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Puzzles for April, 2014
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (27)Jeff Chen (30)Jim Horne (4)Hide comments
POW Tue 4/1/2014

★ I cannot resist the allure of the Schrodinger puzzle. It's so cool when there are two answers which work equally well. Sometimes one answer is more tortured than the other, but most all of them today are very nice. A prime example of a home run is FISH and FIST, both of which are landed by a hook (a FISH by a fishhook and a FIST by a right hook). Very clever clue for both!

These types of squares are very difficult to pull off, so it's even more impressive that Andrew was able to incorporate so many of them. Thirteen answers are affected, with eight squares needing to work with duality. Just getting one or two to work well is hard enough, so tossing in a huge handful is incredibly impressive.

And given the theme density, I would expect the fill to suffer greatly. Not only does Andrew need to work around the themers BEST THREE / OUT OF FIVE, but he has to place five "coins" throughout the grid. Each of those "coins" requires two answers to be placed (one across, one down), and a set of intersecting across/down answers generally makes for tough constraints. When you have five of them, you're asking for trouble.

As if that wasn't enough, there's the HEADS/TAILS in the center, making the entire puzzle heavily constrained. Sure, there are a few bits like AMBI, SKAT, and OST (all in the NW area), but the grid is remarkably clean. I wondered if Andrew could have gotten rid of the OST and AMI by placing the first coin in the SW corner instead of the NW? That SW corner feels much less constrained and ripe for a "coin," although this would require a different set of dual-working answers than ISH/IST and GUSH/GUST due to length requirements.

And yes, the grid is too segmented for my taste (the entire NW and SE can be sectioned off by adding just one set of black squares, which breaks up the flow of the puzzle), but I'll happily take that sort of thing when the payoff is good enough.

My final reaction: at first I felt like there was almost a little too much going on. What with all the coins and the answer in the middle and the theme answer telling me BEST THREE OF FIVE, I wasn't sure what to look at first. I started to overthink it all, brainstorming how nice it would have been to make it some sort of predictive magic trick, or to tie the central answer to the coins themselves somehow. And then I decided to just sit back and enjoy it.

Neat idea, and a grid executed with obvious care and devotion to clean fill. Much appreciated by this solver!

Wed 4/2/2014

Okay, all you solvers out there who didn't understand the theme at first, raise your hands!

(My hand sheepishly raised)

After filling in the last letter, I was astonished that I got Mr. Happy Pencil, since WET HOODS looked so odd. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that the theme answers were all anagrams of the phrase immediately following "... out of ...". Confused still? [Weapon part that's out of this world] means the weapon part is made up out of the letters T H I S W O R L D. Anagrammed, you get SWORD HILT. Same goes for (out of) THE WOODS and WET HOODS. I thought it was pretty neat, once I got it. A bit of British cryptic crossword leaking over into the US.

"Wacky" phrase puzzles can be hit or miss. They usually need to be really funny, or at least produce an odd mental image to be successful. I liked most of the themers, but none of them spoke to me in particular. I did enjoy that SWORD HILT is a real thing — what a cool coincidence that THIS WORLD and SWORD HILT are anagrams!

I also appreciated some of the lively fill in David's puzzle. I GOT NEXT especially feels fresh and snappy. And it's rare that a four-letter entry will impress me, but I really liked the up-to-date NSFW (not safe/suitable for work). Nice job in adding to the NYT crossword's SFW lexicon.

There were some rough patches here and there. For whatever reason, four-letter random Roman numerals irk me, but that's simply a preference. Some people actually like them, in that they can be inferred, thus providing a toehold in a tough-to-solve section. If they must make an appearance, I usually prefer a crazy math problem, like XXXIII * XLVII or something referencing the fact that 1551 is palindromic. Then again, I'm a dork (and proud of it!).

Not a surprise to see a few glue-y entries in those wide-open NW and SE corners. But if all I have to pay for SEE PAST, NIPS AT, I GOT NEXT, ASTHMA is the partial TRY A, I'll take that most any day. Even better is the NW, which features a bevy of beautiful answers for the price of IT ON, SKEE and DIA. What made it totally worth it to me was my favorite clue/answer: [Paper tiger, e.g.] for ORIGAMI. I always struggle to remember what a paper tiger is (something that seems threatening but really isn't), and I got a big smile on my face when I realized I had been bamboozled.

Thu 4/3/2014

David was kind enough to put up with me, a slightly demented 18-year old freshman roommate interested in all sorts of bizarre experiments. As an example, I set up trials to determine how long I could go without sleeping. (Hallucinating began at hour 45 and I fell asleep in the dorm hallway at hour 50.) Needless to say, people drew mustaches on me.

This grid was challenging, since the high theme density made it near impossible to incorporate long downs. I used to be fine having only a little snazzy fill in a puzzle, but these days I hate letting a puzzle go unless there are at least four nice non-theme entries inside the grid. As a solver, I highly value sparkling fill, so I always keep that front and center in my mind when I construct.

Since using long downs wasn't possible, I had to incorporate long across fill. Typically that would bother me because those answers might be mistaken for theme material, but in this case I didn't mind since the themers were so long (15/11/15/11/15) that they stand out on their own.

Unfortunately, with all the constraints, the only option was to put long across fill in the NE and SW corners. I typically don't like splitting rows 1 and 15 into two words apiece, because three words apiece is so much easier to fill cleanly. But in this case, it was the only way I felt we could add some sparkle.

I tried several hundred alternatives for each corner, and I'm never happy to have a partial (I LAY), but I thought it was a reasonable trade-off to get such goodness as 'NUFF SAID and ASIAN FLU (I find the pan-Asian financial crisis of the late 1990's incredibly interesting and useful to study, in hopes of preventing future outbreaks). I was also happy to give LAILA ALI some props, as well as Darren SHAN, the author of the Cirque du Freak series. I can only hope to someday have one-tenth his success as an author.

Fun to collaborate. I'm particularly interested in increasing diversity within constructors, so please contact me (jeffchen1972 at gmail dot com) if you'd like to break into the most fascinating hobby in the world. (And you're willing to work dozens of hours with little pay!)

Fri 4/4/2014

Oh man, it's so cool that two of the quad-stack masters joined forces on this one! I love collaborating with other constructors, so I can only imagine the awesome back-and-forths MAS and Joe must have had. (Please tell me there were some tickle fights?) In particular, I enjoyed hearing about one constructor taking an unpaired quad-stack and matching it up with another's. A true peanut-butter and chocolate moment.

Quad-stacks by nature tend to require common letters (RSTLN E), so it's important to choose the entries with those letters that happen to be snappy. (At least so I'm told, since I've never successfully completed one quad-stack, much less two.) I loved getting AM I GLAD TO SEE YOU, an entry I would be happy to encounter in any themeless, much less a quad-stack. What with SACRIFICIAL LAMB on top of it, that bottom section was a mighty treat.

I liked the top one as well, although I didn't know ADELAIDE'S LAMENT so wasn't able to appreciate it as much. After looking it up (it's a Guys and Dolls song), I was happy to have listened to it. Catchy!

Inevitable to get some less-than-optimal crossing answers in a quad-stack. I did love seeing the longer ones like EXORCIST and SCARLET A (much, much better than the usual RED A we usually see in crosswords) and I DIG IT. But not may solvers will like a TENTER or an arbitrary TEN HOURS or SMOOT in their puzzle. I am very interested in the SMOOT-Hawley tariff's effect in intensifying the Great Depression, but we've already established that I'm strange.

It surprises me to hear every once in a while that a solver will enjoy the likes of ENCE or STER. I would prefer not to see those types of crossword glue, but some solvers breathe a sigh of relief because just one answer like this can help them grab a toehold in a puzzle. Go figure!

I appreciate MAS and Joe working hard to put together a puzzle which connects well in the center, something very important to keep it from feeling like two completely separate mini-puzzles. Not only are there plenty of connection points, but SNEER AT and GUESS SO make for some very nice junctions in the middle of the grid.

