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Puzzles for February, 2021
with Jeff Chen comments

Mon 2/1/2021
APPTYAMAPLUS
FURYMAKESEETO
TRIPALBAKEANU
ESSENTIALWORKER
REMASTERRUG
YESGOTRICH
ASIGNWINOSHA
HOMECOMINGQUEEN
AMMOCUZUPEND
BEARHUGMFA
GELMARIANAS
USMILITARYDRONE
STEALHIVEMIND
DUNNOEMIRERIE
AFUSSMSNDEER

Every daily crossword this week, made by an African-American constructor? Awesome! I hope we get to the point one day where the records lists will be filled with people of all different backgrounds. Not that there's anything wrong with white men! Taking up (at least) 18 of the top 25 slots, though? Really?

Featuring YouTube clips starring only white men? Really, Jeff?
Dammit!

ESSENTIAL WORKER — that's the type of debut I love. Talk about today's heroes! Great way to kick off a bee crossword, WORKER, QUEEN, DRONE tied nicely together with HIVE MIND.

I found it odd, though, to tack on US to MILITARY DRONE. Feels arbitrary. Perhaps mirror symmetry would have been better — lengths of 15, 15, 13, 4/4 scream for a left-right layout.

I've seen this theme often, a quick search for *DRONE* quickly turning one up. There's room to redo themes, especially if you use a fresh phrase like ESSENTIAL WORKER, but I want something elevating it even more than including a revealer in HIVE MIND.

Perhaps a hexagon of black squares in the middle of the grid? Or a swarm of Bs clustered in the center of the puzzle?

IMMA is the kind of debut I'm not wild about. Although partials are inelegant, I'd much rather have A SIGN or A FUSS since these are easier for early-week solvers to figure out.

Some beautiful long bonuses! PEER GROUP stands out, and BEAR HUG / GOT RICH are fun, too. Usually, I'd classify GEORGIANS as more neutral, but I enjoyed the fresh clue about the recent election.

Not as friendly to newer solvers as a Monday puzzle should be — MARIANAS Trench and OCULI potentially off-putting — but I appreciated the drive to do something a little different with the grid.

Tue 2/2/2021
HATTONDAPBOP
AIROUTSEGAANA
GRASSHOPPERLDS
LISTREEESTES
MINUSMANONICE
INSPHARDKNOCKS
LEEAYNSTEW
KSTATEHOSERS
SONSYENCEL
CLAYMATIONRONA
DATESACSBETTY
RIOTSNOHASOF
ADDTENNISCOURT
CUDAXISANDREA
KPSROCLESSEN

Ade! One of my favorite people to hang out with, back when I was going to the ACPT regularly. So much laughter, so little negativity. He does a great job with his Crossword Fiend reviews; his "Sports Will Make You Smarter" always engaging. It's neat to hear someone talk about something they care so deeply about.

Perfect Ade theme today, the famous TENNIS COURT surfaces disguised at the starts of themers. These might not be apparent to sportsball haters, but they're (mostly) familiar, even to us peripheral tennis fans — the GRASS courts of Wimbledon, the CLAY courts of the French Open, the … other one.

You know, the cement ones?

Would you believe ... asphalt?

They call them HARD courts? Man, that's oddly hard to figure out.

So many great bonuses in the grid today! K STATE (Kansas State) might be tough for early-week solvers to figure out, but it's so in line with Ade's work. Same with NEON clued as NEON Deion.

I also enjoyed the colloquial clues for DEPENDS and OK THEN — reminded me of hanging out with crossword friends in person. Someday once again.

Early-week puzzles typically break up a grid's sides into three chunks — top, middle, and bottom. Ade mostly did that today, although he eschewed a black square at the L of AIRLINES, shooting for the stars. I'd rather have the more standard approach since HATTON is a tough way to kick off a puzzle, and INSP looks odd.

In the opposite corner, there's BACNE — "back acne." Not the prettiest grid entry, and that's not even mentioning the visuals it evokes. A more standard approach to four themers could have massaged out the ORMAN / REE crossing and some LDS ESTES KPS EXO too.

Overall, though, I appreciated how this puzzle reminded me of someone who's so much fun to be around. Great to get some individualized touches like an MLK reference to RIOTS, ROC as the classic Charles S. Dutton show, and of course, all the sports references. There's a reason Jeanette LEE is called "The Black Widow."

POW Wed 2/3/2021
PUBSCABSGPS
ISAACOUNCEROI
NONVIOLENCEAPP
GEORGIASFIFTH
ROOMBANINTRO
CRUELBITCOIN
ACTOCASIOANOS
JOHNLEWIS
BIWAATONALSAO
ANEMONEKNACK
DEVILOFFAYES
FREEDOMRIDERS
ATMGOODTROUBLE
TIEALOESSTOOL
SATGARROOPS

★ A great man, JOHN LEWIS. Last year, I read the "March" trilogy, awed by his strength and courage in the face of so much hatred. It's a gripping read; highly recommended.

I was curious why this puzzle came out so long after his passing — usually, some constructor scrambles to put together a tribute so it can run a week or two afterward. I do like that it's running during a week where all the NYT constructors are African-American, though, as well as at the start of Black History Month.

The FREEDOM RIDERS ... it's hard to imagine how frightening that must have been. I hesitate to go into parts of our country today because some folks have out and out said they don't like people "like me." To get on those buses in the face of vitriol a million times more intense is bravery beyond belief.

GOOD TROUBLE is a fantastic phrase. That's well worth highlighting, evoking the subtly powerful smile Lewis often gave people.

I wasn't a huge fan of some aspects of the work today — GEORGIA'S FIFTH felt forced into being a theme answer to observe symmetry, stacking themers resulted in OOLA, Lake BIWA is a deep cut. It would have been awesome if the themers had told the story of his life more, rather than being an assorted collection of themers. I'd even be fine ditching symmetry to achieve that.

Overall, though, a welcome celebration of an amazing man, someone who continues to inspire and make a difference even after his death.

Thu 2/4/2021
WELDMEANFAVE
ELOIACAIIVEY
DORAJOHNDEERE
ELLENEINAWL
SALSASPEDWII
ONEIOTAMUSTANG
PAINTITANKH
SCOOPANGST
BARREBRAND
ONEAWEDDING
DISPOSESWEETEN
AMIBAMINSITU
KIDAGEADDIS
SUBMARINEGNAT
TARAIKEANOME
SLRSLEGSSTYX

Derek! I enjoy working with him and reading his Crossword Fiend reviews. Such a mellow guy, churning through crosswords on his path to speedier solving. I'm impressed at how hard he works at it, grinding away at multiple puzzles a day, always with a positive word to say each and every one.

Of all my pop culture deficiencies, music is one of my worst. The only songs I knew with 100% certainty were BLACK OR WHITE, YELLOW SUBMARINE, and WHITE WEDDING. For Pete's sake, I could barely recognize Car Dib — er, Cardi B — much less the cryptic BODAK YELLOW. It's a shame that Lorde's GREENLIGHT wasn't Yellow Light, which would have been much more appropriate for my oafishness today.

Unusual layout. I don't often pay attention to black square count, but today, I noticed that it felt high. Those four black squares in the upper right and lower left weigh things down, as do the Tetris blocks in the middle.

Still, I don't mind if it's the cost of keeping the grid smooth. I was worried, hitting ELOI (crossed with ELO, tough for music idiots like myself) so quickly, but with only some EIN (employer identification number) and ATOB after that, I appreciated the high smoothness factor.

Dynamite clue for PAWS. [Feet in a pound], oh, that's a gimme! TWELVE, of course.

