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Puzzles for August, 2014

with Jeff Chen comments

POW Fri 8/1/2014
ACIDICCHACHING
SUNOCOAIWEIWEI
PLANARBEANTOWN
WENDBRITJAG
AROARRIOTTIGE
CARNEGIETAMER
TODDLESSIRKAY
DANKCLUE
KNOTTYRESTATE
KRONESIXTHMAN
OISEASAPNERDS
WSWSETISOFA
THECLOUDLOADED
ONAHUNCHINLINE
WATERSKIMELODY

★ I love days like this. Sometimes I have to dig a little to uncover the assets of a crossword — almost every puzzle has something to admire in it — but sometimes there's goodness everywhere I look. It's a true joy to write about a puzzle when I enjoyed it as much as today's.

I'll go back to my personal system of analytics to take measure of this puzzle. First, the ASSETS:

  • CHA CHING
  • AI WEI WEI
  • BEANTOWN
  • SIR KAY
  • SIXTH MAN
  • THE CLOUD
  • ON A HUNCH
  • WATERSKI
  • KOWTOW
  • IN A WORD
  • NO SWEAT
  • DONE AND DONE
  • I CAN RELATE
  • TRUST NO ONE
  • TAKE THE FALL
  • IWO JIMA
  • AM RADIO
  • NEW AGEY

An astonishing 18. More typically, I usually count about 12 in an average NYT themeless. Now, let's evaluate the LIABILITIES:

  • OISE
  • WSW
  • HIERO
  • ENS

Judgment of what's an ASSET and what's a LIABILITY is completely subjective of course (some might argue that RESTATE isn't great, but I hear about companies restating earnings all the time).

So how does the puzzle hold up? We have fewer than five LIABILITIES, and ASSETS minus LIABILITIES = 14 (much higher than my threshold of 10), so this puzzle easily crosses my thresholds. Not surprising, considering how much fun I had solving this bad boy.

Not to say that it's perfect — very few puzzles are. For me, the biggest issue was the slash in the middle of the puzzle tending to create a two mini-puzzle solving experience. It wasn't a serious problem, but it did hinder the puzzle's solving flow for me. I've used a similar effect before, because it makes puzzle construction easier. One of the biggest challenges in themeless creation is working with interlocking areas, where one change ripples through the puzzle. If you can section off your puzzle into separate pieces, it makes construction much easier.

Well done; such a pleasurable solving experience for me today.

Sat 8/2/2014
MANENOUGHBANGS
ONONEKNEEURIAH
VEALOSCARTIETO
ETHANRENTACOP
RSVPENDERS
SMOGARTISAN
ORWELLIANKEBAB
TSEUSERFEERCA
SCRUBROALDDAHL
TRUSTMEEYED
SAVOIRYEST
CLIPCLOPOESTE
ATRIATURDUCKEN
REGANBLUESTATE
FRONTSPYMASTER

Neat how a single entry/clue pair can make a puzzle for me. Today, that was CLIP CLOP and its Monty Python reference. That movie brings back such great memories for me and always makes me laugh, even though I've seen it approximately a googol times. Bravo, Kristian! Neat when a constructor's right on my wavelength.

I thought today's puzzle would make for a good discussion of what is a "good" and "bad" piece of fill. I believe that very little of this is purely objective, so I'm always interested to hear other opinions. Here are all the entries I thought might come up in discussion:

  • TSE
  • RCA
  • YEST
  • OESTE
  • A NET
  • MRS C
  • OWER
  • PRIERS
  • OTBS
  • NES
  • E LEE
  • DEM
  • SKAT
  • ENER

Personally, I'd strike RCA, MRS C, and DEM off that list. I can understand the argument that RCA was broken up by GE decade ago, but it still played an important role in the history of technology. MRS C is a big part of my being raised by TV shows I wasn't supposed to be watching, so "Happy Days," the Fonz, MRS C and MR C will always have a place in my heart. And DEM is such a common abbreviation that it doesn't bother me at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, I think it's hard to argue a case for YEST and ENER (awkward abbreviations), OWER and PRIERS (rarely used noun-formed -ER words), E LEE and A NET (partials), or OESTE (a somewhat esoteric foreign word). I can see a case for SUR or SUD, as those words show up in relatively common place names, though.

The others are interesting, falling into my personal no-man's land. I've never seen an actual OTB, but my tolerance for gambling ends at losing five bucks. I've never played SKAT, but I don't doubt that it's a favorite game for many crossword solvers, especially older ones. And non-video game fans will scoff at NES, but if I only had a nickel for every hour I played "Super Mario Bros"...

Quite a lot of jazzy entries in this puzzle, highlighted by CLIP CLOP, ON ONE KNEE, and the really nice triple of TURDUCKEN, BLUE STATE, and SPYMASTER. Beautiful corner. Personally, I thought there were a tad too many liabilities in the puzzle, but 1.) that's personal opinion, 2.) I still found it to be an enjoyable solving experience, and 5.) thinking about the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch made me chuckle.

Sun 8/3/2014"CHEE WHIZ!"
PECBASTEDBASESEMT
IRASARCANEARTDEALER
LAMAWOUNDEDNIETZSCHE
ADENDASADAMSITS
FILTHYRITCHIEADIDAS
CHAIROOSPOSES
AAACOPCARSLASTWISH
STIRBLACKTAICHICOE
HEREWEAREPLEAMEOWS
MARINSHEAAORTIC
THELONESTARCHYSTATE
DRYDENPUNYOASIS
JOEYSAMIDROCAFELLA
SUNIGUESSSOCHIDYAD
TACOBELLTIGHTLYRTE
ARISEZULUERIE
ABSURDTABLEFORTUCCI
ROEGATONIVESPOT
ARCHIERATEDMOVIETOME
BATTLEAXETENETSSEEM
STSELLISSNOOZEMRS

Now that's the way to do a sound change puzzle. Today, the "CHEE" sound is added onto base phrases to produce kooky results, and both the base phrases and the resulting themers are quite good. WOUNDED KNEE -> WOUNDED NIETZSCHE is a perfect example. Additionally, the spelling change is so crazy on this one that it's hard not to admire. Good stuff.

As always, Ian does great things with his fill. Both sparkly (COP CARS, LATECOMER, CAMEL HAIR, even BAWDY, FIVE-O and HOOCH — best of all, TACO BELL and LAST WISH make a hilarious symmetrical pair) and smooth (only the tiniest smattering of the perfectly fine EDT, STS, ADE kind of stuff).

How does he do it? First of all, he sticks to the basics, using seven themers (roughly the minimum for a Sunday) and 140 words (Will's maximum). He then folds in good theme placement, making sure to put as much space in between adjacent entries as possible, and places black squares such that there's a minimum number of downs which cross two themers. That often starts with a stairstep kind of approach, which you can see going (roughly) from SW to NE. Three pairs of cheater squares further facilitates smooth fill — not perfect to have so many in there, but well worth the (very slight, IMO) visual inelegance of extra black squares.

I'm guessing here, but I'm fairly certain the final, rare ingredient is his ability to tear out a good piece of fill and try something else. Too often, constructors stick to some entry they love, convincing themselves that a few dabs of glue is fine. In so many of those cases, an alternate piece of fill is available — maybe not as great, but still quite good — which allows for Livengoodesque silkiness.

Very well done. This is a good one to take apart and study if you're a constructor dipping your toes into the Sunday waters.

Mon 8/4/2014
RACEBRAGSSHES
IRANIOWANTANK
MILOGONZOONCE
CRACKSAWINDOW
ALUMNASNEERS
METINTHEMIDDLE
MATTSAXONY
OKAYDINEMMA
BOOSTSVIAL
GODOWNTHEAISLE
TUNEINVALUES
AIRPLANESEATS
SLITGOLANWARM
ETCHUPLITIGOR
DYESNEEDYNEWS

Joel's done some great work in his nearly 30 puzzles for the NYT. But I can't remember ever thinking "how the heck did he do that?" until today. I was wondering why my solve went so slow. It wasn't a lack of smoothness — there's only one piece of glue I can point out (AWNS), and all the crossings are fair. It wasn't that the cluing was extraordinarily hard. So why did it take me roughly 50% longer?

