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Puzzles for February, 2020
with Jeff Chen comments

Sat 2/1/2020
ATTRACTIONIDAS
WHATLLITBEFINE
NOSETONOSESYNE
SUEEVENTATPAR
CREDRANARMS
BARONSSUNGTO
OPERAPICKLEJAR
DIDNTGETTHEMEMO
SAUTERNESPECOS
CADETSGANTRY
AGESAGOCURT
SUDSYMALIKIPA
LIFEMILITIAMAN
ELALONEMANBAND
WETSPOKERGAMES

What a fantastic grid-spanning feature entry in DIDN'T GET THE MEMO! That's the kind of phrase that'll stick in my head.

It can be hard to build around a central grid-spanning entry; certain letters fixed into place, wreaking havoc on flexibility. I was impressed with many of the long entries Mark managed to cross through, DIY PROJECT (do-it-yourself) such a colorful phrase. IF STATEMENT is great, too, at least for us computer dorks. If you're a hater / Luddite, at least it's figure-out-able.

Well done with PICKLE JAR, too, making great use of a long slot parallel to DIDN'T GET THE MEMO. Typically, constructors would break this slot up to reduce the sheer area of the white space, but Mark has never been one to shrink from a challenge. PICKLE JAR is not only a fine entry on its own, but that delightful clue! Think about spears, as in dill pickle spears …

Not all of those long entries sang to me, though. ANGLE PARKING felt more askew than "diagonal" (although the Goog says both are fine), CORN TASSELS now makes sense but only after more Googling, ALTERNATE DAY feels a bit arbitrary, and RAN ARMS didn't hit me right at first. I ended up deciding that each was a fine entry, but all of them together caused a collective pause.

Some solvers will be sending me angry emails that POKER isn't part of the World Series! You idiot, don't you even know the difference between a sport and a game? POKER players (and those of us who used to watch way too much ESPN) know that the big events are called the "World Series of Poker." It's a nice cluing idea that might, unfortunately, get lost on the average solver.

I like Mark's efforts to push boundaries of what's possible. Not everything works as well as standard 70- or 72-word themelesses, but reaching for the stars is a good thing for the art form.

Sun 2/2/2020 AUDUBON SOCIETY
TRANSAGEDODDSALBUS
BALOOROLEPERMTEENA
SHERYLCROWSCOUTFINCH
PAVEIHOPLOTRSELL
LEARNGEOTAPAMUSE
SIGOURNEYWEAVER
APOLUNEPAPDIALECT
FRANKIETOTEMLIESLOW
RUMENDATSEAILEANA
ABETEASYRUNSPRAY
TALIBYOLODINGTOILS
AMESTOREROSMELC
ABSOLUTRAGONDUELERS
YOUROCKSTOICOSMOSIS
ENEWHOSWEDRUNKSTAN
SAMSASTIARSEGALS
ATMSAFGHANSTSAR
BARREARTMUSEUMTYLER
RITADOVEASPLADYBIRD
IDITARODIKEATALANTA
MANILOWLYNEMERGES

I've seen a lot of crosswords based on "people whose last name are (some category of thing)." I even remembered two with CLARICE STARLING (the one Chris mentioned plus another) — my stupid long-term memory ruining crosswords for me.

Amazing that there are so many LADY BIRDs, i.e., females with last names that double as a bird. Whoda thunk it? I didn't immediately recognize SIGOURNEY WEAVER as a bird, but the rest are strong.

Ah, APOLUNE. I remember when Kevin Der used that in an ACPT puzzle, and I swore something was seriously wrong with the answer key. It's funny that it hardly registers as esoteric now that I've processed and seen it a couple of times more now. As a constructor, it's useful to remember and internalize one's own initial reactions, as other solvers could have the same unpleasant feeling of "that HAS to be wrong."

Overall, I like the application of the tight LADY BIRD concept to the tried and true theme type of "people whose last names are X." Neat that there are so many examples, too, and that the puzzle featured so many memorable women! However, those elements weren't enough to keep my attention for an entire 21x21 puzzle. It'd have been much better to downsize this to a 15x15 weekday — maybe focusing on just real people or just fictional characters. The straightforward concept would have felt much more powerful that way.

POW Mon 2/3/2020
FETAPIBBBAHAI
LARDETREALERT
USERACESNEATO
EYEOFTHETIGER
SADIEZINMMA
THEBEESKNEES
IBMPADPEONS
DRYHEATINHOUSE
AIMEESROTAT
HAIROFTHEDOG
ORSAHAROAMS
THEMONKEYSPAW
KRAUTMAINORCA
OAKENANNOLOAN
SEEYASAGSONUS

Animal themes have been done ad infinitum in crosswords, so an extra layer is essential. Thankfully, that's what Michael has given us today. Note that it's hardly a loosey-goosey (ha) set of themers, but nice and tight — every phrase is an animal's part, expressed in a possessive format. I enjoyed the 50/50 approach of having two themers as "X OF THE Y," and two as "THE X'S Y."

Outstanding debut gridwork, too. Monday products ought to be newb-friendly, with the potential to convert those on the fence. One major tenet is to make your short stuff unnoticeable, allowing a solver to breeze through without having any needle-scratching-across-a-record moments. There were two blips in ALEE and ORY (the latter heavily globulous), but that's an admirable result for any constructor, much less a rookie.

I appreciate that Michael didn't try to do too much. Stick to 78 words your first couple of times, so you have the best chance of coming through with a beautifully smooth early-week product. Toss in a pair of bonuses like HEAR ME OUT and MY MISTAKE, and call it good. If you can insert a bit of SHA NA NA, DRY HEAT, and a Z in BREEZED, definitely do it! As long as you can do it with minimal compromises, that is.

Too often, experienced constructors hear the call of the dark side, aiming for an audacious product that newer solvers might end up cocking their heads at — or worse. Today's is a perfect example of a welcoming gateway; a crossword with a simple yet novel theme, and a grid that allows for a fist-pumping victory. Bravo!

Tue 2/4/2020
IOTASAMISCOPE
TORCHEARORKIN
SHOEHORNSMAINE
YSLMAOBAILS
LOVETRIANGLES
BANEDNYBTW
OCCAMALFCITI
CHAMPAGNEFLUTES
TINACUTUBERS
ECOBRABIKE
TAPERECORDERS
NEVISBENCIA
PENINSEXORGANS
CRETEPSIANDRE
PYRESYETMUSIC

Wonderful early-week theme. You'd think that a musician with a 25-year history of playing in orchestras, jazz bands, symphonies, string quartets, etc. would pick up on instruments hidden at the ends of theme phrases. Only a dunderhead would say YES, I KNOW THIS THEME; IT'S GEOMETRIC SHAPES!

Bah. CHAMPAGNE FLUTES are cylindrical, and I stand by that fact. Er, "fact."

But TAPE RECORDERS ARE RECTANGULAR BOXES!

Maybe I shouldn't comment on SEX ORGANS.

If only the gridwork had been as strong as the theme. Take that southeast corner, for example. Parallel placement of a themer and a revealer, squished together in one corner, rarely works out. You never want to subject newer solvers to something like INRI. These types of "I have to know THIS if I want to do crosswords?" entries are no good, hearkening back to the days of Maleska taking smug pride in making crosswords esoteric. Sure, the crossings are fair, but it's still not a fun entry for most people to encounter.