Yeah, that was honestly what I tried to enter … and into only four squares. Hey, it's a rebus puzzle, right?

Talk about deficiencies.

These days, rebus puzzles have become so commonplace that it's essential to have some explainer to give solvers an a-ha; an "of course that's why we shoved a bunch of letters into a single box." I didn't get that today, nor did I understand why pop songs? Why colors? If only there were some phrase like COLORFUL SQUEEZE MUSIC.

Any circus accordion players in the house?

Still, it was fun to see BLACK OR WHITE so elegantly tucked into the middle of the grid, with PAINT IT BLACK and WHITE WEDDING neatly coming off of that. And always great to see my buddy Derek's byline.

Fri 2/5/2021
ITSONSEESFIT
NEWDADHAVEAGO
TREETOPERECTED
ERASCROLLRITA
NARCSOILEMIT
DIJONFLOWSTATE
NAVELBUICK
REPARATIONS
RAZORSTOPS
IMALLEARSSCOOP
MOREDELAKILL
PORTATLASTLOU
ALITTLETAGTEAM
CAVEATSPIERCE
THEROOTFASTS

Erik's puzzles are always chock full of incredible clues. The telltale question mark made me realize that something was going on with [Pop up a lot, perhaps?]. Even being out of that NEW DAD state for only a few years, it eluded me to the end. Now I'm just "pop up and perpetually tired"!

I also struggled mightily with [Pair of rings?]. Even after filling in TAG TEAMS, I didn't get it. Fantastic a-ha when I realized it referred to a pair (of wrestlers) of (wrestling) rings. The grammar is more than a bit twisted, but it's well worth it.

My favorite, though, was SWEAR JAR's fantastic [A fine way to discourage foul language?]. A+ entry with even more pluses for that clue.

I didn't know FLOW STATE, so it didn't elate me, but it's easy enough to comprehend. Funny that a phrase used in the clue, "in the zone," is so much zingier.

REPARATIONS as a central entry for this African-American constructors' week is a bold choice. I had no idea that a bill about it gets introduced during every Congress. One of my mom's best friends was in the Japanese internment camps and got REPARATIONS back in 1988. What should be done about African-American and Native American reparations ... glad I'm not in Congress.

I enjoyed learning other facts, too. I knew Marcus Garvey and the Back to Africa movement, but I had no idea he wore a helmet with PLUMES.

Neat to get some Islamic touches, too, with both FATIMA and the cluing for FASTS.

A solid puzzle; I appreciated the many Agardian elements.

Sat 2/6/2021
LEOMILHEY
INNEEDOFHONE
STEPHANIEHELGA
PECSHERSTORIES
ERABORSCHTBELT
DIRGESTARWARS
CARPSSPOIL
TEACHEARTH
ATLASTIEIN
SATIATEDNANOS
THEWESTWINGDUE
NONONSENSEEFTS
OVERTDISHITOUT
TEAKNERDCORE
ELSDUOTNT

This 62-worder gets KAC another place on our lowest word-count page. The knock on these puzzles is that they tend to be full of gloopy short fill and/or drab long entries, but excellent results. Amazing job on the first issue — aside from the ooky EFTS, there's only a minor EPS.

More importantly, to get so many great long entries is rare within this themeless subgenre. BORSCHT BELT, HOT WIRING, NO NONSENSE, NO U-TURN, STAR WARS (with a fantastic tour de "force" clue, ha!) — that's great stuff. I enjoyed BE PATIENT, DISH IT OUT, NERDCORE, too.

I wasn't so sure about HERSTORIES. A friend of mine recently rolled her eyes at someone (a guy) for using the word "herstory," partially because it's a passé term (according to her), and she didn't like the guy appropriating the word.

Probably didn't help that he was trying to mansplain it to her.

The rest of the fill ... ENTERIC, SESTET weren't so great. SATIATED, plus so much of the mid-length material, was more neutral than an asset. There were so many common letters in ENGELS, LISPED, S CLASS, AENEAS, DISSED, and the odd HATTED.

All that said, it's a standout puzzle within its class. It's rare to get a themeless so heavy on the 5-6 letter range — almost half of the total — so I enjoyed the novelty.

ADDED NOTE: I had a rough time with all this — Kameron sprang this on me with no warning, an hour before the puzzle went live, so I had to scramble to process and figure out what to do. Didn't sleep all night and probably won't for days. But he has valid points, and so I decided as painful as this would be, it was important to post it all, word for word. I've always said this is a site highlighting constructors, and I should live up to that.

Yes, it's probably best to take my personal opinion, especially as biased and uninformed as it can be, out of the equation. I apologize to Erik, to Kameron, and to whoever else I may have hurt. People ought to feel heard, able to promote their beliefs, and I was inhibiting that.

Sun 2/7/2021TODDLER TALK
DOCKPOISEPSSTABIT
OPRAHASNERLASHTENS
UTILETAKEAWAYNECHECK
LIMERICKINAFLORAS
ANELEPHANTINTHEWOMB
SOYERASEBODEREK
SWEATWIGDOORSELI
HITWOKBOTTOMNODAWOL
ANNELOUSEWEAKADEPT
DEADHEATCASHSNORES
GETWITCHQUICK
PIVOTSEKESNCAAGAME
IVANVVIESPACERALOE
ZINEHOGTHEWHEELDEAL
ZENSACHAARMUSEBY
ADASTRASALSAOYL
WEEDBETWEENTHELINES
SCHWASLOLAIRALERT
WHISKEYBUSINESSBICEP
AUTOLEONLEVEEYUCCA
GMENLEWDLEASEMOTT

Excellent Sunday puzzle, well above the overall average. Note that I didn't say well above Sunday average — Sundays have been underwhelming and not as well-executed as weekday puzzles in recent memory. Thus, this puzzle is way above the typical Sunday offering these days.

It's not a groundbreaking concept — change the R sound to a W, emulating TODDLER TALK — but there's definitely room for tried-and-true concepts if they're done well. And this one is exemplary. We usually judge a sound change puzzle by:

Neat spelling changes. RAIN to WAYNE is fantastic, as are ROOM to WOMB and RISKY to WHISKEY. Not a one is a simple R to W letter substitution, like REB to WEB or REED to WEED.

Amusing results. Batman having to pay for Batmobile upgrades with a paper check = hilarious! Finishing dinner by HITting WOK BOTTOM. And a feel-good moment with AN ELEPHANT IN THE WOMB.

Colorful bonuses. BEER BREWER, DEAD HEAT, HARD SELL, VANNA WHITE, THE F WORD (cheeky!), that's great. But wait, there's more? LIMERICK, NCAA GAME, BO DEREK, ON A HUNCH. Wow!

Smooth short fill. I didn't hitch once in my solve. All you can point out for sure are ALEE and YEE. Given that the typical NYT Sunday has about a dozen dabs of gloop, this is outstanding.

There's no secret to executing on a grid like this. Get yourself a reasonable word list (that separates fine entries from questionable ones), and keep on testing different grid skeletons until you land on something that works without relying on any glue. You'll undoubtedly have to introduce a dab or two to remove dupes, select more colorful bonuses, etc., but more than five is plain lazy. It baffles me that the norm is about 12.

Christina gets how to make a great puzzle, forcing herself to work with only fine grid entries. This is the Patrick Berry school of thought that most everyone aspires to. Yet she's one of the handful who's shown that she truly gets it. It's fantastic that she's passing on these lessons to others.

