it, privy?

Maybe I should stop there.

Maybe I should have stopped yesterday.

It's hard to swallow the glut of APLEA, ASLAP, ASON kicking off DST, ENDE, ERN, ESS, and so on and so on. But I did enjoy some of the bonuses, TAILSPIN and VIGNETTE the standouts. Just goes to show how difficult the 140-word 21x21 construction is, even for seasoned pros. One thing that could have helped: getting rid of PEANUT and CATGUT, which both got lost in the shuffle and created tough filling problems in their respective corners.

I'd heard most of these "false fact" VIGNETTES before, but perhaps they'll be of more interest to those hearing them the first time.

POW Mon 12/2/2019
LABORALPSHEMS
EVADEBITEURGE
GOREDBOARDGAME
OWEBURNMOE
SAMBASEGOSLAP
LIARSLONESOME
NGOMBASEWES
FEIGNYAPCREST
ACMEOGREAIR
STUDYFORABETS
TOMANDYDASHES
HMOMOORELI
READSUPONEBBED
NEATSORETRACE
SLAVEXESSORTS

★ Lynn puts herself in limbo today. Get it, limbo? Because she lowered the bar?

Speaking of lowering the bar, I'll be here all week, folks!

Making a trigram descend is not a novel idea — the one Mary Lou Guizzo and I did a few years ago is just one in this theme class — but Lynn executed it so well. The breakdown:

  1. Well-hidden BARs. No BAR OF SOAP or HEATH BAR CRUNCH or DIVE BAR. I had no idea what was going on until I hit the revealer, and that made for a snappy a-ha moment. Lynn even avoided the BAR sound completely. SANTA BARBARA might have been too overt, for instance.
  2. Judicious BAR spacing. It is possible to get the BARs on a perfect diagonal line, but that requires either the themers to be in columns 4/6/8/10/12, or 2/5/8/11/14. Both of those present technical difficulties, especially when you have Monday smoothness as a target. Lynn's BARs don't lie on a perfectly straight line, but that's hard to see, even if you use a ruler. Fine compromise.
  3. Great execution around themers. Typically, you'd space out CABARETS and LOWER THE BAR by placing the former at the top of the grid and the latter at the bottom, to minimize overlap. Today though, you need to keep both of them toward the bottom. That should cause problems in the SE corner, but Lynn just shrugs it off and produces a silky smooth result, even tossing in some DASHES and SELECT.

When it comes to puzzles featuring down-oriented themers, Will Shortz is laxer than other editors about including long across fill, not worrying about muddying up the theme. Today, I like the inclusion of BOARD GAME. That provides color, important since there's not much room for down-oriented long fill (the five themers take up too much space). I'd have loved for READS UP ON to be as snazzy as BOARD GAME, but what can you do.

Same sentiment for the assemblage of ABBR / NGO / ECTO in the NW corner, but that's a reasonable result, given the level of technical difficulty.

Overall, a Monday offering I'd happily give to a newb. I'd likely have to circle the BARs for them afterward, as they're easy to miss (see below for highlighting), but that only shows them how much a genius me be.

Tue 12/3/2019
STARRSADPERON
HOSEALIESTARE
ANTEDANNOYANCE
HERDINSTINCT
SROOOHMEHALB
EATMELESTER
BUTTDIALSDIANA
ASOUTRAPSBRIG
RHODEKNOTTYING
GENEVADROOL
ERSABSTATARF
SCENESTEALER
ADNAUSEAMBRIDE
VOICEAVEACTOR
AWAKEKENGOOSE

"Name That Theme" defeated me today, in a pleasing way. Maybe I should have been able to figure it out — HERD, BUTT, KNOT, and SCENE are all common in homophone themes. Bravo to Ed for keeping me guessing until the very end.

I should say, guessing until the very end … and beyond. I eventually figured out that a VOICE / ACTOR is "heard but not seen." The phrase felt familiar but not right, though, so I focused on that nit for a while. (It's usually "children should be seen and not heard.") That distracted me enough that I glossed over the ultra-long clue, pointing to the real a-ha in the puzzle.

Read it again, I'll wait.

Again.

AGAIN!

"… like the words sounded out at the starts of the answers to the four starred clues."

That's a mouthful. Maybe shading those four words would have been better, so the clue could have read:

"like the shaded words, sounded out."

It's a great concept, that the four sounded-out words themselves — heard but not seen — are exactly that. The clue doesn't do it justice, though. Usually, I'm all for obfuscating a theme until the very end, but I doubt shading would have taken away from the impact since the concept is already complicated.

Curious placement of the VOICE / ACTOR revealer. It'd have been more elegant to drop those into the bottom row, but it's not easy to work STEALER and ACTOR into the same corner. I bet the SE corner wouldn't have been as smooth with ACTOR in the bottom row, so I'm okay with the decision.

I would have liked a smidge more smoothness, though. ELAND and STOAT are toughies for newbs, and coming from the same category — I'll take Crossword Animals for $400, Alex. Adding in SIBYL, ALB, BRAGG into one small region makes it even harder. Every one of these entries is fine in general, but it's too much as a whole.

So many Tuesdays tend to be forgettable, so I appreciate the extra layers Ed put into this concept. Made me think.

Wed 12/4/2019
JIMLAMASDEBRA
ENOORONOALLEN
STRAWMANFALLACY
TREXESTILES
SOLEOPERATOP
SLIPPERYSLOPE
SEEPAFAR
POTOMACBIRDFLU
ASHEPULP
CHERRYPICKING
TARWARESARON
AMANAPOTATO
MOVINGGOALPOSTS
ONENDUDDERSEE
WONKAESSAYYRS

I'm explaining the theme in detail because you didn't understand it. I did, of course, because I'm a world-class genius. I figured out the theme from just looking at the empty grid. In fact, I saw "The Matrix"-like patterns of flowing green characters throughout the encoded .puz file even before opening it. Heck, I even predicted the concept before Evan came up with it.

(Okay, fine, Jim Horne explained it to me.)

Each of the four themers is a common (more accurately, "common") logical fallacy, treated literally. Here I was, thinking that the SLIPPERY SLOPE is just the big pile of dirt in my backyard where my kids have been digging for dinosaur bones, and it's a classical logical fallacy.

What, you don't know exactly what a classical logical fallacy is? Sigh, I'll deign to explain it to you, I suppose.

(Jim. Psst. What exactly is a classical logical fallacy again? Why is a SLIPPERY SLOPE considered to be one?)

Jim explained it all to me, but honestly, I stopped listening after about three words. So just nod your head like I did and tell people, of course, the SLIPPERY SLOPE is a logical fallacy, dummy.

Pro tip: if you yell it super loud, you'll sound even more convincing.

I enjoyed the bonuses, THE RAVEN and BLAST OFF delightful. THE RAVEN crossing POTOMAC is even better, a bit of a shout-out to Poe's home town of Baltimore. Toss in some BIRD FLU, RWANDA / PRAGUE, and that's a lot to enjoy.

The short fill was mostly fine, although there is a real-life logical fallacy: ORONO crossing MOA doesn't seem fair. I don't think—

Huh? That's not a logical fallacy, you say?

YOU'RE A LOGICAL FALLACY.

All in all, a curious theme that Jim got immediately and appreciated because of his more cultured background, and one that I completely and totally didn't miss whatsoever.

Thu 12/5/2019
MASHACTSBOWIE
OREOIDEAERICA
MEATSCAMABNER
SANDSHAKERSBEN
ALASETSY
BLAMEEIGNSTATE
RUNNERLOOUNIX
URNTABLOIDOBI
CIAONUBROUSES
EDBRIDGESINERT
EGGOHONK
AOLNMENTAGENCY
BALTODOITMERE
CHEERNICEPROW
SUEDEARKSTOPS

What, you're all whiny because you didn't understand the theme? Get over it!

Get it? Get over it?

Over?

OVER?

OVER!!!

Sometimes people ask me how to become a better crossword solver, and I tell them to become a crossword constructor. Occasionally, the theme concept immediately becomes apparent to you because you've had the exact same idea. It's common in the crossworld for ideas to crop up (m)over and (s)over and (c)over and (g)over again.

(Will Shortz liked mine, back in 2015, but said it was a near miss, and that the concept was a bit too familiar. Shall we say, overdone?

*rimshot*)

After mine was published, I got a lot of questions, asking WHAT THE &@#$! IS YOUR PROBLEM, WHY DO YOU MAKE SUCH NONSENSICAL PUZZLES THAT MAKE ME WANT TO DISEMBOWEL YOU? Those gentle queries made me wonder; maybe I should have put a revealer in? Perhaps OVER as the final across answer to make things crystal-clear?

