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Puzzles for August, 2016
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (28)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (4)Hide comments
Mon 8/1/2016

TO DO LIST hinting at "phrases that start with TO* and DO*." I was glad to get that revealer — as I was solving, I thought there might be a football theme going on, with six TDs. It's much harder to get TO* DO* phrases than T* D* phrases, so I liked the extra effort.

I also liked the big thinking, with those chunky upper right and lower left corners. Those roughly 6x6 areas are so tough to fill smoothly for a Monday puzzle. Some solvers/constructors are going to detest the black cheater squares at the very NE / SW of the puzzle, saying those are visually inelegant and/or too much of a crutch, but I don't mind them. If they allow a constructor to generate a more colorful, smooth section, I say by all means! (Just as long as not too many are used.)

And what great results in the NE. Nothing is a standout answer, but the entire region has nary a hitch. I wonder if some solvers will complain about RENOWN, but I'm a big fan of LESTER Brown and His Band of RENOWN, so it seems perfectly fine to me. Getting an OTTER and a DOMINO is pretty fun, too.

And even though this area is more sectioned off from the rest of the puzzle than I like — if you blacked out the H in TOOTHPASTE, you'd completely isolate the corner — at least there are two answers connecting it to the rest of the puzzle in TOOTHPASTE and TOUCHDOWN. Much better to me than one answer-type choke-offs.

The SW didn't turn out as nice. I'd expect to see a minor gluey bit or two in a big corner like this, so SNO is perfectly reasonable. So is RTE. DATER feels a bit made-up, and NOT EAT even more so. I especially didn't care for the latter since ATE is also in the grid. (This is a common dupe that drives constructors crazy, since EAT / ATE phrases are so useful, but you can't easily catch a duplication because the letter strings aren't identical.)

Darn it, now I'm thinking about eating chips while watching football. TOUCHDOWN!

Tue 8/2/2016

Puns on *LESS words today. I really liked the ones involving a drastic change to the first part of the word, SEAMLESS my favorite. So funny to think about a coal miner, his/her shoulders sagging as he/she waves bye-bye to a beloved work site. BASELESS was amusing too, evoking a picture of a soldier roaming the world, BASE-less like a ronin.

Seven themers are rarely easy to fit into a grid. Paula does have the huge advantage of working with seven themers sharing a common four-letter ending, which makes intersecting themers much easier than normal (MOTIONLESS / SEAMLESS). Still, all those themers take up so much space that there are bound to be compromises in the short fill.

I like that Paula tried for some bonus fill, even what with the seven-themer challenge. Entries like POOL CUE, THE CAPE, MY STARS, IN HELL, even a little PASCAL (one of my first programming languages!) added zest to my solve.

I see you though, ISOLA, ON OR, EMAG, ENCL, MTGE, etc. That's too much in one puzzle for my taste, but I can appreciate Paula's decision to push the boundaries, using a good amount of crossword glue in order to cram in some bonus fill. Ah, the trade-offs constructors are eternally faced with.

[It has arms and waves] hinting at SEA made me laugh. I love that kind of riddle, as they remind me of many a beloved children's book I read as a kid. Or yesterday. (A major reason why I'm able to read more than 100 books a year is because most of them have "for kids age 9-12" on the back cover.)

I didn't love the themers where the kooky definition was a little too similar to the original meaning — HELPLESS is defined as "unable to ... act without help," which doesn't seem very different from the kooky clue — but I thought the idea was generally neat and made for an entertaining solve.

Wed 8/3/2016

Literalisms today, using song titles. As Neville mentioned, I've seen this sort of concept enough times to recognize immediately what was going on, so I really appreciated that he went above and beyond with his consistency and tightness. During my solve, I noticed every level of self-imposed constraints he pointed out. Very nice touch.

Even though I wasn't familiar with all the songs — I didn't totally recognize ROLLING in the DEEP and DANCING in the DARK — I did like Neville's thinking about "something for everyone," trying to broaden the spectrum of solvers that will appreciate the puzzle. He's a strong enough constructor that I had a feeling this was part of his thought process. Nice to hear from him that it indeed was.

Some excellent bonuses too, FOUND MONEY the standout. Who doesn't like reaching into a pair of shorts you haven't washed in eight months to find a $20 bill?

What, you wash your shorts more than every eight months? Me too. Ahem.

Neville is recent math Ph.D. graduate (congrats!), so it was fun to see the clue for AUNT. At first, I couldn't remember what PEMDAS was a mnemonic for but it came back quickly: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction. Good to remember in case you have to solve some math formulas involving a mix of multiplication, subtraction, exponents, natural logs, factorials, second-order derivatives … (I just felt a bunch of you shudder)

AL OERTER is an interesting piece of fill. I learned him from crosswords, as that TER ending and those juicy vowels makes OERTER very useful for six-letter slots. But what a cool piece of trivia — amazing feat to win four consecutive gold medals!

I had to look up AXE and [Chopper], as I just couldn't believe they were synonymous. Were they new slang I'm not cool enough to know? (An AXE is slang for a guitar, and a chopper is slang for a certain type of motorcycle.) I felt pretty silly when I realized [Chopper] just meant "thing that chops." (groan)

Nice clean grid, really just the arbitrary time ONE PM and a MULTI prefix. Well-executed puzzle overall.

Thu 8/4/2016

This puzzle got the BOOT! Neat to see the Os in various cars become Qs, that little diagonal line looking like an actual boot — if you write the Q in uppercase, that is. I imagine the people scribbling a lowercase "q" didn't have much of an idea of what was going on.

Very cool visual. I especially liked the NAVIGATQR, as the Q was in the back tire spot, where you usually see boots. In contrast, it felt odd to see the wheel and boot in the middle of EXPLQRER and CHERQKEE. Still, I appreciated Jonathan's effort of choosing four well-known car models from four well-known car makers, and tightening his choices by only using models with exactly one O.

Fun to get PRIVATE EYES, TRIFECTA, and DRONE BEE, too; all nice bonuses. I wasn't as much a fan of PRACTICABLE. It is a real word, but that 11-letter space is such prime real estate. It's a bit like a prized piece of land going into a bidding war … and the winner turns it into a parking lot.

As with his debut puzzle, there were a few rough spots in the fill. It's perfectly passable to have a bit of minor N DAK, TOITY (can only be clued one way), DIAS, since most grids — especially ones with so many hard-to-work-with Qs — will require some compromises. It's less elegant to have ASLANT and ASWIRL crossing each other, which makes them stand out even more. (They are real words, but especially ASWIRL has an old-timey feel that personally makes me wince.)

All in all, I would have preferred more car-like visuals, as with a previous Gorski puzzle. I did like the fact that each themer getting the boot was an actual car, but I would have loved the puzzle if each themer had exactly two Os, one at the second slot and one at the penultimate, with the latter getting the boot.