I wouldn't want every themeless to be a quad-stack because of their unique qualities (I'm looking at you, ENCE and STER), but I sure enjoy getting them every once in a while. A final note, my favorite answer in the puzzle? SLUG IT OUT. What a snappy phrase, and so impressive how it runs straight through that top stack.

Sat 4/5/2014

Good Saturday workout, with a huge number of fresh, up-to-date entries. It's really neat to see a themeless puzzle obviously put together by constructors of Gen Y, hopefully bringing in more younger solvers into the NYT fold.

Some wonderful long entries, PRIMAL URGE and MAKE BANK my favorite. Colorful phrases that jump off the page are hard to beat. LEGALIZE IT also does a nice job touching on the national debate around marijuana, which is legal here in Washington State. FYI, it's odd to be running around Greenlake (a beautiful 2.8 mi loop in the heart of Seattle) and get a big whiff of pot smoke. Sometimes from another runner!

The older generation of solvers might not be as into this puzzle as others, as it could argued that it doesn't have a "classic" feel. One aspect of that is the test of time, which I'm not sure LEGALIZE IT or SHE SAID YES (the song) will pass (congrats, James!). Another is that there's so much material geared toward "feeling fresh" that it might overwhelm. I like new entries as much as anyone, but seeing LEGALIZE IT, REEFER, and SEX SYMBOL all together felt like a tad too much testosterone flowing through the grid. Could just be me, also reading too much into some of the clues.

Heck though, even if you agree with me, a great thing about a daily puzzle with a large number of constructors is the huge variety. It's a reasonable bet that there will be a more female-oriented puzzle in the near future, if that's your taste. FYI, Amy Reynaldo started a great dialogue about male/female constructors well worth reading.

Take a look at that fantastic SE corner (count me as a huge fan of ANATOLIA and the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World). That area is a beautiful piece of work, what with PATTY CAKE, LUCKY ME, MAKE BANK integrated all without a single blemish. I'd hope all themeless puzzles aspire to that level of quality. It's rare to see such snazziness without at least one ugly entry.

As far as the overall construction, the long entries are beautiful. All twelve of them are good to great, and LUCKY ME is such a beautiful choice for a seven-letter entry. It all does come at a price though, with the handful of NES, FER, ABAB, ETERNE, AYLA to hold everything together. While that seems like such a small number of entries, there's so much competition in themelesses these days that I did notice them as I solved.

Finally, a beautiful clue for the difficult LEE. At first glance it would seem simple to clue, yes? But it's been used so many times, finding something interesting and not overused is tough. Trivia-related clues can be hit or miss, but I really enjoyed learning something I didn't know about General Lee.

ADDED NOTE: James's girlfriend... SHE SAID YES! Okay, forgot what I said about the staying power of that entry. Congrats, James!

Sun 4/6/2014 AT TIMES

Another fun one from the master. This theme plays on the awkward -ER answers often seen in crosswords like TENTER or HAILER (person who tents, person who hails). Patrick takes snappy phrases and interprets them as a "person who Xes," with wacky results. My favorite was ALL BETTER, which is a fun phrase and took me a while to figure out as a "person who bets it all."

As usual, Patrick's signature is high fill quality. Nine theme entries makes it difficult to incorporate snappy fill, especially given that Sunday grids are intrinsically complicated to construct, but Patrick goes ahead and throws in SNEAK UP ON, MIDSTREAM, ASKS OUT and ARTWORK. Not bad at all. And the real mark of excellence is the lack of ugly crossword glue-type entries. Every part of the grid is polished, producing an extremely smooth solve. I feel pretty silly even trying to point one example out. Uh... OCT? It's incredible how superior the execution is, really.

One thing I've noticed is that Patrick often overlaps his theme entries, as with CHICKEN TENDER right atop BACKBURNER. At first this might seem like a hard task, upping the level of difficulty, but I've personally found that if the overlap is not more than three or four squares, it actually makes grid creation easier. The reason gets a bit technical so I won't go into detail, but overall, overlapping themers right on top of each other often helps with overall grid spacing.

I'll repeat my philosophy on "cheater squares," those black squares that don't affect overall word count. As long as there aren't too many of them, I love them if they can improve fill quality. I'll personally take that trade-off any day (many constructors disagree with me, and that's fine). For example, look at the black square after MANIACS (44A). Many constructors would be tempted to take that cheater out and try their hand at filling, likely ending with a five-letter partial somewhere in that region. I'd take Patrick's way any day. I know this is subjective, but it feels so much better to me to end with a highly-polished grid with nary a bad entry.

Finally, Patrick does such an amazing job with his cluing. My favorite was [Current location?] for MIDSTREAM. That was the last area I finished solving, because I kept on thinking about YOU ARE HERE type answers. Even [It's got problems] for TEST — so clever!

There's a reason why Will says that there's only one high-volume contributor who has a 90% acceptance rate (everyone else is maybe 33% at best, I think). Over time, I hope to learn enough to be the second person in that category. It's a long road ahead, but a fun one as well.

Mon 4/7/2014

What a cool pattern of black squares! It's not often that an early-week puzzle strays outside of typical grid constructions, so I perked up when I saw the highly unusual grid. It wasn't until I finished that I noticed the middle black squares are actually part of the theme — it forms a giant number two! Very cool.

The theme itself didn't wow me, as it's not hard to find phrases with DOUBLE, SECOND, TWO, and TWIN, but the layout I went back to review because of how unique it was. It's not often that we get intersecting answers, especially early in the week, and this puzzle goes one step further by intersecting all four themers. It's a pretty cool feat. Douglas is assisted by the fact that the key words can be moved around within the themers (only DOUBLE and SECOND actually intersect, while the other themers intersect at more flexible points) but it still produces a great visual effect.

To me, this puzzle was an interesting combination of early-week theme plus late-week fill. I found my solve a little unsettling I went so darn slow (for a Monday). It's not often on a Monday that you have to figure out that JANUS was a god with many FACES, for example. The overall effect for me was one of inconsistency — I enjoyed the puzzle, but I think I would have absolutely loved it with a high—five, bang-up POW! if it had either a more subtle theme or fill more accessible to early-week solvers.

Given how much is going on in the grid, with the theme answers and the central black squares effectively touching every part of the grid, it's pretty impressive that Douglas's fill is generally very nice (using later-week criteria). It's rare that I like to see AT NO any time of the week, and there are a few ROBT and SOO kind of things, but otherwise, I'd be happy to see AQABA and ALIF and even TORERO on a Wed or Thursday.

A very impressive debut; hoping to see more from Douglas. It's a rare constructor that can create a completely novel grid shape, even rarer to see one who can fill said grid with such goodness. I'm looking forward to Douglas trying his hand at a Thursday-level theme with an equally impressive Thursday-ish fill.

POW Tue 4/8/2014

★ Another highly polished piece of work from one of the masters. Five theme answers, all common three-word admonitions with IT in the middle, interpreted in wacky ways. It's especially nice that they're all clued as "That's enough!" to a specific type of person. My favorite was KEEP IT DOWN to a hot-dog eating contestants, as it hits on my fascination with competitive eating. There's a sport-specific term called a "reversal" which I won't go into.

Where Ian really makes a name for himself as a constructor is his ability to jam-pack snazzy fill into a puzzle with clean overall results. With five medium-length themers, many constructors would call it good to have simply one pair of long downs. Ian's moved way past that point, giving us GAS STOVE, SEES FIT, CREW TEAM with its fun clue, APE SUIT. And that's just in two of the corners!

Because the central entry is an "inconvenient length" (it sort of splits the grid into an upper and a lower half), it forces open white spaces in the NE and SW. As anyone who's tried to fill a moderate-size chunk of crossword grid knows, it's not easy to do with quality. Sure, it's a simple thing to fill a subsection so that it works, but it's another matter completely to do it without a single blemish. With only a single glue-y answer (CHA) to hold it all together, Ian still manages to work in EXACTA, TEN HUT, ECOLAW. Ian even rescues CHA with a really fun clue.