As much as I enjoy having a revealer in the "omega position" (the final across answer), I'd much rather give up some elegance to preserve a better solving experience. Shifting MUSIC all the way to the left might have helped, but that, of course, would require a complete grid redo.

It's such a shame that Alex and Queena's intent didn't align with Will Shortz's vision. I prefer Will's approach — the delayed a-ha is fantastic — but shooting it back to the constructors would have resulted in a much more polished grid. That's a big ask, given how many puzzles Will has to churn through, but even if he had to hire another assistant to get this done, it'd be well worth it.

There are benefits to this audacious grid layout, no doubt. I love the word CHICANERY, and to get so much CAN OPENER, PIN SETTER, BREXIT? OK, I'LL BITE! If the theme had been harder, more like Wednesday or Thursday difficulty, I'd have happily given the thumbs-up.

Other solvers without a pesky constructor's voice in their head might have a stronger solving experience. There is something to be said about some Tuesdays pushing boundaries, after all. Such a shame (that I can't get past my insistence on technical excellence), as the theme was POW! quality.

Wed 2/5/2020
RAMADAATMWHAM
EXITEDCATCHAIR
POMONACOWLINGS
ONENIGHTSTAND
EEOFREED
PIPERTMCORDER
WORKSOFARTORE
ALOEROMEOAVID
VACDOBEDOBEDO
ENEWSTAPPARES
IDAHOEAT
USEDFURNITURE
TARHEELSICEBOX
SLAMPOETTALESE
KALENWAALLRED

CAT CHAIR … is that the type of furniture they use at cat cafes? Jill and I had three cats at one point, and they all loved to scratch up an old upholstered thing we called "the cat chair" because it was so full of cat hair that no one but the cats and unsuspecting visitors wanted to sit on it.

Huh? It's CATCH AIR? Okay … but how do snowboarders catch air while sitting in a cat chair, while wearing helmets made of cat hair?

What a funny find, the circled CHAIR in CATCH AIR making it look so strongly like CAT CHAIR. I was hoping that today's theme would be something different than a standard "hidden words" when I uncovered ONE NIGHTSTAND.

Is that like a bedside table filled with hydrogen?

You know, hydrogen is number 1 on the periodic table?

I should stop before releasing my "WORK SO ___" joke.

Anyone else wonder if DO BE DO BE DO is better as DOO BE DOO BE DOO? Or what gave Sinatra the idea to sing these particular nonsense syllables? (Doobie Doobie Doo would be a great name for a pot shop.)

I enjoyed the bonuses in the grid, all those jazzy entries helping keep solvers' attention. It's not often that I like when constructors go down to a 72-word grid, but Ross is one of the people I'd trust to do so. For most others, I'd suggest putting black squares at the I and D of IDAHO to make the gridwork much easier. No problem for Ross, although having the tough PWAVE and IOLANI in one region isn't ideal.

Just like Will Shortz, I'm getting a little worn down from standard "hidden words" themes. Two BEDs inside DOO BE DOO BE DOO is a neat find — twin BED! That feels like a neat starting point for something a little different and fresher within this theme type.

Thu 2/6/2020
SFPDTABUCOO
CLARAIDIGSHAW
LIKESANDTHELIKE
ACECELSDONT
SETTERSETCETERA
SUABLERUNSEW
APNEAVEERGEEK
ALIETALII
EXPMDRAMOATER
EARTEAOWNAGE
KNOTSANDWHATNOT
AURADAISGTE
UDDERSANDOTHERS
RUESPETERELIT
ISRADENIHOP

My partner in crime, Jim Horne, loved this puzzle, a clear POW! choice for him. I'm in full agreement that there's some genius in the theme. How to even describe it, though? Start with phrases meaning "yadda yadda yadda" ... and echo the final word at the beginning?

No — the final sound? Yes, that must be it.

Wait. UDDER and OTHER aren't homophones. Are they all puns?

Calling all rocket scientists and brain surgeons to help me …

For Jim, a puzzle's theme is (almost) everything. I can see the wisdom in that approach, especially when you're talking about a completely novel idea. After umpteen years of solving and analyzing crosswords, it's so rare to experience something for which you can't immediately point out a predecessor. Huge props to Jake for a rare accomplishment.

I construct a lot more than Jim, and this is the lens through which I evaluate all crosswords. It's tough for me to overlook things like URI ISR ELAL GTE. I don't know what to think of EXPM, either — does that open the door for EXPD and EXAG (attorney general)?

(I'll admit, the latter is relevant in revolving-door Trump era. *rimshot*)

Both Jim and I agreed that UDDERS AND OTHERS was the weakest themer. Eliminating it would destroy regular crossword symmetry, but mirror symmetry would easily work with 15 15 9 15 (or some permutation of those lengths). Mirror symmetry would have been appropriate for the echoing theme, too!

Jake is great when it comes to including long bonus fill, today's puzzle no different than his others, with BITSTREAM, EGO TRIP, FAKE TAN, OAK TREE, TANGELO. Given how much juiciness his puzzles usually exhibit — as well as a lot of crossword glue — I'd love to see a move toward a better balance.

Fri 2/7/2020
SANDPSUPERAPS
UHURATREXAURA
NAKEDLUNCHSTUB
SEAMANIPHONE
MASTERBREWER
JEWELSQUIERO
AVEDASUITSRAE
PERKATANASKIA
ERESLOBSREEDS
AWHIRLDEFRAY
IBLAMEMYSELF
CALVINPLEATS
ELSEAPPALACHIA
USERTOESSEALS
PATSEXAMEDITS

I was so fooled by [Pittsburgh is its most populous city]. Given that this is supposed to be a hard puzzle, it couldn't be PENNSYLVANIA. Ah! There must be some trick to it, especially given that PENNSYLVANIA is too long. PENNSYL(VAN)IA with a VAN rebus fits perfectly! Now, where's the revealer, MINI VAN?

Drat.

Themeless puzzles often live and die on the quality and quantity of their long answers (8+ letters). It's so tough to make 6- and 7-letter entries stand out and feel fresh since crosswords use many more mid-length entries than longer ones. Seeing only ten long slots in today's grid worried me since themelesses usually have 12 to 16. Thankfully, Mary Lou and Erik used most of the slots well, MASTER BREWER and PRESS RELEASE excellent. PR = press release and public relations, what a neat connection!

PADMA LAKSHMI could be tough for many. I sort of recognized her name but put in PADME. Darn my Star Wars fanboyhood! Good thing MEISTER BREWER wasn't a possible crossing.

Wait. EI REBUS!

Maybe not.

I do wonder about UHURA crossing PADMA, though. Even as a die-hard Trekker, I often confuse UHURA with the Swahili word for peace, UHURU. If someone put in PUDMA LAKSHMI, I'd be sympathetic.

It is possible to excel in the mid-length space — take CALVIN for example. He's only been in the NYT (Shortz era) a few times, and he evokes such nostalgic memories.

You do run the risk of "freshness" in those mid-lengthers being taken as "annoying," though. QUIERO is a debut, but it might feel foreign (see what I did there?). A word I love, KATANAS, could cause alienation as well.

Let me explain two clues some might not get:

  • Defaults = EDITS? Think about removing fat as "defat." I know, groan!
  • ASS is one of those young people things, as in "big-ass" or "stupid-ass." Sometimes these fresh slang clues make me feel like a dumb-ass, but I can see how millennials would appreciate this sort of thing.