I realized there's a bit of magic involved. This is a 70-word puzzle... without looking at all like one. If you eye the empty grid, you wouldn't think it was a themeless, would you? Doesn't have the wide-open four corners most exhibit. Yet its 70 words puts it WAY below average for a Monday. It's a real testament to the quality of work that it took me so long to figure this out.

I've put together 72 word-count themed puzzles before and found them extremely difficult. Most of the time I can't fill them cleanly enough so they could run as an early-week puzzle — crossword glue in Mondays and Tuesdays risks alienating beginning solvers. So to see the smoothness of this 70-word creation is amazing. Unbelievable how he left so much white space between themers (note where SNEERS sits sandwiched between WINDOW and AISLE, for example) and managed to keep things silky.

Life is all about expectations, isn't it? I experienced a bit of disconnect. A straightforward theme (WINDOW MIDDLE AISLE) with a themeless-esque grid was a bit like eating a cheeseburger while watching an art film. I still really enjoyed both, but I wonder if I would have preferred them separately? Might just be human nature — my resistance to change.

And a minor nit, it would have been great if all three themers had the same verb structure (CRACK, MEET, GO, e.g.). But overall, a really nice change of pace for a Monday. It's so hard to make a low word-count grid this smooth. I'll be interested to see if we get more of them, considering how challenging they are to create. I'll be dissecting this one further on my own.

POW Tue 8/5/2014
COBSHOSTMARSH
ALOEABLEALOHA
PETERSOUTCAMRY
NOTSOERRSDEED
LAMBPATSDOWN
BREWPUBALI
OAFSGISTINSEL
NNEJACKSUPOXO
ODDJOBYETOREO
AGOTEMPEST
MARKSOFFSAUL
IDEASALTGLOSS
LIARSCARRIESON
NORTHERIENEHI
ESSAYTEMPTROT

★ Wonderful puzzle today. How Lynn found five normal phrases to fit this theme is beyond me. JACKS UP, for example, is such a great base phrase (as in a store jacking up prices), plus it can be read as "Jack's up!" Beautiful idea with five solid themers.

It's also a perfect example of adding pizzazz into a puzzle without having to resort to a lot of long fill. Sure, there's the nice SORE LOSER and BOTTLE FED and BUGABOOS, but what really impresses me is Lynn's careful eye for the shorter stuff. ODD JOB. BREW PUB. JAKARTA. ALADDIN. Putting together a crossword is hard enough that sometimes it feels like a small miracle just to get a grid filled using regular words you can gloss over like… well, like GLOSS. I love it when a constructor grabs hold of each step of the filling process, carefully sorting through many options before landing on opulent words… like… like MAGI.

I like to eyeball a grid even before I start solving, and it's almost always a good sign to see white space apportioned out like this. There's nothing too big (making for a challenging fill) or too small (sectioned off areas can make for a choppy solving experience). Just right. At 78 words it hits the maximum allowed number of answers, but that matters not one bit to me. Using 76 or even 74 words can often allow for some really nice long fill, but Lynn shows that you can give a quality solving experience in 78 words too. It just takes more care, which she clearly put in here.

Finally, look how smooth the short fill is. So little to even point out. OLEO is an outdated product, but you do still see the word on some dairy aisle boxes. And NEHI may be a brand gone by the wayside, but I have fond memories of Radar O'Reilly drinking Grape Nehis on M*A*S*H. Outstanding work; bravo.

Wed 8/6/2014
JUJUBLOTFRAS
EVANROTHCLOTH
TAXIRITAAETNA
CORNONTHECOQ
ASHENKANT
THEFAQFOURESTA
MIATBARBROIL
OFTISADORAINC
STUMPERASTKO
TYPOJERRYQUILT
DORMUPSET
QUEENSIZEQED
UTILENONUICBM
INNERELOIKOBE
DEEDMASKESQS

Befuddled by the theme today? Try reading BBQ as an order: "B, be Q!" Took me a while to figure out that clue, but it provided for a nice a-ha moment.

Q's are very hard to work with. Typically they force you to employ more U's than you might want, and they often beg to go in top left corners (how many words end in Q?). There's a reason why so many puzzles don't use them. The six Q's here are nowhere close to the record for most Q's but six Q's still is still no mean feat. BEQ does well to work them in through nice answers like SHAQ, BASQUE, QUID, and QUICK.

Those Q's do force some layout issues. Often you have a lot of flexibility to place black squares, but not today. Typically we wouldn't see sectioned-off corners like the NW and SE, but do you see where the Q of QBS lies? The black square atop that entry allows for high flexibility in word choice, because without it, you have to deal with a Q in the middle or at the end of a word. And once you place that particular black square, it's pretty difficult to avoid cutting off the NW corner.

A couple of bumpy spots in the fill. For example, the SE corner looks like it should be easy to fill without needing MES, ICBM, COS and ESQS, right? Nope. Once you fix UPDIKE into place and have to include BBQ somewhere, you hit high constraints. There's not much that fits the "I?B?" pattern except ICBM or ISBN, so options are limited. I would have liked BBQ to be in the very corner (where MES is), as I would find that more elegant, but the "I??B" pattern is equally constrained (only IAMB and IMDB fit).

Fun solve, with a few bumpy spots forced by those Scrabbly letters.

Thu 8/7/2014
LENDSMCATLUSH
ADOUTARCHASIA
DITSYNOCOMMENT
ISITJUSTMEOR
DOOMOPSMUNIS
ANNIKASTORAGE
TACKIERMOW
ARETHEREOTHER
FLUINSPIRE
SANREMOKISSER
UNSETCIAGAYE
ANAGRAMSOFEM
KATESPADEITISI
FLAWAGRAVIRUS
CABSSEENSTEPS

Pretty funny for a quote puzzle. I had to read it twice to really get the joke, but I enjoyed it. Sort of what would happen if Jerry Seinfeld ever started doing crosswords.

Joe's an experienced constructor, and the fill quality shows through today. The low theme density forces longer fill, and Joe does well to take advantage of each slot, from NO COMMENT to KATE SPADE to DUST MITE to TROIKAS. All done with a smooth touch, leaving only traces of IT IS I behind. BTW, check out Joe's "baseball card" stats. I always enjoy seeing where a constructor focuses his/her time. In this case, it's quite clear that Joe's vast experience in themeless grids came in handy filling today's.

One thing I found a little confusing was why the quote was split into five pieces (4/8/13/8/4). Why not make it a 12/13/12? It might seem easier to build around shorter theme words, but it's often harder. Those black squares separating the 4/8 and 8/4 words reduce flexibility; plus, when you use shorter theme entries, you usually have to employ longer non-theme fill. Most importantly though, I personally like quote puzzles better when the flow is stronger. I find jumping around between three chunks is much more satisfying than trying to piece together five.

Nice change of cape today.

Fri 8/8/2014
GANGNAMLEAPSAT
AMERICAOILRICH
SOMETHINGSFISHY
OREEDYSASTER
HOSESOSMISO
OSISONEUPSNOI
LOSERSTAILEND
ROCNGO
ALLTHATSONNETS
LEEERITUINRE
ATANSTANCAD
MINEDRUBEALIA
ONTHEWATERFRONT
DOORMATLOOKSEE
ENSUITETOPSEED

What a cool visual! Bruce has a real knack for using black squares to create art I haven't seen before. I was really impressed by one of his last ones, and when I saw the three goldfish swimming upstream today, I couldn't believe no one's done it before. Bravo!

