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Puzzles for May, 2020
with Jeff Chen comments

Fri 5/1/2020
GINSLINGJAFFA
ORATORIORADIUM
BODEWELLPIAZZA
INAWEDAMNZZZ
REVERSILYE
ENPASSANTSLEW
DILLSIDMOSUL
ACAIONENDOOZE
MEYERLOUPUZO
LINERIVERSTYX
NYTPRECALC
ADSRAVICOHAN
DOAJIGOENOLOGY
INFUSEUKULELES
REESESETASIDE

It's no surprise that Trenton holds many spots in our list of Scrabbliest scores. Knowing all about his love for JQXZs has made his puzzles some of my quickest solves. For example, a three-letter word for [Zilch]? Has to be ZIP! Bwa ha ha!

Rats.

That didn't work, but once I broke into the NE corner, [Faith that …] crossing [Israeli port]? That cross had to be a J. I couldn't tell you the first thing about JAINISM or JAFFA, but I recognize them from crosswords. And if I know Trenton, it's-a-gonna-be a J! Thank goodness ZAFFA, XAFFA, and QAINISM aren't real words.

[Square], starting with a P? Let's see, what word could fit in a JQXZ ... maybe even two? PIAZZA, bam! Using the same logic for [Hairless creature …], it had to be FUZZY WUZZY. Moving down, [It always goes to hell] — fantastic clue, by the way — has to end in STYX, to get another JQXZ.

Boo yah! Or should I say, booj zah!

I wasn't hot on ZZZ or LEO X, neither of those elegant ways of working in extra JQXZs, but I enjoyed the concentration of Scrabble high-pointers in that region.

The rest of the puzzle oddly PLAYed IT SAFE for a Charlson outing. I was able to plunk in JUS because I kept thinking "where is Trenton going to land his next JQXZ?" — my success allowing me to DO A JIG. Curious that he didn't wedge in one or two or eight more. I like that he outfoxed me.

Two clues I should explain:

  1. OOZE = [Give a powerful impression of]? Think "that frickin' crossword blogger oozed ridiculousness."
  2. [Study for the bar?] is a delightful clue for OENOLOGY — if you know that OENOLOGY is the study of winemaking. Get it, wine bars? This clue might have landed better for an entry like WINEMAKING.

I enjoy Trenton's puzzles in part because I have insider knowledge that allows me to speed through his puzzles. That makes me feel smart — more accurately for Trenton, an extremely quick-witted Jeff-whiz. Sometimes I want more of a challenge though, and it'd be great to see more variety. Outfox me more, Trenton!

Sat 5/2/2020
FREETHINKING
SAIDNOONEEVER
LANDSAKESALIVE
DENTSMEDPEET
ROSAGOSOLOSRA
INKHURWONT
FORGETSNOSALT
TRILLSSERIES
ATOMICGETSFAT
PEELONSERA
VOWTRIADSSHAG
IBARMLSSTACY
VEGETABLESTOCK
ISOLATIONTANK
DENYDENYDENY

SAID NO ONE EVER is one of those marquee entries that makes me remember a puzzle. You might not be cool enough to know what this is — I certainly didn't have to look it up.

Said not this guy ever.

FREE THINKING also stood out. There's something beautiful about FREE THINKING at the top and DENY DENY DENY at the bottom. Political statement, hmm, Paolo?

Do people say LAND SAKES ALIVE? I was going to mock this entry, but then I had a vague unease that perhaps the kids are mocking my mocking — a meta-mocking — because they traveled back to 1950 to bring it back into vogue.

The grid pattern is so alluring, the black squares creating a sense of motion. One part S + one part whirlpool + one part long lines in the triple-stacks = work of art. I couldn't take my eyes off it for several seconds upon first opening it up. It's rare that I'm so mesmerized.

Old guy not getting clues, takes 1 and 2:

  1. STACY's mom got back from a business trip? Ah, it's some song. Wait! A guy in my fantasy bball league named his team "Stacy's mom" — now I get it! Um, I mean, I knew that all along. Said not this guy ever.
  2. Do-si-do do ... do has to do with HOEDOWN dos? Does do do double do-duty? ("Do" can mean "party.")

A couple of other strong entries, LIFE HACK SANSKRIT HOEDOWN GODSEND, but not quite the quantity of goodness I want out of a themeless. It wasn't as smooth as I like, either, with STAGY EDS ONS SRA STE needed to hold things together.

The huge visual impact of the grid layout, plus the wallop of those great marquee entries, still made for a memorable puzzle, though.

Sun 5/3/2020 SHIFTING SOUNDS
SOCKOAGOGBASSSTOLI
ABOILDEARUSMATOKEN
HOUNDSHAKEDIEMALIEN
LENSHERNEDFLOUNDERS
THEIRHARITABLA
AAMILNEEDGEDNIELSEN
SHIPMENYESSESDELUXE
IOSTAJFADPEC
SYSTEMCOUNSELEDCHECK
ANOMENTORREAIRS
SMUDGETELUNARMS
STEREOSISTERLLB
MOUSEMARKETINGTOOFAR
ARADOOLEIALI
YERTLEWASABIMAGPIES
INTEARSLOBESAVERRED
QUITELINTMEDOC
TROUNCESTATEEARPOST
RABIDETONFUZZYMOUTH
EMILELONGINREOSCAR
SPEAREPEETOADNEHRU

Ben Zimmer! Linguist of fame, WSJ columnist, contributor to The Atlantic. Yeah, yeah, but what matters is that he's now part of the NYT crossword constructors' club. Umberto Eco, Brian Eno and Yoko Ono will teach you the secret handshake shortly, Ben.

Sound changes today … a short A to a short U? No … Wikipedia-ing … "ow"? Apparently there's a "/ou/" sound in phonics. Huh!

For tried-and-true theme types, I prefer when there's a delightful title or rationale for the change. After thinking about the title for a bit — okay, for a lot — I liked how SHIFTING SOUNDS played off of "shifting sands." It's a subtle bit of humor, though, especially for those of us who need a King Joffrey ax to the back of the neck to figure anything out.

I wonder if "How now, brown cow" could have been played upon, somehow? Maybe that would wow.

I didn't laugh at most of the themers, but HOUND SHAKE at least amused — our next-door neighbor's dog loves to houndshake. In self-quarantine times, chasing Toki around is a great source of pleasure.

Most of the others worked more moderately. I missed that FAIR COUCH and FUZZY MOUTH were themers since they almost seemed like real things. Ah, I remember the times our fair couch, back before it became a kids' trampoline ...

Although I enjoyed NED FLOUNDERS — I'm both a Simpson and GoT lover — it felt way too specific. If you're a fan of just one or the other — or even worse, neither — this one will mystify. (Ned Flanders, and Eddard "Ned" Stark.)

I scratched my head over the puzzling HIMBO, then laughed. Connecting "him" and "bimbo" — that's exactly the type of linguistic amusement I was hoping for out of a Ben Zimmer production.

The theme didn't do much for me, but the gridwork was solid enough to give me 15 minutes of entertainment. Welcome to the club, Ben! I'm hoping for more HIMBO-level humor in the future.

Mon 5/4/2020
JESTSCOPRICCI
ADHOCADOINERT
PEEPHOLESARLES
ENDORELSEALDO
GOBBLEDYGOOK
TWIRLSWASP
RICAEATINHIP
USEFOWLLANGUAGE
EPSNAKEDSNOW
KEENCAPERS
QUACKDOCTORS
UNTOSTRONGZOE
ADELEHONKYTONK
SUREREWELANCE
HESSEREDEPEES

Raise your hand if you think Jim Horne should take over with commentary. I was laughing so hard I nearly spit-took my CAWfee!

Fun start to the week. Emily's FOWL LANGUAGE might make some squawk, but I enjoyed the groaniness of the revealer.

My first reaction to the theme was that there wasn't enough consistency. QUACK stands on its own, PEEP sort of does, and GOBBLE and HONK are part of longer words. I've come to realize, though, that the key issue is whether or not solvers get what's going on. Each of the four sounds is clearly identifiable, so ultimately, who cares about consistency?

Except for us dumb clucks, that is.

I would have liked FOWL LANGUAGE better than USE FOWL LANGUAGE. The former would make gridwork much harder, since a 12-letter revealer forces much AWKwardness, but it's still doable. (AWK is the noise a parrot makes. Sez me.) FOWL LANGUAGE could match with GOBBLEDYGOOK, and you could replace QUACK DOCTORS with something else — that'd be another improvement since most people call bad doctors QUACKS, not QUACK DOCTORS.

