A shame that this one came so close behind another alphabetic string puzzle, one executed more elegantly. Patrick's concept works, but it doesn't have as tidy of a feel, since there are many options for each string. ABCDE, for example, can be found in ALBRECHT DURER, BAREBACK RIDER … and ALPHABETIC ORDER!
Solid work, though, in coming up with a full set of themers that fit into crossword symmetry. Although each of the themers has other options, there's a nice FenG sHuI to how Patrick laid out the grid. There aren't dozens of options for each string, so there's undoubtedly a lot of juggling and sorting required to make symmetry work.
If your knee-JerK refLex was that it was too easy to come up with alternate themers, remember that a lot of the options would have been too long to work with. Seven shortish themers are hard enough.
Patrick did a nice job of building around his seven themers. Perfect to stack ABSCONDED and AFGHANI in adjacent rows, effectively making it like he only had to work around five themers.
I did notice a bit of NSF / CEN / MST stuff, but that was easily overlooked.
The only real blip in the craftsmanship is something I usually don't care about — added Ss. Some constructors say they hate plurals as inelegant, which mystifies me. If the words are in common usage, who cares if there are a bunch of plurals?
Well, I do, if they're the ilk of ILKS and USAGES — not commonly pluralized words. Toss in UKES (uke isn't as common as ukulele) and SKYS, and it felt like too much glue from one class of offender.
Big fan of two clues: MICE might "squeak by," indeed. And I sure hope my dentist "knows the drill"!
Difficult solve, which is what Will aims for on a Thursday — it took me forever to piece together the theme entries. I enjoy working hard for my a-ha moment, but only if the payoff is worth it. Knowing exactly what I should be doing from the start, but still having to struggle to complete the grid, wasn't that satisfying.
★ I haven't experienced this many delightful clues in a long time. When solving themelesses, I keep running tabs on:
The third category is usually short, sometimes a big fat zero. I couldn't believe my eyes when the tab ran to seven. Unheard of! I had a tough time coming up with a top three, since so many were so good:
Although the construction seemed to be yet another of Andrew's "stagger-stack" constructions, I appreciated the variety. He did start with a typical stair-stack in the middle three columns — SELENA GOMEZ / DELUXE PIZZA / WATER HAZARD, all great — but he wove in so many long entries. TOUPEES, AIRDRIED, AISLEWAY, ESTATE LAW, TAX EVASION, APOSTROPHE, MEZZANINE, BUZZARDS, DOROTHY. It's an embarrassing wealth of riches.
There were a couple small prices to pay, notably the oddball BUR along with some ATA SYR WTS. That'd usually be a yellow or even red flag, given that it's a 70-word construction. This is no typical easy-peasy 70-word construction, though.
So many interlinked feature answers, and so many mind-blowing clues make Jeff a happy boy.
This is a typical grid pattern constructors use to feature two long crossing entries ... except for one little thing. No biggie. Just take out the black squares that would usually be at the S of POWER STATION and C of SMOKED CIGARS. Couldn't make things THAT much harder, could it?
What's that noise?
Ah, it's the small cabal of low-word-count themeless specialists roaring with a mix of laughter and outrage.
Ryan is so good at gigantic, wide-open middles. Building around SAME SEX MARRIAGE was a delight (happy anniversary!), and the stacks of POWER STATION / SMOKED CIGARS + THE TERMINATOR / MASSAGER was IN EXCESS, in a good way. It's so difficult to execute on a central swath when you can't depend on a bunch of three- and four-letter words to help you out. Beautiful work.
Something elegant about AA ONLINE and the SS MINNOW echoing each other in symmetrical spots. After you've solved as many themelesses as I have, novel touches are much appreciated.
Corners as big as the NW / SE are usually to be avoided. Might not look daunting, but a lot of failure and hair-pulling has shown me that it's nearly impossible to get corners like these to sing, while keeping them smooth. Jim and I both failed on the COLMES / I SAID SO crossing, both putting in COLMEN / I SAID NO. Frustrating way to end a puzzle.
Don't get me wrong, it's not that the NW / SE corners are bad. The NW even has COW TOWN, which I love. (OPIUMS in plural, not so much.) They don't hold up in comparison to the middle of the puzzle, though. The SE especially, there's too much PAI / OSSA / ECO / OWES TO. Nothing egregious, but it's not quite the finish that would make the puzzle POW!-worthy.
A couple of weeks ago, Matt Gaffney and I were talking shop, and Will Nediger's name came up. When it comes to pure construction chops, Will is in both of our top ten lists. That's saying a lot, when it comes from the mouth of one of the best constructors on the planet!
(Matt, not me, of course.)
Even the best get sucked in by the allure of a construction challenge. Will is one of the few constructors out there for whom a Sunday 140-word puzzle is no problem. So when I encountered COTANS. STORER. AS A UNIT. FROLLO? I had a sense for what happened. Then all the padding in ROARS AT, LUGS IN, ASK TO, OWES TO, TRUED UP confirmed it; I was certain this was a sub-140.