Mon 2/8/2021
JADAMTWTFLPS
EVILCOWARDERA
NOSECMINORTIN
NICEJOBSTRAYED
ADOLYRAHUGOS
MAOASPTOUTS
ORBSHITECHRET
POOHADOREOHSO
PCBTHERMOWASP
SAUNARIAALI
FLINTAFTSRFK
LEAPDAYRAKEDIN
ALTEMOPOPTOTO
OLEMEDUSATWIT
SADRANTSANNS

What a fun touch to put MEDUSA in a hair-themed puzzle! Although, I wouldn't want to be the one to tell her, come on, LET YOUR HAIR DOWN already. Come to think of it, the same goes for Lara Croft. I'm sure that both would leave the messenger more than a little DISCOMBOBULATED.

Wait. MEDUSA does leave people in a state of PERMAFROST. Huh ...

Kidding aside, I enjoyed the HAIR DOWN party. Something visually interesting about getting tresses falling within Down theme answers. BRAID within TOMB RAIDER is a great find.

I wondered about BOB. Will is usually strict about "hidden words" having to be broken across two words, like BILBO BAGGINS or TURBO BOOST. A short trigram found encapsulated within a long word isn't that interesting (although some editors are much more lax about this).

A treat to get ROC-A-FELLA (such a great pun!) and the tarot's high PRIESTESS, along with DR RUTH and some EMO POP, ASTORIA. Solid bonuses.

Some may wonder, was the trade-off of having ROCAFELLA/PRIESTESS worth the price of OPPS, PCB, LPS, RET? Why not split up those long bonuses and fill the grid more cleanly?

A-ha! Because Portia was already at the 78-word maximum. It's tough to avoid this sort of compromise when you're working with a vertically-oriented theme because the alternative often is to work with long Across bonuses instead (for example, removing the block between CMINOR and TIN). However, including long Across bonuses tends to muddy up what is theme and what is not.

I do think that with four themers, the grid could have had as many bonuses while being cleaner, but that's asking for more or less a total redo, spending fewer black squares in the center of the grid.

All in all, an entertaining debut, albeit with some elements that produced a few tangles.

Tue 2/9/2021
ATOPTOMBFRANK
NINEKNEERANGE
KEEPYOURSHIRTON
ARISESLEEVE
REDINKTWOHAS
ADAOFFSLOUSE
EMAILNOGGIN
HANGONTOYOURHAT
ALIGNSRAISE
TABOOPAYSBOT
ESSLAOENSURE
CITINGPARES
TIGHTENYOURBELT
URIAHTRESEASE
BENDSSORERUED

I enjoy this theme type, figures of speech tied together unexpectedly. There's something entertaining about this triad, all suggesting that you stay dressed. What a prude, Colin! It's also neat that I couldn't think of any others that would fit — the "tightness" makes for an elegant package. Because of that, I don't mind that there are only three themers.

What else could work? Is there such a thing as "Don't take off your sweatpants?"

Ooh! "Leave your socks on!" That's something my wife tells me when—

Never mind.

Solid early-week gridwork, a friendly product for newer solvers. Some won't have heard of Laura NYRO — nor the old world blackbird, MERL — but the crossings make those unambiguous. Along with some fun and accessible bonuses like FRIVOLOUS, MONOLITHS, NOGGIN, and OR ELSE, I'd be fine handing this one to my less experienced crosswording friends.

I would have liked more bonuses, though, given the low theme density. Experiment with taking away the black square between ONEIDA and NIBS, or PEPSI and EGGO. Maybe even ONUS and FIT. All of those options would help enhance the grid flow, reducing the feeling that the grid is diagonally divided in half.

All in all, though, the theme pleased me, three metaphors making for an interesting set, limited in an elegant way. Nice debut.

Wed 2/10/2021
CHICKSCABDATA
HANOICOMEIRIS
ARSONUMPSPEECH
PLOPCLAMOR
EELTRAPTOMCAT
LYEENTERVALVE
OCTNAPOLEON
RANGEBEDFELLOWS
AVERSETODOS
CORESAWMANMAY
ENDSITALEMATE
OBSESSAREA
ICKYNOTESELMOS
LEIANINESTOUT
LOAMDRYSCATTY

You know that feeling after you drink one (or eight) too many STOUTs? Hey, don't judge me and my drinking buddies, brew crew, alemates, frisky whiskies, IPA I PEE EH?, cannabuds—

I said, don't judge!

Why the question mark in the EEL TRAPs clue? I've set crab traps before, and although I've never seen an EEL TRAP in person, they're definitely real. Huh.

I loved the three themers, UMP SPEECH, RANGE BEDFELLOWS, ICKY NOTES, each of them evoking hilarious images. "Friends, Nationals, countrymen, lend me your batting helmets!" There are so many possible ST-removal themers, though, that this theme feels way too easy. ST/ABS, ST/AGE, ST/AIR, ST/ALE …

Wait a second ...

D'oh! I'm gonna need another round of STOUTs over here.

This is all my reeking-of-booze way of saying that EELTRAP and ALEMATE are too real-feeling and too short, getting lost in the NAPOLEON, AVERSE TO fog. Nice bonuses, but they tend to gray out the theme.

I did love me some HARLEY (clued wittily as a road "hog"), and PROVOLONE was tasty too. Heck, MARMOT is a fun word you don't see every day, and usually, I'd be all over NAPOLEON as great fill.

What a great story about giving this puzzle to her grandmother. I love hearing stories about crosswords bringing joy to people's lives.

Thu 2/11/2021
OTTOGINSILLS
CRANACORNNOLA
COMEDIEDIEFFECT
APPARATSVIEWS
MEARAOBIES
TWELFELFTEPS
ONTHELEFTSLOE
MOERIMCDCMOM
ARABMAHARISHI
NAMANMANAMES
BOASTDINAR
GAYLYIRRITATE
COFFOOTFOOTABLE
AREAROOMSROAD
NEWTEGOSTOSS

Oh, I get it! COMEDIE DIE EFFECT is when Bill Burr goes onstage.

So much for comedic effect.

I liked the play on "hidden plural expressed as two consecutive singulars." I feel like I've seen this several times before, but after ten minutes of searching, I couldn't pull one out of my cheek cheek. (I did find one that used a repeated instance, and a similar notion that blew me away; Paolo so creative!)

I found it curiously hard to enter the themers. Even though I knew TWELFELFTEPS had to be "twelve steps," it's so difficult to visualize the hidden ELVES without it written somewhere. NAMANMANAMES was even worse, what with yet more repetition in "name names." The result is so dastardly nonsensical, like something out of the Muppets.

As always, solid gridwork from Alex. Neat to get a MAHARISHI, APPARATS, some BABY FAT, you BETCHA. These aren't entries you see every day, and I appreciate that.

I didn't have that much fun overall since it was hard to imagine where the hidden plural should fit, but I admire the creativity. Great clue for ACORN, too — "in a nutshell," indeed. Now that's comedic effect!

Fri 2/12/2021
NBAMVPSPIEHOLE
ISRAELIEMPORIA
PAINTERALISTER
STAIRCASE
RSVPEDOHTOTLC
ELALSWAYEDHOO
SEGATANKIDEAS
PERIDOTEXCEEDS
IVANICHEXRUSE
TENSPHINXBRIT
ESTHACKRAYONS
DOTHEMATH
AMMONIAITSABOY
TORTONILEETIDE
VETERANEDASNER

I'm deep into fantasy basketball, so NBA MVPS came easily. [Star Bucks?] is fantastic wordplay for Giannis, the Milwaukee Buck who does so much for his NBA team, but who so badly craters fantasy teams' free throw percentage and turnovers. Maddening enigma.

Last week, I got called out for making judgments about names. I've thought about that a ton, and I'm gradually digesting Kameron's valid points about inclusion through proper names.

