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Puzzles for July, 2015
with Jeff Chen comments

Wed 7/1/2015

Fun sound change puzzle today, the starting S morphed into a TH. THIGHS OF RELIEF gave me a good laugh, and THEMES OKAY TO ME felt appropriate for a crossword. All the base phrases are strong too, so much of the theme worked well for me.

Disassembling Abu Simbel for relocation, to save it from flooding caused by the Aswan High Dam

I wasn't a huge fan of the two split-up themers, though. One like this is not uncommon, and I can look past having to jump around the grid for one set. But two of them felt excessive to me, making my solve feel choppy. I really liked THICK / PUPPY, maybe my favorite themer, but having to piece it together from two corners detracted from my enjoyment a little.

This arrangement also makes filling a challenge. Instead of being able to fill your four corners with great freedom, making them nice and clean, you fix constraints in all of them. The lower left came out really well — silky smooth — but each of the others has some compromise. And to start out with three compromised areas and the entire rest of the puzzle to go is not where I'd personally like to begin.

Funny how a single clue can make the puzzle sing. For me, NILE being clued with respect to Abu Simbel triggered memories of when Jill and I went to Egypt. Seeing (the relocated!) Abu Simbel was more breathtaking than the Great Pyramid by far.

And TENT as [Something that has low stakes?] is awesome. Worth the price of admission right there.

Amusing puzzle, with so many funny transformations of solid base phrase into funny result. I might have liked just four of the five themers (resulting in a smoother grid), but I did appreciate the laugh-inducing phrases.

POW Thu 7/2/2015

★ I love me some Thursday trickery, forcing me to work for my a-ha moment. Tim does just that with INVISIBLE INK making the -INK letters disappear in clues, leaving only single letters. [P] baffles, but when you add in the (invisible) INK, PINK indeed hints at MEDIUM RARE.

Are we SURE his first name doesn't start with G? Granklin, maybe?

I like that Tim chose NOT to use all possible "?INK" words — MINK and RINK are missing — getting a complete set would have been tempting, but would have likely forced many rough spots to fill. Seven themers is a huge task as it is.

I wouldn't expect much colorful fill given the difficulty of packing in seven themers, but I love Tim's arrangement, leaving the upper right and lower left corners ripe for good material. I didn't know DR. MARIO but it's fun. Along with REAR END and I HEAR YA, that's a lot of bonus material in just the two corners.

Tim also did well in selecting themers colorful enough that I'd expect to see them in themelesses. SPLIT SECOND, MEDIUM RARE, and STOOL PIGEON are all beautiful. FOUNDER and CONNECT didn't do a lot for me, but FOUNDER gave me a real head-scratching moment as GO UNDER felt much more fitting to the [S(INK)] clue.

Are we SURE there wasn't a President with initials = GDR?

No doubt, there are compromises. Between STOOL PIGEON and INVISIBLE INK is one obvious place I'd expect some glue, as there are so many answers that need to cross both themers. I never like seeing the odd ENROL, as I only see it as ENROLL outside crosswords. ORISON crossing IVES will likely cause some trouble too.

And in the symmetrical position, DARE ME sounds a bit made up. YOU DARE ME? sure. DARE ME, not so much. Generally though, I think Tim did a good job of navigating the trade-offs, using a whole lot of themers and keeping the gluey bits to a reasonable number considering the constraints.

Most of all, I appreciated the innovation and clever thinking behind the trick today. Hooray for tricksy Thursdays!

Fri 7/3/2015

Impressive debut themeless today. I was leery of those upper right and lower left corners, as a 4x8 space is so tough to fill with color and cleanliness. Brandon already had me with one of my favorite characters, ALBUS DUMBLEDORE, but intersecting him with HAD IT MADE / EL DORADO / AND ... SCENE! in that top right is even better. Very impressed how well he used so many of those long spaces, only paying the price of HALEN and TRAC.

I like a guy whose favorite present is socks

Some die-hard Van Halen fans will disagree about HALEN, of course. But to me, it's inelegant in that it's partial-esque. How are you going to clue it, except for some variant of [Rockers Van ___]? Same goes with POLI, as Brandon already pointed out.

There's so much long material packed in, and I was impressed by how much of it works well. Even QUAKER GUN was really interesting to read up on. RUM RAISIN ice cream feels somewhat outdated to me, but entries like WHITECAPS and EPIC VERSE were enjoyable.

I bet some will love SEX KITTEN, but it really turned me off. That surprised me — even five years ago, I would have pumped a fist with an "awesome!" (Embarrassingly true.) But to the present-day me, this sort of term, while perhaps used in the mainstream 50 years ago to describe Brigitte Bardot, seems awfully derogatory now. I don't think it belongs in the New York Times. An indie puzzle, sure, a specialty puzzle for Maxim, absolutely. Could be that I have a daughter now — sure changes one's perspective.

It had such a strong enough effect on me that I was considering this puzzle for the POW! but seeing it dropped it right out of contention. Yes, it's fun to have cleverly cheeky references in the puzzle, but overt and potentially crass entries feel wildly out of place; beneath the NYT.

All that said, I enjoyed so much of this puzzle, including some impressive work in those very difficult 4x8 corners. And I'm sure some people will point to SEX KITTEN as their favorite entry.

Sat 7/4/2015

Nice offering from one of the 20-something constructors. I sometimes do Sam's puzzles on his indie site, and I must confess the vibe is sometimes way too young for me. I miss a lot of references as to what the kids say these days, I know virtually none of the current pop trivia, and his puzzles definitely race past the line of good taste (totally fine for an indie puzzle!). Today, Sam targets a broader audience with some great long entries like GLOW IN THE DARK, SPELLING BEE, RECORD CROWD.

This isn't the mailbox I'm looking for.

I like the unusual arrangement, starting out with a shifted triple-stack pattern in the upper left. This allows him to run GLOW IN THE DARK as well as JEDI MIND TRICK (some references never get old to fanboys throughout the ages!) through the puzzle. Beautiful results; snappy entries without much glue.

I did wonder about AM I RIGHT though. Don't people mostly say/write AMIRITE? And BARF … do people really use that these days? It certainly used to be in vogue back in the 1990s, but has it made a resurgence?

And HOLLA? These types of little oddities highlight the differences in my and Sam's experiences and backgrounds. They all probably sound spot-on to people in his college class, but they gave me some head-scratching.

With a 70-word puzzle, I'd expect to see the gluey entries kept to less than five, and Sam does well there. NIRO always feels like a partial to me (DE NIRO is fine, of course), and MISDID strikes me as not really in usage. Perhaps it's appropriate for a particular sport or game or something? Along with the A COP partial, Sam keeps his liability count reasonably low.