Will had come to the Dark Side. My guess was 136 words.
It's to Will's credit that the grid turns out to be a 132-worder. It's still not as smooth as someone with Will's abilities ought to produce, though. The technician in me admires the job he did with a 132-worder, exceeding my expectations for that immense level of construction difficulty.
The solver in me says (yet again), please give me a smooth and colorful grid. Please. I'm begging you.
The theme concept reminded me of another puzzle playing upon pairs of words containing the same consonant set. I liked that one better, as the finds felt harder to achieve, given that the consonants had to be in the exact same place within the entries. This one, requiring the same sequence but any place within the word, wasn't as elegant.
I like word oddities. I didn't get a laugh out of the themers though, so this concept felt like more of a curiosity than a delight.
Crossword constructors live a dog's life. I wonder if that's what inspired Tracy today!
The great goddess Crucivera only rarely sends a seraph to float an idea within your grasp. Even if you can catch it, it's a painful path to publication. The rough timeline for a Monday puzzle, in a typical case:
It's soul-sucking to wait with bated breath until the day finally comes that you can post on Facebook that LOOK MA, I'M NOT A TOTAL FAILURE, SEE?
(Humph. You make puzzles? You brother saved eight people's lives today. Why can't you be more like him?)
Even if you don't have Asian parents, you too often get scooped because of the long lag time. It's especially rough when someone else's puzzle with the same theme comes out less than a week before yours.
A vast majority of solvers won't be aware of the AVCX crossword since the NYT's solvership is so much bigger. Shouldn't matter, right? But it matters to us constructors.
Will has done a lot over the years to shorten the overall process, which used to be perhaps twice as long overall. I appreciate that he's brought on more people recently to help reduce the 3 months of waiting for an answer. I bet he'll eventually bring that down to 1 month.
Queue time to publication is a harder one. The WSJ is much better about that, averaging about 3 months, but they don't get nearly as many submissions as Will, who gets about 125 a week. Maybe Mike--who edits the WSJ and is close friends with Will--has some advice on how to reduce that painfully long lag to publication.
Tracy's puzzle is solid, with excellent themer choices, and top-notch gridwork — such a hard task with five longish themers. It's a near-perfect gateway puzzle, one I'd gladly hand to a newb. It has to bittersweet for Tracy though, given the circumstances.
Oof, second day in a row that a constructor has been scooped. Different revealer, but essentially the same idea. This instance is tougher to swallow than yesterday's since the WSJ has a big solvership — more people will be scratching their heads today, wondering why this theme sounds so familiar.
Will has said that he doesn't care about other venues — the NYT is an ocean liner, ignoring what sailboats and yachts do. There may be only a small minority of solvers who do multiple puzzles a day, too. (I'm in that boat, but as you all know by now, I'm weird.)
I liked Jon's themer choices. In the other puzzle, I wondered if ROYAL BABY was a real thing. Yes, I know that kings and queens have babies just like the rest of us. (Although if I were king, I'd order my scientists to create a way to spawn or bud new royals. Needless to say, I'd be a terrible king.)
All of Jon's themers were well-chosen --four phrases I wouldn't bat an eye at in real life. This mechanical engineer says COBALT STEEL is a great one but understands that normal people may cock their heads. Infidels. The curse of normality!
The gridwork could have used some polishing. ROYAL NAVY splits things in half, an arrangement that often causes problems, due to those four biggish corners. (See: AJA / ANAT, IEST, OONA.) The middle can also be problematic; so many down answers have to work through multiple themers. (See: SYD / AEC / ECTO.)
The long bonuses made the gloopy bits easier to swallow, thankfully, CHEER UP / TOWN CAR, KLEENEX helping to ELEVATE the solving experience. It's not a trade-off I'd make, especially for an early-week puzzle where solvers might take one look at AEC and walk away. I understand the thought process though — if you have zero strong bonuses in your grid, that's no bueno either.
The revealer confused me — I was expecting a blue on top of another blue — but it does work. Ish. I'd have preferred simply BLUE as a revealer, assuming rejiggering theme choices for symmetry was possible.
Things happen in threes. First, it was the AVXC, then the WSJ, now the Universal crossword. I wrote this puzzle in late 2017, and Will accepted it in mid-2018. I realize that the Venn diagram overlap of Universal and NYT solvers is likely small, maybe minuscule. That didn't make it any less painful when I opened up Mary Ellen's puzzle and got that sinking feeling.
I'd love to see Will improve the lag time between acceptance and publication. Over a year is tough to swallow. It's easy to see why some top constructors have shifted to other venues, notably the WSJ, American Values Crossword, and the New Yorker. It's a tremendous loss to the NYT crossword that Liz Gorski has gone off on her own, with a fantastic subscription service.
It's a tough ask, though. Reducing that queue time would require a systems overhaul and a much more nimble operation. It would mean going from a paper-based system that Will prefers (he likes to mark up snail mail submissions) to an electronic one, where he could better organize and keep track of how long any particular accepted puzzle has been sitting in limbo.