I'm curious how the full range of solvers would react to a themeless seeded with ANTETOKOUNMPO (Greek rendition of his Nigerian name) or other MVP candidates: LUKADONCIC, JOELEMBIID, NIKOLAJOKIC. I'm a huge fan of all these guys, but I've hesitated using them in puzzles because I received so much feedback over the years to the tune of "it makes it a lot less fun for me when you put in so many proper names" and "it's annoying that you expect me to know sports."

It's difficult to figure out the right approach (and for which solvers), but that only means I should work harder to understand the wide-ranging perspectives of different solvers and find a reasonable balance.

Loved, loved, loved the clue for THE EURO. [It's usually around 9/10 of a pound], what a fantastic misdirect!

I still have the pleasure of chatting once a week with Jim Horne during these quarantine times, and he surprised me by saying he enjoyed OH TO because it reminded him of the Browning poem he learned in school. To me, it's not only a partial (discouraged by all editors) but such a tough one. Not that I'll be striving to use it in future puzzles, but I liked hearing Jim's perspective, realizing that I wasn't unilaterally correct.

Great clue for SLEEVES, too. My daughter is in a joke-telling phase right now (oh joy), and one of her favorites is "Where do generals keep their armies?" In their sleevies (pretend to laugh). [Arms repositories?] is a much more refined approach.

I didn't waffle on Kool MOE Dee, since I'm into old-school rap, but Jim mentioned he leaned toward MAE, making the crossing TARTINI, which sounds more like a dessert. It's a fair point.

Much to enjoy in the grid, with DO THE MATH, MANSPLAIN, WATCH CHAIN, DERBY HATS all PEACHY KEEN. Too much wastage, though, with fine-but-neutral entries like LOADS IN, RESPITE, LEE TIDE, EPISODIC taking up valuable real estate.

(Grant's hidden message is GRANT THACK RAY.)

Sat 2/13/2021
ANGSTYHUESPAT
RESTAURANTKERR
BLUESMUSICINTO
OLIVEMOTHSUFO
RITELIVEHAMUP
SEEZINEGOBBLE
BIZARROWORLD
SNAPATONEDAY
PEERPRESSURE
LARDEDLETSCPR
ARDORSUMSCARE
TOPSUNRACASED
OURSREPROACHES
OTOHGEEYATHINK
NEMOERETEENSY

I'm a slow but steady Saturday solver. Once in a while, though, lightning strikes, and I get on a bizarro world thrill ride, humming along on a constructor's wavelength at the speed of Quicksilver. I had a feeling that that dictionary-esque clue [Metaphorical setting in which everything is inverted …] had to be BIZARRO WORLD, and all of a sudden, I had tapped into the Speed Force.

Then, a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen clue? Plop in NEMO!

[Visual effect from a partial eclipse] didn't immediately lift its veiled shadow, but considering Mr. PENUMBRA's 24-hour Bookstore is one of my favorites, it took only 24 seconds to get that.

Sometimes it pays to be a nerd.

I don't know that I'd strive to seed a themeless with BIZARRO WORLD since if you'd never encountered the phrase, you'd likely think it's bizarre. But for us, the Sir Dork-a-lots of the icosahedral table, a quest into BIZARRO WORLD is just what Anorak ordered.

If it didn't totally make sense, I'm currently reading Ready Player Two, which (sadly) makes even less sense.

One standout clue today, [Holiday production?]. I had MUSIC filled in, but I could not make CHRISTMAS or YULE or MULE (don't ask) work. Brilliant way to hide (Billie) Holiday. I wondered afterward if "blues music" was a great phrase or not — "I listened to some blues music" is much more bizarro than "I listened to some blues" — but that clue was so strong that I swept my qualms aside.

I appreciate how meticulous Will is with his craftsmanship, never allowing even a dab of crossword glue. (Maybe you could slightly ding ERE). I would have liked a bit more out of the long slots, though — RESTAURANT (yes, great clue, but a boring entry), REPROACHES, ROSEMARY, SHOWERS, TROOPED not doing much more than take up space. Give me a bit more juice in exchange for glue on par with ERE, and I'd put this in POW! territory.

POW Sun 2/14/2021SEALED WITH A KISS
SNARUMPANAMBIORCAS
YOMAMAOXONOUNLEACH
STEFANWISPIESTSISQO
TARTONEALLTHESEQUA
ELISCRLOUSTRANQUIL
MOCSTOPUSNINCBETS
TAPERCHARTERUS
ARESOHYPETORPBR
CAPTAINPAPONSALE
BESEATEDALLIASKCRUS
ARSESVICEVERSACAIRO
NEUTGENERISHUNDRARD
JARETOECOANARCHY
OLYIFIISTOSANAA
OPENFLOORATTAR
NOSETGILLDVISENIT
EXTRACRTSIEGESMAHI
ITATHETAFRERRYATAN
GENIINOTLEASTONIONS
HAZELTAROITERSTLNE
SMARTSTAXREXEAREAL

★ For years, I've been pounding the table that the NYT Sunday crossword is missing a huge opportunity to take advantage of color printing in the magazine. I love today's concept, incorporating the color red to represent RED rebuses in the print version. It's so smart to have the first rebus be REDR, as in "red R." I've spent a ridiculous amount of time brainstorming color concepts with lots of folks, and this is a true WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That).

Not only that, but the letters tacked on to RED change, spelling out a meta answer. RUBY LIPS doesn't feel like a jump-out-of-your-chair-and-praise-the-heavens final answer, but it's solid enough and appropriate for Valentine's Day.

Five years ago, I would have never picked this as a POW! There would have been way too many execution flaws that would have disqualified it many times over. It's fantastic that Joel helped Lisa along — Sunday 140-word puzzles are challenging to create. I wish he'd had more time to push her to revise a few more times. There are so many partials, abbreviations, tough foreign words, prefixes — everything that editors call out to avoid on their specs sheets.

I also wish RUBY LIPS had formed the shape of lips. That would have been mind-blowing. I'm not sure that's possible to do with a perfect set of lips, given the stringent constraint of placing eight crossing themers in fixed places, but even a rough shape of lips would have given this some Puzzle of the Year consideration. Along with much stronger execution, of course.

All those qualms are from the technician in me, though. That annoying blurghole sometimes has to take a swift kick in the pants from the solver in me who adores innovative, audacious ideas, especially those that take advantage of the NYT Sunday Magazine's huge advantage of color printing. Fantastic concept, Lisa!

POW Mon 2/15/2021
HORAACIDCAMARO
OAHUROMAREELED
GRUBISAYERRAND
BUDDYCOPMOVIES
CAREFOES
BARNEYFIFEOMIT
USBTURNPLANON
SUPSBOTREEDATA
KAILUAACAIBAM
LEONMAJORSCALE
NOAMTADS
WHITEHOUSEDOGS
ROSARYSOLEEPIC
INLOVEELSAROKU
TEASESDOERSTEP

★ I'm a dog person (don't tell the ghosts of my RIP cats, Sam and Riley), and this theme scratched my belly. It was a much slower solve than usual, and I had to admit defeat in my "Name that Theme" game. I was sure that BUDDY, BARNEY, MAJOR had to be related in some way … but how? I spent way too much time sweeping the corners of my brain for details on the movie "Elf." His name is BUDDY; there's probably a BARNEY character ... wasn't Major MAJOR from Catch-22 in that movie?

This is why you should never listen to me.

WHITE HOUSE DOGS! I don't know that I would have gotten such a great a-ha if it hadn't been for MAJOR's Putinesque shenanigans. I'd hate to be the Secret Service agent assigned to MAJOR duty, that troublemaker.