Not my favorite themeless from either of these excellent constructors, but solid enough work.

Sat 2/8/2020
IMHOTOSSSITE
NOOBSALADHOOD
CUTSPRICERANGE
ANDCOPRPERSON
STEEDSOILUP
SNOTFLOPWHO
JOKEWRITERNEAT
CHILDISHGAMBINO
TINYKNEEBOARDS
SOGJETTLOAD
LASSOEDGERS
BLUEMOONSEDAN
BOCABURGERNONE
OWLSTRUCETUDE
YEAHYEOWSTIR

The good cop from "Lethal Weapon" goes by "Danny," and is now known as the CHILDISH GAMBINO? Huh! I suppose I could have pieced that together, given that "childish" could be an ironic moniker for an old guy, and "Gambino" is an infamous name in crime — another ironic name for a guy who played a cop!

While madly reading up on Donald Glover so I wouldn't seem as idiotic as usual (Danny vs. Donald is my failed attempt at using humor to cover up my ignorance), I came across an interesting piece of trivia: CHILDISH GAMBINO came from a Wu-tang Clan name generator. Out of curiosity, I tried it, the site giving me the name MIGHTY GENIUS. Seems (ironically) appropriate.

I enjoyed the craziness of the grid layout, a 68-worder chock full of entertaining long entries. SLIP OF THE TONGUE, WEIRDED OUT, PR PERSON, JOKE WRITER — great stuff.

Usually, editors prize multi-word phrases since they're more colorful than one-word entries, but I love SACRILEGE and OBSCENELY. The latter risks negative connotations, so I'm glad it was clued in the meaning of "an obscene amount of money."

I did get a bit weirded out by STRIKES OUT and WEIRDED OUT at consecutive down positions. I don't mind a lot of small-word duplications, but this stuck out. I also bugged out at ___ SORRY, knowing that it was likely some hip slang like SORRY NOT SORRY. ISN'T SORRY looks fine now that I study it, but during my solve, I couldn't imagine what it might be.

Similarly, I don't mind more minor glue like TSP, but JCTS, SOG, and co. = hmm.

Overall, not as polished as I like for a 68-word puzzle. An admirable debut effort, though, dipping a toe into the depths of the 68-word deep white sea.

Sun 2/9/2020 THE EMOJI MOVIE
KINGHOGANPROTIPELF
ASEAAGORARAVINECEO
THELORDOFTHERINGSHER
GAPEDCASEDREPORT
WHEATONSHUTSDATA
HANDYOWETOTITANIC
ASTOCITIZENKANEMOP
LSATANTSELKSTAME
ELIREPOSFLAKYDUMBO
DELOUSEDIECISETSON
PLANETOFTHEAPES
OUSTERLENTOLORISES
SPEEDSMASHUNDUEAPU
LEWDSTIRMEETSLIP
ONEMARYPOPPINSTAPE
DRACULAELLENNAMER
LUGENAIADADORING
AGEINGNINNYSPORT
BIGALEAGUEOFTHEIROWN
EVARENNETFLAIRERIE
TEDDROOLSFUNDSKONG

The NYT Magazine has a huge distinction over most crossword formats — its ability to print in color opens so many possibilities for creativity. The NYT crossword doesn't take advantage of this nearly enough, so I love what today's is trying to do. It was a lot of fun to figure out some of the emoji sequences, like the rocketship + gorilla + statue of liberty = PLANET OF THE APES.

I see Will Shortz's hesitation to do this too often, though. What about electronic solvers, especially those using Across Lite or other programs with limited capabilities? It's no fun to open up a file and be alerted that "this puzzle has elements unreproducible in electronic formats." Read: "you're screwed."

If you're one of those disgruntled folks, take a look at what Jim Horne did (below) to display those emoji. Why not buy a paper now and then, and enjoy the innovation that a less modern format can bring?

(NYT printers, I am available for sponsorship.)

Today's grid is a good example of why Will sticks to a 140-word minimum. He allowed Brian to go to 142 words, and while that meant Brian's construction job was easier — especially important for a rookie — there weren't a lot of bonuses. I did like GAL GADOT and STAR TREK (what, no Spock-ear + aliens + Starfleet insignia emoji?), but there wasn't much else otherwise. For people who don't connect to the theme, that can be an important factor.

Given that Brian did an admirable job of keeping his grid clean, a few more bonuses at the cost of more minor glue dabs like ORO and NEG would have helped.

Overall, I love the creative thinking, using the NYT Magazine's distinctive capabilities. I wanted a tighter theme, though, as the movie selection felt scattershot, drawn from the giant pool of thousands of recognizable movies out there. It'd have been incredible if there had been some extra layer — maybe all animated movies?

Mon 2/10/2020
ADFEETHUGBCUP
ICEAXVINEIONA
WORTHASHOTLUGS
ANNAREAMONET
ALITTLEEXTRA
JABBEDUSAIN
ACRESARANOUT
CHICREWCUTSHO
KEGHARSHPEON
HEARTMARSHY
SETTLEASCORE
ITSOKHAIRFEZ
GAINDOUBLETAKE
MIDIANTISKIER
ALECBESTTORSO

Bruce and I had a thoughtful exchange a few weeks ago. He mentioned that in the past, an outstanding grid could sometimes overcome a weak theme. Back in those days, wobbly grids were the norm, since the software wasn't as good, and solid word lists weren't as easy to come by. These days the playing field has evened, and there's no sneaking by with a below-par theme, no matter how incredible the grid. It's the way it should be!

Great craftsmanship today. Bruce wisely used a 7-letter middle entry, which makes construction so much easier than if he had chosen something like POODLE CUT. Every single constructor should be making grids like this, buttery smooth with a couple of bonuses. There's no magic to it — smart layout, careful placement of black squares to separate themers, and a whole lot of iteration. This is the gridding standard to which all submissions should conform.

However, I'd have loved more tightness to the theme. It's a workable concept, but it's not something to which I'd immediately shout YES! There are so many movie terms that SHOT EXTRA CUT SCORE TAKE come across as a film festival of shorts more than a cohesive epic. I'd have sent it back, requesting some extra layer — how about finding more that relate to SHOT CUT TAKE, creating a narrative around film editing?

All in all, though, I'd happily give this to a newer solver, as it does its job of allowing for a victorious solve. Not the most exciting concept, but that's not usually the most important criterion for a Monday puzzle.

Tue 2/11/2020
ALIBIAVISAJAR
DEBITWINEPOPO
WEEDSLASERSHOW
ARREARUNIONS
RAINBOWFLAGMTV
ETAIDIOTSPULP
AGINGARIES
FLYINGCOLORS
GRIEFFRATS
YENSIRAISEPIA
MSGGLITTERBOMB
HUGELYSERIFS
PAINTBALLGENRE
DINAEDITOATEN
FRETTHUDSKEET

I'm often full of piss and vinegar when I see low word-count themed puzzles. Frickin' constructors, bigger than their britches, showing off all lah-di-dah! And look at today's bleedin' grid, 74 words, requiring LTD and CRIT? Why not follow your own advice, blankety-blank big-head Jeff, and go to a 76-word design?

I would have preferred that.

And another thing, you blimpity-bloopity … wait. What?

To Neil's point, I couldn't figure out a way to arrange the skeleton at 76 or 78 words such that it didn't feel like two half-puzzles. The black square separating FLYING and COLORS created more problems than I anticipated, causing a diagonal from SW to NE. I tried so many ways of creating a passageway through it, but no dice.