While I enjoyed some of the upscale feel of the fill — ALDO Gucci, impressionist paintings set in ARLES, Christina RICCI's films — they made the solve a bit tough, especially when concentrated in one region. It didn't help that CELLOPHANE looked so wrong to this cello player that I had to force myself to buy it.

Along with a few other entries that might trip up newbs — only the crossworld recognizes ONEK (it's always "1-K," and 1-K races are rare) and ECOLES is tough (although my French crosswording friends down the street will love this!) — I would hesitate to give this puzzle to a newer solver.

Overall, though, some fun wordplay. Maybe even worth writing a 140-character message about.

Tue 5/5/2020
GAZACUREASYET
ALOTASAPBOOYA
FOOTSTEPSSLURP
FETALRIOTORES
COGDNALAB
KICKBALLMICROS
ASHMAYPETERI
SLASHEDCASSATT
HELLOSSUBTHU
ASKOUTHEADSHOP
BUREAUYEA
GROGRITEESSAY
NOAHSTELEPHONE
ADREPCYANAMEN
TEDDYHELDYEWS

My kids are getting into riddles, so I've been studying books of classics so that I can continue my charade as the smartest person alive. What gets wetter as it dries? A towel. What gets bigger the more you remove? A hole. Then I yell "boo-yah!" and rub it in their faces that they couldn't figure it out.

A-hole is right.

If you haven't seen John Krasinski's "Some Good News," stop reading this drivel and go watch it now. "The girl who single-handedly brought back boo-yah" (starts about 7:20) is awesome. (Note the hashtag, #booyah in the background. BOO YA did seem weird without the H. Er, the AITCH. Aitch as in "Huh?" and "Hmm ...")

Having heard all of the riddles before, they didn't do much for me, but if you haven't seen these chestnuts, they might entertain. It feels like there could be some clever modern version for TELEPHONE. As stated, the riddle is not at all accurate, because 1.) Alexa asks all sorts of annoying questions, and 2.) I never answer my phone because Alexa is listening to every word I say.

Lee packed in an amazing quantity of bonuses, such a treat for an early-week puzzle. They're spread out everywhere, from DNA LAB to KICKBALL to CASSATT to HEADSHOP, continuing with SHUTEYE to TAMPA BAY to SOLO ACTS to SASHAY. Wow!

It ended up being a bit overwhelming, though, all that jazz overshadowing the four themers. I'd have much preferred a standard layout, with all the themers horizontal, and most of the bonuses vertical, to keep everything easier to digest. There might not have been as many bonuses, but probably fewer GAFF KASHA ELAL AITCH. Any of those toughies might turn off a newb.

While I had some issues with the execution, I did admire Lee's audacity, trying for something new in grid layout — experimentation is a good thing. Now excuse me while I go use these to further demonstrate my brilliance to my saps. Er, kids.

Wed 5/6/2020
ASAPARROWANNA
LOSEMOANANEON
TUKEYBUGERDUST
SKULKSZEROES
ALEECOTES
BARBERLANAULS
OREOSCAMELGEO
ALSOTAUUSHEAL
SETCHRISPERSE
TSAHATEFRAYED
USINECLOD
PLANCKCLINCH
AUTOYOUAREHERE
CLEOORBITEUOS
SLUPUSERSFEET

YOU ARE HERE is a fine rationale for rebusizing UR. Along with strong theme entries in TURKEY BURGER, RESTAURATEUR, and NEUROSURGERY, there was a lot to love about the solve. It made me want to look up what other double-URs were available. Turns out there's a ton of options — AMATEUR HOUR, TURN OF THE CENTURY, YOU'RE SURROUNDED is my favorite — but Ali picked some goodies.

I did wonder why two URs in each long one? That's a bonus that Will appreciates, one that I tried hard for way back when. Part of the appeal is that it packs the rebus squares in, so you can have even more elsewhere. It also tightens the constraint, making the themer finds seem that much more interesting. There are thousands of single UR options, not nearly as many double URs.

Will also asks for rebus squares to be everywhere; no one grid region overlooked. That detracted from my experience today, however, the UR in HEURE causing much gnashing of teeth. I took five years of French, yet I had it in my head that the word was "heur." I imagine non-French speakers will be even less amused.

Can you hear my French friends down the street rolling their eyes with exasperated sighs?

The center UR is integrated more smoothly, but being within two shorties (TAURUS and LAURIE) goes against the standard Will has established, where rebus squares should be within the puzzle's longest answers. It'd have been great to open up the middle, instead of 5 squares by 5 squares, moving to 7 by 7. That would have allowed for snazzier material like ABSURDUM, FUTURIST, IMPURITY, OR NURSES, TOFURKEY, etc.

Overall though, Ali did a great job of delivering a straight-over-the-plate rebus, making it (mostly) enjoyable to locate those squares. Along with super gridwork and clues — HEAD CHEF is a top-notch entry already, and playing on "Director of many courses" made it even better — I gave it some POW! consideration.

Oh, the ZEROES clue! What a way to spice up an otherwise neutral entry. 75% of 1,000 means that 3/4 of the digits are ZEROES.

PEEKABOO as a game played with the fingers delighted as well. I'm impressed with Ali's ability to entertain.

A couple improvements here and there, and it could have been an exemplary rebus.

Thu 5/7/2020
ACHFLAGEPHEDRA
TRUELOVETOELOOP
BUTMATETHERESWAR
ASTINNORPINS
TOOTCAENETTU
SENTBASSESUPS
ICANTCEDRIC
MENSDAYWARNING
HUNGUPERODE
USSRAILEDTTOP
ETNAVOLSPINE
HALSONOALPHA
CARETOWAKEAMAJOR
OVERUSEALLINALL
BESTBUDYIPERDS

I'd love to know what percentage of the NYT solving population realized that the grid art was supposed to be Ms and Ws. Anybody? Bueller? I love grid art, such fun ways to snazz up a solving experience, but the M / W thing didn't dawn on me until long after I filled in the last square.

Reminds me of an M / W puzzle Alex Vratsanos and I did years ago. So many people asked me, what's up with the weird chunks of black squares?

(sigh)

(Yeah, looking at it with fresh eyes, I don't totally see it either.)

There was a lot to love about this theme — once I figured out what was going on. I'd have never thought of spoonerizing M / W phrases! Even if I did chance upon the concept, I wouldn't have had the foggiest on how to find appropriate themers.

Okay, I did think of a way, after prolonged rumination. I enjoyed the challenge.

The first and last themers worked wonderfully. "But wait there's more" to BUT MATE THERES WAR? Hilarious! "Care to make a wager" to CARE TO WAKE A MAJOR? Equally uproarious! Delightful base phrases and even more delightful results.

The middle one wasn't as strong. MEN'S DAY WARNING didn't make me laugh, instead making me wonder what a MENS DAY might be, and why it might require a warning. Frat-type hazing? Then, the base phrase confused me. Wednesday morning seems arbitrary.

Ah, there's a Macklemore song called "Wednesday Morning". I probably should be embarrassed, given Macklemore lives maybe 15 minutes away from me.

Even more embarrassing: I also missed that "Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m." is Simon & Garfunkel's debut album. Drat.

As much as I enjoy grid art, these M / Ws let the puzzle down. It'd be one thing if they screamed M and W and thus felt worth it, but 1.) I doubt many people will notice them (we've highlighted them below to make them stand out), and 2.) they forced so many compromises. Crossing CAEN with CANA is deadly, not to mention ETERNE, EPHEDRA, ACH / HUTTON, etc. There's a lot of great material, BEST BUD, MUST HAVE, ROAST PIG, but I'd have enjoyed the puzzle more with no grid art and smoother fill.

Fun to see a concept I'd never have come up with on my own, though.

Fri 5/8/2020
BAZAARCOSTAR
ENABLELOWNOTE
HEMSINFARNORTH
ORBADDINGBRIE
LOOMSENDITERA
DINOASISASSET
DIDONESPART
SUPERHEROES
LITTLEITALY
ADIEUBIDEMEET
TENMILNEBYEAR
CAFECOERCEPRO
ARAPAHOSHARLOW
MINICAMARCANE
PETCATISABEL

Did [DC figures] fool you, too? Shame on me! First of all, my kids are fascinated by SUPERHEROES, constantly asking me to tie on Superman-style capes. (So what if the capes I fashion look like muu-muus?)

Not only that but DC politics today looks astonishingly like the DC universe. I'll leave it to you to decide who's Lex Luthor.

I'd send a bat-signal into the sky, but with our luck, Ben Affleck would show up.

Finally, this [DC …] clue has outsmarted many times. It got me when it first showed up, and I've fallen for it every time since. Clearly, I'm Gorilla Grodd.