Fri 8/5/2016

I haven't loved the middle of a puzzle so much in ages. You start with the awesome crossings of JUDO MAT / NUNCHAKUS (yes, everyone knows them as nunchucks, but NUNCHAKUS is technically correct) / DOJO — that made me wonder why more themeless constructors (including me) don't make more of an effort to cross answers that are related. Such a cool effect! And then you throw in TEEN JEOPARDY, JELLOSHOT, DOW JONES, JIGGLED, all cross-linked together — that's some pretty spectacular themeless work.

With the inclusion of JELLO SHOT right down the middle, BEQ forces all four corners to heavily feature 7-letter answers. All of the corners are pretty good, but none quite had the zing of his middle. The NE and SW are especially tough, since there are 7-letter answers triple-stacked adjacent to a long answer … and another long answer runs through everything! That's such a heavy set of constraints.

As much as I liked NUNCHAKUS and FLAGRANT FOUL in the SW, I wasn't a fan of AGHA, especially when it crosses the toughie EPHESUS. RUGLIKE is a word … but not one I'd be hot on using in a precious themeless slot. DEADEST is a real word, but pretty neutral to me; not an asset.

The west and east sections are tough, too, when you already fix so much into place with your longer entries. In the west, I like RAP CDS okay, but it does feel a bit out of touch in today's world of streaming delivery. And ARE TOO isn't a great entry, nor is CTA (Chicago Transit Authority).

And in the east … DUCES. Yikes. As much as I like XANADU and AIRACE/HEIDEN/USA!USA! in those 6-letter slots, not just DUCE singular (evoking images of Mussolini) but DUCES plural is a pretty gritty answer.

So, some beautiful work in the middle of the puzzle — really stellar stuff — along with some material around the perimeter that didn't go over as well for me.

POW Sat 8/6/2016

★ Sometimes you're right on a constructor's wavelength, and I think I mind melded with David today. From start to finish, such an enjoyable solve, featuring a high count of stellar entries along with just a modicum of crossword glue. Beautiful work.

I thought it would be a breeze when I filled in FLASH MOB without a crossing (a more clever clue would have been great for a Saturday puzzle). But I struggled to finish that corner, with a big smile on my face after uncovering LL COOL J. That terminal J is so odd looking! And then to race ahead with JEDI MIND TRICKS = awesome for this Star Wars lover.

As an aside, many — MANY — people ask me to reduce the rapper references in my crosswords. I don't actually care for much rap these days, but it's hard to argue that LL COOL J isn't a megastar that most every NYT solver really ought to know. He's excelled in both music and acting, so I don't buy the "why do I have to know all these rap stars" grumbling. Sorry, buddy, expand your horizons.

David does something interesting with his grid layout, compressing JEDI MIND TRICKS and UNIVERSAL DONOR (I just gave blood donation #124, so I loved this entry) together. It's tough to feature 14-letter answers in a themeless, as they fix so much into place, cutting down your flexibility. I love David's push to not just use these difficult lengths, but also to run a bunch entries through the middle of them — including the long and strong entries BUM A RIDE and USA TODAY.

(What a shame USA TODAY wasn't clued to #gridgate. Lost opportunity; so awesome that a plagiarist got what was coming to him.)

I wasn't as big a fan of the lower right as the rest of the puzzle — YEARS AGO and DIAPER PIN feel a bit … well, YEARS AGO. But STREAKING is a nice single-word answer, and to get some GRINGO / OLYMPIA makes up for some of the lost potential. (I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan, so GIMLI was a gimme for me. Your results may vary.)

Overall though, such good use of most every portion of his grid, UPSILON, NEODADA, I LOST IT converting those 7-letter slots into nice assets — not to mention BLITZEN and THE HULK!

Not a SINLESS puzzle what with a bit of ESE, ETAT, OEIL (it is an admirable attempt to save those latter two by linking them together in [Coup d'___]), but what a snazzy and clean solving experience, right up my alley. I really liked that I gelled so well today with someone from two generations behind me.

Sun 8/7/2016ANCHOR LINES

Kooky interpretations of "common" lines from news reporters, i.e. FILM AT ELEVEN referring to what happens if you take your film canister to a one-hour place at 10. (Do those still exist, BTW?)

I liked the themers that involved 1.) big changes in meaning, and 2.) very common lines heard on TV. BREAKING NEWS was the standout for me, in that it's flashed onto news shows all the time, plus BREAKING is changed in meaning from "just happened" to "cracking into pieces." Fun one.

DETAILS ARE SKETCHY is entertaining when referring to an actual courtroom artist, but I have a tough time believing that this line is used often enough to be common. And TRAFFIC AND WEATHER is a great phrase heard all the time, but the clue doesn't change its meaning at all. So some of these themers didn't work very for me.

Interesting bonus fill in SPOONERISM and THE JONESES, both colorful. I did hitch on both, since they're longer than THE LATEST and BACK TO YOU, which are themers — I scratched my head for the longest time, trying to figure out how THE JONESES was thematic. That's a common problem with running long bonus fill in the across direction. Yes, solvers like me really ought to be able to pick out the theme answers by the cluing, but I still find the layout inelegant.

I did like a lot of the vertical bonus fill though, with the GIMME FIVE / ASIA MINOR / LAST PLACE a great triple in the southwest. Almost 100% worth the price of IN AS, ERES, and MIS for me — if only there hadn't already been two other inelegant partials throughout the grid, AS NO and ON AT. So maybe 95% worth it to me.

I generally like Sam's "kooky interpretations of regular phrases" puzzles, but given some of the issues I brought up above, I didn't like this one as much as some of his others.

Mon 8/8/2016

C.C. and Don try to see the BIG PICTURE today, interpreting the phrase literally to hint at "movies with a synonym for BIG in their title." SUPER-SIZE ME is perfect (and a great movie!), and although I wasn't familiar with the 1932 GRAND HOTEL, it sure fits. TITANIC and GIANT are two bonuses right in the middle of the grid, neatly crossing each other.

The GREAT ESCAPE is one of my favorite movies — just one of 25 or so on my Top Tier list — but it did give me slight pause as I solved. My first thought was that the word GREAT here means more "excellent" or "skillful" than "immense," whereas the other movie titles meant the latter.

But thankfully I'm a GREAT ESCAPE aficionado and remembered that GREAT does actually refer to the fact that our band of heroes plans an "immense" escape, trying to break out not just a few people from the prison camp ... but every single one of them! So I think the theme is consistent.

C.C. and Don are known for their ability to work in fresh-feeling bonus entries, and ET VOILA! fits. CALL A CAB has a less contemporary feel to it, since Uber seems to be taking over these days. But I did like how the clue, [Eschew Uber, say], recognizes that. Along with some interesting words in MANDATE, LASAGNA, IGNOBLE — with just a few dabs of IRR (is this abbr actually used?), STET (editorial jargon), ATRA (one of dozens of razor names), the fill is pretty good.

I'm not sure it was worth putting GIANT in the grid, as it's not nearly as a box-office success as TITANIC, and it felt sort of strange to have such a short themer. But it was kind of neat that it intersected TITANIC.