A couple of clues snookered me, so I'll explain them:

  • [Ring-toss item?] is HAT, when you toss your hat into the ring
  • [They come down to the wire] = brilliant! BIRDS fly down to a telephone wire.
  • I filled in [Skipping words?] with TRA LA and groaned. Thankfully, it was I PASS. Fun wordplay.
Sun 7/5/2015HEADS OF STATE

Mount Rushmore commemoration, with Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln laid out in order. Nice touch to use nicknames as the crossword entries, with THE MAN OF THE PEOPLE, HERO OF SAN JUAN HILL, and THE GREAT EMANCIPATOR working nearly perfectly for me. (I would have liked "The" HERO OF SAN JUAN HILL for consistency.)

Mount Rushmore

AMERICAN CINCINNATUS was a mystery to me, but I did like learning it — a reference to the Roman statesman Cincinnatus, who was a model of civic responsibility. Neat piece of trivia.

The cluing of HOME OF MOUNT RUSHMORE ... as best I can figure out, [… or a hint to the answers to the four starred clues in left-to-right order] is a complicated way of saying "these four answers are the heads on Mount Rushmore." Don't the four clues, which directly mention Washington, Jefferson, et al. already give up the game?

Very difficult to pull this theme off, with the presidents in the correct order. I bet THE FATHER OF OUR COUNTRY was Liz's first choice for Washington, but that unfortunately doesn't work with crossword symmetry.

The likes of GROUND CREW and HARD HAT helped to spice up my solve. AGE LIMIT, EVANSTON, and EGO IDEAL are real things, but for my money, they're not nearly as fun as the aforementioned plus BRIT POP, IKEBANA and OKAY OKAY. With a puzzle that has long themers difficult to uncover, it would have been nice to have a few more pieces of strong fill to help hold the solver's interest.

Quite a bit of gluey bits — the middle felt especially choppy to me, running into a lot of HWY, COS, OREM, OTO, OBE, ONE TO entries. Some of this is fine, but all concentrated into one region makes it more noticeable.

So although there were some compromises, I liked the imagery of Mount Rushmore evoked by this puzzle.

POW Mon 7/6/2015

★ A fun theme that can appeal to young and old; executed with skill, achieving both smooth and colorful fill. Top notch work.

Man oh man I had a crush on Samantha

I don't expect much out of Monday puzzles, and when I filled in WALK AROUND without even reading the clue (I had most of the crossings), I shrugged. But it was a great a-ha moment when I realized it was actually WALK A ROUND. And my pleasure skyrocketed when discovering PLAN AHEAD was the hilarious PLAN A HEAD!

Clever wordplay is a pleasure to see, and it's especially nice when it's done at a level that almost all solvers can appreciate. I really enjoyed Joel's recent Twitter wordplay, but I did get some shrugs from people who couldn't relate because they didn't know or care about Twitter. Today's puzzle does such a nice job of playing to a wide audience.

Lynn is so tight with her consistency. Five common phrases, with the second word's A broken out. They're all in the same verb tense, and each themer is two words becoming three. Perfect.

Lynn is so careful about avoiding the ugly gluey bits, too. I'm always so impressed at how she manages to keep the number of liabilities down to well under five, and she never uses an egregious one. I have a feeling she stops and resets many a time in order to achieve such silky work.

The four 7x3 stacks in the corners can be difficult to fill with color and smoothness, but Lynn does a nice job of deploying her black squares to make each section manageable. I love that NW corner, with BEWITCH / ALA MODE / ILL PASS — and with all the crossings astonishingly smooth.

The SW corner contains my favorite entry, JAVA MAN, but cramming in COMCAST and APOSTLE does come with a slight compromise in CSA and SGT. CSA is more iffy to me than SGT, since SGT is so common, but CSA is still pretty minor. I also like how Lynn's glue is usually in the three-letter length. A five-letter ugly — ITS NO or SSTAR, for example — is so much more noticeable.

Loved this one.

Tue 7/7/2015

Sometimes people ask me why alternating vowel-consonant patterns are so prized among crossword constructors, and that upper left corner perfectly illustrates it. The nature of the English language is such that many words tend to have this alternation, and it generally makes for easy filling if you stick to it. Entries like AGATE and TRICE are not as fun as the crazy starts of FJORD and CZARS for example, but they do tend to make for an easier job.

One day, we'll have our first duck president.

Double L doubles today, themers where both words contain an LL. I liked CHILL PILL and MILLARD FILLMORE, but it would have been nice to have a car that was more recent than the CADILLAC SEVILLE (or to have a clue that makes the entry more playful).

Interesting interlocking pattern. It is nice to see something different than the usual all-themers-run-horizontally, but I tend to value interlock less than Will does. It is pretty neat when it can happen, but sometimes it feels like it makes the themers stand out less. Also, I wonder how many non-constructors even notice the interlock.

Jim reminded me a while ago that "crosswordese" is very subjective. I was confused when he said he was perfectly fine with AGUE, but I better understand now — he's used to seeing it in many of the historical novels he reads. So although AGUE, OMOO, HIES, STERE feel gluey to me personally, they're certainly not universally to be avoided.

A couple of nice mid-length entries in EXALTED and SCHERZO. Both of them are pretty interesting in their own right, but the clues, referencing the Grand EXALTED Ruler of the Elks and SCHERZO meaning "joke" in Italian, elevated them even higher.

Often, I prefer not to have a theme revealer hit me on the head, but today I think it would have injected more pizzazz into the puzzle. Perhaps something like HOCKEY STICKS, playing on H-E-double hockey sticks = HELL? It is sort of neat to see what these five themers have in common, but a bow on the package might have been nice.

ADDED NOTE: I missed that the theme is actually double ILL. Dagnabbit! There's no doubt I'm ILL-informed.

Wed 7/8/2015

Debut! A theme HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT, those letters spread through three long answers, tied together with WHERE IS THE THEME? Although I typically don't care for made-up-sounding theme answers, the revealer has a playful aspect to it.

Eli Manning, or Philip Rivers plus a few draft picks?

Audacious to debut with a 74-word puzzle, even more so to do it with parallel downs (BAD LOANS / ATE LUNCH and WRETCHES / NATIVE TO). Difficult to get colorful answers while still keeping the crossings clean.

I love BAD LOANS and WRETCHES, but ATE LUNCH and NATIVE TO don't feel nearly as strong. What with some ELL / A TIE and CVI / ESSO glue, I might have preferred breaking up one of the long down pairs. I'd usually rather get two great entries with super-clean fill than four pretty good ones with some subpar crossings.

Nice touch to add in other long fill. ELI MANNING is a controversial figure, a guy the Giants traded up (at a high price) to get in the 2004 NFL draft. Other players available in the first round of that draft: QBs Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger, and stud WR Larry Fitzgerald. Hindsight is 20/20, but it sure makes me wonder how much value per dollar you really get out of that overall number one pick.

Then again, there's Peyton. Ahem.

