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Puzzles for May, 2017
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (26)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (1)Hide comments
Mon 5/1/2017

I've seen MARIE ANTOINETTE many times in crosswords, so it was baffling to fill it in automatically … but have it not fit. Amusing to get a version of the Queen of Heart's famous line, OFF WITH HER HEAD!, in the puzzle as well, literalizing it so the grid only contains ARIE ANTOINETTE (the M is lopped off).

CAPITAL OFFENSE didn't quite work for me. I think the clue is getting at "cutting off the capital letter," but wouldn't that mean the A of ANTOINETTE should be removed, too? Maybe that's too picky, but having just NTOINETTE in the grid would have made the CAPITAL OFFENSE punchline work better for me.

I would have also liked to get ARIE ANTOINETTE at the very end of the puzzle. Felt like when someone tells a funny joke … and then explains it to you. Better to leave on a high note.

Ed features some nice long fill, BRACERS and SALES ROOM, and even uses his mid-length fill well in ESPRIT and EXEMPT. HATTERAS didn't do much for this left coaster, but I'm sure North Carolinians sure will disagree.

A couple of rough spots in the grid, notably the OHAIR / LIS crossing (sometimes the latter is spelled "lys"). Along with ASTA, BROMO giving a fusty feel, and the odd ONE K (not a common race distance, and never written this way), I could have used a little more finesse in the short fill. I like the attempt to give solvers some longish bonus entries, but I'm not sure it was worth these prices, especially given how important smoothness is for a novice-friendly Monday puzzle.

MARIE ANTOINETTE has been played upon in many crosswords, including one of my favorites from recent memory. Still, I enjoyed the a-ha I got from figuring out that she was literally missing her "head." And it was clever to link in (something close to) the Queen of Heart's famous saying as well.

Tue 5/2/2017

BEST MUSICALs played upon today, David using two-word phrases where the first word is the title of a musical. He managed to squeeze in six musicals for an impressively high theme density — so fortuitous, that interlocking of HAMILTON, COMPANY, and RENT.

Turns out that there are quite a few one-word BEST MUSICALS, including CATS, TITANIC, CONTACT, HAIRSPRAY, MEMPHIS, etc. Not being much of a playgoer, COMPANY and ONCE didn't do much for me — nor did NINE for that matter — but hey, I recognized ANNIE, HAMILTON, and RENT! No doubt they're all fair game since they won the top Tony Award, but … well, hopefully most solvers will connect better with all six musicals than I did.

Given the ultra-high theme density, not a surprise to get some dabs of crossword glue. I don't mind it so much if it's spread out, but getting NALDI / ATA (along with partial-ish feeling ATE ON and RID OF) at the top, and TEM / TRA / SMEW / SSR / OLAN concentrated in the bottom wasn't ideal.

Still, I enjoyed some of the bonus fill David worked in, notably HAY FEVER, HOOPLA, (oh no!) MR BILL, even GRITTY and REVERE. Not an easy task to incorporate these types of strong bonuses, but I appreciated them greatly, since I didn't connect strongly with the theme.

I wasn't familiar with LAP ROBES — thank goodness all the crosses were fair! — so that didn't do much for me. Still, it got me to thinking what the heck "open-air travelers" were and why they needed LAP ROBES. So it held my interest, if not in an immediate way.

Given that the Gray Lady has recently been moving toward more humor in drug references — particularly marijuana — it would have been fun to get a CONTACT HIGH from this puzzle!

Wed 5/3/2017

Quote puzzles are tough to make sizzle. You put all your eggs in one basket, dedicating every one of your precious theme entries to the quote. It has to land well and generate a big laugh, or the puzzle falls flat. This one, playing on the phrase FIGHT / TOOTH AND NAIL, didn't do much for me, but perhaps people more into groany puns will be delighted.

What can help quote puzzles are 1.) addition of bonus entries that help keep a solver's attention, and 2.) clean short fill so that if it's not your cup of tea, at least it's a silky smooth solve.

I liked the additions of SIOUX CITY, JET STREAM, POLE VAULTER, and TICKET TAKER a lot — each one of these is a strong entry. PRAVDA, FLAMBE, and even NECTAR are fun, too. It can be hard to incorporate bonus fill in the across direction, since that often creates filling difficulties, so JET STREAM in particular was a joy to uncover.

Speaking of filling difficulties though ... I stopped keeping track of crossword glue after SEPT, AOUT, ISLA, RLS, EQUI, SPH (sphere?). I couldn't help but pick the tally back up at the end, though, finishing with TBA / BIERS (what a tough word!), ENERO / ERST in a single corner … no bueno. No. Bueno.

I wonder if the puzzle concept would have been better served by using different body part phrases? Perhaps TOOTH AND NAIL could be the punchline to this particular joke, HAND OVER FIST could be a manicurist mano a mano, FOOT IN MOUTH could involve a podiatrist kickboxing with an ENT, etc. That way if one didn't do it for you, maybe another one would?

Overall though, a couple of great long bonus entries did help elevate (get it? POLE VAULTER? (speaking of groany)) my solving experience.

Thu 5/4/2017

BLACK ICE played upon today, with ICE quasi-rebused inside four black squares. (See the grid below for a visual.) At first I thought it would have been better to make the BLACK ICE squares stand out somehow — perhaps having them be the only isolated black squares in the grid? — but then I remembered that the entire concept of BLACK ICE is that you can't actually see it coming. Fair enough!

Did you notice that Loren and Tracy picked theme phrases such that they didn't need to use a giveaway "[no clue]" indicator anywhere? For example, ADV(ICE) COLUMN has COLUMN show up as a normal word — plus, they clued it so it disguises the meaning (newspaper COLUMN vs. building COLUMN). I was wondering why VAN had gotten such a tough clue (VAN Cliburn, the pianist), but it all made sense when I realized that it was obfuscating the VAN in POL(ICE) VAN. Nice.

Some sizzling themers, too. MR N(ICE) GUY was my favorite, but ADV(ICE) COLUMN, SERV(ICE) DOG, POL(ICE) VAN were all big thumbs-ups in my eyes. All of them worked well, although I did have to convince myself that OFFICE TEMP was a real thing. (It is. Mostly.)

Pretty clean grid, especially considering working with four theme pairs plus a revealer ain't no joke. True, NO D(ICE) and (ICE) AGE are shorties, but still, any time you have to fill around crossing themers, it can get hairy really quick. Strong results, with just some minor ESSA and the oddly arbitrary Y SHAPE in that tough opening corner.

TEMP did give me pause, given its [Time's partner, informally] clue and its ENNIO crossing. I was iffy on Morricone's first name (so thank goodness I do a lot of crosswords!) — ANNIO / TAMP seemed plausible too. TIME and TEMP? I'm still not sure "time and temperature" flows off the tongue, but Google seems to disagree with me on this as well. Harrumph.

