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Puzzles for March, 2015
with Jeff Chen comments

Sun 3/1/2015NOTED ANNIVERSARY
OMGCLOMPSPECGORD
NILEVEGOUTERROTOH
ENACTSALZBURGAUSTRIA
SAMOANREAESSENTAL
JULIEANDREWSELO
PIPETSTSALWSUIT
EDASWEDESIGMA
THEHILLSAREALIVEFLAK
HOYAELATESVINGTIME
OMENSROACHTGI
RODGERSANDHAMMERSTEIN
GOLSIREETIPSY
OPERABUFFDENCHTILE
WINOBESTPICTUREOSCAR
LCDTVSUSANUGH
SASHIMTRIASIDES
DSTTHEVONTRAPPS
THRESOMETANARCANE
THESOUNDOFMUSICNOCAL
ORITSAXRUBIESTERM
DORSALIODESSAYES

Tribute puzzle, celebrating the 50th anniversary one of the most popular films of all-time, THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Nice added touch to incorporate rebus squares of DO RE MI FA SOL LA TI DO in an ascending scale. Tribute puzzles can be a bit dry if they simply list facts about the subject, so the additional layer is much appreciated.

I really enjoyed Finn's voice coming through in this puzzle. He's a recent grad who went back to work for his alma mater (Columbia), and his early 20's, much-hipper-than-me vibe shines through. There's fill representing that — GLAM UP, VEG OUT, MINAJ, EPIC! — but also the cluing. I doubt I'd ever think to clue OMG as "u r KIDDING!" And he does a great job of saving the partial OR IT with the meme of "pics or it didn't happen!"

I had to research two clues to make sense of them, so hopefully I can shed some light:

PICA: apparently the PICA is a typographic unit, defined as containing "12 point units of measure." Huh. I wonder if PIKACHU is 12 points high? More importantly, how many apples high is PIKACHU?

CATARACTS: the "Cataracts of the Nile" are white water rapids in a section of that river. Having spent a long time in ophthalmic pharmaceuticals, it was hard for me to not see "cataracts" as the ocular impairment. But now I see! Cataracts can also mean "large waterfalls."

Beautiful clue for WINO, repurposing "port authority" for a completely different meaning. And some great trivia today. I've been to TAIPEI several times but never knew it was called the "City of Azaleas."

Mon 3/2/2015
JAILSPARFRAUD
ELSIEHWYLENNY
STILLLIFEELIDE
TOTESAUREISER
CALLLETTERS
EMMETTOBI
ZEALSHAGNAMES
RAISEERAGLARE
ANNEXRINGERIC
PVTRACKET
MELLLAZARUS
OCELOTMOETBAG
OHGODTWOLLLAMA
LOOSEDAMEERIE
ASSADSYSYODEL

Nice opportunity to honor someone Acme admires. So convenient that MELL LAZARUS has that cool triple-L pattern! And a really fun way to end the puzzle, with Nash's TWO L LLAMA fitting right in. Acme and I lamented how sad it was that the THREE L LLLAMA couldn't be debuted for consistency's sake. Ah well. It'd be hard to find other LLLL themers. Hmm …

Contrary to Acme's worry about the NAMES clue, I thought it was cute. I like the insider's nod (Acme is also a big Scrabble player; nice touch with the BAG clue). And anyway, there probably won't be that many people who notice the [Andrea, Carla, or Michael] echo, since most people still think computers write the puzzles. (Thank goodness for the "auto-write blog" button.)

Speaking of ECHOS, a while back I used this in one of my puzzle drafts, spacing out on the proper spelling of ECHOES. Thank goodness for the 50-year old satellite! I've done this with Bach's AIRE on the G string too (AIR, sigh).

Getting Rickrolled

Some nice shorter fill today. We don't see PHIAL that often, just a few times in the Shortz era. I like its old-timey quaintness, but it is nice that we don't see it super frequently. Helps it retain its eccentric nature. And plenty of people will wonder why Rick ASTLEY is crossworthy. There's a meme which I still don't really understand called "Rickrolling." Not sure why it's funny to get redirected to "Never Gonna Give You Up." Kids these days.

Finally, I appreciate the care Acme takes in working in the J up in the NW corner. That 1-Across/1-Down crossing is often a perfect place to insert a J Q X or Z, and Acme does it with no compromises. (IS IT can stand alone, so I don't mind it at all.)

SMALL L LIBERTARIAN! Apparently I've actually learned something from binge-watching "Parks and Recreation." Here's to you, Ron Swanson.

Tue 3/3/2015
HOHODRAGSCOPE
ACERRISEKUDOS
DELTJOHNNYDEPP
ALLINTOLD
GONZOJOURNALISM
OTOBETSYBELIE
LEISULNA
HUNTERSTHOMPSON
OTOHEINE
ONREDEELERREX
FEARANDLOATHING
MBASZEBRA
INLASVEGASSCAM
KOALALUXEHUGE
ERNSTSTEWETES

GONZO JOURNALISM is one of the most colorful phrases I've seen in a while. I wasn't totally sure what it meant, but it came back quickly enough with a quick refresher on Hunter S. Thompson. We've seen this phrase in NYT themeless puzzles before, but it's great to see it featured in a themed.

Awesome logo representing gonzo journalism!

Not having read (or seen) FEAR AND LOATHING / IN LAS VEGAS, it was tough for me to squee over the theme. But I did admire Kristian's gridwork. A 10/15/15/15/10 set of themers is tough to work with. It often results in compromises in the west and east section, where plenty of down answers must interact with two themers. Check out the east — SINO is only a minor ding, and he managed to work in the beautiful CUDDLE UP. Excellent deployment of black squares.

Additionally, Kristian wisely used the least-constrained part of the puzzle to work in some Scrabbliness, an X and a Z. Since that SE corner only has the end of LOATHING fixed into place, there's all sorts of freedom. Sure, ETES is a minor gluey bit, but to work in RIB CUT, HE/SHE, and X GAMES along with that X and Z is solid.

I did hitch slightly on NAV, which seems like a curious abbreviation for NAVAL (or NAVY?). But I personally like NAV, as it's commonplace in finance. A mutual fund's NET ASSET VALUE is an important indicator of (insert sound of readers falling asleep).

Finally, a great clue for US STEEL, throwing back to a heyday where US Steel built the "Unisphere" for the NY World's Fair. It's a company that has always fascinated me, because 1.) its ticker symbol on the New York Stock Exchange is the awesome "X" and 2.) it reminds me of Asimov's "U.S. Robotics," a company in his books that produced humanoid robots. And an actual company (which makes modems) took up that name! Life imitating art imitating life.

POW Wed 3/4/2015
CUPIDSCALERAW
UPENDWOMANOVA
BONDTRADERSCAR
ANTIOMANISKIP
GATDACTYLS
CETOLOGYTHUS
ORRDROOPINTER
LOIREEKEAGATE
ASPENSERINRAN
LATESUBTITLE
DEEPENDSIB
ERASBINGEIDEM
FOXPLAYINGSOLO
ODEMONETSERBS
EELSCATSASYET

★ By nature, crosswords targeting a particular subject area will delight a portion of solvers while leaving others shrugging their shoulders. Count me in the former category — BOND, SOLO, ROCKY, and AXEL (Foley) were huge parts of my childhood. Total delight.

The NYSE trading floor, back in the day

I especially liked the wordplay on BOND TRADERS, as it describes so perfectly the switching of Connery to Lazenby to Connery for the lead role. Plus, BOND TRADERS! I know there are very few actual traders on the floor of a stock/bond market flashing specialized hand signals, but the phrase still evokes a colorful image in my mind.