And for what? To massage the fragile egos of constructors? Yeah, but he's already built an incredibly successful operation, with hundreds of thousands of digital subscribers, getting 125 submissions a week for seven precious slots. What works for him is doing just fine. So why mess with success?
(Although a retooling of Sunday puzzle querying is badly needed, since of those 125 submissions, only a tiny fraction are Sundays.)
Sometimes it's best to eat one's frustration and focus on the good. It's illy say — er, silly — to not concentrate on one's appreciation and thankfulness. Even after 100+ publications, I still get a lot of joy from giving a few people out there 10 minutes of (hopefully enjoyable) diversion in their day.
THINK / TWICE = double the first word in five clues, so that their answers make sense. Not as tricky as a typical Thursday, but still a reasonable gimmick. I bet a lot of solvers are breathing a sigh of relief to get a softball that still meets their expectations for some Thursday trickery. Some solvers quit after Wednesday because they can't break through the Thursday barrier. Perhaps this one will open the door!
Tim did a great job choosing key words that:
Delightful long bonuses, as I've come to expect from Tim, who's one of the best gridmakers out there. POWER LINES, EVIDENCE, and MATT BIONDI are great, and the fantastic OIL PRICES is a standout with its clue. "Crude estimates," indeed.
The best Thursday constructors struggle with the balance of making a trick interesting and novel enough, while not making it so hard that a minority of people understand what's going on. It's so difficult to set up solvers for a hard-earned a-ha, one that feels worthy of all the time they put in. Tim struck a fine balance today.
I've seen tricks like today's, but not quite Tim's implementation. (I'm thankful that the Constructors Getting Scooped streak ended at three.) It did remind me of a brilliant metapuzzle by Matt Gaffney, but in a good way. I enjoy seeing how top constructors execute on a similar notion.
A standard 70-word themeless has to be near-flawless for me to perk up. Nearly all 12 entries in the four triple-stacks have to sizzle, and the short fill must be clean as a whistle. Even if these criteria are met, the puzzle usually has to do something above and beyond.
The longest entries, TWITTERATI and DEATH STARE, certainly qualified as above and beyond. Not easy to squeeze these into the middle of the puzzle. Note how cleverly John did this — both answers steer well clear of the four triple-stacks in the corners, making for more flexibility.
I did enjoy TWITTERATI more than DEATH STARE. I'm sure it's my personal preferences in this day and age, as the latter reminded me of a certain unpleasant Orangeman. Huh, so did TWITTERATI. #Sad.
A couple of clues stymied me. What's a "demesne"? Looked it up, and the dictionary said ESTATE. It's an accurate clue, but it's both boring and a turn-off.
Speaking of turn-off: the ULTRAHD clue. 4K? Apparently that's the term the wonks use for Ultra HD. (Something about 4000 horizontal pixels.) NONES is "the religiously unaffiliated" — basically, the dictionary definition. To EMBAR is to hinder, also from the dictionary.
I bet if you looked up FARO, you'd get something that starts with "gambling game that …"
These aren't bad. Neither are they good, though, and a (mostly) standard 70-word puzzle needs much more to help it stand out.
Thankfully there was enough OVEN MITT (awesome playful clue, riffing on "handy" = "hand-y"), HOW RUDE!, LOGICIAN, SCANDIUM, CANOODLE, to keep me entertained.
★ The mysterious clue for DEAR SANTA would have earned this puzzle the POW! alone. That huge SE corner, so hard to break into, made it even more baffling, given that I had precious few crossing letters to help me out. What a wow-moment when I realized that "anti-coal" was misdirecting away from children's desire to stay on the "nice" list and get toys instead.
I'll be holding this one up as the paragon, the perfect themeless entry/clue pair. Great entry + sizzlingly clever clue = Jeff has to go find the socks that Anna and Erik knocked off.
But wait, there's more! Big NW / SE corners like these are notorious for not being fillable with color and creaminess. LIES AHEAD doesn't do much, yes, but STEADICAM over POWER MOVE is delightful. IM HERE TO HELP running through both is fantastic. And if EWELL is your weak link, that's a huge win. (He was a biggish star in his day, so crossworthy.)
AND a central grid-spanner running through the triple-stacks in the SW / NE? What did I expect? I tell you what, not something as great as WHAT DO YOU EXPECT!
This is such a difficult construction. Any 68-worder is hard. Throw in:
and there's no way a puzzle should be this silky and sparkly. HALTER TOP, MOUSE POINTER, PARASITIC, OWNERSHIP, it's all so good. Some might even say ITS LIT.
(Some who are hipper than me. See: TURNT is a thing?)
Some might ask why I put OWNERSHIP on that list of sizzlers. It's just a ho-hum word, right? Yes, but give it a riddly clue like [It can pass when you pass] and heck yeah, it's an asset.
A couple of blips in IDONT OPPS RES TAI don't even matter when your overall product is this entertaining and smooth. It's such a pleasure when I know immediately, without a doubt, that a puzzle is POW!-worthy.