Nice to get a few bonuses in the fill, especially MONGOOSE, and an appropriate TEAMWORK for this pair of constructors. Well executed overall … although after much thought, my brain wanted to take the BLACK ICE concept to its extreme, with completely random spots of BLACK ICE, so that you couldn't predict where they'd show up.

Stupid brain.

Fri 5/5/2017

PB is the master at making ultra-clean puzzles, filling this tough 64-worder as if it were a 72-worder. Check out how wide-open that middle is, requiring eight (!) crossing long answers. Doing that all with nary a dab of crossword glue is amazing craftsmanship. There are some great entries right through that tough middle: I GOT THIS, YOURE FREE TO GO, and POUND STERLING are all top-notch.

I've recently found myself looking back at previous PB themelesses to compare and contrast. I tend to like his higher word-count puzzles better than his lower ones, since the latter tend to use more entries that I'm not familiar with, or that don't sing to my ear.

Now, the lack of sizzly answers will almost be a given for a PB low-word-count themeless, considering his incredibly high standard when it comes to avoiding crossword glue. In a 64-word puzzle, it's nearly impossible to get both an uber-jazzy and perfectly silky-smooth puzzle. In today's puzzle for example, SHIP OF THE LINE (?), REST AREA (a bit dull), and HOUSE TRAINING ("house trained" or "potty training" sound more natural to me) wouldn't go in my listing of the puzzle's assets.

Same goes with MEASURING, BANG BANG (feels a bit arbitrary), TRUMBO (although to be fair, having two little kids hampers my ability to watch much of anything these days). And the HOULIHAN / GNEISS crossing … I think it's ultimately fair, but it felt borderline for those who haven't seen much M*A*S*H and don't know fairly deep geology.

Where PB continually distinguishes himself is in his clever cluing. Some of that could be from Will and Joel, but PB's puzzles always seem to have at least a half dozen great wordplay clues. My favorite was [Ruler's role], which had to be related to government — except that it was referring to a MEASURING stick. Beautiful way to elevate an otherwise drab entry.

Ultimately, a smooth and enjoyable solving experience, just like most all of PB's offerings, if not that sparkly.

Sat 5/6/2017

One of my biggest laughs in recent crossword memory came from the mysterious clue, [One asking for Ahmed Adoudi, say]. If you don't get it, say it out loud, in a Moe Szyslak tone of voice. Great entry, made even better with its clue. (Some solvers might find it juvenile. So I'm juvenile!) SCAM ARTIST was another standout, as was the GAZA STRIP.

A shame that Joe got scooped on ANTI-VAXXER, debuted just over a week ago. Feature entries are important in distinguishing themelesses, so seeing it again in such a short period of time wasn't great. It'd be super difficult task for Will and Joel to avoid this type of quick reshowing, but it would sure be worth it to me.

But MARK O MEARA didn't do that much for me since I gave up golf 20 years ago, and even though FROST / NIXON has sentimental value as it was the first movie Jill and I ever saw together (what a choice for a date movie, huh?), I don't remember much about it. Overall, there weren't as many assets in the puzzle as I usually hope for.

Lack of assets is a common issue for themelesses featuring seven-letter entries. I did like BEER KEG and WAFFLES, but STOMP ON, ACREAGE, ANGINAL, ADHERES are all more neutral; filler material holding the puzzle together. Maybe the RCA DOME would have been an asset back when the Colts were still playing there, but it feels fusty now.

I appreciated the effort to work in some snazz with PET TAXI, but that one didn't hit my ear very well. A quick Googling turned up countless PET TAXI services, so it seems fine. But it still seems kind of an odd phrase to me.

With some RESOAK, BANC crossing BEL (borderline unfair), EROO, outdated TROI, ENDO, it was a tad too much crossword glue for my taste.

Still, that CRANK CALLER entry/clue pair will stick with me for a long time. Ahmed Adoudi, tee hee.


★ The Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA) Crossword Class is back, with a theme involving words that seem like they should rhyme — each pair of words is identical, except for the first letter — but they don't. Neat finds in KOSHER NOSHER, GARDEN WARDEN, HATCH WATCH. And not only is BASELINE VASELINE a cool discovery, but the image of a baserunner slipping 'n sliding into second — and right past it — amused me to no end.

There are many, many pairs of words that display this property, so I appreciated the extra effort to work in faux-rhymes to the clues as well. At first I wondered why the theme clues were so long — I actually skipped them at first, tl;dr — but then I got a smile when I realized what was going on.

Where I thought this puzzle shined was in its grid execution. Most Sunday 140-word puzzles have globs of crossword glue in them, stuff that most constructors need to stick everything together. But I hardly paused at anything throughout my solve. Even upon a post-solve scan, I could only find an OTRO. An old NEHI. LBOS (leveraged buyouts, which are 100% fine to this MBA).

Beautiful work to keep it to just a few short, minor offenders. Not sure how much rework Natan had to go through in revisions, but it was well worth it.

And great bonus fill. PRO SURFER (I lurve surfing), IM SHOCKED, ACTUAL SIZE, GO TO PRESS, COUGH DROPS, ESCAPISTS, made my solve even more enjoyable.

Intersecting pairs of theme answers (MODEL YODEL and KOSHER NOSHER, HATCH WATCH and GARDEN WARDEN was really smart — if HATCH WATCH had to be worked in horizontally, it would have infringed upon one of the other themers in the bottom half of the puzzle. It's not often possible to get themers to cross like this, but when it is, it often makes the construction so much easier. Does wonders for good spacing.

I did stumble on two entries. MOOC is apparently a "massive open online course." Thank goodness all the crossings were gettable. (And Finn has been working for Columbia University.) SWOLE … that's modern lingo for "bulked up"? Huh. Kids these days.

Fun, interesting theme, with top-notch execution.

POW Mon 5/8/2017

★ LGBTQ getting its due today — that's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning — using homophones to disguise those five letters. How fortuitous that each letter has a real-word sound-alike! It's so common for a constructor to get a beautiful idea … but a single element ruins the idea. Thank goodness it's not LGBTR or LGBTM.

Excellent selection of themers, GEE, YA THINK? my favorite. Those colloquial ones pop for me. CUE THE MUSIC was fun too. Not familiar with BEE BALM — BEE STINGS or BEE POLLEN might be better — but it's much, much easier to work with a central 7-letter answer than a central 9-, 11-, 13-, or 15-letter one.

BEEHIVE might have been more known, but it is a single word, which would make the theme slightly inconsistent. Better to have each of the key homophones be single words.

Speaking of consistency, it would have been so perfect to have each homophone be exactly three letters — ELLE sticks out in this way. But sometimes you have to make do with what you have. I did like that C.C. made the effort to work in two themers with three words, rather than just a single one — something about a two/three split that's so much more pleasing than a one/four split.

I know, I'm so anal!

I normally like revealers to be placed in an elegant spot — the lower right corner, or dead center of the puzzle — but there's something nice about crossing LGBTQ through one of the themers.

I didn't remember MALIK right off the top, but he does seem to be crossworthy. So even for a Monday-puzzle, I think that's fine, considering how easy the crossing answers are.

