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

Thumbnails

Puzzles for February, 2016
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (17)Jeff Chen (29)Jim Horne (4)Hide comments
Mon 2/1/2016
AMFMNOTEOFTEN
CORAERIECARVE
COEDWALLSTREET
ESEPELTHOMERS
SHOALSBUB
SUNSETBOULEVARD
BSAOPTRILEY
LUAUBETELSE
ERICHBROEIN
MULHOLLANDDRIVE
FEEADAGES
ADRIFTMYMYHST
ROADMOVIESATTA
APNEAISLEBEAT
BEGANPOLLERLE

ROAD MOVIES today, i.e. movies with an synonym for "road" in their title. Gary found three perfect examples, WALL STREET, SUNSET BOULEVARD, and MULHOLLAND DRIVE — movies famous enough that even this pop culture idiot recognized them. I also like that the revealer came as a surprise — I was expecting it to be a loose collection of four "movies with a synonym for street," which felt kind of random. Nice to have something tying everything together.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE

I wasn't familiar with the ROAD MOVIES term, but it seems to be legit, sort of like "buddy movies" or a "cop movies." Perhaps ROAD MOVIES will have a stronger impact on others, especially those who have watched the many "Road to ___" Crosby/Hope films.

I enjoyed the extras in FREE ON BAIL and ALL NIGHTER — both colorful answers. Working in long downs can be tough though, what with long(-ish) themers. What with FREE ON BAIL and two grid-spanning themers framing the west section, that area becomes very restricted. I don't mind a little ESE, BSA, URU crossword glue in one puzzle, but I tend to notice more when it's concentrated in one area. And the addition of LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) puts it over the top for me. Some may think BSA (Boy Scouts of America) is perfectly fine, but having two tough(-ish) acronyms in an early-week puzzle isn't something I like to see, much less in close proximity.

It's a tough call. These days I expect at least a little bonus fill in most any puzzle. But adding in long downs can often cause problems, requiring crossword glue to hold the grid together. This is what makes the early-week puzzle one of the more difficult constructions.

But overall, a really nice idea that will likely work perfectly for people more familiar with the ROAD MOVIES term.

Tue 2/2/2016
PLANESKYBRAWL
COREAYOULAVIE
SOFTGNOGOPALS
FLOCKOFBIRDS
TOILERSSRDICE
MOLITOROILCAN
CHEXNARCNYETS
HORIZON
HTESTEDAMMEMO
IRAISERAMADAN
PARTSPANOCUTS
SCHOOLOFFISH
THANKNILATONE
EERIEDREIWERE
RATTYSEACORAL

Neat idea, the HORIZON separating the SKY from the SEA. I really liked the picture of the FLOCK OF BIRDS up above and the SCHOOL OF FISH down below. It all comes together with an artistic flair, almost like it's a painting.

EARHART, before taking to the SKY

Usually, a puzzle needs more theme density than just the aforementioned, so I enjoyed seeing CORAL down below. But if only Pete had kept CLOUD instead of PLANE to complete the picturesque scene! It felt odd to have a PLANE streaking through as the only man-made entry.

It also felt a bid strange to have an EAGLET and an EEL randomly in the puzzle. Some people enjoy "bonus theme material," but I find it inelegant to have small entries that are sort of related to the theme.

It's often tough to fill a grid cleanly and with color when you're working with short theme answers. So it was a nice surprise to get NETFLIX, MOSAIC, and a bunch of goodies in the big corners: AVARICE, WILDCAT, HIPSTER, TRACHEA, EARHART. Working with those big 7x4 corners is rarely easy, so Pete's execution impressed me in that regard. I don't care for H TEST, OKEY (how else can you clue this one?), and LA VIE, but I think those are reasonable prices to pay.

I didn't care as much for MACH TWO. It's usually written as "Mach 2," so to see the T W O was weird. And MACH TWO itself isn't nearly as important as MACH 1 to me. Breaking the speed of sound is major! Going twice the speed of sound seems kind of arbitrary.

There was some crossword glue I didn't care for — TOILER feels made-up, ORONO gets overused relative to its real-life importance due to the crossword-friendly vowel-consonant alternation, SSR is outdated, etc. But that's not uncommon when working with so many short answers like PLANE and SKY and HORIZON fixed into place.

Very cool idea, with some compromises here and there.

POW Wed 2/3/2016
SPIELPUNTSSKI
GECKOALOHATOM
TAKECONTROLORE
SKYDIVERAREA
UMATHURMAN
REPELRANT
MIDDLECLASSARF
SCIFIAIDAGREE
SETCENTERFIELD
SILOEENSY
ALLATINGLE
RAIDEASTASIA
USEDEATHEATERS
BEGORBITSTEAK
ARECACTIEARNS

★ Great puzzle. How often do you see two symmetrical revealers — both totally apt? Occasionally you'll see that double-revealer sort of thing in a Sunday puzzle, but it'll be with a revealer in the grid and a perfect title (one of Tom's previous puzzles did this really well — I've appreciated that one more and more with time). Today we get MIDDLE CLASS and CENTER FIELD, which both describe the concept so well: school majors hidden within themers.

Bellatrix LeStrange, Voldemort, and Lucius Malfoy, some of the DEATH EATERS

As if that weren't enough, Tom made some beautiful discoveries. THEATER in DEATH EATERS is brilliant and contemporary. MATH in UMA THURMAN is also fun, and it kind of hints at efforts to get girls more interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). (Okay, maybe that's just me.)

But wait, there's more! Fitting six themers into a 15x puzzle is hard enough that I expect to see some crossword glue and little to no long bonus fill. Tom works in SKYDIVER and EAST ASIA with a great "1984" clue, and manages to do so with really no price to pay. Some may balk at LOCI, but it's a common enough term in both MATH and ECON. Ha!

I had to scan through the grid a few times just to pick out MSS and … that's it for crossword glue. It's amazing that Tom crammed in so much theme and bonus fill with virtually no trade-offs. It seems to break the laws of physics, but it's a testament to the hours Tom clearly put in, working and reworking the grid to make it great.

A clinic on crossword-making. Neat theme with two perfect revealers, high theme density, long bonus fill, virtually no glue required. A standout puzzle, one that I appreciated even more as I studied its architechure.

Thu 2/4/2016
RAFTSADSHEMEN
ELIHUTILMYOPE
HOLEINONEMEDIC
AHEMOAKENDECK
BARACUSPECOS
FANTASTICTWO
AMBITSGISTFEN
SALADDENATEAM
TIAOBANADHERE
ONCLOUDTHREE
KARMAOILRIGS
KILOPIONSAPSO
ANITASWEETFOUR
ROSSITISOLDIE
OTTERSETMUSTS

These days, I've been spending a lot of time figuring out ways to work in more and more bonus long fill into puzzles. It's important to me to always give the solver more than they expect, and with the bar being raised higher and higher by strong constructors, this is not an easy task.

If you can find them ...

It used to be enough for me to shoot for six good bonus entries, but I've been experimenting with eight or even ten. This can really strain a grid, and trade-offs crop up often. As with today's grid, I find that using a bunch of long downs staggered through the grid, each one intersecting no more than two themers (but ideally, just one), can often work wonders.

Once I fixed R O O T in place — Will and Joel's second choice for a revealer — I filled around that corner as cleanly as possible, which led me to BLACKLIST as one of the only good possibilities at 34-Down. That reduced my flexibility at 4-Down, but after trying a bunch of things, THE MAFIA seemed to work well. Basically, I repeated this process from left to right in the grid, stopping and restarting dozens of times when I was forced into trade-offs I thought solvers would groan at.

I wasn't happy with SLEEPS IN, as it feels more neutral than an asset, but having something great in that slot meant a couple of gluey bits holding it in the grid. Always the trade-offs — I pity the fool who has to make them.

(I so badly wanted the full A TEAM intro, but my original clue might have been too long for Will: ["In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the ___."] Ah, well.)