How does he do it, you might ask? Some people assume that constructors just hit a button and let the computer do the work for them. Some constructors actually do that, but the auto-fill process almost always spits out subpar fill. I've had the pleasure of working with Ian on a few grids, so I've seen that he takes a significant amount of time with every grid he makes, trying out multiple layouts, testing out dozens of possibilities in the critical junctions to figure out what will help him fill cleanly. From there, it's a matter of trial and error guided by hundreds of puzzles worth of grid-building experience to produce a clean result.

What's most impressive is Ian's track record of consistency. Whenever I see his name on a byline, I know I'm going to get a fun theme with more than a handful of long fill and a minimum of cruddy answers. This puzzle is no different, especially difficult given that the best Tuesday puzzles are smooth enough for relative beginners but interesting enough for more experienced solvers. I tip my hat to you, sir!

Wed 4/9/2014

Another debut! I like seeing new constructors added to the ever-growing ranks. Neat that each new person brings a different perspective, a different set of inputs that goes into his or her puzzle. So to have two in a week is a treat.

Today's puzzle centers around WHAT'S IN THE BOXES, with six "boxes" all containing four-letter words which can precede "box." (PILLBOX, for example.) A good twist on the "word that can precede or follow" type theme. It's really nice that John kept everything consistent, each of the six "boxes" starting at the top left, reading from left to right and then top to bottom. I got a little tripped up at first because I was expecting them all to run clockwise, but that's likely just me and my preconceived notions of how things ought to be.

John also did a very nice job of choosing his theme answers. I wasn't sure what a SALT box was, but it came easily enough. I looked it up, and it didn't particularly seem like something I really ought to have known (a house style in New England, named after boxes used in the old days to store salt), but it was fun to learn.

There are many four-letter words that can precede BOX, so John did a great job of picking ones that could easily be filled around. Crossing constraints like with these 2x2 boxes are bound to give difficulty, but the only spot of any crunchiness was around the SW corner, with IS NO. The ?SN? pattern is a toughie, to be avoided at all costs — besides ISN'T, there's not much that fills it in a clean way. Otherwise, smooth sailing, excellent work.

The pluralization of the revealer felt a tad off to me, as WHAT'S IN THE BOX feels stronger (a more in-the-language entry related to a kid groveling at cool Uncle Jeff when he brings over a present). Or perhaps if the clue had been related only to the customs officer? Even then, I have a hard time imagining a customs official saying that instead of OPEN THE BOXES RIGHT NOW DAMMIT. Perhaps a inspector at a seaport might be the closest fit in my mind.

Putting that qualm aside, it's a well-executed puzzle. To incorporate 1.) six "boxes," plus 2.) a grid-spanning revealer and 3.) four long pieces of fill is not easy. Many constructors would be fine with the first two components, so I'm glad to see the third piece, which adds a lot of spice to the grid. Excellent job on the layout, especially for his first puzzle.

Really nice debut!

Thu 4/10/2014

72 word grid from David today, a nice construction made even more so given that there are seven entries, one of which effectively splits the grid in half. The theme revealer is SIX FLAGS, hinting at the starts of six answers: BLACK flag, AMERICAN flag, RED flag, etc.

Not the most mind-blowing of themes, especially for a Thursday, but once you take into account 1.) the extremely high theme density (remember that time five years ago when three themers was fine?) and 2.) the 72-word grid, a construction on par with the weekend puzzles, it's impressive. Making a 72-word grid is in itself not easy, but when you add in so many constraints — it's not like the SEVEN themers are short, either! — it's quite the feat.

Amazing how little crossword glue David uses consider the theme density. When you have so much overlap like RED SKELTON over CHECKERED PAST, it's wild that there's really no ugliness where POLIO sits (a five-letter overlap like this usually produces some cringing). And in the symmetrical section, SMEAR produces a perfectly clean set of intersections. Really nice stuff — I can only imagine how many options David tried before finding POLIO and SMEAR for those spots.

Note the "L" block of black squares on the left and right sides of the grid. Not the prettiest of arrangements, so I delved in to figure out why David did this. It's not unusual to see smaller "L" blocks (ones that look like a knight's move in chess) but these stand out a bit today. The reason is twofold: first, the 13-letter answer in the middle makes things hard — as I already mentioned, it effectively splits the grid in half. Second, look at those NE and SW corners, which wrap around. It's hard enough to work with a quadruple-stack (AUSTIN over SBARRO over HOWARD over AMERICAN PIE) but when it wraps around to TRAPPERS and IRRITANTS, you've got yourself one heck of a challenge. So it's not hard to see why David needed to deploy those extra black squares.

Although there are a couple of EMETIC and ASTA answers, it's impressive how clean David filled those big corners. I found it interesting to compare the NE and SW: look at how snazzy the SW is. CSI: MIAMI and MOPPET and PAISAN, that's great stuff! It comes at the price of the aforementioned EMETIC and ASTA though. Now look at the NE. So smooth, nary an ugly answer (hey, I like SBARRO's pizza just fine). But it exactly demonstrates the usual trade-off constructors work with: great, snappy stuff at the price of a few less-than-par answers, or ultra-smooth with no ugliness? Always a judgment call.

Fun puzzle, maybe not as ground-breaking a theme as I would like on a Thursday, but what a nice grid filled with goodness. And I absolutely loved the TAGGED clue: [Made it?]. Not as in "he made it big," but "he was made it." Awesome repurposing of a common phrase for a stellar clue.

Fri 4/11/2014

Pete Wentz! One of the younger constructors whose themelesses I always look forward to. I know I can expect several fresh, new entries and a clean puzzle when I see Peter's byline. What I particularly like about his WENTZIAN puzzles is that his vibe is almost always contemporary without feeling forced.

For example, look at the beautiful VELVET ROPE: new entry which evokes the image of a bouncer moving the rope back and forth at an upscale club. Beautiful entry. And the clue, even better! It took me a long time to figure out that it wasn't referring to the queue of people but the actual line of the VELVET ROPE. Beautiful stuff.

Another up-to-date entry came in the sneakiest of ways. [Alternative to cords] and BLUE????? led me to plunk down BLUETOOTH, the cordless protocol between smartphones and their accessories, etc. Pretty impressive to lay down the relatively BB KING and LIES ON to draw you right into the trap of thinking about Bluetooth.

The SW did give me slight pause, as I have very high expectations out of Pete's work, similar to what I go through with Patrick Berry, Josh Knapp, Doug Peterson, Brad Wilbur, David Quarfoot, Kevin Der, Ian Livengood, and Mike Nothnagel's (among others) work. TOO TOO feels like an outdated term, and right above THE ASP from Little Orphan Annie made it feel especially old. It would be one thing if THE ASP was a classic character, but I only know him through constructing. The ????SP is awfully constricting, after all — really no other options for that pattern. So I went back to figure out Peter's dilemma, and it could not have been easy. Getting KATE MOSS and KINESCOPE are well-worth plunking down, but it forces THE ASP. And once that goes in, not many other better options are available in that SW.

Check out the beauty that is POPE LEO X. LEO I, LEO X, etc. have been used so much in crosswords, but to get the full POPE LEO X is pretty awesome. Hard to believe that in all the time the crossword has been around, Pete has the honor of debuting the entry. POPE LEO and POPE LEO XI have both been used in the NYT, but not this important POPE LEO X and his role in the historic events around Martin Luther.

I usually don't notice excessive use of plurals, but I did pick up on that diagonal row of S's from MCS to KITTENS and beyond. Tough, wide-open section to fill in the middle and Pete has some great stuff in there, using his 7's wisely (FAT CATS crossing KITTENS!) but all the S's are a slight tick.

Finally, what beautiful cluing today. My favorite is the repurposed [High beams] which makes you think about cars and their high beams. But no, they're literally high beams = rafters. Ingenious.

Sat 4/12/2014

Quite a lot of good stuff packed into the grid today. As always, a big part of themeless construction is the race to debut a nice entry. I'm surprised that GEOCACHING took so long to make its first appearance, especially considering its popularity among the puzzling crowd. I hadn't heard about it until a few years ago but really enjoyed my first time at it, finding something hidden in the local arboretum. I really like the entry and am guessing it's a keeper; something that will stand the test of time.