The only real hitching point for me was in the north. Ian McEwan's "Atonement" was big enough to warrant crossworthiness, but OTERI, not so much. And GOL … oof.

But overall, a well-executed tribute to the LGBTQ community. Love it.

Tue 5/9/2017

Themers following the "X A Y" pattern, where X and Y rhyme. Some nice finds, Pete utilizing all common, everyday(ish) phrases. SNEAK A PEEK is a perfect one, and BAKE A CAKE … who doesn't love CAKE? I did want SEAL A DEAL to be SEAL THE DEAL, but what can you do.

With six themers, I wouldn't have expected too many bonuses in the fill. What a nice surprise to get six(!) long slots, filled with juicy material like US HISTORY, ROLODEXES (obsolete, but they were culturally important), CHEAP DATE.

BORDELLOS … what would the Gray Lady say? I think I like this entry, although part of me wants the NYT crossword to stay away from certain unsavory references. No doubt, BORDELLOS is a colorful answer.

Some trade-offs to make this all happen, though. So much is going on in the lower left corner, for example — GRAB A CAB, BAKE A CAKE, BORDELLOS, and WELL BORN all have to be filled around — that there's inevitably some NONOs. Any five-letter entry ending in STAR is a constructing crutch, as that first letter can be so many things (each one of them arbitrary to most solvers), and there's enough tough material packed down there that I fear it might turn off newer solvers.

I do think all of BWANA, KLINK, AEROS, EWERS, ARIL, KNOTT are fair(ish), but whoo, that concentration might not be satisfying for an early-week solver.

My philosophy is that short fill does its job when it goes mostly unnoticed. There are occasionally awesome bits of short fill that help a puzzle stand out, but I don't think any of these fit that bill.

Along with some other toughies — I was in National Honor Society, but I struggled to piece together NHS — I would have liked more smoothness in exchange for fewer snazzy long answers.

Some neat rhyming finds, though. People ask me about rhyming themes all the time, and generally, they're way too overdone to be viable. But adding a layer like this "X A Y" pattern can work.

Wed 5/10/2017

Fun and creative concept, players hitting a shuttlecock back and forth over a BADMINTON NET. Or is that a BIRDIE? I dug that repeating pattern of four-letter birds ping-ponging from one side to the other. And getting the finale of ITS OUT was a fun ending. Amusing to visualize the BIRDIE finally landing out of bounds (if you think of the sideline as AREAMAN / ALIENS).

Some good bonus entries, too. As a die-hard sci-fi guy, I love me some ION BEAMS. POLITICO and Kim BASINGER were nice as well. SENSE ORGAN felt a bit too dictionary-definitionish for my taste (pun intended), but it is valid. And although UNACCENTED is a bit dull as an entry on its own, getting a misdirecting clue in [Not stressed], as in "laid back," made for fun wordplay.

Puzzles featuring a whole bunch of short themers can be tough to fill cleanly. Ned did a pretty good job of separating all his themers with black squares, and some of the places I thought would suffer turned out quite well. For example, it's usually tough to fill a corner bounded on its top and bottom, like with the upper left bounded by RACKET / DUCK. RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) will be tough for some, but the acronym is in use. And working in one of my favorite baseball players of all-time, ICHIRO = much appreciated.

But there were many places that suffered. It started off with an OSS / ONA — not too bad, considering having to work around not just RACKET, DUCK, and LOON, but BADMINTON NET. But ... thankfully Ned pointed most of them out.

None of these is a "puzzle-killer" to me (Will's term for an entry that automatically forces a rejection), although PES is close. But so many of them in a single puzzle = no bueno; makes a grid feel wonky. Just four BIRDIEs would have accomplished the same effect for me and would have made for a smoother puzzle.

Overall though, a clever idea with a smile-inducing set of revealers.

Thu 5/11/2017

I admit, I had to think about the theme for many minutes before I understood it. Funny a-ha moment when I finally realized that HOMEY was phonetically "hoe me," as in a VEGETABLE GARDEN wanting to be hoed. Same with GLOOMY as "glue me," and ROOMY as "RUE ME." Amusing to think of a LOST OPPORTUNITY begging to be rued.

Typically it's best to stick with regular symmetry, as it's what most solvers and editors are used to, and only resort to mirror symmetry in special circumstances. You might think that with 15-, 13-, and 15-letter themers, regular symmetry would have been fine. But check out the crossing of GLOOMY and MODEL AIRPLANE, in particular how far down GLOOMY extends — makes it impossible to place the 13-letter answer in the center of the grid.

Mirror symmetry often allows for some cool features. (I personally love it and would use it even more than I do now if it didn't cause some editorial hesitations.) Check out those lovely long downs, MEGAPHONE / OPEN CASES and NEED A RIDE / ESTATE TAX. Sure, those could also be incorporated into a grid using normal symmetry, but there's something so pleasing to have all four of them featured across the bottom.

As with most all of Tim's puzzles, extremely well executed. He gives us even more bonuses in SCHMEAR and TOPKNOT, not to mention PAPRIKA, ACOLYTE, SORCERY. Having worked with Tim on a few puzzles now, I have a deeper appreciation of how hard he works to include these types of bonuses, while simultaneously avoiding dabs of crossword glue. Maybe TYNE is a little esoteric, PCT is minor, but other than that, the short fill does its job by largely going unnoticed.

Some fun clues, too. Took me a while to figure out that the "Sewer of note" meant "one who sews," as in Betsy ROSS. "Dead reckoning," with "reckoning" meaning "doing an accounting of," was great wordplay for ESTATE TAX.

I loved the concept. Would have gotten my POW! if there had been a fourth example.

Fri 5/12/2017

I'm digging this celeb series. I particularly like when the celeb puzzle reflects something about the person — very cool to get "It's the ECONOMY, stupid!" I vividly remember that phrase (or something like it) from the Bush Sr. / Clinton race — what power those four words had.

I was surprised that DON'T STOP didn't get clued in relation to the Fleetwood Mac song, one I associate strongly with Clinton. Maybe that would have made it too easy?

Fun to see GI BILL too. Made me think of a President Clinton action figure, in a box set along with Duke, Snake Eyes, and Sgt. Slaughter.

Did I miss any Clinton references? It was enjoyable to scour the grid and clues, searching for any Easter eggs like DON'T STOP.

A couple of good feature entries too, like MISHMASH crossing MADMAN. Along with MAIN MENU, I wondered if there was an M* M* mini-theme somewhere in there?

There was more crossword glue than I like holding the grid together, though. It's common to get some ALEG, TSO, ARA, AER, COS — these are fairly minor. DRAWEE … it is in the dictionary, but I'd guess that a large majority of constructors (and solvers) would prefer not to get entries like this. And ILOILO is a common constructing crutch, given its favorable alternation of consonant / vowels.