Total birdbrain of an idea! In a good way.
Word play -> bird play -> riffing on bird-related figures of speech. Great find in THE PLOT THICKENS = HEADLESS CHICKEN. Easy to understand and clever.
SPREAD EAGLE worked well, too, as the letters E A G L E were so nicely spaced throughout EVANGELIZE. Pretty, that.
HILARYSK? Tougher to grok, since you have to figure out that the SWAN "dives" within the phrase, making HILARY(SWAN)K. Still works, though.
OFF on a LARK wasn't as interesting, since "X on Y" themes are somewhat overdone by now.
Master class in gridwork today, Alex such a consummate pro. He did everything right. Sticking at 140 words. Liberally using extra black "cheater" squares to smooth things out. Maintaining unyielding adherence to smoothness. With just ETDS as glue, this is a better product than most NYT weekdays, much less NYT Sundays, which on average, have enough gloop that solvers have to put on their waders.
Even better, so much bonus material. With such exacting detail paid to the short fill, you'd expect little to no sparkle. Nope! POPULAR KIDS, SLEEPER CAR, TAKES A KNEE, COCOA MIX, GOLGOTHA, RANCH DIP. So much sizzle and so little cruddy short fill shouldn't be possible.
There's no secret to it — I'm sure Alex set his minimum word score to a high level and never said good enough was good enough, backtracking every time he hit a problem spot. Every constructor can and should produce Sunday 140-word grids like this; it's a matter of practice and the willingness to spend dozens of hours finding a final solution with virtually no trade-offs.
The overall concept is tight in that it's all bird-related figures of speech, but the visuals are nothing new. While it wasn't nearly as interesting as I like for POW! consideration, the gridwork was easily in POW! territory. A much better Sunday than we've seen in a while.
My fastest time ever at "Guess That Theme"! As soon as I had OBIE ___, I skipped to the next themer and plunked down the wise one himself.
I wonder if a juvenile-minded writer on George Lucas's staff slipped one by. OBI WANKEN OBI sounds so naughty.
I did pause at OB GYN … what is necessary to complete that? Oh, of course, it's OB GYN DOCTORS, because you do want to distinguish the sub-profession from OB GYN CARPENTERS and OB GYN MODERNIST PAINTERS (Georgia O'Keeffe?).
OH, BEHAVE, I was only kidding. Of course, DOCTORS was tacked on to appease Crucivera's demands for a crossacrifice. It's a shame, as that phrase was the only one that felt contrived.
Not the smoothest Monday grid, but not the gluiest, either — an average result, given the tough constraint of five longish themers. Oddly, the one bit I objected to most didn't come as a result of theme constraints. AABA, ELEC, OCOME are understandable since they cross multiple themers. They're also figure-out-able.
I can see some GAPES from newb solvers upon hitting CAPON. If you've never seen that word before, it might look plain wrong. Reworking that corner would have been my one revision request.
I'll admit, my first reaction to this theme was to wonder, why? I mulled it over, and came around to Jim's first reaction, that it is interesting to find five different ways to spell the OB sounds — all at the starts of words, to boot.
Using OBS as a revealer would have upgraded the puzzle, though. That would have eliminated the oddball OB GYN ___ offering to Crucivera, as well as made for fewer constraints and thus, a smoother grid.
No one makes SOLIDER early-week puzzles than Lynn. Her formula is tried and true: go up to the max of 78 words (or near it), so that you can pack in some bonuses (EXTERIOR, SEXISM, ON FIRE) while making your short fill as unobjectionable as possible. With just minor blips in ESL ESTA, it's a top-notch early-week product.
I've worked with many newer constructors eager to debut what they consider fresh or cool new short material. That focus on personal ego is opposed to solver satisfaction, so I always appreciate Lynn's unwavering laser-lock onto smoothness.
I wish the theme had been more interesting, though. A puzzle this technically proficient deserves POW! consideration — it's so hard to achieve this level of silkiness. I couldn't give it a nom, because intersecting "___ STAR" words is too easy. There's a lack of elegance when you can think of a ton of other options like GUEST, NORTH, RADIO, POLE, SEA, SUPER, TIN, DEATH, DWARF, etc.
Maybe if Lynn had crossed stars like RIGEL (is URI GELLER a star?), VEGA, SIRIUS? Now that would have been serious!
I did like how the crossers pictorially formed stars (ish) in the four corners of the grid. ROCK and CHILD not as much, but LONE and GOLD resemble what you might see in a quick sketch of the night sky? Sort of? If you squint hard?
Although the theme didn't sparkle, the overall puzzle still worked well as an early-week offering. I'd give it to a rookie solver, with the caveat that it's not exciting, but it is likely solvable.
I THREW THE BOOK AT this puzzle initially. I called a JOINT MEETING, with all due HEAVY HANDEDNESS, about the major exclusions.
WOODSTOCK is an event whose 50th anniversary is worth celebrating, but I'd have loved something more interesting. Letters spread through phrases isn't all that fun in the first place, and not being able to find a phrase with H E N D R I X spread through it would have slammed that door shut for me.