Strong construction, with a center chock-full of sizzlers — although, a slight ding for over-fanboying, SUPERHEROES and LAND SPEEDER making it nerd heaven. I enjoyed the diversity of answers otherwise, DESERT BLOOM and LITTLE ITALY, both phrases evoking colorful images.

I appreciated Daniel's use of his peripheral long slots, too. ZAMBONIS as innocent [Ice machines] earns a round of applause … although I'd seen this exact clue before as well.

The only entries that didn't quite hit for me: FAR NORTH and ANEROID. The former was last used back in 1974, and even our resident Canadian, Jim Horne side-eyed it. That's coming from a Canuck who grew up in the hinterlands! Jim did enjoy ANEROID more than me because he remembered the term from physics classes. Whereas, this mechanical engineer — with a master's degree, no less — grumbled that red-blooded ‘Muricans shouldn't be forced to know this kind of thing. (Read: sour grapes.)

This puzzle had the gridwork of a POW! contender, so why didn't it get any consideration? It took me a long time to figure out that the cluing let it down — glad that Daniel recognizes that this is an area for improvement. While he did include some delights, I'd seen those exact clues before, and so much of the rest was on the dry side.

Daniel has clearly put huge time and effort into developing his gridding skills, and if he can do the same with his cluing, David Steinberg (the current POW! leader) better watch out.

Sat 5/9/2020
TESTAMENTSNAGS
INTERALIAHOLLER
TREETRUNKOBLATE
LANDDJEDLAMPS
EGOTREATISEPIC
ESTEESHAHDIEU
ONITELEGANCE
IMPOSSIBLEBURGER
COALESCEDART
ERRSUTESNUHUH
PETBEARHUGSNEZ
OTTERCARLRILE
PHILIPMINIBUSES
SAMIAMINAMOMENT
NEARSDEEPSIXES

Yet another Agard-assisted debut! Erik is chasing me in the co-constructions count. Thank goodness that he got a prestigious and time-consuming job as the editor of the USA Today crossword while I sit in my tiny office, doing … things. Important things!

Keeping one's toenails clean is an essential part of personal hygiene.

Some delightful debut entries, the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER tasting surprisingly like meat. I wouldn't call it "impossible" quite yet, but "improbable"? Sure. Also improbable is the fact that I'd pay the extra five bucks at my local burger joint to sub it in.

I loved BEERAMID, too. I figured out that -AMID ending and realized it had to some sort of pyramid. Not many portmanteaus delight me, but this one did.

I wasn't as hot on GLAMPING. It's not as eye-roll-inducing as other portmanteaus like SCREENAGER, but my eyeballs did twitch upward. The combo is … glamor + camping? It's not a word I'd use, not without embarrassment, that is.

It's rare that I love a short debut entry — all too often, new constructors brag about how many debuts they incorporated. I politely point out that introducing a bunch of terrible partials and esoterica is to be avoided. (Read: I yell at them for being stupid. Politely, of course.) NUH-UH gets anything but a nuh-uh from me.

As with most Agard joints, I was too unhip to appreciate a few things. TAKE THE L stymied me when BEQ used it a few months ago, so I (sort of) remembered it today. SET PIECE as an [Action film staple]? I've always thought of this as a stage backdrop. Its first definition is a "self-contained passage of a film, arranged for elaborate effect." Huh!

But also with most AJs, such great clues. Imperfect as a TENSE, SHRINE repurposing "martyr complex" (think of "complex" as in "apartment complex"), "something old, something new" turned on its head for TESTAMENT, even STENOS elevated by playing on "dictator" as "one who dictates a memo." A ton of entertainment throughout.

ADDED NOTE: Erik mentioned that many of the fantastic clues were Miriam's. Well done, Miriam!

I'm hoping Erik still has time to help out newb constructors as his editorship eats up more and more of his focus. Great to see so many new faces added to the NYT mix in such entertaining debuts.

POW Sun 5/10/2020 BORDER CROSSINGS
INFOSPAMDONTHAAGEN
TOILTOREFREEAREOLA
CHADLIBYALEWDRAILON
HOTCOCOALAOSCAMBODIA
OAKYPOTCROESUS
ALCOVEFEELUNDTIS
GUATEMALABELIZEPEROT
AMCSUPERCUPBRAINY
REAPPEAFINDOESKIN
SNOOTBULGARIAGREECE
POBLANOBEMUSED
AUSTRIAGERMANYQUALM
INWARDSEARORKPREY
SMORESENGGUANOROB
HARTSBRAZILARGENTINA
ANDDEERELSELIDED
DIECASTKIATHAD
MYANMARCHINAWROTEOFF
YENFORIDLECHILEPERU
SOCUTENASAPOPEONUS
THENEADYADAMESDOGE

★ I've seen a ton of plays on UNITED NATIONS, so I groaned when I uncovered the first themer. It was interesting that AD LIB connected CHAD and LIBYA, but I wanted there to be something more. Ah well, what can you do? At least this was a novel approach to this tried and true theme type.

I continued my solve, my interest piqued by some of the long finds, TRIAGE between AUSTRIA and GERMANY is a great discovery. Since there are so many possible ways to pair up two countries in the same part of the world, long finds like this stand out much more than shorties like SCAM connecting LAOS and CAMBODIA.

It wasn't until well after I finished that I got a nagging feeling in the back of my head. Did I miss something? Even after reading Adam's note, it didn't quite register.

To say my geography knowledge is poor would be offending the word poor, so I looked up CHAD and LIBYA. Curiously, they're right next to each other.

LAOS and CAMBODIA too?

Wait just a second …

OMG.

Every pair of countries abuts!

I couldn't believe my eyes. I'd never have thought to try something like this because it seems impossible that there would be any longish words formed. To get something like TRIAGE between the bordering nations of AUSTRIA and GERMANY? That's brilliant!

Ah. The title. BORDER CROSSINGS. Double ah, Adam made it as clear he could in his note.

Little did Adam and Will Shortz count on my geographical idiocy.

Solid gridwork, too. I don't love seeing TED CRUZ in my Sunday puzzle, but it does give me a chance to talk up my buddy Craig Mazin's twitter, where he recounts fantastic tales of being TED CRUZ's college roommate.

There's not much else notable in the grid, but with a sprinkling of GOLD STRIKE, SWORD DANCE, EARTH DAY, HOT COCOA, and not much of the DAU (daughter?), ELOI, FRUG, OENO ilk (answer to Adam's question above: I say OENO), it's above average gridwork. I appreciate how well Adam spaced out his themers, wisely squeezing two together in rows 3/4 and 18/19.

This is a fantastic set of finds. I hope that solvers are more astute than me. What a shame if people put this puzzle aside before getting that OMG moment.

Mon 5/11/2020
APSEBLABTUT
BOOTYTAILBUNS
SERTAWIDEERIK
CHEEKSREAREND
OLASEZDRAFTED
NERFXESITSWAR
DRMOMSHOESOLE
BOTTOMROW
PSSRAYONNEIGH
OKTHENTIEASIA
MIRANDAABSANN
CABOOSEBEHIND
ALIIOKRAREDID
BUTTRUMPFANNY
CBSIPASLOGE

Thankfully, I have a lot of praise for this puzzle! Otherwise, I might have come across as a bum. Worse yet, an ass.

A few years ago, I had a fun conversation with Will Shortz about butts and lewdness. Back then, he could only allow the word ASS in the "boor" sense, the NYT frowning upon the "keister" meaning. It seemed like a strange stance, given Will's liberal use of "moon" clues for words like REAR and TROU.

This has eased over the years, giving Will the ability to run a puzzle like today's, which forms BOTTOM ROWs composed of no ifs or ands, but a whole lotta BUTTS. I've seen much BUTTplay in the crossworld — maybe that's not the best wording — but nothing quite like this. I'm impressed by the sheer quantity of theme words defined in non-patoot ways.

I would have liked a different revealer, though. BOTTOM ROW does define the concept perfectly for crossworld insiders, since we all talk in rows and columns. I'm not sure that applies to the general solver, though. BOTTOM LINE seems like a more familiar, more accessible term.

Placing the BOTTOM revealer in the middle felt odd, too. Why not at its natural position ... toward the bottom of the puzzle? I can imagine using BOTTOM LINE in the same row as FANNY, to form a final "bottom line."

What, you say that that wouldn't technically be a line of only bottoms, since it would contain the word "line"? Sheesh, why do you have to be so anal?

As much as the juvenile in me likes seeing the multitude of butts, something less audacious would have been better. BOTTOM ROW in the middle causes all sorts of gridding problems, especially when you need four extra rows of themers. Newbs encountering APSE ETTE OLA right off the bat might not stick around to get the beautiful SKI CLUB, HAND DYE, TANDOORI, as well as Amy POEHLER's "Parks and Recreation" COVID-19 reunion.