And AMSTEL BEER … the last time we had something like this — SOL CERVEZA — Matt Gaffney had the exact same reaction I did, that it felt off. I highly respect his opinion, so it was good to know that I wasn't the only one. AMSTEL BEER feels better than SOL CERVEZA, because the label actually says AMSTEL BEER, but it does feel slightly wonky to me still.

Overall, I might have liked a craftier "hiding in plain sight" trick — the circled letters didn't really feel hidden to me at all. I'm not sure what that trick would be, or how it would work, but I think of the "Magic Eye" posters, where you stare at the thing for ages, and then all of a sudden the image pops out — now that's hidden in plain sight. Can't wait to see if someone could actually pull that off!

Thu 7/9/2015

Neat trick, RIGHT ON CUE interpreted as "themers turn at their Q." I love John's extra touch of selecting themers where the entry after the turn is a real word, i.e. QUID in GIANT SQUID. Devious — I had already solved QUID for [Pounds] and could not figure out what an [Army terror?] might be. Brilliant clue, BTW — a giant squid certainly is "arm-y."

Watch out for the giant QUID! Er, SQUID!

(insert delightful groan here)

That clue was especially nice given the proximity of [Army locales] = BASES. I knew some sort of wordplay was going on with [Army terror?], but I was sure it had to be the "terror" part of the clue. D'oh!

Any grid involving turning answers is going to be tough to fill, around those bends. It might seem like the difficulty level is even higher given all those Qs, but they actually come for free. For example, the Q in PEPSQUAD doesn't have to work with any crossing answers, given that it already crosses PEPSQ and QUAD. A nice way to get a whole bunch of Qs worked in with really no price to pay.

Well, except for the usual one of those tough bendy areas. It's no surprise that the entry John pointed out — OES — comes at the toughest section of the grid, where a bendy themer in ANYREQ/QUESTS intersects RIGHT ON CUE. I usually err toward the side of cleanliness in puzzles and would do anything to avoid OES, but I do like John's packing in of five bendy themers. Getting an arrangement where ILLEQ/QUIPPED intersected SUMMERSQ/QUASH is a real feat, so I appreciated the elegance there.

I would have liked some semblance of symmetry, though. Felt inelegant to have themers packed in wherever. And (warning: nerd engineer alert) the main hiccup I had was one that most people will never consider: the themers are actually turning LEFT, not right — from the point of view of an answer traveling south, if it changes direction to head east, that's a left-hand turn.

A great theme, with some execution hiccups. If only I could ignore my engineer's OCD and shut off my stupid brain once in a while.

Fri 7/10/2015

When a themeless puzzle goes up to the maximum 72 words, I'm pretty strict with my criteria: no more than five-ish liability entries, and the (assets minus liabilities) should be greater than 10. I've found that if I hit too many gluey answers, that detracts from my experience, and if I don't get enough sizzling answers to outweigh the gluey ones, that also detracts.

Dana Carvey, sans the pumpitude

Luckily, a 72-word grid usually has plenty of room for good stuff. BEER O CLOCK is a great answer, and the POCKET WATCH / LIONS SHARE / BUGGY WHIP triple is colorful. Because "Hans and Franz" were a big part of my middle-school sense of humor, DANA CARVEY is a standout for me, but I wonder if he'll resonate at all with the millennials doing this puzzle. It's been a while since he's had a hit.

Does his SNL and "Wayne's World" body of work make him a classic? I think we'll have to wait a while to see if the test of time gives him favorable results.

Some liabilities are clear-cut, i.e. things like partials, uncommon abbreviations, etc. that Will points out to avoid in his submission criteria. And prefixes/suffixes like ACRO and IEST are not likely to give many pleasure. How about ARILS? Seems reasonably passable to me, since that word is on POM wonderful packages, but I can see how some would prefer avoiding it. WAAC and ELEC would likely draw some discussion; N TESTS and SCORNER as well.

But BRIC to me feels perfectly fine … since the BRIC acronym for the major emerging market countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) is commonplace in financial lingo. Still, I'd tend to avoid it if possible, as I can understand that very few solvers would figure out [Acronym for the four major emerging market countries].

One helpful point about solving a Barry Silk puzzle is that he usually tries to work in a few Scrabbly letters — JQXZ. I was struggling around the middle until I remembered this point. A square which starts both an across and a down answer is ripe for one of these rare letters, so that helped me plunk in QUARTS for [Ice cream purchases].

Sat 7/11/2015

Kevin Der said a while back that he'd like to see more "traps" set in hard puzzles (notably, the ACPT finals!). I've gradually come to appreciate these clever misleads, directing me into a rabbit hole I have to claw my back out of. This makes a Saturday solve even more fun for me.

One of the best draft classes ever, featuring Jordan, Olajuwon, Barkley, and Stockton

Take [French bread], for example. That clue has been used many times to indicate French currency, so I plunked in FRANC. And the "bread" part of the clue hides the fact that the answer could be singular or plural. Nice touch.

[Old Olds] is always ALERO, what with its friendly vowel consonant alternation … unless it's CIERA. Drat it, it's OMEGA! Two levels deep of trickery, playing on the regular crossword solver's tendencies to go with all the usual crossword suspects he/she thinks they know.

"Hair" is always a ROCK OPERA … except when it's a TITLE SONG. So many traps, and I fell into them all. Fun to dig myself out. (And Jim tells me that "Hair" isn't actually a rock opera. D'oh!)

Some devilishly clever clues:

  • [Star close to Venus]. ARA and URSA minor/major are the usuals when a constellation is involved. Brilliant misdirect toward Venus, the night-time star, away from SERENA and Venus Williams.
  • My former favorite NBA DRAFT clue was one of Joel's: [Rockets take people there]. Now, it's [Jordan was part of it in 1984]. Not the country Jordan, but Michael Jordan (taken behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie!).
  • [Monthly reading] automatically draws me to my beloved Bridge Bulletin magazine. So innocent in its oblique reference to GAS METER.
  • [Hacker's aid] has nothing to do with computers, but people who hack and need a COUGH DROP.

Satisfying solve. At only 10 entries of 8+ letters, there wasn't as much stellar material as I usually like, but the quality of cluing added a ton to my fun.

Sun 7/12/2015START AGAIN

Classic Patrick Berry, a wordplay theme executed extremely cleanly. Interesting idea to "double" the starts of common phrases, with some surprising results like COUP D'ETAT changing to CUCKOO D'ETAT. I appreciated the complicated spelling change and the fact that the two syllables in CUCKOO sound alike but with have different spellings. COCOA CONSPIRATORS was nice too.

CHEOPS, aka Khufu, for whom the Great Pyramid was built

The others weren't as strong for me, as I've seen CHOO-CHOO ___ used in a few other wordplay themes. Having the repeated syllables spelled exactly the same also didn't seem as clever as the themers mentioned above.