I also wondered, maybe I should start directing all emails straight to spam.

Having the benefit of a long time to ponder this question, today's puzzle would be better served with an OVERt revealer. That might have taken away some of the a-ha for top-notch genius solvers, but it would have been better for the general solving population, many of whom won't figure out the trick, even after completing the grid.

Great overall construction, Neville doing everything right. ANNABEL LEE and WIN BY A NOSE are colorful choices for the marquee bonus answers, and some RENOIR UNKEMPT RANDOM might make you say ILL BE. Or even HOT DAMN! I appreciate that he didn't try to do anything crazy, like going down to a 72-word grid in an attempt to spice things up.

Beautiful gridwork, but I'm curious to see how high the frustration level is for John Q. Solver. If I were Will, I'd be regularly polling the NYT's solvers to make sure they're happy, and this is one puzzle I'd focus on.

Fri 12/6/2019
ADWARSGYMRAT
PROFITLIEIDLE
PAREVELESSSALT
ANSWERMETHIS
LOTREACTTAMES
SPORTUTILITY
HIPPOTUCKSNUN
ONLYVIREOREDO
ITASINEWPARED
SWIMUPSTREAM
TOTEMHOARYTBA
MAKEUPARTIST
NOBOTHERSAUDIS
OVERRANETRADE
BANYANDEFLEA

Andrew usually runs his middle stair stack horizontally, but chose to display it vertically today — you can always "flip" a grid along the NW to SE diagonal with no changes in entries. (There are technical reasons for this, but they're incredibly boring, so just trust me. An example of two grids that are equivalent except for flipping: the first pair in the Misenko duplicates.) So, why place MARTIN SHEEN / LECTURE TOUR / LETTUCE WRAP vertically instead of horizontally?

One reason is that it lets Andrew feature all the goodies running across that stair stack: ANSWER ME THIS, SPORT UTILITY, SWIM UPSTREAM, MAKEUP ARTIST, NO BOTHER. He usually gets a lot of long answers running through his stair sticks, but today's felt even stronger.

Another is that if you flipped the grid as described above, your 1-Across would be APPAL. Not an appalling answer, but not a good one, either. 1-Across is the first answer most solvers will look at; it's so important to start things off on the right foot.

It seems ridiculous that something as easy as grid-flipping would make a difference, but having a poor 1-Across entry can be such a turn-off. These little tricks can be important.

One con to today's presentation is that it places VIREO across the middle, glaring and sticking out more than if it were vertically oriented. This one tough entry is fair, but when you combine it with PAREVE, the RIVER PO, MISSAL, and PLAIT (usually called a "braid" in the US), it makes for a lot of entries that could be called "weird." That's an unfair assessment, but if you make a solver feel dumb, that affects their perception of a puzzle's quality.

Overall, it's not my favorite of Andrew's (stellar) body of stair-stack work, especially considering he also needed a bit of RDA TET ITA TBA to make it work. Certainly enough juice from the long entries to make it still enjoyable, though.

Sat 12/7/2019
TENJAMAICANRUM
RYEIMETSOMEONE
EEKGOTTABOUNCE
STOWSHEIRSNAT
CECEPANDACIGS
HEADBANDSCREE
ITSGONEOGLE
CHEESELOWFAT
DOSTCOMMISH
GSIXWRAPPARTY
CRANLIARSTEAR
HENPANICSEATO
ITCHECKSOUTWII
BETARELEASEAND
ALARMSYSTEMYES

The producers of "American Ninja Warrior" have a tough job. Ideally, you want fewer and fewer competitors to make it through each stage, a gradual winnowing until you're left with the final one or two people standing.

Early on, you should knock out some people who don't have great balance. In the middle rounds, you have to ratchet things up, maybe tossing in a salmon ladder.

And you ought to end with an incredibly difficult series of challenges that only the best-trained uber-athletes can complete — a wicked wingnuts to a crazy cliffhanger to a flying bar. If all goes well, a small handful of competitors will make it almost all the way through, and maybe one will even hit the buzzer.

Now that, my friends, makes for dramatic TV.

One thing you want to avoid at all costs: an obstacle that knocks everyone out. No fun to have something impossible! Today's puzzle wasn't quite that, but it was wicked wingnuts that you had to do while on a flying bar, landing on crazy cliffhanger-sized ledges.

I did like several of the feature entries — great stack in IT CHECKS OUT / BETA RELEASE / ALARM SYSTEM. Along with I MET SOMEONE, WRAP PARTY, COMMISH, TRES CHIC is an appropriate description!

So much of it nearly went over my head(bands), though. If you don't know what a "do loop" is (a programming construct designed to iterate until a certain condition is met), the cleverness of a "(hair)do loop" is lost. Similarly with BETA RELEASE and concept of "patches" applied to buggy code.

"Barrier to entry" is common MBA lingo (element that hinders competitors from entering your marketplace). Even if it is something that solvers should at least be familiar with, it's too literal a description for ALARM SYSTEM. Something like [It might ring a bell] would be a better wordplay angle.

Along with SEATO (?), the never-spelled-out-except-in-crosswords GSIX, and the baffling opposite of alt = NEU? (old and new in German), my solving muscles won't be the same for days.

That said, this is the exact type of training that one needs to become a stage 4 solver. A few years ago, I would routinely fail on Thursday salmon ladders, and now I'm finishing punishing Saturday crazy cliffhangers. Mount Midoriyama, I'm coming for you!

Sun 12/8/2019"LOOKIN' GOOD!"
JARASCAPABBOTUTES
AFEWKELSOTRULYFETA
BREEZINESSRECAPFAHD
BALIINDONESIAEDITED
EMERGESHADTOEZINE
REDDTIRADEBOYZIIMEN
NINETODINEATESS
INASECSHORINGMYB
NADIAGEEZERUSBECKO
KRISTENWIIGNEHILOLZ
ENDODOSEETOIAMNEZ
RIALIMAMNINTENDOWII
SASEFEMSTREWSPLANE
XVIABUSIVEWHYYES
OPSWEEZERNERVED
JACOBRIISAGREERSPCA
ILUVUSNIPSNESTERS
BELUGAEASYONTHEEYES
WALLLUNGSOVEREXPOSE
ALEEAMIESDINARATTN
SERSSPADEADELEEST

I love it when constructors give an honest critique of their work. So many pat themselves on the back, saying how proud they are of the product, while only paying lip service to the flaws. The ability to step back and objectively point out what one could have done better, pulling no punches, is essential for moving to the next level. Saying "myb" is hard, but important.

Ah, the older generations probably don't know the new slang, "myb." It's a nonsense syllable, pronounced "meeb," which needs to be trilled in an ululating, high-pitched scream, lasting at least five seconds. It's best used as a surprise exclamation, to catch people off guard. Try it out so you can finally be cool, like the young kids!

(It's short for "my bad.")

I enjoyed the crazy letter patterns today. Not only was there the curious -YZIIM- string, but catching all those Zs was anything but sleep-inducing. All those rare letters made Emily's task of producing a smooth Sunday puzzle even harder — plural OZZIES crossing ECKO and LOLZ might have been a killer for some — but it's an interesting trade-off between snazzy and smooth.

Back to MYB, Emily debuted a good handful of entries to the Shortz era. I was on the fence for MYB, since I fear many solvers won't get it, but I loved MD PHD, an audacious joint degree for docs who want to do research. I wasn't so big a fan of STEPA, since instructions are usually given in numbers, not letter steps.

Fantastic clue for GNOME! [Part of a short race] had me fixated on relay races, perhaps the 4x100. GNOME is already a fun entry, and the clue makes it sizzle.

Overall, I enjoyed the overall concept, but it would have been much better in a weekday 15x15 puzzle. Once you get the theme, the EZ/IIs quickly got repetitive; not so easy on the eyes. Moving to a 15x15 grid would have also allowed for a much cleaner, more polished overall product.

Mon 12/9/2019
MASTSNILSEPIC
ALOHAOPECLAVA
VALENCIAORANGES
SNOWADDICIEST
ABLEEBAN
CLEVELANDBROWNS
LACEDAILSHOP
ETOSMITTENISU
ACNEAAAACTED
RHODEISLANDREDS
HONKBEAU
ASPENSPBSELSA
HILLSTREETBLUES
EDAMAIRYALLAH
MENSYAKSRALLY

The Shortz Era began with a color crossword. The fact that there have been dozens more over the decades may have (ahem) colored my impression of this one. Many newer solvers might not give the solid theme a second (or even a first) thought. For me and my OCD, third, fourth, and beyond!