That's it for me; I'll take a seat now. By the back door, of course.

Tue 5/12/2020
RAFTSUNITSISI
ORIONNANOETON
MARBLECAKENABS
ARMYMACHOLST
NAETOPPRIORITY
STRAWURNAOL
CORTANAINRE
THISISNOTATOY
COEDFANFEST
ETASLRHYPES
RATTLESNAKEHUH
ELWAYSRIMORE
ALASYOYODIETER
LIVEINNSSMOKY
SEEDPACEPENAL

I love the potential of this puzzle. Can't you see some poor kid, clapping his hands and jumping up and down as his dad gets home from work, saying, "Jake, I got you something! It's so much fun; you're going to love this MARBLE … rye!"

Disclaimer: I've never done that before.

Disclaimer to the disclaimer: it was a marble statue of me laughing at his despondent reaction.

SOB STORY, indeed.

Instead of technical analysis — the gridwork on a C.C. product is always strong, with little glue and some strong bonuses — I spent the time dreaming up ways to torture my kids.

Did I say torture? I meant tease, of course!

In a torturous sort of way.

Hey Tess! I brought you a …

  • RATTLE … SNAKE! Bwa ha ha!
  • TOP … sirloin! Tee hee hee!
  • PET … peeve! Cackle cackle!
  • BALL … gown! Ha ha ha … wait, what?

Now I have to buy my princess-obsessed daughter a matching tiara. Thanks a lot, C.C. and Tom.

More importantly, thanks a lot for the much-needed source of humor as I attempt to stave off insanity in this, my eighth week of self-isolation. Serenity now.

POW Wed 5/13/2020
BLUTHIMSETWOW
ALPHANITROIPA
SAFEPASSAGENED
KNOBDISCJEAN
SORORITYCHAPTER
MENUAAMILNE
ADUBAATLCIDE
LINMACBOOKFED
OGLESOSAVERY
ONAGAINAONE
FIBONACCISERIES
TESTEARLDRAW
HALHORSDOEUVRE
IREENTERGRIND
SYDMOSSYSENSE

★ You would think that a writer who locks himself in his writing cave day after day, pounding out words that are mostly crap but maybe just maybe a few of them are halfway decent and if he's lucky he'll one day have an OEUVRE of works that generations use as doorstops and/or toilet paper, would figure out this theme right away.

Of course! It's the story about a burglary in a SORORITY house, the job pulled off by a Scot named MAC, using knowledge of FIBONACCI numbers to crack the SAFE's code. Oh, and don't forget the HORSE that he uses in the complex scam.

HORSE D'OEURVE might just be the worst menu typo ever.

While I jest about the heist, the five minutes I strained, trying to figure out the theme, was no joke. There's an eternal debate, whether crossword constructors should bash their solvers over the head with a revealer, or if allowing them to work out the concept on their own is better.

In the end, I greatly appreciated working out the novel (ha) progression, PASSAGE to CHAPTER to BOOK to SERIES to OEUVRE. Tough to discover, though, and I wonder how many general solvers will toss the puzzle aside without ever understanding the clever concept.

The clue for EGS didn't help, either. I fixated on that, sure that it must be a revealer — especially since one of those e.g.s was in a clue for the last theme answer. Come on!

I finished with an error, with OPENENDED / AVEDY. Given its clue, I couldn't imagine that OPENENDED could be anything but that, and if Aveda and Aveeno are brand names, why not Avedy? Although the clue [Question whose answer can go almost anywhere] is both clever and accurate, solvers would be better served by something like [Broad question, slangily].

There's this tale about a fox and this bunch of grapes …

A revision would have been nice, to eliminate HAP and CIDE, as well as TOEJAM with its unnecessarily graphic cluing. And that crazy EGS, of course.

Overall, though, the writer in me loved the subtly-presented progression, and that trumps all. While I had enough reservations about the warts in execution to pause a long moment before giving it the POW!, the concept was something I'd never seen before. That's a rare occurrence, indeed.

Thu 5/14/2020
SPATYEAHPULPS
POREAGRAIHEAR
FIFTYPOINTBONUS
ROSSNOBHILL
ALTARCARNAY
NURSERYRHYME
DNATOYARMS
GLUTENFCEREAL
SAGEDASNIL
GAMEOFCHANCE
SRIELMOSAKA
TONGANSALAS
ABSOLUTELYRIGHT
GOTUPOKIESTAB
STATSNETSTOSS

Today's puzzle is a curious mix of "disparate definitions of a single word," rebus, and grid art. Let's look at them individually.

Disparate definition themes often flop because the grid entries sound like dry dictionary definitions. Phrases like GAME IN A HALL and DOG IN A NURSERY RHYME? Yuck! I appreciated that Michael steadfastly held to in-the-language themers. ABSOLUTELY RIGHT that NURSERY RHYME is a much better entry than DOG IN A NURSERY RHYME!

Also nice: the four definitions are so different from each other — term from Scrabble, dog from a song, the Bingo hall game, and an exclamation. I've thought about many words that could lend themselves to "disparate definitions" themes, but Bingo never crossed my mind. Surprising that there are four different ways to get at it.

Putting the word "Bingo" in the clues, though, gave away the game right from the get-go. Hiding the theme until the end, with BINGO as the last across answer, could have generated a solid a-ha moment.

Although, if you had already figured out the FREE rebus, you would have already known what's going on.

Hmm.

Rebuses with only one instance aren't common, and they can be hit or miss. The question is always, is it worth the potential solver confusion? Today, I was plus/minus on it. Yes, it did hint at a Bingo card, but only one of the four themers was about the game of Bingo.

It's also strange to work FREE into such a long piece of fill, GLUTEN FREE CEREAL. I love that entry, but I spent some time wondering how this, the longest phrase in the puzzle, was related to Bingo. Something like MR (FREE)ZE is equally fun, and it wouldn't muddy up the thematic waters. Even better, it would make grid construction easier.

Finally, the grid art aspect. I loved the visual of a Sunday Bingo puzzle from more than a decade ago, because it went whole hog. You want Bingo? You got the B I N G O, along with a whole bunch of numbers and a FREE space!

Interesting mix of thematic elements today. Not completely successful, but I liked the attempt to create something fresh.

Fri 5/15/2020
LAICALCRIMES
IMNOTOKUNPACK
LASTSTEPTAUTLY
KNEESPARETHAN
IDABATNEXTLIE
MAMIEITSEBERT
MEANSTREETS
BURNTORANGE
FASHIONISTA
JUNTAUFCSTAMP
INKTACITLYREI
THORCHRISJINX
TONIEREVACUATE
EMIGREETHANOL
RETAGSSONARS

Beautiful triplet in MEAN STREETS, BURNT ORANGE, FASHIONISTA, all entries I'd strive to use as themeless seeds. Combining them so smoothly, that's a work of art. Speaking of art, Jim Horne and I still have our entertaining weekly COVID-19 check-in calls, and I appreciated learning from him that BURNT ORANGE is not just a team color for UT, but also that "burnt" hues are important in the world of fine arts.

I don't watch college football, but I would totally tune in for man-to-man painting.

PANTS ON FIRE is already a fantastic marquee answer, but that clue! Pure genius to use such an evocative phrase for one's lowest truthiness rating. Chris is right about RESTRICTIVE, but you're doing something right when five out of six featured entries sing.

As a solver, I appreciate grid flow. "Stair stack" themelesses often segment their corners off, causing bottlenecks. I like how you can work your way into each corner through multiple routes today, cutting down the possibility that you'll get stuck.

This does create construction difficulty, though. It's much easier to maximize a corner's color and cleanliness when it's isolatable. Take the NW, for example. LAICAL isn't a great way to start a puzzle. I also hitched at IM NOT OK, an entry somewhere between okay and not okay. It'd be much easier to use those two slots more snazzily if the corner didn't have to flow downward into the IE of MAMIE. That restriction might seem minor, since there are a lot of five-letter words that end in IE, but the reduction of flexibility is huge.

Similar results in the SE. I did enjoy the J and X of JINX, but EVACUATE, ETHANOL, plural SONARS, that's not going to raise many pulses.

A constructor's job is rarely easy. Chris could have closed off those corners to get more juice, but someone would have complained about grid flow. I like the way he balanced those factors, giving us a fine level of both smoothness and snazz.