I like how Patrick tends to stick to the maximum of 140 words in his Sunday puzzles. It's hard enough to fill a 21x21 grid with colorful, clean material, and going for a lower word count makes the task very rough. Here, he works in the neat PERFIDY and PLENITUDE, and SIMOLEON and SARCASM work well too. There isn't as much stellar fill as I'm used to seeing out of a PB grid, but there was enough to keep me interested. The 6-letter stuff like CHEOPS, GO-KART, MOSEYS helps out.

And of course, the cleanliness factor is through the roof. Sailed through this one without even noting a single entry I hitched on. AMVETS was new to me, but it's something I really ought to know more about. ALYDAR was also new, but such a neat piece of trivia — coming in second in each of the three 1978 Triple Crown races must have been heartbreaking.

I would have liked a little more zest, a little more zing in both the themers and fill, but it did exhibit that trademark PB smoothness.

Mon 7/13/2015

FACEBOOK BUTTONS hidden today, with LIKE, COMMENT, and SHARE in disguise. I particularly liked COMMENT CA VA? ("comment" is French for "how") although I can imagine people with no French background will be baffled.

Is that a newsboy smoking? Different times ...

LIKE WHITE ON RICE made me giggle. If you Google "is like white on rice racist" you get a wide range of opinions. Personally, I think there's no problem with it, but it amuses me to see people squirm. Reminds me of when I pull the ol' ALL US ASIANS LOOK ALIKE, DO WE? bit when people tell me that my brother and I look alike (we're identical twins).

C.C. has developed into a very good constructor, usually integrating at least four pieces of interesting long fill in her puzzles. I usually admire the new entries she adds to the lexicon. Today, I enjoyed LAKE GENEVA and ALMOND ROCA, but I would have liked another set of long downs, perhaps in the upper right and lower left. NEWSBOY and SUNSETS are pretty good — especially when you evoke imagery of an old timey "Extra! Extra!" crier — but you can usually do so much more with an 8+ letter slot than with a 7-letter one.

I liked how well CC chose her mid-length fill, sticking it to Facebook with some TWEETS. And I love how PEORIA has been immortalized, stemming all the way back to Horatio Alger, Jr.'s "Five Hundred Dollars" ... first published in 1890. How cool would it be to have one of your lines repeated for all time?

Generally a clean grid; what I'd expect out of a 78-word puzzle — really not much standing out as gluey fill besides the minor SST and STD. I do wish Cheri OTERI would get a starring role already so I'd feel perfectly fine using her in grids.

Fun idea to camouflage these Facebook terms.

POW Tue 7/14/2015

★ This puzzle tickled me. Perhaps it's the piles of drivel that I read to my daughter that make Dr. SEUSS stand out? Not all his work is amazing, but so much of it makes reading board books (over and over and over) at least palatable. Love the "Because after all, / A person's a person, no matter how small" quote from "Horton Hears a Who," for example. It's easy to make rhymes, not so easy to make ones with a neat story and a flowing meter.

Christian Bale's combover or Bradley Cooper's afro? I loved them both.

Kevin and Brad did a nice job of getting in a good amount of longer fill without introducing too much glue. I love MALE EGO, the easily bruised thing, and it's nice to see the full EMO BANDS instead of the usual EMO. I also liked getting Brad's erudite vibe in the mid-length stuff: PRECIS, NEWELS, MENSA, and ABSCAM, thankfully updated with an "American Hustle" clue.

I did notice a ton of 3-letter entries, which made me feel like I was switching from one answer to the next awfully fast. There are a whopping 28 of them, which explains it. Thankfully, most of them were innocuous, with just a bit of TES and UNA, and ABA and ANA kind of things.

I would have also liked to have the DR in Dr. SEUSS as part of the revealer, or at least SEUSS positioned in a central or final across slot. Tough to do with five themers, though.

Most of the time, I'm not wild about puzzles that have most of their oomph in the clues, but seeing snippets of Dr. SEUSS did it for me — beautiful idea. I'm big fans of both Brad (who publishes my stuff in the Chronicle of higher Education) and Kevin (who I roomed with at the ACPT two years ago), so I was glad to see a solid and entertaining Tuesday puzzle of out their collaboration.

Wed 7/15/2015

I enjoyed Bruce's story — funny to imagine some typewriter executive demanding that his product team have the typewriter PRODUCE MAGICAL WORDS! Actually, it's just funny to imagine a typewriter executive. Seems like there's a "Mad Men" story in there somewhere.

"Typeballs" is such a dirty-sounding word

We've had a couple of "words that can be typed with only the left hand" or similar ilk, but I can't remember this particular incarnation. It's neat that TYPEWRITER is the final themer, although I would have liked the full TYPEWRITER QUOTE. I know it would have made for a very long clue — prohibitively so, likely — but it's such an amusing tale.

Generally, single-word themes are not my cup of tea. Multi-word phrases help distinguish the "better crosswords" from the computer-generated dreck you see in small-town papers. Here, I do like REPERTOIRE, as it's a fun, colorful word, and PERPETUITY is one us finance types enjoy, but PROPRIETOR falls a bit flat for me.

Interesting trade-off of colorful fill and gluey bits today. I love the inclusion of OPEN MIC and EAT DIRT, two brilliant 7-letter entries. EYESORES and ARTISTRY are pretty nice, too, as are CAMERA CREW and even TELLS TALES. During my solve though, all the bits like ULEE, APO, the Maleskan SERE, etc. became my predominant impression.

As important as it is to work in stellar longer fill, I think it's even more important to make your shorter fill to emulate an NFL place kick holder — never be noticed.

I like it when a puzzle makes me think. That TYPEWRITER punchline did just that, and I also wondered what real phrases could be made using just one typewriter row. Might have been really cool to make the first themer from all keys in the top row, the middle themer from all keys in the middle row, and the final one from the bottom row. Fun when a crossword inspires new thoughts.

Thu 7/16/2015

Paula's back! Fun to see her byline after a year and a half hiatus (although she has done a variety puzzle recently). I enjoy her usually edgy take. Today, that comes in the form of HAIR TODAY GONE TOMORROW, a play on WAXing. I haven't been a big fan of the BRAZILIAN WAX in the NYT crossword as of late, since it's a pretty private (no pun intended) matter, but this to me is pushing the envelope of taste just far enough while eliciting a laugh.

Say hello to my little friend! Oh wait, that was Scarface. Dang it.

With four grid-spanning themers, there are often some compromises in fill, especially in spots where down answers have to cross two themers. This gets even more tricky when you go to a low word count like 72 — with very few blocks to deploy, you can't separate your themers very much. This gets noticeable in the upper right, where UREY and TWO GIGS sit. Normally, this subsection would be easy to fill cleanly, but when you introduce longer words like GROOMED and CRAZIES into the mix, that task becomes much harder.

I don't mind Harold UREY, but I can see how some might be turned off by having to know a Nobelist from 80 years ago. And TWO GIGS is awfully arbitrary. Maybe back when 2G jump drives were the state of the art this would have been fine.