I couldn't remember dogs from bygone eras, so I was glad to get a hint from the clues ... and that's when I realized the genius of this puzzle. BUDDY from POTUS 42. BARNEY from 43. BO from 44. (45 didn't have a dog.) MAJOR from 46.

They're all in order!

If you're not as wowed as I am, think about how difficult it is to get everything to work with crossword symmetry. You have some flexibility with BUDDY and MAJOR, but not much with BARNEY. (I don't remember BARNEY FIFE, but I imagine older generations will.) It's hard to believe that the crossword gods allowed the stars to align.

I wouldn't have hesitated to give this the POW! if it had run later in the week. However, I don't think it's a great puzzle for newer solvers, as some crossings felt treacherous. BUSK / KAILUA … I've had the fortune to visit Honolulu a handful of times, and I debated, was it KAILUA or HAILUA? "Busker" sounded vaguely familiar, though. And Jim Horne told me a great story about BUSKing in Montreal, where it's an art form. You have to audition for a busking spot in the Metro alcoves!

I appreciated the rhyming clue for YUBA, giving me a much-needed nudge. There's no way I'd figure out YUBA crossing KAILUA without it. And thankfully, I remembered Obama's adorable BO, as the BO TREE didn't ring a bell.

Some trade-offs, but well worth the novel and delightful theme. Plus RHUBARB PIE! Such an impressive debut.

Tue 2/16/2021
BADASSALPOACT
EMILIAMOLDWAR
NIPINTHEBUDCPA
ZESTEROSAMOS
SOLIBROTH
STELLAMCCARTNEY
USTOURAUGUR
BEATSMERESORTS
THEPXOHOKAY
ONCEINABLUEMOON
NOIREOATS
RORYMAXIDOLT
ANCCORONACIGAR
MELOMENBEERME
PREBASECOMEBY

Something so BADASS about Johanna telling us to BEER ME! I've had many a BUD, STELLA, BLUE MOON, CORONA in my life. Oddly, CORONA sales went up last year. I'd bet a six-pack that their marketing team internally talked about secretly leaking rumors that drinking Corona cured corona.

And we have a NOONER? Plus, CORONA CIGARS? The LOTTERY?

Let's see, what vices haven't we covered …

I appreciated how well most of the beers were disguised. BUD is easy enough, but BLUE MOON innocently sits at the end of a great phrase. STELLA doesn't use the full brand name, "Stella Artois," but I never ask for a "Stella Artois" unless I want the bartender to roll their eyes at me.

I did hesitate on CORONA CIGAR. I get that there aren't many CORONA phrases available, except for the Virus Who Shall Not Be Named. However, it doesn't hide the beer well. I was happily mystified by the theme until hitting this one. The curtain got pulled back, and the Wizard was doing a kegstand.

Not sure what would have been better, perhaps something with MILLER? Or the GUINNESS BOOK?

I enjoyed so much of Johanna's fill, the casual AW C'MON, OH, OKAY, BEATS ME! Love the color.

Smart grid design, too. I'd have been tempted to push BEER ME down one row, but being up against CORONA CIGAR makes for much smoother crossings. Not a lot of A?B entries, but ABC is easy as ABC.

Impressive how carefully Johanna gridded things up, working in those great bonuses while only forcing us to deal with a bit of SYN, TSE.

I imagine some solvers more into CIGARS, and the LOTTERY will be drinking (four) cold ones for Johanna. This lightweight usually passes out at two.

Wed 2/17/2021
PEPSIEDGEHIP
APRESECARDANA
RHEAPERLMANTBS
KEGAMANDAPEET
MAYRATIOTA
BEMOANHYENAS
FREUDMIMEOS
FADDIAPERSABU
IMCOOLHERES
MONKEYMIDDLE
OBOERBISET
BANANAPEELNWA
HMOONAPEDESTAL
IANVALORPOLYP
TSOAPESABYSS

Great visual for MONKEY (IN THE) MIDDLE. I couldn't remember the rules of the game, so I looked it up. Ah, right. Two bullies tossing a kid's backpack over his/her head, playing keep away. This kind of thing used to happen to a kid I was a Big Brother for. It's tough — you know you should take the high road and talk to the bullies about the consequences of their behavior. It's so much easier to punt their kickballs onto the roof.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

I liked the attempt to elevate the standard "hidden word" theme type, which Will Shortz is tiring of. It's easy enough to work APE into many CHEAP EATS, AP ENGLISH, ALASKA PENINSULA phrases. Much harder to do that around a non-trivial visual element.

Ah! I didn't even notice the APE literally stuck in the middle. Unfortunately, this APE isn't broken across two words, like Will usually requires, but it is a nice touch. Perhaps orienting that APE vertically would have been even more evocative, the poor creature trying to jump for his backpack. That could have also allowed MONKEY, MIDDLE, and the middle APE to be in the same row, rather than the way he's levitating now.

Wait. Why are the APEs all around not helping their brethren in the center? They're taking part in the bullying? Cue Charlton Heston!

BANANA PEEL is such an apt phrase for this puzzle. Even more pleasing to see it strategically placed under one of the bullies. You go, my APE friend!

For a Kalish production, there's an unusually high amount of short entries that would get called out on editor's spec sheet, ANAP, EDS, TSO, maybe HMO and ISP too. I did love the clue for TSO, his good name being "battered." And for a strong visual element, the trade-offs can be worth it.

All in all, an audacious debut for David and another one in the books for Evan, but the mixture of literal and visual elements didn't gel together that well.

Thu 2/18/2021
ECHOASKMEBEEF
LEONSKOALRARE
INTENTIONSITRY
STEREOSSALTS
SELESUIEACCRA
ARSEFINAMORAL
LSATSREMOTE
EMTTVSPOTSWEE
CARTERENIAC
CLEAVECHEALES
OTERIGTIINAWE
GNASHANTITAX
CHOICARTOONIST
BUDSUNCUTESTE
SESHMASSESHED

Adding to our Schrödinger list! TV SPOTS is a great way to justify a T/V duality. Some fantastic finds, too, both George Washington CARVER and Jimmy CARTER famous peanut growers. The clue is so specific, yet it fits both people so perfectly. This might be my favorite Schrödinger example of all time!

Others weren't as spot-on. Schrödingers ought to point equally well to both entries, and something like [Designs] hints more strongly at INTENTIONS. You can make a case for INVENTIONS as "designs," but it's more indirect. I filled in INTENTIONS without a second thought. Toss in [Some accommodations] being HOTELS, where's the ambiguity? It would be odd to clue HOVELS in another crossword without saying something like "decrepit."

Similar with TARNISH/VARNISH. They both do fit [Certain outer coating], but TARNISH in another crossword usually would be clued with a synonym of "dull."

Tightness is another key to generating that amazing CARVER/CARTER effect. Some libertarians are both ANTI TAX and ANTI VAX, but "things that libertarians believe" is an awfully broad category. If someone asked you to name another peanut farmer besides CARVER and CARTER, who would you say?

Even though not every themer hit the Schrödinger ideal, I still had a lot of fun because of Zach's fill and clues. CARTOONIST as [One drawing lots?] is a great misdirect, from "drawing lots" to "drawing a lot." I'm not well versed in Japanese mythology or religion, but TREE GODS pulled out some fun memories of fairy tales I used to read as a kid.

I stopped watching "Curb Your Enthusiasm" because I needed something less grating, but LEON is one of the reasons I keep going back for random episodes. JB Smoove is brilliant.