Tue 8/9/2016

I love hanging out with crossworld people, so I'm sad that I haven't ever been able to make Lollapuzzoola. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) indeed! What with the long trip out from the West Coast to NYC, and two little kids sapping my strength — er, delighting me — I'll miss this year too. Ah well.

Although I've seen a lot of word duplication puzzles before, this one had an interesting feel to it. I actually had the same internal debate Andrea did — I can see both sides of her struggle. On one hand, it's pretty cool to have one word defined as normal, and the other one cross-referenced. On the other hand, it's really fun to see doubled-word phrases … having two separate definitions! AUTHOR AUTHOR clued as both the Al Pacino film and the P.G. Wodehouse book is entertaining.

I also really liked how the last themer broke the pattern. As much as I like consistency, this is a potentially repetitive-feeling theme, so it's cool to get not just SING SING the prison, but SING SING SING, the classic big band tune. For solvers lulled into a false sense of complacency … ba-BAM!

I hadn't noticed all the NEW YORK NEW YORK-centered fill, so it was nice to get an explanation of why there was a good amount of crossword glue holding everything together: INRI, ERR ON, SKED, MUMBO (can only be clued one way), IT NO, etc. Makes more sense now that i see the trade-offs.

Finally, there are a few elements that make this puzzle more whimsical than what would usually be seen in the NYT — I just loved that [What generals keep up their sleevies?] for ARMIES. So playful.

Dang it, my FOMO is even worse now!

Wed 8/10/2016

At XWord Info, we track a ton of records. Note that Dave's name appears three times on the pangram records list now … every one of his three NYT puzzles!

It was only a matter of time until the old record — two people with quadruple pangrams — got smashed. QUINTUPLE instances of each letter today.

I'd say roughly 1/4 of solvers/constructors tell me they love pangrams; something so cool about that full set of high-value Scrabbly letters. Another 1/2 seem to hate them with a burning passion, citing the trade-offs in gluey fill — and gritty solving experience — that they often necessitate. (The remaining 1/4 seem neutral.) I imagine today's offering will generate a lot of strong feelings, one way or the other.

I appreciate a pangram, as long as the trade-offs aren't that noticeable. Today's was amazingly smooth, given the astonishing FIVEFOLD full sets of letters. I especially liked the line of Qs across the middle, with such silky results. Okay, there's a SQFT holding the top of that section together, but that's minor. And as a lover of all things physics, I loved DOWN QUARK.

And the raft of Zs and Js in the north! ACID JAZZ is a great entry, and Dave builds around it with RAZZ, CRAZE, BAJA. RAKI was tough for me to figure out, but no doubt it's a real type of liquor.

Surprisingly, there was only one region that made me pause: the lower right. JIVER felt like a compromise in order to work in that fifth J — although it does have dictionary support, it feels contrived and/or old-timey to me — and then DXIX felt like a last-ditch attempt to shoehorn in the last two Xs. I had the same qualm about one of the quadruple pangrams, as using random Roman numerals feels like a pretty iffy method of working in extra Xs.

But overall, the puzzle was remarkably smooth — surprisingly, more so than some of the previous record holders. Whether you love or hate pangrams, whether you love or hate people breaking records for the sake of breaking records, this is undoubtedly a meticulous feat of construction.

POW Thu 8/11/2016

★ I'm impressed at the range of creative ideas Tim comes up with. There have been a lot of plays on multiple Cs = seize, seas, sees, etc., but I haven't seen this implementation before. So cool that Tim found self-defining phrases … each one with exactly two of the letters in question! E E for "ease" = LIFE OF RILEY is genius; what a cool find. G G for "geez!" = GOOD GOLLY is also fantastic. FLIRT WITH = T T = tease is pretty nice too. Such cleverness.

I also liked CONFISCATES = C C = seize and SCRUTINIZES = I I = eyes, but those weren't quite as fun, being one-word entries. And RUN THROUGH for U U = use = a confused Jeff. I stared at that one, trying to figure out if I missed something. Even after thinking about it for a while, I couldn't equate the two. Finally, some dictionary searching turned up that "run through" can be defined as "use up," as in a person using up or running through all their cash. So that's legit.

With six themers, I'd be really happy with just a smooth grid and two good bonus pieces of fill. Tim goes above and beyond my expectations, with some delightful CANDY CORN, NIMROD, DRY WIT, IZZATSO, even tickling my mechanical engineer's brain with a PULLEY, one of the major tools giving mechanical advantage. EPILOGUES ain't bad either; nice to see that spelling, as opposed to "epilogs," which I don't often see in real life.

Okay, there's a dab of crunchiness in the lower right, with ENERO (deep Spanish, with too-easy vowel-consonant alternation) and HOS, but really, that's about it. Excellent work.

Neat idea, some great finds, excellent consistency (exactly two of the critical letter for each themer), high theme density, snazzy and clean fill. I couldn't ask for much more.

Fri 8/12/2016

Kelly's themeless debut! She's in the small club of constructors with 10 or more NYT puzzles, but lack of themelesses have prevented her from "hitting for the cycle" — a pretty neat feat, showing off a wide range of constructing chops. Just a Saturday puzzle to go now!

Employing a grid with just 12 long (8+ letters) slots, Kelly has to convert almost every one of them to a sizzling entry in order to make it an outstanding themeless. I really liked that upper left trio, PETUNIA PIG plus the crazy sequence of letters in SHAKE N BAKE looking like SHAKEN BAKE. SUPER DUPER fun! I wasn't wild about the plural PAPS, but the abbr. GER was more minor. A fine start to the puzzle.

Some other fun entries, SOFT PRETZEL and especially AGENT ORANGE very colorful answers (pun intended). And although I was just SICK AS A DOG recently, I still liked seeing that snappy phrase.

NET PROFIT wasn't as fun for me. You'd think that this bottom line accounting term would delight this MBA, but I've seen it so many times in crosswords, it doesn't feel that fresh. ROOT AROUND is pretty good, although most any "add-a-preposition" phrase doesn't feel as nice as something like POST IT NOTE. So, a little bit of unfulfilled potential in the 12 long slots.

I did like Kelly's use of her mid-length slots — JIGGER is an interesting word, and I INSIST is a good, colloquial phrase.

I don't mind cheater squares usually, but for a 72-word themeless — the maximum word count allowed — I'd rather not see them. I can tolerate them in this instance if they facilitate unbelievably smooth results, but having SSTARS (all the various types of ?STARS answers feel inelegant to me, as that first letter can be so many things), PAPS, and DEFS right next to cheaters is not ideal. Along with a good amount of crossword glue holding things together — ADDL, ECTO, ROES (plural is usually ROE?) etc. — there was too much for my taste.

But overall, some fun entries, and a very entertaining northwest corner. Hoping to see Kelly's byline on a Saturday to complete the cycle!

Sat 8/13/2016

Classic Patrick Berry, a smooth 68-worder filled with a ton of solid entries. I appreciate the "classic" feel of PB themelesses, nothing that's faddish; that will be forgotten a year or even a month from now. I also like that he takes great care to incorporate a variety of answers into his work, aiming to give a little something to just about everyone. From the old-time LOUIS PRIMA to a more modern THE OMEN (with a great clue, referencing its ominous 6/6/06 release date!), from the 13th century classical STABAT MATER to the colloquial EVEN STEVEN … what nice range.