Fri 2/5/2016
GAWPODICUNGER
ACHEHORANAOMI
GRANDSTANDSEATS
AETNASENATTSK
MERCENOLA
AMODESTPROPOSAL
MARDIARYSONDE
PREVSKIRTNADA
ASCIIEMORYILK
SHAILENEWOODLEY
NILLAUKES
ANIBEBOPEXPAT
JESSICACHASTAIN
ABAFTCHINECRU
ROYCEKOLNREST

I loved WHAT MORE CAN I SAY and GO AT A SNAILS PACE, answers that felt like they could hit a broad audience with strong effect. And CANNERY ROW has a special place in my heart, as my favorite Steinbeck novel. It was harder for me to appreciate A MODEST PROPOSAL, as I didn't recognize it, but some Googling shows that it's taught in some school curricula.

Jessica Chastain

Not being very well versed in pop culture, it was harder yet for me to appreciate SHAILENE WOODLEY and JESSICA CHASTAIN. I forced myself to go Google them, and afterward I especially appreciated Chastain's recent meteoric rise — such big roles in a short span of time! I'm sure some solvers will get a thrill out of seeing these two names (and A MODEST PROPOSAL), but I wonder how many who don't already know them will bother to look them up.

For me, that's a problem with themeless puzzles featuring full names that aren't of uberstratospheric star quality. I do appreciate learning a tidbit or two from my crossword, but sometimes that's not a very fun process for me.

Themeless grids featuring grid-spanning 15-letter entries are so tough to execute on, as those long entries tend to lock down the entire grid, choking flexibiilty to near zero. This one, with six grid-spanners and two other long answers, makes for quite a challenge. Every single subsection of the grid is so constrained by those eight long answers, making clean filling so difficult.

Not only that, but as soon as you fill one little area, that further restricts the region next to it ... which was already constrained to begin with! Very, very tough. Thankfully, most of the crossword glue like SENAT, AMPAS, ELEC, ABAFT, IRAE, PREV, etc. is spread out today, but it felt like a lot in aggregate.

The clue for ASCII made this nerd smile. ASCII — American Standard Code for Information Interchange — is a standard part of nerd culture. It has a chart mapping codes to symbols and letters, which makes it a fertile ground for various code puzzles.

So, not my favorite style of themeless, but I bet fans of Woodley and Chastain will get a kick out of seeing their full names in the NYT crossword.

Sat 2/6/2016
ACIDWASHRABBIT
DOTOATEEATTACH
DRUGWARSBOWSER
INNALIRIMIMO
NEERLEBONGLIB
GASOLSRSSAILS
SELFIESTICK
MADEINCHINA
LONGINGEYES
BOONEAIRSOMME
ACNEALTERNACL
TARDREMOIRAM
IROBOTHOWSLIFE
KNOLLSONELINER
SOFTLYPYRENEES

Really fun puzzle, extremely smooth and clean while featuring some colorful long entries. David's last few puzzles have been a bit too edgy for me, so I really enjoyed today's assortment which still managed to feel young and current while not going too far. It's fun to see the ROSE CEREMONY of "The Bachelor" (okay, I admit I've indulged in some trashy TV) crossing a SELFIE STICK, along with BOWSER nearby. Some may see BOWSER as an old-timey dog name, but I recognized it immediately as one of the Big Bosses in the Mario Bros. franchise. David confirmed that that's how he clued it! (I bet Will thought that would be too esoteric a reference — understandably so.)

I prefer the old-school 2-D BOWSER, myself

I really like these types of "stair-stacked" layouts. They allow for three fantastic central entries, but also leave each of the corners with the potential for two or three more long entries each. I wasn't a huge fan of LONGING EYES — you looking at someone with longing, but do you ever give someone LONGING EYES? — but MADE IN CHINA and SELFIE STICK make for a very nice duo.

Also impressive was the way David worked the long SERIES FINALE and ROSE CEREMONY through that stack with little to no price to pay. SRS is so minor ... and that's it. Takes a lot of care, finesse, and hard work to achieve that level of cleanliness.

The SW and NE corners don't have quite as much room for goodies as the other two corners — ACID WASH / DO TO A TEE / DRUG WARS / ITUNES with only a NEER makes that very fun region — but I did enjoy BASILICA and MOON ROOF. LOCARNO and BATIKS as an odd plural feel like lost potential, but it is nice that David kept that corner super clean otherwise.

Some great clues that you might have missed:

  • [Battery device?] is not a tech gadget, but something that does a batter-y job, i.e. a battering RAM.
  • [Summer job?] baffled me, until I figured it played on "summer" as "one who does sums." Love it!
Sun 2/7/2016ADDING INSULT
TAILFINDOMEDBATBOY
ALTOONASELENEADHERE
DISCREDITCARDSCARINA
ATYAARRANIHOPENOT
TABLEOFDISCONTENTS
CAMERAFMSMEATOSE
AREABOUPERHURTERS
DISPLAYSFORAFOOLADIA
RATESLEEPONTUNAROLL
ELANDREBSOSADFEE
DISBANDONTHERUN
SUMSTUBSSEAEAGLE
IRISHALEACTRESSAEON
MDXCELLADISENCHANTED
PUERILEIRSCHATIWO
DESTUDEFLAWINNER
CAMEODISAPPEARANCE
OPENLINEOMITSURSA
REDOAKDISBARANDGRILL
PAIUTETOOOLDAREAMAP
SKATESONRYEPELLETS

Add-some-letters puzzle, DIS appended for kooky results. (DIS)BAND ON THE RUN provided some fun imagery, as did TABLE OF (DIS)CONTENTS. Sure, the latter really ought to be "malcontents," but sometimes kooky theme answers can get by with a lot of leeway.

ELLA DISENCHANTED

Humor is so tough to figure out, so specific to each individual. (DIS)CREDIT CARDS doesn't feel very funny to me, but I suppose it is a big transformation from CREDIT CARDS, which is nice. ELLA (DIS)ENCHANTED didn't do a whole lot for me either. I usually avoid these theme types as a constructor, because my sense of humor is often pretty different than Will's. Or most people's, for that matter.

Alan again dips into the very low word count territory. You can see on our list of lowest word count Sunday puzzles that Alan's name appears quite frequently. I think he has more success today than in previous ones, giving us such goodies as PROBOSCIS and MIXED MEDIA. Even PUERILE is a fun word (says the kid in me.)

I'm generally not a fan of low word count Sundays though. Since it's almost inevitable to require some gluey bits when building a 140-word puzzle, I think it's near impossible to get a 134-word grid to the point where I don't get bothered by all the AT YA, FMS, ATIC, SOR, etc. strewn about the grid. And to have a precious seven-letter slot taken up by HURTERS? That word is a hurter to my ears.

I did appreciate the challenge in solving the big SW and NE corners — those were fun. The NE was a great experience, rewarded by finding a BATBOY and some trivia that the Michelin Guide only goes up to THREE STARs. Cool!

Not as rewarding to fight the SW, only to realize that the last square I struggled against was inside APEAK. Yikes.

And perhaps I need to brush up on my cultural references, but I worry that I won't be the only one blanked by the crossings of ARRAN / OLAND / SELENE / DE SICA up north. Three intersections, all three of which I guessed wrongly on, made for an unsatisfying finish.

So, the ultra-low word count experiment continues, with a mix of effects.

Mon 2/8/2016
FROMIDOLLANDS
BAKEMAJAORION
ITSYBITSYMETRO
ELSALABTKO
MACROSCATALYST
AVATYRAPRIG
POPSOARSDERN
SWIMSUITEDITION
STUNDRNOOTTO
ARIAIDEATMI
GOLFCLAPSLAYER
ACCKIMEGOS
STILEITCOUPLES
PETERSOHOCOVE
STYESHOODALEX

Apt revealer, IT COUPLE interpreted as "two-word entries, both words containing IT." I liked the fake-out of uncovering ITSY-BITSY and NITTY-GRITTY first ... and then hitting SWIMSUIT EDITION. I enjoy when a theme lulls me into thinking I know what's going on (a play on rhyming words) and then throws me off guard.

A very nice grid, Paolo tossing in such nice bonus fill as GOLF CLAP, I MISS YOU, DOES GOOD, and even CATALYST. LOMBARDI and SNICKERS too! He's had a couple of great themelesses over at Buzzfeed — all clean and colorful — so it didn't surprise me to see that his grid is not just filled with goodies, but it's squeaky clean. It's exactly what I think a Monday grid ought to be. Great work there.