It's not a Woodstock commemoration without Jimi.
Odd decision to include THE CATSKILLS. It gives away the game too early and takes up valuable real estate, where another performer might be added.
I did enjoy the overall gridwork. It's not easy to build around six themers, and David got away with just some TRA INITS ELHI. Stacking themers, like BAKED ZITI over THE CATSKILLS, was a smart decision.
A shame. Such potential to make a commemorative puzzle as innovative as WOODSTOCK itself. The grand palette of a Sunday grid — featuring Jimi, of course — would have felt more appropriate for the monumental event.
Simon LEBON was an ENGINEER? Cool! I'm AL SET. Wait. NO SIDE?
What the …
Jim and I debated whether we should highlight the hidden answers or not. Ultimately, we decided we didn't want to onslaught of WHAT THE @#$! DO THOSE NUMBERS IN PARENTHESES MEAN, YOU #$@#! DUMB MORONS?! emails.
We'll probably still get them.
It's not hard to dig up TESLA, NOBEL, EDISON (all in reverse, of course), but there's a four-letter backward engineer somewhere in the fourth themer? I was tempted to not highlight it and see how much consternation that would cause.
(My first career was as a mechanical engineer. I got called "backward" more than once, by business folks who rationalized asking for the impossible by saying that it was strictly a business decision. There were some choice four-letter words involved.)
Curious choice to give BELL the nod over Henry FORD and something like HYDROFOILS. If only Edsels had been seacars — driven by OCEANAUTS — maybe they wouldn't have been such a flop.
I enjoy seeing a constructor's personality come through in a puzzle, as long as it doesn't interfere with the solving experience. Andrew is much more cultured than me.
Wait. Than I? Then myself? Bah!
MESDAMES, it was no surprise that Georg SOLTI showed up, as well as a fancy GELEE. Unfortunate to have a couple more tough propers in APOLO and GREGG to water down the SOLTI experience, and some STE ETTE TYE to add to the gel of E-glue.
I did enjoy many of the bonuses, though, BEEF RIB something I will THUSLY NOTA BENE.
As an engineer at heart, I love the REVERSE ENGINEER concept. I don't agree with the decision to run this on a Thursday, artificially making it harder by using a bizarre numbering scheme in the clues. The theme naturally wants to be on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, with the engineers highlighted. What gives?
Must have been a business decision.
"As smooth as a Berry" is one of the highest compliments I can give to a themeless constructor. This one had a scent of the craftsmanship and care the Great One might have shown. Even though a 70-word themeless isn't a difficult gridding challenge, finishing with no short glue is admirable.
(ABUELA might be tough for some, but it's fair game.)
One element The Master would never do on a 70-word grid, though, is to allow for such segmentation. Note how the four corners are choked off from the middle, creating five mini-puzzles. It's not the worst chunking ever, especially in the NW / SE, but it's not as wide-open as a 70-worder should be.
It's easy to understand since something like the NE corner becomes much easier to construct if you can do it separately from the rest of the puzzle. As always, construction is all about trade-offs.
Another aspect where Sensei Patrick is so good: aiming his content at a gigantic swath of solvers. As much as I liked several of Ori's entries — GLUE STICK stuck out, especially with its clue, pointing out the duplicative name — there was a lot of material aimed at DUDES:
And some baseball clues. I loved ON SECOND's clue, playing on "halfway home," i.e., half the way along the basepath to home plate. It, unfortunately, added to the dudiness of the puzzle, though.
Still, there were enough solid entries (TALL TALE, PARAGON, PETER ROGET) and clues to keep me entertained.
JESUS, I was stuck on the [One with more than two billion followers] clue, especially after flubbing on INSTAGRAM FILTER (I still don't have an Insta; doubt I ever will). I was rolling my eyes on having to know all this social media stuff when the light bulb finally came on, that it was talking about JESUS's followers outside social media.
Just think how much more popular he'd be if he'd only get an Insta.
FOLIE A DEUX, I just added that to our word list last month! The author of "Bad Blood" used the term to describe the amoral pair of Elizabeth Holmes and her partner in crime. It's a gripping tale of how they duped Silicon Valley through obfuscation and strongarm tactics.
Sometimes foreign phrases make me feel like a boorish American — which admittedly, I am — but I enjoyed learning this colorful one, and I felt smart today when I plunked it in with zero crossing answers.
Mike's a PNWer (is that any worse than NBAer or NLer?), so I smugly enjoyed the insider nods in ORCAS Island and AIRLINE HUB, "Alaska" not referring to the state, but the regional Alaska Airlines.
I wonder how many non-PNWers got PWNed.
I had Mike's name in my subconscious when I got to ["Weekend Update" co-host …], so I blurted out MICHAEL CHE. Then the crosses didn't work. Had to be COLIN JOST! That's too short? COLLIN JOSST, perhaps?
Then I wondered, are either of those two guys crossworthy yet? Probably not (a shame, they're hilarious). AMY POEHLER it is; I enjoyed working hard to uncover that one.