I really like mini-themes buried inside a themeless grid. Like with triple-stacks, or ultra-low word count, or other non-standard themeless grids, I wouldn't want to see them every weekend, but it's such a nice treat to get a bonus as you solve, often making for a memorable puzzle. Reminds me of Matt Ginsberg's amusing comments about trying to hide an "Easter Egg" in a puzzle. There's something so exhilarating about discovering a treat you never expected.

For me, SOMETHING'S FISHY hit the bulls-eye. A perfect phrase for this visual, I found it clever and amusing. ON THE WATERFRONT fell flat for me, perhaps because SOMETHING'S FISHY was so perfect. It's tough to make a mini-theme sing — most of the time you only have space for two long entries, so they both have to really sing in order to make it work.

And as with every construction, there will be compromises. In order to get the three goldfish and the two long entries, Bruce had to section his grid up a bit, the SW and NE corners feeling pretty separate. And big corners like that are naturally hard to fill. I enjoyed seeing OIL RICH, A LA MODE and DOORMAT, all quality answers, but there wasn't as much sparkle as I like to see in a themeless. Combined with EIS, NO I, and AT AN, the overall effect wasn't as strong as I would have liked.

All in all, a very neat visual, with a little price to pay as a trade-off. P.S. Although it looks symmetric across the NW/SE diagonal, it's not! Take another look.

Sat 8/9/2014
KFCDELSSWAMP
NAUTILUSSHAVES
ALBANIANPITONS
PLATEAUPINENUT
SANTASDETER
ASCOTGINSBERG
CLIOVOODOODOLL
KEGLASCAUXBAA
SEASERPENTHESS
PRICIESTFIRST
STALECANTOS
HOTTUBSTANGENT
AWHIRLCORDELIA
ROONEYIMPOSEON
MEMESDEEMEND

A well-constructed but incredibly difficult puzzle for me today. Josh ventures outside his usual oeuvre with a relatively low word-count grid. Sixty-four words is a tough, tough task. It's nowhere near the record for fewest words, but it's verging on it. The huge challenge for these types of puzzles is making them work without too many glue entries while still incorporating a lot of snazzy stuff. Often times you can make one or more subsections sing, but another area gets so constrained that you have to lean on a piece of crosswordese to get the full grid to knit together.

The right half of the puzzle is just amazing. I love how Josh fills such goodness as VOODOO DOLL and ROBERT E LEE and the bizarre GLASS ONION, and yet manages to escape with virtually no ugliness. I bet he tested out using cheater squares, not using them, moving them around, using extra pairs, etc. to figure out how to make the grid more fillable even before starting. The end result is fantastic.

The left half is also quite good, but it doesn't look as nice when held up to the right. I can just see the filling process in the SW, coming in with such cleanliness and even the jazzy HOT TUBS… and then running into the very last bit. AWHIRL is a real word, but I imagine some solvers will see it as unsightly. I'm perfectly fine with it by itself, as it gets over a million hits on Google, and I can imagine older-style writers utilizing it. But when combined with the awkward O WOE partial, it doesn't hold up to the rest of the super-solid puzzle.

A similar result happens in the north section, where everything works so beautifully... until you run into the awkward DELS. A perfectly fine piece of glue, as is SSN, but both in conjunction stand out amid the rest of the super-clean work. Themeless construction can be so frustrating when one corner turns out beautifully but the symmetrical corner refuses to cooperate to the same level.

Overall, a really hard workout — puzzles with longer-than-average words tend to be harder to find toeholds to start the solving process — and great execution, with just a couple of tiny flaws.

Sun 8/10/2014NUMBER-ONE FRIENDS
ESSBETAARFBACHROZ
MOPAVOWBYUENYAEWE
BIOHEREXCELLENCYXER
ORTSRISEOPALOHSO
SERAPENADIRORNATE
SEEFITONENDPEDROS
MATTSNOLLEUSHER
BOORSTESTRIDESACIDS
OBVIATESCIEDRINKSIN
ROEWHITEHOUSEDOGOEO
GERMANAGCLAWSNUB
INNBOWWOWACU
MALLOALTAROEGUNSER
ONELBSIRIOPIEENTRE
ANGIEASIFTESSBYAGE
NEWELLHPSERSPISTOL
MASSESSODIUM
PERMTOMATOPASTEDEEM
RAMABUDDYSYSTEMETTU
ORELESCAPEROUTEUTES
MARLACMEOFFSPERK

More grid art! Liz usually employs circled letters to form visual elements (check out how many on that page are hers!), but today she uses those black squares as her paintbrush. I generally prefer this approach, as black squares are such a strong visual element that they often overwhelm any other effects. And what an effect today — as a pet lover, I couldn't help falling for that cute dog in the center and its ears standing straight up. Dogs

For me, the best Sunday puzzles are the ones with themes or ideas that cannot be done in a 15x grid. Jill and I did a similar dog picture a while back in a 15x, but that picture constrained things so much we didn't have room to put more than a few theme answers in. I love how today's large palette allows for quite a bit more, namely themers starting with the name of a WHITE HOUSE DOG. Neat idea.

I didn't know every WHITE HOUSE DOG, so the puzzle played difficult for me. It was even harder because Sundays require more open space than usual weekday themed puzzles. Check out that giant SW region, with MILLIE SMALL / LEG WARMER / ANNE MEARA. That's a themeless-esque stack right there! Not easy to fill. The crossings were rough for me, and I imagine I won't be the only one. MARL has an old-timey ADIT-type feel to it (an ADIT is a rarely used word for a mine shaft opening), and OREL / RAMA / MILLIE SMALL / NEWELL make for an awfully difficult pile-up of esoteric proper names.

Deploying so many black squares to form the picture of the dog forces big open spaces everywhere throughout the puzzle. The south is another good example of that. That giant space contains some great entries like BUDDY SYSTEM and ESCAPE ROUTE. However, MDCC, OSE, STETS, and POEME are a pretty high price to pay for all the goodness. Sundays are so tricky to create without a few of these blips. In many ways, much harder than a themeless.

Overall, a great visual, causing a lot of constraints in the grid and some compromises in the fill.

POW Mon 8/11/2014
COMPAFARADLIB
AMIESALEFRAME
TENSHALLELUJAH
CLOTHEALAMODE
HELLENISTICLEA
OTTERDUESLID
NSANEONSPLATS
HILLBILLY
ORDEALOKRAMIT
LEWDAWEINANE
DREHOLLANDAISE
COLBERTASIDES
HULLABALOOLECH
ATEITREAMUNTO
PERPSSIRIPSST

★ Beautiful puzzle today, almost exactly what I hope for on a Monday. The theme is pretty straightforward — a "H?LL" vowel progression — but it's executed in an elegant way. As David noted, I appreciated the consistency of having each of the themers be a single word. Additionally, so many of them are snappy, words that I wouldn't hesitate to use as fill. HALLELUJAH and HULLABALOO in particular are fun.

Sometimes I wonder what might be considered offensive to certain populations. I had a slight hitch when I saw HILLBILLY — I use the term myself, but it'll be interesting to see if Will gets complaints from people in rural areas. It's been used in other papers before, but this will be the first instance in the NYT. I've had similar thoughts about COMMIE as well. Interesting to think about the seemingly harmless words that carry potentially derogatory meanings.

The grid is near flawless. I worried at first that there wouldn't be as much zing as I usually like to see, because there aren't many long spaces for fill. But David and Bernice take good advantage of the 7's, spreading CATCH ON, I MADE IT, OLD CHAP, and TEE SHOT into the four corners. I love that they didn't try to shoehorn too much into any one corner, because that's often why glue-y fill becomes necessary. This grid is so incredibly smooth. Perhaps the only entry that people might point to is... ELL? But even though I don't hear ELL in everyday usage, it's a real word, so I don't think that's a fair criticism.