The theme wasn't mind-blowing to me, as there are plenty of phrases with two ITs: CREDIT LIMIT, POSITIVE ATTITUDE, SWITCH HITTER, etc., but it works well enough for both novices and experienced solvers. And it's consistent, never resorting to a three-word phrase like A LITTLE BIT or something.

One aspect that kept me from picking it as the POW — it's unusual to find a Monday grid as colorful and clean as this — is that I would have liked the themers to all be in the across direction. I love the great long entries Paolo added in, but they muddied up what was fill and what was theme. Putting all the themers horizontally might have made starring their clues unnecessary, as they would have all stood out better.

Great quote by Vince LOMBARDI: "The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work." Totally old-school, nose to the grindstone attitude that helped the Packers win the first two Super Bowls. It also applies to Paolo — it's clear to me how much work he's put into his crossword-making skills. Very well done.

Tue 2/9/2016
TALCHAZYAPOLO
ODINAGUEVIDAL
BOMBSHELLAROSE
ERECTUPSTARTS
YESRAHSEAT
RESETWRECKS
TIMESHARESSHIA
ROADSTIMSHINS
ITCHCHOPSTICKS
MAKEDOSTRAP
ROOFYONJAB
BEARSKINCRUDE
ATRIAEYESHADES
STINGNAPAKEPT
HEDGEDDAYEATS

Another fun early-week puzzle from Lynn. She takes single-word entries and interprets them as double words for kooky results. Really neat to start and end with related themers: BOMBS HELL and EYES HADES. Great find! I've seen a lot of puzzles involving a shifting of the letter S, but this one had a fresh feel to it. As I would expect from Lynn, the themers are consistent, all one word splitting into a kooky two-worders.

This painting looks so much like BOMBS HELL, doesn't it?

Bonus to get six themers. With shortish ones (8-9 letters), it's not so bad to pack six of them in, and Lynn shows us a smart method to do so. She takes her shortest answers (8 and 9 letters) and stacks them in rows 3 and 4 — this lets you treat the grid kind of like you're working with four themers, not six. You just have to be careful about those few overlapping letters — in the top case, the LL of BOMBSHELL and the UP of UPSTARTS — but as long as those letter pairs aren't really weird, like XU or JN or something, that little of an overlap isn't usually a problem.

Making the construction akin to one having only four themers also allows for a bit of long fill. Lynn does well to give us PIRATE SHIP (or is that PIRATE'S HIP?) and RED HERRING (ah, I guess not then).

Lynn's grids are usually so impressively clean that see AGUE and ETTE was unusual. These would be minor blips in most anyone else's grids — although some would argue that AGUE is perfectly fine since it's used in historical writing — but I put the bar quite high for Lynn.

Since that north section is somewhat flexible, I think the allure of the Z in ZULU must have been high. As much as I like rare letters in a grid, I would personally have preferred not including AGUE, favoring something like NOSY/TRUE. Given that Lynn has expertly worked in a J (JUDEA/JAB) so cleanly, that would have been enough in terms of rare letters for me.

Consistent, fun theme with grid execution well above average.

POW Wed 2/10/2016
VERBSJAMSMAT
ITALICURGEODE
NATURALDISASTER
EERIERAILS
WHOLEBEANCOFFEE
IOWAEAVE
CREWSSNIPECBS
CNNINTEGERLIP
ASSPOOCHSNARL
WHOMANTI
RATIONALTHOUGHT
ORRINERUPT
IMAGINARYFRIEND
DOMNOGOFALLON
SRSGREYHILDA

★ I have a feeling this one is going to leave some solvers cold, but I'm a sucker for most anything math-related. John gives us types of numbers at the starts of phrases: NATURAL, WHOLE, RATIONAL, and IMAGINARY. He could have used a NUMBERS revealer, but that would have been pretty dull, falling into the "words that can follow X" theme type that has fallen by the wayside. The clue for INTEGER was so long that it took me a while to figure out what it was saying, but what a neat way to tie together the puzzle. Innovative and interesting.

Pi can be so irrational ...

For those with math-aversions, NATURAL numbers and WHOLE numbers are more or less equated with INTEGERs (numbers without a decimal point). RATIONAL numbers can be WHOLE numbers like 1, 5, 144, but they can also be 15.4 (IRRATIONAL numbers are those that can't be expressed by a fraction, i.e. pi or the mathematical constant e.) Finally, IMAGINARY numbers are those including i (the square root of negative one).

Ah, takes me back to the good old days.

Yes, I'm weird.

Even if the theme didn't float your boat, the execution should. It's tough to work in four grid-spanners (15-letter entries) without a little compromise here or there in short fill. To add in a seven-letter revealer + some very nice long fill in BLUE LAW, SIPHONING, SEA ROVERS (wasn't sure what that was, but I decided I like the term after Googling it), and the crazy plural NAUTILI + virtually no gluey answers = dynamite execution.

Okay, I can see the argument against STOMA, given that it's pretty esoteric unless you're a biologist. But it's a real word used in botany, and all the crossings are very fair, so it didn't bother me. (I like botany, anyway.)

Finally, you have some nice short stuff in MOTIF, HUFF, the JUDEA/JAMS crossing nearly the same as yesterday (EERIE!), WICCA, ROIDS, and a hilarious clue in ASS-backwards … all in all, I found this puzzle to be a real winner.

Thu 2/11/2016
EBBSPRONGOILS
REAPSAUCEKNOW
MARIEANTOINETTE
AMSTELCOYOTE
TOMARNOLD
TRACNEOLOLA
AMOKADMITKINK
LAYETTESILENTE
ENOAMAEMODEN
ROBINSERTA
LEBRONSERENA
OMIGOSHMINIVAN
COSAIOWANPANG
ATONDRANKUNOS
LENSEASESPSST

What cool finds, single words parsed as "person's initials + gender-specific identification"! I had completely filled in MARIE ANTOINETTE but had no clue why she was a [Malady?]. Parse that word as M. A. LADY = "lady with the initials M. A." — that's so much fun! Great that C. C. (Zhouqin) was able to find four strong examples, "tamale" = T. A. MALE, "Roman" = R. O. MAN, and "legal" = L. E. GAL.

That's one hot T. A. MALE!

I imagine it was difficult to find four perfect themers, and a lesser constructor would have given up after concluding that there was no way to attain crossword symmetry with themers of length 15, 10, 10, 9. Enter mirror symmetry! I find this style aesthetically pleasing, and it sure saves a puzzle now and again.

C. C. runs the matching lengths of ROY ORBISON and LINDA EVANS in the down direction, taking advantage of some of the flexibility mirror symmetry allows. Works great, although it does muddy up what is theme and what is not a bit — ATM INSIDE and TIMESINKS are awfully nice as bonus fill, but since both are of equal length to TOM ARNOLD, the themers don't pop out as much as I would have liked. SPITTAKE and OKEY DOKE work much better for me, since they're shorter than all the themers.

LAYETTE is such an odd word. I ran across it one day as I was searching for what might complete the ???ETTE pattern. Apparently it's a common term for a set of baby's clothing, who knew? Making crosswords has helped me a ton as a solver — entries like this stick in my head.

Loved the clue for TABOO, as it gives the puzzle a C. C. flavor. Apparently "giving you a clock" sounds like "attending your funeral" in Mandarin? Neat trivia.

I've been really impressed with C. C.'s rapid rise as a crossword constructor. Even just a year or two ago, we would have seen more of the EEOC / TRAC kind of entry. But she's really cut the crossword glue down, while still maintaining colorful long fill. Most importantly though, she comes up with some really neat themes. In many other weeks, I would have picked this one as the POW.

Fri 2/12/2016
LOCAVOREHIPPO
LOADEDUPAENEID
ALSORANSNEATLY
MOIBYEGODDESS
ANNELOUARES
GOLDILOCKSZONE
MIDAIRKESEY
ASTDABALIERS
CORDSOOZING
CRYYOUREYESOUT
ICANHEDORES
DECATURMBABEN
ERASERHEATWAVE
NESTEAONEOWNER
TREYSBUZZFEED

It can be quite a challenge to feature 14-letter entries in a themeless — the black square at one end chokes down your grid flexibility — so it was really cool to see GOLDILOCKS ZONE. What a neat term! Even though it'll probably be new to many people (I hadn't heard of it even after taking some recreational astronomy), it's such a colorful description that makes sense. What else would you call a region where you're neither too close nor too far away from your home star, thus making it "just right" for life?