It's too bad that these newer entries aren't well-known enough across the country that a clever clue can be used. Too often, these freshies need to be clued with something like you'd see out of the dictionary, because being too clever would befuddle a large majority of Will's solvers. Similarly, the COLBERT BUMP is such a recent term that anything but the definitional [Popularity boost due to ...] would be way too tough. As it is, I could barely suss it out (I don't watch Colbert). Perhaps it will stand the test of time, but if I had to pick, I think GEOCACHING is the one people will still recognize 10 years from now. COLBERT will certainly be remembered, especially given his taking over for Letterman, but COLBERT BUMP... well, we'll see.

Mel does a great job packing in all sorts of stuff, my favorites being MR ROARKE (I snuck in episodes of Fantasy Island as a kid) and DARK STARS (the nerd in my shining through — or not (pun intended)). It's a combination of great stuff at the price of a few not-as-great entries, the usual sort of ATOI, ERAT, SSNS kind of stuff.

Stacked 11's (in the NW and SE) are very tough arrangements. The longer they are, the more likely there will be compromises. I like the 11's themselves (EVER SO SORRY is quite nice, and I personally really like MYCOLOGISTS) but it's tough to not get an URU or ACC or ASCI across those long stacks.

Additionally, using stacked 11's means blocks of 3's (in the NE and SW). Often that's no issue whatsoever, but a combination of random Roman numeral (LII) and ENG made that SW stick out a bit for me.

Finally, a beautiful Saturday clue which stood out today: [They often provide illumination in galleries]. I went through ARC LAMPS, LED LIGHTS, SPOTS, any sort of lighting options I could reel off. What a beautiful a-ha moment when I realized that the type of illumination (informational) was totally different than I had been thinking. I would love an entire Saturday puzzle full of these!

Sun 4/13/2014 IT'S TAXING

Ah, a puzzle about taxes! As we've already established I'm an odd duck, it won't surprise you to hear that I'm a huge fan of doing my taxes. Trying to pull levers throughout the year to figure out how we can lower our tax burden, from timing our charitable donations to mutual funds vs. ETFs to deferring vs. realizing carry-forwards, is one of my many joys in life.

I like the timing of the puzzle, just before tax day (although most everyone else would probably appreciate it more right after the relief of April 15 passing). I also like Dan's wacky interpretations of snappy phrases. MANY HAPPY RETURNS is one I've heard before in regard to taxes, but TABLE FOR TWO is a beautiful one, as it relates to tax tables for a married couple vs. a single filer. BRILLIANT DEDUCTION is also, well, brilliant, making me laugh. The others, WITHHOLDING CONSENT and SCHEDULE CHANGE, felt a little too literal to be fun for me, reminding me of unpleasantries from past tax years. It's often no fun for anyone when the IRS issues a SCHEDULE CHANGE announcement, for example. Especially those of us who like our schedules to stay constant, thank you very much!

Today's layout provides for a discussion on themer placement. Note how Dan's first entry is in row 4, not row 3 like most Sunday puzzles. That's because it's a bit too long to put in row 3 — no good, because that would necessitate a giant block of black squares in the NW corner. But having the first themer in row 4 makes the overall spacing more difficult than normal. Those first three themers are separated by just one row each (in rows 4, 6, 8). Anytime you can place two rows of space (instead of one) in between themers it's SO much easier.

Notice the difficulty in those overlapped areas. We see ORY and RESHAPE in one overlap, ELL and the plural UGHS in another, RIGGER in another. Creating better spacing could have reduced this effect. Because there is flexibility in which themer goes first, something else like MANY HAPPY RETURNS could have been placed in row 3, with likely cleaner effect.

Some really nice stuff in the fill though. I love seeing SEGWAYs around town (GOB Bluth fan, anyone?), CRASHPAD (a must for highball bouldering), and a super-hard to parse BE A PAL. Along with those nice NW and SE corners full of ART GLASS, HELLIONS and TELETHON, these types of entries did help enhance my solve.

MANY HAPPY RETURNS in a few days, everyone! Go chase down that last BRILLIANT DEDUCTION.

Mon 4/14/2014

Super-clean start to the week from a highly experienced constructor and reviewer over at Crossword Fiend. Today's theme uses three grid-spanning entries, the three homonyms THERE, THEIR, and THEY'RE. Not a ground-breaking theme, but certainly workable for a Monday.

What I appreciated most about this puzzle was its high level of smoothosity. Normally we see at least a little OLEO, some entry rarely (or never) used outside the world of crosswords. Gareth works over his grid with obvious care, allowing me to sail right through the puzzle. Nice stuff, excellent workmanship.

With only three themers, it's extremely important to choose them wisely. When there are five themers, if one misses or falls a little short, an 80% hit rate isn't bad. But with only three, a miss on one means a dismal 67%. So I was glad to see these three sparkly phrases, each of which I really appreciated. It would have been perfect (GRRRRREAT, should I say?) if the third had been another political line, for consistency's sake. But I can't think of another right off the bat, at least not one so iconic as the first two.

Given the light theme density, I would have liked to have seen more long fill out of this grid. ST LUCIA and AGE GAPS add some zest, along with FOODIE and PAYOLA, but there's not much else to pep up the puzzle. Having a few eight-letter (or longer) entries would have been really nice — removing one pair of black squares (or moving one set) to create a pair of long downs could have given the puzzle more pizzazz. But it's quite possible that doing this might eat away at the smooth factor, and I wouldn't want that. Always the trade-offs.

Overall, I enjoy seeing the variety even within Monday NYT puzzles. I could imagine giving this one to a beginner friend, in hopes of him/her finishing — a doable first puzzle for someone (aside from perhaps the AGRA/ST LUCIA crossing, which I think is fair but possibly hard for beginners). That's important in my opinion, as I believe drawing in new solvers is critical for the NYT crossword to survive and thrive. This puzzle likely will fall short for more experienced solvers whose expectations are higher, but the good thing about a daily puzzle is that over the course of a month or even a week, there will usually something for everyone.

POW Tue 4/15/2014

★ Gary hit my sweet spot today, throwing his fastball waist-high and straight down the middle, serving me up one to smash over the left field fence. (Well, over the shortstop's head anyway. Maybe ten years ago...) I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I don't have to be to really enjoy this puzzle.

I appreciate a good a-ha moment. The best kind is when I don't have any idea what's going on while solving, and everything snaps to at the end. It's very difficult to do this on a Monday or a Tuesday puzzle, because anything too tricky is going to escape the more novice solvers. And often when I get to the end of an early-week puzzle, it turns out to be a slight variation on a well-trafficked theme type. Today's was perfect for me, four pitches HIGH, INSIDE, LOW, and OUTSIDE which when taken together give a BASE ON BALLS (the technical term for a walk). Very nice — snappy phrases all hiding their theme material until the very end.

I also like some meat in a puzzle's fill, and Gary doesn't disappoint. He uses a traditional placement of two long downs, and both of them are really nice: DOGGIE BAG which is a great entry in itself, and MARSEILLE, classing up the joint with its reference to the classic work of literature, "The Count of Monte Cristo." Throw in some other nice shorter stuff like TIDBIT, ORCHARD, and VERDI, and that satisfies my desire in this arena. Sure, I like to have more than that if possible (ideally at least two sets of long downs), but not if it comes at the price of quality fill.

And Gary does a nice job in that arena of shorter fill. I didn't notice anything glaring as I solved, giving a clean, flowing feel to the puzzle. When I went back, I did pick up ORLON, which is so much less commonly used in everyday language than NYLON or RAYON (Google all of them to see hits), but that was really it. Some people will complain about PRECIS, but it's a common enough term in academia and certain professions. Maybe others will complain about LUMEN, but it's an extremely common term in engineering and photography (I would go on and on about the difference between luminous flux and radiant flux, but you've already fallen asleep). I think both are well worth learning if they were unfamiliar to any solvers.