Why ORANGES, BROWNS, REDS, BLUES, I wondered — do they form some tidy set? No, but they are a more interesting grouping than I first considered. How many other phrases can you think of that end with a pluralized color? MIXED (or SALAD) GREENS came easily, but what else?

. . .

(That smell is the smoke from Jeff's overheating brain)

FARMERS TANS?

GREEK OLIVES?

Tan and olive aren't as strong as blue and red, though. So I like Ellis's set.

Too bad WHITE isn't a color. PEARLY WHITES is a great phrase.

Hey, wait a second! WHITE is in the grid — that's inelegant. For a theme this simple, you either want to blast it with a dozen more colors, or make sure to include no stragglers.

Budding constructors ask me all the time, what makes for a "bad" short entry? Some examples: ACAR / IASK (partials), NATAL (tough, uncommon word), ECONO (prefix), and ETO (initialism many won't know). We've scored all of them similarly in our word list, but constructors have to use judgment.

In my eyes, NATAL is by far the worst of these gluey bits, as it's something that newer solvers might never figure out. ETO is next worst, and ACAR / IASK / ECONO are all minor; entries that might cause wincing but not outright swearing from newbs.

I did like some of the bonuses — THE WAVE, ED HELMS, SCRIBBLE, MAINSTAY = a lot of assets! However, those came at the price of a grid that frayed around the edges. For Monday puzzles, I prefer a cleaner and more welcoming product, even if that means it's less snazzy. Breaking up SCRIBBLE and MAINSTAY would have helped.

Overall, though, a softball theme that's hard to miss. There's something to be said for that on a Monday.

ADDED NOTE: Astute reader Mike Knobler points out that there is higher level of consistency; that each themer starts with a place. I completely missed that!

Tue 12/10/2019
GAGAADDSAPSE
EMITCROOKNOOK
CAMEOUTSWINGING
KIMOLSENELS
ONEMPTYGIVEOFF
USSARSENEE
UMAMINCAACITE
BOBBEDANDWEAVED
EUROICEEABYSS
RTEADHDPGA
SHAMPOOBALLAST
SAOCRUDESPA
PUTUPTHEIRDUKES
ARODBIBLEPELT
WIFESPATIDLY

The theme tickled me, people of different professions fighting in their appropriate way. The image of a jazz trombonist coming out swinging (literally swinging his slide, too!) into the fray = hilarious. A hairstylist bobbing and weaving combatants to make sure they look properly intimidating? Yes!

And the best for last, the king and queen putting up their dukes as proxy fighters. Visualizing the Duke of Cornwall bopping someone on the head with his orbed scepter, that's comedy gold.

It was smile-inducing enough that I wanted a fourth themer, and fun enough that I brainstormed. BOXED SETS could have been good for an audiophile, a gardener might have participated in a SLUGFEST, etc. I'm a lover, not a fighter, so not the best person to ideate on this theme, but I bet there are a ton more.

This is an extremely rare case where expanding into a 21x21 Sunday puzzle might have been the way to go!

It's thin to have just three themers these days, so you need a ton of goodies throughout the grid, plus a squeaky clean product. Eric did fine on the first count, NACHO CHIP, OOPSIE, DOWNGRADE, POISON IVY, BALLAST, SHAMPOO — all interesting.

Not as strong on the second. It's never great to kick off your starting corner with something odd like AMAIN, alerting solvers that the rest of their experience might be impaired. Toss in ACNED, RTE, URI, USS, MUMBO, and potentially stymieing newbs with a APSE / EKG cross …

About average for a Tuesday NYT product, but I'd like to see a higher degree of polish from a seasoned pro like Eric.

All in all, an entertaining idea that kept me grinning; one that could have gone the distance for a 12-round Sunday solving experience.

Wed 12/11/2019
AVOWSCHWAPOEM
LEDAORIONANNA
DIDGERIDOOMYTH
ONSETMELDSOIL
WATERFEATURE
RUNATABSTARER
USERPOOFCOM
MAWWASPISHAHA
SSRSARICRUD
SHALOMSTROKED
WEGOTOGETHER
AGEENCLSINICE
MONTTHENANDNOW
PACEHAVOCOGRE
STYXSTEWSGADS

Crossword themes go through life cycles, from birth to maturity, to past their prime, then out to pasture. Occasionally, though, there's an exciting evolution that extends a theme category's lifespan. Hidden word themes are reaching overexposure — Will Shortz recently said he has too many of them on file — but when you can find two related words within a phrase, that's notable.

Cool finds today, THEN AND NOW hinting at past tense / present tense verb combos. For all these years that I've been fascinated with DIDGERIDOOs, I've never noticed DID and DO inside that word. Neat discovery.

I didn't like it as much as one we saw a couple of months ago, though. One reason I enjoyed Erik Agard's more is that he included longer, more interesting finds. Not only are ATE and EAT short, but they're composed of common letters that are easy to work with. Using our Finder, I came up with a bunch of other fun ones: CHEATED DEATH, PATENT LEATHER, SENATE SEAT, WATER HEATER.

Constructors must often find a balance between smooth and snazzy, often one of them coming at the cost of the other. As with Jake's previous puzzle, this one had so many great bonus entries — WAGE WAR, CRIME BOSS, ON YOUR MARK, NEWS AGENCY, FIRST SNOW, CORN DOG, such lovely use of long slots! — but they came at a heavy price.

An elegant crossword has no more than 3 or 4 short entries that editors tell you to avoid. The 5-letter ones stand out more than the 3- and 4-letter ones since they take up more space, and ELEVE ENCLS GCHAT (outdated now), HIDER (along with STARER), IN ICE (partial-sounding) = too many. Add in even more 3- and 4-letter gluey bits, and it feels far from polished.

It's tough enough to build a grid around five themers. Audaciously weaving six long(ish) down slots through them often means trade-offs that are hard to swallow.

I'm enjoying the rebirth within the "hidden words" theme genre. Curious to see what new directions clever constructors take.

Thu 12/12/2019
GELLERGARNET
MARIANAOILEDUP
ALABONFIREURL
CAESSENESTI
ETAILMIGSTALE
SERFLAGOSHIED
ATOMICNUMBERS
DRUNKTAUNT
BEGGEDFORMORE
ARCODAUNTSALS
SOOTYBRAHENIE
SNIWILLSOXE
ESCPANSIESLIT
SOONESTMAESTRO
NODSTOBLAMES

Quiz! How many of these chemical symbols can Jeff translate? The clock starts … NOW!

Li: lithium

Ne: Nebraska? Neon, ha ha, just joking.

Ca: Ca … lifornium. No wait, calcium!

Ti: titanium

Sn: tin (you narrowly avoided a pedantic lecture about the root word "stannum" and my so-crazy-they're-genius theories on Stannis Baratheon)

Xe: xenon, this is far too easy!

Nd: … wait … hmm … North Darkotium? Nerdvedium? Bah!

Sm: ... Hulk SMASH(IUM)!

This former science wonk, who hit an easy 5 on his AP chem test and received a couple of chemistry scholarships, scored only 6 out of 8. (Neodymium and samarium.) That bodes poorly for even the advanced Thursday solver. God have mercy on John Q. Solver.

Fun treat to get so many long pieces of fill. RAN SMACK DAB INTO, GOING OUT ON A LIMB, BEGGED FOR MORE are all excellent. It's rare ever to get a themed grid where we get so many grid-spanning bonuses. It wasn't necessary — ATOMIC NUMBERS could have gone in the middle row — but I appreciated having more to enjoy inside my puzzle.

Creative idea, and I appreciate bizarre, mold-breaking grids. From a construction point of view, though, the idea is a little too easy to execute on, since once you go past the teens (in terms of atomic numbers), nearly every chemical symbol contains two letters.

I would have enjoyed it more (I BEGGED FOR MORE, yes I did) if Alex had shown us a Rutherford-Bohr model! (Said no one but this science dork.) At the very least, I would have liked a rectangular grid, approximating the periodic table.

POW Fri 12/13/2019
RASHGUARDBANFF
ENCOUNTEROPERA
FIRSTSTEPSTEED
EMITNICECEDE
RAMALEPHSARA
INGAPADTHAI
SMOREVERYAND
POLARBEARPLUNGE
ENDVEALANDES
LEGWEARMANO
LYREVWBUSSPA
BOCAORESRAIL
DEWARROSEPETAL
ULTRAMOLTOBENE
ETHELSKISEASON

★ Second puzzle, second POW! for Leslie! Her first one was at one end of the constructing spectrum — an easy-peasy, smooth Monday — and this themeless is at the other. It's a rare individual who has the potential to hit for the cycle, given that a Monday and a Friday puzzle require different skill sets. Check back here in five years; my money says that Leslie will be on the list.