PETE ROSE, IN A DAZE

CRY YOUR EYES OUT … I like that one too, but the crossword convention of using the formal ONES instead of YOUR has been beaten into me over the years. I actually prefer YOUR as it sounds more colloquial and friendly to me, but it was a bit odd to see it in a feature entry today.

Interesting grid layout, sort of spiral nebular in appearance — perfect to go along with GOLDILOCKS ZONE. (It's neat to see Brandon's astrophysics voice shine through!) It does make the grid feel somewhat choked, with each corner operating a little too independently for my taste. A good rule of thumb is that if adding in a black square completely segments a grid, that's not good. Here, changing the L of GOLDILOCKS into a black square separates the NW from the rest of the grid. That choked-off flow can be bad for solvers — I got stuck in the SE — but it makes construction easier, as you can (more or less) fill each corner in isolation.

Those big SW and NE corners are daunting. I almost love what Brandon did in the upper right, what with PETE ROSE, ODYSSEYS, AENEID, GODDESS, IN A DAZE — man, that's impressive! But it's tough to execute on 4x8 regions, and PILSENER … that seems like it should be PILSNER to me, and the extra E helps a little too much with the favorable vowel-consonant alternation. Perhaps I've seen too many Pilsner Urquell commercials.

Some fresh entries overcoming the small smattering of gluey bits in [Play the HOB] (?) and LOI, for an entertaining solve.

Sat 2/13/2016
WEMETFAZESLAB
IVORYTOWERTIVO
NOSYPARKERAMEX
SLAKEDOWNERS
AVIASMOIREATE
TECHBANGCADET
BIODEGRADED
CAMDENYARDS
JUDGEWAPNER
KABULAMOKEONS
INSADREPFSTOP
DECADEMUSTDO
ODONBUTTERBEER
ROUTISMELLARAT
YETITACTSRSLY

Very nice puzzle that I would have picked as the POW! in many other weeks. Peter is so strong at taking full advantage of his long slots, converting them into colorful entries, while keeping his grids almost completely empty of short gluey entries. It's like those beautiful 3-D Chihuly glass installations, where you can't see any of screws or wires holding everything together, and you wonder how the heck he achieved it.

Doesn't that BUTTERBEER look tasty?

Peter is also really good at pushing and pulling at his grids in order to generate a couple of extra long slots. This "stair-stacked" center arrangement — BIODEGRADED over CAMDEN YARDS over JUDGE WAPNER — is something that many constructors can execute on. But how many stretch that middle section so that they can add MADE WAR, ONE NAME, and IGGY POP to an already juicy center? That's a great way to give the solver even more than they expect.

There's so much nice material packed into this grid. ERYKAH BADU (even this pop culture idiot knows some of her music) intersecting the central stairstack, and IVORY TOWER / NOSY PARKER running off of that? Wow, that's impressive. And on the opposite side, BUTTERBEER from Harry Potter (always something I wanted to try) with I SMELL A RAT is excellent work.

And to end the puzzle with SRSLY, texting shorthand kids these days use, that's fun. Gives the puzzle a little freshness.

The only region I thought had a little missed potential was the upper right. LIMEADE(S) has been in crosswords a bunch of times so it feels a bit stale to me, and AVERTED is a fine word but nothing I'd count as an asset. There's also ADDRESS BAR ... that feels fine, but perhaps not stellar. And I sort of know KID ORY because I played trombone for 20 years, and I *think* he's gridworthy, but I wouldn't count him as an asset.

Finally, sectioning Peter mentions does make construction immensely easier, able to tackle one portion at a time. It does cut off the NW and SE more than I would like, with just two entries connecting each section to the middle of the puzzle.

These types of items are picky; not things I would even mention for most other constructors. But just like Patrick Berry, I have to employ extremely high standards for Peter's puzzles, otherwise I'd give almost every one of his the POW.

Sun 2/14/2016ALL YOU NEED
LMEDOSHUNSPARBEMYL
BARICTAPEAEROADIOS
UNAPTOGEEILIABINGE
GETSAROUNDDEALWITHIT
VALENTINESDAY
ABASEDONOCAREER
NOMASCMDLCABREUNE
ZOOMBRIEFDAREDPLOP
ALUMLADLEERTESLOCO
CANYOUFEELTHELTONIGHT
TCMTATTOOERSICI
RESANDRETURNSAGASSI
ISTHISLSIGNSLLETTER
NEONATALPHSSTARESAT
CEOLHOR
LTAKESTIMETOSIRWITHL
SILENTUINLETARABIAN
ONELIRACREAMNAVARRE
NIXGELRAISEGTEABS
GEEMALOGLESLETDOT
SRIAMYNEARSEDOERS

I really enjoy brainstorming with ML. Sometimes we both LOVE an idea so much that we pursue it as co-collaborators, and sometimes only one of us feels strongly enough to put the work in. It's always fun.

"Shot through the heart, and you're too late!" er, "and you're to blame!"

In this case, I wasn't super interested in a LOVE rebus, but perhaps interested in doing an anti-Valentine's Day puzzle, with SHOT THROUGH THE HEART piercing the heart. For most of my 30s, I was single and pretty sick of hearing all the schmoopy-schmoopy talk around VALENTINES DAY, so I thought it would be fun to give a shout-out to all those kindred spirits out there bombarded by the pressure of the artificial holiday.

Needless to say, I doubt many editors would have gone for it. Ahem.

I enjoyed finding those seven LOVE rebus squares. It's fun to get songs with catchy lyrics like IS THIS LOVE and LOVE ME DO (and You Give Love a Bad Name — just sayin').

I remember being worried about how difficult it would be to fill the great big chunky section inside the heart. Impressive that ML did it fairly cleanly — while incorporating TWO rebus squares! CAN YOU FEEL THE LOVE TONIGHT crossing TOUGH LOVE and ART LOVERS already constrains that section tremendously, so it's nice work to weave FELT TIP and CAREENS in there. CMD and DSO (distinguished service … order?) are crossword glue, and BLU is hard to clue any other way than [___-Ray], but that's not bad at all for such a giant white space.

There are also some biggish areas necessitated by the grid design, and long answers like AMOUNTS TO and SAMMY CAHN intersecting IS THIS LOVE will almost always necessitate some trade-offs like RIN / RESAND / ESE. But there was enough bonus fill — DEAL WITH IT!, OMICRON, and my favorite, HOT MESS — along with colorful themers, that I didn't mind.

Entertaining VDay solve, one that hopefully even the singles of the world can enjoy.

Mon 2/15/2016
POLKAMTSBELIED
OVENPORKEVOLVE
IAGOPLAYREUSES
SLITEASEINPARK
EOSDARKCASE
FLAILSDARTPQR
FAWNSWENDYOUI
TITLEDAFTLACED
ECOTHEFTPICKS
XERTAFTGASKET
AEROTARTTIS
TORTRELATEAVOW
IDOIDOEBONLENO
DIALEDFORTITER
YENTASTOSSFORD

Word ladder to commemorate Presidents' Day, POLK to TAFT to FORD. I was hoping there would be a natural progression, i.e. President #11 to #22 to #33 or something, but it goes from #11 to #27 to ... #38? Ah well, that would have been asking for a lot.

"Young Hickory"? POLK got the shaft when nicknames were handed out

A word ladder with 11 steps creates all sorts of constraints on a grid. You might think: all those little short words, what's the big deal? But check out how many down entries cross two rungs of the ladder — every single one of the middle(-ish) ones. That's a ton of inflexibility foisted upon one grid. I'm impressed that David got that swath configured with only a smattering of AERO and ATILT. That's nice work!

I can totally see the allure of the beautiful OVAL OFFICE / LEGISLATOR set of parallel downs. I usually don't like when a grid has some random fill which feels theme-ish, as that makes it feel watered down and unintentional, but there's so much presidential material packed in today that I enjoyed the effect . And that corner is so nice — I don't mind ECO at all, since it has many ways it can be clued (including author Umberto), and Gen XER works too.