Mike loves his portmanteaus. I'd never heard of SCREENAGER, and it didn't strike me strongly. I wonder if it has staying power, as entries like FUNEMPLOYED and STAYCATION have become eye-roll-worthy. Maybe they were from the start.
I appreciate the effort to aim toward empowerment with this puzzle. STILL I RISE, what an uplifting poem! It's another to add to your TBR (to be read) pile.
HERSTORY, though … is this term still in use?
Along with some questionables in BUNTER, SCARRY attempting to pass off as "scarred," SOFTY making me wonder if "softie" was more common, and the tough COSSET / FOLIE A DEUX crossing, the SMART MONEY was against a POW! Thankfully, there was more than enough in terms of strong entries and clues — I was sure "semis" had to be found in truck stops, not playoffs — to hold my attention.
I'm apparently obsessed with balls.
It's rare for a Sunday puzzle to hold my attention all the way through. This one did. The theme wasn't stellar, but there were enough visuals — the four spheres in thin outlines, and the giant one quasi-outlined by black squares — to pique my interest.
David did a standout grid job, giving us quality fill, packed with a huge quantity of bonuses. It's almost impossible to execute on a Sunday 140-word puzzle without some ENS ESSE FHA NCO OBI RTE USS, but note how minor and ignorable most of those things are. I doubt most solvers would even remember encountering them.
And the bonuses — these are just my top ten (!):
Okay, I have to mention one more. How brilliant is [It charges to do some cleaning]? Everyone charges to do some cleaning, even my enterprising four-year-old. But wait — "charges," as in plugs in to the wall! Delightful.
Creating a magical Sunday grid isn't magic. It's a matter of not trying to do anything lower than 140 words, being careful about spreading out your themers, and then spending dozens of hours testing, resetting, repeating, exploring nearly every branch of your decision tree. Once you get to David's level of experience, it comes much faster, but I imagine this one still took an eternity.
The themers felt more like they were worming — right, down, left, down — more than rolling, but what can you do. When you have little features like having the first themer be GET THE BALL ROLLING, it's easy to brush away the quibbles.
At first, I thought Peter had given me notes for a different puzzle, one where theme answers either added or subtracted an S. It took some puzzling to figure out "S±1" was alphanumeric code: S + 1 = T and S — 1 = R. Every theme phrase has no consonants besides R and T. Clever!
Great change of pace. ARTIE typically would hint at themers starting with R and T, like RORSCHACH TEST, RAINBOW TROUT, RETURN TICKET, and RAT TERRIER.
Wait a second. RAT TERRIER is in the grid. Neat that it could fit either criterion, today's "no consonants besides R and T" and the more typical initialisms approach.
Peter focuses on ultra-hard puzzles for his Fireball subscripTION service, and sometimes I wonder if that makes him not ideal for creating early-week NYTs. It's one thing to have a couple of toughies in EULER and TAHINI — two entries I'd expect most educated NYT solvers to know — but to cross ERNO and ARAMIS?
Along with some RPI and ORNE, I wouldn't give this puzzle to a newer solver for fear of turning them off crosswords.
It might strike me more strongly if the two consonants were less common, but I'm not sure how doable that would have been. Maybe something like ON THE DL could have been fruitful? Let's see ... ADELAIDE, DID A DEAL, LOADED DIE ... darn it, needs another 9-letter entry. And good luck with ON THE QT!
All in all, though, a refreshing take on double-initials, with some colorful finds like TEETER TOTTER and TRATTORIA.
Added note from this anal engineer who can't leave something alone: EQUATE TO, ETIQUETTE, I QUOTE, TAQUITO. QUIT IT? I wish I could!
★ When I played golf, my thematic sequence would have been:
Ending sadly with MERCY RULE. No GREEN PEACE for me, which is why I gave up the pointless game. Sour grapes? Bah!
Evan did nearly everything right today. TEE, ROUGH, BUNKER, GREEN, CUP make for a descriptive golf sequence, and they're beautifully disguised within phrases. It wasn't until GREEN that I knew what was going on.
Smoothness, Evan's strokes like butter. A couple of minor hitches with some concentrated initialisms in CGI ESL FTC, but those are all ignorable.
And the bonuses! Nothing lengthy, but so much of the mid-length material sang. GLACIER and MT ADAMS. ON THE DL. Slangy ST PADDY. Even some SPRITZ TIRADE to round things out.
Thankfully, CARDI B has been in the crossword twice before, so she didn't give me hesitation. Third time's a charm!
Can't say the same with AVICII, which was the one major barrier to me awarding the POW! Especially in an early-week puzzle, you want to do everything you can to create a moment of "oh yeah, I defeated the NYT crossword!" Today, I got a "umm … I might have possibly finished the crossword, albeit with a bizarre corner, WEIRDER than ever; that can't possibly be right, so let me double-check everything, no, it must be right, but it can't be right because it's so odd" moment.
It's a constructor's job to put solver above self, setting them up for glorious victory. That didn't happen today.