ROCKY START also gave me a smile, as plenty of people complain about the way Rocky I starts the series. My wife and I recently sat down to watch Rocky I (her first time, my nth), and her reaction at the end was (SPOLIER ALERT!):

"What the bleep?! Rocky doesn't win?" Or something to that effect.

TRIPLE AXEL was also apt, since there were three "Beverly Hills Cop" movies. It felt a little odd though, since people refer to BOND, SOLO, and ROCKY by those singular names, and AXEL isn't quite to that level.

Saving the best for last, Han SOLO. My childhood hero, a stereotype-breaking space cowboy, an olio of human greed, moxie, and honor that surprised even him. (FLYING SOLO would have made this perhaps my favorite puzzle in a while. Sigh, a man-boy can dream.)

As if that weren't enough, it's a rare puzzle where the fill catches my eye. CETOLOGY is such a cool, odd word that I wanted to study it (both whales and the word itself). It's usually hard to wow me with single-word entries, but getting DACTYLS, CHIANTI, LARIAT, SUBTITLE along with DEEP END and AL DENTE was a barrage of goodness.

Like some (many? most?) of my choices, not all will agree that this one was the NYT Puzzle of the Week. For those that disagree with my choice, I answer: 1.) there are indeed at least two other puzzles this week I seriously considered and 2.) hokey religions and and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

Thu 3/5/2015
SHIESSTALAG
TEABAGTIMECOP
ARMADADONALDTR
BABYALBSIRPEU
TAUTONEARM
AHICMAJDROP
TENETNEWAGE
FALLINGBEHIND
RASCALRANTO
TWINPEPEGSA
HONDASSELF
RUGLAPGORYDET
UNAMERICSIERRA
DIORAMATATAMI
DOOHANRIYAL

I recently got a very nice rejection from Will, commenting that he's starting to see too many "turning" puzzles. I can understand the point, as we just recently saw something akin to today's. But as with all theme types, I believe there's always a place for an example with a great implementation, a different twist, or a laugh-inducing bit. Today's hit the mark for me, FALLING BEHIND interpreted as "synonyms for BEHIND" running downward.

Damme, Van Damme!

The execution is really strong. Turning themers are difficult to build around, and including four of them plus a central revealer makes things even tougher. Jim does well to quasi-segment his grid so that he can fill each of the four corners and two middle regions somewhat independently. Jim gives us some great long stuff in the NE and SW, using GODPARENTS, TIME COP, HEARING AID, DIORAMA in those important long slots.

Really, the only area I felt wasn't quite as smooth as I like was the PTERO / PEU region. Not surprising that it's smack dab at the "bend" within DONALD TRUMP; a highly constrained section.

A note about "cheater squares," those extra black squares that don't affect the number of words in a puzzle. Normally I'm fast and loose about using them, since they can really help a puzzle's fill sing. Too many of them can be visually unappealing, though. Here, I don't mind the blocks of three in the NE and SW. Completely fine on their own. But when you throw in the huge chunks of black in the west and east, it's too much for me. Personal taste, of course.

I can understand why Jim chose to use these big chunky masses, as separating BABY ALBUM and FALLING BEHIND and UNAMERICAN really helps to facilitate clean fill. For 75% of all constructors, I'd shrug and live with the unappealing visual aesthetics. But Jim's becoming experienced enough that I would have liked to see if he could fill the puzzle as cleanly and sparkly as he did, without using nearly so many cheaters. Challenge issued!

Very amusing puzzle. Perhaps I have seen too many turning puzzles recently, but I welcome ones like this, exemplifying the fun that this theme type can bring.

Fri 3/6/2015
AFCSOUTHTOKLAS
MARINARASANITY
PRIMERIBPROZAC
LIMOSTINEXTRA
ESPNDOTARDAIM
TENURETYCO
SPRAWLEYECOLOR
IROBOTNOMORE
DINOSAURTWERPS
ECRUCREPES
SEECONCURMUTT
ALAMOSETLEMUR
LIGERSITSADATE
ANADEMPETNAMES
DENIALTRUELIES

Some beautiful clues today:

  • [Upper cut?] is perfect for PRIME RIB, playing on "upper" as "higher quality."
  • TENURE is a form of [Fire safety?], in that getting TENURE gives you keeps you from getting fired.
  • PET NAMES are indeed [Love handles?], when you think about "handles" as another word for "nicknames."
  • [Part of the Hollywood crowd?] had me stumped for the longest time. Perfect way to brighten up EXTRA, an otherwise neutral word.

It's rare that we get quite so much fun wordplay in a themeless. Much appreciated.

Beam me up a good deal, Scotty!

Construction involves so many trade-offs. The NW and SE regions run the risk of stranding the solver, since they both have just one way in. But it's precisely this quality that makes construction easier.

Take the SE, where the MUTT / TRESS region doesn't have to connect to anything above. That may seem like a minor issue, but it's not. If even one square opened above it (i.e. the black square between TOME and MEDAL were changed to a white square), the difficulty level goes up by a factor of maybe two. It's a tough call — as a constructor you want both 1.) the solver not to get stranded and 2.) the fill to be sparkly and clean. Those two goals are often diametrically opposed.

Given the difficulty level of having more wide-open sections with two ways in, it's easy to see why the SW region had some of the rockiest bits. It's a beautiful triple-stack (if only the PRICELINE Negotiator had been invoked) but having to connect to the rest of the puzzle in two directions forces ABOU up above and MEDI / SML below.

The difficulty level makes me really admire David's construction in the NE. Having to fill the triple stack of LIZ TAYLOR / ATARI CORP / SYCAMORES such that it connected around with both the EYE COLOR and the DOTARD regions is admirable. Excellent construction work.

Sat 3/7/2015
FROMATOZPEEDEE
LEMONADELARYNX
ICEBOXESITASCA
MILNETTLESLOM
SPEDSOILSJEDI
YETISJEDTOXIN
VAPORVISINE
HOMEKEYRAGBAGS
INASECMUCHO
TEXTSKITTYPEB
SOWSDFLATSEMI
QUEBACKBAYZIP
UNBORNCALAMINE
ACEDITAGONIZED
DERATEPANGRAMS

Neat little mini-theme, FROM A TO Z echoed below by PANGRAMS. Not surprisingly, the puzzle itself is a pangram! I enjoyed trying to figure out where the J, Q, X, and Z might pop up. I was really glad to have the mini-theme in mind as I AGONIZED over what the heck a PEZIZA might be. Very helpful to have the pangram idea in mind as I struggled over that crazy-looking PE?IZA string!

The elusive PEJIZA. Er, PEZIZA.

It's rarely effortless to complete a pangram in a themeless puzzle, even using the maximum allowed number of words (72). It's usually a cinch to toss in one or two of the JQXZ letters, and sometimes getting three of them in isn't too bad. Working all of them in often results in compromises — not surprising to see the gluey ODA near the sole Q.

Other than that though, I was impressed that the puzzle only had a few undesirable bits, and those were quite minor. Even more impressive was the sheer number of JQXZ instances — 10 is no joke. Not a huge amount of fantastic fill, but it's a real treat to get so many of those rare letters.

Confused why [Hook on a kite] would describe TALON? Think about "kite" as the type of bird, not as the recreational toy.

Finally, beautiful clue for LARYNX, which made me think of a speaking part as in a movie role. Perfect use of language to confound and delight.