At first glance, this grid doesn't look that much different from a standard 72-word themeless. Take the SE corner for example — triple-stacked 9s are a staple of Friday puzzles. The one big difference is the grid-spanner in the middle, the vivid POLAR BEAR PLUNGE. That has the potential to ice up every corner of the grid.

Leslie wisely used her black squares to separate POLAR BEAR PLUNGE from the NW and SE corners, while still allowing for decent solving flow. However, it's impossible for the ends of POLAR BEAR PLUNGE to not affect the SW and NE corners. I like her decision to break up the outside slots (SPELL / DUE and FAD / AIDES). Many constructors would keep those as 9-letter slots, giving themselves a huge problem. It's easy to construct 9-letter triple stacks when you have few other constraints, but when you fix three letters into place, it becomes much more difficult.

I love how careful Leslie was with her short fill. I'm always picking out some nit in a themeless, but not today. Top-notch work. It's not rocket science — you can get yourself a solid word list and work with the minimum score fixed at a high level — but so many constructors get fed up with the sheer quantity of iterations they must iterate through to get a clean, colorful product like this.

This wanna-be surf bum enjoyed kicking off the puzzle with RASHGUARD (try surfing without one for a day, see what happens), but Jim Horne commented that he'd never ENCOUNTERed it before. So although I see it as a great entry, something like FIRST STEP or ROSE PETAL or SKI SEASON is a safer headliner, given their more universal recognition.

Nearly faultless execution, with both quality and quantity of feature entries. Can't wait until Leslie's next outing!

Sat 12/14/2019
FBICHIEFDEJAVU
REGIONALAUTOPEN
ELEVENTYPLAYERS
RATEDSIGILSHBO
EMITMANRAYNOOB
SITBILGEROUTE
POLICECRUISER
DEAREVANHANSEN
TAXPAYERMONEY
HITATPOCKSALA
ERRSBUENOSGRAM
MYAMOTTSTSANDP
ECOTAGETAKETIME
TONESUPECONOCAR
SWEATSROIDRAGE

Don't let the fact that this grid has 69 words (near the max allowed) fool you. Since it's wider than usual (16 columns), it's effectively as hard to fill as a 67-word 15x15 grid. It's not as simple as that, though. Widening a grid to 16 presents unexpected challenges in a themed puzzle, and in a themeless, it can be brutal.

That one extra column can force oddities in the middle of the puzzle. It's unusual to get two long entries symmetrical to each other (FLYING CARPET / GREEN MONSTER), and that can be tough to build around — especially when they both have to cruise through a stair stack! Unseasoned constructors can get EATen ALIVE, but not Ryan. Seven strong entries anchoring the middle is impressive.

16-wides don't stop troubling you after the middle, though. The corners tend to get harder, too, because what seems like one measly little extra column can mean spending extra black squares. Ryan did well overall in the corners, but a couple of oddballs — UNSOBER, ARNICA, APIA crossing MANRAY, SANDP — left me with a sense that compromises were made.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN … I figured out the DEAR part quickly enough. DEAR … IVAN HENSON? DEAR EVEN HANDED? EVEL KNIEVEL, featuring death-defying stunts? Jim Horne mentioned that this marquee entry made the puzzle feel easy (I like that he and I often represent opposite ends of knowledge spectra), as he was able to drop it in without any crosses. Me, not so much. Good thing I'm secretly a MILIY Cyrus fanatic! D'oh, MILEY! D'oh, don't tell anyone!

(I bet DEAR IVAN HANSEN, written by Dostoevsky and set in the deep of Russian winter, wouldn't have done as well.)

Impressive feat of construction, as are most of Ryan's works. However, today's snazzy entries like ELEVENTY, ROID RAGE, DAIRY COW, VERBOTEN were watered down by ones that didn't hit my ear quite right — AUTOPEN, LAD MAG (do people still say this?), ECONOCAR, ECOTAGE. Those all do check out, but along with the aforementioned oddities, I left feeling a bit unsober.

Sun 12/15/2019DOING A DOUBLE TAKE
POBOYSNIPERSMADAM
OHARASHONOREELAMESA
PITCHYUPGRADEPITCHY
TOSSSASEDIPSSITH
OAFTHEGEMINIDRE
PROTEAMKARATPROTEAM
TREATPINELOGENTRY
RRATINGTROTSKY
STRIPLINGSTRIPLING
HUELETHSTTONROO
ENEWSROSEPETALELATE
LEVITESTHECWLEVITES
FRERESGEEWHIZNICEST
IMCOOLNOODLE
HIDENAMESAKESNUMB
MOUSSESOMANIMOUSSES
MUDTIRESOCALALGEBRA
EATOFLANDS
BOXERSPIRATICBOXERS
MAITRETRITONEAMELIA
ITSSADSEALEGSYESMOM

A-HA, GOTCHA JEFF! You always snootily points out the flaws in others' work, and look at today's grid! AMTS, BSA, HST, MAI, MER, SASE, SYS, XIS. That's not clean! I THOUGHT YOU WERE A STICKLER FOR CLEANLINESS IN GRIDS, WISEGUY!

It's a fine point, sir. (I say "sir" with confidence, as 99.72% of my outspoken haters are mansplainers. Also, "sir" is best said using air quotes.) Even though this count of gluey bits is lower than the NYT Sunday average, eight is usually too high for me, even if they are all minor.

It doesn't even seem like the grid would be that hard to build, right? Three long entries, plus six pairs of shorter ones? Any doofus could build that grid! However, having six pairs of short entries means that you have to spend a ton of your black squares separating them. We had to deploy so many precious black squares separating LEVITES and MOUSSES (on both sides), for example.

Well, fine. Couldn't you have gone to a higher word count, like you often chide constructors about?

Will and Joel were kind to let us push up to 143 words, three higher than the max. It is true that we could have gone higher, but that would have meant taking out some goodies, like NO PEEKING, REDDITORS, GEE WHIZ, PINE LOG, etc. It's only rare constructors who can make a 144 word puzzle feel interesting.

Hopefully Christina and I landed on a decent balance of color and cleanliness, and that the theme makes it all worth it. It'll be interesting to see how many people write in with comments like LET ME EXPLAIN EXACTLY WHY PITCHY DOESN'T MEAN EITHER "CONCISE AND TO THE POINT" OR "DESIROUS" YOU FRICKIN MORONIC "SIR"!

(PITCHY without the C of CASTOR = PITHY, and PITCHY without the P of POLLUX = ITCHY)

Mon 12/16/2019
YOUTHGOOFREBA
ARNIEOMAREVIL
MADEALITEMANE
LORDOFTHERINGS
DRSWAX
BADGERJOINDDT
ARIESPOOFAURA
RICEKRISPIESBOX
BAEZOTISNEALE
SLYACHEAVAILS
OAKTRI
SANTASWORKSHOP
PLOTTOBEAILEY
ROVEAVONGLARE
YEARREEDELVES

I love it when a Monday puzzle temporarily mystifies me. What connects LORD OF THE RINGS, RICE KRISPIES BOX, SANTAS WORKSHOP? Ah! They all contain ELVES!

Wait just a second. Are you saying … that SOYLENT GREEN IS ELVES? Eew, Rice Krispies Treat, my ass!

Come on, you're telling me you didn't think the crossword was implying this? LORD OF THE RINGS and SANTAS WORKSHOP contains ELVES inside, so for consistency, doesn't that mean a RICE KRISPIES BOX also contains ELVES?

You can't argue with logic.

Aside from wondering if this were true (and how many people I could get to believe it), I wondered if RICE KRISPIES BOX is fair game as a crossword phrase. Here are a few entries akin to RICE KRISPIES BOX — you tell me if they should be allowable:

  • CLIF BAR WRAPPER
  • CHOCOLATE COIN FOIL
  • GROUND ELF MEAL

Logic never lies, my friend.

Whatever your view on the plight of the poor elves being farmed for their meat, it's hard to argue with the ROCK STAR gridwork. Three themers plus a short revealer should mean that there's solid assets (HEADDESK, FREE WIFI, ROCKSTAR, ENVISAGE, yes!) and virtually no liabilities (TO BE and that's it). Well done! (Just like how I order my elf steaks!)