All in all, too much iffy short fill and not enough great long fill for my taste — I have very high expectations for themelesses these days. But it sure was fun to search for those Clinton-specific references. It would have been great to get a few more entries like BUBBA (perhaps clued as [___ Gump Shrimp Company] to hide the reference to Clinton's nickname), TENOR SAX, FOLKSY, etc.

ADDED NOTE: Judge Vic clued me into the mini-theme (highlighted below). How neatly those split up into crossword symmetry! I wish those had been hinted at though, or shaded — apparently all four of Judge Vic's test-solvers missed the connection, too. I fear that the five of us won't be the only ones.

Sat 5/13/2017

I've always favored the generalist's approach. It's hurt me in some areas, like in business, where 90%+ of C-suite (CEO, CFO, CTO, etc.) want specialists, and deep specialists at that. But I feel strongly that expanding one's boundaries is important to personal development and leads to better deliverables, even in the areas in which you might specialize.

My annoying philosophical discussion aside, I enjoy a challenge. It's tough to get three great 15-letter answers stacked atop each other while not compromising in short fill. I loved RARE STAMP DEALER, and all those common letters felt like they'd make for easier construction. And it was a stroke of luck that I happened upon the combination of I BELIEVE I CAN FLY, which is often played for CINDERELLA TEAMS (I'm a sucker for basketball stories, especially underdogs).

It was more a stroke of relief, given how many other 15-letter entries I tried below RARE STAMP DEALER. I saved several dozen versions and discarded probably hundreds more.

The one hesitation I had was in BOOBOISIE, which was the only possibility given the rough ISIE ending I had backed myself into. I had heard the term before and thought it was hilarious (a take-off on "bourgeoisie"), but I wondered if it might come off as condescending. Thankfully, I could attribute it to Mencken (as I giggled about it to myself).

Huge props to Will and Joel for the USED CARS clue, which I didn't get at first. "… old and tired" as in tired = having tires. Ha!

I originally wanted TRICK / KNEE to be even trickier, with KNEE getting no clue. Probably would have been too evil to get an unexpected Thursday-ish trick in a themeless puzzle though. Ah well.

I probably won't do any more triple-stacks now — what a great learning experience, but there are so many other themeless layouts I'd like to try out and learn from. Hope you enjoyed the solve!

Sun 5/14/2017PLACES, EVERYONE!

A pretty pattern of shaded squares, highlighting a position-dependent theme. Fun a-ha to realize that [Grand pooh-bahs] wasn't BANANAS, but (top) BANANAS. Same with [Dropped out] not being SCHOOL, but (left) school, and HANDER actually being (right) HANDER. We fixed up the answers in our database so the answers match the clues — see below.

Not all the themers were fantastic — some could work just fine without their positional modifier, like how ENGLISH as [Chaucer's tongue] doesn't need the (middle) modifier — but getting all 18(!) themers into such nice symmetrical, intersecting places must have greatly reduced Will's flexibility. Not easy to find so many crossing pairs that work this way.

Speaking of not easy, Will's point about filling around pairs of crossing themers is no joke. This task becomes even trickier when working with the NYT's 140-word maximum, which translates to having to fill some big, themeless-esque sections, using more long filler entries than you might in a weekday puzzle. Check out how well Will does in the west, with just AMI as a minor blip, and ALI BABA, BALD SPOT, MADE WAR, IN A HOLE as bonuses. Now that's what I'm talking about!

Now check out the lower right. Will helps himself by sort of sectioning this region away from the rest of the puzzle, but it's still hard to fill around (bottom) FEEDING and (right) CLICKS. A random Roman numeral in CDV isn't great, but it's at least gettable. ELEA crossing EDINA … oof. I'd find it hard to argue that either one is something educated solvers must know, or should be able to figure out.

BTW, were you baffled by SAUK as [Fox neighbor] too? I was stuck on it being FOX News … not the Fox Native Americans. D'oh!

I've seen variations on this idea many a time before, but this layout was so aesthetically pleasing. It would have been great to get more examples which absolutely required the positional modifier (CLICKS works just as well as (right) CLICKS for the clue, e.g.). Along with some smoothing of rough spots (ETHELS/ALLS, ALAE/NEER, etc.) that might have elevated into POW! contention for me.

POW Mon 5/15/2017

★ "Hidden word" themes used to mostly be done with just a single word — perhaps TOT hidden across SIGNIFICANT OTHER, AUTO TUNE, etc. — but that tends to get repetitive for solvers. Today, Peter took an apt revealer, INNER CHILD, and used it with four different synonyms of CHILD, providing both variety as well as some good a-ha moments. At first, I wasn't sure what was inside CAMINO REAL, for example … but quickly came to see MINOR inside. I've highlighted them below.

Such nice finds. It's often very easy to work with short hidden words, so there's not much of a wow factor. But INFANT across CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is, well, fantastic. And although TYKE isn't as long as INFANT, what a great discovery of TYKE across QWERTY KEYBOARD. Beautiful base phrase.

Speaking of base phrases, I wasn't sure what CAPTAIN FANTASTIC was. Even though it didn't make much at the box office, I think it's fair game, as 1.) it garnered Viggo Mortensen some important nominations and 2.) even if you don't know the title, it's made up of two regular, inferable words.

Such high theme density — 10 15 16 15 10 — would usually mean some dabs of crossword glue and/or no bonuses in the fill. But Peter spends his black squares wisely, separating themers wherever possible, and filling the tough sections with great care.

For example, most constructors would need some crossword glue in the area between CAMINO REAL and PRIVATE ENTRANCE. Beautiful work in there, not just silky-smooth, but with RAISINET and ONE SEC thrown in as bonuses.

Speaking of bonuses, this Trekkie loves the crossing of SEXTANT and STARSHIP. (Trivia: there was a real-life Jean Picard ... who was an astronomer!)

Hardly anything to nitpick in the grid. ANC could be hard for some, but educated solvers ought to know the African National Congress.

What better way to celebrate Peter's 100th NYT crossword with a POW! A nearly perfect Monday puzzle — interesting theme, silky-smooth fill, and some strong bonus entries — from one of the best in the business. If you like hard crosswords, consider subscribing to Peter's Fireball Crosswords for a delightfully tough challenge every week.

Tue 5/16/2017

Sometimes I wish the NYT weekday crosswords ran titles. I'm not sure what today's would be — is there a catchy phrase that means TAKE A STATE PLUS A LETTER AND ANAGRAM INTO REAL PHRASES? Perhaps … "Altered States"? "Plus ones"? Neither is quite right, but both start to get at it. Sort of.

I so badly wanted the additional letters, R E O T N, to … spell something? To be representative of that state? Anything but "add a letter because that's what was needed for this anagram." I spent some time searching for some higher meta layer, but this NOTER notes none.

That's likely asking for too much given the constraints, but a guy can wish.

Ignoring that for now, I like the themers overall. WARNING SHOT, IM SERIOUS, and AFRICAN LION are great phrases. NORMAL DAY and BANK RATES are a bit drier, but they still work.