However, Evan did so well aside from AVICII that I still gave him the POW! Interesting, well-hidden theme, solid and smooth gridwork overall. I'd happily give this one to a newb, with the big caveat that they won't get as satisfying a victory as they deserve.
Great concept, e-words playfully hinting at descriptive phrases containing no vowels except E. E-sign usually means to complete an electronic document, but today it clues ENTER HERE.
Fantastic range of themers, too. I liked that Sam ended with an insider's nod to constructors, who have to sometimes resort to gloopy bits like EMAG. Funny to see it in a featured role today, as a clue for SEVENTEEN.
Although many long words and phrases contain no vowels but E — Cathy Allis did an entire Sunday puzzle like this — it's brilliant to link them to e-words. Bravo!
Not so laudable was the choice to squeeze in seven of them. As much as I appreciate the wide range, it's too much to pack into a 15x15 grid. The biggest problems come in areas where down answers must cross three themers, like ECHOES. It creates grid inflexibility and leads to horrible things like OOX. When you have to resort to random strings of letters, it's time to rethink grid design.
Entries like HOBNOB and ROSITA are great bonuses, and any grid needs to sport a few sparkles to keep up solver interest. How I 'ate to see things like 'ENRY, though. It didn't make that corner a total ABYSS, but it'd have been better to have just one bonus down there while keeping things smoother.
It would have been a different case if there hadn't been so much AS NEAR, DNAS (Will Shortz called this out as a near puzzle-killer once), and a slew of incidental e-entries: EDT EERO ERN ESTD.
Sam is one of my favorite people in the crossworld, and he comes up with some of the most entertaining themes of any constructor. Today's hit the mark again, but the gridwork sadly dragged down the puzzle as a whole.
A few years ago, Will Shortz put a moratorium on turning puzzles. There are many ways of executing on a turning puzzle — going up, going down, double turns, turns on rebus squares, etc. But ultimately, they all fit into the same classification. I'm glad he's careful to space them out these days.
I liked Emily's interpretation and execution, playing on the juicy phrase, DIVE BAR. It's elegant:
Great fill, too. Emily wisely didn't give herself many constraints, just 39 thematic squares, so she had a lot of freedom to zestify the grid. It's not easy to work around turned answers, so LITERATI and OMEGA MAN were great bonuses in the NE.
(I wasn't so sure about ELI ELI, but the clue was descriptive enough that I figured it out.)
Along with ARABIAN SEA, ANTITHESIS, MUSHROOM, IS IT TRUE — and only minimal ATOB TES TUE minor glue — that's a big construction win. I'm sure a ton of iteration was involved.
It's tough for a turning puzzle to wow me these days, but this one's a solid puzzle.
I wasn't familiar with the front and center WILHELM SCREAM, but thankfully all the crosses were unambiguous (and WILHELM looks like a name I might recognize, in contrast to AVICII). I don't mind learning something new in a crossword, as long as it doesn't get in the way of a victorious solve.
One of my favorite potential aspects of a themeless is a mini-theme that takes a moment to piece together. The WILHELM SCREAM ... as someone goes over VICTORIA FALLS ... a BETTER YOU THAN ME DISAPPEARING ACT?
I wonder if Evan is working on a screenplay.
A grid having so many long feature answers rarely has room for much more. So it was a pleasure to get the long downs in VIRTUOSOS, BATMOBILE, AER LINGUS, WENCESLAS. That last one's clue made it even better. I was sure Carole King was spelled with an E at the end. No? Ah, the K wasn't capitalized! Clever appropriation.
I didn't enjoy the puzzle as much as I should have, though. It took me a while to realize why: it felt trivia-heavy, specifically with tricky vocab. There's SAPOR in the grid, along with WILHELM. In the clues: contumely, manumission, and Yggdrasil.
(I do think manumission is an important word that you ought to learn if you don't already know it. Crosswords shouldn't feel teachy, though.)
It's a shame. With even more bonuses in AAA BATTERY and IVORY TOWER, there's so much goodness, and such little glue. With different editing choices, this might have been in POW! territory.
LITE BRITE brought me right back to my childhood, sticking those little plastic pegs up my nose to see if it would light up like Rudolph's.
(It didn't. I still think it should have.)
Divisive one, too. Jim had no idea what this was (or why I'd stick pegs up my nose), and I bet a lot of people out there will share his perspective. If you've never played with it (LITE BRITE, not my nose, that is), it won't elicit much emotion.
These days, I find entries like TECH SAVVY much more interesting, as they have a broader audience.
Amazing number of clever clues today. I was blown away by the sheer quantity of brilliant misdirects. My top three:
Note how these three clues all elevate short entries that otherwise are simply filler. Also, note how careful Sam was in selecting short entries that aren't common in crosswords. It's much harder to come up with something creative for seen-all-the-time stuff like ERA and AREA.
There was a bit too much material that didn't quite hit my ear right — ATRACE / SLIGHT BIT, SLOW MO with that odd W, SENHOR, BY RIGHT, AC TO DC. (Even as a mechanical engineer, that last one felt a bit off-the-wall — get it, as in from a wall outlet? Okay, I won't quit my day job.)