One could argue that there are a lot of proper names, many of which could be tough for newbs: NEALE, JOSIE, OTIS, AILEY. Cutting that list in half would be an improvement, but it's not something that should trigger a revision. Nice to get a rare J from JOSIE, anyway, to spice things up.

Overall, an offering I'd happily give to a newer solver, featuring a delightful, if disgusting, moment of discovery.

Tue 12/17/2019
GRAPHPLAYABAG
MADEAOAREDJLO
ODORLESSGASOFF
VESTERIE
TIRELESSWORKER
BADASSLAHR
OMENAMISHSLO
HEADLESSCHICKEN
ODSOPINEHYPE
ALECGRAPES
FEARLESSLEADER
SMUTHUNS
TOTHAIRLESSDOG
OJOEXPELLAURA
PISREADSEMERY

FEARLESS LEADER = Franklin Delano Roosevelt minus the letters F E A R — in that order! A wonderful find. I've been searching for an exemplary "clues are missing certain letters" concept for years now, and this is way better than anything I've come up with. It's so easy to identify FDR's name even without those four letters, so that you have half an idea of what's going on — and then when you get the other half, it's transcendent.

After solving that one, I thought for sure that this would be the POW! The fact that FDR was a FEARLESS LEADER makes it perfect.

HEADLESS CHICKEN was close in terms of wow factor, H E A D perfectly omitted, while still keeping Rhode Island Red identifiable. I did hear some complaints the last time the phrase showed up, making me wonder if it doesn't have universal recognition (running around like a headless chicken = going in chaos).

Oh, how badly I wanted the rest of the puzzle to measure up to these two findings. ODORLESS GAS was fine, although it's not as easy to smell what _xygen _iflu_ _ide should be, and it wasn't immediately clear to me that oxygen difluoride is an odorless gas.

TIRELESS WORKER had some issues too, as a TAXI DRIVER is a worker, but I don't know that all TAXI DRIVERs are tireless.

Huh. Now that I think about it, is oxygen disulfide odorless? Was it just a coincidence that FDR was a FEARLESS LEADER? I think so, which takes away from my perceived cleverness of the theme. Drat.

HAIRLESS DOG was the one that yanked it right out of POW! contention. _ _ r r _ e _ is … a HARRIER? How is the jump jet a HAIRLESS DOG? I read up on Harriers for five solid minutes before wondering, could there be a dog breed named the HARRIER? Huh.

The gridwork also pulled down the solving experience. As much as I crave bonuses like BADASS, RASSLE, BJORK, EMOJI, it's much more important to deliver a friendly Tuesday solving experience for newer folks. Entries like OJO EPEE SLO don't do that. Having LEPER in your grid isn't great, either.

Such a shame. FEARLESS LEADER is one of those amazing finds that rarely comes along. Cutting out HARRIER to let the grid breath more, and working to upgrade TIRELESS WORKER would have made the puzzle Puzzle of the Year material.

Wed 12/18/2019
CRABALTOROWER
HEMICOEDOFAGE
EDITINGADRAFTOF
EUGENEMORSE
SCARFMAAMRNS
YESLEANNPASEO
MANIAFOLKSY
WRITINGWELLIS
CAUSEDRINKY
OWNEDPANDAGIF
BANDAMEDRACO
EMAILBOILER
SURELYANARTFORM
USURPTACOTRUE
MOPESEYESSEND

Debut! This is one of those times when I'm so grateful to get an insight into the puzzle's background. Quote puzzles are hard for me to connect with, but reading Margaret's "reduced sentence" one-liner made me smile.

My blogorrheic rantings may be that of a madman, but at least they're edited rants. Jim Horne is a skilled wordsmith, so thankfully, he reads through my comments before they're published, correcting grammatical errors and suggesting ways of tightening. I have so many tics that he's written code to flag specific words and phrases I should delete. Some of the top ones:

  • Very
  • In order to
  • Bad
  • Amazing crossword and analyst the likes of who has never been or will ever be seen again

(Jim: that should be "whom")

(Me: I knew that. I was just testing you.)

I enjoyed the idea of playing on a quip about editing that needed to be edited. It's a puzzle right up Will Shortz's alley since he spends a ton of his time cutting down constructors' submitted clues.

Quote puzzles face an uphill battle. Since so much of the punch depends on the humor or thought-provoking nature of the quote, it has to be an A+ snippet if it's going to win solvers over. This one fell flat for me, but it piqued Jim's interest. It's one of those puzzles that certain demographics will love, while others will despise. Perhaps that's a good thing. Art is all about eliciting reactions.

I appreciated the debut gridwork, not trying to do too much while keeping the crossword glue to an acceptable level. Since there were only three themers, I could have done with more pizzazz like WATERSKI and RUNNER-UP and ANAGRAM, but I certainly wouldn't have wanted any more of the MISE RINKY ODDMAN oddmanity either.

This one didn't hit well for me — it's such a shame that "reduced sentence" wasn't incorporated into the puzzle itself. That clever repurposing might have even uplifted it into POW! territory.

POW Thu 12/19/2019
CVERREHABEMI
SWATHICEPLANET
AGREECOMPANCAR
DIGRAPHTHORNY
IRANALIASNOM
ELSASYNCBEAUT
LETTILECGI
SPABECHDELHSN
VALALOESAT
UTLEYSWTSRAMS
OSXKAYOSARGO
NOTIMEPOPCORN
STATELINEOHMAN
FIRSTLOOKPEATY
WESZYNGAEASE

★ I love seeing interesting word findings, and IN THE WAY / IN THEORY is a perfect example. There's something so curious about how different those two phrases are, even though they share so many letters. The parsing shift (changing the spacing) makes it even more distinctive. It's the type of discovery that sets off so many crossword constructors' spidey-sense.

I wonder if this finding came first, or the idea of using two-letter state abbreviations to alter phrases across STATE LINEs came first.

COWGIRL / NEW GIRL, COMPANY CAR / COMPACT CAR, ANYONE / ACT ONE — such a parade of delights! This is the second time in two weeks where I've thought that a weekday puzzle could have been expanded into a Sunday. So much for what I previously said about it being a rare occurrence!

Great gridwork too; not a surprise considering Andy and Erik are two of the best in the biz. (Congrats to Erik for his new job as the editor of the USA Today crossword!) So much goodness in ICE PLANET, FIRST LOOK, ETERNAL, PASTEL, TRACHEA, PATOOTIE. Everywhere you look, there's something else that makes the solving experience even better.

I was of two minds (appropriate for this puzzle!) on MEAN MUGS, though. It's probably another thing that millennials make up so that they can have their own language that excludes us, the hopelessly unhip. At least MEAN and MUGS are words I recognize.

I did also wonder about the BECHDEL / COSA crossing. The BECHDEL test is common knowledge in gender studies, but it's not something I'd expect all educated NYT solvers to know how to spell. Crossing it with a mafia term might be a recipe for leaving certain solvers with negative connotations with the name BECHDEL, and that would be unfortunate.

Those are minor nits, though. It's so rare for me to solve a crossword that's novel enough that I can't immediately recall something at least a little like it. Such a joy when that happens, and even better when the craftsmanship is this good. Easy POW! pick.

Fri 12/20/2019
SITINRODEKAMA
MONACOENERGYBAR
ANNOYSDEMIMOORE
RYESHAHSTATUE
CARSTEREORIOTS
LASERPEELTNT
NUCORARENARHEA
OSAGEMINDCOAST
RUNSNANTZOUTTA
MAYLONGHORNS
LOGANSENATEBID
FURMANDEVOEVE
MANOAMANOAUSTIN
PROGRESSOGRATES
GETSSTARESPYS

Friday is often my favorite day of the NYT crossword week, since Fridays can be chock full of clever, gettable, wordplay clues. They also tend to give me an ego boost — a fun challenge that I can overcome without releasing the magic smoke from my brain.

A flood of witty, tricksy clues today:

  • Nervous witnesses in mystery novels … supporting cast? Plot devices for moving the story forward? Well, yes, but more often than not, RED HERRINGS to throw readers off track.
  • [Boost at the gym] has to be a spotter. A personal trainer yelling at you? No, a burst of fuel provided by an ENERGY BAR.