Sun 3/8/20153.1415926 ...
ACTPUMAPROTEARREM
PLYESAUREPERIEAYE
ROTENEGGESEMADHATER
SCUDGUILTRIPSADDS
DEARSIRRITABLEBEFOG
OSLOSESAMESEEDSLIRA
NELSONTHERES
STYNEILKFCHAIRESP
SATERIOAWLS
CHATKITELMPALALPS
HOWIWISHMLIPIEASILY
EGOMANIALINETRUSCAN
CAKEDLYINGONTOKYO
KNESSETANGSTPROCEED
SSNBOARISEEDRS
ICOULDCALCULATE
ASCENTSADASTIRSUP
MUTINYOSMOSISRECTOR
ERUCTCRAPSHOOTAROSE
TATLEHAREETUIDOTED
ELDERENIDDATESWAYS
Mon 3/9/2015
BETASAPSSHAPE
OVENBREACOBRA
RISKTAKERHOBOS
ECLAIRLIFERAFT
STAARMUMA
TROUBLEAHEAD
ALOHANEALLIE
LIMESIRSSWANK
AMAACRENOLTE
SORRYCHARLIE
EENSIPACT
CLUEMEINBETTOR
AISLEBOARDGAME
PREENATRAIRAN
SARDIREFSFIST

Debut! Debbie and I worked together on a puzzle that will be published in the LA Times next week, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. It's always great to collaborate with someone who keeps the solvers' experience first and foremost in mind, and who is willing to tear apart work-in-progress over and over again. I gave her some advice on a themeless recently, and I was really impressed at how many times she rebooted and tried, tried, tried again. Hard worker, this one.

I can't remember the last time I saw six theme answers in a debut. Debbie's themer layout is spot-on, using a slight overlap in order to make the skeleton smoother. It's a perfect example of how in a high theme density puzzle, squishing themers together often (counterintuitively) makes the grid design much easier.

Take a look at RISK TAKER / LIFE RAFT. They're right atop each other, which goes against the rule of thumb of "the more space between themers the better." Just as long as the overlapping letters are friendly, this squishing allows the constructor to treat the puzzle more as a four-themer than a sx-themer. MUCH more freedom in how you deploy black squares.

I had a good laugh at BORES, as I've sat through countless Powerpoint presentations while "carefully taking notes." (I'm usually brainstorming crossword ideas while pretending to listen.)

Generally, the grid is impressively smooth. I'll give it a HOORAH! The lone spot I thought could use a little more finesse was the SARDI / LIRA crossing. Given that LIRA/LIRE tend to get confused, it makes both SERDI and SARDI look reasonable. I hold Mondays to a very high standard — my personal desire is that they're accessible even for near beginners — but it could be argued that more people ought to know SARDI. And given that this is the NYT and Sardi's is in NYC, maybe it's perfectly fine.

Very nice debut.

Tue 3/10/2015
KEAJABSCOBALT
ILLEPICACACIA
SPEEDIERREBELS
MARTINLANDAU
ESTAMAINSTAY
TOSTADATOSHIBA
GINSUKNEW
PAPERCARRIAGE
MAMAIPADS
GRASSLELAPDOGS
MISSPENTCROC
BATTINGCOACH
RESORTPARENTAL
EXPOSEIZODERE
SOAKERNIKESTP

Generally I like a revealer; an entry that ties the puzzle nicely together. But for themes like today's, I really appreciate having to go back after finishing to figure out what was going on. Nice little moment when I pulled out the LANDAU from memory as a type of transport. CARRIAGE and COACH are also nicely disguised.

Martin Landau can really CARRY a picture (ba dum boom!)

Going down to 72 words allows Allan to give us many long pieces of fill. So much potential when you have six 8-letter slots — and six 7-letter ones to boot! Some of them hit the bulls-eye for me, BABUSHKA, TOSHIBA, LAPDOGS all bringing me a smile.

I did like the challenge presented by a more wide-open grid, although entries like the outdated-sounding PASSBOOK (note: Jim points out that Apple announced today that their new watch supports its Passbook feature, so maybe this term is making a comeback?), and the neutral SPEEDIER and PARENTAL felt a bit like missed opportunity. Often I'll start my own grids with six 8-letter slots but eventually break up a set so that I can get four stellar ones instead of two stars plus four placeholders. It's a tough call, because some people may really love PASSBOOK or even GRASSLE, for example. Trying to guess what a majority of solvers is going to enjoy is a tough business, indeed.

Nice integration of the J and K up in the NW corner. I like the Scrabbliness there, and if the minor price is a KEA and A PIN, I think that's a reasonable trade-off.

The Z down south though … NAZI? Yes, it's clueable to a modern movie, but my guess is that many solvers really don't want to see NAZI as they're enjoying their crossword over a coffee break.

Finally, GROK may be out of many people's wheelhouse, but I think it's a really useful word. If you haven't read Stranger in a Strange Land (where the term "grok" originated), it's well worth it.

Wed 3/11/2015
WOMANISHCLONED
OPALOCKAOOLALA
RAREMEATRADISH
ELSAATSIGNLES
SEXTIEUP
PESTSABSDROPS
ARTTVTRAYGLEE
BARTCHILIEIRE
STARRECIPESOY
TOWEDIKEMEHTA
BEEPSHUN
AVEBUTWHYTRUE
MERLOTREDCROSS
ERRANTAIRBASES
SAYYESPROSPERO

David creates five RED CROSSes today, pairs of reddish answers literally crossing. At first I thought they were all shades of red, but RARE MEAT threw me off. Does Crayola make a RARE MEAT crayon? (If not, I call dibs on that business idea.) And aren't many NAIL POLISHes non-red? So, a looser interpretation of "things that are generally red" crossing each other.

What, no PABST Blue Ribbon crayon?

Five pairs of crossing answers — and long ones to boot! — is a tough task. It's impressive that David not just pulled it off, but managed to work in a few good pieces of fill like TV TRAY and the awesome BUT WHY? All while keeping the grid mostly clean as a whistle.

Sure, some will argue that NASA's AMES Research Center is pretty esoteric, but I think it's a good piece of trivia to learn. I happened to intern there while in high school, so it brought back good memories of being on a 2 a.m. flight in a C-5, getting above the clouds to take astronomical readings.

One interesting bit about the grid design is the deployment of a huge number of black squares in the middle of the grid. This helps tremendously to separate the five crossing pairs, allowing David to treat them quasi-independently. Very important when it comes to clean fill.

But it doesn't leave a lot of black squares available for elsewhere in the grid. That means some region(s) is going to require some long answers — in this case, the NW and SE. I really like the SE, with PROSPERO and AIRBASES, but I wondered if WOMANISH is a real thing. And it would have been great to get a good piece of trivia on OPA LOCKA, but [Miami suburb] made me wonder if OPA LOCKA is really crossworthy.

Finally, [It might have a stirring part] gave me a laugh when I realized it referred to not an actor's stirring role, but actual stirring. Great clue for RECIPE.

Thu 3/12/2015
LOLITAMAWSORS
ANODESGRIPBOT
VASSALMALIIDO
STAREDCDTOWER
PLAYSWITHLANE
EARSGUNANTS
ENTOMBMILAN
PTSIOSDIXAPE
ASNERTERROR
OPENMANEBON
SUREINTHEHOLE
BROWSESHOMERS
ODDAXONROADIE
RUELIFESTRADS
NEDETTAYESYES

Ellen approached me with this idea, and I thought it had a lot of promise. I wasn't at all sure that we could 1.) find enough "___ FIRE" and "FIRE ___" entries, and 2.) arrange them in pairs so that the surrounding fill wouldn't be compromised. Especially difficult given that we wanted the "holes" to not be connected to any other black squares.

The los tart of letter writing. Er, lost art.

If there's anything that drives me, it's a challenge. So I enjoyed working with Ellen to figure out if this was feasible. A key factor was using varying lengths — not just all ???? FIRE and FIRE ???? entries, for example — so that we had a large enough pool of words to choose from. Then it was "just" a matter of trying out hundreds of combinations and black square arrangements to make it work.