I enjoy seeing PB's experimentation in themelesses, almost always something new that he's trying out. Today he features a stair-stack of five long entries, a great quint featuring TWEENAGERS, NAIL SALONS, JOB TITLES. As usual, his grids have some neutral-ish entries like CHARACTERS — a bit dull since it's kind of a pedestrian word in everyday language — but also as usual, he elevates those with clever clues. [Book collection?] indeed hints at the CHARACTERS making up a book's cast.

PB is one of a very small handful of people who can pull off 68-word grids without resorting to the crutch of dabbing crossword glue here and there. So it was a little surprising to see AT SEA, ESTER, HIE today. These are very minor uglies, ones that would hardly register with me if this was anyone but PB. I have such a high bar for him though.

Also sticking out a bit is some lost potential in cluing. [It goes station to station] for FUEL TANKER was pretty good, but it felt like it could have misdirected much more sneakily to radio or other types of stations. ICEMAN ... [Nerves-of-steel type] felt like awkward usage. I'd have much preferred a clue referring to any one of the people given that awesome nickname over the years.

FYI, FRAN refers to "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie," an old TV show where Kukla and Ollie were puppets.

But overall, another smooth and classic 68-word puzzle from the master.


Sound changes, MORAL THINKING hinting at "add-an-AL sound to produce kooky results." I liked that Ian strove for fairly dramatic spelling changes, MARE to MERYL, CARE to CAROL, PEAR to PERIL, etc. And some of the results gave me a laugh, BARTLETT PERIL making me think about John BARTLETT fretting over some lawsuit surrounding his books of quotations.

Some of the resulting phrases did feel a bit too awkward for my taste though. HANDLE WITH CAROL, for instance, felt like it should be HANDLE (it) WITH CAROL, and BARTLETT PERIL ought to be BARTLETT(‘s) PERIL. And although I do like theme density, ICY STARE to ICY STEROL draws upon some deep chemistry knowledge. Kind of hard to laugh at something even this chemistry lover didn't totally understand.

Sometimes Will, Joel and I discuss what makes good fill. I focus so much of my efforts on getting colorful long stuff like COLD CALL, DR PEPPER, GAG ORDER, that I often use a ton of 3-, 4-, and 5-letter answers in my grids. Will and Joel have both mentioned at times that this can make for an unsatisfying solving experience, since those shorties tend to get filled with the same stuff over and over and over.

I got some sense of that with today's grid, and looking at the stats helped me understand why — with almost 100 of his 140 entries in those short lengths, my solve felt a bit overwhelmed by them. I did like the various J CREW, MURKY, EXECS, PRIGS kind of stuff, but they aren't nearly as fun to me as DR PEPPER.

Still, Ian always takes great care to produce smooth grids, and today was no different. BASTA was the only thing that stood out (sorry Ian!), and ONE NIL felt pretty arbitrary. Otherwise, hardly a hitch in the grid.

POW Mon 8/15/2016

★ Such a well-executed puzzle. Colorful themers, strong long fill, nary a gluey bit in sight, and a really fun revealer: HEADS WILL ROLL, describing an EGG roll, BARREL roll, DRUM roll, and LOG roll. Hits most every criterion I look for in a Monday puzzle.

Okay, there was one point I considered before giving this the POW. Will has said that he's not taking "words that can follow (or precede) X" puzzles anymore, and rightfully so. Over the years, these have been done to death. And I can just hear people asking me, "Isn't this essentially a words-that-follow" puzzle?

Yes and no. I came up with a tiered system:

  • Lowest level: using the word ROLL at the end of the puzzle for a revealer, with the clue [word that can follow the starts of …]. I think many will agree that this is pretty boring.
  • Middle level: using a dry phrase as a revealer, i.e. ROLL TOP [Type of desk, and a hint to the starts of …]. A little better, but still not punchy.
  • Higher level: using a colorful, themeless-worthy phrase for a revealer. ROLL CALL ["Sound off!" and a hint to the starts of …] is pretty fun.
  • Best: using a colorful, themeless-worthy phrase for a revealer — which cleverly hints at the position of ROLL: HEADS WILL ROLL indicates that the first word — or "head" — of each phrase is a type of roll.

And EGG HUNTS, BARREL RACE, DRUMSTICKS, LOG CABIN are all phrases I'd give check-marks to in a themeless. As are HOT SEAT, FAMILY TREE, END OF STORY, even IM NEXT. Sam wisely spreads out his long fill so he doesn't have to struggle with filling it. Beautiful results, only the minor blights Sam pointed out. And ET TU I'm perfectly fine with.

Doesn't hurt that I'm a huge Andrew Luck fan. Go COLTS! And go Sam! Really well done.

Tue 8/16/2016

Everyone's favorite / most annoying sci-fi bot, R2D2 inspiring today's puzzle, each theme phrase containing a word with two Ds + another with two Rs. Growing up in California and thinking of myself as a surfer (I'm barely passable even on a long board), I loved SURFER DUDE. The rest of the themers were solid, although to Lynn's point, NARROWLY DEFINED felt more dry; like something out of one of my b school textbooks.

Some beautiful long fill today, the conversational DO YOU MIND my favorite — it brings up some interesting imagery. CAR DEALER is a nice two-word phrase too.

People ask me sometimes why I prefer multi-word phrases (as opposed to one-worders) when it comes to long fill. Generally, I find that multi-word phrases tend to be more colorful — putting words together in interesting ways can produce great effect — plus it's fun as a solver to figure out where words break within a phrase.

Contrast DO YOU MIND with ABANDONED, which to me is an everyday piece of language, serving as sort of a nail or screw holding the English language together.

But no doubt, there are definitely great one-word answers. CRUSADERS for example is beautiful, laden with all sorts of historical context and stories about Richard the Lionheart. What a nickname! During my solve, I stopped to admire the answer, wanting to go read up on this subject. To me, that's one mark of what can make for a great piece of long fill.

As usual, a smooth offering from the master of the early-week puzzle. There's just a tad of glue — SDAK, ACCT, SRTA, PERI — which isn't surprising since Lynn uses the "parallel downs" structure in DO YOU MIND / ABANDONED. It's so tough to put two long downs right next to each other like that and come out squeaky clean. Notice where three of the four gluey bits (SDAK, ACCT, PERI) are …

My initial reaction was that I wanted a tighter theme — or more snazzy themers in general — since there are a ton of two-word phrases that fit this D D + R R theme pattern. So it was really nice to hear from Lynn; her self-imposed constraint about having no Ds in the first word or Rs in the second is not something I ever would have thought of. Much tougher than I had thought!

Wed 8/17/2016

I like when a puzzle baffles me — as long as I eventually figure out what's going on. Today, we get a fun debut offering, using DARK ARTS to hide the "arts" in certain clues: MARTS, WARTS, TARTS, PARTS, DARTS. I'm curious to see how the NYT's solving app handles this — the Across Lite version with its pound signs in the clues (shown below) so disappointingly fails Mark's fun idea.