I like some features of 72-word feat. Even if it doesn't allow for that much longer stuff — only four entries of 8+ letters — notice how many 6- and 7-letter words are in there. CARLITO and DO GOOD caught my attention. I still would generally prefer a grid with four stellar 8+ letter entries, as those tend to stand out in my mind, but I can see the merits of going to an ultra-low word count and focusing on the 6- and 7-letter stuff.

Some great clues, making her mid-length fill sing:

  • ALIMONY is indeed a [Splitting headache?]. Hilarious!
  • [Water source for many insects] is a great piece of trivia. I had no idea DEWDROPS nurtured life forms.
  • [Sticking point?] = nice wordplay on the CARET, the editing symbol to stick in a character.
Fri 7/17/2015

Debut! And a young un, adding to our list of youngest constructors (sorted by age when they debuted). Amazing to think that Paolo is 15, and that he started constructing probably years before that.

Mad about MAD ABOUT YOU, or not so much?

I liked WALTER MITTY, MINOR THREAT, and KICKSTARTER. The latter is something I associate more with the youngsters, much more so than MAD ABOUT YOU. Amusing to think that that show went off the air … a year before Paolo was born.

I wonder if MAD ABOUT YOU is gridworthy. I don't think it'll stand the test of time like Seinfeld or the Simpsons, but we'll see. I gave up on the show after a few years because it got old, but perhaps the die-hards will keep it alive on fan sites. TIMECOP also felt outdated to me, although I imagine that some people will consider it a cult classic.

I liked the math bent, what with the ENIGMA and REAL clues. Neat to think about those English codebreakers, trying to figure out what the heck the Germans were doing with their ENIGMA machines. I loved reading about the spy games they played, especially after they managed to get a working Enigma machine. You want to use the information, but you don't want to use it so much that the Germans catch on …

And I had to stop and think for a minute about e being real. The mathematical constant e (roughly = 2.718) is irrational, meaning it can't be expressed by a fraction. But is it real? Took me a while to remember that anything that can be placed on the number line is real, so e qualifies but i (the square root of negative one) is not.

For a 66-word puzzle, there's not nearly as many gluey entries as I might have expected. ESTOPS is a usual suspect because of its common letters and the Ss which are useful as terminal letters. ATHENE helps anchor that lower right, but it is odd to see it as something besides ATHENA. Other than that though, pretty darn clean.

All in all, I'm looking forward to more from Paolo.

Sat 7/18/2015

It's rare to see a Joe Krozel that's derivative of something else. I appreciate how he strives to always do something different. Today, we get a wide-open grid at an astonishingly low number word count: 56. There have only been a few of these bad boys in the history of the NYT crossword, done by a very small number of constructors … dominated by Joe Krozel.

The inside of a DOME CAR

I like the mini-theme, a clock face displaying ONE THIRTY. It wasn't as much of a COME HERE RIGHT NOW YOU HAVE TO LOOK AT THIS feat, but it was pretty cool to recognize a minute and an hour hand formed out of black squares.

This grid layout requires Joe to work in a triple-stack, and the three grid-spanners aren't bad. None wowed me, but ECONOMIC DECLINE tickled my finance interests. Like with most triple-stacks, there were some compromises in the crossing answers — it's unfortunate to kick off the puzzle with the odd RESP abbreviation, and CDI is pretty random. I also would have liked more sizzling answers somewhere in that half of the grid, as ANATOLIANS, SALAMANCA and AURICLE didn't do that much for me.

I was more impressed by the lower right. It is a more isolated section thus relatively easier to fill, but it is also a huge swath of white. I really appreciated the color of THE MAGI, I CAN RELATE, DOME CAR, and even AS STATED ain't bad. I'll take an esoteric STROPHE for all that good stuff any day. Plus, with only ANA and DYER being the most minor of blemishes, that section stood out.

Since there have been a handful of these ultra-low word count puzzles now, their impact isn't as great for me. I still do get a small wow factor, but I think that will diminish as we see more. Now, if we see an ultra-low word count puzzle chock full of stellar material and very little glue …

Sun 7/19/2015THE SHORT FORM

Apt title, THE SHORT FORM hinting at themers using abbreviations as regular words.

Amaranth, from the Greek "amaranton," meaning "unwilting"

There's also an insider's nod here, as constructors often depend on quirky abbreviations to get them out of jams. Is CENT a common abbreviation for century? SING for singular? Not sure, but these two remind me of how many times I've struggled, trying to figure out if something like ISS for issue is passable.

I often like what Tom does with his long fill, and entries like IM OUTTA HERE and HANG IN THERE (symmetrically placed!) are much appreciated. ALL IS LOST and HARRUMPHS are entertaining as well.

Today's grid is a continuation of Will's experiment, asking constructors to try using lower word counts. Now that we've seen quite a few of these lower word count Sundays, I'm starting to see some patterns. One that I'm not fond of is a glut of phrases containing prepositions — STEPS UP, THIN OUT, TRUSS UP, TUNING UP, SNEAK OUT, ICE IN, SIDE ON, etc. While these are fine entries, they're only neutral to me, taking up valuable real estate.

Why is this? Part of it is because prepositions like ON, IN, AT contain common letters. Another part is that they exhibit a useful vowel-consonant alternation, often useful in grid filling. So when the grid challenge gets tougher, these guys can help out a lot.

In general, I like the low word count Sunday grids when that allows the constructor to work in more stellar long fill. If it means that there's more neutral long stuff, I'd much rather people stay at the 140 word maximum and focus on using their long slots wisely.

I did enjoy seeing some of Tom's vibe come out, with the clue for QUARKS — I had forgotten that the word was taken from James Joyce. Neat when science and literature mesh. And although I didn't know exactly what an NTUPLE was, I enjoyed learning a little more math. And for you non-techie types, there's a neat piece of trivia in that the AMARANTH symbolizes immortality. Fun to learn something new.

Mon 7/20/2015

Debut — and another teenager! Great use of a revealer, interpreting MORNING PERSON as a person with the initials A and M. People initialisms are a well-worn theme type, so it's important to add an extra layer if you want to stand out. John does just that, as the MORNING -> AM - > "A. M. people" link is clever.

If only ANGELA MERKEL didn't have a name of umständlich crossword length

When you have four featured people, I personally like seeing representation in terms of male/female, ethnicity, and variety in their careers. I loved seeing AKIO MORITA, a giant in the business world, kick off the themers. Am I biased because I love being in Japan, where I blend in (until I open my mouth, that is)? Yup. I would have enjoyed seeing an African-American and a Latino perhaps, but what are you gonna do.

Without doing an exhaustive search, I can't say how easy it would be to incorporate another woman to balance things out. Sorry ALANIS MORISSETTE, your 16-letter name isn't favorable for crosswords. Chancellor of Germany ANGELA MERKEL? Twelve letters is an awkward length for a themer. AGNES MOOREHEAD, your 14 letters are also an awkward length.