Sat 5/16/2020
CRAZYBUSYABCS
AERIALVIEWTEAT
MAINCOURSETATE
ODDHALETRANCE
ETTACRUCIAL
BRAVESGOATHERD
LUREDTANGSBRO
IMANBYTESBAIO
NOBTAPESWEBER
DRIBBLESSATYRS
SHALALARAKE
PANERANOVARPM
OSSADRAGONFIRE
TIERSUPERDUPER
STAYBATSANEYE

We originally had GOAT YOGA in the GOATHERD slot. Will Shortz balked, wondering if it was well-known enough, and if it has staying power. It was probably the right call, although if you're looking for staying power, maybe a couple of baby goats on your plank is the answer. Hard not to squee at that.

Ever since Michael Bennett's introduction in which he declared his true allegiance, I've wanted to get WAKANDA into the crossworld.

It was a pleasure helping Tracy achieve her goal of "hitting for the cycle." She's hard-working, responsive, and a great listener.

Sun 5/17/2020 WIDE-OPEN SPACES
ATPARANCHOVYSPEEDO
RHINOAPARICIOPLANER
KENTCIGARETTESLASTED
AVESSERRATEDFUNTIME
NATWENTATITBARTERER
SUREBETTINCONGOREDS
ALEXAKINGHUSSEIN
STETSTOVETOPSSLATED
RECIPEHOPESSUAVE
SEASONSDETESTSSHIN
OURLORDSAPIDPISTOLS
USNANEBULAENATURES
THIRDRESINIGUANA
SIEGELUSAINBOLTLIZA
ECURRENCIESBIDEN
ZEPPOMARXBETBELAIRS
AQUILINECULTHEROTOW
MUZZLEDHOTSEATSMAZE
FIZZERHUNTERGATHERER
INLATEARGONGASSNORE
REESESPLANSONTUDOR

I get a lot of questions from crossword constructors about various NYT crossword records, and boy, do we have data! Today's puzzle ties the record for fewest words in a Sunday 21x21. It's also one of the most "open," (how many white squares don't touch any black squares).

I'm not sure many non-crossword constructors care, though. What's much more important about a Sunday puzzle: how engaging it is, how much entertainment it brings, how possible it is to achieve a victorious finish. I'd be curious to poll solvers to figure out what percentage finished correctly, finished with errors, and gave up in frustration. (I fell into the middle camp.)

I did enjoy some of the long entries — HUNTER GATHERER, EXTRA LARGE PIZZAS, CULT HERO, USAIN BOLT, ZEPPO MARX. I was hoping for more than that, though, given all the long slots available. KENT CIGARETTES, PLANS ON, BELAIRS, ANSWERER / BARTERER, CONGO REDS, etc. felt like potential left on the table.

And the trade-offs. While the grid is incredibly wide-open, as advertised in the title, is that worth ANSWERER / BARTERER / FIZZER, ECURRENCIES ("cryptocurrencies" is much more interesting), toughies like DECOLLETE, LUMIERES, DALIAN crossing SAPID (one of my errors), gluies like BLO ERST ESO HAP STET etc.?

Byron is known for his wide-open grids, eschewing cheater squares (extra black squares that facilitate smoother fill, like the one before ANCHOVY), but several more would have been welcome today.

Sunday themelesses seem like a cop-out, an admission that you're not able to collect enough solid themes to fill your pipeline, but I don't mind one every now and again. If you're going to go that route, though, they ought to feel more doable for the wide solving population. Something less audacious, but more colorful and easier to solve, is a better target, given the wide range of Sunday solvers out there.

POW Mon 5/18/2020
BARDGASUSMAP
OHIOPROINHALE
BOOTCAMPDIALER
SYSCOHATTRICK
OWENMASK
THIMBLERIGOSLO
OEROMNISNIPED
GAUDYANNOLIVE
ATLASTGUACEEO
SHEDIRONMAIDEN
SWAYSYNC
DOGTIREDDELVE
AURORAMONOPOLY
TRIBESVWSOBOE
ESTESSEAPEGS

Brash Jeff: I can Guess That Theme in two entries.

BOOT CAMP …

HAT TRICK … Things you can wear!

Bzzt!

THIMBLE RIG … Things you can wear!

Ahem. You already guessed that. Bzzzzt!

IRON MAIDEN … Things you can wear!

Bzzzzzzt!

Well, technically you could wear an IRON MAIDEN. It wouldn't be comfortable, but you could—

Bzzt bzzt bzzt!!!

I love getting bamboozled by a Monday theme. Hitting the revealer—MONOPOLY tokens—I slapped my forehead. I should have gotten it. At least, I should have stopped guessing "Things you can wear."

The BOOT, HAT, THIMBLE, IRON, DOG, aren't a complete set, but it'd be impossible to include all the kooky items they've used over the years. A penguin? T. rex? Don't even get me started on the Pokemon collector's set. I choose you, Pikachu!

What's most important is that the theme set screams MONOPOLY, and this does just that. I'd never heard of THIMBLE RIG, but the THIMBLE is one of the iconic tokens. (The one I always got stuck with. Seriously, a THIMBLE?)

Maybe I'd have used WHEELBARROW RACE in there instead, paired with IRON SUPPLEMENTS. My brother always got infuriated when we landed on the same spot, and I invoked the wheelbarrow carry rule. Your token goes onto mine, and then you have to pay rider's fees, doubling with each step.

What, you never played Calvinopoly?

Stellar gridwork, as I've come to expect from Christina. She did everything right—squeezing BOOT CAMP and HAT TRICK together for smart overall themer spacing, wisely alternating her long down slots (DADS TO BE not interacting much with COWBOYS), choosing great bonuses (SHARK OIL and NO CAN DO!), and all the while, minimizing her crossword glue.

Making a crossword isn't rocket science, yet forcing yourself to work with only common short words and names is something that few constructors adhere to. The great majority give in and say "good enough" way too quickly. Not Christina, always putting in the serious time and hard work required.

Exemplary Monday offering. I'll be pointing newbs to this one, and that's the highest Monday compliment I can give.

Tue 5/19/2020
ACHOOTCBYBESS
TRACEAREAEXIT
WITHRELISHAPSO
AMESALSOIMEAN
REWCRYPTICALLY
ATENUB
ALTARSPUROPEN
LACKADAISICALLY
ASHEEDGEAROSE
TSADDT
OFFHANDEDLYHAS
ALLEYERIELOFT
SOARMERCIFULLY
TARATROTONEAL
STEPVERABASTE

Trent brings up a good point — let's talk about what makes for strong early-week short fill. Just like a great editor, the short fill should be unnoticeable, otherwise it's not doing its job. Although I score many words at 50 — my "it's generally fine" level — I err on the side of liberty. I don't downgrade an entry unless the word is definitely going to be dinged by most editors.

Constructors have to be more careful, though, when it comes to early-week puzzles, where you run the risk of turning off newer solvers. Any one of the following words would likely be fine on its own, but as a whole, this set could easily make a newb walk away:

  • BESOT
  • SISAL
  • CADY
  • DICTA
  • OASTS

INRI is definitely to be avoided, since if you're not Christian, it's impossible to figure this out. (And I'd be curious to know what percentage of Christians know it.) A FLAT, on the other hand, may seem arbitrary, but it's easy to fill in. It's a fine entry.

On to the theme. Ah, Tom (Swifty), so often employed throughout the history of crosswords. Tom is always so helpful when I get lazy in my writing and need an easy way out.

"Why labor to provide evocative descriptions when you can simply use an -ly word?" Jeff said authoritatively.

Mic drop.

Wed 5/20/2020
DONORNABSDICED
AGAMEARIAUVULA
BRIEFESTBRIEFEST
SELLJAYBIRDSEA
EWEKAY
MUSTACHEMUSTACHE
ANASTEVENEMAIL
RIMSMARTSCTV
STOATINCITEHOE
HEATHENSHEATHENS
EELBAY
BATASUSUALBRAS
FLAGRANTFLAGRANT
FORUMTAOSPINTA
STONYORSOADDIN

BRIEFEST BRIE FEST, what an evocative phrase — at least to this lactose-intolerant imagineer. Oh yes, thank you, I'll take a chunk of that BRIE … uh oh … (groan) ... gotta run!

Doesn't stop me from eating cheese, sadly enough for the members of my quarantine household.

I enjoyed the non-duplicative duplications. Such fantastic consistency in the pattern: every one starts with an eight-letter word, then follows with that word broken into four and four. Perfect!

Two of them worked great: BRIEFEST BRIE FEST and FLAGRANT FLAG RANT. Took me a while to figure out why the others fell flat. While HEATHENS HEAT HENS amused me, in a headline sort of manner, that style didn't mesh with the two winners.

And MUSTACHE MUST ACHE? It's a neat discovery. It's not a neat phrase to say. Reminds me of the ecstatic pain that comes with compulsively plucking my facial hair (much to Jill's chagrin).