It tickles me to see David and Bernice's photos together. So neat to see the different generations work together.

Tue 8/12/2014
AHAENDRATTLE
DEMPSEYSEYMOUR
ARIETTAIMEANIT
MONTEDIDINYSE
SNOREDNENE
IMNOTADOCTOR
ADZARRSNOOPY
CREAMBUTSWORE
TIARASDOGLYS
IPLAYONEONTV
ONORPRIMPS
AFARALSOIDIOT
REGATTANUTELLA
KLUGMANCLOONEY
STASISDENEDS

It's always fun to see a constructor's sparkle come through on a puzzle, and this one has a great punchline. IM NOT A DOCTOR / BUT / I PLAY ONE ON TV could have fallen into the "quote puzzle" arena, but Robyn does well to include four famous TV doctors to round out the theme. Big smile when I uncovered those three central theme entries.

Even though each theme entry is relatively short, having seven of them makes for a packing challenge. It's an unusual layout problem. I like Robyn's skeleton — cramming the "quote" in the center and spacing out the four doctors into the corners — as it creates a lot of space between themers. Hitting the punchline pretty early in the solve did feel a bit premature, though. Knowing what to expect so early on made for a somewhat anticlimatic finish. I'm not sure if there's another way to present it so the revealer comes later — perhaps running the "quote" vertically instead of horizontally would have helped?

A couple of blips in the fill, not surprising to see them where a down entry crosses two theme entries (DID I between SEYMOUR and IM NOT A DOCTOR, ON OR between I PLAY ONE ON TV and KLUGMAN). And as much as I like NUTELLA (both the entry and the product), DEN / ULE / EDS / ON CD (next to ON OR and ON TV) feels like a heavy price to pay for it. Tough call though — NUTELLA is so delicious. I see where Will is coming from on accepting short duplicated short words (TO, IN, AT, etc.) but three in such close proximity feels like a lot.

Fun idea; neat that Robyn managed to find four relatively well-known TV doctors with symmetrical lengths.

Wed 8/13/2014
STEPPEBUGJUICE
MENIALUNIONREP
ANGERMANAGEMENT
CARTINSILOS
HERBRICWISP
ANDIALLATINGLE
STENTUSERNOW
SHORTHAIR
MOBANATSEEYA
THEBREWERSICED
GOYAROCKLSD
ONCEABROKAW
LANGUAGEBARRIER
OCCURREDWEIRDO
DEEPENDSLASSOS

Nice "hidden words" theme today, one I didn't see coming. I liked how each language runs across two words, breaking the LANGUAGE BARRIER in a way. Juicy theme phrases too, ALL ATINGLE and THE BREWERS both ones that you don't see very often in crosswords. Will's comment was interesting to me — it took me long enough to figure out what the languages were, that I decided to highlight them below. I liked having to search them out, especially given that this is a Wednesday puzzle. Adds body to the solving experience.

Big, open corners give so much potential for long fill. Man oh man did I love uncovering BUG JUICE; what a beautiful entry. Same with I RESIGN. But filling a corner like that is a themeless-esque challenge, always calling for balancing snazz vs. cleanliness. Was BUG JUICE and I RESIGN worth the price of CEN, EPT (EPT is such an inept word)? Not sure. I bet Dan debated whether or not to break up BUG JUICE and go from 76 to 78 words in his puzzle.

The NW and SE corners were a much clearer case for me. I love getting ECLAIRS and YES WE DO as bonus material, and it comes at only the cost of ROS Asquith, who I know from children's lit but most people will not. Even if you don't know her though, the crossings are all fair. You might not even notice the ROS entry as you fill in the crossing words — such a minor little entry. Thumbs up on the decision to keep those two corners wide-open with long fill.

Finally, there was a clue/answer pair that took me ages to figure out. I stared at [They know beans] for the longest time, even having ?OYA in place. SOYA, perhaps? I ended up guessing (MTG feels like a weird abbreviation for "meeting") and scratched my head. Why would Francisco GOYA, the Spanish painter, know beans? Ah. It's the food company GOYA, a big supplier of beans. Clever!

Thu 8/14/2014
LTDSERRPALS
SHOPALEAHOLIC
DELIBEPIERATE
GENTVALLEBEN
TAOSAIRDARE
EMUCITROENMAR
LETMEBEANOMALY
REEDDEMO
DELILAHTRAITOR
EMOOMICRONOBI
LEARGREHOED
UNDERHUSPASS
IDIDNWITTDOIT
SENDSASLANOTE
EDGYYEEONYX

Fantastic idea. There have been many puzzles where words jump from one place to the next, or go off the edge and "warp" back to the other side, but I don't think I've seen an actual underpass like this (which actually looks like an underpass!). Really neat idea. I find it mesmerizing to look at the grid — like watching traffic patterns unfold around a cloverleaf.

It was too bad there wasn't a symmetrical entry to UNDERPASS. That might have made this one of my all-time favorites. Yes, it would be difficult to incorporate an extra themer, but it's definitely doable (assuming you could find something that fits — maybe something to the effect of DOWN AND OUT?). For those of you who don't want the curtain pulled back, skip the next paragraph.

magic trick

At first, it may seem like filling this grid is a magic trick, as you'd have to fill two disparate corners simultaneously through the breaks? But as with many eccentric constructions, it can be broken down into steps to make the process easier. After filling out the middle of the puzzle, you can put together a mini-grid (seen to the left) by squishing the two halves together (leaving the DELI of DELILAH and the ITOR of TRAITOR) and then filling normally. The results can then be transferred back to the original grid.

Finally, a note about three-letter words. Typically Will doesn't allow more than 22 of them except in special cases, because they break up a puzzle's solving flow and can be inelegant. From a construction standpoint, they can also cause problems. Check out all those threes running down the middle of the puzzle. Even though it looks like it should be easy to cleanly fill, it's not, because the number of acceptable three-letter words is limited. In fact, it would likely have been easier to fill this swath cleanly if it was four squares wide, because there are roughly 3x as many acceptable four-letter words than three-letter words!

A beautiful concept, strong enough that I didn't at all mind the blips here and there in the fill.

Fri 8/15/2014
ZAZUPCBSBABKA
SLIMERLEAPLAN
APPLEPIESNOURI
CARIBBEANSEA
AMOUNTSRETTON
REDTEAHAIRLIKE
CHESSMOCSETES
TIRADES
ATMSMERCHAJJI
RHAPSODYAILEEN
RELIEFRANLATE
PACIFICOCEAN
TIRESSUPERGLUE
ILIUMABELEURO
CLAPSKARLSCIS

So sad that my original clue for HAIRLIKE didn't make it in: [Quality of a quality rug?].

Sat 8/16/2014
GYPSYJAZZEPCOT
NOTYOUTOOPLUTO
AHAMOMENTOATES
TERMPAKUNSURE
SAMESMSOLYMPIA
VITUSGUMS
DEGREEMILLSMCS
SHAYMEDEASAHL
TONDIDISTUTTER
METAENATE
BEERBELLYDRDRE
AIRBUSIANWAIL
HEALSWARCRIMES
TITUSINDISPOSE
SOOEYMESSTENTS

Beautiful work from one of the up-and-coming young male indie constructors. Peter does something unusual today, merging triple-stacks together in the NW and SE corners. That's not often done, because it's hard to work those big L-shaped corners while keeping fill both lively and snazzy. It's tough enough to make three entries work well together in a triple-stack, and much, much more difficult to make six entries mesh.

The NW especially shows gold-medal execution. Not only does Peter have a fantastic triple-stack in GYPSY JAZZ (Django is one of my favorite musicians; awesome to see him get his due) / NOT YOU TOO / AHA MOMENT, but he crosses those with YO HEAVE HO. And single-word entries can often feel neutral or fall flat, but PTARMIGAN has that coolly bizarre PT- start, and SYMMETRY is so crosswordy. Nary a glue entry, too.