Pretty good gridwork, too. Bruce's chops have improved greatly over the past year, largely avoiding the usual crossword glue constructors resort to, while integrating a lot of nice bonuses. RAW BARS. The full ARAL SEA. POOP OUT. KID LIT. LADY DI. Such great use of those mid-length slots.

He did employ a curious word up top, CAPSID. I thought I was pretty good with biology (my previous company was in pharmaceutical development), but this was a mystery to me. I like the word, after having looked it up, and I think it's fair game. But I can see how some solvers might need every crossing, and even then still think they must have something wrong. That would be not terribly satisfying.

I would have liked the upper left and lower right corners to be less segregated from the rest of the puzzle, too. Perhaps moving the black square between NAN and BAN one to the right? The segmentation does make the construction process much, much easier, but it can also make for a choked-off feeling for solvers.

There's an interesting seed of an idea here — altering states somehow. I so badly wish there had been some extra layer to bring together those extra letters somehow, though.

Wed 5/17/2017

I'll admit, I had no idea what was going on until well after I filled in the last square — those [… X / Y …] clues befuddled me. But, a nice click when I realized that Paul put together a great word chain, using strong base phrases.

Here's an example: DOUBLE BACK and COURT CASE are both peppy phrases. But so is BACK / COURT … as hinted at by the last part of DOUBLE BACK's clue, and the first part of COURT CASE's clue! I've seen plenty of word chains in crosswords, but I don't remember this cluing mechanic. Entertaining (once I finally grokked it!).

I liked that Paul worked in so many bonuses in the fill — that way, if the theme didn't appeal to you, some of SATCHMO, DRUM PAD, MIX-A-LOT, I HEAR YOU, TOMMYROT might. And as a huge "Parks and Recreation" fan, I love PAWNEE.

A couple of dabs of crossword glue to make it all happen, though. Those "parallel downs" (EPISODIC / CULTURAL and I HEAR YOU / TOMMYROT) are tough to pull off without some compromises. I don't mind a bit of TYRO to get the latter two fantastic entries. The price of IPUT and CFL does seem high for the more neutral EPISODIC and CULTURAL though.

(Paul is Canadian, so I did smile a little at CFL … once I remembered that it stood for the Canadian Football League.)

It's so tempting to incorporate parallel downs, especially when you can make one side work as great as the lower right. They're so hard to do both smoothly and snazzily, that it's not uncommon for one side to pale in comparison. It can be such a constructor's dilemma — feature one great side at the price of a less-than-stellar other side?

Finally, MIMEO (outdated), IN PEN (a bit partialish), and EIN in one region wasn't great. But thankfully, that was the only area with such a high concentration of goop.

Nice spin on a word chain, though — I like it when someone takes a tried and true idea and makes it a little different.

Thu 5/18/2017

Given my education and work as a mechanical engineer, I place a high value on efficiency. One implication is that I write incredibly small, so as to save on paper and ink. People make fun of me for that, but WHO'S LAUGHNG NOW THAT I'M ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE WHO CAN EASILY SQUISH BOTH CHICKEN AND ROAD INTO A SINGLE CROSSWORD SQUARE BWA HA HA!

Ahem. Jacob gives us a fun rebus twist, the CHICKEN "crossing" a ROAD in four rebus squares. Some strong theme phrases, CHICKEN OF THE SEA, NO SPRING CHICKEN, and ROAD RUNNER my favorites (jet-propelled pogo stick, anyone?). I also enjoyed the succinct revealer — WHY? — in the middle of the puzzle, leaving the solver to piece together the gist of the theme.

As with most all Stulberg grids, some great bonuses: POLO BALL, BAR EXAM, TRIFECTA, PEN PALS. And as with most all Stulberg grids, nice and smooth. When the only detectable crossword glue is MSGS — and that's a common enough abbreviation — you've produced a top-shelf product. (For me, EST and ESL are so minor as to be ignorable.)

How does he accomplish this? One big reason is that Jacob wisely sticks to a 78-word grid. When you have this much theme packed in — four pairs of crossing answers plus a short revealer — making the grid low-word-count and wide-open is just begging for trouble.

A little bit of magic is that the grid doesn't seem like a 78-word puzzle. Normally, 78-worders feel heavy with three- and four-letter entries, and they feature few long bonuses. But Jacob gave us so many slots of 7+ letters that I got a lift everywhere I looked — a little BAR EXAM here, some MANNERS there, PEN PALS at the bottom, etc. Great work.

I'm still not a fan of rebuses that require so much to be crammed in a single box — four or five letters is my preferred max, otherwise most (normal) people can't fill in the answers properly. But I liked the idea behind this one, along with the Stulbergian execution.

Fri 5/19/2017

I'm usually wary of themelesses heavy on seven-letter entries — those mid-lengthers often end up more neutral than snazzy. There aren't as many juicy phrases that are seven letters, compared to eight+ letters.

So what a nice surprise in the upper right, with LEAR JET, STEPMOM, NBA JAM … and the lower left, with KISS CAM, IM ALIVE, and COME NOW! Juicy stuff squeezed out of those slots.

INTONED and EYELESS, not so much.

USURPED and BARRAGE … I could go either way on those. They're more everyday, workmanlike terms, but they might be ripe for great wordplay clues? Not today, unfortunately, both getting tough dictionary definitions.

And ALCAZAR, a Moorish castle built during Muslim rule. Good to learn a thing or two from a crossword ... but the random-seeming string of letters made me wonder if I had an error somewhere. Satisfying to add to my vocabulary, but not satisfying during those head-scratching moments of my solve.

MANBUN is such a fun entry. But so cringeworthy in real life. It was so cool to see Jeremy Lin earn the starting PG spot for the New Jersey Nets … and so embarrassing to see him sport a MAN BUN. Sigh.

A couple of great long entries, ENGAGEMENT PARTY anchoring the middle. This is the type of entry that shines for me — not only is it jazzy in its own right, but it's ripe for clever cluing. [Its honorees plan to become one] made me think, "… plan to become one what?" But it's just "become one," as in "wed." Great stuff.

CRUSHING IT also crushed it. I normally am so-so on add-a-short-word phrases, but there's something fresh about this one. Crushed it! Rocked it! Nailed it! (Younger people roll their eyes at me when I use any of these phrases.)

Along with STREAMLINE, ANY SECOND (although I so badly wanted NOW after that), LAST CHANCE, some nice feature entries. A couple of liabilities did detract from the overall experience, notably NOL (esoteric legal term), and also the more minor ETO / WAC, ARR, STS.

Overall, I would have liked a few more assets in the puzzle, especially given the moderate number of liabilities, but some strong work in those mid-length slots.

Sat 5/20/2017

Two of the youngsters teaming up! I was a little excited to do the puzzle … and a little apprehensive. What hip term would they use, that I would have to pretend like I was cool enough to understand?

Thankfully, they featured a ton of great material that was accessible even to me. That NW corner of SILICON CHIP / AVOCADO ROLL / ZONE DEFENSE was fantastic — and even better considering how smooth it was. (ERG is short and fairly ignorable, at least to this mechanical engineer.)