Putting black squares at the AR of ARREAR or at the S of UNIONS would have made for an easier, more newb-friendly Tuesday solve, no doubt. Both options would chunk apart the grid, though. Is that better or worse than a newer solver having to figure out IBERIA and RIYADH? After 10+ years of constructing, I still am not sure.

I'd love to have some feedback mechanism, where the NYT's app would allow for direct evaluation and commenting. Was the puzzle solvable? Fun? If not, why not? That type of feedback loop would be so valuable. Will Shortz has done a great job of expanding the NYT's crossword business, but it could be a true empire with some steps such as this.

P.S. If you're not sure what a GLITTER BOMB is, why aren't you watching Mark Rober's YouTube channel? Dude does some amazing stuff.

POW Wed 2/12/2020
OKRAATETHREES
SNOCONESHEAVEN
LOVECONQUERSALL
OWEHITPOMP
SONSOLEEMO
DEATHANDTAXES
DOWSOXSIXERS
REINSWEBCIRCA
ALTOIDLABOTS
THUNDERSTORMS
SIPEPIGTOS
ALLAUTAGPS
WARTOENDALLWARS
IMEANTONEDOZEN
NOODGEGODKEYS

Oh, GROOOOOOOAN, yet another puzzle with gods hidden in phrases. And Rich Proulx couldn't even be bothered to locate them inside phrases, lazily resorting to circles higgledy-piggledy scattered about?

AND he drew from a mish-mash of backgrounds, Roman, Greek, Norse, and then back to Greek? Come on, at least be consistent! Make more of an effort to ...

Wait.

Oh.

Oh!

OOOOOOOH!

I love being slapped upside the head with my ego and stupidity. This is a true WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That) theme, where LOVE CONQUERS ALL contains the god … are you ready for it … this is so awesome … oh my god(s)! … THE GODDESS OF LOVE, VENUS!

This might be my all-time favorite within the "circles spread throughout phrases" theme type.

CRUCIVERA EXTOLS SUCH WORK DEARLY, SIR!

Thu 2/13/2020
CCSHERBSTAGE
HAIEAVEOCELOT
ORGINSERVIDAYS
OWNEDFIEFNAY
SAUCISHPRIMA
EXPOEINEBELAY
AUDINOIDEA
REVERSECTIONARY
GRATISEINK
SALTSFRETEPIC
HATHASHAVEDE
ETAOATHLETIN
ROLLTHEDICEADS
MALALATROULIU
ADAGEVESTSTS

Amanda Chung and Karl Ni ROLL THE DICE today, placing D I C E into dice-like visuals. At first, I wondered how an up-right-down movement was a "roll," but that led down a long Chidi-like internal debate of moral existentialism, and I had to slap myself upside the head.

I enjoyed several elements today:

  • Each of the D I C E roll clockwise (see, I told you, they're rolling. Okay, maybe not physically but in a metaphysical sense ... although one wonders — SLAP, STOP THAT!)
  • There are four instances, each starting with a different position, to cover all four possible clockwise permutations.
  • It's so neat to get entries that are longer than 15 letters. We rarely see something like REVERSE DICTIONARY; excellent themer choice.
  • Each DICE breaks across a phrase, and each phrase is exactly two words.

I've seen many up-right-down motion puzzles, so I appreciated all the elegant touches.

I could have used more polish in the grid, though. There was so much EAN EINE HAI MEIN RGS STS. Even taking out the worst one — EAN, a weird suffix — would have made a big difference. Perhaps a black square at the H of HEIDI would have been a quick fix, though it's hard to say if the opposite side would cooperate.

A lot of bonuses did help to balance out some of the infelicities — I love stately VALHALLA and, of course, my man, ARISTOTLE. Hmm. What would he say about the roll issue? Would he consider the ethical ramifications of --

*sound of "Nichomachean Ethics" dropped onto my head*

BTW, if you haven't done the Patrick Berry suite from 2011, I highly recommend it. I won't say why I thought of it today. Just do it.

Fri 2/14/2020
THESTOOGESTROT
HITCHARIDEHAVE
INTHATCASEEVEN
STARACEARENT
OILOLDWELSH
DEADCALMELI
AUDIOBOOKSSUMP
BRENNANOPENSET
SONGMICROCOSMS
EBBINTHERED
OVERLAINSOS
PALSYHESCOPE
ALECHOMEPLANET
LUNASPACEOPERA
SEATTEXTALERTS

Nerdboy SQUEE! Erwin Schrödinger, Han Solo, and Flash Gordon, all in one puzzle? It might be divisive, some solvers rolling their eyes at the concentration of dorkdom, but I tell you what — Daniel could have built a Sarlacc pit into the middle of the puzzle, and I still would have enjoyed it. THERE IS NO ESCAPE from the Sarlacc!

(Or maybe I would have enjoyed it even more. Sarlacc haters gonna hate.)

Excellent craftsmanship, with a notable exception. ONER is a "remarkable person"? More like remarkable crossword gloop. Tough to avoid, though, given the fixed pairing of HOME PLANET / SPACE OPERA.

If only George Lucas had named a famous droid ONE-R. Come on, Disney, help a constructor out!

Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy getting multiple grid-spanning entries within a themeless. If chosen wisely, they can make the puzzle sizzle. The trick is that they tend to create so many problems in the rest of the grid, either introducing a ton of short globbiness in the fill, or a lack of pizzazz in the remaining long slots. Today's was a great example of how it can be done right.

At least, for those of us who are fifth-order Jedi knights.

Sat 2/15/2020
SUCKDRYAPPEASE
INHEREDCHANTER
THREADSTORTOLA
SEISMSTANLINES
HASHEESHEOCENE
ITSADATESUEDES
VEINYESTERS
ADEREMAXTEA
HEADUPAWOLS
SALAMIRIPTIDES
ALEVELFREELOVE
LEVERETSLADLES
OPIOIDSHATPINS
OPENTAPEGOISTE
NOSEATSLENGTHS

Randy and I have different construction philosophies. He often chooses to build audacious grids that are far from standard, wanting a personal challenge to make it worth his time. As a driven, goal-oriented constructor, I understand that notion. He usually accepts too many trade-offs, though, leaving some of his puzzles with a less-than-optimal solving experience.

On a related note, I get why some themeless constructors try to build ultra-low word-count grids, flying close to the sun with their black and white wings. A vast majority of the time, the product is at best a crazy Saturday workout, and at worst, a miserable slog of a solve.

Add these two factors together, and you can understand why I wasn't looking forward to jumping into this one.

Hugely surprised that I enjoyed it! No doubt, there are many of the usual compromises in this stunt themeless — overreliance on common letters (ASSESSESS, RAILED AT, etc.), odd forms (CHANTER, INHERED), oddballs (PELAGE, PARLOUR, LEVERETS) — but there wasn't nearly as much short glue (ACTA, TSPS, YDS) as I expected.

More importantly, it's tough to get strong color in a grid like this. THE SMURFS, FREE LOVE, HASHEESH, IT'S A DATE, PHONE SEX, RIPTIDES, SIT SHIVA, TAN LINES, TODO LIST, DRAMEDY, OPIODS — that's excellent usage of long slots.

A couple of fantastic clues, too. The RED SEA having a major "part" in the Bible. STEED as a "knight mare." ERASES repurposing "get the lead out" — that's pencil lead. I smiled so hard at these; so delightful.