The opposite corner perfectly demonstrates the difficulty that symmetry imposes on a constructor. That SE is already tough to fill, and when you try to shove in POCKET VETO, you're bound to need some glue to hold the section together. PQR is so, so ugly, a random run of letters. ITER is one of those old-school Maleskan bits, and crossing ALIF makes it hard to justify, especially for a Monday. Oof, that's not good at all.

Ideally, I would have liked more elegance in the grid, TAFT smack dab in the middle of the grid at the very least. And it would have been stunning to get some sort of natural order — can you imagine how cool it would have been if President #11 had been at 11-Across, President #22 at 22-Across, etc.? But still, it was fun to get so much Presidential feel.

Tue 2/16/2016
DECCARHOSSHEA
IMOUTEAVEHODS
FULLNELSONEVIL
DORIAARENA
ADUEACTIONPLAN
KANSASSADA
INLAWDONHOTSA
STICKTOYOURGUNS
SETWRESTRATES
FAIRPAMELA
GOFORBROKEEELY
AWARDBATHS
BLUEFIGUREHEAD
LENSENYAFORCE
ETATRANITWEEN

A "words that can follow" theme is a rare sighting these days. Will (among other editors) has said he won't be taking many (any?) of these in the future, as they've run their course — I imagine this one must have been sitting in the queue for a while.

The FIGUREHEAD of the HMS Warrior. Cool!

If you're going to do a "words that can follow" puzzle, it's so important to execute perfectly. FIGURE HEAD does make for a very nice revealer, i.e. a description of FULL (FIGURE), ACTION (FIGURE), etc. And I do like the themers, all colorful entries. GO FOR BROKE is great, plus "go figure" is such a nice phrase as well.

There's some nice bonus fill in CUL DE SAC, GAME SHOW, SHERPA, and AWKWARD. Even DON HO helps spice up the puzzle. These help so much, especially when I realized the puzzle was employing a theme type that's fallen by the wayside.

The grid unfortunately feels stressed in many places, with AT NO, DORIA (only one real way to clue it), OVO (prefix), etc. strewn about. The toughest one to stomach is the HODS / EDINA crossing. I do like SHERPA a lot, as it adds nice color to the puzzle, and the V in EVIL/HOVEL makes for a nice rare(-ish) letter, but I bet that crossing will be a killer for some. I think it will set up some solvers to fail, and that's no good. The last thing I want to do is give friends an early-week puzzle and have them get turned off by something like this.

This is one of the issues we're trying to address with our new XWord Info Word List. I spent about a hundred hours scoring all the short entries, so it's much easier to avoid the gluey bits. It doesn't do all the work for you of course, but I think it's a great start for people looking to make cleaner, snazzier puzzles.

So, a good revealer and a nice choice of themers, with some rough patches in execution.

Wed 2/17/2016
NEIGHSCABENDS
ARNIEALFAVEEP
KOALAYARDAWAY
EDWARDSNOWEDIN
DEEDUHOXEN
JODIEFROSTER
MOTIFSTODDORO
RAHMCHETWIX
SHEAPSEBOUNCY
CURTCHILLING
EVERUNAEPA
BARRYCOLDWATER
POLOGALLHIHAT
ELMOISLEIDOLS
POEMATADMESSY

Puns, puns, puns. I admit, I don't really get them. (Full disclosure — all my pun submissions have been rejected, by every editor I've ever submitted to.) I did like many of Merl Reagle's punny themes, but the idea of "success" being defined as "making people groan"? That concept is confusing to this engineer-at-heart.

President Ice N. Shower (groan)

Anyhoo, there are some fun discoveries here, Edward Snowden turned into EDWARD SNOWED IN. Neat how those are so close, but the meaning changes so much. Curt Schilling (the MLB pitcher) to CURT CHILLING works similarly, a delicate sound change producing something nicely different.

The other two seem inconsistent to me — just outright rhymes, where one requires breaking the last name — but punnery doesn't seem to have any hard and fast rules. Huh. I groaned a little upon reading "Dwight D. Ice in Shower" … which I think means Kyle was successful?

I did appreciate the bonus fill, NEW IN TOWN, BAD WORD, and THE REAL ME very nice and fresh-feeling. PHYRIGIA felt only vaguely familiar, but I was able to pull it out of data storage in the far recesses of my mind. I enjoyed learning that nice piece of trivia related to King Midas — thankfully all the crosses were fair! HEARD OF and SAYS HI didn't feel quite as strong to me, as the add-a-preposition phrases don't usually impress me, but overall, there are some nice bonuses.

The short fill worked pretty well too, especially considering there were five themers + all that long fill. EXOD (short for Exodus) always looks funny to me (and why do people need to shorten a six-letter word to a four-letter one?), and it doesn't surprise me that it comes in one of the toughest places to fill in the grid, in the intersection of two themers crossing two long phrases. Very common to require some crossword glue when so much strain is placed on one small portion of the grid.

MRS C is familiar to me since I watched most "Happy Days" episodes in my childhood, but it does feel a bit outdated at this point.

Overall, some groans and some smiles for this winter-appropriate puzzle.

ADDED NOTE: Nixon lost the 1960 election while Eisenhower was still in office (as a lame duck), so the next Republican nominee after Eisenhower left office was indeed Goldwater. A tricky way to link the two punnable men!

Thu 2/18/2016
ADELPHTEMONE
LITERATCEMAKER
ANDSODOONIZING
SOSMAUCALEEO
PONTONIA
JAMESITALICS
ATITPLANSENCE
DANOHOBIG
ERSTKNAVEMENU
NIKOLADBADGE
GOTTLIED
WCSTROOTAFEE
HOTCHILNITSELF
OPERANDGNOREIT
SAMURAGNITES

What a great idea, the giant black "I"s in the grid sneakily playing a role in a crazy number of across answers. In case you missed the idea, check out 1-Across. The answer looks so wrong as ADELPH … and that's because it is! It needs that I formed out of black squares to become ADELPHI. Similarly, at 7-Across, TEM ONE has to be wrong, yeah? That's because it's really (the giant black I) + TEM ONE = ITEM ONE. A gem of an idea.

SAMURA ... I!

Interesting commentary from Bruce — I agree with Will that only a few across answers using those "I"s wouldn't have been very elegant. I appreciate Bruce taking up the challenge to go for broke by requiring EVERY SINGLE ACROSS ANSWER THAT RUNS INTO A BLACK I TO USE IT. That's a really tough challenge, especially considering that relatively few words end in I (compared to E, S, T, etc.).

I felt like the ones like (I)CEMAKER, (I)DBADGE and HOT CHIL(I) worked best, because 1.) they're really nice phrases in themselves, and 2.) they look completely wrong without the I. Typically I find "wrong-looking" themers a bit clunky, but in this case, it's perfect. Answers like JAMES I and LIED don't feel nearly as nice — I totally missed that it's actually JAMES II who was England's last Catholic king, not JAMES I, since the latter looks perfectly fine.

Of course, I'd prefer to keep gluey bits like ICAL out of any grid, and especially out of any themers, but some of that is probably bound to happen given the giant constraints of the grid. I mean, when a full 24 (!) of your across answers are "special," there's bound to be some strain in the form of EFTS (young newts), ERST, ENCE, etc.

I really liked the concept here, and if all the "thematic" material had been as good as SAMURA(I) even, it would have been an easy choice for the POW! Unfortunately, there was enough of the PONT(I) and TRO(I) and the aforementioned that it felt like there was some potential left on the table. Still, a very fun solve.

POW Fri 2/19/2016
FIATACAICOLA
ENNISHOLDOVAL
MONTEVERDIKEEL
BRANOMDEGUERRE
OBLADISRISATA
TIERODSSTOUTER
TENFOURTESS
OFFENBACH
EMILSYLLABI
DAWDLESECONOMY
IDACLUEONTIME
BENEDICTXVILEA
LITESCHOENBERG
ERIKHOAXGORSE
SANSARNOYSER

★ With four POWs in the span of 12 months now, Jacob easily makes my top ten puzzlemakers list. I love his voice, with touches of art, history, the classics, academia, and a little pop culture, making for what I consider the quintessential NYT puzzle, perfect for the target audience. Today's puzzle hit the mark for me on the theme alone, and the fact that Jacob turned it into a mini-themed themeless made it very memorable for me.

OFFENBACH has a little BACH in him!