What other themers would be possible? Ooh, an algorithmic problem to solve! It's easy to generate a list of eight-letter entries that can split 4/4 into two valid words. There would be a ton of false positives, though, since you'll also catch multi-word entries like LESS THAN, FOUR LEAF, HALF MOON, etc.

I do keep a separate list of entries with spaces intact, so I formulated a way of exploring that search space while simultaneously cross-checking—

Huh? Right, you stopped listening three paragraphs ago.

(My favorite find was PLUMPEST PLUM PEST.)

Fun concept, and great gridwork to match—Natan, Andy, and the JASA class did a fantastic job keeping out gluey bits while maximizing their mid-length slots with snazzy JAYBIRD, DUE DATE, THE ARMY, AS USUAL. Such strategic black square placement to separate themers, and excellent execution in the tough west and east sections, where many constructors typically falter in a layout like this.

If all four themers had followed that fun (adjective) + (adjective) + (noun) pattern, I'd have given it POW! consideration. Slimming down to just three fantastic themers could have done it, too, especially since that would have allowed for even more goodies in the fill.

Thu 5/21/2020
AMPLEELIETAB
RARERCEDETHEE
GREENNOSERRENT
OCDSOLOSFINER
ATTHATARABIA
UPTOWHITELADY
GROWTHOPEDS
HEROATAIDRIM
RODEOTYPEAB
BLUEHEARTEDNA
RONDOSIRONIC
ASSETROONEROE
ISEEYELLOWBOWL
SEAMEDELLASIK
ESTTOSSYESES

When Tracy Gray and I did ours, I got so many emails from confused solvers. "There's a serious error. It's the PINK PANTHER SHOW, not the WHITE PANTHER SHOW. Also, I didn't know the song RED CADILLAC, so the puzzle was stupid. You're stupid, too."

Those were the kind ones.

Even knowing exactly what was going on today, I got stuck like a duck in the lower right corner. Although I'm an NFL fan, I don't pay attention to college football, so it took me every cross to figure out YELLOW BOWL.

And then I stared.

And stared.

And stared.

RED and YELLOW make … brown? Does Brown University have an annual rival game?

… purple? For all the bruises football players amass?

… gray? Surely that's the Army game?

Ha ha ha, I'm not that green of a sports fan! Of course it's the Orange Bowl! (At least according to Wikipedia. Except that now, some wikitroll is going to change the entry to the Purple Bowl.)

Will usually frowns heavily on puzzles where the circled letters are exactly the same. Once you figure out the first two sets, you can simply fill in the rest. Boooring! Today is a big exception, though, since without the REDs being circled, it'd be so confusing that it wouldn't just be colors that were bleeding, Andrew and Will's ears leaking blood from all the vitriol.

The revealer didn't make sense to me at first since it's not a RED CROSS as much as a red mixing that causes the color shift. I eventually got that RED CROSS more simply referred to the word RED mixing things up in the CROSSing, but it didn't generate a sharp a-ha moment.

I enjoyed the solve, as well as seeing another constructor's take on the concept. I especially liked feeling outrage that all circles absolutely may not contain repeated letter strings, then the subsequent sheepishness of realizing that it was for an important reason.

Fri 5/22/2020
FOLKWISDOMSPAS
EVILEMPIRETAUT
WIDESPREADETNA
DOEATLIBERTY
NOSYECOLI
YAKETYSAXPEAT
ELIXIRRAHDRUG
TICSITEMAPCPA
ICKYAUGRODHAM
EBAYROSEROYCE
OCEANOMEN
TAXHAVENSASP
OMITIDEOLOGUES
MINIATMOSPHERE
EDGENOONDAYSUN

YETI YACHTIE … there has to be some sort of a crossword theme there!

I enjoyed kicking things off with FOLK WISDOM. There's something so … folksy about that phrase.

And I call myself a writer.

I also appreciated encountering couple of rare letters today, the Xs of YAKETY SAX, KICKBOXING, KLEENEX, and TAX HAVENS delightful. I know I shouldn't be as amused by the "Benny Hill" theme song now that I'm 48 (going on 13), but what can you do.

YACHTIE was mysterious to this non-boater who grumbles every time any of the 62 bridges in Seattle goes up and I have to wait for Benny Hill to make his zany way through in his luxury liner. Surprisingly, YETI was an enigma, too. Why is YETI an appropriate name for a cooler, asked the perpetual overthinker? Is the YETI known for his layers of insulation? Are the coolers in question fuzzy and white?

I knew I had to stop, YET I persisted.

Two standout clues made me smile:

  • These days, [Losing effort] is defined as "attempting to stop the kids from driving me crazy." Clever way to get at a DIET.
  • [Calculating sort, in brief] is clearly Tess or Jake doing the mental arithmetic to determine the threshold of how bizarrely they can act without making me cry. And then roaring past it. Future CPAs, indeed.

There weren't as many colorful long answers as I want out of themeless—entries like ATMOSPHERE and NOONDAY SUN and TURNED TO feel like space-fillers rather than assets—and not knowing ROSE ROYCE didn't help. Then, toss in some ARE SO OPA RAH SEN within a 72-word construction …

Overall though, there were a couple of strong entries and great clues to distract me from the Groundhog Day that is quarantine, and I'll gladly take what I can get!

Sat 5/23/2020
ACCRAKALESALAD
SALONAMERICANO
TROUTROGERTHAT
ITSNOTARACE
EDNALTDAPR
ASSMILLOBOE
DUHMADEITWEIRD
DIADELOSMUERTOS
STVALENTINESUE
TUESTETETSA
OPSORGUSSR
CHECKPLEASE
HEADTOTOEAGNES
UPLOADINGPUGET
MATHLETESSEEME

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS! Great feature entry. There's so much lore, artwork, and festivities around the Day of the Dead. When I was young, I was fascinated by my (Buddhist) dad leaving food offerings at the altar for our ancestors, lighting incense candles, rolling odd-shaped dice that would let us know when the ancestors had finished appreciating the delicacies. As compelling as that was, the traditions around DIA DE LOS MUERTOS are a hundredfold greater.

I've enjoyed Wyna's themelesses, previous ones featuring fantastic entries like DARN TOOTIN, WHO WORE IT BETTER, and CRAZY RICH ASIANS. This one was right in line, with sizzlers like ROGER THAT, CHECK PLEASE, CLOSE SHAVES. A lot to love!

There were some that were A BIT STRANGE, though, as with previous puzzles. I score roughly -11.5 on the hipster scale, so A BIT STRANGE definitely MADE IT WEIRD. Are these things the kids say these days?

I also was on the fence about ITS NOT A RACE. [Reprimand to the overly speedy]? This is something police officers say? Or coaches who are playing mind games with their star athletes? Although, I have heard my daughter say something like "we're not racing" to Jake--just before she takes off, taunting him at the finish line, and making him cry.

Good times.

It's hard to tell who's responsible for the spate of awesome clues, Wyna, Erik, or the NYT editing team, so collective credit for:

  • [Auto correction] had me fixated on Microsoft's annoying autocorrections that I can't figure how to turn off. Boy, do I sound old. Nope, just an ordinary TUNE-UP.
  • [Red states, once] not only misdirects toward our country's political divisions, but I bet I wasn't the only one who put a terminal S into place. I enjoyed getting bamboozled.
  • We've seen a lot of MATHLETE(S) lately, but I'll welcome more instances if the clues are as great as [Figureheads?], as in people with heads for figures.

I bet this puzzle resonated better with the younger crowd—or people from Austin, who take pride in keeping things weird. Still, more than enough to make for an above-average Saturday solve.

Sun 5/24/2020 THE MYSTERY OF MCGUFFIN MANOR
ATTACKRACERSTAMEN
LEAGUEREVILESCIMINO
PATINAOVERLAPAKINTO
APTLYNAMEDCELEBRITIES
COLEFALANICEYORE
ATEBLINISINGENOS
WEARINGNAMETAGS
SWEEPEAUALSORROWS
GERARDGAGONREREAD
RAINSIMACUOFATESLA
AWNSUMFARTIM
BEGETHYMNFUNKSCENE
SEENASASIANAMANAS
DRYMOPSENVOSMONDS
APPLESWEATSHIRT
GTSAHEAPAMORETVS
OATHARUTSKORCHET
THEONETOTHEWESTOFHERE
HIPPOSONEVOTEAROUSE
ANOINTMITEREDTASSEL
MINNIEKARENSTEADY

Confused? Go read the notepad. I'll wait.

Still confused? Okay. Take a deep breath ...