Ah — ALICE MUNRO, sorry. Your literary power apparently was no match for ANDY MURRAY's serve. I still am a big fan.

With a theme based around names, I prefer seeing fewer names in the fill, as excessive proper nouns make me feel like I'm doing pub trivia instead of a crossword. I normally like ED HARRIS and Jackie ROBINSON, but perhaps with so much ELIZA, ROMERO, BRYN Mawr, AVON, FIRTH, DESADE, etc., maybe I would have preferred different long downs today.

The 10/10/13/10/10 letter themers makes for an audacious debut. I was especially impressed by John's upper left and lower right corners — big, open spaces, cleanly filled. Typically I don't mind a somewhat esoteric INO or CLU Gulager, but given how many proper names are already jam-packed in, I would have preferred different types of glue if possible — even a partial or abbr. to mix things up.

Similarly, ENZO Ferrari: I like your Z, but perhaps not today.

Nice revealer, requiring a little thought on a Monday. I like that.

Tue 7/21/2015

Will has been spacing out these "words that can follow X" themes; a good thing. Even with a catchy revealer like IT'S IN THE BAG, they run the risk of feeling tired if seen more than a few times a year. I did like David's choices of themers — BOOK EM DANNO and SAND CASTLE are pretty nice. I didn't know ICE ROAD TRUCKERS, but what a cool name!

Hey! Potentially a new way to clue IRT?

Does Sarah Palin call herself a TEA PARTIER? More importantly, when Putin looks over from Russia, what does he call her? (Don't answer that.)

Ah, the adjacent long downs. It's so tempting to leave two long slots open and try to stick the landing. I really like ACAI BERRY and DECOUPAGE. Those are the types of entries I'd shoot for. The price of ORA and ARG … yeah, I'd pay that. But when you throw in the random OOX, that feels like too much. It's a slight step up from [Three random letters], but just a slight one.

And as much of a Star Trek fan I am, Kirk just doesn't sound right without the T in JAMES T KIRK. Total nerd snobbery, I know. Also, the price to pay of OJO + SAO + SESS + NRC + LIS feels quite heavy to me.

Part of the issue is that David chose to go down to 72 words, a very tough task when you're working with five themers. That means his upper right and lower left corners are pretty big ... right where those parallel downs sit. Makes the task even more challenging.

I do like what David did with the upper left. Having two themers separated by a six-letter space (BOOK EM DANNO and TEA PARTIER separated by ONSITE) is something I avoid, because it's usually hard to find a six letter word that gives clean crossings. Some people might complain about SPOSA, but I kind of like that.

The symmetrical spot, the lower right, demonstrates the difficulty of this layout. I like ICKIER a lot, but ERGOT, SKED and RET aren't great.

I appreciate David's effort to push the boundaries given the straightforward theme. A bit rocky around the edges, though.

Wed 7/22/2015

I'm terrible at cryptic crosswords. Even looking at the answer grid, I usually can't figure out WHY most of the answers make sense. Part of it is that there's a huge variety of clue words that indicate "anagram," and I miss 95% of them. CHOPPED LIVER = mix up the letters in LIVER, really? Cryptic crosswords are aptly named!

Someone get me a membership already!

I've highlighted the mixed-up LIVERs below. I had no idea they were there during my solve, so it was kind of fun to go back and locate them. It does seem like it'd be fairly easy to put one of these anagrams inside a themer though, so I would have liked something a little tighter — perhaps having all the anagrams at the front of the entry, or at the rear, or consistently smack dab in the middle?

I did like the snappiness of the themers — well chosen. Each one of them sings. Just the other day I was sure SAVILE ROW was SAVILLE ROW … reminds me of the time I was so sure GUTTERAL was spelled GUTTERAL.

Dang it, GUTTURAL!

For those of you wondering what ONED (sounds like OWNED) is, it's ONE-D. Some people love these sort of as-seen-only-in-crosswords things (R AND B, TEN-K, etc.), some people hate them. I never even see 1-D in real life, much less ONE D, so this one feels particularly odd to me.

Normally I'm not a fan of cross-referenced clues, but I liked today's ZIG / ZAG. Not only does it incorporate two Zs, but they're in symmetrical positions. With the price of just a TRA, that seems well worth it.

Super difficult construction, with the "awkward length" of CHOPPED LIVER = 12 forcing the five themers to be smooshed together. Any time you have five themers placed in every other row, you're bound to have some compromises. Pete did pretty well, escaping the treacherous middle with just ADM, EXO, HIE, IDENT.

Fun clue for REX. Never having been to Mardi Gras, I assumed the king would be the French ROI. Reading up on all the different Mardi Gras Krewes was really fun. Why am I finding out about the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus only now?!

Thu 7/23/2015

Sometimes this annoyingly OCD memory of mine comes in handy! Four years ago, I was starting to consistently finish Friday NYTs … and then I hit the sneaky rebus Tim mentioned. I was so stumped that it stuck with me, making today's much easier. I didn't complete today's either though — I'll get into that below.

I cry SHENANIGANS on the umbrella

Nice idea, parsing SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS into rebus syllables. I wasn't a MARY POPPINS fan when I was a kid (could have been my failed umbrella experiments) but I do remember being fascinated by the SUPER… word. It is awfully fun to say, and it also made for a fun solving challenge; not knowing what was going on in the middle row.

Also made for a construction challenge. Two rebus squares in a row is hard to pull off, because the adjacent entries have to work together. When you expand the problem to nearly a full row, you get a monumental challenge. Tim does a pretty good job in the middle, with just NORAS and ITA / SETTE as gluey bits. He uses black squares to section off the SUPER... string from the rest of the puzzle, which allows him to work with short words.

The sectioning does cut the puzzle into mini-puzzles — the NE and SW are connected to the rest of the puzzle only by two little spots apiece. That didn't bother me much in the SW, where everything was so cleanly and colorfully filled. Beautiful work there, with OH SNAP, NAIL GUNS, and PERSIAN RUG fantastic. And MARY POPPINS was a giveaway.

The NE... there are so many synonyms for "super" that MAGNIFICENT felt non-specific. Along with the esoteric THE TUXEDO (this Jackie Chan fan is hanging his head in shame), some gluey bits like ILL USE and ROHAN (big LotR fan but this goes deep even for me), and a rough clue for ULTRA (an oblique term for "zealot"), the separated corner stumped me.

So, some nice constructing given the incredibly hard constraints, but I have a feeling that I won't be alone in having a rough go with that NE mini-puzzle. Overall, a fun solving experience though.

Fri 7/24/2015

One of the things I like best about Patrick is that he hardly ever delves into the same themeless pattern; he's always expanding his repertoire to give solvers variety. Today he dips into one of the most difficult areas to get clean and colorful — the quad-stack. Doing a 9x4 section is much easier than doing a 15x4 quad-stack of course, but it's still very difficult. Only a few people have pulled off 9x4s with colorful answers and super-clean (Berryesque) fill.