This is essentially a "definitional" puzzle, where the clues and answers are swapped. Generally, I like these best when the entries in the puzzle are colorful; of themeless-quality. EXCHANGES (for MARTS) and MOVIE ROLES (for PARTS) are fine answers — but more neutral than assets. I couldn't think of perfect examples off the top of my head, but something like STRIP MALLS or LEAD ROLES are so much more colorful. (Those don't quite work since they're too specific.)

And if only PUB PASTIME didn't sound so definitional — it feels like there might be a solid, snazzy answer that could perfectly define DARTS, but again, I couldn't think of one right away.

Mark does a nice job of working in six themers; rarely an easy task. I was a little worried to see PASTRIES and MOVIE ROLES having so much overlap, but Mark filled nicely around them (not a surprise that ARNE popped up there!). SEMIARID going through that section works, although it's not the most stellar piece of fill.

GLADRAGS, on the other hand, caught my attention. Even when I was down to the last letter, I couldn't quite make sense of it. Not sure I'd ever use that term, but it was fun to learn; a weird combination of two words.

So overall, a nice debut puzzle. Not a lot of crossword glue used to hold six theme answers together (SCI, MAJ, IRES = mostly minor dings), and an interesting find with so many ?ARTS words in existence. Neat to be stumped on the idea until I finally hit DARK ARTS to lift the curtain.

Thu 8/18/2016

It's a lot of fun living near puzzle people. The ideas Parker and I pass back and forth don't always go anywhere, but when he showed me how beautifully TEMPERAMENTALLY broke into TEMPE RAMEN TALLY, it felt like the seed of a nice idea. However, after a quick scan through my list of 15-letter entries, I couldn't find anything that worked nearly as nicely.

Both of us are recreational programmers (me much hackier than Parker, who actually works in the field). It occurred to me that his TEMPE/RAMEN/TALLY seed idea might be a fun project to expand my coding skills, and after a few attempts, I figured out a way to pare down my list into a subset that might be reasonably human-scannable. Et voila, the other two popped out! (After about 10 hours of line-by-line searching.) HYPER CRITIC ALLY was also a possibility, but it wasn't nearly as nice, as it didn't change the "critic" meaning at all.

To the credit of Parker's programming skills, he came up with these ... and a bunch of others (mentioned above). Shows you what I know!

I thought THE SPLITS was so clever, such a neat way to sum up this idea! Parker wasn't convinced, but he reluctantly agreed to go along. We went back and forth with the tough construction, a mirror symmetry 15/15/15/9, and came up with something we really liked. It had so many great pieces of fill like I, ASIMOV, CAT TOYS, SO SORRY, BARTEND, etc.!

Will and Joel liked the general idea ... but felt like THE SPLITS wasn't apt. I wrote to Parker, asking what sort of idiotic ninny would come up with such a ridiculous revealer. (Again, shows you what I know.)

So, it was a complete redo, but we saw it as an opportunity to create something we liked even more — a 15/15/15 with a themeless word count. Not easy to do, but it was a fun challenge to see how many colorful long answers we could work into the grid while keeping the gluey short answers to a minimum. I always like to feature long fill, so hopefully things like Superman getting a SPRAY TAN in a BLIND ALLEY behind the DAILY PLANET while drinking a WET MARTINI enhanced the quality of your solve.

Fri 8/19/2016

I still chuckle at Paolo's interest in Seinfeld. It's one of my favorite shows of all time, having spawned so many phrases in use today — but it aired back when I was Paolo's age. It's cool to see how someone from a generation (or two?) behind me shares for all things Seinfeldian. Hands up if you filled in MANSIERE for MAN___! Okay, MAN PURSE is pretty good too, but the "bro vs. mansiere" (a support garment for men) would have made me laugh so much. I'm super curious if that might have been Paolo's original seed entry.

And ITS GO TIME! I laughed so hard when I realized both Paolo and I were thinking "Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum!" (Sorry, non-Seinfeld fans — go watch the series. You won't be sorry.) That phrase right below BRING IT ON = a brilliant pairing. I've been appreciating more and more when themeless constructors figure out ways of putting related entries adjacent to each other.

Paolo uses a grid heavy on seven-letter entries, and some of them are great. BAR BETS always amuse me (especially those employing a trick of physics), BAD EGGS and USO TOUR are nice, and although STAN LEE is just an abysmal actor in his movie cameos, I greatly admire what he's done. He's been so incredibly productive.

As with many seven-letter-heavy themelesses though, I agree with Paolo that there was untapped potential. Entries like WRESTED, GLEANED, EPITOME are fine, but they don't give me the same elation as ITS GO TIME! And ESSENES is a valid word, but constructors have been relying on it so heavily over the years, what with all those Es and Ss so useful in a terminal spot.

I would have loved to see what Paolo could have done by shifting the three black squares above BIG EATER up one row — BAD EGGS / I LOVE LA / GLEANED is a decent triplet, but it felt like a triple of eight-letter words might have made that lower left corner stellar.

With just a bit of ARE NOT (any [Playground comeback] isn't great), DONA (tough Portuguese), TOD (esoteric cartoon name), Paolo holds his grid together well. Some potential left on the table, but man oh man do I love the Seinfeldian feel of Paolo's work.

Sat 8/20/2016

Mark's puzzles are tough but fair, making for an intense workout. Sort of a CrossFit experience, if you will — I felt the burn all throughout, pushed myself to the limits, and narrowly avoided hurting myself ... but did I feel great emerging with a victory!

Some beautiful answers today. SMOKY TOPAZ is not just a stunning "gemstone" but it's such a great answer, with a final Z as a bonus. And I haven't loved an answer so much as X AND Y AXES in years! It was so inscrutable at first glance … and at second … and at third, but it's a very common term in math that looks so crazy. What a great sequence of Xs and Ys linked together.

(Adding X Y AND Z AXES to the XWord Info word list …)

RUMBLE SEAT is another standout. Why don't today's automakers come up with such cool terminology? They don't look as awesome as they sound, and I can only imagine how uncomfortable they must be, but I imagine my kids would someday fight over dibs on the rumble seat if I had one.

A couple of long answers didn't hit quite as well for me. AGE-RELATED is perfectly fine — and I appreciated it more since my last company focused on drug discovery for AGE-RELATED macular degeneration — but it's not as colorful as the above-mentioned entries. And ONE IN FORTY seems arbitrary — I don't want the door opened for ONE IN SIXTY or ONE IN TWENTY, etc. Finally, IN THIS WAY also more takes up space than sings to me.

And there is a piece of deeper old-school crosswordese in TARNS. Sometimes I appreciate these, in that they provide a toehold into a tough section, but I don't like how this supports the popular notion that you have to know really esoteric trivia in order to be good at crosswords. Along with the arbitrary D TEN, these are more than minor gluey bits in my eyes.