Spending so many of our black squares around those two "holes" meant that the NW and SE had to be giant, wide-open spaces if we were to keep to the 78 word max. Fun challenge, and not too difficult if you're okay with a few pieces of Thursday-ish toughies.

Speaking of that, we originally targeted a Thursday-ish puzzle, but Will thought it would be neat to run it as a Monday, replete with a fire visual in each hole. Nice idea, and well worth taking a jackhammer to the NW and SE sections to redo them completely so they'd be Monday-easy. We could have increased the word count past 78 to make it a whole lot easier on ourselves, but 1.) I like a challenge and 2.) I'm stubbornly moronic. Not easy to fill those huge chunks of space without relying on non-Monday bits of crossword glue.

I was glad that Will ended up changing it back to a Thursday, where I think it really belongs.

POW Fri 3/13/2015
IDBADGESHARLEM
TARBOOSHAREOLA
ANECDOTESAVOIR
LESSDARKAGES
OSTRADIOSREPS
OUTOFTHEBLUE
ASTINFOOTIRE
SPILLITSTRIPED
SETONUSAPSES
ALLIWANTTODO
YLEMSIMONEESA
PACECARSTRIM
DRAGONREARAREA
AUGERSYULELOGS
DEEDEESPECKLES

★ Jim and I often discuss what makes a great crossword, and I find my criteria shifting ever so slightly. I used to be much more concerned with squeaky-clean fill, but now I'm relenting; more willing to let a handful of gluey bits slip by if that means a puzzle delights me. What's more important that being delighted, after all? Today's crossword generated a big smile across my face.

Pretty sure I'd look awesome in a TARBOOSH ...

First, it was nice to see Judge Vic not start with the traditional four sets of triple-stacks. That's a tried and true strategy, proven to allow at least 12 long slots. But it's nice to get the variety, the experimentation in the grid design. I like how Vic incorporates a pair of 12-letter entries — 12s, 13s, and 14s are usually avoided due to the difficulty in integrating them into a themeless. And it was nice to see the goodness spread out, getting an OUT OF THE BLUE out of the blue for example, rather than having all the long stuff concentrated in the corners like usual.

Although I really liked entries like TARBOOSH, PACE CARS, YULE LOGS, DARK AGES, the clues are what made the puzzle sing for me. I'm usually quite happy with three or four clever clues, but it felt like they didn't stop today:

  • [One cast in a Harry Potter film] wasn't a person but a SPELL.
  • [Star role of old films?] hinted at a SHERIFF wearing a tin star.
  • [Strain to make?] had nothing to do with really trying hard, but PUREEing.
  • APSES can be a minor gluey bit, but [Quartet in a cathedral, maybe] got me thinking about when I played in a brass quintet at various churches back in the Bay Area. Great misdirection.
  • [Addition to the mix] refers to a sound mix; REVERB often added in during production.
  • Finally, nice job with [Compulsory courses], making me think the answer would end in S. CORE education, drat!

So even though I'd rather have near zero gluey bits in my themeless crosswords, I'll take some OST, ESA, RAG sort of stuff any day if it means I get so much delight.

Sat 3/14/2015
LOBSTERBIBNSFW
ANIMANIACSOHIO
MONEYTALKSRENO
ANGELTAYSLED
REOOMANSMELTS
SRICOCAGUM
WHISTERICBANA
SHAMWOWBAHAMEN
HARPISTSTIRED
OCRFISTINN
VAULTSPACEPRU
EMMAHETWIRES
LOPSEATENALIVE
ELHITHEINSIDER
DESKCARTWHEELS
Sun 3/15/2015MAKING CONNECTIONS
PROSPECTFRISCOIGAVE
HISHONORAUSTENORBIT
INLETLIEINSUREENOUGH
SKORTNEARSTRYIT
REEFQUACKSEATSAT
INFIDELCASTROGENOESE
MOONIOBEINBOXSEATS
AFLATPGASPARTASWAT
RUINEDSTSUSMCAGE
INCANOPENERSNOOARED
INJURYTAMPERING
VERSELITINFIELDGOAL
AVERASEANOLORDLY
NEAPCAPERSYOUSODAS
INDUCTTAPEMAYNTEMO
SLUSHIEINTAKECONTROL
HYPHENSCARJOAVEO
BSIDEIEVERCROWE
INFANCYPANTSLINKEDIN
FARCEEARNITSNEERING
SMOKYSLEEPYEGGDONOR

Did you ever watch MAN VS. BEAST? Ultimately it disappointed, but the promise of bizarre matchups like a man trying to outrace a giraffe / a speed-eater racing a Kodiak bear was too good to pass up. So today we at XWord Info bring you …

MAN-MACHINE vs. MACHINE-MAN!

In the blue corner is a computer with heart — you better believe it's smart — trained by a programmer with a whole lotta glamor. Its processor is so fast it once got citations for doing way too many calculations; its ability so fine it'll drive you out of your mind. I give you … DR. FILL!

In the red corner, we have the five-time ACPT champion. Half-man, half-amazing, and half-blazing (yes, he runs at 150%, folks); he towers like Big Ben (and of course, writes in pen). The bookies have had to make up NEW NUMBERS in order to take bets on him this year! Personally, I like the eleventy-pi to negative j odds that our champion will show up the good doctor, especially given that HE'S DOING HIS OWN PUZZLE AS FAST AS HE CAN.

Okay, let's set some ground rules. I'll count any error as a 15 second penalty. Other than that, THERE ARE NO RULES. (Except the ones I'll make up as we go.) I want to see a good dirty fight. Solvers ready? FIGHT!

Dr. Fill comes out with a quick flurry of bytes, his jabs and crosses landing hard. Folks, it looks like the champ is taking a beating! Feyer's on the ropes, taking ONERs to the solar plexus. He's looking POTTED!

But wait! Feyer comes back with a flurry of his own, finishing the puzzle out in 2:48, leaving the good doctor reeling in confusion. The doctor is staggering! Toppling! And the doctor is down! Let's count it out … 16 wrong squares. I declare the winner… the MACHINE-MAN! Er, the MAN-MACHINE!

Straightforward but fun "add two letters" puzzle today. INFANCY PANTS made me giggle. Impressive theme density, and going down to 138 words makes the task even harder. There's some strain with a few partials and gluey bits, but it's neat to see Dan flex his constructing muscles.

(Special thanks to Matt Ginsberg for indulging my bizarre whims. Now, to pit Dr. Fill against a honey badger ...)

Mon 3/16/2015
BABSAPESTREAT
UCLARELYBURRO
SQUIRTGUNSLUMS
SUEDEDOAEDYS
TILFRIEDSHRIMP
ORASONSHETAO
PEWSONSTALENT
GETSHORTY
ALTTABHOEEGGS
TIEVETZENYON
PEEWEEREESEMRI
ESTARIMIONIC
ALIVESMALLTALK
COMETHYPEISLE
EWERSASPSSTAR

Ian puts on his usual clinic today, four themers hiding diminutive nicknames, plus the SMALL TALK revealer. All themers are two(ish) words, and he chooses half of them with the key word in front — SQUIRT GUN and PEE WEE — and half in the back. Nice consistency and balance, with colorful themers.

I like Ian's style, as he puts a lot of emphasis on including both quantity and quality of long fill. This philosophy leads to a lot of three and four-letter answers, but I don't really mind that in an early-week puzzle. I did notice that there seemed to be a lot of short(y) answers in the grid, but getting an arsenal of great fill — ROOT BEER, ARMY MAN, BLUE LAW, GORILLA, etc. — more than makes up for it.