I like it even more when pedestrian short entries are made into standouts via their clues:

  • SITIN is an event where participants may take the floor. So groany that it's great!
  • WTF is [1/2 vis-à-vis 1/3, say]? How could EVE possibly fit? And come on, does anyone know what "vis-à-vis" means? Ah, 1/2 = Jan 2nd, the EVE of Jan 3rd! And of course, I know what vis-à-vis means! (Heading to dictionary.com, BRB)
  • [This might be a bust] usually has some relation to a NARC or a KILO, and it often fools me. Doubly fooled today, as this bust meant a STATUE's head. Fool me … you can't get fooled again? Apparently I can!

I found the overall solving experience harder than for an average Friday, and that tends to be unsatisfying when you expect to fly through. The biggest factor is that there are some wide-open sections — take the SW corner, for example — where it's tough even to get started. Any time you have four answers like LOGAN / FURMAN / MANO A MANO / PROGRESSO stacked, with no short answers going through them, it makes it tough to gain a foothold. Makes me remember when I would see a tract of squares like this and not even bother trying the puzzle.

I like to feel smart doing crosswords. Perhaps if this one had been run on a Saturday, accommodating for the difficulty in gaining traction through the giant white swaths, my extended 16 minutes of solving time wouldn't have felt so shameful.

Plenty of strong material, particularly in the clever cluing, to gain some POW! consideration. Maybe if my bruised ego hadn't gotten in the way …

Sat 12/21/2019
JOECAMELETCH
SULTANATEMIRE
SANDALWOODIMAX
POKEVARCLOVE
OPENERICTHERED
NAMARIZ
GUAMHOTSYTOTSY
ELIAAURASLOKI
SOLOARTISTARID
JUDDPAD
SQUADGOALSTERI
TUCCILIPODES
ROOKTREVORNOAH
ARNEAAVERAGES
WANTINERTGAS

I appreciate the tremendous range in Julian's themeless innovative grid designs. He's done geometric patterns, figure 8s, a boxing ring, and even a butterfly-looking thing. In a crossworld where maybe three out of every four themelesses are based on a standard pattern involving four sets of triple-stacked answers in each corner, the variety adds spice. Bring on the heat!

Those NW and SE corners are beautiful. It's not hard to stack three longish answers atop each other, but it's a whole new level of difficulty when you have another three intersecting them. There's a reason why so few themeless constructors try to "turn the corner." Most would place some black squares roughly where OPEN is and call it good. SPONGES isn't that interesting, but SAO PAULO / JUNK EMAIL, through JOE CAMEL / SULTANATE / SANDALWOOD is an excellent result.

Even better is TREVOR NOAH / A AVERAGES / INERT GAS through TORPEDOES / SKI AREAS / YIDDISH. Note how Julian used cheater squares (the three black squares in the very NW and SE corners) to make his life easier. They cut down the number of intersections you have to work with. They're aesthetically attractive, too, giving the grid a lovely curved look, which is most appropriate for turning that corner.

Ah, Saturday, you devilish imp. I usually have to stop and think about a clue or two, but I had a lot of head-scratching today. Here are a few that will likely generate confusion:

  • HOTSY TOTSY: doesn't this mean jazzy, or chi-chi, or exciting? This hilarious-sounding retro phrase has a huge range of meanings, even from different dictionaries. A few reputable sources give: "very sexually attractive." "Great or excellent." "About as right as can be." "Comfortably stable or secure."
  • MIRE: "stick in the mud," as in a fuddy-duddy digging in their heels? No. Think about "stick" as a verb. And yes, apparently "mire" can be used as a verb.
  • How could nimbi clouds possible define AURAS? When the dictionary says that "nimbi" is "a luminous cloud or a halo surrounding a supernatural being." Huh.

A bit of junk fill is expected with this degree of difficulty, so to keep it to ARIZ ETO TAI VAR is noteworthy.

Overall, I appreciated Julian's careful craftsmanship. I hope others don't point out the flaws without understanding just how difficult it is to fill a mold-breaking, eye-pleasing grid like this.

Sun 12/22/2019DOWN FOR THE COUNT
LCDALELOPNAW
ORESSCALPMINSKROBE
MULTIPLICATIVEINVERSE
BLOUSERAGWEEDECHECK
ALUNSERPEONSMERMAID
RESURIAVASSA
DREWTEETOTALERSPOSY
ISDONEMACHSIXARENAS
USCGNURSEGIRL
PORKCHOPLEEPASSEDGO
AMOBABIESRUSEEK
SAGABRIOALMSILSA
THETHEORYOFRELATIVITY
EARMARKSNOEAIRWAVES
FAIREMAULSNOONE
OHENRYFORREALSNARFS
NODPARRAMESYON
AMENTUTTIFRUTTIERNE
JAROMIROVINEALAMODE
AGENDERNAVELGLAMOUR
GERALDSSLEDSSESAMES

Imagine this nerd's eyes, boinging wide with delight upon uncovering MULTIPLICATIVE INVERSE. Ooh, yeah! Wait. Somehow that's linked to THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY? FOR REAL? We're already at MACH SIX and still accelerating! Please be a higher math equation or a new physics discovery, please please please!

Counting the number of Ts in the long phrases?

From two Ts to five Ts?

Anything more? No?

Don't tease me like that!

I did enjoy the shock of the empty grid's arresting visual. Check out all of those Ts, arranged in the shape of a capital pi. Mirror symmetry instead of standard rotational symmetry, and a big X-ish shape in the middle, too? Laura sure knows how to grab my attention. I don't know that it belongs in the Grid Art Hall of Fame, but it's memorable.

It's rare for a constructor to debut on a Sunday, since Sunday 140-word puzzles are maybe an order of magnitude harder to make than a weekday. Then, to go down to only 136 words, upping the difficulty by another factor of 2 or 3? Yikes!

Did you notice that there aren't any other Ts in the grid? That's an elegant touch — one which makes gridwork yet again harder. The inability to work with an ubiquitous letter hamstrings you.

I'd have asked for one more revision, given the excess of ATMAN FAIRE PULLA AMO ERNE and on and on. Going down to 136 words does allow for the inclusion of some great extra bonuses — ABSCISSA, AIRWAVES, GO BROKE, LIVES A LIVE, O HENRY, ON A JAG are delights, and the list keeps on going! — but the overall tradeoff left the grid with an unpolished feel. Breaking up ROGER FEDERER and DELIVERY ROOM would have been a shame but would allow for a better overall result.

I'd have loved something more with those Ts, some sort of Mad Hatteresque tea party. There have been several crosswords playing on black square shapes, including typography marks, a raft of Ls, "Utah" blocks, and a weekday implementation of Ts. I'm sure there's room for more. The best ones give the solver an amazing insight, whereas T-totaling isn't a big enough payoff for a Sunday puzzle.

Overall, though, I'm impressed with Laura's audacious vision for the puzzle. I hope solvers appreciate how incredibly difficult Laura's task was.

POW Mon 12/23/2019
MAYANSDOTCOM
EXOTICEUROPA
MIDDLERELIEVER
ESAUNOAHXENA
SLEDRIDE
AWAKEISLAM
RIGSTAMOSEWE
CFOSOPALAVOW
HIGHSPEEDDRILL
EATSOL
REDDELICIOUS
TUXNINOPTA
SPINTHEDREIDEL
PETERIELROND
SESTETSIESTA

★ RIDDLE me this: who stumps Jeff at "Name That Theme" on Mondays? NO ONE! Holy mixed up R I D D L Es, Batman!

D'oh! The joke's on me.

During the holiday season, we get inundated with Christmas songs, Christmas presents, Christmas eggnog-that-looks-and-tastes-vaguely-like-snot, that it's fantastic to get a Hanukkah theme today — and a fresh one at that, the letters D R E I D E L spun around within phrases. Although those Ds and Es are common enough, seven letters isn't easy to work with. The only others I found were SOLDIERED ON, BEWILDERED, IDLE DREAM, TUMBLE DRIED, and of course, THE RIDDLER.

Hilarious clue for YODA, too. It's difficult to get creative on Mondays since you don't want to risk confusing newer solvers. [… who could have this clue written?] is delightful. No dark side there.

A couple of sticky points in the grid, particularly a few crossings that might trip up newbs: EUROPA / MARA, SESTET / TRE, ELI / ELROND. I'm guessing that all of these are guessable, but the ambiguities aren't ideal. At the least, they could take away from the sense of unassailable victory you want newbs to feel. Shifting the black squares in the bottom part of the grid could have helped, breaking up those big 6x3 sections.

I enjoy left-right symmetry, and it can be a lifesaver — 14 14 14 12 is a constructor's nightmare! Will Shortz likes it fine, but not all editors do. Today, I could see how an editor might object to those unsightly 2x2 blocks of black squares, but I thought they looked a tiny bit like a dreidel's stem and point.