I don't enjoy experiencing ultra-low-word-counters more than once in a blue moon, but this is the type I want. You'll almost always have some compromises, but today's juicy long answers more than made up for the necessary unpleasantness.

Sun 2/16/2020 NUMBER THEORY
DRATDATIVESLIMUP
RECUTCINEMAXSPANISH
INTROAMILATELANDTAX
QUINCEJELLYQUINCE
POTUSCUSPEXAMS
GERMANAYEAYESIRMAW
DAFOEABAFTTHOLORI
ELFDOBBYTHEHOUSEELF
WASABIPEAOVIDTIBET
GETITHADESREPAY
SEIZEPOWERSEIZE
ACITYMOTESSOMNI
AMISSTAUTGODISGOOD
DUETOTHEFACTTHATDUE
INNSMRSKAZOONOICE
ORCDIETMENUSFRENCH
SAYSOARCSSIEVE
LOSTINTRANSLATION
BUSYBEEAKRONOHDETOO
ITALIANBIOLOGYARTOO
GENYERBATONSMYOB

Matt Gaffney's wonderful meta-puzzle series had an outstanding "foreign numbers doubling as English words" concept a few years back. After banging my head for 10+ hours, I admitted defeat, but I don't mind being stumped when a puzzle is that clever.

When it comes to Sunday puzzles, Will Shortz has to cater to an enormous audience, ranging from the most noob of newbs to the tip-top speed solvers. I don't envy him. I bet there are a lot of solvers out there who have never before thought about foreign numbers in this way. To them, this could be the perfect introduction to the idea.

I'm not a top solver, but I do have thousands of puzzles solved under my belt, so today's execution felt like it was hitting me over the head with a hammer — keyword within phrase PLUS keyword repeated elsewhere PLUS language in which the keyword is a number? That drained out most of the fun. I'd prefer something more playful, or at least less explainy.

Removing the language entry, i.e., no SPANISH and just QUINCE JELLY + QUINCE [FIFTEEN, in Spanish], would have made it less hammery. Would newer solvers understand what's going on, though? Maybe not.

What would be more playful approach? Maybe having the numbers spell out something in alphanumeric (A = 1, B = 2, etc.)? Making kooky number phrases like ELF ON THE SHELF = [Eleven magical creatures in a Berliner's room?] Not sure, but it's fun to think about.

Anyone else's eyes open wide when encountering BA__S = things passed between the legs? That's legs of a relay race. Ahem.

Not sure which is more appalling: where my mind first went, or my lack of understanding of basic anatomy.

Mon 2/17/2020
PUPANGEROVENS
ASLTULSAPEKOE
LAURABUSHELENA
SITUBEEARC
ROSALYNNCARTER
TRYOHSORRY
EPICGOTOAME
MICHELLEOBAMA
FOXMODSALPS
EJECTORSRO
HILLARYCLINTON
ANYLOXOVUM
AGINGBETTYFORD
GECKOBATHEISS
AMESSCROSSDEE

I wasn't sure what to expect from "Becoming." Of course I knew of Michelle Obama, but only as a first lady, not as an author. In the back of my head, I was skeptical. So many celebs write a book — that's more like "write" and "book."

Wow, was I wrong! Hearing her perspectives, learning about what made her into her, and getting insight into the Obama White House years was amazing. I was glad to see her featured today, front and center.

I was also glad to see another first-time author featured today. I would never have asked myself how many other first ladies have written books. It's so important for crosswords to cover a huge range of ideas — it's the key reason why I haven't become bored with crosswords in 10+ years now.

Fun to get NUBBLY and GLUEY next to each other. Now there are some words you don't see every day! Well, unless you read this column every day, in which case you're probably laughing at me right now. Glue glue glue!

Five longish themers is so tough, especially when you have a central 13 and two 14s. Sally did about the best job you could do with the layout, although I've found that pinching ROSALYNN CARTER and HILLARY CLINTON one row toward the middle often helps.

That might be counterintuitive. Maybe you'd think that more space between these three would be better, but as long as you can figure out a way to make the very center work, it usually means the rest of the puzzle is much smoother. You'd be able to avoid tough problems like the lower right corner (OVOID and OVUM are basically duplicates, and ISS and MDSE are not good). As it, it's kind of A MESS from a technical perspective.

Another revision in gridwork would have helped, but just like a first-time author must above all tell an interesting story, a first-time constructor must present a captivating theme. Success for both Michelle Obama and Sally Hoelscher!

Tue 2/18/2020
ARTSMUYABSORB
IDEALISTCRIMEA
GARDENEDRECALL
REWEDTIEHIE
AHADOTARDBAER
CAREORASENDS
TRIAGEDICTA
PARALLELPARKS
BRIANUNDEAD
DPLUSBCESIRE
REEDBAYINGSAW
AYNIANLEAPT
MONADSTEARLESS
ATOLLSCERBERUS
SENSEIUNSASEA

John and I love our national parks!

I cringe whenever spotting circles arranged in diagonal lines. They play havoc on a constructor's flexibility, rigidifying a grid right from the get-go. Take REDWOOD, for example. Every one of the squares flanking that entry (both above AND below it) has to work with REDWOOD now — AND its usual across and down crossing answers! "Triple-checking" is the bane of many a constructor's existence.

There was some YTD ORA TCU SSA UNS as I went, but it was much less than I expected. More importantly, it was all minor, stuff that most solvers can ignore, or should at least be able to figure out from the crosses. Given the high constraints, that's solid gridwork.

Why do the PARALLEL PARKs go diagonally? At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, parallel parking is usually ... parallel (to the curb). Except the way I do it, in which case the parks would be partially hanging off the grid. Yeah, it's not pretty.

Maybe John chose national parks that feature slanting trees and other diagonal visual wonders? It has been a long time since I've been to Redwood national park. Ah! I remember looking up, taking in the grandeur of it all, and ... THE TREES LOOKING ALL ANGLED BECAUSE OF PERSPECTIVE!

Sure, why not.

The first time I went to REDWOOD national park, my jaw dropped at the sights. I didn't have the same reaction today, but just like most any national park is pleasurable, so is most any well-constructed crossword.

Wed 2/19/2020
FISHETREPEROT
BANTULAOSGRAPE
RICESLYFTDRIVER
BLUESTEELRACERS
SPARTATNAE
TOTREUPINIT
ATOMKNICKKNACKS
SODASSPATGROAN
KEYSTONEKOPPOLO
HANAEKESKEG
IDSRAPREFI
NEPALISWIPELEFT
SWIPERIGHTKOJAK
EARPSITISERATO
TRESSISPYRARE

My recent Google search history:

"What does LIFTNICK mean in Tinder slang?"

"When young kids say LYFTKNICK what does that mean?"

"LIPHNIK definition"

"Is LK a thing? Or ELL-KAY?"

"Are you sure ELL KAY isn't a thing?"

"Are LYFT drivers notorious for side swiping other cars?"

"Why doesn't today's NYT crossword make sense?"

"Tinder terminology that uncool people don't understand"

"Will Jeff ever figure this out or will his rage continue to accelerate?"

"STOP SENDING ME TINDER ADS GOOGLE"

"HULK SMASH!"