I've been immersed in classical music for decades, and it never occurred to me that BACH was "hidden" in OFFENBACH. Not only that, but they're both German-born! Same goes for Alban BERG and SCHOENBERG, both Austrian-born. And to find a third example, VERDI and MONTEVERDI, both Italian-born, is just amazing. It's mind-blowing that the crossword symmetry works out perfectly!

And Jacob just kept on going with the brilliance, placing his black squares so that each of the "hidden" composers has his own Across clue. So cool to see VERDI at "18-Across." There really is no 18-Across of course, but here, Jacob slyly puts it to use. (If you're still missing it, look at the square with the "18" in it.)

As if that weren't enough, the fill is strong. I expect a ton of strong material in any themeless, and I lower those expectations a bit when there's a mini-theme that constrains the grid. I didn't have to today, with so much goodness: FEMBOT (anyone else plunk in DR EVIL?), IN ORBIT, the crazy looking BENEDICT XVI, NOM DE GUERRE, LAERTES, I WANT IN, even SUCCOR, CLONING, and Chuck YEAGER.

There is a smattering of ATA, GORSE (huh?), and two somewhat esoteric rivers right next to each other (YSER + ARNO = a no-no), but it was all so minor to me. The amazing discoveries of "hidden" names, sneakily giving those names their own Across clue, and solid themeless-quality fill made it one of my favorite puzzles in recent memory — possibly of all time.

Sat 2/20/2016
HASITMADEPERSE
EPIDERMISALETA
FIXIEBIKELAMAR
NETMINTTARP
ECHOGUACBERTH
RESINSTATUSQUO
LOBSLOTUPN
BROSNANMALTESE
REFAJAXDEE
INFOMANIARECUR
STYLEAPTSNOSE
TRODHOESBEE
LOUSYBONEHEADS
ELGARMIAMIVICE
SLOWSIDLEHANDS

Standard themeless layout, with each of the four corners containing a triple-stack of long answers. As a Gen Xer, seeing MIAMI VICE made me smile. I never actually watched the show, but talk about influential to my generation. (If I only had pics of my friends walking around in Crockett and Tubbs sport coats ...) It's a great triple, too, with BONEHEADS and IDLE HANDS making the Devil's work. And the XIPHOID process running through it — what a crazy but cool-looking word!

That little red spot is the XIPHOID process

I also liked the upper right, as STARTUPS are of particular interest to me, having co-founded one (Acucela, Inc., now traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange). The clue [Brand-new outfits] is brilliant, making me think of suits and various other clothing before I finally cottoned to it. Running STATUS QUO so smoothly through, the Q integrated into Erich Maria REMARQUE, made for a satisfying solving experience.

I wasn't as taken with lower left, as INFOMANIA … do people really say that? It has an outdated feel to it, akin to "cyberspace" or "AOLer" or something. I'm sure some solvers will be taken with the word, but I didn't feel like it deserved such a prominent feature spot in the grid.

FIXIE BIKE was another curious one. Interesting point James brings up — maybe it is a Britishism? As a mechanical engineer with a few friends obsessed with bikes, I'm familiar with a "fixed-gear bike." Wikipedia says that "fixie" has become a popular term with urban cyclists. While I do appreciate new language and phrases introduced into the lexicon, this one feels too hip or too youngsterish or too British or too something for me to ever use.

So, some colorful entries, including some excellent mid-length stuff in XIPHOID and DIKTATS, and a smattering of entries that just didn't quite jibe with me. Personal taste.

Sun 2/21/2016AWESOME!
EVILSRUNLATESPYCAMS
BLOATOPHELIAHAIRGEL
BAWDYBUILDINGEXPIATE
DAYLITGEARSPED
GIGPOPCORNPAUPERS
ORCASTAXIEDCALC
NAUGHTYPINEMISPLACES
EZRAOPEDSPOEADLAI
NOVFRERECANNEDWORN
DREWONSHUTTLECAULK
BARONSHUSHSWORD
STALKFOOTAGEDRESSY
HELLFSTOPSTORRECPA
ORLONHOEROMEOBAIT
DISPERSEDPAWEDPEOPLE
CELLBEGINSFUELS
CHALKFULLONUTSOFT
AIDAMOATINUITS
STEPMOMTHEMAUDESQUAD
TOPSIDEHELOISEEUBIE
ENTEREDERITREADEALS

Sound change theme, an "ah" sound lengthening to "awe." These types of themes live and die by how humorous the results are, as well as the strength of the base phrases. Body-building to BAWDY BUILDING worked perfectly for me — that phrase brings up all sorts of fun imagery. I also liked "The Mod Squad" to THE MAUDE SQUAD, getting a visual of Bea Arthur as a thug.

Leader of THE MAUDE SQUAD!

Knotty pine to NAUGHTY PINE is a great transformation, but the resulting phrase didn't make enough sense to me to be funny, especially given the clue relating it to a "bad kid." SHUTTLE CAULK felt a bit too real — they probably use some sort of sealant on space shuttles, yeah? — to be funny. So, a mixed bag for me.

As usual, Patrick executes so well on his 140-word 21x grid. Using eight themers makes this construction even more difficult, but PB still manages to work in bonuses like DEWDROP, SPYCAMS, CLOUDSCAPE, and LADY GAGA (cool bit of trivia too, that her followers are known as "Little Monsters").

What makes PB really stand out on Sundays though, is the silky-smoothness of his short fill. I love seeing an entire grid of this size that doesn't use even mild crossword glue, because my experience says it's one of the toughest challenges in construction.

And beyond my personal sense of aesthetics, I think having this level of smoothness is valuable to solvers, leading to a higher degree of satisfaction upon completion. Mike Shenk of the WSJ said it best, that the constructor's top priority is to set up a challenge, constructor vs. solver, but to do it in such a way that the solver will ultimately prevail.

Struggling is a good thing when those final boxes fill in regular words. It's not nearly as satisfying when you have to rely on having done crosswords for years, knowing your common crossword glue in order to get a complete and accurate solve. Too often on Sundays, God help you if you don't have that experience, so I really appreciate PB's strict attention to detail when it comes to fill smoothness.

Standard PB fare, well-executed as usual.

Mon 2/22/2016
APACHEFIXEMEH
POSHERLORDALI
POKINGFUNATOPT
SHAMSRESTDRAM
NOSESELOISE
REVENUEDAWSON
AWAYCLVMON
JETSKYOTOASAP
WEENEVNOPE
APPEARMINDSET
MADEUPSPEED
TRIPURALTIBIA
RADUNITEDFRONT
ADDACTIOUTAGE
KEYWHENELYSEE

I like these types of themes, where a revealer describes a few examples in very different ways — it's a great way for a constructor to show creative thinking, linking seemingly disparate things. I think it works best when 1.) all the examples are perfectly apt and 2.) when the examples are VERY disparate.

Going up?

So how does DOWN AND DIRTY fare with the first criteria? A CHIMNEY SWEEP is indeed dirty, but my first inclination was to think about CHIMNEY SWEEPs going up a chimney, not down it. (A few sources seem to agree, but upon further thought, wouldn't it be smarter to go down, so the soot doesn't fall in your face? Hmm.) SUCKER PUNCH was nearly perfect for me, with the caveat that SUCKER PUNCHes aren't always below the belt. X-RATED MOVIE … yes, it's dirty, but "down" doesn't quite hit. Even the obvious vulgar interpretation doesn't feel perfect, since there's a huge range of adult films.

On the second criteria though, I think Ed does quite well. It was fun to think about these three very different things connected in an unexpected way. Bravo there.

Also nice was the longer fill Ed worked in. It's not often you see long across fill like POKING FUN AT and UNITED FRONT, but today's vertical arrangement of themers allows for these bonuses.

A puzzle's NW corner is so important, giving the solver a sense for what's to come. I did like APACHE and HENSON, but ASK A and ERG (it's used much more frequently in crosswords than in engineering) aren't great. Those 6x4 chunks are so tough to fill well — I wonder if shifting the black squares above FREELY to the HE of HENSON would have helped, along with placing a black square at the R of FREELY. That would have knocked out HENSON, but I think Monday puzzles are best served by erring on the side of smooth fill.