Ooh, it would have been amazing to arrange more black squares to form the outline of a DREIDEL! I'm constantly thinking about Sunday grid art concepts, and that would have been fantastic. Ah well.

I love it when a puzzle makes me go off on research rabbit holes. It's a nearly-perfect Hanukkah theme.

Tue 12/24/2019
DEFRAYHEEHAW
MOLIERESIXPACK
COLDCUTAREOLAR
GRADBINDERCLIP
LEASETHE
STIEGALSABCS
WINDOWTRIMLEAN
IBMNEAMETRNA
MIENBUMPERCROP
SAMEBTWUHYES
OWSATSEA
BARBERSHOPISLA
ORIOLESQUARTET
STARMANUNWEAVE
HYMNALEKEDBY

A roller-coaster ride today, full of ups and downs:

UP: COLD CUT, BINDER CLIP, WINDOW TRIM … how could these possibly be related? Ooh, I'm going to get a strong a-ha!

DOWN: BARBERSHOP. Synonyms for haircut. Huh. It works, but it's not exciting.

UP: That's unfair. Alex did a great job of concealing the synonyms' meanings. The CLIP in BINDER CLIP has nothing to do with cutting. Same with TRIM in WINDOW TRIM. I did admit defeat at "Name That Theme," after all.

UP!: BARBERSHOP … QUARTET! Ah, a quartet of "cut" synonyms … WAIT! Each one has EXACTLY FOUR LETTERS! Okay, that's much stronger than I thought, approaching POW! consideration for taking a tried-and-true theme to new places … hey … wait.

DOWN: Math is hard.

Many solvers would miss the heavenly elegance of four BARBERSHOP words, every one with precisely four letters. (Some will probably miss the QUARTET part today, even.) I would have loved if the theme had gone that extra mile, though. Maybe BRAINWASH, to start the haircut? That would have gone away from straight-up synonyms, but I enjoy it when a crossword tells a story — kicking things off with a WASH, going to a HONEYCOMB, to a CLIP, to a TRIM?

It's hard for us bald guys to tell a good BARBERSHOP story.

I appreciated all the bonuses, HALLE BERRY and IN MEMORIAM excellent, and SIX PACK, MOLIERE, NEWBORN, too. Not so much the compromises, EGON EPHOCAL SMEE — a trio newbs shouldn't have to wade through. Along with the crosses Alex mentioned, HEEHAW crossing WKRP might turn off younger solvers, who could justifiably guess a wide range of letters for HEEHA? / ?KRP or a few other things, too.

It's hard to avoid this kind of crossword glue when working with six themers. I'm curious if crossing BARBERSHOP with QUARTET might have helped (having no symmetrical themer to QUARTET). You'd have to rejigger every other themer, but it might have been worth it.

I like when constructors try to add an extra layer into a standard theme type. There were too many hitches today, but I'd much rather have this than simply four circled synonyms.

Wed 12/25/2019
PSSTBASKPINA
ACAIISLAMONES
LANDHOHOHOOTIS
OLDIETLCLOLA
PLEASEHOHOHOLD
SLAPATAD
DEISCAROLEIC
ITSHOHOHOPELESS
SCOOTTHORPHI
TTOPMISO
HOHOHOLYSMOKES
AVERPEASTREP
TURNIMHOHOHOME
ELMONOOSEEDIT
RESTNOUNNESS

HO HO HO … HO HO HO HO HO HO HO HO HO HO HO HO!

Is anyone else hungry for Ho-hos?

Or worried that Santa's maniacal laughter makes him sound like the Joker?

I enjoy a good story. Santa landing on the roof — LAND HO HO HO — to … taking a call about a reindeer strike? Isn't he already on the roof? Ah! This is one of those "put the cartoon panels to form a proper story!" I figured out the secret game!

Santa: Whew, I'm finally 1.) HO HO HOME from the workshop! Time to take off my girdle and Spanx and get a good night's sleep before tomorrow. Ah, for f's sake, the phone. (taking call) 2.) PLEASE HO HO HOLD!

Rudolph: Nuh uh, boss. We talk NOW. We're done with all the mistreatment. Strike! It's 3.) HO HO HOPELESS for you!

Donner and Blitzen: Ha ha ha, 4.) HO HO HOLY SMOKES, fat boy!

Santa: Aw, come on. I only yell at you a lot. And for your own good. Don't you remember the Grinch? Do you really want to take away Christmas for all the good little girls and boys? No sound of 5.) LAND HO HO HOing on their roofs tomorrow night?

Prancer: (grumble grumble) all we're asking for is a little hay. Maybe an apple once in a while. Would that kill you?

Santa: How about you poop less on my carpet?

Comet: That does it, unleash the poopstorm, boys!

(The Nightmare Before Christmas)

I enjoyed the bonuses today — POOL HALL had such a clever clue, repurposing "That's my cue!" (as in a cue stick) — and IN TOO DEEP was strong as well.

Overall, though, the theme was so repetitive. It could have been uplifted by forming a story. Perhaps one less demented than mine.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a hope that Rudolph doesn't become Napoleon the pig after he seizes control!

Thu 12/26/2019
JAMERGSHYDOW
AMRADIOCOUPEVA
BATCAVEROLEPLAY
SMETHEDETAILS
CODRHEASEC
ORCASAMISLOIS
ESTFEATSPELUNK
XTHERIGHTBALANCE
ECOTONEINCATUG
CODAERSEELLER
OLETRAPORS
XXXINTHESTRAW
REJIGGERBOWLING
ARERILEABEYANT
YOWFLOYESNEO

My dad wasn't around a lot when I was a kid. When it was (rarely) just the two of us, he'd sometimes ask if I wanted to go bowling. I liked being around him, so it didn't matter what we did. Turns out, I love to bowl! Something so satisfying about smashing down all those pins.

In my case, one pin at a time, for an average score of 46.

When I got older, I got much better. I once bowled a 300! It took me four games, scoring 75 each, but I did it.

I've seen a lot of bowling themes in crosswords, but nothing quite like this. I enjoyed the variety of a slash mark representing a SPARE in the across direction, while being a straight-up slash mark in AC/DC, and an X acting normally in EXEC but as a STRIKE in STRIKE THE RIGHT BALANCE.

Along with so many awesome bonuses — RIVER SEINE, DELI COUNTER, ROLE PLAY, SPELUNK, ORTHODOX JEW, SPACE PROBE — Trenton was well on his way toward yet another POW! He's so skilled at filling themelesses, and that served him so well today with all those extras.

Then, I rolled a gutter ball in the SW. Clunk!

I did eventually get the right letters in the right boxes, figuring that XXX IN THE STRAW was a mightily inappropriate song for kids. Come on, ice cream trucks! You can't play a song whose lyrics involve a hay delivery guy showing up, but the older farmer can't pay, so instead, he bats his eyelashes and unbuttons one of his overall straps …

Huh?

XXX stands for "turkey" in bowling slang?

I knew that.

Fri 12/27/2019
SAFESRODEPDFS
PLEBEALANMOORE
ALLOTREDCARPET
NOTNICEBOTNETS
ISAYOFSORTS
SATBLONDETABS
HUHEIRESADAT
FROZENMARGARITA
LUMENKOOKOER
USERCHEATSSST
OHLORDYIAMS
ICEDOUTTEENMOM
COLORCODEANITA
BLOWAKISSSEGEL
MANNSLOTTROLL

The TEEN MOM PORN STAR riddled with SPANISH FLU at the BATES MOTEL, drinking FROZEN MARGARITAS? OH LORDY, Sam, I don't want to know what's on your browser history.

Okay, maybe I do.

A little surprising to see a good amount of DSO ICBM SST OER in a Trabucco production. It's a reasonable tradeoff for so much impressive ADIOS AMIGO, ALLOSAURUS, BLOW A KISS, RED CARPET, ZERO DOWN material, but I was curious to figure out why.

Turns out it's a combination of two factors: 1.) going to 68 words, a tough task in itself, and 2.) FROZEN MARGARITA locking FRO and ITA into place on the west and east. Either constraint by itself could have led to a cleaner grid, but when you combine the two, it's a virtual certainty that you'll need some trade-offs.

Speaking of EAST, what a brilliant clue! [It's right there on the map!], is it? (Think of "right" in a literal sense.) I'm usually plus minus on these directive clues, but it's so meta to have a directive clue clue a direction.