Ian's comment about 3x7 corners is well-taken. I try to avoid them whenever possible, too. Working with 8s has so much more potential for lively fill compared to working with 7s, as the former has the potential for many more multi-word entries (as well as not-as-often seen single word entries). Ian does great with his corners though, keeping them nice and clean, and 12 out of 12 of the 7s in those corners are above average to great 7s. Takes a huge deal of perseverance and hard work to achieve.

I really liked how SQUIRT, SHRIMP, and SHORTY hid the diminutive pretty well. It would have been a near-perfect theme set if PEE WEE had equally been camouflaged. Although PEE WEE REESE wasn't nearly as short as, say, Eddie Gaedel, at 5'9" he was smallish for a baseball player and was also nicknamed "The Little Colonel."

All in all though, another strong offering from Ian.

Tue 3/17/2015
JARSTAMIMBACK
ODIEIMOLALALA
LATERMANALISON
TMZAIRERANIS
UNDETERMINED
BSATAUALE
MASTERMINDPOP
HEIRLAIRDSPOT
ATLBUTTERMILK
MRIADEONE
MONSTERMOVIE
AGOGSILASBEE
BROLINMIDTERMS
OEUVREEVEWIMP
LATELYDERWEAN

Cool layout today, built around longish themers containing TERM smack dab in their middles. MONSTER MOVIE has exactly four letters before TERM and four after, LATER MAN has two in front and two in back, etc. Nice touch.

A good amount of colorful fill in those big, open corners. A AS IN APPLE, CLOSE LOOK, BAILING OUT, METRO AREA are all snazzy entries, enhancing my solving experience. They're awfully tough to build around, necessitating the ILA, KAN, DEPT, etc. sort of gluey bits. Reasonable trade-off, though.

A traditional Scottish laird

Note how David has placed his six (!) themers in an every-other-row layout, in rows 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13. There is so much interaction between the themers that many, many constraints are created. The center is especially crunched, with LAIRD (sort of) interacting with FOUR themers. It works fairly cleanly, although it would have been nice to at least have the option to choose something different than LAIRD. I actually think that entry is pretty interesting, but I imagine it will draw grumbles from "Tuesday solvers."

Generally I advocate for as much space as possible in between themers, but in the special case of high theme density, I often try to squeeze pairs of themers together. Here, I might have tried shoving LATER MAN and MASTERMIND together in rows 3 and 4. Not sure if it would have given friendly letter pairs in the overlap, but it would have let David lay out the skeleton as if he were working with four (very long) themers rather than six.

Rich Norris (editor of the LA Times crossword) has mentioned to me that it takes a lot to overcome his bias against single-word themers. I can see where that comes in today, with UNDETERMINED being not nearly as exciting as MONSTER MOVIE in my eyes. MASTERMIND does have a lot of appeal, but it might have been nice to see more of the DUMB TERMINAL / HIPSTER MUSIC kind of entries.

Finally, great clue for ONE. Curious to figure out if RELATIONS is the longest common word that can be formed by one-point Scrabble tiles.

Wed 3/18/2015
FEDORASUSCOPS
EPISODESPILLIT
DIVISORMONOSKI
CARIBBEANQUEEN
INEAIGINST
AWLSISLETS
CHITIDYBACKUP
DOMESTICWORKERS
CANVASHOBOESS
ARAWAKPLAT
SAWNSOIMHO
PREDATORDRONES
RENEGEDAMSCRAY
ANDREASBEEHIVE
YAYSLYSTROKES

Too bad he didn't stick to his Scrabbly birth name, Louis Székely Now this is how you execute on a three-themer grid. When the theme density is low, I expect a huge amount of strong fill, at least sixish entries to enhance the solving experience. Tim goes above and beyond with three long pieces of fill — EASY CHAIR, IT'S A STEAL, SPONGE BOB — as well as a whole lot of strong 7s: AMSCRAY, FEDORAS, LOUIS CK, SPILL IT, and the BEEHIVE theme revealer. Doing all that with keeping the grid to less than 5 gluey bits = impressive.

The theme isn't complicated, but it's a nice set of entries. I like the touch of WORKERS and DRONES being plural, but QUEEN singular. It's those small touches that add to a theme's elegance.

Tim does a nice job in that difficult SE corner, where DRONES and BEEHIVE heavily constrain that 7x4 chunk. I imagine Tim tried placing the BEEHIVE revealer at the very bottom entry, but that would have been difficult given 55-Down would have had to end in a V. The result is pretty nice, just the obsolete MHO as a blight.

This is another case in which I might advocated for different spacing. Moving CARRIBEAN QUEEN and PREDATOR DRONES toward the center would still allowed for a few rows of spacing between the themers, but it would have also allowed a set of black squares separating DRONES from BEEHIVE. It's a very minor point as we're only discussing how to get rid of the measly MHO, but the OCD constructor in me can't help but wonder if that little dab of glue could have been avoided.

Beautiful clue for ISLETS, which are [Minor keys?] indeed. Good repurposing of a common musical phrase.

Thu 3/19/2015
SELBYINCHJAM
ONEADSELAERA
CROCSMAXEDRAN
HONKPAYTVRUBY
INSTEADTEXAS
ODIEORIGAMI
TIMBURTONISLAM
ANYASOLOSTELE
BOSSAMETACOMET
UNHINGEHIER
ACCRAILLICIT
CARSASSNSCANE
OHOSTUNGSHINS
PENAEROTENET
YMAGREWUSERS

I wasn't familiar with the "How to Hug" joke Todd mentioned, and all the references I found were on "blonde jokes" pages. So I'll rephrase it:

Did you hear about the USA Today crossword that took a book out of the library called How to Hug, only to discover that it was volume seven of the encyclopedia?

Zing!

While the joke didn't land for me as a crossword theme — sense of humor is so subjective — I liked the touch Todd mentioned, lining up the four "encyclopedia volumes" in alphabetical order. Good choice of themers too, all colorful phrases.

I would have liked some other tricky element for this Thursday puzzle. Although Will mentioned a few weeks ago that he has a simple goal of making Thursdays harder than Wednesdays, he's run so many tricksy Thursdays that it's set somewhat of a precedent. High expectations, and totally unfair given how hard it is to come up with innovative gimmicks, but it is what it is. Sorry, Will!

Nice layout, with TIM BURTON a nice entry and METACOMET amazing. I had no idea who this was, but what an awesome name. Overall, a nice job on filling, with a lot of good longer stuff. JERUSALEM, MY SHARONA, and ORIGAMI with its great [Paperwork?] clue.

I did experience (what I felt like was) a lot of esoteric names. Generally I don't mind a pile-up of names if they're all relatively familiar. But with SELBY, ANYA and YMA, it would have been nice to clue ISLAM and SHINS around the religion and the bones senses, so as to not add to the concentration.

Could Odie solve the NYT crossword? Gauntlet thrown down!

Finally, a bizarrely awesome clue on ODIE. Who knew he did the Sudoku? And Jim Davis (who went to school with my mother-in-law) — HAVE GARFIELD SOLVE THE NYT CROSSWORD ALREADY! Someone come up with a lasagna / I hate Mondays / napping theme already.

Fri 3/20/2015
ENDSITARROWS
BOOTLEGRONNIE
BIGYEARSEASTLA
EDTSTAMMERILL
TEARSNAILOPIE
SAGERDRSSITAR
GIANTSLALOM
MICKEYMOUSE
COMEUPPANCE
LONERHANEENSY
IMANSENNADINO
NPRPEWTERSEAU
EUCLIDSRILANKA
ATHENASAUNTER
LEYDENSECEDE

Debut! Beautiful sets of triples through the middle, GIANT SLALOM / MICKEY MOUSE (as an adjective!) / COMEUPPANCE just delightful. SMARTY PANTS and MISS MANNERS had a nice echo (said the guy who think spoons don't need to be washed). GRANDNEPHEW seemed a touch arbitrary, but the Augustus / Julius Caesar clue made it work well.