The young male indie movement isn't for everyone, of course. This is only the second time I've heard of DID I STUTTER (the first time was when another young male constructor showed me a grid for review). I'm sure certain solvers will love this entry, but it didn't do anything for me — the dangers of featuring a "hip" phrase which won't near-universally resonate. It's hard to predict if certain "fresh" phrases will have staying power or they'll fall by the wayside and quickly feel passe.

Ingenious layout, leading to a huge number of quality entries with very few minuses. Extremely hard to execute these big L corners, and Peter did a bang-up job today.

Sun 8/17/2014SITTIN' SOLVE
WHATNASASWABTLC
PHILOODINNOBUHEE
WRITINWRONGAWAYWEGO
DEISTIOSGORPCIARA
JACKINCOKEROCKINROLL
SKYNOSESWATHELDOPA
IMFROTISASHAKAN
SPATIALLOLLTHARIDE
NEWSSTANDLEDAGGRESS
AREASRAPVIDEOEEO
GEDSBARRINGRILLBING
INOCONGEALSHOMIE
EVENINGSERISTHATALL
LEAPERMSAHLSOURCES
MRSPREOPCASESLY
STYLIGRAVENMINIZEE
TIMINAGAINSHOWINTELL
COMTEYNEZAJAOASIS
MANPURSECUTTINPASTE
ALECITEKNEENUTTY
PSYKEELSEERAPSE

Fun concept, X AND Y phrases given a phonetic twist to form kooky X'IN Y results. Some great themers in this one, WRITIN' WRONG easily my favorite (as it explains all my typoes).

Amazing amount of interlock today. I highlighted the theme answers to demonstrate. Yes, most of them are pretty easy to cross since every theme answer includes "IN," but check out how he's crossed THREE theme entries apiece in the NW and SE. Not only is it hard to figure out how to cross all those answers, but it makes filling much more challenging due to the high number of fixed constraints.

Caleb does well to add a big block of cheater squares in the NW and SE to help compensate for the filling difficulties. The SE comes out amazingly clean for a section that by all rights should require more glue. The NW is pretty good too, although seeing PHILO / WOOER / ROTI all in one region is not optimal. It's beautiful work overall.

Will brings up an interesting point. I had a tough time with this puzzle due to the heavy focus on up-to-date references for which I'm far outside the target audience. I did know MAN PURSE and SNAPCHAT, two great answers. And while I love learning one or two new nuggets (VINES, who knew?) and am good with three or four, more than that feels like drinking from a fire hose. I'd personally prefer these freshies to be spread out over multiple puzzles so that each one has more of a mass audience appeal. I can appreciate Will's general philosophy of wanting the puzzle constructor's personality to come through, though.

My out-of-touch-with-recent-pop-culture tendencies aside, it's a great piece of work. Ultra-high theme density (12!) achieved by high interlock, with both snazzy and clean fill.

P.S. It's not a purse! It's EUROPEAN!

Mon 8/18/2014
CADSCOWSTIFF
OPENIONEPOOLE
OSCARBAITAUTOS
PEKOECOLORCAST
CHECHNYAASS
ASHDIETNN
TOADASAPASSET
AFISHOUTOFWATER
DARTSPELLMALE
UTEIAMTSK
SADBLACKEYE
UNDERBITETASKS
SEINEMOVIEREEL
MEETSOMANDANE
CRUSTSSNSLOW

All this time I've been sitting on my laurels, thinking that Jill Denny and I would be the most prolific married couple constructing pair (we have two more accepted, in the queue for publication). Ruh-roh. Enter the newlywed Livengoods (congrats!), a good bet to become a force in constructing power. Today they bring us a clever juxtaposition, with A FISH OUT OF WATER tied to the actual fishng process: BAIT, CAST, BITE, REEL. Not being a fisherman, I was a little confused why you need to bite the fish before reeling it in. Fishing is much more violent than I imagined.

Excellent grid work, with no less than eight pieces of long fill. Note how the long downs are spread out across the width of the puzzle (i.e., TOUCAN SAM hardly interacts with POLICE VAN)? That's a beautiful way to do it, as one set won't affect the next too much. Good spacing and little overlap makes it much easier to achieve clean fill.

Interesting, that NE corner. The rest of the puzzle is so clean and lively, that POOLE stuck out for me. It's absolutely reasonable to put in a not well-known entry into a Monday puzzle (as long as the crossings are fair), but POOLE strikes me as one of those entries that might not be crossworthy. Perhaps if it had been clued to something historically relevant? This is a good example of trade-offs. TOUCAN SAM is such a nice answer. When it and COLORCAST are fixed into place though, sometimes a POOLE-ish answer is required.

I like seeing a glimpse of the constructor's lives in a puzzle, and it was fun to see ASSET clued with a bschool definition (Ian's starting at Drexel in the fall). Learning how to properly record depreciation and amortization in an accounting ledger... less fun. Sorry, man. It gets better.

Bring it on, Livengoods! Dr. and Mr. Denny are in the trenches, working away.

Tue 8/19/2014
MEDALSCAPTURES
BIALIKGROUPONS
ARTIFICIALBRAIN
SEETHAENDS
QUASHPDA
GETUPTHECOURAGE
OREORUSTKIX
LASDOROTHYIVE
ASLATOIAVER
NEARTOONESHEART
USEENTER
STABZACDRE
YELLOWBRICKROAD
NAKEDEYEKLUTZY
CLASSISMSENSES

Debut! And such a fun one. I love the ambition. Working with four grid-spanning themers is hard, as that necessitates a lot of down entries crossing two themers. To add in two interlocking 7's (DOROTHY and HEROINE) plus OZ is reaching for the stars.

Loved the OZ reveal and how it's at the end of the YELLOW BRICK ROAD. Hard to believe that no one's thought of executing this theme like Sam did.

As with most audacious constructions, there are trade-offs. Good thing I had vaguely heard of ZAC Efron (a person I follow on Twitter is obsessed with him), because the Z of ENZI is not at all inferable. There are a few more spots that felt pretty crunchy to me, but that's bound to happen with these layer upon layers of constraints. I was actually surprised to see that there weren't more glue entries necessary.

Take the NE and SW corners, for example. Because Sam had to deploy so many of his black squares around the center of the grid, he was forced into using big, wide-open corners. And for a first construction, they're not too shabby. GROUPONS is a fresh entry (although we'll see how long Groupon stays in business). CGI and SSNS are perfectly fine by themselves, but amassed with ENID and ARA makes for a bit of inelegance. Tough to fill these themeless-like spaces with quality and smoothness.

Finally, what a nice SE corner. Not easy at all, considering OZ sits diagonally and Sam had no flexibility in YELLOW BRICK ROAD's placement. To work in KLUTZY is not at all klutzy.

Wed 8/20/2014
HARDGLILACRAG
ABHORAMISHESL
RRATEDMOVIEDIA
MAPWEAKSSTAR
SEWERUPSTAGE
TROWEPRICEEGOS
SIDEAFLATS
AMYRELEASECEO
SYRIAALLAH
ONTVLFRANKBAUM
FORESEELOESS
NSYNCFISTSAE
OHSESTREETBAND
TETNOMENLUCKY
EDSESSESESTAS

I had no idea what the theme was until I hit FREE — very nice a-ha moment. Six theme entries, each starting with a FREE Wheel of Fortune letter, and they're listed in order. A nice touch.

Six themers are no joke; quite bit harder to work with than five. It's that much more impressive that C.C. was able to also incorporate the FREE revealer, and do it in an elegant location. It's not the last entry or in a bottom corner (my subjective preference), but that lowest middle slot is still pretty nice. Cool how she interlocked it with E STREET BAND, too.