For those of you (us) that need the theme explained (by the person that explained it to me):

  • SWIPE LEFT refers to the leftmost parts of LYFT DRIVER and KNICKKNACKS, and ...
  • LYFT and KNICK are homophones of LIFT and NICK
  • SWIPE RIGHT refers to the rightmost words of BLUE STEEL and KEYSTONE KOP, and ...
  • STEEL and KOP are homophones of STEAL and COP
  • LIFT, NICK, STEAL, and COP are all synonyms for SWIPE

But why is SWIPE LEFT on the right side? And SWIPE RIGHT on the left? Is this some tricksy Tinder thing?

GOOGLE, DAMMIT! I SAID STOP SENDING ME TINDER ADS!

Presentation of hidden synonyms is a tried and true theme type. I like Alex's finds and his attempt to do something a little different — there is a ton of stuff going on. Just like LYFT's old pink mustaches, this crossword is so crazy that maybe it's genius.

Okay, maybe not. There's so much potential for solvers to get left in the dust; so many steps to trip people up and cause frustration. A more straightforward approach, planned for a Monday or Tuesday, would have been so much more satisfying.

Still, I admire Alex's efforts to push the envelope. Not every new concept will work, but maybe they'll inspire other creative thinking.

POW Thu 2/20/2020
BAROBAMARSVP
OLEGALIASICEE
UPL8HUNCHPHEW
THEFOURTHEST8
SATUPPOLLS
PATTIPARDON
PAWH8RSGONNAH8
ISHSALUTZAP
TAILG8PARTYENS
ADRIANMUSIC
SALEMPLOWS
PIECESOFEIGHT
XR8DONAD8CR8R
FILLVIGILKEPI
LOSEEDENSSIP

★ The English alphabet offers so many opportunities for playfulness. Assuming capitalization, there are some letters that look like others when upside-down, ones that have reflective symmetry (A, H, I, etc.), splitsies, even some that become others when one half is lopped off. The possibilities for wordplay are endless!

I've seen several crosswords involving a letter or number split into two parts, so I wasn't wowed right off the bat by today's 8 -> double O. In fact, I was annoyed at first when I did the usual rebus schtick, entering OO into each square. Come on, Joe, that's an infinity sign, not an 8!

Nice shift of thinking when I realized my mistake and changed them into 8s.

There are so many touches I appreciated:

  • PIECES OF EIGHT makes for such an apt revealer.
  • Eight instances of the number 8! That's perfect.
  • Snazzy themer choices, with great ATE material like HATERS GONNA HATE ...
  • ... as well as long OO phrases like SCHOOL DAZE, WHIRLPOOLS, and even GOOF UP. It's much easier to use shorties like MOON, SOOT, TOON, etc. Going the extra mile in the OO themers added a lot of color.
  • The leap from EIGHT to ATE is a bit odd without having some way of explaining that, but the quality of the themers more than made up for the initial confusion.
  • So many of the 8s were within unusual sequences of letters. It's easy to see the ATE in THE FOURTH EST(ATE), not so much in XR_D. Oh man, that looked bizarre! I was sure I had something wrong, and it was such a nice victory when I figure out it was XR(ATE)D.

There are going to be folks on one end of the spectrum who think this is too easy; that they've seen stuff like this before. On the other end, some newer solvers will never figure out the connection between 8 and ATE. You'll never make everyone happy, but this one did a great job hitting a middle ground. All of Joe's time and effort showed through, both at making his theme feel elegant and at assembling a colorful, clean grid.

Fri 2/21/2020
BOTTLESSIDEBET
EVASIVEPREGAME
EURASIAROLODEX
FLORALPRINTMRT
EATSGLENSDOGE
DRSCRAFTTRUED
PAINECHATS
RUNNERSHIGH
HOPESEWERS
SILASSNEADLAD
ITLLSADATMAGI
THELUNARCRATER
PODCASTJOSHING
AMRADIOADVANCE
TESTEESREPLAYS

Wonderfully smooth 66-worder! I'm usually quickly aware of a themeless having a low word count; all sorts of compromises popping up to bog me down. I didn't even think to check afterward, since it solved like a squeaky-clean 70-worder. Impressive work for a new constructor. (Not a surprise for an Agard joint, though!)

I'm often wary of themelesses that don't have many long slots since it's hard to squeeze juice out of mid-lengthers and shorter. I understand why Erik and Anne loaded up on the 7-letter entries though — think about how much harder the construction would be if they had shifted the black squares in rows 1-3 to the right. Instead of a 4x7 space in the upper left, you'd have a 4x8, which is maybe an order of magnitude tougher to fill.

Even though there are only ten long slots (of 8+ letters), they're used so well. RUNNERS HIGH is a great phrase, and referencing "rush" in two ways makes it even better. Similarly, SWEAR JAR's clue elevated it, amusingly using comic book-style punctuation.

Even REFERENDA is interesting, what with the non-S pluralization. So much pizzazz out of these ten long entries.

Some of the mid-lengthers were colorful, too, EURASIA, PODCAST, ROLODEX, SIDE BET, in particular. However, entries like ADVANCE, BOTTLES, EMERGES, TESTEES aren't going to win any prizes.

I found this puzzle more of a Saturday experience, mainly due to the cluing. There were so many that totally didn't go over my head (okay, maybe they did). Here are a few:

  • "Mare" is the Latin word for "sea," used to describe LUNAR CRATER.
  • Helpful word in solving cryptograms is THE? But aren't cryptograms those puzzles with the funny pictures that stand for words … never mind, I'm an idiot. They're the tricksy enigmas where one letter substitutes for another, and the frequent instances of THE in the English language often serves as a toehold to get started.
  • PRE-GAME warm-up shots are NBA shoot-arounds … and … taking liquor shots before parties? Snapping pictures? Not sure.
  • TRUED refers to "trueing" something, i.e. fixing something that's skewed.

I did get one of them right away! [Mount Sinai people] refers to Mount Sinai Hospital, not the actual mountain. Yes! I like it when a puzzle allows me to feels smarter than it.

Overall, a pleasantly smooth and piquant solve — albeit making me feel sheepishly stupid one too many times.

Sat 2/22/2020
MCCAINOFFTO
QUIZZICALLOOK
QUOTATIONMARKS
BURNERTOPSY
AAADIPOLESHOW
MYNANAMEDBABE
SCAGGSNOMAD
TRAIPSEPARLEYS
HILDABEAPAL
ISLEHOPUPSERB
SKAROYALLYMOA
FLIESIOMOTH
FROZENDAIQUIRI
DENOFINIQUITY
REEDSARSENE

Ah, Trenton, I got your number! As soon as I saw his byline, I started thinking, where will the Qs be? The Zs? The Xs? [Expression of one at sea …] IT HAS TO START WITH QUIZZICAL! Summertime cocktail … FROZEN DAIQUIRI!

I felt so smug, my knowledge of Trenton's body of work coming in handy yet again. I enjoy when a puzzle pumps up my smugness. (Neither my kids nor my wife enjoy it nearly as much.)

There's not much else besides the long feature across answers, but RISK FREE, FOR SHAME and APPLIQUE are all assets. In total, there's enough color to pass my bar — DEN OF INIQUITY nears that level all on its own — although I wouldn't call it outstanding.

Man oh man, was I sure there was an error in the grid. PARLAYS is misspelled! So what if [Negotiation talks] doesn't seem accurate for PARLAYS? There's some crazy Saturday wordplay kink … ah, I got it. PARLAYS are bets involving the prior bet, in the vein of "double or nothing." In this case, you either double the A to get two total As, or you put in an E if the odds are nothing. The E is odd!