Mickey Mouse is so Mickey Mouse. Er, in a good way.

Visually striking pattern, which I thought I had seen before. If there only were some web site where you could figure out when similar (or identical) grids have been used … Press the "Analyze this puzzle" button (at the very bottom of the page) if you're interested, and scroll down to "Topologically similar grids."

In this sort of arrangement, coming up with intersecting triple-stacks is just the beginning of the quest. I love how open the grid is, how well the solving experience flows through every region. But having both ends of each corner fixed into place by those triple-stacks causes so many constraints. Much, much more difficult than having regions which connect to the rest of the puzzle in just one way.

Roland does well in the SW. I'll always appreciate seeing entries like EUCLID and ATHENA, targeted at the erudite NYT audience. MONARCHY is similar, and also taught me a little bit about Saudi Arabia. All of that with no gluey bits = great stuff.

The NW felt a little rougher to me. Perhaps that's because I got so stuck, I had to cheat to finish. But the unfamiliar EBBETS and SAGER weren't terribly satisfying — didn't feel like answers that I really ought to have known. And while I really like BOOTLEG, NO IDEA, and DOG TAG, BIG YEARS didn't feel strong enough to give me a hit-my-forehead moment of discovery when I revealed that answer. Personal taste.

Finally, a beautiful clue that took me a full day to understand. How on Earth could SNAKED equate to some sort of [Wound]? Maybe it referred to a snakebite? Some dictionary definition #57 of a stabbing that only 16th century British scholars would know? No, it's wound as in "wound around." Now that's a great moment of discovery.

Sat 3/21/2015
JUMPINJACKFLASH
AHOOSIERHOLIDAY
NOCAUSEFORALARM
EHSZAPSACTSIN
FUNINK
ITEAUSMMAGE
ORANGEPOPSICLES
TURNEDTHETABLES
ATTENTIONPLEASE
SHODLTDAYES
MOTDSL
YESBUTEDUCSLO
ONEAFTERANOTHER
GETSTOFIRSTBASE
ISTHISSEATTAKEN
POW Sun 3/22/2015UPSIDES
WBALEFLAPHAMTVDAD
AINEDROSAACEBRAISE
RONGDRINKSSHAREONESB
TLEOIIGATAENEIDDAU
SAXEDGINESSTINYOUT
BEADEDCLIMBINGOWL
SSTAREMOOTTMNT
TANYAPOKYNCAA
TOSELFPHONECOLDMEAL
EVENALITTLEBOREAVAI
TAXSTRUMSMAMMALANV
ORTHEARLTASMANIANDE
NYSENATESICKOLESSER
LAMEBCCSNSYNC
ODESMORKASHACT
URNTHEWALLSOOMPAH
FTEAOAFPEACHPIERED
ALSPOLISHPRULEGALI
CISIONTREEDIGESTIVEA
ENUDESSRAOBEYUNAFR
DEPOTTAPGEREPANTY

★ As a crossword commentator, I live for days like today. I initially was disgruntled by (what I thought were) gibberish rebus squares all along the walls of the puzzle. On my average solver days, I would have set it aside without another thought.

Thank goodness I analyzed it afterward, because what an amazing a-ha moment! It's my favorite puzzle of the year in any venue so far, and I hope to convince any haters out there why it's so incredible. I struggle to think of a single puzzle in the past several years that I've liked better.

Like me, there will be many solvers out there who entered "STRAW" in the first square, "STRA" in the one below it, "STR" in the one below that, etc. Made no sense why [Targets of some cryosurgery] was a bunch of nonsense rebus squares. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that each of these answers is literally CLIMBING / THE WALLS, i.e. the STRAW of STRAW BALE actually starts at the square marked "30"! Similarly, that square starts the STRA of STRAINED, and the STR of STRONG DRINKS, all "borrowing" from the WARTS entry.

Deal with the devil. J'accuse!

Sometimes a puzzle is awesome from a solver's perspective, sometime it's incredible from a constructor's view, but rarely do I find both in spades. The aspect I appreciate the most as a constructor is that Jeremy found a way to innovate without relying on rebus squares — squishing multiple letters into a single square in different ways. Jeremy's approach of using a "turning answers" approach to the nth degree is amazing, all while sticking with a single letter in each box.

And the technical challenge of it! Sure, each of the six instances is somewhat separated so he could build each one independently, but he still needed to stick to crossword symmetry. To balance STRONG DRINKS with DIGESTIVE AID, and NOT EVEN A LITTLE with TASMANIAN DEVIL … I did figure out how to arrange things to get some computer assistance, but it's still a wickedly difficult task to pull off so cleanly.

As if all that weren't enough, Jeremy keeps at it with great mid-length fill like ME FIRST, SCRAP HEAP, HAS A SMOKE, etc. Pure RAPTURE on my part.

I can't remember when I've been this elated to have the chance to gush about a crossword. I've always looked forward to seeing Jeremy's byline, and this enforces my notion that he's one of the best in the business.

Mon 3/23/2015
JAMALMADLYBLT
OBESEIBEAMIOU
KLEPTOMANIACUB
EEKHAITIOKIE
MARCHMADNESS
FLAILSREAR
OURSMECCAOFT
CATSCRATCHFEVER
HUHHEXESDEMO
IVANGOGRAY
FASHIONCRAZE
OUTSUSOFAACT
ADOMEDIAFRENZY
MIRGRINDKAYAK
STYTREYSSTARE

Timely puzzle, right in the middle of MARCH MADNESS. "Bracketology" is such a cool term (as is "bracketologist") that I'm surprised neither has been used before in crosswords. When Warren Buffett was considering a one billion dollar prize for correctly picking every game in the NCAA brackets, I found it really interesting that his underwriters thought the risk of someone actually achieving it was negligible — but the risk of a hacker finding a way to dupe them was not.

A single Viceroy bulb allegedly commanded a trade for 1,000 lb. of cheese!

Colorful phrases, FASHION CRAZE and MEDIA FRENZY singing. KLEPTOMANIA is a strong one too, but I found it slightly inelegant that it was the only single word themer. Something like RAILWAY MANIA or TULIP MANIA? As a kid, I was enthralled by severe displacements of supply and demand's actual equilibrium point.

Man, I was a weird kid.

I like the effort to incorporate two long downs, BICKER OVER and ART HISTORY. With five long themers, that's a tough task. I appreciate the care Mike took in filling in those areas. Nice and smooth; good deployment of black squares to facilitate filling those areas.

And overall the fill is pretty smooth, with just the north section sticking out with a concentration of A BATH / LAI / YMA. It'd be interesting to see if relocating the block below DENIM to the I of HAITI would have helped — using a five-letter word like HAITI to separate two themers often results in slight compromises.

Finally, ["Oh. My. God!"] for EEK amused me to no end. I like both the creativity in cluing and the colloquial tone.

Tue 3/24/2015
PEARLTHAWLARA
INTHEEASEEVER
SCHOOLCLUBGAZE
TOLDAHAFARO
IDEALSLIFELINE
LETOTSSLUICED
DESKHERAZEDS
TIMETABLE
MODEPACEADDL
PARAPETLTDIAL
SKYLIGHTREBATE
TWASWOEALIS
CRAWSTICKSHIFT
DELAEACHSANAA
RELYAXESNIGHT

Good example of the "both words can follow" type theme. It's been a few months since we saw our last one, and I appreciate Will spreading them out. They're difficult to execute on — finding those workable pairs are tough — but they can get repetitive if they run too frequently.