Well done, Gary! I didn't want to give yet another Tuesday puzzle the POW! (this will make four Tuesdays in a row) but I thought this one hit all the right notes for what a Tuesday should be.

Wed 4/16/2014

Ah, I feel for Michael. A nice tribute puzzle, one with some subtlety and nuance, but without the punch it would have had at the 100th anniversary. It's unfortunate that a Sunday puzzle and then another one was published around that time, pushing Michael's nice construction back. Such is life. It had to be tough for Will, having already accepted this puzzle but then having a few nice Sunday submissions come in. Considering how much he (and other editors) typically need Sunday-size puzzles, it had to be a hard decision.

On to today's puzzle. As I mentioned before, I like the fact that Michael shot for something more than just a straight-up tribute puzzle. I wasn't totally familiar with COLLISION THEORY but what a nice answer. As a lover of all things chemistry, I really enjoyed reading up on this theory. Amazing to learn more about people who make breakthroughs in their fields of expertise. It's only too bad that Michael/Will had to use a straightforward, definitional clue for it. Totally understandable, because the entry is not well-known, but I really liked how they disguised TIP OF THE ICEBERG, for example.

I really enjoyed having the longer fill, OH BOTHER in particular. ECLIPSE is such a nice answer in itself, and the clever clue [Sun block?] makes it even better. It's amazing how just a small handful of great answers / great clues can really spice up a grid. Well worth the effort of 1.) incorporating a few long answers and 2.) spending time coming up with at least one killer clue.

Michael does a nice job with his layout and black square placement. Beautiful work in the NE and SW, big open corners with just an OMARS as a slight dent. Also, note the difficulty inherent in TITANIC SINKS being 12 letters. An "unfortunate length," this requires placement in row 12, not in row 13 as is often done. Might seem like a trifling issue, but this creates real difficulties in spacing. TIP OF THE ICEBERG and TITANIC SINKS are only a single row apart, and although Michael does well to save almost all the crossings, look at where ILE sits. The EDO/DEA/ATLI/ILE area is a bit unfortunate, all created by the ?T?I pattern which has few options, none of which are very good.

Finally, note how the NW and SE corners feel separated from the grid? That generally is frowned upon, because it's too easy to get stuck in a little area with no recourse. It's my fault as a solver for sticking with ANIMAL instinct for too long, but having only that one answer as an entryway into the section made it that much more difficult to solve. I think using that isolation is fine for this puzzle, since it allows Michael to incorporate ECLIPSE and OH BOTHER, but slightly easier clues in that NW (to offset the segregated nature) would have been much appreciated.

Well constructed, fun puzzle.

Thu 4/17/2014

It's a real pleasure to work with Mary Lou. One aspect I really like about her is that she understands how many theme ideas it takes to yield a single half-decent one. Too often when people approach me with a concept, we find out it's been done before, or it's too loosey-goosey, whatever, and they don't continue to brainstorm. Not ML! I find it takes at least ten thoughts to produce one quasi-workable theme, and even then, development of said theme takes time (and may not work out in the end). I'm glad she sticks through the arduous process.

This puzzle was a bear to put together, and we went through many iterations. People might say left-right (or "mirror") symmetry is becoming my shtick, and I do admit to liking the visual appeal. Most often I need to incorporate blocks in the center of the puzzle, which by nature either take on a smile or a frown, and who doesn't like seeing a nice friendly face right in the middle of their grid? (Don't answer that.)

Theme development alone on this one was very tricky. ML came up with a long list of workable phrase, and we wanted to narrow it down to a consistent set of at least four. Even then, the puzzle didn't feel heavy enough until we came across the idea of adding THINK / THROUGH, a double hint to the themers.

And then the grid work. Tortuous! Every time you work with crossing answers, you heavily constrain your grid. One set of (fixed) crossing answers is easy-peasy. Two is no bother. Three gets a little tricky. Four... groan. You might think, why do those goofballs need so many black squares up there? You'll answer you own question if you try to position those four sets of crossing themers within a 15x grid (and tear your hair out in the process).

Then to the bottom section. I wasn't wild about sectioning the grid in two (the edges of the smile sort of split the grid) but we didn't have many options for layout in those side regions. Keeping the four themers as separate as possible helped us fill relatively smoothly, so it was a trade-off we were willing to make. We did consider splitting some of the entries like CHESS GAME and OUTHOUSES to get rid of uglies like ETE, ASA, EST (ick!) but it surprisingly turned out to only reduce the ick factor slightly. So we decided to accept a tiny bit more ugly stuff to incorporate those nice I AM SO DEAD type answers. Honestly, it's too many glue-type entries in general, but I thought the overall concept was neat enough to be okay with it.

Finally, two notes interesting to me. First, I'm sure there will be people who gripe about DUROC because it's a word they don't know. But why not look it up and learn something? There's a giant swath through the Midwest who would likely argue with you cotton-pickin' city-slickers (pretty sure that's what Midwesterners say). Second, check out the "cross" made out of black squares at the top center. Typically I don't like to do this as it makes the grid feel too "filled-in" with black squares, but in this case, I thought it was a nice echo to the shape of the themers (highlighted in blue/red below).

Fri 4/18/2014

Some really nice work today from James (who is now engaged!). Instead of the more typical triple stacks of 7's, 8's or 9's, he removes one set of black squares to incorporate two beautiful 15's. SHARING IS CARING is my favorite debut in a while, and NOT MUCH TO LOOK AT isn't self-descriptive at all.

And what a bevy of nice answers in the grid. STANDING O looks so funny as STANDINGO (I tried so hard to parse it as STAND IN GO) and is such a great answer. Toss in LIKE CRAZY, MAN MADE, FAST ONE, BUCOLIC, and you have yourself a snappy puzzle.

One across is going to be divisive, methinks. On one hand, it's fun slang, with the crazy IZZLE ending. On the other, it feels to me about 10 years old, sort of like me showing off my Motorola Razr. I totally understand the effort to be more hip and cater to the younger generation, and if this had debuted even five years ago, I think I would have liked it better. Tough one; I'm sure some people will talk about it as their favorite answer in a while.

As I've progressed in my themeless construction skills, I've come to realize how competitive the business is, even more so than in the themeless / Sunday-size game. It takes an almost perfect grid for an acceptance, ripe with juicy entries, with nary a glue entry to be seen. James executes with great care and to nice effect. It's unfortunate that TOR, ORIG, and ULE read almost straight across one row, as there really isn't much else that sticks out.

Finally, two beautiful clues. [Learn to teach?] has nothing to do with teaching skills, but is a tricky way to give an example of an ANTONYM. And [It can be painful to pick up] for TAB ... I maintain that I have no idea who might have drunk so much on Will's TAB at the ACPT judges' dinner.

Cough coughLivengood

Sat 4/19/2014

Ah, triple stacks! So tricky to pull off cleanly. Stu had me hooked at THE GOBLET OF FIRE, a beautiful entry for this Harry Potter-loving fool (although Severus Snape is and will always be my favorite character). Along with the beautiful CLEAN AS A WHISTLE and IT TAKES ALL SORTS, that's some good marquee material. So much of a triple stack is the stack itself, so it's critical to choose your seed 15's wisely. I liked these stacks quite a bit.

Stu and I had a nice conversation after his last puzzle was published, discussing the merits and drawbacks of various word lists and software issues; fun to talk shop. It was really nice to read his comments above — that high priority on clean fill for themelesses is so key. I would extend this to all types of puzzles (early-week themes, Sundays, crazy Thursdays). Glad that Stu has taken this emphasis on fill quality to heart. I hope that all constructors will take up his example: introspection and listening to constructive criticism, leading toward continual improvement.

I like to be tough on fill quality, but by no means are my criteria fixed in stone. For instance, if the construction has an extremely high difficulty level, I think a little more junk can be overlooked without losing the overall effect. So I tend to give triple and quadruple stacks a little more leeway when it comes to short, ugly stuff, since it's a harder technical feat of construction.