That FREE position doesn't come free, though. The interlock creates an additional layer of constraint, and thus the south section becomes harder to fill cleanly (one of the two areas Will changed in her original grid). I wasn't sure what NOMEN were, but the term was interesting to look up. I bet C.C. was thinking more of NO MEN, as at a bachelorette party? I imagine it would have been clued as such if this had been pegged into a Monday or Tuesday slot.

I admired the idea behind this puzzle and its cool reveal. It would have been nice if all six entries were longer than the rest of the across answers so they didn't need asterisks — that would have been more elegant in my opinion. And how awesome if N DIMENSIONAL made its crossword debut! (Sorry, the math geek in me overfloweth.) But six long themers would have been much, much harder to execute on — imagine if S STAR became (WARNING: chemistry dorkout alert) S ORBITALS, how much interaction it would have had with R RATED MOVIE and T ROWE PRICE. A much more difficult task.

Thu 8/21/2014
TEMPCLASSRAPT
ALAWSAMOAASHE
CAKEPLEPSITION
ITERTARREDANA
TEAPTLEIEPNYM
FLORAFLAP
SHIITEWIICELS
POSTOFFICEBOXES
YETIEONGARTER
CARLMESNE
DEISMLOOSPNGE
ELSISOLDEPSAT
PISONPWDERPITH
SOURKEIRAEVEN
ETESEDENSREDO

Rebuses have come a long way. Browse the huge list to get a sense for this genre's evolution (mouse over the dates to get a thumbnail view!). At first it was simply any set of letters without any reason. People then made shapes out of rebus squares, and even tied them to revealers. These days, rebi with rationale for why there are rebus squares are de rigueur — today, the rebus squares are literally PO "boxes." Neat idea, similar to CRUSHED ICE, etc.

I hadn't even noticed that the four rebus containers all 1.) use two words and 2.) start each word with a PO box. Now that's nice consistency and elegance. Sometimes I prefer less order in my rebuses, so I have to work at sussing out where they are, but in this case, I liked seeing the order afterward.

I did find POISON POWDER less compelling than the other themers, which all pop (warning, bad joke ahead), especially POPCORN POPPER. Do schemers put POISON POWDER in wine, or just poison? Methinks the latter, but I could easily be wrong. Now if it had been IOCAINE POWDER...

And as much as I liked the consistency factor, I could do without some of the glue that this constraint necessitated. MESNE and ITER are just two entries in a 76 word grid, but they're pretty old school. One is pretty easy to overlook, two feels crunchy. And having A MERE and A LAW near two of those PO boxes makes me wonder if removing the consistency to produce a smoother fill would have been better. Tough call.

Where will rebuses go next? Tough to say, but I'm looking forward to the next evolutionary step in their development. Evolve or bust!

Fri 8/22/2014
BBQSANDWICHHEH
SAUDIARABIAINO
TRAINSIGNALBAM
AHIGAVETEAMO
ROLLEEWESDCON
SPAYFRANKGEHRY
STEALROYALISM
MILSLR
ITSMAGICIPADS
DEEPTHROATARTY
CATETRAPPHYLA
AMIGARAGAFUN
RUNBLISTERPACK
DSTLAKEONTARIO
SAOEZERWEIZMAN

Some strong entries in today's puzzle, with BBQ SANDWICH and BLISTER PACK singing to me. The former makes my mouth water, and the latter is the focus of one of my product design projects during my first (engineering) career. You'd be amazed at how much work goes into foil thickness, adhesive selection, failure mode and effects analysis, etc. (amazed... or asleep, perhaps).

I like the variety today. Sam shortens up his NE and SW corners, putting more onus on the across entries to carry the puzzle's snazz. A nice example of a constructor experienced enough (how old is this kid, anyway?) to be able to create his own block patterns to fit the entries he wants. To get up to that point of construction skill is no mean feat.

I got a hint of choppiness during my solve, and I couldn't figure out why until I studied the grid. So many three-letter words — a whopping 18 of them. Typically Will prefers 12 or fewer, and there's a good reason for that: most have been used so frequently in crosswords that a super-hard clue is sometimes needed in order to keep the solver from blazing through the puzzle. I found myself stuck in the NE with nowhere to go, for example. Using so many three-letter words can allow for a higher number of headline entries (or longer ones), but there's a price to pay. And if you do need to lean on the heavier glue (LA-Z, SDI, INO), the effect can be less elegant than desired.

Still, there are a great number of strong 11-letter entries. That length occurs less frequently than 10's and 9's and 8's in themelesses, because using an 11 usually means pairing it with a three-letter word. So it's a treat to get EZER WEIZMAN's full name in there, as well as TRAIN SIGNAL and its nice clue, misdirecting the solver to a music conductor.

POW Sat 8/23/2014
AMBITFOULBEDS
PEACEADZEARIA
EACHCLUEINPSST
XTCSACTATAMI
FADPEPSSITAR
ERROLTHEPUZZLE
SEAGODATONE
PETSULLIEDSTY
MEDEATEMPER
ISMISSINGROLES
QUASIAXONBIT
TINCTSAAATEA
ETTUTHELETTERN
SOREAUDIOWNED
TRASTRUEPADDY

★ Loved this. Just loved it. Not at all what I expect out of a Saturday puzzle, but I love that too (that's saying a lot, coming from a man who greatly values his routines). I went through the clues once and wrote in exactly zero answers. Momentary freak-out. I almost punted, but I'm so glad I didn't. Enough of the clues sounded odd that something seemed up. There had to be a trick. A Thursday-ish trick on a Saturday! Each clue is indeed missing the letter N (sometimes more than once), producing some great confusion and fun. Big thumbs up.

As Will noted, my favorites were the ones which seemed perfectly normal. [Dramatic cry from people who get subbed] for example made me think about LEAVE ME IN or PLAY ME or something, but it's actually [Dramatic cry from people who get sNubbed]. That's fantastic misdirection. Same goes for the like of [Be-___] which really is [BeN-___].

I did like some of the wacky clues too, like the one for LEIA. But some of them were weaker than others, and a few of those lesser ones gave away the trick for me a little too easily. If each one of the clues had been perfectly normal sounding, I might have added this one to my short list for all-time favorites. Additionally, I wonder if running it on a Saturday was a good thing? I loved the change-up, but I think Will's right about some people grousing about missing out on their Saturday workout.

[Cagey parts, e.g.] to [CagNey parts, e.g.]. [Covert, maybe] to [CoNvert, maybe]. [Covered with slug mud] to [Covered with sluNg mud]. And [Refusal from a boy lass] to [Refusal from a bonny lass]. Dang, I had so much fun solving this well-constructed gem.

Sun 8/24/2014SECOND SHIFT
ASARULEBICARBBELAY
BONUSESROADEOSEXILE
BLOTACTIONRIFLEDELTA
YENSHEMSLEIDETECTOR
BEEBSOUSAW
SLIVERMINESTLCROW
CONWAYBRAOFCHOCOLATE
AVASTTEAMPLAYDANTE
LEWTARSUITSPOSTOP
DIARYMAIDSETTLERS
NYUMILESSLEEKICU
SMALLCARERAOFCORN
LICHENNOLANSEAUSE
ASADAEYEPIECESOPUP
SATINLESSSTEELSTELLA
SKEEADSCLODCEREAL
ASKGEEMEIR
CALMCHOWDERAPSEHMOS
AXIOMCROONERSINQUEST
DEFOEHARRIETSCUTTLE
SLEDSPAGERSTEASHOP

I love to climb. At my gym, I top out at roughly 5.11c, and it's all over the place whether I can do one 5.11c vs. another. Some are spectacular flame-outs involving blood and skin (fun level = zero). Some I eventually get with a wing and a massive prayer, but it sure ain't pretty. Some require ridiculously specialized ability only a few people possess. And a select few I earn with huge satisfaction after struggling, working, trying something new, falling, but eventually overcoming a masterful puzzle created by a great route-setter.