ADDED NOTE: Dani Raymon made me realize I had interpreted the puzzle incorrectly — it's simply that all three are "dirty," and they all run in the down (vertical) direction. That does make more sense — hopefully solvers in general were more astute than me!

Tue 2/23/2016
CHEESEWSWSKIL
MARBLEAKAULNA
DISBARDUGDENY
LORELEIPIE
SALVOASKSAFTER
TRIUMPHMOO
ANTICRUMBUMPS
MITTPATTYLALA
PELTSHEETUNUM
EONTENPINS
CARNATIONOSAKA
ASHBUSMAPS
KAOSLANEOCENE
EDDYIIICARROT
SAYSPDASPONGE

My wife and I are obsessed with "The Great British Bake-Off," so I enjoyed this puzzle. There's something so soothing, so comforting about seeing people create pieces of art, and seeing the judges take such care to be both tactful and supportive in their constructive criticism. It's neat to see contestants flourish in that environment.

I've had this strange craving for tea and crumpets for ages now ...

I particularly enjoyed the topmost of the LAYER / CAKES, the imagery of a CHEESEcake atop a layer of MARBLE cake = mouth-watering. And a CARROT cake layered on a SPONGE cake? I'd try that too.

A PATTY (cake) sandwiched in between a CRUMB cake and a SHEET cake, though? I can't decide which is more disturbing, the idea of a hamburger PATTY inside cake, or the inconsistency of having a sole PATTY cake which is not an actual cake like the others.

Whenever you stack two or more entries, you're bound to need a little crossword to hold things together. The bottom stack for example has CRO (prefix), ERN (suffix) and ETE (crosswordy bit of French). That's passable, but not ideal.

I've found that filling a section like this can actually be easier by expanding it. Counterintuitive, right? Turns out that a little 6x3 section has such little flexibility, that you can't really play around much. If that area had been 6x4, ETE could be BETE, FETE, PETE, etc. Then you can further play around with the EOCENE slot.

I did like Liz's work in the middle — any sort of triple-stack is tough, no matter how short the words are. Liz does very well to escape with just the awkward plural PCPS. I'd bet she tried all sorts of combinations there, even cycling in ANGEL, CREAM, FRUIT, POUND, SPICE, etc. in an effort to create clean crossings. It's just too bad that PATTY is such an outlier.

If you haven't tried GBBO, you're in for a treat. The peace and delightful calm I get from watching that show is similar to that which I get from doing Liz's generally delightful puzzles.

Wed 2/24/2016
LIMEURBANDUES
EMACLORNAINST
TECHTAINTPISA
TAHOESTAGGTEN
ENOLSTSENBANC
RINGINBOURREE
TEAHOUSEADS
SUBMERGES
ABSPANELIST
SLEEVESSALAAM
CITRONKITTSPA
REAARTOOETHER
INMEASANAKIRI
PEASPALINOMEN
TEXTTRACTSIDE

"Perimeter puzzles" rely on a revealer to makes sense of the answers around the edges. SUBMERGED didn't make sense to me at first — shouldn't that mean two "sub" answers will merge, i.e. cross? But upon further thought, SUBMERGED instructs the solver to "merge SUB with what's in the entry." Interesting concept!

That one at the very bottom — that's a subLIME! (groan)

Ruth did a good job selecting theme answers, choosing ones that looked perfectly normal in the grid — not to mention, ones that intersect so nicely in the four corners! I stared at the very first square for the longest time, wonder how LIME could make sense for [Lofty in thought or manner]. I do like limes, but are they really lofty? Finally figuring that out was lime. Er, (sub)LIME.

I had a head-scratching moment upon uncovering (sub)URBAN and (sub)TRACT, as those didn't "merge" with another theme answer. And then I kicked myself, remembering that SUBMERGED just meant "add SUB." Dang it!

Ruth is absolutely right, perimeter puzzles are notoriously difficult to fill well, given the constraint of having two crossing "themers" in the corners (I swore them off after my last one). I was very pleased with Ruth's execution in the lower right — SASHIMI along with not a drop of crossword glue? Beautiful work, especially given the degree of difficulty.

The lower left is more typical in terms of the liabilities seen in perimeter puzzles. ALIENEE is a valid word, but I don't know how many (non-lawyer) solvers will clap at this one. Along with IN ME and (the very minor) EST, it's got a few flaws.

Perimeter puzzles are also notorious for making it difficult to work in great long fill. With all the constraints already placed on the grid, it's so tough to take advantage of those long slots. TEA HOUSE is quite nice, but PANELIST to me is more neutral, as are BETAMAX, SLEEVES, ESSENES, etc.

I like when struggle suddenly flips to a moment of discovery, so I liked the concept. There were a few more dabs of crossword glue than I like, but that's part of the nature of this theme style.

Thu 2/25/2016
STIFLEMRROPER
POGOEDWAYABOVE
LOUNGEAUNTIEEM
AMAZONVINEETNA
YENITAISP
YAHOOPOLITICO
SOPHNOBUTS
VAYAAIRS
HEROINZOOL
VULTUREGAWKER
DOSTGICHE
ILKSCRASHSITES
SAILBOATEASEUP
CREAMPIEEXARMY
SERBIANDENNYS

Even after finishing, it took me a while to figure out why CRASH SITES described the theme answers. And then I felt old. I of course know AMAZON since it's huge, and YAHOO started out of Stanford just a few years after I graduated, but POLITICO, VULTURE, and GAWKER were only vaguely familiar to me. Made it awfully tough to grok the theme! They all seem to be relatively popular websites … perhaps for very different demographics than me.

Dunno why I thought MR ROPER was so funny as a kid. Dude was creepy!

It's been fun to see Joel's experimentation with low word-count puzzles. He's made some really nice 74-word Monday puzzles, and even excelled at a Monday 72-worder, which is extremely tough to execute on with color and smoothness. Today's goes way into the depths — a 66-word themed puzzle is virtually unheard of!

My first impression was that there were a ton of black squares eating away at the grid, choking off the puzzle flow. Additionally, having experimented a lot with giant black pyramids like the ones on the sides of the puzzle, I've found that these formations make the filling process much, much easier, so the fact that this is a 66-worder doesn't impress me as much as if it had been done without those pyramids.

And smoothness … it's unusual to see much of any crossword glue in a Joel puzzle, so running into REMAP, TGI, SAXE, IS AN, IT A and the curious ZOOL(ogy?) and POGOED (is this really in usage?) felt far out of Joel's norm. I did like how the grid allowed such goodness as the MR ROPER / WAY ABOVE / AUNTIE EM stack, but overall, I don't know that those positives outweighed the smoothness issues. After a certain level of crossword glue gets smeared across the page, my enjoyment level falls off pretty fast.

So, a theme that probably plays better to younger or hipper solvers, with interesting experimentation in low word-count that didn't totally hit the mark for me. Still, there's something to be said for trying new things to push the boundaries.

Fri 2/26/2016
CAPEFEARNEWTOY
ALOELACEOXHIDE
VAMOOSEDTAILOR
EMPRESGOMPERS
BOOMEDJURIS
ADULTGEMINIS
TOSSBETWEENUS
SMAPENSETSRIG
ESCAPEKEYFETA
SUBARIDLOYAL
TATASROBOTO
NOSTRILBOAUHS
IMLIKESANDRAOH
SEAMENOHDEARME
INVERTUSERFEES

I loved that middle swath running down the diagonal. SO much great material packed into a small region! BE PATIENT, ESCAPE KEY, JET SKIS, BETWEEN US …, PEN SETS, CUT TIME, even the odd but neat GUM WEED = such a snazzy solve! And I didn't even include the curious PA BARKER, which I had to spend some time on to figure out if it was ludicrous or awesome. (Still undecided.) I can't remember seeing a swath so beautiful.

No Asians at the Oscars this year yet again, OH what a surprise (sigh)

This arrangement does make for a sectioned-off feel though, the two corners nearly cut off from the middle. But I do understand why Paula might have chosen to go with it — you can almost fill the middle independently of the corners, which makes a constructor's job so much easier. And when it allows you to make a middle swath that juicy, it can be worth it.

I also loved POMPOUS ASS and SURE YOU ARE (dripping with sarcasm). The ALAMODOME feels outdated now and SIT AT HOME a bit dull (like sitting at home?), so the corners didn't do nearly as much for me as the middle. Additionally, those isolated black squares create EMP and RES and BOA and UHS. Three gluey bits out of four ...