Modern-day choppers

Fine work in those big corners, both of them not only squeaky-clean but containing long entries running through them. The NW corner has three great answers — INSIDE MAN, NEW MEXICO, HIT OR MISS — and IM SO SORRY running through. Nothing to be sorry about! CHASTENED did feel like a neutral entry just taking up space, but overall, it's beautiful.

Similar story in the SE. SWEET N LOW, ANTINOVEL, even SKELETONS are pretty good, and GHOST TOWN crossing them all is the coup de grace. Again though, COMPUWARE didn't feel nearly as strong as the other entries.

This is a common problem with quad-stacks (of any length). It's hard enough to smash three great long answers together so the crossings work out. Doing it with four is much, much harder, often requiring at least one filler entry.

I'm usually not a big fan of any sort of quad-stack, because they almost always require some ugly crossings or a neutral to bizarre long entry. And if you need to throw in a neutral entry, why not stick to a triple-stack and save space, leaving yourself extra room elsewhere in the puzzle to try to work in another sizzling entry into the puzzle? I do appreciate the variety, though.

A candidate for best clue of the year: [Wood choppers of old] looks so innocuous, probably referring to stone age axes or similar tools? Nope, it plays on "choppers" = slang for teeth.

POW Sat 7/25/2015

★ Kevin has hit for the cycle, thus displaying a wide range of skills across early-week, tricksy Thursdays, themelesses, and Sundays. Impressive to be a generalist that can handle pretty much any sort of construction, but even more impressive is that he might just be the best constructor out there right now, when it comes to quad-stack themelesses.

Colony of hemi-spheres

Now, I use the term "quad-stack" differently than others, broadening the term to mean any stack of long entries of 8+ letters. It's an incredibly difficult task to pull off cleanly and colorfully. Two entries stacked atop each other is easy — even when you have a difficult letter combination, you can usually move black squares around to accommodate. Three atop each other is much harder, requiring the constructor to try many more long answers in order to generate friendly letter triplets for the crossings.

Quad stacks … hoo boy. Not quite an order of magnitude more difficult than triples, but at least a factor of three or four. So it is just amazing to see Kevin's NW corner. TIME BOMB / EGOMANIA / ALSO RANS / COURT VISION are all vivid entries, and there's not a single gluey bit running through them. Not even a minor offender!

The SE does have PERSONAL, which feels to me like it just takes up space, but Kevin more than makes up for that by running TEEN POP / BOX SCORE / WIN THE WAR ... right through the quad-stack! It's a crazy bounty of goodness down there.

The rest of the puzzle is awfully nice, too. Neat to give an insider's nod to violist Liz Gorski with VIOLA SOLO. LIBRARIAN is not a sizzling word … until you clue it with the uber-catchy Marrrrrrrrrr …. IAN! from the Music Man.

Aside from the usual suspect of ARA and the oddity of AROINT, the puzzle is squeaky clean. Liability count of just two = amazing work, especially when considering the difficulty of construction.

And a beautiful clue in [Northern hemisphere?]. Funny to think of an IGLOO as a hemi-sphere.

It'd be tough for me to find another puzzle with quad-stack regions as good as these. Stunning work and such a fun solve.

Sun 7/26/2015NO ESCAPE

So much fun to work with Ellen. She came up with the idea to have a giant black hole in the middle of a grid; sort of a HOLE faux-rebus. I thought it was clever, so we went to work trying to find enough "___ HOLE" phrases for the north and west, and "HOLE ___" phrases for the east and south.

That's one giant sucker

After banging my head for ages, I came to the conclusion that it just wasn't possible. There were relatively few "HOLE ___" phrases, and to group them into triplets such that all the crosses worked proved infuriating. Luckily, Ellen came up with another brilliant idea: all the answers adjacent to the black hole really ought to be "sucked inside," i.e. reversed. Not only was this a cool visual representation of what happens with a black hole, but it allowed us to take advantage of the huge arsenal of "___ HOLE" phrases we found.

Then it was a matter of adding theme density. I thought it would be amusing to have funny phrases around the perimeter like DISAPPEARING ACT, but I worried that there wouldn't be enough apt choices. Ellen came back a few days later with a huge list, most of them of the "wish I had thought of that" variety. (Sensing a pattern here?) Turns out that the hardest part was picking the best ones from the list! Ellen's a hard-working, creative person.

Our original title made us laugh: ONE SINGULAR SENSATION. To all the die-hard physicists out there, I realize SINGULAR isn't exactly the same thing as a SINGULARITY, but we thought the wordplay was too good to pass up.

Our original clue for BLACK (HOLE) was [Giant sucker in the middle of the puzzle].

We amuse ourselves; hope you were amused, too. And if you weren't, I have a few other "___ HOLE" phrases on the list ready for assignment. (WORMhole. Why, what were you thinking?)

Mon 7/27/2015

Last name PALINDROMES today, with our old crossword friend YOKO ONO smack dab in the middle. I was fascinated by "Splash" as a kid, so I enjoyed seeing DARYL HANNAH. And MONICA SELES vaguely made me recall … she had a famous grunt? I don't follow tennis carefully, but a quick search turned up some funny plays on Seles.

You must destroy the ring, Harry Potter. Make it so!

GEORGE TENET is a good find — not someone who would have occurred to me without a lot of prodding. I hemmed and hawed over whether he was gridworthy, finally deciding I was fine with it. Second-longest serving director of the CIA = a good piece of trivia.

The "windmill" arrangement of themers usually doesn't allow for many long pieces of fill, and today is no exception. The two 7-letter entries are forced to carry the burden of providing zing, and while ALIMONY and GRANOLA aren't bad, they're not super punchy in my eyes.

I did appreciate some of the 6-letter stuff, especially (clearly the best Enterprise captain of all time) Jean-Luc PICARD. And NIMROD is not only a fun word, but it always makes me laugh that one of Noah's great-grandsons was named Nimrod. Talk about playground taunting …

The overall cleanliness helped a little in making up for the lack of vivid fill. DARE ME feels a bit off-key — YOU DARE ME? might be better — otherwise, just a few really minor bits like INS and TOS. I do appreciate clean grids, but today, I'd happily take a few more gluey bits in exchange for some zestier fill.

Overall, I would have loved a fresher celeb thrown into the mix, perhaps GEORGE SOROS or JEREMY RENNER, who gave an astounding performance in "The Hurt Locker." (I'm still not convinced he's the right guy to play Hawkeye in "The Avengers" franchise, but what can you do.) And if only his name was of a more convenient length … splitting him up 6 / 6 is certainly possible, but it's sure nice to keep themers together.

POW Tue 7/28/2015

★ I love a gimmick puzzle, and I especially love 'em when I can't see 'em coming. It was a blast to arrive at AEIOU and realize that rows one, six, and 11 only had As as vowels, rows two, seven, and 12 only had Es, etc. Really nice job to keep that hidden until the very end.