But overall, some beautiful entries and a great workout leaving me feeling stronger than before. Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum! And I loved reading Mark's notes — I hadn't noticed the W X Y Z in the corners; very fun. This is exactly why I started asking every constructor for their take, way back when I joined onto XWord Info ... three years ago now!

Sun 8/21/2016WONDER-FUL!

Okay, so this one was backbreaking. I was really glad to have Kathy as a collaborator speaking her mind, as I was ready to make pretty big compromises at many points during the construction process. Coming up with the various individual elements wasn't that hard — we both really liked MIND CANDY hiding the GRAND CANYON, and OLD FAITHFUL going up through YELLOWSTONE, etc. — but putting all the pieces together in a 140-word grid made for a rough go. It was even tougher when we decided to locate all the parks roughly where they are on a US MAP.

Okay, ARCHES is a little off. Ahem. We had ACADIA there for a while, but we decided having both ACADIA and DENALI was duplicative. (Plus, ACADIA isn't actually the name of the mountain.)

Some of the odd stuff I tried to pass off as acceptable, before Kathy reined me in:

  • Stretching the definition of "proper geographical location." California is kind of in the southeast of the US, isn't it?
  • Spelling HALF DOME wrong. Ish.
  • Relying on many an obscure city (NDOLA would have been so useful) to hold major grid chunks together
  • Making DENALI so cockeyed / spelled wrong it looked half-mountain, half-desert
  • Generally pulling crossword glue shenanigans, of the capital-Ug-ugly variety

I really enjoyed working with Kathy on this. My threshold of what's an acceptable trade-off tends to dip after I get 50 or more grid skeletons in, so it was great to have her kindly telling me at many a point that what I proposed as reasonable trade-offs were actually (cough cough) not.

I admit it, sometimes on these really complicated projects, I stick my head in the sand and go into Denali. Er, denial.

P.S. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" — our alternate title for the puzzle — is one of my favorite books ever. (Buy it here.)

Mon 8/22/2016

Debut! Emily uses the four main tastes — BITTER, SALTY, SWEET, SOUR with TASTEMAKERS as a revealer. I hadn't been familiar with that last term until recently, but fashion is one of my many areas of knowledge deficit. I like that Emily repurposed TASTEMAKERS into a completely different sphere — tastes of the tongue, not fashion — to cleverly wrap up the puzzle.

Great to get some colorful bonus fill from a newbie! UP TO SPEED, RUSH WEEK, ONE BY ONE, WARM SPELL are all excellent phrases. Unusual to see four long and strong pieces of fill from a debut constructor. Wisely spreads all of them across the grid so none of it is too constrained; relatively easy to fill around. Good spacing is so key. She even sprinkles in some NEATNIK and POP OFF throughout.

There are some gluey bits here and there, kicking off with ACUT, some FEM, AMBI, IRREG, MSS, APO, etc. It's too much for what I like in a silky-smooth Monday puzzle, but a lot of it is minor offenders that's still accessible to novice solvers. For example, A CUT is a partial, but it's relatively easy for a newer solver to fill in. APO (Army post office) is much tougher — especially crossing SPATES. I can imagine someone debating SMATES, SLATES, SPATES, STATES, etc. (SMATES really ought to be a word!)

I would have also liked some way of hiding those four main tastes a little, as the concept made itself readily apparent after uncovering the first two themers. Not sure if this is possible, but SALTY LANGUAGE (such a great phrase!) does so much a better job hiding the taste meaning of "salty" than SOUR PATCH KIDS, which are overtly sour.

As Emily said, it would have been great to get UMAMI, the "fifth taste," but trying to incorporate that into a phrase is just about impossible. It might have been neat to have it tucked in somewhere, perhaps as the last across answer? As a revealer? Or in the middle of the center column? Not sure.

Some rough patches here and there, but a fun puzzle with a couple of great theme entries, along with bonus fill that exceeded my expectations.

POW Tue 8/23/2016

★ Ice cream swirls today, CHOCOLATE, RUM RAISIN, BUBBLE GUM, and PISTACHO swirling within the puzzle. And what an impressive construction! There have been tons of puzzles done with 2x2 chunks of letters (square D E A L kind of things), but rarely 3x3s. That's because they are so incredibly tough to execute on without resorting to the ugliest (capital Ug) type of crossword glue to hold those areas together. Most 2x2 chunks suffer, so think about how much harder a 3x3 is — I'd estimate it's a factor of 5 tougher.

Joel is one of the best gridworkers in the business, so I always expect a lot out of his puzzles, but this one goes above and beyond. I braced myself in each of those four areas, ready to cringe at some ridiculous random set of letters trying to pass off as a real entry … but there was nothing even creaky! TOI is very minor, and although NEHI will draw some assorted groans, it is a real brand. (Plus, it's Radar O'Reilly's drink of choice!) It's astounding that Joel managed to pull off this ambitious construction so smoothly.

He did have the advantage of flexibility — both in where the swirl started and which direction it went. Both of those seemed a bit random for my taste, but then again, that's how swirls really do appear in ice cream.

I did hitch on pistachio, as it's my favorite flavor of ice cream … and I've never seen a swirl in any pint I've eaten. Looking it up, there do appear to be pistachio swirl cakes, but no pistachio swirl ice cream. Dang it, now I really want someone to make just that! Hopefully Ben or Jerry is a crossword fan (please pass this along to them if you know ‘em) and heeds my desperate plea.

So that is a ding for me — CHOCOLATE, RUM RAISIN, BUBBLE GUM swirls = real things. Sigh, PISTACHIO. I'm not even sure what that would look like in ice cream form, but dang it, I want to know now!

The swirls smack dab in the 9x3 stacks were even more impressive, given the fact that 9x3 stacks in themselves are hard enough to get clean and colorful. To pull one off with a mostly fixed 3x3 chunk right inside is plain insane. EX HIPPIES did feel slightly made-up, but it's a funny enough answer that I decided I liked it. With great stuff like MATCH GAME, NO CONTEST, THAT'S A LIE — and just an ESTS and a TOI / ALII to pay — these are some brilliant sections.

Neat visual (see below for how it looked in print), gold-medal execution = very fun solve.

Wed 8/24/2016

I came so close to giving this the POW. It reminded me of a friend's tweet to the effect of "I would be so into fantasy football if I could draft a dragon." There's something so entertaining about the imagination and creativity involved there. And CALVINBALL fits that to a tee, what with its crazy rules, constantly being added / changed / subtracted. Brilliant!

POOHSTICKS is fun too — I didn't recognize it even as a Milne fan, but the name made me want to look it up. Quaint game, dropping sticks into a river and "racing" them. QUIDDITCH also amused me, but it's not nearly as whimsical as the first two.

Those three Star Wars movies were so abysmal. POD RACING in particular felt like a marketing team pushing Lucas to come up with something they could use to sell toys to kids. Sigh. Man oh man, I hated POD RACING.

My personal icky feelings around POD RACING aside, a nice debut grid. I've had the pleasure of working with Matt on a grid that was recently accepted, and I loved seeing some of his style come out in CONTRETEMPTS (what a great word!), SOUNDTRACKS, KICK ME / EDISON. Always fun to see what constructors select for their puzzles, especially what they pick for long bonus fill — that's where a person's voice often really comes through.