  1. Re-read the notepad. Pay attention to the professions. Note that there's a cook, a driver, and a carpenter.
  2. APTLY NAMED CELEBRITY? Like TIM cook, MINNIE driver, and KAREN carpenter? A-ha! What a cool idea, setting up a mystery where it turns out the typical players were celebs!
  3. Who is GERARD Butler, you say? And TIKI Barber? I'm thankful for TIKIpedia. Er, Wikipedia.
  4. The APPLE SWEATSHIRT dropped at the scene of the crime? That belonged to TIM Cook, the CEO of Apple. He's quarantined into the east room, at 65-Across.
  5. His admission tells us that the diamond is hidden in the room to the west of where he is; the central room.
  6. MCGUFFIN can be seen in a diamond shape around the central black cross. (Start at 9 o'clock and read clockwise.) Therefore, the MCGUFFIN diamond has been located.

Whew!

I loved the idea behind this, but the execution had several issues:

  • MCGUFFIN refers to a plot device that isn't important in itself. Seeing it as the end goal created a dissonance. Why not name the diamond something else, a random proper name that wouldn't confuse the issue?
  • There's too much in the notepad. How many solvers will TL;DR it? I'm guessing a lot, and without that information, the puzzle makes no sense.
  • TIM Cook is in the east room at 65-Across, yet he speaks at 102-Across? He's a ventriloquist?
  • It's not much of a mystery. What burglar drops his distinctive sweatshirt at the scene of the crime, then immediately admits guilt? Wait ... is this some sort of Apple publicity stunt? J'accuse, TIM!

Overall, I appreciated the audacity and the attempt to do something completely different. I might have loved it, if the notepad had been scrapped and a fuller, more engaging mystery had been presented in short-story format on a full page before the grid. It's a shame that Will Shortz can't do things like that often (he only gets single page for the crossword, and you'd have to substitute in another puzzle for syndication partners).

The Sunday NYT crossword would greatly benefit from grand new experiments, taking full advantage of the Sunday Magazine's color spreads. I'd love to see the NYT's top brass give Will more leeway in testing out mold-breaking, innovative puzzles that might just blow people's minds.

[ Here's the official mystery explanation from the NYT. ]

Mon 5/25/2020
STABBARSCASTE
ARIEICALALPHA
MIDNIGHTINPARIS
EMAILMEPOIIRE
GEOMUSTTDS
FINDMYIPHONE
EAREMTSLAZED
GIRLADMINMESA
GREENATOZRPM
LEONARDNIMOY
EYESICKENE
LAVELIAVERAGE
CHANGEDONESMIND
IONIAIRONADAY
DOTTYCENTNEWS

It blows my mind that BOGGLES THE MIND wasn't the revealer. That's okay, I don't mind.

Even though I've seen a lot of Jedi MIND tricks and anagramming themes over the years, I kept an open mind while solving. I enjoyed how elegantly the circled letters progressed, an orderly procession marching along the puzzle's diagonal. Neat!

Well, until I started thinking about it.

What, Jeff overthink something? You don't say.

What kind of twisted mind CHANGES ONES MIND in such a regimented fashion? If I were making this puzzle, I'd, of course, start with my usual DIMNess, then I'd follow with INDM falling off the grid because I think outside the box dammit, and continue with D M ___ I ___ N broken up after losing my mind.

However, as a diehard Trekker (not Trekkie—puh-lease!) I'd absolutely end with a MIND melded backward in LEONARD NIMOY. That's the sort of mind(bleep) I love experiencing. That's some Admiral-level meta-ness, that is.

So many Star Trek episodes featured the red shirt, that poor ensign you knew was going to bite it. Dude was going to wade right into the alien ILEDE ICAL swamp and then disintegrate.

It turns out everything we need to know about construction we can learn from Star Trek. The problem always came when Kirk told everyone to spread out in this giant, unknown area. When you try to explore swaths with EMAIL ME and BIG MOMMA stirring up alien quicksand … you better say oh hell no and beam your ass right back up.

There's an interesting nugget of a concept here, CHANGED ONES MIND having a lot of potential. I enjoyed the theme phrases Acme and Victor chose — FIND MY IPHONE is contemporary, and it seems to be a highly-used app — but the execution of theme and gridwork wasn't as mindful as a Monday puzzle ought to be.

Tue 5/26/2020
HANGSEDIEDIN
ADOUTMANXUTES
COLINFIRTHACCT
KRISARTHURLAKE
INTERNSAMENWA
TSAANDTEMPTED
ONIONEBAY
BODIESOFWATER
TRUETOILS
HATSIZERNABOY
ESCCONSONBASE
BILLYOCEANARCS
ALAIMICHAELBAY
RISEINTOLOIRE
ASSNOSYLOESS

Years ago, my (identical twin) brother and I saw "The Waterboy" with my sister-in-law. Alex and I cackled our heads off the entire way through, making Adam Sandler's crazy noise for days afterward. On the other hand, Kate attempted to travel back in time so she could personally see to it that the director, producer, and every key grip was never born.

I like the basic concept today, celebs with last names doubling as BODIES OF WATER. Kicking things off with FIRTH did make it difficult for me to figure out, considering WTF is a "firth"?

Ah. The dictionary defines it as …

(When you have to use that intro …)

Then came ARTHUR LAKE. Talk about fishing for a themer!

A few weeks ago, Matt Gaffney, a top crossword maker, commented that central revealers felt odd, since he grew up on the traditional principle of always putting revealers at the end — that's Always, with a capital A. The theory is that if you put it anywhere but the end, you spoil the a-ha moment way too soon. I don't 100% agree with that, but I do think that if you reveal a theme halfway through, the a-ha moment has to have a delightful click. Otherwise, what's the point of finishing the puzzle?

BODIES OF WATER? It works, but it's not the most fun revealer I've ever encountered. More a dictionary definition than artful wordplay.

ADDED NOTE: I completely missed Neville's double-duty use of BODIES until I read his note. That does buoy the revealer.

Would WATERBOYS have been better? Maybe. It's not precise since these celebs aren't ten years old, but WATERBOYS could be clued "what these celebs were when they were young." It would have felt tighter, too, acknowledging that all the featured celebs are dudes.

Just like Alex vs. Kate re: "The Waterboy," I wonder if this puzzle will be polarizing. There is a BARBIE running for President in the puzzle, but she hardly represents feminism. It'd have been nice to change the scope, adopting a different approach to use a more interesting set, perhaps with folks like RUSSELL WESTBROOK / MINNIE DRIVER? Or give RICKI LAKE her due, orienting all themers vertically to pair her with WATER DOWN? Would have been fun to brainstorm.

Wed 5/27/2020
ROZIMPARTMOP
OLEOLAALAAINS
FISHCOMPLIMENTS
LOTSABAILMEAT
THROWNALOOP
ACTONETAJ
QUIPPEARMIATA
URLFORGONEVEX
ILLBEREBAFINE
OLANTESTS
CANTSAYSURE
JOSESNOWOBESE
OHCRYINGOUTLOUD
SAOUSUALSENID
TNTMISSESSTY

Several weeks ago, Chris contacted me, wanting advice on getting through a dry spell. I tried to help, combing through some of his rejections, assessing the situation.

The rejections were merited; problems with themes or grid work, or both. However, one concept had an interesting seed, so I suggested a complete overhaul, using a different approach.

Several weeks, dozens of emails, and a lot of revisions later, we stumbled across the finish line with a solid product I'm reasonably sure someone will take. Chris learned some things, and so did I. Hopefully his acceptance rate will go up from here. A few general takeaways that might help other constructors achieve more acceptances, too:

  • Don't use a giant word list as your main list. Chris said he's using a vast body of 400K+ entries — that's a red flag. There are only so many entries that you'd ever want to employ, and in the 400K range, you're wading through a ton of junk, which makes it seem like a lot of stuff is comparatively fine. Hey, at least this gloop isn't as bad as this ooze!
  • Go way out of your way to avoid a weird entry like plural YOGAS or NTESTS. There's almost always a way to avoid them.
  • These days, you can't start a puzzle with OLEO crossing OLIO. Chris told me he thought it was a funny joke, but I don't know how many non-insiders will take it that way. And ILO right next door? Can't do that.
  • Constructors care about pangrams more than solvers. They usually come with compromises in overall quality.

Editors have limited time, so make sure they see you as a person whose products won't require much revision, if any at all.

The theme is reasonable — FORGONE meaning "phrases removing FOR for kooky results" — and I got a big laugh out of FISH COMPLIMENTS. I did wish that the other themers had been as strong, and since there are dozens of other FOR phrases out there, other winners felt within reach. If there wasn't a matching 15, FISH COMPLIMENTS could have gone in the middle row, with FORGONE at the end. That also would have delayed the a-ha, which would have been nice.