Speaking of short answers, I don't mind a few dabs of crossword glue here or there, but I think it's much better if they come from different categories. Getting UHS, BAHS, and TATAS makes all three of them stick out, as does having three legal terms in RES, JURIS, and NISI. As a solver, that sort of concentration draws attention to these otherwise minor flaws.

Glad to see SANDRA OH get her NYT crossword debut. As much as I enjoy seeing Asians in my puzzle, my first reaction was to wonder if she was indeed crossworthy. But then I remembered how much work she's done throughout the years, having some really big roles. I particularly enjoyed her in "Sideways." So thumbs up!

Such a beautiful middle swath, that solve more than delightful enough to make up for a few blips.

Sat 2/27/2016
THISJUSTINCALF
HAVEITMADEOLEO
ATALLTIMESSPAR
YENLETINTASK
ERISREATAACHE
RSVPSSMITHILE
EEKITSASNAP
DREAMUPYELLOWS
ROCKIDOLAVE
IMOSOWEDAWAIT
NANSSHOEDSINE
KNOTAPRILRTE
SIMISTAMPALBUM
TAILPARISIENNE
ONCEANDSOTOBED

Standard layout of triple-stacked long answers in the four corners. Oddly enough, my favorite entry was a shortie — AIRBNB. A few years ago I wondered if it would be mainstream enough to be crossworthy, and I didn't end up adding it. But these days, it seems like it's here to stay. I appreciated that Julian made every cross easy, as that would be a rough name to figure out if you've never used the site before (FYI, the original name was "AirBed & Breakfast").

Airnbn, cool logo! I still don't totally get the "air" part though

I liked Julian's NW corner the best, with the marquee answer THIS JUST IN kicking things off. HAVE IT MADE was also pretty good, although the past tense HAD IT MADE rolls off my tongue so much better. I was so sure I had something wrong when I uncovered RS??? for [Gets back (to)] — love those crazy letter sequences like RSVPS! TAMIAMI was also interesting — I never figured out the portmanteau during my solve, but that clue made me want to look it up (Tampa to Miami). Good clues will lure a solver in like that.

A triple-stack can lose so much flexibility by fixing into place just one long entry that runs through it. And when you fix into place two long entries like DREAM UP and ROCK IDOL, you quickly lock things down. Both of those entries are nice, the latter in particular, but look how much flexibility they take away. The EC combination especially limits choices, and picking something for that slot further narrows down options for that corner. While ECONOMIC is a fine word, I wouldn't call it an asset to the puzzle — same goes for ROMANIAN and DRINKS TO.

Personally, I'd rather have just one long and strong crossing entry (like ROCK IDOL), trying many other things in the DREAM UP slot — including boring, neutral stuff — to see if I could find a triplet that sings a little better than DRINKS TO / ROMANIAN / ECONOMIC. You'd lose DREAM UP, but check out the opposite corner — YELLOWS is pretty neutral, but AL PACINO / LEASH LAW / FOR KEEPS is much more colorful in my eyes. Always the trade-offs!

POW Sun 2/28/2016COURT JESTERS
DECLAWAPNEABANSFIB
AQUILAGLOVEAIRPLANE
BUZZERBEATERIDARESAY
SICBASISOOZEATTS
POWWOWDOUBLEDRIBBLE
HOWLSBREDONERUN
ASPENOCTALPTUIEMO
POINTGUARDTRONREAPS
ANADITTOSHOTCLOCK
RANSOMLONIALAMO
TROYBALLHANDLERLIMP
BLADEMIKEEMINOR
FIELDGOALMAGDACUE
MARLOLAINNOLOOKPASS
OLEHELLWASATEASES
ALECTOSIAMSEMIS
NOTHINGBUTNETVOTARY
CHADOOPSDEFERHOP
MARSBARSPERSONALFOUL
ATOMIZESAROSELOONIE
DEWTONYTAPASEXPEND

★ As a huge fantasy basketball fan, I loved this puzzle. I'm sure there will be solvers who don't care for it — I pitched this same idea to Rich Norris at the LAT a few years ago, and he rejected it because things like DOUBLE DRIBBLE wouldn't be familiar enough to enough of his solving population — but my guess is that it'll be accessible enough to a big chunk of NYT solvers.

Now THOSE were the good old days, when bridge could get you on the cover of SI

Plus, March Madness is coming up, people! If you don't know your POINT GUARDs throwing NO LOOK PASSes to sharpshooters hitting NOTHING BUT NET, you don't know what you're missing.

I liked the wacky definitions, most of them funny enough to give me a smile. NO LOOK PASS clued to an acrophobe's nervous journey through the mountains was really amusing. Again, it's going to be tougher for people who don't know what NO LOOK PASS really means, but again … March Madness is almost upon us!

I thought Tim's execution was super solid, too. It's normal to have a few gluey bits in a 140-word Sunday crossword — almost impossible not to — so to keep it to short ROI, AZO, ATTS stuff is really good. And it was so nice to get bonuses like NAMEDROP, MARS BARS, even ATOMIZES, OLD PRO and POW WOW. NOT SO BAD, I DARE SAY. (It's like Tim planned that, isn't it?)

Tim and I have worked on a puzzle or two together, and he knows some of my eccentric hobbies, so it was awfully fun to see Charles GOREN, "Mr. Bridge" in the grid. You had me at GOREN!

And the cluing was really fun. It only takes a handful to really pep up the Sunday crossword, and there were many more than that:

  • An AIRPLANE as a "runway model"
  • A SNAIL as a "mobile home resident"
  • CHAD hinting at the "fallout" from the 2000 election, i.e. the HANGING CHAD

I tend to get bored by Sunday puzzles (due to my short attention … something shiny!) but this one kept me highly entertained until the end.

Mon 2/29/2016
SIMIANISEEGPA
ICEAGEMENDRAM
BONMOTHERSTORY
SNUBLOKIYUKS
IMSETCAPN
LASCALABOREDOM
ORENOKIAMAZDA
VOXLEAPDAYEIN
IMPEIGOTTARUE
NAIVETERANSOMS
SIREWIDTH
IOTAASAPASST
PHONEBOXINGEAR
AILWANEBIGEGO
DOSEGGSMAYDAY

LEAP DAY commemoration, four holidays ending in DAY "leaping" over a black square: MOT/HERS (day), LA/BOR (day), VETE/RANS (day), and BOX/ING (day). It's tough to make long entries work in this fashion, so NAI(VETE) next to (RANS)OM is a great find. BON (MOT) next to (HERS)TORY is also nice. I wondered if HERSTORY is still in usage, as I haven't seen it in print in a while, but I like the concept (history as seen from a feminist perspective) a lot.

Did you know his first name is "Norville"? Zoinks!

BOXING (day) = "one of these is not like the others," as it's the only non-American holiday. I wasn't sure exactly what it was, so it was interesting to read up on — cool that it's a "second Christmas" in certain countries! When I was a kid, the day after Christmas was such a letdown, so every year my brother's family and mine celebrate a Second Christmas shortly after (first) Christmas. Almost better than Festivus!

I wondered why Joel would include an odd fourth "day," and it was easy to see that INDEPENDENCE, COLUMBUS, and PRESIDENTS would be tough (impossible?) to break in keeping with this theme. MEMO/RIAL is the only one that fit with the others — you could have TAKE A MEMO and RIALTO (or RIALS), but the RIALTO would be pretty unfamiliar to some Monday solvers. Always the trade-offs.

Cross-referenced clues often annoy me, breaking up the flow of my solve, but I really liked WAXES / WANE crossing, echoing each other. It's tough to make those kinds of things works so perfectly.

And I often dislike when a corner is isolated from the rest of the grid — note how the NW has only word connecting it to everything else — but that sort of layout often brings wonderful flexibility. Here, Joel uses it to great effect, with a beautiful triplet in SIMIAN / ICE AGE / BON MOT. And the opposite corner is even better, with SHAGGY running through IN GEAR / BIG EGO / MAYDAY! I'd take that trade-off any day.

Nice idea, well executed except for the inconsistency of BOXING (day). If only America would open its eyes to the joys of Second Christmas!