And although seven-letter themeless entries can be tough to make shine, what a neat NE corner. Love those two Zs (Aziz Ansari is The Man) and the J, made even better by being featured in a great entry, JOYRIDE.

Now, FACESWAP had the potential to be the type of hipster entry I worried about. Thankfully, the clue directly gets at the answer in an explicit way. Whew!

Speaking of piecing it together, that bottom right corner was rough, even though I had heard of the BECHDEL TEST. It's an important concept — a measure of how women are portrayed in media — but BECHDEL is a tough proper name to get right.

I do like that the NYT crossword helps the term get more exposure, but I fear that solvers denied their "I correctly finished the Saturday NYT crossword!" high will harbor a negative impression of the term. Paolo and David did well to make all the crossings gettable … except that STOWE as a ski town (and not Harriet Beecher) is suspect. I call foul on that, opening the door to perfectly fine-looking STOWA or STOWY.

The SAZERAC / RIIS crossing was much better — I don't expect all educated solvers to know what a Sazerac is (plus, they're disgusting), but Jacob RIIS is one of the most important journalists in history.

Another big highlight for me was DIREWOLF, as I used to be a "Game of Thrones" fan. Love those fiercely loyal and protective creatures.

So much to love here; smooth, well-crafted puzzle. If ODETS and SOREL hadn't highlighted the SAZERAC and BECHDEL proper noun issues further, I would have given this one my POW!


Puns / homophones playing on famous Biblical phrases. This is a tried and true crossword theme type — it was Merl Reagle's specialty — and it lives or dies on how amusing the resulting phrases are. I enjoyed IN THE BIG INNING, as that was a surprising word transformation. And it was fun to think of God playing baseball (he/she and I are both SF Giants fans). FORBIDDEN FLUTE also entertained me, evoking an image of a magic flute held under lock and key.

The others didn't do much for me. LET THERE BE LITE didn't make much grammatical sense, AN AYE FOR AN EYE too easy of a substitution, and I was sure A MARK UPON CANE had to be based on the "mark of Cain." I'm no Bible scholar, but it was news to me that "a mark upon Cain" was a thing.

Even if a puzzle's theme doesn't catch my attention, there's plenty of room for bonus fill or great execution to do so. SCHUBERT was nice at the top of the puzzle. BARN ONE — er, BAR NONE — was another standout. I've never SAFARIED, but I'd sure like to. And even the crazy KEYOFE? Ah, the KEY OF E! Nice.

So much crossword glue, though. I don't mind a few minor STL, TRA, ADDA, REMI here and there. But LII. IT OFF. ASIA M — er, AS I AM. SENAT. (And I kept on ticking off more and more after that.)

VOGEL crossing VALES = yikes. I put in (HOGEL / HALES.) Maybe I ought to know Kenneth Vogel. But for those of us that need an introduction to him, doing it in a such a way to deprive solvers of a correct finish is not the way to do it.

I'll have to respectfully disagree with Randy on the amount of unappealing entries and crosswordese.

I do understand the drive to try difficult constructions — a crazily wide-open grid can make for an interesting challenge. And if the fill was smoother, it could have made for an extra-hard, extra-satisfying-to-complete solve. But making a quality 140-word puzzle is hard enough. Very few people can pull off the sub-140 — much less go all the way down to 134 — while keeping standards to where they need to be, if the NYT's reputation as one of the best puzzles out there is to be maintained.

Still, I did enjoy a couple of the themers, as well as some of the long fill bonuses.

Mon 5/22/2017

A little bit of everything in this puzzle, riffing on the SWISS / ARMY / KNIFE. As an engineer in my first career, I appreciate a multi-purpose tool that covers most of one's mechanical needs. And as a crossword lover, I appreciate a puzzle that covers one's solving needs: some good theme material, some good long fill, and not too much gluey short stuff.

I tried so hard to make that analogy work. Sigh. And I call myself a writer in my current career …

I liked the idea behind this one. It was wonky to get SWISS / ARMY / KNIFE split into pieces, but I'm sure it made the construction easier. It also allowed Gary to work in some great long entries like EXORCISM, RACE CARS, and NOAHS ARK, since he didn't have to work around SWISSARMYKNIFE through the middle of the puzzle. What lovely bonuses for a Monday puzzle!

The top half of the puzzle was pretty smooth. ESSES wasn't great, and that WOTAN / OTERI cross might be a killer for some. (I'd personally try to avoid that for a Monday puzzle, but I think it's fair … ish.)

But the bottom half started trickling in some STE. TRA. ANO. And the dreaded SST (supersonic transport, so outdated, and impossible for newer solvers to infer.) On the whole, not bad, but not the Monday-smoothness I prize.

Gary made a reasonable trade-off, though — a lot of long bonuses for a splattering of crossword glue — one that might have played better for a mid-week puzzle.

A neat idea here, but I would have loved an extra layer. How cool would it have been for SWISSARMYKNIFE to run across the middle, and have the implements running through it vertically! Typically, this sort of interlock is hard (to impossible) due to crossword symmetry requirements, but here's a rare case where asymmetry would have actually been desirable. Would have been such a neat visual — the odd implements sticking off the SWISS ARMY KNIFE. That would easily have won this puzzle my POW!

Tue 5/23/2017

Neat idea, C.C. giving us intersecting items that usually come in PAIRS. I uncovered SOCK / SOCK first, and that gave me a smile — amused me to see those SOCKs (sort of) knotted together. (Although, my style is to cram SOCKs into a drawer. Who needs matched PAIRS?)

Some great themers, too. TONGUE LASH is a fantastic answer on its own, and it hides TONG well. Same goes for PANTOMIME and PANT, and SOCKET SETS and SOCK. Excellent finds.

I hesitated on HAS KITTENS. Google says that this is a real phrase, meaning to lose one's cool, but I'd never heard it before. Perhaps it's a generational thing?

I also found it odd that two of the PAIRS were normal terms — SOCK and SKI — while PANT and TONG are rarely used in the singular. For me, it would have been much better to make all four of the same type. I might lean toward the PANT and TONG direction, as a previous puzzle played on this concept very well.

I also would have liked the PAIRS of items to be parallel rather than intersecting. As neat as it was to have two SOCKs knotted together, it's odd to see SKIs like this, as well as PANTs. (TONGs could go either way.) But running parallel theme PAIRS atop each other is much, much harder to do than intersecting them.

Don't get me wrong, intersecting theme pairs does cause all sorts of problems around the intersection. The lower left is a perfect example — PANTOMIMES / PANTRY are hard enough to fill around, but when you add in some more long slots with IM IN AWE and IN RETURN, you're bound to have trade-offs. In this case, OTROS / EME / RWY (railway?) is a heavy price to pay.