A bit too much glue bogged me down, the ALEE ESTE GTI KOO NES RCS stuff that editors call out, but it all was minor enough that the colorful fill and spot-on revealer far outweighed it all.

POW Fri 2/19/2021
ALPHAFEMALEEMU
BAHAMAMAMASVAN
ICANTRESISTIDS
TUSKSRODSFLEW
ONESSINENROBE
FADLOLAREAMAP
LAYLOWSCENT
MAAMINKTANK
RANTOVOWELS
ENTHUSEABETOO
DIVERTORBHERB
SPEDRANDBENES
TENCEREALAISLE
ADODEMIGODDESS
RIMSTYLEGUIDES

★ Two POW!s in one week?! Hey, sometimes you gotta break the rules. I loved that combination of ALPHA FEMALE and DEMIGODDESSES. I hadn't heard the latter, but it's an easy extension of "demigod," which came into popularity with the "Percy Jackson" series). How did I not know Helen of Troy was a DEMIGODDESS (father = Zeus, mother = either Leda or Nemesis)?

Along with the awesome phrases MADE BANK, MANI PEDI, AWKWARD AGE? Talk about I CANT RESIST!

Plus, a stellar clue for CEREAL AISLE, playing on "way of Life" (note the capital L in the clue)?

All this, while enjoying BAHAMA MAMAS? Make mine a double!

I could stop here, but check out [Protrusions near a trunk, maybe]. It had me groaning, because it was going to be some obscure Maleskan entry like KNARS. No, that's an elephant's trunk. Delightful!

Add in a FRACAS to the fun? Don't mind if I do!

I didn't understand [Hair pieces] for HANKS. I thought it must be some cultural reference I was missing, Tom Hanks in ... Saving Private Rapunzel? That Thing You Hairdo? Nope, the dictionary says it means "coils or skeins of yarn, hair, rope, or other material." Huh.

LACUNA was tough, too. I learned the word from making crosswords, researching potential fill a LAC??A pattern and thinking LACUNA was some sort of South American animal. It's a shame for constructors that the Barbara Kingsolver book, "The Lacuna," wasn't better received. That alternating vowel-consonant pattern is so friendly.

All in all, so much to love, such a fun solving experience; POW!-worthy indeed. Great week for the NYT crossworld.

Sat 2/20/2021
MUSTDOPAYGAP
CARHORNSSKEELO
USSENATEHOTTIP
SCUDWICCANACE
POLPROWCRAY
STARGATESCRONE
ORNOTELIOTS
ITSAYESFROMME
IGOTYAERASE
NUDESPRESEASON
AEONEAVEEPA
YSLOBLIGELAIN
ESIGNSCATWOMAN
ASSUMEENTIRETY
ROTTENSATIRE

ALICANTE = "Ali, can't he?" I see what you did. That's some SECRET SERVICE level work there.

What a great central marquee, SECRET SERVICE evoking such vivid imagery. [Protective suits?] is fun wordplay, too, riffing off a protective (hazmat) suit. I especially appreciated that the plural "suits" made me drop an S at the end. You got me, sir!

For the longest time, I had BATWOMAN, thinking that the long down marquee answer must be "___ VIBE." I enjoyed reminiscing about one of the iconic clues of the ground-breaking 1996 Schrodinger, where BAT and CAT were both "black Halloween animal." Got me again!

I had tough time up in the NE, only being vaguely familiar with AKON, SKEELO, ALICANTE. Great job with the clue for AKON, giving confirmation in the form of AKON to AK(R)ON. It'd have been great to get some similar confirmation with SKEELO crossing ALICANTE, though it could be argued that SKEELO is well-known enough in rap circles and ALICANTE does have a population of 300,000+, so expecting people to know one or the other might be fine.

I'm often plus/minus on trendy portmanteaus, but FREEGANS makes me laugh; a punny play on "vegans."

I didn't know ROSTEN, but the crosses are fair. Interesting to be called "the Jewish James Thurber."

People often ask me what differentiates a Fri from a Sat themeless. As Will Shortz says, he simply wants the Saturday to be harder. Today's nearly crushed me — you could make a case for even more crossings being devious. If you don't know the slang CRAY (I usually hear it as "cray-cray"), ALICENTE / CREY might look equally valid.

Great clue for CAR HORNS, that's they're often "hit in traffic." I especially like that this clue reminds me of one of the silver linings of quarantine: never being caught in traffic. These days, fun reminders to count my blessings are even more appreciated than usual.

Sun 2/21/2021KARAOKE BARS
APPEALTHEDOWETCETC
LIOTTAOEDIPALCHACHA
FLUTESFLYMETOTHEMOON
FRUITCUPSREWROTE
HESTEACARLAIOWA
ORODRAINSACIDEMU
LEMMASINGININTHERAIN
IDEALSRKOANDSOARCH
SWEARBYSPAPAMELA
PIUSGOATENTSOATEN
ANGJAILHOUSEROCKHAD
SCALELLOYDERRHERS
THRONERVSONTOPIC
IWONMOUSEPODWITHIT
MONEYMONEYMONEYASAMI
ERMTALCEVADEDMAN
MEATOTHERAAHPLY
CRANIALSTARPUPIL
DANCINGONMYOWNPELOSI
INARUTNOSEDINEVENED
TATAMIITSAGOROASTS

Plays on KARAOKE BARS, phrases ending with "bar" punnily describing a song. Kicking things off with FLY ME TO THE MOON as "space bars," i.e., musical "bars" about space, gave me a friendly start. I'm not good with pop music, but I listen to a ton of old-school jazz. Sinatra doesn't exactly qualify, but I've played Count Basie's FLY ME TO THE MOON dozens of times.

Not so much luck with POUR SOME SUGAR ON ME or DANCING ON MY OWN, but the themed hints gave me a leg up. You might ask, who the heck pours sugar on candy? If you don't know, you don't have young kids. Although Robyn was new to me, DANCING ON MY OWN is perfect for [Singles bars?].

It struck me that all the featured performers are from pop — no R&B, soul, rap, K-pop, Tejano, etc. More pointedly, they're almost all white.

I figured there might be some reason I didn't understand, and I didn't want Matthew to feel called out — I worry that this tone of communication results not just in zero results, but negative ones, by making people defensive and thus causing them to entrench further — so I reached out to him. We had a useful discussion about the dilemma of being a newer constructor, trying to do everything to get published amid an ultra-competitive field. Sometimes that involves guessing at what might be deemed "mainstream" or "widely accessible" to Will Shortz, and going with what seems like the safest route.

Don't misinterpret my comments as absolving the NYT from responsibility. I think they should have kicked this one back, to better target a broader range of their solving audience. I'm only trying to help a newer constructor to not feel skewered, especially because he clearly regrets the issue, and to shed light on a common problem among newer constructors.

Additionally, Sundays are in such high demand; I'd encourage constructors to take chances. They won't always be successful, but constructors that keep to tried-and-true paths aren't memorable.

Some delightful clues, always such a benefit to help buoy oneself through a full 21x21 solve. WATER as something that's "well-kept," things you lose as you age as HAIR—I mean, IDEALS. And [Did a little lifting]! No giveaway question mark required, a mischievous misdirect toward pumping iron, away from PILFERING.

Solid debut Sunday. If he could do it again, I'm confident Matthew would choose a set of songs that tickled a wider range of solvers—or at least one tune that spoke to different customer demographics. Don't let that take away from his above-average Sunday gridwork: little glue, plus a few strong STAR PUPIL IM ALL SET bonuses.