Patrick's puzzle today was the last case for me today. I wasn't sure if I would actually complete it, but when I finally reached the finish, I marveled at how well it pushed me in all the right ways; a crazy hard workout, expertly laid-out. Very, very difficult, but no never-seen-in-real-life entries, no esoteric people crossing each other, no feeling that anything was unfair. Everything was within my abilities, if I worked hard enough. That's what I want out of a 5.11c crossword.

One category of clue that people will be asking about: check out LEASE and DECOYS. [Letter arrangement?] gave me fits, trying to figure out if it had to do with words or logos or even anagrams? But when I thought of "letter" as a person who lets a room, it all snapped to. Nice. After that little a-ha moment, [Game drawers] made itself apparent — think of it as [Game draw-ers].

Great exercise today; pushed me to strain some solver muscles I didn't know I had.

Mon 8/25/2014
STEMASSTPABST
TOTEPOLOROUTE
ALTAPROFELMOS
BLUNDERBUSSBLT
TRAYSTETLEY
ZESTERTENSE
INTOWGAMETABLE
NYUMYBADEAT
CAMERAMANUPEND
BEAMSPHASES
APLOMBAKRON
LIEBOBBLEHEADS
LABELONUSLEAK
INUSELETTERIE
NOMADORZODOSE

Just a few months ago, my wife pointed out the word BLUNDERBUSS, saying it would make the seed for a nice crossword. We never got any further than that, so it's impressive to see Greg's discovery. Four fun words, symmetrically paired, all starting with a synonym for "error"? That's crossword gold.

For only his third NYT puzzle, Greg has gotten up the learning curve extremely fast. Monday puzzles are so challenging to construct, because the best ones not only avoid rough crossings and esoteric entries, but also steer away from those inelegant partials, pluralized names, excessive initialisms, etc. And look what Greg's achieved today. There's an ASST here, an ABA there, but it's all minor dings within a smooth body. He's even managed to work in two pretty good long entries, GAME TABLE and CAMERA MAN, which can be tough to do using this "pinwheel" arrangement of themers.

Perhaps the only subsection that could have used a tiny bit of cleanup is the SE — because it's not heavily constrained, it shouldn't be hard to redo that to remove SKEE and AERO. I do like that [___-Ball] can make life easier for a starting solver, but I don't think it's a terribly elegant answer.

Amazing that Greg found these four entries. I especially like that etymologies of BLUNDER-, BUMBLE-, and BOBBLE- are different enough from the "error" meaning that it hides the theme a little, giving the solver a chance to discover this nice a-ha. It would have been perfect if STUMBLEBUM didn't already refer to as "A person regarded as blundering or inept." But again, that's quite a minor issue.

Nice touch with the symmetrically placed "bonus entries," SORRY, MY BAD, KLUTZ. I hadn't noticed them; nice to see those Easter eggs!

Tue 8/26/2014
PRISMDEBTHAUL
SANTAAREAOGRE
ADARKMARCOPOLO
LILIESTONE
MILKPUNCHADLIB
EELERSFINE
TETATNOAMOEBA
ONEACREIFORGET
PENNEYACROEDS
IMONSHEETS
CYRUSMISSPIGGY
LASEHONORE
MENLOPARKINDIA
PANECREENERDS
SUEDASSNTRYST

Nice way to incorporate six themers into a puzzle. Typically that feat can be a rough go, but Vic wisely takes advantage of the simple theme by crossing two pairs of MP phrases at the P. Not sure that MISS PIGGY is going to appreciate being crossed by MOOT POINT (and SINNER) though. Vic's a braver man than me.

With a basic theme type, it's so important to choose strong themers. M___ P___ phrases are plentiful, so Vic had a big range to choose from. At first I thought MILK PUNCH fell flat, but after reading about the New Orleans treat, I reconsidered. I got a little tipsy just reading that recipe.

Vic and I exchanged emails on the use of cheaters. Notice the pair today at the end of EELERS and the beginning of SHEETS? I would personally use those ten out of ten times if they improved the fill even marginally. Sometimes cheater squares can look inelegant (especially if there are a lot of them), but in this case I think they almost add to the visual appeal. I thought the fill was well done today aside from a bit of AFRESH and ATNO, so I'm glad Vic went the extra step.

Vic does well to fill through those difficult NW and SE corners, both of which are constrained, big sections. Those short two-word entries like GO DRY are so important, as they help smooth out these tough to fill areas, and do it in a way that adds a little pizzazz. Sometimes people ask me why GO DRY (or IN ALL) isn't a partial, but A DARK is. There is the "lexical chunk" rule: can the phrase stand by itself? Generally, if it can't be clued without a fill-in-the-blank, it's a partial.

I like A DARK and stormy night though. Not only is it part of Madeleine L'Engle's famous "A Wrinkle in Time," but it spawned a contest for bad first lines. If you're going to use a five-letter partial, that's the way to do it.

Wed 8/27/2014
ABJECTSHIVFTC
ROADEOCALIORE
CONGERLINESAID
OKAYEEOTAMPA
FRANKZAPPER
NEWMOONOESTE
ACHOOICKALE
CHARLIETHETUNER
LOTRCASAUDI
ALTARSPARTAN
SALESQUOTER
ERASEVANERST
LIUTUBERPLAYER
MEGSKINAERATE
ASHEEGSLENNIE

Letter substitution theme today, words ending in A changed to ER with wacky results. Some of them really amused me, TUBER PLAYER eliciting a laugh and FRANK ZAPPER being gold (if the FRANK ZAPPER were sold on infomercials, my grandma would buy at least one). CONGER LINES could have fallen flat, but a fun clue rescues it. "Eel Trovatore," a pun on "Il Trovatore," still makes me giggle.

Five themers are no joke, especially when they're all long. At 11/11/15/11/11, this puzzle is packed to the gills. Gareth and David do a nice job with the fill, even incorporating two long pieces of fill. FOAM PEANUT is nice, and WHAT A LAUGH is snappy. My personal preference is to fill puzzles with uplifting entries, hopefully sending the solver off on a high, so it would have been perfect if WHAT A LAUGH had somehow been clued as a reaction to something actually funny. I suppose the sarcastic approach is more accurate though.

For such high theme density, it's amazing that really only one spot stuck out to me, the OESTE and ITA area in the middle. Unfortunately, they're sort of linked by ICK — not the greatest subconscious influence on solvers. I might not have even noticed those two entries if they had been spread out. For example, I glossed over ERST and MOR because they were all by themselves, almost unnoticeable pieces of glue.

Sometimes I wonder if the trend toward more and more theme density is a good thing. CHARLIE THE TUNA didn't do much for me, and without it, there could have been a lot more long fill in the puzzle without the need for any glue. As always, trade-offs.

Thu 8/28/2014
ADPAGESARBSIC
NEARISHMAESTRO
NOTASTEINATRAP
ARIBOLDNAVY
NOELOUTERARM
NEPHEWSRECUE
ITTROANISNTIT
DIARISTMODERNE
EGRESSWAWAESS
SEETOFACADES
TRAINCARRSVP
TWADDLEASIA
TANLINEOFFSETS
SISENORMODELAS
ARCGESBRASALE

This one's bound to be divisive, some people loving these definitional puzzles, some people hating them. I appreciate Ned's extra layer here — DOWN WARDs oriented downward — a fun play on word WARD.

This type of definitional puzzle used to be prevalent, most often four definitions of a common word like BROWN. I personally enjoy them immensely when the grid entries read as in-the-language phrases, which adds such an elegance to the theme. For instance, PRISON WING is an entry I wouldn't hesitate to use in filling one of my own puzzles. It's hard to find enough in-the-language phrases that fit a theme like this!