Math is hard. So is English.

So is seeing a weird word like PARLEYS that maybe I should have recognized.

The only grid blip: ROTI crossing MOA. I'd cry foul if this were a Monday puzzle. Even a Wed. Okay, maybe a Thursday, too.

But what happens on a Saturday stays on a Saturday!

As much as I usually enjoy rare letters — and Trenton integrates them as well as anyone — I'm becoming a bit too smug for my britches when it comes to doing the Charlson. I'd love to see him innovate and push his oeuvre a bit.

Sun 2/23/2020 RESOLVED
DESPAIRDRJSEPTORME
ENCARTAYOOTRIONEIL
EGOTRIPSKYRINGCYCLE
REPRESSYOURLUCKHMONG
LEIAHENIOCISEVEY
ORIELSDAKSEALE
EMITRELATETOTHEPARTY
VIDASTALKHUHDOUGIE
EXACTSTAINTEALRILE
TOPITEMUNITARDS
AIRRESENTPACKINGLAH
THELORAXSARAGIS
PACEFLEDLIMOSFELIX
AVENGECEOMERITCONE
RESTOCKSANDBONDSOWNS
SORTATYRAICAHN
IMPGOTHOYSTAEDAM
NOOSERETURNTHETABLES
SNOWSKIERUIESIDEONE
UGLIINLANNEARTSALE
MOSTRASPSOLROOTFOR

My first attempt at a Sunday puzzle was a RE- addition! Jill and I were in Guatemala, and I had my nose buried in our English to Spanish dictionary — the R section of the English side. There are so many RE- words that simply mean "do X again" that it took forever to find anything of interest. The themers were so memorable that I can't bring a single one to mind. Not a surprise that Will politey said that there was a RE-mote chance he'd take it.

About five years ago, Sam Donaldson asked me to work with him on a Sunday puzzle — a RE- addition! I've worked on a couple more over the years, too. I've found that they largely live or die by their humor — it's easy to make RE- phrases; not so easy to make them interesting.

Sophia and David did well overall. Someone yelling REPRESS YOUR LUCK! at the craps table is funny. RELATE TO THE PARTY brings up the Democratic presidential candidates opening mouths and inserting feet. Oh, Joe Biden, maybe do less talking and more quiet nodding.

There wasn't one themer that I wanted to post to Insta (if I had an Insta, or knew the terminology for posting to Insta), but there wasn't any one that made roll my eyes. That's a success.

I'd have liked more bonuses and less glue in the grid, though. There's no doubt that a Sunday 140-word puzzle is daunting, and especially so when it's your first puzzle (welcome to the club, David!). The reason Rich over at the LAT puts a hard cap of four partials in a Sunday puzzle is that they come across as inelegant. To have IN LA, OR ME, A LOAF, I HAVE, ON YOU can leave a feeling of lack of polish.

There's nothing wrong with the grid skeleton. It's more a matter of when you come into a situation where you need something like A LOAF to finish a corner; it's better to suck it up and iterate.

It's a fine theme for newer Sunday solvers. Easy enough to figure out and worth a laugh or two.

Mon 2/24/2020
SHODSICKOBOA
LEVIAMAINRUMP
IRANVERNEARES
POLICEDOGHINGE
NAMBARISTAS
MONGRELLOCI
UBOATEFFSNASH
SOILAGORAGLUE
SERFSAGEUTTER
ROILDOSHOTS
FACEOFFSWEE
AWASHOPENSFIRE
NARCCRATELOOM
TIVOACTORATOM
ATETEENSGAMY

A few months ago, Will Shortz mentioned that he had too many "hidden words" themes on file. Ever since then, I've noticed just how many have cropped up (in the NYT as well as other venues). Tried and true, no doubt! So my first reaction to today's GALF—that's FLAG "raised"—was a shrug.

However, there are a few aspects that make today's stand out. Although it is the same string of letters repeated over and over, GALF is unusual. Even if they had been circled, I still wouldn't have figured out the theme until hitting the revealer.

There's a surprising tightness, too. I was sure there would be a dozen phrases containing GALF, but CENTRIFUGAL FORCE was the only one not included. At 16 letters, it's too long to fit into a standard 15x15 grid, anyway. I have a feeling Jacob found it and then swore at Crucivera, the cruel god of crosswords.

I would have gone with LEGAL FORMS or LEGAL FIELD, which sound more familiar to my ear than LEGAL FORCE, but the Goog don't lie. LEGAL FORCE is no doubt legal.

Best yet, great find in DINING AL FRESCO! GALF going across three words is cool.

It's tough to encounter something odd like AMAIN right off the bat in a Monday puzzle. You run the risk of a solver scratching their head (or worse) and deciding to do something else. Along with EFFS AGORA and even ROIL, the solving experience isn't friendly for newbs.

The A-MAIN problem is that at 14 letters, RAISING THE FLAG has to pinch toward the middle, placed in row 12 instead of row 13. Making the grid 15x14 (squatter than the usual 15x15) would help a ton, allowing RAISING THE FLAG to go back to row 13, allowing for better spacing of themers.

Overall though, I appreciate the effort to elevate the theme above and beyond the usual "hidden words."

Tue 2/25/2020
JONASSPORTLASS
REACHERRORANEW
SUITENITTIVIDI
FRIENDSHIPGAMES
ITISSOOILERS
RACISMELLA
ORBHOPEDIAMOND
ONEAMLEVYSPREE
FORWARDPASSCHE
SKEEORCHID
LICHENHARBOR
INDUSTRYLEADERS
NARCAIDEDHEATS
EWOKLORRYAPNEA
DEMSSTATEMOTTO

Peter's suggested titles crack me up. Not because they're funny, but because they make me laugh at my own idiocy. I read "Eureka moment" and figured he accidentally referenced a different puzzle. No? My train (wreck) of thought:

  • Eureka … how is Aristotle involved? Knowing Peter, Aristotle's name might be hidden somewhere?
  • D'oh! It wasn't Aristotle in the bathtub. It was … hey Kool-aid Man! I mean, hey, Siri!
  • Siri: ARCHIMEDES, dummy.
  • That's what I meant all along. Stupid brain and SIRI, you thought I was being serious? SCREW you! Get it? Archimedes screw? Ha ha, I'm so clever!
  • Archimedes screw. Huh! Answers screw up the grid in some way?
  • (down an hour-long rabbit hole)
  • EUREKA means "I've found it." That's so not applicable to me vis-a-vis Peter's meaning.
  • WTF does "vis-a-vis" mean, anyway? What's it doing on a Tuesday puzzle's revealer?
  • (down another rabbit hole--hey, "vis-a-vis a visa" is funny!)
  • (after an hour) Brain: Jeff, didn't you grow up in California?
  • Siri: California, you know, whose STATE MOTTO is …
  • QUIET, YOU! I KNEW THAT!

Amazingly tight set of themers. I didn't recognize any of the words as STATE MOTTOs, but perusing the Wikipedia page in a vain attempt to make myself appear more educated than I really am (yes, I have two master's degrees), I discovered that there are only five states with one-word (English) mottos. Amazing that they can all start reasonable phrases!

I wonder if shading the words FRIENDSHIP, HOPE, FORWARD, INDUSTRY, would have been a better approach. Given that exactly 0.002 out of 100 Americans could identify these STATE MOTTOs, it's not like it would have given away the game, and it would have helped them stand out.