Mon 2/22/2021
CASTANONPETAL
OTTOLIPOAGONY
REARPOEMCOWER
GIMMEABREAKEWE
INPEACEMULL
NSAPEPPERED
EMOTEGOALGALA
RANONCUECSI
INTLHAUSMAKES
EXHIBITSLIL
EUROGASLOGS
KGBOUTOFPOCKET
YEARNAXLEANNA
INLETDEALPOOL
VALVEANTSSWAK

It's not uncommon for my kids to sing, "GIMME A BREAK, GIMME A BREAK, break me off a piece of that Chrysler car."

My work here is done.

POOL! I used to play four hours a day in college, honing my game as a pool hustler. There was just one problem: I wasn't any good. The other problem was that I couldn't fool anybody.

I wasn't great at arithmetic, either.

Speaking of playing the fool, I wondered why Barbara included BREAK, RACK, BALL, POCKET, but not CUE. Of course, you should include the iconic cue stick Paul Newman carries around …

Right ON CUE, Jim Horne pointed out that CUE, in fact, was in the puzzle. Middle of said puzzle. No hocus-POCUS, it's right there, in the dead center of the puzzle. I missed it even worse than when I lost my dining hall pass scratching on an easy bank shot.

Seriously though, I would have liked something longer for CUE, like THAT'S MY CUE or RIGHT ON CUE. Would have stood out much more strongly. I'd have also liked consistency in the themers, all items or all actions, but not a mix. With TRIANGLE, TABLE, CUE, BALL, CHALK, POCKET, there are many ways to disguise some subset of these nouns.

KYIV … my first impression was to stare at it for five minutes, wondering how it could possibly be right. Surely I had made a mistake in one of the crossings? Interesting to read Barbara's commentary; that helps ameliorate the unsatisfying end to my solve. It will take me a while to get used to that spelling since I'm so used to KIEV, but I'll work at it. We've added it to our Word List at the nominal 50 level.

It's not a groundbreaking POOL puzzle (and this one too), but I did enjoy the reminder of my youthful idiocy, and the POOL terms were well disguised, using different meanings. A couple of nice bonuses, too, ALLCAPS "shouting," EXHIBITS, GAS LOGS, leaving me IN PEACE (of that Chrysler car).

Tue 2/23/2021
ASAPCAFTANPBS
GAGASILENTHOC
EMIRIRONTHRONE
TAUODEONUP
DEADHEADWAIST
ARTISANFIANCEE
BEESSTEAMSSSR
ELTONJOHN
OKCSENDINACTS
CALGARYTINROOF
TRAITWATERLOO
OATSEGOTAB
POTTYMOUTHTERM
UKEEMINEMERIE
SERTANDEMSTOW

A dose of POTTY MOUTH wordplay today, THRONE, HEAD, JOHN, LOO, disguised at the end of themers. I used to find potty humor so much funnier before the realities of having kids smacked me with its poopy stink. Still, I appreciated how well Kate hid these terms, employing non-bathroom-related meanings.

It's a funny image, Jon Snow sitting on the IRON THRONE, taking care of business...

"Taking care of business" is what I tell my kids when I need to get my book and spend 30 minutes sitting on the—

Oh, you're grossed out already. Right.

I also appreciated that Kate found a fairly tight set. I thought of CAN and LAV, but what else? It's impossible to disguise LAV as anything else, so besides something like CATCH AS CATCH CAN, it'd be tough to add anything else into this theme set.

A central 9 (ELTON JOHN) creates four big corners chock full of 7s, and I generally like what Kate did with those regions. PHONICS / SCEPTER, talk about BONUSES! OCTOPUS / KARAOKE / CLATTER is great too. I typically do everything in my power to avoid SSR since it's a tough initialism, especially for younger generations far away from USSR, but I don't mind OKC UKE SER as much. If we're expected to know ETRE, SER should be fair game.

However, much of this assessment is subjective. These short gluey entries all called out on editors' spec sheets, yes, but which ones are better or worse varies widely from editor to editor.

The thing I liked best about this puzzle is the reminder that I'm out of the potty training phase, and soon, I'll be back to full potty humor enjoyment. Yesterday, I had quite the struggle with a toilet plunger and one of my kids who refuses to eat fiber, but someday, this will all be behind (rimshot) me.

POW Wed 2/24/2021
SLAVWHALERAGA
IOWARELAXEXEC
STEPALERTVOLT
DEVILSDOZEN
POTRON
THEWHOLETRUTH
PHONEGARREWED
JAMDELTACOELO
STEWTEETHCEDE
DREADNOUGHT
ONEILLGEISHA
PASTAUFONATAL
TRIPARADOXOWL
ECGSISTINERKO
DONEDASNERMET

★ This is the PARADOX puzzle that I've been racking my brain for. Years have gone by, and I've explored two separate "docs" in single rows, two docs spread through long entries, and dozens of other executions, but I'd never considered looking for long entries fortuitously containing two (non-spread-out) docs. That seems impossible, given the limited number of doctors who 1) are famous and 2) have short names. You're not going to have much luck with ZHIVAGO or JEKYLL, after all.

Such amazing finds:
  • THE WHOLE TRUTH containing Dr. WHO and Dr. RUTH. Wow!
  • I didn't know the DEVIL'S DOZEN, but what a colorful phrase.
  • DRE and NO are easier to work with — simple *DRE*NO* and *NO*DRE* searches turned up ADDRESS UNKNOWN, CHILDREN OF MEN, KEYNOTE ADDRESS, FOR NO GOOD REASON — but DREADNOUGHT is a fantastic word. [Here are both of those searches combined in a single RegEx — JH.]

Excellent presentation, too. One of the problems I always struggled with: PARADOX is an awkward length for a revealer, hard to tuck away. I like Andrew's solution, using mirror symmetry so he could put PARADOX in a perfect location for a revealer. The constructor in me also appreciates Andrew's clever solution to the layout problem of themers being 11, 13, and 11 long. That may seem trivial, but each one of those forces black square placements, making the layout a bear. Andrew's skeleton is one of the few ways of making this set of awkward-length themers work.

Work in some TWEETSTORM, HOME DESIGN, VAPE PEN, GEN XER snazzle, all the while carefully minimizing short gluey entries, and that's a perfect balance. It's not trying too hard with a 74- or 72-word grid, and it's not taking the easy way out with 78 words.

Great REVENUE clue, too, playing on "cash in." It might be too literal for accountants, but this finance guy gives it a bonus.

Fantastic puzzle. I don't even mind that Andrew stole my intended thunder. When a product is this strong, all you can do is stand up and clap.

Thu 2/25/2021
ATHOSHADESJOG
TRACTEXALTUVA
TONTOALLIEKEG
SUGARFREEAYERS
INERTYOKO
ISNTIMSSTUDIO
MADCOUPSARONG
ALERORUBREUSE
GENEVARAGEBEE
ESTEEMTRYBLTS
FRATARGUE
IPASSREBOUNDED
FAQISUZUAGORA
FLUONERSREWON
YEANORAHDENSE

Debut! Not a new idea, having had a quad repeat a few months ago and something nearly identical a few years back, but there are some fun finds in here. I especially like the ones that go over a space break, like HAN(GIN)(G IN)DENT and CO(VER) (VER)SION. DOUBLE DOWN ties everything together so aptly, giving a reason for 1) the repeated strings and 2) why the themers run down, not across.

For themes that have been done so often, I enjoy when a constructor tries to do something a little different or add a constraint. For instance, when John Farmer did this theme type, he limited himself to only triplets at the end of the first word / beginning of the second.

Six themers is an audacious way to debut. Placing them in every other column can cause so much trouble, especially in the middle of the grid. Because there are so many themers congregating in the center, you have to spend a ton of black squares right away to separate them. Impressive how smooth that region turned out, Dylan taking care to make sure the letter combinations were all friendly.