What could C.C. have done to ease this? Tough call, but compare the white space in the lower left region to the upper left — much easier to fill that upper left. Perhaps putting a black square at the first E of EME, and removing the black square between EME and AIWA? Constructing is usually a delicate balance, trying to make sure not one of your regions suffers too greatly.

I enjoyed the concept — very creative — but felt like the overall execution could have been better, especially given my elevating expectations around C.C.'s work.

POW Wed 5/24/2017

★ Plumber-themed puzzle! Now that's something you don't see every day. I enjoyed how Mike related all these common phrases to a plumber's moods. Not sure why I was so amused — maybe because it reminded me of all the creative ad slogans I see on plumbers' vans around town? I pity the stool!

What made the puzzle stand out for me was the grid execution. 14- and 12-letter entries are hard to work with — they force placement of black squares right off the bat, and they force you to squeeze themers toward the middle — but Mike did great.

First, he incorporated nearly flawless "parallel downs" in TOLL ROADS / SEE DOUBLE and IM NOT SURE / GAG WRITER. All are good phrases, with GAG WRITER being a standout. And he avoided crossword glue almost completely, which is a usual problem for parallel downs.

Now, he did incorporate odd-looking cheater squares at the end of HERO and before TRIO. But I‘d take that visual imperfection any day when it leads to solid to fantastic long downs without any crossword glue.

He also managed to work in a couple of other extras in PSYCHED, LIKE NEW. I wasn't sure about STOKERS, but they do appear to be real positions in a steamship.

I breezed right through the puzzle, meaning that the short fill did its job beautifully. Okay, an OER here, an ENG there, and some may take issue with EBSEN. (I'm okay with him since he seems to have been a relatively famous actor in his day.) Mike clearly filled his grid with a lot of effort and iteration to produce a top-notch product.

I would have loved 1.) more playfulness out of the themers, maybe having them tell a story about the poor plumber's day, and 2.) to have it run on a Monday. Something this smooth and straightforward would have filled that critical early-week slot so beautifully, much more approachable for newbies than the average Monday puzzle these days.

Still, I thought the execution was top-notch. Maybe wishing it had been more playful is a *rim shot* pipe dream.

Thu 5/25/2017

Erik Agard! Love this guy; easily in the running for the most creative person in the crossworld. I always look forward to his byline. Check out a spotlight Ben over at Fiend did recently for more about Erik.

Today, he riffs on ILL BE FIRST, meaning "move the I to the beginning of words." I must admit, I was confused at first — shouldn't that mean the I moves all the way to the beginning of the phrase, rather than the beginning of the second word? Perhaps that's too picky.

I also got thrown off by the first two themers both being country-related. Sure, they work different ways — one has a country (FRENCH GUIANA) as a base phrase, the other as a resultant (IRAN) — but since it's relatively easy to find words that form other words when the I is moved to the front, I was convinced there had to be some country-related extra layer. Ah well.

Superb grid execution. Erik shows off by stacking pairs of themers, something rarely done. Most constructors would separate PURPLE IRAN and FRENCH IGUANA, one to the very right and the other to the very left of the grid — but Erik likes to innovate.

I often dislike this sort of innovation when others do it since it usually results in terrible compromises. But Erik's grid is not only smooth, it opens things up for great extras like GOLF RESORT, REBRAND, AIRSHOWS jam-packed into one region. Love it.

Erik's a top-notch clue writer, too. Love [Org. with Card games], that capital C alluding to the Cardinals. If you're not already doing his indie puzzles, you owe it to yourself to check them out.

I enjoyed this puzzle, but I have such high expectations for Erik's work now that I wanted something extra, another layer tying everything together. (I also have high expectations for Thursday puzzles not to be as straightforward as this.) Still, such a well-executed product.

(CHURCH ICHOR was the extra themer.)

Fri 5/26/2017

Robyn has a knack for packing vivid, colorful answers into her themelesses. Today, she used a grid featuring 14 long slots, and she managed to convert almost all of them into sizzling material like CATS PAJAMAS, ATOMIC CLOCK, RIDE SHOTGUN. Along with MOOD MUSIC / FINE PRINT, FUN FACTS, I'd say NOT TOO BAD at all. Felt like there was great material everywhere I looked.

I so badly wanted to give this one the POW! — so much sizzling fill! — but my stupid constructor's brain held me back. As with some of her other puzzles, there was too much segmentation in this grid, the diagonal of black squares splitting up the puzzle, with just two entries connecting the halves: TIMESTAMP and SOLDIER ON.

The segmentation makes construction easier, as you can work on one half of the puzzle independently of the other. But it makes for a choppy solve that can feel unfair if the solver gets stuck in one half or the other.

Sometimes wonder if my standards for short fill have gotten too strict. After I see about five dabs of crossword glue in a themeless, my constructor's brain sends up a yellow flag. So ACS, JCT (junction?), ACCTS in just the starting corner was already nearing too much for me. Throw in some ENGS, STA, STD, ONT / DEO, and it took away from my enjoyment.

And the clue for CATS PAJAMAS … as much as I love the entry itself, [Living end] didn't make sense to me. (Probably generational?) I wish there had been clever cluing rather than the oblique approach, as the clue sapped my enjoyment of the entry.

But overall, a lot of great material and an entertaining solve. I wonder if this is a Stephen King situation: some critics say that his earlier work, though rougher, was more entertaining than his recent work, which follows "the rules" of writing too tightly?

Stupid constructor's brain.

Sat 5/27/2017

Sometimes people ask me why certain themelesses run on Fridays and some on Saturdays. You can make a puzzle as hard or easy as you want by tweaking the cluing, right? That's mostly true, but there are some puzzles that just scream SUPER HARD VOCABULARY, I BELONG ON A SATURDAY! Today was one of them.

I like learning a thing or two from my crosswords, especially when the thing is a catchy as FLEXITARIAN. What a snazzy term! And it's something that solvers can suss out, even if it's unfamiliar. Fantastic choice to seed a themeless puzzle.

I'm a Carl Sagan fan — love "Cosmos" — but PALE BLUE DOT was new to me. As a former NASA intern, I'm embarrassed that I didn't know it until now. Ahem. Again, I like learning a thing or two from a puzzle. And although this one wasn't as easy to grok as FLEXITARIAN, it still makes sense (the Earth as a faint blue dot in the universe).

I wouldn't expect educated solvers to know details about Miss HAVISHAM (from "Great Expectations"), but the name ought to at least be familiar-sounding.

ANTENATAL … okay, NATAL should be figure-out-able, meaning "related to birth." And the ANTE- prefix means "before." But what an odd term compared to the much more well-known "pre-natal." Jill (my wife, a doctor), says it's not uncommon, but it's a bit odd in lay usage.

COLPORTEUR … whoa. It is a word in the dictionary. And it amusingly sounds like Cole Porter (no relation, unfortunately). Sure was tough to piece together though, requiring each and every crossing.

Overall, I think the puzzle was fair. The only crossing that gave me pause was COLPORTEUR / PALE BLUE DOT. GALE? HALE? MALE? The P seemed highly likely though.