So let's see how the balance comes out. Very few people like to see EIS in their puzzle, even if the English translation ICE is also in the puzzle. And seeing CAS and HAME, pretty weird stuff, isn't great. But overall, the stacks are nice enough that I can appreciate the puzzle as a whole. It would be my preference to see less esoteric stuff all in a single puzzle (LATAKIA, SCACCHI, MIA SARA, RESNIK felt like a lot to take), but again, with triple stacks you almost always have to take the bad with the good.

Overall, a nice Saturday workout.

Sun 4/20/2014 ON WHEELS

I absolutely loved the concept behind this puzzle. It's a rare person that can come up with something I've never seen before, and when it comes to a visual element, it's the amazing Liz Gorski more often than not. Each of the themers today are cars hidden in longer phrases, and each car is resting beautifully on two "wheels" (check out the grid below if you missed this)! How cool is that? And as if that weren't enough, all the letters inside the wheels are O's. Loved, loved, loved it.

Liz does such a nice job of choosing themers and hiding the cars within. CIVIC PRIDE, what a nice phrase, and without a hint that it's camouflaging the Honda CIVIC. Even down to the Subaru FORESTER within CS FORESTER, that's beautiful stuff.

And some of the clever clues, dynamite. [De-file?] for ERASE was so nice. [Ones who are the talk of the town?] for CRIERS? A puzzle chock full of these would put me in heaven.

Jim and I had a good conversation this week, and I mentioned that I almost gave my POW to Liz for this beauty, but I had a hard time with OPTIMA CARD, which stuck out as not nearly as good as the others. Plus, even given the constraints, there was a bit too much of the BAAL, SLYE, ME ON, YEO, OTIC, TOPOL, TO YOU, etc. for me. I realize that much of that kind of crossword glue was largely all due to the wheel O's, but I had a hard time with the sheer quantity of it. Jim's reply struck me as so elegant that I asked him if I could repeat it here:

"Here's an analogy I haven't yet mentioned in public writing but I keep thinking about. When I look at a painting in an art gallery, the fineness of the brushstrokes and the correctness of the proportions are interesting, but I when I think, wow, that's beautiful or strange or insightful or compelling or I have some other strong emotional reaction, those technical details never affect my appreciation (or not) of the painting. The nude in La Grande Odalisque by Ingres is anatomically unlikely but few would argue that she doesn't belong in the Louvre."

I have a hard time disconnecting my constructor/solver's brain, unable to avoid looking at the little flaws and tics. I wish I were able to forget about it all and just look at the big picture. I would imagine it's an incredibly beautiful way to look at life in general, one generating a abundance of happiness. Something I will aspire to.

So overall, it really was a beautiful puzzle. Jim sums it up best: "Liz has a visual sense of the possibilities of a crossword puzzle that nobody else seems to have. She sees pictures." Hear hear!

Mon 4/21/2014

A perfect puzzle for a math teacher, no? It's not often I get a chuckle on a Monday NYT, so I really enjoyed getting to COUNTEREXAMPLES, or COUNTER EXAMPLES as per the theme. The four (non-revealer) themers are all professions where counting is indeed necessary, thus, COUNTER EXAMPLES. Fun interpretation. But seriously, John, you wouldn't include MATH TEACHER? I was counting on you.

Wah wah.

The grid is absolutely packed today, the 15/11/15/11/15 making for a whopping 67 letters of themage. It's a wonder that John was able to work in two nice long downs, PRATFALL and MOCCASIN. Too often in these circumstances, it's so difficult to work in long fill that the best a constructor can do is put in something long for length's sake. But both PRATFALL and MOCCASIN are beautiful entries.

There is so much overlap between the five themers that I was worried to see a bunch of crossword glue, especially at places where there are five letters exposed. But check out the NE corner: UMPIRE and MANAGER have five spaces between them (where ERNIE sits), yet that corner is so smooth. Some people may complain about AERIE, but it's a fine entry in my book, especially since it reminds me of The Eyrie in "Game of Thrones."

Even the symmetrical corner gets executed pretty well, ABOIL sitting in between CENSUS and COUNTER. ABOIL in itself is pretty iffy, but to work in the crossing MOCCASIN and SULTAN is pretty cool.

Overall though, it tended to add up for me. You get an AON here, ANE there, along with an ASTA, ESTE, NO USE, TSOS... John did well to space them out through the grid so they didn't pile up on top of each other, but it felt like more than I would like to see in a Monday puzzle. Trade-offs, as always — with such high theme density, it's pretty difficult to pull off something completely smooth.

In terms of theme selection, all of them are nice, snappy answers. BLACKJACK PLAYER really did it for me, especially after reading "Bringing Down the House," the story of the MIT (card-counting) blackjack team. I might have liked to see more professions directly involved with counting like ACCOUNTANT or ABACUS WORKER or something, as I imagine a BANK MANAGER would focus more on people management, but you can't have 'em all. A fun theme providing me a chuckle is a good Monday puzzle in my ledger.

Tue 4/22/2014

Interesting Tuesday puzzle, one which ping pongs between TICK and TOCK down the grid. I searched all over for some sort of element to tie it together, some revealing theme entry or visual of a clock? Maybe if I squint really hard, I can sort of see a little hand in the black squares?

(Squinting harder... nope)

Ambitious grid today. I like that Ed has done something different, something I've never seen before — that in itself is admirable. Too often, Tuesdays run the risk of being a slight variation on a theme, and this definitely is not that. Being a financial guy, I really like the entry COMMON STOCK, although I can see how some puzzlers might not common, er, cotton to it as much as me. Seeing BUTTOCK also gave me a immature giggle. So some good choices in his themers. I even appreciated McLintock! as pretty much anything starring The Duke is good by me. And the exclamation point at the end of McLintock! made me laugh. Easily amused, I guess.

Those NW and SE corners are hard to construct. Even as separated as they are from the rest of the grid (you can only enter them through AFLAC and HATER, respectively), any constrained 7x4 chunk of white space will be a challenge to fill. Ed does quite well in the SE corner, working in OPEN TOE and HATER, without much muss or fuss. BOS is probably the weakest element there, given that the clue [Cow genus] was mystifyingly hard for a Tuesday.

That NW corner gave me pause. I absolutely loved I GOOFED, a wonderful, colorful entry. Along with the shout-out to Eartha KITT and her smoky voice, that's a ton of good stuff in a single section. However, AGIO left me scratching my head, especially for an early-week offering. After studying finance for two years and being steeped in the finances of my start-up company, I had never heard of AGIO. ARBS, IPOS, LBOS, MBOS, totally fine terms in everyday use; AGIO... not so much. It's quite possible that it's commonplace in some financial niche, but yikes. Super, super tough for me and nigh impossible for some. I like learning new terms from crosswords — I think it's a great boon to a daily diversion — but AGIO 1.) strikes me as ADITesque and 2.) doesn't seem too fair to have crossing KAMPALA, which maybe should be better known in general knowledge but didn't come easily to me. As always, could just be me.

With such a novel grid and relatively high theme density, I appreciate seeing some of the great stuff Ed packed in, NUTCASE, MOBSTER, even Nat HENTOFF, who I had read about in a jazz history class in college (a reviewer reading about a reviewer, how meta). With even DEARIE and LOOFAH, Ed does well to slot in some nice stuff.

Overall, a nice idea for a theme. I would have loved an additional layer somewhere, either as a revealer (as Ed mentioned in his comments), or some sort of visual related to a kitty-cat shaped clocks. Really, what problems can't be solved with a kitty-cat clock with its cute little tail swishing back and forth and its cute wittle eyes... oops, I've said too much.

Wed 4/23/2014

A sort of tribute puzzle today. Really fun to read up on the MERCURY / SEVEN which was an unfamiliar term to me. Sounds like it was quite the big deal back in 1959, seven men chosen as the "Original Seven." I particularly enjoyed learning about the tests that they were forced to undergo, including dosages of castor oil and (ahem) enemas. I get a picture of scientists sitting around a room, rubbing their hands together with glee as they brainstormed what would be funny things to do to these poor souls.