Thu 5/28/2020
RSVPGOBSVELTE
ATEALIVEMINION
NETSALESASNEAT
GETSMARTFRIENDS
EDEMAOMG
USEDUPOFTEN
AMESRAHSTROBE
DOCTORWHOCHEERS
OTHERSUVAESOS
SHORTSHONDA
HSIETHOS
THESOPRANOSLOST
HALIDEBADKARMA
AMAZONCLASSDAY
IMNEXTSAYTENS

Tracy's back in the NYT! She's editing the Inkubator puzzle, publishing some neat themes with interesting fill. I've been enjoying those.

I don't watch much network TV, but even this pop culture idiot recognized the six shows Tracy mashed up. I appreciated that she kept things consistent, always jamming a two-word show into a one-worder.

I wasn't sure what fueled these combinations, though. With a huge universe of shows to choose from, why DOCTOR WHO plus CHEERS, for example? Maybe BREAKING BAD BONES is too macabre and FULL HOUSE GLEE is too soon for this quarantine era, but the possibilities seem endless. Tightening up the theme would have been nice.

A revealer would have helped, too. I think most people will figure out that these are plays on TV shows, but how about something like MASHUPS to provide a lift?

Hey, wait a second ... M*A*S*H is a one-word TV title. How meta!

With just three themers, I expect a ton of goodies and virtually no crossword glue. I loved VISIGOTH, FREE AT LAST, BAD KARMA, ORTHODOX — PASS MUSTER is spot on.

Not as hot on the shorter material. It's not unfair to cross EBRO with ESOS on a Thursday, but it's still not ideal. Pepper in some ENNE, HSI, OVO, RAH, EDEMA, AS NEAT (sounds partialish), and it's not as polished as a three-themer ought to be.

Crosswords have mashed up many things—candy bars, movie titles, countries, and more. Sure, why not TV shows? It would have been nice, though, to have more of a raison d'etre. Some extra layer — a snappy revealer, an extra layer like a common actor linking the pairs of shows, etc. — could have helped tremendously.

Fri 5/29/2020
TRENDSBARCHART
RUPIAHATELUNCH
ENIGMATHEODICY
ESCHEWGELTMOM
TAFTSVIESALE
OLAYWORLDATLAS
PAINPILLONA
PLIANTMUNICH
GNCCYBERLAW
ATTHEHEARTMOTH
TROTRNARASTA
BOTSCANDESERT
APEHOUSEUPTOIT
THRILLERCLENCH
SYMMETRYTYREKE

THEODICY looks so much like "the idiocy." I think Sam is making subtle commentary about religion, but I'm too much of an idiot to figure out what.

Three fantastic marquee answers, NIGHTY NIGHT, STAIRMASTER, and WORLD ATLAS firing on all cylinders. Not only are these fantastic phrases in their own right, but each is screaming to take a clever clue. The first has all sorts of potential around "retirement," the second was clued just as sneakily a few weeks ago, and WORLD ATLAS has plenty of plays on "country" available. Yes, yes, and yes!

AT THE HEART … not so much. The knock on it is that it wants so desperately to be completed by "of," so you have to include that in the clue. Makes it edge toward partial-land.

Sam debuted a few entries today, but that's not always a good thing. NIGHTY NIGHT, absolutely. TYREKE Evans? I've had on my fantasy team many times, so I know his name. I don't think it's fair to expect non-NBA data crunchers to know him, though.

Along with AT THE HEART, there's RUNS A LAP. I thought about it for a while, deciding not to ding it. It's not as strong to my ear as RUNS LAPS or TAKES A LAP; however, it'll do in a pinch.

CYBERLAW is a thing, but I doubt I'd ever drop the word in conversation, especially not with my neighbors who work at Twitter and Slack. I already had this happen:

"SLAC! Neat, you work at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center?"

"Uh …" (eye roll emoji tweeted)

I enjoyed many clues, some of which could use some explanation:

  • "U and I" have SYMMETRY in common? Yes, mirror SYMMETRY, my favorite type!
  • CANNERY is a "bean plant" … d'oh! Not a bean plant plant, but a bean canning plant.
  • [Flat part of a flat] had me thinking about musical flats. Then residential apartments. Finally, the SHOE (a flat is a type of shoe) dropped. Hopefully, the cleverness here didn't fall flat with you.

A lot to love in this solve. Some beautiful feature entries, excellent supporting cast, and nothing that stuck out too much. A couple of wrinkles ironed out (THYMES plural, I see you) and it would have gotten some POW! consideration.

POW Sat 5/30/2020
SHAVINGKITBANC
LETITSLIDEALIA
ONRETAINERMANN
WIISTAMPNET
SEATUSESEDATE
AGRAPUREE
SPRINGCHICKEN
SPREADTOOTHIN
CHOOCHOOTRAIN
HANOITASE
EGGMANMOSSPIT
ARENOWINECO
PUMPLASTSUPPER
IGORACTIONITEM
ESPYNOSETONOSE

★ I love it when a puzzle makes me feel smart. Whizzing through this bad boy 66-worder made me a SPRING CHICKEN once again. There was so much variety, something for everyone, yet so much of it struck a chord with me. It's like when Cliff Clavin went on Jeopardy!

As a father of two little kids, I loved CHOO CHOO TRAINS and its devious clue — there's a lot of milk being chugged at my house.

SPREAD TOO THIN? Me? During the pandemic, trying to manage kids, work, projects, sanity? You don't say.

Oil and a brush? Yes, it's a SHAVING KIT (gotta keep the blades brushed off and oiled) with great wordplay misdirection toward the arts, but it also hits the mark as I attempt to cut my son's hair as he jiggles continuously. Now, that's an art.

I've played "Rhapsody in Blue" dozens of times in orchestras, so GLISSANDO gave me a big pick-me-up. Ah, the good old days (when I used to be able to play well enough that neighbors didn't stick their fingers in their ears).

Who you callin' a CHEAPIE? Me, because on principle, I eat whatever my kids don't, no matter how much they've pre-chewed it? Okay, fine.

Even the things I didn't know didn't feel force-fed. "Maundy Thursday" was new to me, but it was easy enough to figure out LAST SUPPER. I'll happily learn something, as long as it doesn't get in the way of a successful solve.

And some great clues? STAMP as one "stuck in a corner"? Spicing up the otherwise boring NINETEEN via a novel clue, that all of its letters are Scrabble one-pointers? [Airdrops?] confused me even after solving MISTS, but what a delight to finally understand it. "Air drops," indeed.

Such great craftsmanship, too, nothing I gave the stink-eye (maybe BANC, but as a finance guy I think it's generally fine). That's a tough ask out of a 70-worder, and a 66-worder is a much, much tougher construction.

A pure delight from start to finish. Brian, I choo-choo-choose you!

Sun 5/31/2020 WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN
ETCSPECKICEDSHUI
GOESHELLOMILECENT
GELTENIACPAILCELLO
TIARASSHOOTIEONEON
MOBRARIESJUVENQUENCY
ITALYOPSSNOEURAKA
NOTISNAILDADAIST
TEENPOPZEALITPEOPLE
GILLENDORSECLUES
ATEETASAZTECREMAP
MEDICINTSCOMMETARY
OPINEROPESSUEDSYS
NECCOSABRINAHAIL
GETAFLATONITANTEDUP
SPYFILMTOMMYGENE
FARASASENNAMMATTE
INOPPORTUNTELABORAIL
NOBLELIEAHEMDAMMIT
ARBORHERDRELAYONLY
LAIDAMIEANGLEREED
EKESTSPSSTAIDDDS

I enjoy having a crunchy problem to wrap my brain around. This one wasn't as hard as others — it's a simple matter to search for palindromic letter patterns buried within phrases — but it was still a fun diversion. I doubted we were going to find anything of interest, and I didn't think the strings would be long enough to be worthwhile discoveries, but I was pleasantly surprised.

As usual, shows what I know!

We even had the option of using only long(ish) strings that happened to be words in their own right (like PLAN and OMEN). We debated the merits of that approach, but eventually decided to pick the longest strings that were buried within the most colorful base phrases.

The grid was a bear, as crossing pairs of theme entries are notoriously difficult to grid around. Some of the palindromic strings weren't friendly, either. I struggled getting the skeleton together — all those crossing themers taking up so much real estate — until finally landing on a fortuitous overlap, COURSE CREDIT enabling a workable grid backbone.

I usually advise sticking to 140 words to achieve a strong balance of color and cleanliness, but taking out a black square at the first S of CLASS SIZE bizarrely seemed to help. It made sense after studying the area — four letters ending in O gives more choices than three letters ending in O — but I wasn't wild about ENIAC. We kept banging away at that section, and couldn't come up with anything better at 140 words, so it was what it was. Ah well, hopefully nerds everywhere are okay with it. Beep boop.