How about running them vertically … so that the MOTTOs looked like they were at the top of a flag! (Brain: you know that not all state flags have their motto — ENOUGH ALREADY, BRAIN!) That could have helped with the layout, too, allowing for STATE / MOTTO to be in mirror positions instead of oddly broken up at the last and second-to-last across slots.

It's not a clean or newb-accessible grid, what with a whole lot of ARNO CBER NEHI NIMH, etc., but I appreciated the theme more and more over time. It was the right balance of teaching something without feeling teachy.

Wed 2/26/2020
GRAMMYONKPKAT
RADIOSROARONO
ATONALATTESTTO
BEGUNPLAYMOBIL
SEGAIDID
HIPSDONTLIESKI
ESAIPAWDRAPED
LEIGHMODSURLY
PERNODPEPTELL
SMSTROMPELOEIL
AFARTROT
ASYOUWISHRUSSO
GOANDSEEBENHUR
OAKGINAONEALL
GPSENTSBADGUY

I bet this one will play out better for people who know who BIL/LIE EIL/ISH is. Like me! I'm cool! I know young people things!

Okay, I don't.

Curious presentation, placing BIL LIE EIL ISH at the ends of four phrases. It's novel, no doubt. It'd have been awesome if one of her songs was titled FINAL THREE, or FOUR BY THREE. Billie, I've got your number!

Huh? That's Jenny, I've got your number?

I don't know old people things, either.

Cheeky move to place AUTOTUNED in a BILLIE EILISH tribute puzzle. Billie, if you want to call to complain, Francis's number is 867-5309.

Thu 2/27/2020
BASSLSATRUN
WORTHACLUCAPE
HOMERTHEBORDER
OMMINERSPOINT
NEROMASONS
ANDREWDIALS
WEREBRIARSFE
LAOSLINGOMAAM
TOGOOGOOASIA
ILOSENETTLE
LEANEDRVER
ALLENBSIDESTW
SOMESPACECAREW
IPADCLAWTRUES
KEYPITSSIGN

SCHRÖDINGER'S CAT was just in another recent crossword. Perhaps it's both there and here today! That darn cat.

Will Shortz once told me that solvers like to fill in boxes, the more definitively, the better. There's something so satisfying about completing that last square and calling it a victory. So I immediately paused when I saw the note about 16 possible solutions. Talk about indefinite!

However, I enjoyed Andrew and John's concept. There have been a lot of Schrödingers in the NYT by now, and this one isn't quite like any I've seen.

And how meta, that TWO is played upon in the lower right corner! So appropriate for having TWO solutions down there.

It wouldn't have occurred to me that there were multiple solutions if it hadn't been for the note, though. For example, in that lower right, I put in TEEN and WOWS without another thought. Even after realizing that there needed to be an alternate solution, I struggled to come up with OWS as "reactions to shocks." A stretch.

Also a stretch: I NEED / SOME SPACE. It's not nearly as good at explaining the concept as CROSS THE BORDER.

All in all, a solid construction, impressive considering how difficult it is to work around Schrödinger squares. The solve left something to be desired, though, since it's already hard to know what to put inside a Schrödinger box, and having a combination of rebus / single letters makes it that much more confusing.

I wonder if putting a circle between the two squares — giving a place for solvers to write in the back-and-forth letter — would have made for a more satisfying (if not as Schrödinger-esque) solve.

ADDED NOTE: It wasn't until Andrew and John sent their thoughts that I noticed which four letters were swapping back and forth: M E O W. What a nice touch!

Fri 2/28/2020
BINGEWATCHESA
ESCAPEROOMEVIL
DEATHTRAPSMAXI
SEASNADAPANTS
PAYRELIGHT
OHSTOPFEMALES
RECUTSONICLEE
EARTHSHATTERING
ODEOPALSBOSSA
HEALERSLOOTED
SUNDECKSOS
ANTESNACLBMWS
UTEPMAKEITRAIN
NESTIDONTWANNA
ARTCONTAINING

This came so close to a POW! Chock-full of colorful entries and fun clues, there was so much to love.

Usually, when there's a marquee 15-letter entry, there's not as much juice as in a usual themeless. Not the case today! Impressive that Aimee still included 14 other long (8+ letters) slots. I especially like how she ran so many through the middle of EARTH SHATTERING: POTHOLES, SHARKNADO, COPARENTS, PLACEBOS.

Even more impressive: she used all her slots so well! CONTAINING is the only one that didn't do much for me, and that's an amazing hit rate. BINGE WATCH, ESCAPE ROOM, EVANGELIST, SIXTH SENSE, HEADHUNTER … MAKE IT RAIN is right!

There were so many clues that were spot-on. Sometimes themeless clues get too clever for their own good, making me feel like a moron for not getting them. Not to worry, since "… requires thinking inside the box?" is perfect for ESCAPE ROOM. [Org. that holds many conferences] is trickier, but it's so brilliant. (Not conferences that people attend, but conferences separating the NCAA divisions.)

It pains me that my constructor's brain nit-picks. That lower right corner has MAKE IT RAIN and I DON'T WANNA, so I should love it. Is having two tough propers in AKON and WINN worth it, along with TWI? Maybe, but I couldn't stop myself from seeing if there were cleaner and equally colorful possibilities if you stripped back the corner. (There was a sharknado of options.)

All throughout the grid, I tried to ignore the pauses I took at EPH, NACL, BOSSA (can't clue it many ways), as well as RECUT reechoing RELIGHT. Couldn't do it, though.

These days, 70-word themelesses have to be absolutely perfect; stunning for me to perk up. Sometimes I get wistful for the days back when I first cracked into themelesses and simply enjoyed them.

Sat 2/29/2020
RADISHJAMESON
ARETHACAROLINA
GOSTAGONENINTH
ADSGASLEAKS
EGGROLLSICUS
PREYCELWORST
BATEGIGECONOMY
ARMPREEMIETIL
BEEFHOTDOGTONE
ENNUIYENKANT
STUNLPGATOUR
KEYARENAISM
AGERANGEOLIVIA
BOYARDEETAMERS
STEPPESESPRIT

Another solid "stair stack" offering from Andrew. I like the variations, 1) orienting the stair stack vertically, and 2) making the lengths different (12-13-12) instead of keeping them all the same. It's a minor detail, but it is nice to see something different, at least for those of us familiar with Andrew's body of work and style.

Some brilliant clues:

  • Loved the play on "frozen assets" to clue DESSERT MENU.
  • "Skort circuit" made me laugh (many female golfers on the LPGA TOUR wear skorts).
  • [Main issues?] is another brilliant one, referring to a gas main.

Some that I'll have to explain to people barraging me with questions (and admittedly, for which I had to research to figure out):

  • [One raising an issue] is a PARENT? Yes, when "issue" takes the legal definition of "child of one's own." This could have used a question mark in the clue.
  • "Barber" apparently has a verb usage. And that usage covers styling? Huh. Maybe, I guess.
  • WORST can be defined as "get the better of, defeat," so [Trounce] is technically accurate. (When you have to say "can be defined as" and "technically" …)
  • BATE is in the dictionary. True story!

Along with the arbitrary ONE NINTH and its crazy clue about fraction of people living on an island, and not being terribly familiar with JANELLE MONAE or the CROTON RIVER, it's not my favorite of Andrew's. Still, a solid Saturday solve, if a bit more confusing than exhilarating.