It's unfortunate that the MERCURY SEVEN don't split well into crossword symmetry. With last names of 7, 7, 7, 7, 5, 9, and 6, it's almost perfect! Almost. Such a pity that Gordon COOPER's last name wasn't 9 or 5 letters. So David is forced to add extra entries into the mix, SPACE RACE and ROCKET. It's a huge amount of theme material (I highlighted it all below to make it easier to pick out) but overall it was disorienting to uncover themage in odd locations, especially MERCURY and SEVEN being so distantly cross-referenced. Kind of like being on a tilt table after taking heavy doses of castor oil.

Don't get any ideas, you.

Even with such high theme density, David does well to add in the very nice DOODLER and SUPER C. Even having played trombone for 20 years, I wasn't familiar with SUPER C, but what a nice term. And some Googling shows that it's a real term, one I probably should have known.

One problem I had was the SETS / THEREON crossing. SETS up felt reasonable, and the Dickinson quote felt like it could be really anything. Perhaps a sewing-related clue for SEWS would have been better, as I doubt I'll be the only solver to have trouble at that square (although I should have known that SET and SETS would not have been in the same puzzle).

Another issue that nagged at me was the fill in the NE and SW corners. With the heavy, heavy constraints demanded by the themers, it's amazing that David was able to fill those areas at all. However, THE DIE feels like a partial to me, SASK isn't great, and ACETALS is a term I only know because of three years of chemistry. I've recently gained an appreciation of ADELAIDE'S LAMENT (written by LOESSER) from Jim, but LOESSER still feels like a missed opportunity for a nicer piece of fill. Tough trade-off. Kind of neat to cram in so much theme material, but some compromises along the way.

Finally, a great clue, really fun to see in a Wed puzzle. [Caller on a cell phone?] is hilarious for CON (what other kind of phone is a CONvict in a cell block going to make?). For me, a single great clue can redeem a lot of crunchiness in a grid. Nice to see that extra effort, much appreciated.

Thu 4/24/2014

What a workout today. Having the three main theme answers be opaque until the very end made this one play like a quote puzzle. Eventually I was able to piece it all together, and afterward, I felt like I had just done ten sets of ten weighted pull-ups.

Okay, five sets of five.

Would you believe three?

Fine, I did the flexed arm hang! But yes, I was drained afterward.

As with most all of his puzzles, Stan does a nice job of laying out this one and filling it with quality. With just three themers, I would expect there to be some snappy longer fill, and Stan doesn't disappoint. LOANER CAR is beautiful, my favorite of the bunch, but LIFEBELTS was also quite nice. I had no idea what a RALLYE was, but it was fun to read up on. Even MCCOY brought back some nice memories of "Star Trek." I would start saying "Dammit Jim (Horne), I'm a writer, not a Javascript coder!" But being from Canada, I think Jim would likely just say, "Eh?" Politely, of course.

And as with Stan's "Saturday Stumpers" in Newsday, he does a great job of avoiding the icky short stuff. AGCY isn't great, nor is HIRER, but if those two are your worst entries, you've done a nice job overall. Good care taken with his construction, as always.

To me, the theme felt somewhat underwhelming, sort of an afterthought to having solved the puzzle. I suppose I could have gone back to marvel at each and every clue having exactly four syllables, but after a quick peek at three or four clues, it seemed to check out. I just wasn't sure why four syllables was significant, or why it was four syllables instead of four-letter words, or 140 characters, or something else with some rationale behind it. Would have been really nice to have some additional layer, some unifying theme revealer to pull it together.

Anyway, a good, hard workout. In closing, my favorite clue = [What takes a stand?] = TBALL = super fun (both TBALL the game and the clue — I may or may not have totally beat my nephew the other day at TBALL and rubbed it in his face). I love the clever repurposing of "taking a stand" here.

Fri 4/25/2014

Really nice work today from Joel. With this puzzle, he's hit for the cycle twice now. Impressive feat, showing his well-rounded skills, strong at everything from early-week puzzles to tricky Thursdays to themelesses to Sundays. It's like seeing Seattle's own Ken Griffey Jr. come up through the ranks.

Onto the puzzle. Joel chooses to go with a grid design heavier on the 7's than usual, but takes great care in selecting some goodies for those slots. Often times 7's can be a bit boring since it's harder to find snazzy multiple-word phrases for that length than for 8's or 9's or 10's. But UV INDEX is really nice, what with the V and the X, and IPHONES has such a fantastic clue to it. I wrestled with [BlackBerry routers] for so long, trying to figure out if the answer was CISCO or NETGEAR or something. Really nice a-ha moment when I finally realized that it was talking about a rout, as in steamrolling one's opponent. The fact that this clue didn't have the giveaway question mark after it made it even that much better.

And what a great selection of longer answers. INFOMANIA is up to date, describing a recent problem with constant Twitter-checking, and JELLO SHOT is so good. The answer, mind you, not the thing itself, which is disgusting. Wow, when did I get old? Don't answer that.

Joel does well to pack so much good stuff in, and he manages to toss in so many Scrabbly letters. The six X's aren't the most in a NYT themeless, but they sure add a lot of spice.

There were a handful of glue-y entries though. I thought it unusual to see XKE, a five letter-partial in AND BE, GENL, ESOS and an IDEM in one of Joel's puzzles, especially for a 70-worder. Totally normal for a themeless puzzle — I've just been wowed by some of his other stuff a little more. The unfair price of being a standout constructor is higher expectations.

Finally, my favorite clue of the day was a real beaut. [Show horse] seems like it should clue ARABIAN or something, right? But no, it's a great misdirection, guiding the unwary solver away from the horse on the TV show, MR ED. Really well done.

POW Sat 4/26/2014

★ An absolute beauty from Evan, exactly on my personal wavelength, giving me everything I want out of a Saturday puzzle. This gives me the perfect opportunity to lay out what I personally look for in a Saturday puzzle.

1.) Sparkling entries. CALVIN AND HOBBES, RETROVIRUS, WIFESWAP, SKYBOX SEATS, PROTEST VOTE, BELT SANDER, MELON BALLS, RACE CARD, HOW DARE YOU! Need I say more? No, but I will. It's awfully difficult to get your shorter entries to shine, but OK BUT is fantastic. It's like when Brendan Emmitt Quigley debuted WHAT THE. Genius stuff.

2.) Brilliant clues. Misdirectional clues are my personal favorite, especially ones which don't have the giveaway question mark. [Fashion clothes] led me to think about YSL, IZOD, etc., but it's the simple SEW. [Mann's "Man!"] plays on the "man's man" phrase with amusing results. And I absolutely loved [Elasticity studier's subj.], as it made me feel smart to know a piece of esoteric trivia. Finally, thinking about Dana Carvey doing his impressions of PEROT on SNL made me laugh out loud. This puzzle manages to hit all the sweet spots in cluing.

3.) Quality short fill. Often the hardest criteria to manage, it's near impossible to get away without a handful of ugly entries. Layout often dictates where the tough places will be (I personally spend about as much time working with a puzzle skeleton as I do with filling), and Evan does a great job with spacing. Note how there aren't any big sections of white space that stick out? Sometimes it's pretty easy to predict where the problem spots will be, but not today. Evan's deployed his black squares masterfully, spreading out the difficult spots. Sure, he's got a WTS here, a A WAR there, but those little bits are so dispersed, I hardly noticed them.

Extremely well done. Not just a pleasure to solve, but a pleasure to review.


Fun Sunday puzzle, using "parting lines" clued for the appropriate profession. My favorite was [The demolitionist ...] BLEW THE JOINT. [The civil engineer...] HIT THE ROAD also made me chuckle, although I would have loved it if it had been clued to the Incredible Hulk. HULK SMASH is my go-to phrase, plus it would have been hilarious to see [The Incredible Hulk ...] in the NYT.

Good job with the layout today, not an easy task to pull together a group of themers with widely varying length. It's often very difficult to use short themers, because they tend to get lost within the noise of the puzzle. But the way the theme clues worked, with the [(Profession) ...] made it really clear which ones were themers and which weren't. Nice.