Well, there was the CHARY (what the…!?) crossing ACE, which had a tough clue. [Crush] was right; the crossing nearly crushed me.

I think the best puzzles are the ones that 1.) teach me a thing or two (FLEXITARIAN!), and 2.) which give me a huge feeling of accomplishment, knowing that I beat it with 100% certainty. This one felt heavier on the former, lighter on the latter.

Still, a great mental workout, one that belonged on a Saturday.

Sun 5/28/2017IN BAD TASTE

It's A RECIPE FOR DISASTER … using phrases that contain a word common to recipes … and that mean generally bad things? That didn't feel tight enough for my taste. I appreciate the STIR, MIX, BEAT, POUR, CUT, SERVE order — akin to brownies — but BEAT A DEAD HORSE is gross in this context, while MIX ONES METAPHORS is more quaint.


Pushing that all aside, the grid is executed very well, not surprising given how good a constructor Andrew is. He puts on a clinic for making a smooth Sunday 140-word puzzle. It's such a rough task (which is why some other editors allow up to 144 words, making the job a ton easier).

You're always going to have some themeless-esque big white spaces in a 140-word Sunday puzzle. What separates the great grids from the clunky ones is 1.) developing an intuitive feel for how big a white space is too big, and 2.) doing a ton of testing to figure out where one's long fill can go without causing too many problems.

Andrew did well in the upper left, for example. It's not easy to work in two long slots up there, but THIRD BEST and COSECANT do a nice job. They don't shine as fill, but they have so many easy-to-work-with letters that Andrew can escape with hardly a blemish. (PIMA might be hard for some, granted.)

Another nice area is the PASHAS / OCTAVES / UNAWARE section. Look how well Andrew blocked it off from the rest of the puzzle to make it doable. OCTAVES is the only snazzy entry there, what with its great misdirectional [Scales span them] clue. But such a clean, professional result.

It's a tricky business. It's inevitable that you'll need some long fill in a 140-word puzzle, and it's so hard to place these entries without causing problems in the short fill.

Great execution in this grid. I wish the theme had grabbed me better, especially without the eew factor of BEAT A DEAD HORSE within a recipe.

Mon 5/29/2017

16-wide grids can be surprisingly difficult. Just one extra column creates such challenges. One of the bigger issues is that I hate going above 78 words (the usual max), even though one could argue that it ought to be 81 words for a wider-than-normal grid.

Why? As a solver, I'm used to 15x15, and if my solve feels slow, that makes me like the puzzle a little less. So as a constructor, I try to keep a 16x15 grid feeling like it's a 15x15. That usually means using longer words than normal on the whole, all the while keeping things smooth. Not easy.

In this grid, I felt like we needed at least two pairs of long bonus answers. It's easy to work in the first pair of long downs (BEDHEAD / DOODLES), but it gets exponentially harder after that. Putting in RUB NOSES and IN THE WAY meant using fairly big corners, piling on the challenge.

Finding more long slots was tricky — long acrosses like INFIDELS and MAIL IT IN are usually tricky to incorporate, given that it means stacking them with theme answers, but some testing made this arrangement feel like it'd be doable.

Finally, we debated long and hard over ETERNE — was it worth the price of admission for AMIRITE, RUB NOSES, MUFFLER? Ultimately, it seemed favorable, especially since we didn't have that much other crossword glue in the puzzle. The eternal constructor's dilemma of snazzy vs. smooth rarely has a clear answer. Hope you agree with our decision.

Tue 5/30/2017

GRAY MATTER played on today … wait, what? GREY MATTER? Ah, a riff on "gray matter," featuring famous(ish) people with the last name GREY. I knew EARL and ZANE Grey off the top, and MEREDITH seemed fair enough, given that the show was titled "GREY's Anatomy." "AGNES Grey" may not be as famous as other of the Bronte sisters' work, but hey, a Bronte is a Bronte.

What a fantastic find in MEREDITH across HAMMERED IT HOME! I love those sorts of discoveries — it's seemingly impossible to hide an eight-letter entry across three words ... or is it! Beautiful.

EARL in REARLIT was decent, although REARLIT didn't jump out and scream I'M JUICY ENOUGH TO BE A CROSSWORD THEME ANSWER! to me.

I'm not as big a fan of words entirely hidden inside other words, i.e. AGNES in MAGNESIA or ZANE in LIPIZZANER. Granted, Neville needed AGNES and ZANE to bulk up the puzzle, and what kind of phrase can you stretch these names across? (If only PIZZA NEMESIS and/or CHAMPAGNE SWIGGER were real things.)

As usual, Neville delivers a strong grid. Not easy to work around that middle section especially, what with MILK OF MAGNESIA / REARLIT / HAMMERED IT HOME compacted in there. Beautiful work, only ADLAI slightly iffy (no one remembers the losers …).

With just ATAB of crossword glue, Neville's grid easily passes muster for a silky-smooth early-week product. Even with the high theme density, Neville tosses in a bit of GORETEX and BASE TEN (he has his Ph.D. in math!) for spice too.

Would have been nice to get a little more long fill, though — I'm curious what Neville could have come up with by removing the black square between USED and SERUM. That would have been tough, given all those pesky themers to work around, but a guy can wish …

The theme lost me a bit since AGNES and MEREDITH Grey didn't mean much to me (fans of "Grey's Anatomy," don't kill me!), but neat concept and fun wordplay in the GREY MATTER revealer.

Wed 5/31/2017

Fun visual, a fishing line represented by a string of Is, ending with a J, which looks like a fish hook. I grokked the idea quickly since I had had the pleasure of working on another J = hook puzzle, but I still enjoyed that imagery. (Thanks goes to Will and Joel for spacing out these two puzzles, so the hook (ha ha) still felt fresh!)

DON'T TAKE THE BAIT helped flesh out the theme, along with several types of fish that can double as a non-fish related word. I've highlighted them below to help them stand out — short answers tend to get lost in the shuffle.

Jacob does such a nice job with grid execution, as always; hardly a short, gluey entry to be seen. TSO is about all I could pick out, and I like General TSO's chicken. (I know, some Asian I am.) DISCI felt strange, but some dictionaries do list it as plural for "discus." "Discuses" does seem better to me, but both feel awkward. Maybe everyone should insure that there's only one discus in any one place at a time. Problem solved!

I appreciated the few long extras in LABRADOR, LIBELED / EXTORT (got something planned, eh, Jacob?), and even GLIMPSE is fun. LEGALIST was unfamiliar to me, but it appears to be dictionary-legit.

I would have liked a few more long bonuses that would have helped the grid shine, but it is tough to work around all those short themers plus the two 15-letter ones. Perhaps just a touch more crossword glue in exchange for another pair of good entries? I'd be curious to test out whether you could remove the block between APEX and ROBE to get a pair of great long bonus entries.

All in all, an amusing, well-crafted puzzle. It was a little too much of a one-liner (pun intended) to get my POW!, but an enjoyable solve.