It's a tough construction, what with FANTASY SPORTS in the middle of the puzzle, and four more themers spread around. That QUIDDITCH / POOHSTICKS overlap is unsurprisingly the crunchiest area, with ILO / UNCAS / ROSEN. They're all fair game for a Wednesday, but it did feel like a pile-up of toughies. Even after all this time, ILO and ILA are hard for me to distinguish, so it'd be tough to be a non-baseball fan today to figure out if RASEN or ROSEN seemed more reasonable.

ADDED NOTE: as reader David Glasser points out, the clue for ILO makes it more fair; an anagram of OIL. But interesting that David's trouble spot was the ROSEN / UNCAS crossing!

But a few gluey spots (TV TAPE is a thing? KGS is usually KG.) is par for the course on a construction like this. Glad to see Matt make his debut with a really fun theme idea and some colorful bonus fill.

Thu 8/25/2016

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions" interpreted literally. How cool that GOOD INTENTIONS is 14 letters long — the perfect length to have it run diagonally down the puzzle … leading to a HELL rebus square!

Strong gridwork. It's always a challenge to incorporate diagonal theme answers, so one going down an entire main diagonal of the grid is tough. It's even more difficult when you challenge yourself with 6x5 corners, as with the NW and SE. I was absolutely sure there would be compromises in one or the other, or they'd be filled with bizarre answers. It's just so hard to escape a corner that's so big AND constrained by a diagonal answer without any compromises.

I should have remembered how solid Andrew's gridwork is — NO FEAR indeed! Getting some RAISING HELL / SEASHELL + BOSNIA and COLOSSI in the SE is fantastic work. ANODIC isn't fantastic in the other corner, but everything else is so smooth. Tough not to love MAISIE Williams in her strong-girl-kick-butt GoT role.

The other corners are well-done, too. Love getting some stacked answers in a themed puzzle! Andrew could have easily put PAVED ROAD / ST BERNARD in row 3 / column 3, and then broken up some answers to make a 76 or even 78 word puzzle, so I love his drive to give us so much long fill. ROB REINER, OPEN RANGE, GREEN PEAS all added to the quality of my solve.

The only hesitation I had with the puzzle is that it felt kind of thin, theme-wise. The three themers are spaced out well, covering most of the grid, but with only a 15 / 9 / 9, that's much less than we usually see. So it felt half-themed, half-themeless to me; sort of trying to find its identity. Sure would have been great to get a SATAN around HELL or some other little bonus to flesh out the concept.

Overall though, a whimsical interpretation of the quote and a neat visual, with really strong grid execution.

Fri 8/26/2016

Andrew does a nice job of using his longer and mid-length entries. In particular, so many good 7-letter ones: TED TALK, STOOGES, HAT TREE (with a great clue misdirecting toward bowling), DROP CAP. And my favorite, KOI POND! That's a great conversion rate, a full half of his mid-length material standing out. It's more common to see the neutral STEAMED kind of mid-length material, so bravo!

Good work on the longer material too. Andrew takes great care to squeeze all the juice out of his long slots, PINTEREST, SUPERFOOD, ATTACK ADS, ANTITOXIN, CLOSE VOTE, etc. really working well. Only CONTAINER felt a little flat, especially since its clue [Cup or bowl, but not a plate] didn't seem particularly clever or playful.

So that's a lot of great material packed into a 70-word puzzle. However, there are dabs of glue holding it together here and there, as is often the case when so much snazzy material is put into play. I don't mind two or three minor bits like ESTO or PCT, but ADEE is a pretty noticebable glob. Common prefixes or suffixes like NEO or IST are almost unnoticeable — ADEE on the other hand … what else does it stick to but "chick"?

And ENOUNCE is a word. It's in the dictionary. But how often is it ever used in real life? "Enunciate," yes. ENOUNCE feels more like it's taping the NW corner to the rest of the puzzle.

T TEST … I used to be a statistics TA, so T TEST doesn't make me blink an eye, but I have heard solvers complain about it. If you're not a statistician, that first T would seem awfully random, like all the various B STAR, C STAR, S STAR, etc. type answers. I'm totallt fine with this answer, but I can understand how others might not be.

The bar for themelesses is so high these days — so many people submitting them because it's hard to come up with good themes — and it's even higher for 70 or 72 word puzzles. I would have liked a little fewer inelegant gluey entries, but overall, there's so many great entries that they help to make up for them.

Sat 8/27/2016

Constructors have such different styles, such varying leanings when it comes to the trade-off of clean vs. colorful. Patrick Berry is far to one end of the spectrum, always producing squeaky clean themeless grids with nary a dab of glue in sight. However, sometimes his puzzles can feel a bit workmanlike; not the snazziest of feature entries.

Today, Jim gives us one on the other end, with a ton of dazzling entries held together by a good amount of crossword glue. Just look at that beautiful triple of SINE QUA NON / CREAMSICLE / SEX PISTOLS! So snazzy, so evocative. Unfortunately, it requires the pluralized ESCS and PONES, along with IHS (which my darn computer keeps auto-correcting, but it's supposedly "Iesus Hominum Salvator") and SQ MI.

LET IT SNOW / OZONE HOLE / MARS ROVER are also great answers — and how cool is it that OZONE HOLE and MARS ROVER are both space(ish) related? (If only SPACE CADET had been in that region …) So much fun when themeless constructors manage to get related answers intersecting or adjacent to each other. But we get ATOR, so awkward either as a suffix or a partial (AT OR).

KARAOKE BAR / I BELIEVE SO / DRUMSTICKS so nice — REUNE is awkward though, and OIS is another weird little suffix. And BECLOUD … hmm. It does appear to be in the dictionary.

It's a style that relies too heavily on crossword glue for my taste, but I can see how some solvers would really dig it, the overwhelming amount of great material making the liberal use of crossword glue acceptable.

Finally, a beautiful clue in PIANO WIRE. It might get lost on non-musicians, but inside a piano there are 88 tiny hammers that strike the different tuned wires to produce notes. [Something hammers hit] seemed so innocent, and it produced a neat a-ha moment when I finally figured it out.


Paolo's Sunday debut! I like how he's been stretching himself as a constructor, first doing themelesses, then early week, and now a Sunday 21x. Very cool to see a person push and stretch themselves.

The theme is pretty straightforward — phrases where one of the words has its first letter moved to the end, to produce funny results. I had mixed feelings on them, as DAME CHEESE (EDAM -> DAME) is amusing, but HEAR PERLMAN and SENATE IDEA felt more dry.

I really liked the ESPRIT -> SPRITE find, as it's neat to see that long word get an interesting transformation. It's too bad that the rest are short words, just four or five letters. There are so many dozens (hundreds?) of short words that can be transformed like this, so the puzzle felt a bit loose for my taste. Would have been great to get a few more 6+ letter ones — that could have tightened up the theme.