Well constructed Sunday puzzle. I estimate that Sunday puzzles are roughly three to five times harder to put together than a weekday, given the bigger palette and the higher average word length that Will's specifications dictate. Needing to settle for a few ugly entries is more common than it is in a weekday puzzle. So to have just a few REHEAL, REGREW, SYSTS, OLIO, I ROAM type entries shows the care John put into his gridwork. Even better, he's spread those entries around, not allowing any one section carry too much burden.

Note John's spacing. Eight long themers are not easy to work around (not to mention the four shorties!). But John does really well, placing two rows between each pair of long themers — this spacing almost always works better than just a single row in between. The middle of the grid could have presented a challenge, but John saves the shortest of his long themers for this spot, allowing good spacing between all four of them. Professional layout, that it is.

I did have a lot of trouble in one spot, but that had more to do with the cluing than the grid. IRAE crossing ARLEN usually wouldn't be too bad, in that IRAE is clued so often as ["Dies ___"] that I can fill it in automatically, without even fully comprehending it. And ARLEN Specter is familiar enough, but I find it tough to remember the difference between ARLEN and ARDEN, and ALLEN seemed like it could be that composer. It's probably a fair crossing for many solvers, but it left me a little crabby. Not that this is wrong or right, but the effect of crabbiness was what it was. Perhaps it's a good lesson to me, to actually look up things and not take them for granted!

It usually just takes a few great clues to make me overlook some flaws, and [Where auto racers retire?] for PITS and [Current amount] for AMPERE did it for me. I especially love the latter, in that it totally misdirects from the straightforward electrical measurement for a current, making you think about how much you have in your pocket, or how much the current tally is.

Some themers worked well for me, some felt a bit forced, but overall an enjoyable puzzle. Plus, I learned the term "ecdysiast"! What a fanciful word for that, er, profession.

Mon 4/28/2014

Welcome back, Jim! Thanks to David Steinberg, the PreShortzian Puzzle Project has nearly finished digitizing (or "litzing") all the puzzles available, and you can already see puzzles back to 1977 on XWord Info. Be sure to check out Jim's older puzzles. How cool to return to the puzzle-making fold after 30 years!

And what a nice construction today. With five themers, I'd usually expect a 78 or 76 word construction, but Jim ups the ante with a 74 worder. Not easy, especially since the central entry forces big corners of white space. It's an ambitious endeavor to say the least, so I was expecting some unsightly fill as soon as I saw the openness of the grid. But to my delight, nearly everything fell smoothly. Not only smoothly, but with such goodness as SQUEEZES (if only contract bridge were still uberpopular, this could have gotten an awesome bridge-related cardplay clue) and BLENDS IN.

I'll emphasize again how hard this task is. Take a look at some themeless grids (down the list) and you'll see similarities between subsections of those and this grid. It's tough to fill a 4x6 or 3x7 space both cleanly and with sparkle; often taking multiple dozens of attempts before arriving on something pleasing. I love seeing WENDYS and TAHITI in the corners of a Monday puzzle — well done. Obvious that Jim/Will have taken a lot of care in polishing the fill.

Yes, it's debatable whether squeezing the extra Q (in ESQS) was worth it. I do like seeing the two Q's in close proximity because they spice things up, but it it worth having both ESQS and AQUI in close proximity? I'd say no, but as always, it's a personal preference.

I was seriously considering this puzzle for the POW, but I had some hesitations with the theme. I really like BODY DOUBLES as a revealer, and appreciated Jim's explanation of why he saw it as elegant. But I would have preferred something closer to his original approach. Perhaps my hitch was due to the fact that the themers only covered HEAD and HAND, which doesn't really make up much of a body? Anyway, I personally felt like there was more on the table that could have been capitalized upon, in order to achieve a bigger, punchier a-ha moment from the revealer.

Looking forward to more from the prodigal son.

Tue 4/29/2014

NEWSPAPER COLUMN, how meta! Today's puzzle gives us four "literal" (quasi-literal?) themers, each of which starts with a stereotypical name of a newspaper (TIMES, GLOBE, POST, SUN). I'm not sure if I'm missing an added layer? The revealer refers to the entirety of each of the four themers, so perhaps TABLE, CHART, OFFICE, etc. are also the names of famous papers?

Anyway, a nice construction, given the high constraints. Not many people are brave enough to try a 15/12/15/12/15 skeleton, because it's a bear to tackle. (Excuse me, it's an OSA!) As would be expected, there are signs of stress due to all the across entries which span two or more themers: EMERGENTS felt off as a "real thing," and hints of OSA, OSE, ESTER, HIERO, etc. crop up. It's the typical trade-off of more theme / more corresponding crossword glue vs. a less ambitious approach with cleaner fill.

Laying out a grid like this is tough. I bet Jules spent a lot of time considering his crossings even before starting to fill. The only two places I might have tinkered further with: where ORAL B and IRREG sit. The ??A?B and I?R?? sequences are unfriendly letter patterns, so perhaps a little more playing around with black squares could have been beneficial. That IRREG / HIERO section is about the best it could be with the given skeleton, but it did give me a little hitch as I solved. It's so tricky to work with five long themers — it's almost inevitable to have one or more trouble spots in the crossings.

Finally, a beautiful clue, especially nice to see on an early-week puzzle: [Places to put ones dough] for OVENS is fantastic. I thought through SAFES, VAULTS, MATTRESSES, etc. before head-slapping myself. Perfect, absolutely perfect; awesome that the clue didn't need a giveaway question mark which would have foiled all the cleverness.

Wed 4/30/2014

Neat idea for a puzzle from C.C., who's becoming quite the force in the crosswords. Hard to imagine doing a language-based art form in a non-native tongue — extremely impressive how prolific she's become.

Ah, MAC VS PC, the old debate. I really like the crazy MACVSPC string and the overall concept, and the intersecting PC / MAC pairs are an interesting way of doing expressing it. Whenever I think of MAC VS PC though, I hearken back to those funny "I'm a Mac" Apple ads with sort of a split-screen approach. So expecting the puzzle to half be filled with MACs and half with PCs (deciding which you'd put in the "right" half would be an interesting statement in itself), I scratched my head at the crossing MAC/PCs. There is more overlap these days what with operating system emulators, but to me there still seems to be much more a chasm than an intersection.

That being said, C.C. does well here in many aspects of grid execution. Look at how elegant the PC themers are: all four are two-worders, all of them snappy, and all of them split the P/C, rather than incorporate the PC within a single word (like HEPCAT JIVE or IPCRESS FILE). She then selects short MAC themers which hide the word well, as in SMACKS.

It's hard enough to fill a grid with four "pinwheel" themers plus a central entry, but it's that much harder when you have four additional crossing answers to deal with. True, she had some flexibility in using different *MAC* words, but still, all the overlap makes things rough. She does well to deploy some cheater squares through the grid to facilitate smoother fill. There are a few issues like AS RED, but note how SUMAC overlaps POP CULTURE. Not a whole lot you can do with the ?SR?? pattern. The only other area that made me pause was the ARILS section — ENAMEL and LIP BALM are both nice entries, but I'm not sure they made ARILS worth its while. Botanists may disagree, of course.

ADDED NOTE: I had forgotten about "pomegranate arils" until C.C. mentioned them in her notes. Although the wikipedia article doesn't mention the word ARIL, POM (a large manufacturer of pomegranates) features it on its packaging. Perhaps I've been too hard on the poor ARIL.

Finally, I liked seeing iTunes in the grid and was hoping to find more MAC and PC related entries. It felt a little weird to have just one thing by itself. Perhaps if you squint really hard, REPRO is a description of all the copycat products PC makers have put out?

Now to await all the angry emails from Microsoft people...

I jest, of course. Microsoft does an amazing 1-for-1 match on XWord Info's year-end donation to Treehouse for Kids, and their ability to double our donation is both much appreciated and to be applauded.

Finally, a really nice little pair of entries: BRUCE right next to BATMAN, great stuff. Never easy to put adjacent related entries into a grid. Well worth the cross-referencing!

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