Robyn finds some nice themers, LIFELINE, SKYLIGHT, and STICK SHIFT all strong. I don't much care if these are all one-word or two-word phrases (or if NIGHTTIME, NIGHT TABLE, NIGHTLINE are consistently one or two words) since this theme feat is hard enough to do without worrying about that. Perhaps that will change in the future, since we've seen so many examples of this theme type now.

SCHOOL CLUB felt a bit more neutral — that's one potential downfall of this type of theme. Sometimes it's a minor miracle to find enough themers that work, period.

Korean taco trucks parked in pot shop parking lots = good capitalism

Robyn brings up a good point regarding fill, as there are enough gluey bits to be noticeable. But she makes a good effort to balance that out by incorporating some nice fill in STEAL AWAY, PISTIL, LATIFAH, DRY WALL. The effort is much appreciated.

What, no pot reference in the LEGALIZED clue? (Very amusing how an army of food trucks have set up shop in the parking lot of our neighborhood pot shop.)

Finally, beautiful clue for MODE. I can see solvers shivering at the memories of high school math class with [6, in the set [3,5,5,6,6,6,7]]. But it's a nice little reward for paying attention in math class.

See, math DOES matter!

POW Wed 3/25/2015
ATOASTDELAWARE
NUDGEDENAMORED
OPERASESTEEMED
IDESRUINOVA
ECOEENPRES
AHAENDBAY
SUVNEILEENSY
ALATONGANSHOE
UNPENASIMORB
TEDTAIWEB
SAGAPCTCRS
TVACLAWCAST
AIRPLANETHRESH
RADIATORREDNO2
KNEEDEEPIDIDSO

★ Not knowing the painting, I hadn't really considered this one for the POW at first. Thankfully, having two J-named partners with knowledge in the arts made me really appreciate the theme. The difficulty of the execution naturally results in some compromises, but I found them well worth it. Memorable puzzle.

Thu 3/26/2015
ALPHASABUDHABI
PARENTNINEIRON
AYEAYETOILETTE
SLYTHERINSDIOR
SASOPEDOHEXT
NOSERINGS
LEOIKETHOU
INTENSERIVALS
PLEXLESPDA
SPINSERVE
GOTONOFAASEC
IMACRINSECYCLE
MALENUDELAMOUR
PHONESEXINCODE
SANTAHATSTATES

Another beautiful construction from Byron. I like how strictly he executed the theme, RINSE CYCLE meaning the letters in RINSE shift over exactly one slot with each step. Perfect to have them all centered and symmetrical.

The Slytherin crest (boo, hiss!)

There's not much of a trick element to the theme, which is unfortunate for a Thursday. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the solve. Not only did Byron pick vivid theme answers — SLYTHERINS! and (Michael Chang's wicked) SPIN SERVE — but he put together a layout ready-made for great fill. A tough challenge to incorporate corners with triple-stacked 8s, but given Byron's skill level, it didn't surprise me at all to see them packed with MALE NUDE, PHONE SEX, SANTA HAT, ABU DHABI, NINE IRON. I'd usually expect some price to pay for all that goodness, but Byron does it seamlessly.

I usually have a tough time figuring out if the constructor or Will had more to do with clever cluing, but I've come to notice a preponderance of great ones in many/most of Byron's puzzles. Here are my favorites:

  • [Shot in the crease?] takes a hockey term and repurposes it for BOTOX shot into wrinkles.
  • [Fish hook?] is another great repurposing, a TALON reaching down to grab a poor fish.
  • Who knew LAYLA was inspired by a 12-century Persian poem? Lively trivia.
  • I'm not a big golf fan, but the "bump-and-run" term is so colorful I can't help but like it. (It refers to the type of shot a nine-iron is often used to make.)
  • PHONE SEX will be on the risqué side for some solvers, but I sure liked the clue: [Activity on a hotline?]. Hot indeed!

I would have loved not so many black squares on the sides of the puzzles, but I couldn't figure out a way around them. Finding a 15-letter themer to replace INTENSE RIVALS would accomplish that, but for me it proved impossible — I don't know that I would have been able to even find INTENSE RIVALS, for that matter.

All in all, a delightful solving experience.

Fri 3/27/2015
BIGMACREPEALS
ENRICOOPENSUP
ALAMORTLEADSTO
TABERNACLECHOIR
STSNEBOHORSE
MIALINPUTTS
ENTITESISS
UTAHSTATE
ISAATMSSHH
TASESOASHOI
IPODSGRIMASP
LATTERDAYSAINTS
STOOLIESTINKAT
IONBEAMENCAGE
TWEEDLEDEARER

Very cool mini-themed themeless! Not only does David only use Utah-shaped blocks of black squares, but he incorporates three Utah-related phrases, TABERNACLE CHOIR, UTAH STATE, and LATTER DAY SAINTS. All lively entries.

Recognize that shape?

I liked the mini-theme so much that I think it would have made more sense to run this on a Thursday. I had a great a-ha moment when I figured out why David used such chunky black square blocks. Perhaps the theme density isn't high enough to run it as a themed puzzle, but I think the visual's extra oomph puts it over the edge. Thursday puzzles are so difficult to innovate, and for me, this concept fell right into that sweet spot where I'm treated to a stroke of creativity.

I would have loved just a little more flow, more connectivity throughout the puzzle. Not sure if it's even possible to shift the Utah blocks around Tetris-style while still keeping the three themers, but I ended up getting stuck in the NW corner. If only some entries could have squeaked through where the adjacent Utah blocks are touching! Much harder to fill the puzzle that way, though.

We're getting ready to launch scored word lists (coming soon!), and many entries here are easy to evaluate. ITES and ISS are fairly clear; they ought to be avoided whenever possible. DEME is in a grayer zone. And surprisingly, HOI is too. The difficulty with HOI: how else do you clue it besides [___ polloi]? It's tough to assign hard numbers, but we're hoping that our simple system will help a lot of constructors in taking their first cut.

Great idea; beautiful use of the crossword grid as an artistic canvas.

Sat 3/28/2015
BIKINIWAXOHJOY
ECONOMIZEDUANE
DEATHSTARERICA
LALOESLROLLER
AGASTEEPENBOZ
MESSYNAILSAVE
PRODCARTIER
SCARUMTEATRO
NOTEPADBEAR
ALOENAPACRISP
POMLITCRITMIR
CRIPESGEMFORE
HAZEDLAXATIVES
ADEPTOMAGAZINE
TORSOLEMONZEST

Solid construction. Really nice to see very little glue throughout the grid; fun to follow David's progression as a constructor. To be able to incorporate so many colorful phrases and Scrabbly letters, while only leaning on AGA and LALO (the scientist in me gives IMAGO the thumbs-up, perhaps to some solvers' chagrin) is an impressive feat.

David works in the Xs and Zs so smoothly — in each of his four corner stacks! The bottom one is especially nice, with FIZZ crossing O MAGAZINE and LEMON ZEST. Makes a difficult task look easy.

For those of you (us) who don't understand newfangled technology, SNAPCHAT features PICs that disappear after your friends have seen them? Kids these days.

For those of you (us) who don't understand pop music, Ringo STARR replaced Pete Best in the Beatles. Ooh, that's gotta hurt!

This puzzle was a bit too risqué for my NYT sensibilities. As much as the middle-grader in me titters at LAXATIVES, the total effect with JAILBAIT and BIKINI WAX made the puzzle feel like it diverged from what makes the NYT crossword strong. I'm all for modernization, but I'd prefer to see moves more aligned with the NYT's educated / cultured audience. A more sparing use of pushing-the-edges terms would give the puzzle less of a Maxim or Men's Health vibe.