Peter Pettigrew, the man who delivered the Potters to Voldemort. What a poltroon!I only had two minor pauses which made me think something tricky was going on, which is saying a lot about Caleb's craftsmanship:

  1. Caleb's a strong enough constructor that I hitched slightly at the ACH / TKT northern region, because it's a small, unconstrained chunk that should be fillable with nary a gluey bit. But sometimes a constructor has a great clue for CHECK, or loves baseball and wants to put in AT BAT, so I shrugged and quickly moved on.
  2. I paused a second time at POLTROON, staring at that odd-looking word, but then I decided I liked its craziness.

Stunt puzzles not only usually have telltale gluey bits galore, but they often lack colorful fill. Not a problem today. I love what Caleb did with TIGHT KNIT, THE CREEPS, and SHOT HOOPS, all zingy entries … which happen to be thematic, what with their use of only one vowel! Sneaking a KLUTZ down at the very bottom was also nice. Great word in itself, and it so nicely only has the single U.

The grid is a bit segmented for my taste — those two stairsteps nearly slicing the puzzle into three sections — but I can understand how that would make the construction job much easier to handle. An incredibly difficult task can be made into simply a very difficult one, if you can break it down into smaller pieces.

And I'm with Caleb re: computer-assistance. I respect the opinion that construction by hand is an incredible talent, but I find it similar to arguing that people should forgo computers and stick to typewriters. Why turn down modern assistance if it helps make a better product?

Overall, a neat idea and a very strong execution. This is one that will stick with me.

Wed 7/29/2015

I love fantasy basketball. If I didn't have other commitments, I'd spend all my waking hours (and some of my sleeping ones) analyzing data, reading commentary, trying to pick up the smallest tidbit. So it was fun to see the DOUBLE-DOUBLE as today's revealer, pointing to phrases where both words can be followed by DOUBLE.

Jahlil Okafor, future double-doubler or bust?

I was helping a friend with a similar theme construction which recently got rejected, Will/Joel saying the NYT has run so many of this theme type that it's nearly run its course. I agree with that sentiment, although every once in a while it's fun to see a well-constructed example.

I liked all the themers in today's puzzle, although they didn't feel as snazzy as I would have liked. STANDARD TIME is in the name of a famous Wynton Marsalis album, but the general term isn't as interesting to me. TAKEOVER and BACKDATE aren't bad. And PLAYBILLS is good. All solid, but CROSSTALK is the only one which I really loved.

And it was slightly confusing to me that CARWASH looked like a themer. (There really ought to be such a thing as a DOUBLE CAR.) With a theme like this, I would have preferred for the themers to stand out on their own right. That would have meant putting a single word in CARWASH's place, or rearranging the grid such that the CARWASH slot was shorter.

Great clue for ZEBRA. I hadn't heard of a "zorse" or a "zonkey," but I'll be looking for every opportunity to use them now. Another great clue for PLANE = [It lacks depth]. I love it when math and the English language merge to create cleverosity.

As with fantasy basketball, a DOUBLE DOUBLE guy is pretty good, but there are (relatively) a lot of them out there. It's when you see the potential for a guy to notch some TRIPLE DOUBLEs that you really get excited. "Three-word phrases where all words can precede DOUBLE" … now that would be Showtime!

P.S. Anyone with a good read on Okafor or Mudiay, lemme know. They both look like they might be worth a flyer.

Thu 7/30/2015

Well-executed "Little Women" theme, MEG AMY BETH and JO tossed into normal phrases to produce wackiness. I've seen a lot of "Little Women" crosswords over the years, so it's neat to run across a new take. TOUGH NUT(MEG) was a good one, and BIG(AMY) BUSINESS gave me a chuckle.

Hey! Get your name order straight, Alcott.

BEQ's website puzzles are sometimes too heavy on music clues/answers for my taste, so it was nice to see a good range of subject areas in his fill. From a PLUG UGLY to a YOGA MAT to MULLAHS to GUESS NOT, the longer fill covers a pleasantly wide set of topics. I also liked how BEQ laid out his grid to include a few more 7-letter entries than usual, allowing him to add a bit of zest with UNEARTH and KNELLED.

Nice job on the shorter stuff, too. Now I see that there's a lot of 3-letter words (24 of them!), but I didn't notice that during my solve because most of them were innocuous. KNT always looks odd to me, but it appears to be a legit chess abbreviation.

I did stumble on the ANNA / VAL section down south, tripping up my finish. Having given up on "Breaking Bad" and not being familiar with "Howard the Duck," that intersection was rough. I can see why BEQ/Will decided to toughen those clues way up, as Thursday puzzles are supposed to be really tough, but that sort of esotery doesn't feel like a very fun type of tough to me.

Overall, a good showing on a theme that I would have preferred to see on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. Will has said in the past that all he wants from Thursday puzzles is that they're harder than Wednesday ones, but given how many great tricks and gimmicks we've seen over the years in Thursday puzzles, it's usually a bit of a letdown to see a standard theme type.

Fri 7/31/2015

AUTOTUNE! If you haven't already seen "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," it's well worth watching if only for the autotuned opening song. I thought the show had its ups and its downs, but even the bad episodes were made palatable by that awesome theme.

It's a miracle!

Interesting layout today, featuring only 10 answers of 8+ letters. Most of those were pretty strong — DRAG SHOW, ONLINE AD, and HULA SKIRT some of my favorites — but I wasn't sure if GET WEIRD felt natural enough. Is GET BAD or GET CONFUSED or GET WILD equally acceptable ... or just weird? Not sure.

So that places a lot of pressure on the seven-letter answers to generate color and snazz. Of the whopping 18 (!) seven-letter entries, some are quite good. DAS BOOT gets a great clue, describing a amusingly-named drinking vessel. PACHISI teaches us a bit about the etymology of the name. CANKLES is a funny word, although I don't know how well this will go over with certain solvers. (The term is a portmanteau of "calf-ankles". Do yourself a favor and don't look up pics.)

Normally, I love the onomatopoeia of KERPLOP … but as Ashton mentioned a while back, he likes to search for fill where adjacent or crossing answers relate, giving mini-themes. I'm not such a huge fan of KERPLOP crossing TOILET in my morning crossword. Ahem.

STAY DRY and TALK BIG also hit me the same way as GET WEIRD. TALK A BIG GAME, for sure. TALK BIG? Dunno. STAY DRY … okay, it's legit, as in a mom saying ["Keep out of the rain!"]. Perhaps more of a neutral entry for me.

So with a decent (but not outstanding) number of grid assets, I'd expect the shorter stuff to be pretty darn clean. James and Ashton do pretty well in this regard. TKTS is a bit awkward and KERB is pretty out there, but neither is puzzle-killingly terrible. And while some people will hate CAGER, there seems to be dictionary support for it.

Overall, some strong vocab, as well as some that didn't quite hit for me.