The knock on these types of puzzles is that often the theme entries read as stilted, a dictionary definition. Entering ACTRESS SELA can be sort of like homework, a bit like summarizing an Wikipedia entry in an loosey-goosey way. The fact that it could be a number of things like AUTHOR WARD or CSI:NY STAR or TV STAR SELA makes it less elegant in my book.

I have a lot of admiration for constructors still working in graph paper (or Excel). On one hand it strikes me as Luddite behavior — if you use a computer, why not use software? — but how many constructors would have come up with BRA SALE if it hadn't already been in their word list? On the other hand, a software-assisted approach would have allowed evaluating many more grid patterns and black square positions, in order to eliminate the E FOR and RECUE kind of stuff Ned mentioned. Not a clear answer for me which is better; I appreciate the variety of approaches.

Fri 8/29/2014
CROWDSOURCEALE
HONORSYSTEMLAX
INANUTSHELLORC
REGMATELEBEAU
PLEBRERINEVIS
SYRUPRICOBEDE
CAPNEDROREM
RACHAELTOSPARE
EDHARRISMVP
ADENMACYPETIT
RICANTHARDAME
ETHNOSMMIVIGA
XINMARIACALLAS
IVYANDTHENSOME
TEARESTASSURED

Congrats to Dani for his first themeless! He follows a tried and true path, essentially creating four triple-stacks (one in each corner) and seeding them with new phrases.

What makes for a good seed entry? A snappy phrase in itself is great, but I think something that lends itself to a clever clue makes it even better. CROWD SOURCE is a nice 1-Across, a strong way to start the puzzle. But the clue is straightforward, because it kind of needs to be — if the solver doesn't know the term already, any sort of wordplay will be lost on him/her. Introducing new entries into the crossword lexicon is a tricky business.

REST ASSURED is another great phrase — hard to believe it hasn't been used before. Not only is it snazzy, but it's so commonly heard that a clever clue could have been employed. A missed opportunity there, as ["Don't worry ..."] is a pretty easy clue. But then again, it is Friday, not Saturday, and I'm all for making some themeless puzzles more accessible to newcomers.

So tricky to knit an entire themeless together without glue. It's often near impossible to get by without any at all, so I think a good approach is to draw from different types of glue to help fool the solver into glossing over the crunchy bits. If there's a partial here, a random Roman numeral there, a plural name in a corner, so be it. It's so much easier to notice when a majority of it comes from one arena.

In today's case, Dani does a nice job with the fill, but there's so much concentrated in esoteric names that it sticks out: LEBEAU, EMLEN, RERI, NEVIS, LIAT. As Will mentioned, LEBEAU crossing EMLEN will be rough on some solvers, especially because I can see people putting in LA BEAU / EMLAN. I vaguely know Dick LEBEAU but even as a rabid football fan growing up in the golden age of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, it didn't come easily to me.

The NW and SE stacks are quite nice; always a plus to get three strong entries atop each other. Each one being a multiple-word entry is a real bonus.

Sat 8/30/2014
LOMBARDGOGOBAR
AZOBLUEOVERATE
ZZZQUILGANGSTA
AFIINTEGRASID
RELYGOLLYMAME
USLAWIKEBALER
STASHEDSEERESS
MIXDIY
FITINTOJUNKART
UPONENAEGATOR
JANEPAPASYOGI
IDEALDENTEMAP
TALARIAAOLMAIL
SPONGERROSANNE
UPCCODEPLAYTEX

Years ago, Eugene Maleska was known for eschewing brand names, going so far as to clue OREO as [Mountain: Comb. form]. I'm glad that Will broke that rule to allow for a wider range of entries from all walks of life. But it raises a question I've been thinking about: what belongs (and doesn't belong) in the NYT crossword?

This is a tough question I'll likely continue wrestling with for years, but one criteria I'm mulling over is "Would you see the entry in the pages of the NYT?" As with any endeavor, I think it's important to focus on one's (warning, annoying business school term ahead) market differentiation. The LA Times puzzle is a different beast for a more conservative audience, Matt Gaffney's genius metas play to a specific type of uber-solver, and the indie puzzles draw a crowd that's young and hip like I pretend to be.

Many will disagree with me, saying this criteria is irrelevant, but it does help me understand why I love JUNK ART and IPAD ADD as entries, and am plus/minus on ZZZQUIL. The former entries are both snazzy and feel like they're taken right out of the Sunday Styles and Business sections, respectively. Spot on. No doubt ZZZQUIL is a fun entry because of the high Scrabble score, but it feels like something that belongs more in an indie puzzle. NYQUIL is a big business for Vicks, so I think that's fair game. Will ZZZQUIL stand the test of time and make it big, or will future solvers look back and ask what the heck ZZZQUIL was? I'm not sure, but I'd lean toward the latter.

On a different note, I really appreciate David's wise-beyond-his-years approach to make a wide range of solvers happy. With millions of customers, you're never going to satisfy all of them, but his effort to play to as many as possible is well-considered. I'd personally prefer to get a little something out of each puzzle, rather than have some puzzles be right on target for me / some puzzles fall completely out of my interest zone.

POW Sun 8/31/2014HEARD AT THE MOVIES
MISSUSABROWSBVDTAG
ENLACESRENECLAIRAPR
CHALLAHBOWEDHEAVEBRA
CANVASOORTFBIMOON
ALTOHONDAWATTAFFRONT
SESBELSPOLEAYES
SALAAMINCELEM
DWELLFIERCESUSSLAVE
GRAILSTOONPAYTELL
NUTSOCAROLJINNENTO
AGETHUGODDFODDERTOR
SLRSYEASWUSSYUTURN
HARTPITCAREASHAME
WARDENHAIRYPEEPHOLE
STARAREHAMPER
INRECRABSAIDJAM
HOWTOUGHHAVERIGALOSE
AMISBEAOTOENLEAST
ZENBESTPICTUREWINNER
EGGINTERNEESSARDINE
LASOSSENTREEYELETS

★ Really nice Sunday puzzle, featuring BEST PICTURE WINNERs sounded out through strung together words. I enjoyed sussing out the titles, WARDEN HAIRY PEEPHOLE my favorite. It's too bad the themers weren't clued wackily, as that one could have been hilarious. Since it took me a long time to suss out CHALLAH BOWED HEAVE = ALL ABOUT EVE, here's the list:

  • ALL ABOUT EVE
  • ON THE WATERFRONT
  • 12 YEARS A SLAVE
  • THE GODFATHER
  • WAR DENARII PEEP-PULL (about the black market trade, fighting over Easter treats. Or maybe ORDINARY PEOPLE)
  • OUT OF AFRICA

Note the wide variety, chosen over a multitude of film eras. Joel picks a couple early ones, a recent winner, and a few scattered in between. Nice that there's something for everyone.

And as I'd expect out of a Joel puzzle, it's expertly crafted. Very little glue, which is so tough to do in a Sunday puzzle, and even harder to do in a 136 word Sunday puzzle. Not many people dip into that range, and very few come out with a puzzle as clean as this. Just a bit of EMAG, OSS, ELEM, ESE kind of stuff is well worth the price of strong fill as DRUG LAWS, WATER RAT, MEL TORME, APPIAN WAY, SEASHELLS, etc.

The sheer volume of good long fill is incredible. Hit the "Analyze" button below the grid to see just how many non-theme long answers he's incorporated. As a point of reference, many Sunday puzzles are successful if they incorporate just two pieces of good long fill. I'm still not quite sure how he made it look so easy, but a big part of it is that Joel was very careful to spread out his white space so not one section was vast and thus hard to fill.

Speaking of ESE, it took me forever to understand the clue even after I finished the puzzle. [Tip of the tongue?] refers to ESE getting added to words to form a dialect, i.e. BROOKLYN becomes BROOKLYNESE. Took me a while, but I like the playful repurposing of a common phrase to add spice to an otherwise blah entry.