Beautiful clue for NOTEPAD. As an aspiring writer, I figured I should know whatever [It has rules for writers] might be. Strunk and White or some other style guideline, perhaps? Fantastic a-ha moment when I realized the clue referred to the ruled lines on a NOTEPAD.

Sun 3/29/2015CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME
TABORSBLADESPLICATE
ACADIAEOLITHRUNRIOT
STREAMINGINCAEMBASSY
TIROENZIDESISLIP
EVENPARCASTELSEWHERE
BATESEWARLURID
UTTERADAGESRELIEFS
DEEPSPACECANINEMEDAL
SOIREESTRASATIRE
NOTONCEDOESITTOE
YOUMAKEMEWANNACASHOUT
ALFALETAPITWORKS
LATESTDNYCORNIER
ALEUTREALLYBIGCASHEW
SADCASESAUCEDREINE
HEIDIILLAGERTE
BACALLHANDLERBERSERK
AVERLENIHILTALAD
LETITIATHELIFEOFPICA
TRUSSEDTALONSFLINTY
OYSTERSIDOTOOFUDGES

I was curious why this puzzle was so difficult — my usual Sunday solving time is 20ish minutes, and this one took me twice that. Amazing to see it's a 132 word puzzle. The number won't mean anything to most people, but it's the equivalent of making a themed 15x with only 67 words. We keep lists of such accomplishments, and only about a dozen people have managed this feat.

I appreciated the added level of complexity, given that the theme was immediately apparent from the title. What else could CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME be but "add CA into themers for wacky results?" THE LIFE OF PICA gave me a good chuckle, as did YOU MAKE ME WANNA CASH OUT. The latter has such a nice transformation, breaking up SHOUT into CASH OUT. Nice moment of solving discovery.

I wasn't familiar with REALLY BIG SHEW, so REALLY BIG CASHEW made me struggle. Apparently Ed Sullivan was known for this phrase? (I'm ducking in preparation for all the people throwing stuff at me for even questioning their beloved Ed Sullivan.)

For those of you (heathen) non-Trekkies, DEEP SPACE NINE was a series in the Star Trek franchise. It had its moments. Really. Seriously! Okay, not really. It was terrible. As in, "Star Trek: Voyager" terrible. (Again, I'm ducking.) But DEEP SPACE CANINE did evoke an amusing image.

Upon closer inspection, it's amazing how open Alan kept this grid. Those four corners are so open, so themeless-esque in nature. I appreciated how relatively smooth it all was. The only point that bugged me was the raw number of esoteric names required to hold everything together. I like learning a few BALTO, LETITIA, ENZI kind of entries. Makes it really tough though, when a STAEL or a LENI is required to break into a wide-open section.

All in all, a nice experiment into the low word-count arena. Certainly made for a challenging brain workout. Perhaps somewhere in the middle ground — say, a super-smooth 136 worder — is a sweeter spot for solvers? But pushing the boundaries is a great thing; something very few people can do.

Mon 3/30/2015
JOYWHOBBC
LUREIREDAYLA
BIRDSOFAFEATHER
BEYASPGOOSE
QUOPROPREPOSE
FOEICEKEN
EYREGNUSRODS
FLOCKTOGETHER
OSURAPABBES
XERPITAPLAYAT
PIEPALCSI
CECEHELIBRER
CLEARFORTAKEOFF
AIRMAILONEHOUR
ROSETTASTARKLY

Grid art! Bruce is carving out a niche for himself with these diagonal symmetry art pieces. The bird visual came through strong and clear for me; enjoyable change of pace, especially for a Monday.

Bruce brings up an interesting point about symmetry. Since so few of these diagonal symmetry puzzles have been published, it's difficult to figure out what their rules should be. My first reaction was similar to his — if the grid is diagonally symmetric, shouldn't the themers be too? But that's far from an absolute.

Flocking together (mwa ha ha!)

Matching grid and themer symmetry seems like the most elegant solution, but in this case, it might not be possible. With diagonal symmetry, long themers must intersect at some point — a tough task, dependent on a lot of luck. And grid-spanners (entries of 15 letters) can only be placed in row/column 3 through 13, otherwise they'd force double- or triple-stacked grid-spanners. All sorts of difficulties, so I'm okay with a bit of inelegance.

I would have liked FLOCK TOGETHER to be symmetrical with something, though. It doesn't have a matching themer in WRAPPING PAPER, nor does it sit in a centered spot, like it would with usual symmetry. Same goes for GOOSE. Sure would have been cool if GOOSE (or GEESE) were flying up diagonally or something!

Very difficult construction. Not a surprise that the roughest patch was down in that SE corner, with such a big space, constrained in a few different ways. And Bruce's point about the preponderance of 3-letter words was one I definitely noticed. Switching back and forth between acrosses and downs tends to make my solve feel somewhat choppy; not as much flow as I would like.

Finally, I wish Bruce had knit his "for the birds" concept together with something a little more thematic than CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF. ALFRED HITCHCOCK would have been great! Would have given BIRDS OF A FEATHER / FLOCK TOGETHER quite a different (Halloween-y) feel, though.

Tue 3/31/2015
PLAYASTIRLITUP
REMOPAINEIRONS
ONIONRINGSTERRA
MANHOODEIRETEL
OWNLASERBEAM
ALLOWMIRTHELLS
TEAHAULEARL
VERBALGYMNASTICS
YETIEATSNIH
CONTSEAMYURIAH
HIGHHORSESAE
ALIONESAUGUSTA
SETINCOFFEEBARS
TRIPETREADERIE
ESSAYSTYNENAPA

Gymnastics equipment, nicely disguised within snappy phrases. I wasn't exactly sure what the VERBAL part of VERBAL GYMNASTICS had to do with a written puzzle — it would be kind of fun to watch people solve, screaming out the answers as they wrote them in — but sometimes I just need to poke myself and let things slide. Plus, VERBAL GYMNASTICS is such a cool phrase that it was worth the slight bit of confusion.

Sometimes I wonder if a revealer helps or hurts a puzzle. In this case, I think it was a good thing, especially given how snazzy VERBAL GYMNASTICS is. Plus, I don't know if the (pommel) horse or the (uneven) bars would be identifiable without some explicit exposition.

If you squint really hard, you can pretend this is me

Smoothly filled. Gary does a nice job of careful entry selection; just a smattering of A FAN and CON'T minor glue to keep it all together.

With a 16x15 grid, I think it's important to go the extra mile to keep solvers' attention. I sure enjoyed getting the entries like YOO HOO! and NOW WHAT? along with TORTELLINI and LARYNGITIS. For a normal 15x15 puzzle, that would have been fine for me.

But I would have loved to see the boundary pushed a bit, either by 1.) taking out the black square between MUG and ERECTS (difficult to do cleanly) or 2.) shifting the two black squares by STYNE/NAPA either to the left or the right in order to allow ASSUAGE to grow to a 9-letter answer (easier). Not absolutely necessary of course, but as a solver I appreciate those added touches. Given how clean the puzzle turned out, I think getting a bit more sparkle would be worth the price of a little more glue.

FYI, I wondered how difficult it would be to hold an iron cross on the rings. I rock climb a few times a week and am feeling comfortable about my chances on a salmon ladder, so it couldn't be that hard, could it? I was going to post my feeble attempt on my gym's Olympic rings, but it turns out that my videocamera doesn't operate fast enough to capture nanoseconds.

ADDED NOTE: Gary mentioned that his orginal intent was to have the themers clued in a wacky way, i.e. [Olympic event for shallots?] for ONION RINGS. Thus the VERBAL GYMNASTICS revealer would have been more apt.