Much to love in this one, but the combination of a certain subset gave me a vague sense that there was too much emphasis on the "horror" part of an otherwise amusing Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Sat 12/28/2019
HIPSTSPSILIAD
OCHOSPASCOMMA
LAOSHITTHESPOT
ONNOTICEODESSA
GREWRYJOTS
REDHOTMAKESDO
ALIASCAMEALONG
MATSCOREDETTU
STINGRAYSLETHE
ENTAILSRUPEES
ALMSBUSDRS
ORACLECASHFLOW
TOPLOADERSRICH
ONEUPNONEANKA
HADESASSTTEST

Robyn is one of the few themeless constructors whose voice tickles me. As I've pointed out in the past, she has a knack for seeding grids with nerdy and/or playful terms that delight the Nerd Army (of which I'm a Ranger).

I thought HOLOGRAMS would be just that today, but the clue brought down the quality of the entry. Jim Horne and I had a philosophical discussion about whether HOLOGRAMS are actually there or not. If a HOLOGRAM appears in the forest, does anyone see it?

Jim and I received a nerd army promotion for that.

Second day in a row that SST is in a themeless. It speaks to how useful that little entry is. In the Shortz era, SST has had a long, (in)glorious run that's been decelerating. I'll be glad to see it grounded, like in real life.

There's a lot to love in this one — CASH FLOW, I CAN RELATE, PHONED IT IN, ON THE ROCKS, GUESS WHAT all HITting THE SPOT — but not the essential Robynian element that I've come to adore.

Sun 12/29/2019NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS
SPOILLALAWSHUTWART
PUNNYARISELASHIGOR
CLEANOUTTHEHOUSENAME
ALPSURLDAMEDEEPAK
SEEFRIENDSMOREOFTEN
MARCIESAIATTA
OHCOOLSNOGSSRSRO
SEENSAYGROWMYNESTEGG
HANDKONWEIRCLEARY
EDTMERESALTIHARLEM
GIVEUPOLDHABITS
SHERRITEAKSNODEMBA
AERATERAMISONTEEN
WATCHWHATIEATBAGHDAD
LEIALYSCARSIRIUS
EARSDREDLOTTO
PLANAPERFECTGETAWAY
SHALOMDEADINKATIT
WAILORGANIZEMYOFFICE
ISLENEEDTAKEITIVOS
MEANANDYSPENTSTENT

I'm a big fan of Will Shortz's notes, and today's was outstanding. I had no idea Andrew was an actual rock star! And that story about making a resolution to get another xw into the NYT is so meta.

Kooky reinterpretations of in-the-language phrases is a standard theme type, but it's one that I don't tire of. I enjoy having normal-looking phrases as themers, and there's so much humor in rethinking how they might be said, or who might say them. It gets to the heart of clever wordplay. CLEAN OUT THE HOUSE is such an apt resolution for a house husband … or a gambler! PLAN A PERFECT GETAWAY is right up there, describing a resolution for a vacationer, or a thief.

Typically, MY and I are frowned upon in theme formatting, Will much preferring ONE or ONES — GROW ONE'S NEST EGG and WATCH WHAT ONE EATS. In today's case, I like the first-person approach. As with novels, first person can make a reader / solver feel even closer to the story.

I wanted GIVE UP BAD HABITS instead of OLD HABITS, but I can see a case for the latter. It's hard to call an article of clothing "bad."

136 words is so tough to execute on. You might guess that I'm going to spout off my usual broken record spiel about how it was a terrible idea. I'm mixed today, though. The areas that usually cause problems are the biggest swaths of white, but the NW and SE are solidly above average. I appreciated how they gave the puzzle some bite; a nice solving challenge.

It's the center that gave me doubts. ESAI to SSR to GO WALKIES (can't decide if I love it or not, but crossing SNOG might kill some perfect solves) to KON to SALT I — separating those three middle themers more by deploying extra black squares would have helped a ton.

So maybe I am playing that broken record. A 140-word grid would have uplifted the theme, perhaps even pushing the overall product to POW! territory. Such an apt idea for the upcoming Happy New Year!

Mon 12/30/2019
ASHATWARCIGAR
ICELAINEANOSE
MARGARINEROOTS
STEAMDOORDIE
HONORSTUDENT
ORCAAPETSE
DEANARCSERASE
DAMONAROLLRIA
SPEARHONERAPS
RBIOONELSE
ALUMINUMFOIL
DENOTESDIALS
ZAIREMONEYCLIP
ESTERARIALBOA
SHEDSPEARLANT

This is one of my favorite tried-and-true theme types, reminding me of the game "Tribond," where you're given three seemingly disparate things and have to find the connection. I can often figure it out, and if I can't, there's a head-slapping moment when I realize that I should have. I've taken to making up my own cards containing the most tenuous of bonds, and when they stump people, I eat the card and walk away in maniacal laughter.

My game nights have been sparsely attended these days.

MARGARINE … HONOR STUDENT … ALUMINUM FOIL … I'll take "Things that can be found ON A ROLL," Alex. It reminded me of another puzzle that generated an a-ha so memorable that I still remember it six years later. Today's concept works, although it wasn't as sharp as I would have liked. Why?

  • MARGARINE is perfect. It makes you think, giving a nice click when you come up with the idea of a dinner roll.
  • HONOR STUDENT is on a class roll, but why an honor student? Aren't all students on a class roll?
  • ALUMINUM FOIL's roll is more literal, wrapped around a cardboard roll. Not as interesting.
  • MONEY CLIP? I had to look up the dictionary definition to remind myself that "roll" can be slang for a wad of money. I kept getting stuck on the idea of a literal roll of cash, like the ones mobsters carry around. Using anything but a rubber band for those would just be gauche.

Fun bonuses in DOOR DIE (speaking of mobsters), REC ROOM, ARMORED, CAROUSEL, ORBITERS. Not worth the tricky crossings of OTT/TSE, ARAL/RIA, and OON and INE, though. These have huge potential to turn off newer solvers and/or deprive them of their victory door die punch. I'd have asked for revisions on the first two, since they're too easy for a newb solver to get wrong. OTS/SSE is a simple fix to make it less error-prone, but there are other non-gluey solutions available, given some light massaging.

All in all, a fun Monday idea that didn't quite hold up to the previous incarnation, with a couple of trouble spots.

ADDED NOTE: Jim Horne pointed out that it's the "honor roll," not a "class roll," so HONOR STUDENT is appropriate. Fairly obvious which one of us is the honor student.

Tue 12/31/2019
SCUBAASIAATMS
HONUSBONDNEAL
IRISHPOUNDNARY
RNCERRSSLAMON
KEEPATASTECOO
SAFARIKOIPOND
RESCUEACES
TWOPEASINAPOD
ARALPANAMA
RIVERPORAYBAN
ICEOUSTERAONE
GOSPELALOTOTS
ALBALOSEWEIGHT
TOYSEVENARIEL
ORESDADASEEME

I've been on a kick to LOSE WEIGHT in my quest to become the first-ever Ninja Warrior to defeat the notorious Crossword Wall, where you have to pegboard up a 15'x15' grid, punching out letters as the clues flash behind you.

That really should be a thing.

Fun take on LOSE WEIGHT, the word POUND shedding to POND, down to POD, bloating back up to PROD then to PROUD. DAMMIT I LIKE MYSELF FOR WHO I AM; I DON'T NEED NO STINKING DIET!

I overthought this theme waaaaay too much. Don't people lose weight on the sides first, not the middle? Okay, the first losses are hard to see, so POUND to POND makes sense.

And POND to POD is consistent with that!

Then I wondered, is RIVER PO accessible to newer solvers? I imagine a big chunk of regular solvers would say they learned about the PO through crosswords. Maybe something like NEW YORK PD would have been better? It'd also have been more consistent with the other removals, always coming from the middle.

Finally, Evan will be hearing from MASTER P, his STANDING O withheld, for not including that last step.

My doubts were quickly swept aside by Evan's beautiful gridwork. TEAM COCO / MAROONED / SLY NODS is a great result in a big corner. (Although if you haven't heard the nickname TEAM COCO, that could be a head-scratcher.) Most notably, though, check out Evan's use of mid-length slots: CORNEA, UNICEF, PAPAYA, SAFARI, BOOGIE — that deserves a ton of PRAISE! So many constructors would fill those spaces with whatever worked easily, like A TASTE, ADDS TO, SLAM ON — boring material indeed.

The constructor in me enjoyed the gridwork enough to set aside my (ridiculous) hesitations about the theme. I'd have loved it if there had been something more playful, though, like a more realistic portrayal of the LOSE WEIGHT process: two steps forward, one (make that three) step(s) backward.