Going outward, there were some problems, not uncommon when you've already deployed so many of your precious black squares. You tend to end up with subsections bigger than you'd like, needing bits of ALERO ONERS REWON OGEES OSS to hold things together.

I got stuck in the NE corner, unfortunately, sectioned off from the rest of the grid (another artifact of the every-other-column layout). The cluing was so difficult for JUKE, UVA, and ambiguous for GAGS KEG (I tried BAR and PUB) that it felt nearly impossible.

Amusing TONTO clue — how have I not known all these years that it's Spanish for "stupid"? — although I wonder if Jay Silverheels would laugh. And fantastic clue for BUNGEE, playing on "jumper cable"!

I like it when a new constructor strives to do something different (and I love it when a new constructor expresses humility!). In this case, I would have liked some new layer — maybe pairing repeated triplets, with HAN(GIN)(GIN)G INDENT and BRIN(GIN)(G IN) NEW BLOOD to make that GIN a double? — more than the sheer quantity of themers.

Fri 2/26/2021
TACTICIMPASTO
ERRATAGREENCAR
SKYPERLATENEWS
LIFEGIOSVEN
ANOCOMBSEXIST
RAHBAHCEO
SPACETELESCOPES
PUTAFACETOANAME
ARTISTICLICENSE
NEELOAAGO
KENDOENNIOREP
TONYODDCALI
MAINROOMBEAMUP
INONEDAYETRADE
DINEDATTABSET

Triple-stack! Back in Martin Ashwood-Smith's heyday, we used to get these so often, I was seeing triple. Not that many people besides MAS specialize in them; most constructors opting for easier patterns to work with.

I enjoyed the marquee trio, SPACE TELESCOPES / PUT A FACE TO A NAME / ARTISTIC LICENSE, the last one my favorite. Like Chuck, I did wonder if there are more SPACE TELESCOPES than the Hubble, but there clearly are. I also scratched my head as I deliberated if the saying was more commonly "put a name to a face." Merriam Webster also seems to think this grid entry is reversed, but it's hard to tell which is more in use.

Even more impressive was the set of long answers that ran through the central stack. It's hard enough to get any long entries to work, period, but when you can weave in CRY FOR ATTENTION, GLOBAL ECONOMY, SCENIC PANORAMAS, that makes the grid skeleton something special.

Those long crossing entries did force a lot of constraints on the grid. Check out the NE corner, where GLOBAL and SCENIC fix so much into place. I debated if GREEN CAR is an in-the-language phrase, and LATE NEWS is a reasonable but not standout entry. The opposite corner had similar issues, with IN ONE DAY neutral at best, a verboten long partial at worst.

I don't remember the last time a themeless debuted so many entries, but I wasn't wowed by all of them. I'm not going to strive to use SKYPER, for instance (I can hear the kids telling me, OK ZOOMER). Along with some blebs commonly needed to make a triple-stack work, like ON RED, TO SEE, ITE, SO I, it wasn't the smoothest of solves.

Still, I enjoyed the triple-stack novelty, the variety welcome, and the marquee entries were excellent. One might even call SPACE TELESCOPES—

Don't say it, don't say it!

Stellar.

Let's talk about the word SPANKing, Jeff.

Sat 2/27/2021
BALLISLIFEHAMM
IMEANTOSAYASEA
TEASERVICEICES
ELSSUEDEFLITS
MIENTTOPLEICA
EASYATRACIAUG
LITALACARTE
STOREDMRKITE
MOONBEAMDEM
ELYASTIRDADAS
TAPASALECTATA
GRIPEMASERNON
ACAIFINEDINING
LANAINONEPIECE
ARONBESTSELLER

Yacob! I've been so impressed with his work. He's won a POW! for an amazing 50% of his prior puzzles, and this one earned some consideration. He's been so humble, so eager to work on his craft, willing to listen to feedback. It all shows in his products.

I was on Yacob's wavelength for much of the solve, making for a fast and enjoyable experience. I'm big into fantasy basketball, Dunkademics, and the Professor, so BALL IS LIFE gave me a favorable bounce.

Then, that clue for ASCII ART allowed me to drop it in without any letters. Speaking of being on the same wavelength, I'd used the entry in a previous puzzle—in almost the same position! (The middle IIA string is tough to work with unless it's floating in the middle of a region, so the similarity is not at all surprising.)

Schroder and his TOY PIANO from "Peanuts," SOLAR CAR, FACEPALM all tickled me, too. I appreciate that "Peanuts" appeals to older generations while FACEPALM is more a millennial kind of thing. Something for everyone.

A common complaint I hear (a lot) about is names in crosswords. I don't think having exclusively non-proper-name words in crosswords is a great idea — how would we constructors get by without our crutches of ONO and ENO and REA and RAE? However, I can sympathize with the perspective that too much of it can make for a trivia contest instead of a word game. When there's so much of HAMM LEICA TRACI MR KITE ELY ALEC LANA ARON—that's just the Acrosses — it might feel like a flood.

I should explain two clues:

  • DADAS change "didys"? That's slang for "industrial waste-filled poopsacks," something this dad knows way too much about.
  • The [Atomic clock timekeeper] oddly isn't MALER. I reasoned, guys wield such a disproportionate amount of power; it's not a surprise that we control time, too? (A MASER is a physics device that can generate a precise frequency, or so I begrudgingly RELENT. Er, RESENT.)

Always great to get Yacob's byline. Some of the entries like ASCII ART and SOLAR CAR might be too niche for some solvers, but I enjoy when someone speaks to the nerd in me so strongly.

Sun 2/28/2021CROSSWORD BUFF
TREBEKVALISESDEBONE
OHIOANIMALONEEPIPEN
LENTTOBARELYMANAGING
LASTSEESVAILWEE
OBSESSIVESLEET
BLAMEONMANYMOONSAGO
LADLESTHATTOONOTYET
ANDESROEGDRAGSLEI
DAISRAWRECRUITSWOKS
EINSTEINHADATFIRS
PENNOPINEETON
REINBERETSMIRNOFF
EASTCOMICSTRIPSILER
RICLEWISAINTINDIE
INABITLIVEMASENGINE
EXPOSURETIMECLOSETS
ECASHSOREPOINT
APEESTALUSTREAL
FULLYRECOVEREDICEAXE
ITALIAARISINGSEASON
TONINGRESTDAYTOKENS

Man, oh man, Brad's "interview" had me rolling in the aisles! I enjoyed his debut puzzle almost as much. CROSSWORD BUFF, what a fun bit of wordplay.

For all of Will Shortz's intent to promote intellectual topics and fine arts in the NYT crossword, he has a soft spot for certain juvenile humor. Only a few days ago, he ran one on POTTY MOUTH, and today's bares his tendency further.

(Nod to Brad.)

I enjoyed so many of the themers, all of them working well. I particularly enjoyed ending the puzzle on FULLY RECOVERED, a cheeky (sorry) way to bring up the rear. (Help, I can't stop!)

My big question: isn't SORE POINT a bit risqué, even for this puzzle? I know people get sunburnt at nudist clubs, but this is quite a graphic image.

(Ignore me. Please!)

Fun clue for LADLES, too. They "hit the sauce," indeed. All it takes is a handful of these to elevate the fun factor.

Impressive debut, Brad doing a better job of execution than many experienced constructors. Restraining himself to only a handful of EEN EINS ESTA minor glue while making the most of his long bonus slots — ESCAPE PLAN EINSTEIN SMIRNOFF — takes a lot of iteration, time, and care. Well done.