His grid is quite nice — it's clear that all his prior work has helped him develop the skills needed to tackle the daunting 140-word 21x Sunday puzzle. Take his upper right corner, for instance. That type of 8x3 chunk is not easy to pull off for a newer constructor, but it's a very common phenomenon in themeless puzzles. Paolo does so well here, with THE FORUM, SI SENORA, and OPERAMAN. What a great set of entries! With only TSO a little rickety (and saved by a good historical clue), I doubt Paolo could have pulled that off without all his work in themeless grids.

I would have loved some extra element — a tighter theme (all names? all verbs to nouns? something else in common that tied the themers together?), more transformed words of six or more letters, something spelled out by the new first letters — but it generally works as a straightforward theme. And it was awfully nice to get some snazzy bonus fill like DOPESLAP, EGGHEADED, ABSINTHE, etc. Enhances the solve to get so much themeless-quality fill.

ADDED NOTE: Wish I had caught REAR ENDED (highlighted below). Neat how that term literally describes those nine letters. Would have been great if some clue had alluded to it, or the letters had been circled — I have a feeling that a lot of solvers will miss this element. I'm glad that Paolo pointed it out! That's the kind of extra layer I was hoping for, making the puzzle feel tighter, more elegant.

Mon 8/29/2016

I'm so bad with geography, I once mixed up Wisconsin and WYOMING. Maybe this West Coaster will finally keep them straight after today, a tribute to the "squarest of the 50 states." I doubt I would have correctly identified the state containing OLD FAITHFUL, JACKSON HOLE, DEVILS TOWER, or FORT LARAMIE — nice to learn a little today.

Neat to see the towering DEVILS TOWER run vertically. I couldn't quite remember where I knew that from, but a quick search turned up that it was in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." If only OLD FAITHFUL had been vertically oriented too, visually representing its eruption!

Brad Wilber recently turned down (very nicely, as always) one of my puzzles, saying it felt like too much of a list; no real zing to the theme. This one had a similar feel to me, the four WYOMING tourist sights something you might read up on in a US History textbook. (It was also kind of odd that YELLOWSTONE was not included, but then I realized that it's actually not fully contained to WYOMING.)

So I was glad to read David's note — that's actually quite neat that he was able to place the four landmarks roughly in correct geographical location. If only the puzzle had been more explicit about that somehow. I have a feeling a ton of people will miss that aspect.

David always puts out nice grids, and this one is no exception. He keeps his bonus fill somewhat short — which helps to make the themers stand out — and incorporated so many interesting words: TEJANO, GLUTEN, NEBULAE, SAMOSA, SPORTY, JENGA, and a bit of colorful stuff in MAN'S MAN, TIME OUT, IM OKAY. Really helped to spice things up. All of that great bonus material, without resorting to really any crossword glue = the mark of a seasoned pro. Excellent gridwork. I've heard some people complain about OVA, saying it's something they only see in crosswords, but it is the plural of "ovum." I'm perfectly fine with it.

WYOMING being the squarest of states makes it a great subject for a crossword! If only it had been a 14 x 16 grid, making it rectangular ... just like WYOMING. Ah well.

Tue 8/30/2016

Neat idea, two-word themers with a chemical element as the first word, and the second word starting with the appropriate CHEMICAL SYMBOL. SILVER AGE was a particularly appropriate phrase, and a beautifully colorful one to boot. And I've come across CARBON COPY umpteen times in life, but this is the first time I've realized what a neat feature it has, following Roland's pattern.

COPPER CUPS and IRON FENCE aren't quite as nice; phrases that I wouldn't count as assets if I saw them in a themeless puzzle. If only COPPER's symbol was Mu — I like me a Moscow Mule in a copper mug on hot summer nights.

It's unfortunate that three out of four themers contain two-letter CHEMICAL SYMBOLS … and the last one just has a one-letter symbol. Gives that final one a "which of these is not like the other" feel. I imagine the selection was very limited, and crossword symmetry rules make the choices even fewer. Ah well.

Some fun longer fill; love SUPERMOM and BIG BUCKS. And as a big Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike fan, the only thing better than getting ROWLING in a grid is getting JK ROWLING.

Theme-dense puzzles are always hard to fill, and there's good smattering of crossword glue today. All the crossings are fair, but all the dabs in total felt inelegant to me. A couple of ORU (Oral Roberts University) and ONE A (draft status) are fine. Dipping into the deeper ATRI, SNEE, PSEC, ARA well, along with the old-timey-feeling RIVE, and that's too much for my taste.

No doubt it's tough to work around five longish themers though, and it is good that Roland mostly spread the glue out. The themers are well-spaced out as possible, but there are so many areas where words must interact with at least two themers — no surprise that ATRI sprang up in the middle of the puzzle, in a space sandwiched between IRON FENCE / CHEMICAL SYMBOLS / SILVER AGE.

A very cool idea. If the themers had all been as strong as SILVER AGE — I would have been just as happy if the symbols were anywhere in the second word (not necessarily at the start), so that might have opened up more options — and the grid had been smoother, this would have been POW! material.

Wed 8/31/2016

Plenty of crossword puzzles are based on letter addition, and not all of them absolutely need a "revealer" to tie the idea together. But I think the best "add some letters" puzzles are those with some rationale; some raison d'etre. So I really liked MAKE IT LAST, interpreted as "add IT to the ends of normal phrases."

My favorite was SWING BAND to SWING BANDIT, as the meaning of that last word changed so dramatically. Generally amusing results overall, with some funny imagery of a Hormel spokesperson saying YES, WE CAN IT! SHORT STOP IT interpreted as a terse command to cease and desist also gave me a chuckle.

Some fun changes of meaning, i.e. CAN going from "able to" to "put into a can." I did wish there were more like SWING BANDIT, where the last word became a new word, though. CAN IT, STOP IT, POST IT … BANDIT. Would have been nice to have two of each, rather than BANDIT sticking out as different.

I didn't know LEGS DIAMOND off the top of my head, but what a cool name! Along with the clue referencing Dutch Schultz, I felt compelled to go read up on those two. IRS AUDITORS made for another nice piece of long fill. Along with SOAKS IN a HOT TUB, some nice bonuses. And it's not often that I notice a five-letter entry — in a good way, that is — but I liked the colloquial MERCH(andise).

The 11-letter central themer is so tough to work with. Ned uses one of the three main methods of gridworking around it, leaving himself big corners in the upper right and lower left. The former came out so well — beautifully smooth, if not snazzy. The latter demonstrates the trade-offs seen more often in these types of corners, with the esoteric ELOI, the APA, and BE A HERO sounding a little off without DON'T preceding it. But without much else in the grid standing out — just a bit of ANO / INT — it's generally well-executed.

It might strike some as odd that such a little 3x3 section would require both ANO and INT, but those little chunks can be devious. 4x3s or even 4x4s can often be easier to fill, what with more "good" four-letter words than three-letter ones.

Finally, really nice to get a clever clue right at the start: [One may bug you] isn't a pest, but someone might place a listening device — a SPY. The clue looks so innocent … just like a SPY!