I might have liked OPSOMANIA better if I didn't already have a sense of so many entries being pitchy.
Overall though, Sam entertained me with enough great feature entries like THEOCRACY WET NOODLE CROP CIRCLE. And the clue for CROP CIRCLE! Fully agreed with Sam, that's genius.
ADDED NOTE: I glossed over the clue for THEOCRACY at first. I'm glad I went back and studied it. No "state of disbelief" for a government-centered around God! So, so, so many brilliant clues.
NOW YOU SEE ME / NOW YOU DON'T = phrases where ME is added / other phrases where ME disappears.
C is the thing that appears and disappears?
We'll C about that.
Elegant touch that Matt crossed NOW YOU SEE ME (across) and NOW YOU DON'T (down), and then arranged all his C additions (across) and C subtractions (down) to match. I like that parallel structure.
Solid gridwork, not an easy task given the sheer quantity of theme material. Nothing to write home about in terms of bonuses, but ED HARRIS, BAPTISM, NEMESIS, SEESAWS, SMELTER, GOTCHA, SHEESH are all assets.
Crossword glue? I was nervous when 1-Across turned out to be AMIR, a variant of the usual EMIR, but thankfully the rest of the puzzle went smoothly. When a Sunday puzzle flows with just some RANEE, ANAS, ATA, SASE, that's a win.
The trick might have struck me more strongly if adding / removing C made more sense, and if I hadn't seen the concept a few times before. I'd have also liked theme answers to be paired up and crossed, even more strongly mirroring the NOW YOU SEE ME / NOW YOU DON'T crossing.
The inequality of seven additions but only three subtractions threw me off-balance. Good thing this wasn't a tightrope-walking puzzle!
Today's puzzle wasn't David Blaine. But it wasn't your weird uncle Stevie pulling a stuffed rabbit out of his hat, either.
★ The best crossword themes are ones that you'd never think of yourself. Check out today's three layers:
None of the aspects are that interesting by themselves but put together, they make a dynamite triplet of colorful phrases exhibiting both tightness and consistency.
Beautiful gridwork, everything I want out of an early-week puzzle. There's nothing that would turn off newbs, and so much bonus material to show them that crosswords can be enjoyable. NECKBONES. BLEARY-EYED. BOOTLICKER. LESBIAN.
COMO ESTAS? I'm doing way better than fine, thank you very much!
And literally, beautiful gridwork. The mirror symmetry produces an aesthetically pleasing visual. BOO BOO BEAR looks like he's wearing a hat — so charming!
Hard to find fault with anything. It's not ideal to use both BONA and LAUDE in one grid since they can't be clued in any way (for newbs) except for [___ fide(s)] and [Summa cum ___]. That's an incredibly minor issue though, something I usually wouldn't bother to mention.
This is a perfect example of how three solid themers can carry a puzzle. Erik did everything right today.
Anagrams. Some people love ‘em, some heat ‘em.
My wife, Jill, used to be a talented Scrabble player, but she sometimes kept herself up at night, her brain anagramming the snot out of random seraphs. Probably a good thing she gave it up.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I've seen a lot of anagram concepts in crosswords, so I'm mixed on meth.
I appreciated the consistency Dani showed today, each themer following a consistent "(name) + [apostrophe] S + (anagram of name)" pattern. Nice change of pace to get a full set of female names, too, all too uncommon in a heavily male-leaning crossworld.
13-letter themers are tough to work with. Note how LAUREN'S UNREAL forces a long down in WELLS FARGO. Dani could have broken this up by blacking out TAS at 45-Across, but that's a visually unappealing option. I don't mind WELLS FARGO, but it didn't do a lot for me giving their recent banking scandal.
Not a lot of other options there, though, the W??L???R?? pattern only returning a handful of alternatives like WORLD WAR II, WILLOW TREE, and from our private list, WALLY WORLD, WORLD B FREE.
(A certain crossword editor fits that pattern, but he's said he never wants to feature himself in a puzzle.)
Those two long downs, WELLS FARGO and EVEN BETTER (which is even better than Wells Fargo — what bank isn't? *rimshot*), force the only dabs of glue in the puzzle, OTO and ELY. A strong result given the layout Dani chose.
I'd have liked some rationale to counteract my anagrannui, but I couldn't think of anything besides WOMENS LIB, which feels outdated, and LOOSE WOMEN. Any blogger stupid enough to even mention that last one should get flamed to hell and back. Talk about a big GAS BILL!
Nice bonuses in GAS BILL, NFL GAME, COMPASS, TOP DOG. Along with a polished grid, it all came together as a solid early-week offering.
I enjoyed the modern feel that (The) FAULT IN OUR STARS gave this debut puzzle. Fantastic book, showing that Young Adult novels can be literature, not Twihard trash.
Okay, fine. #TeamJacob.
I also enjoyed the image of Hugh Grant being asked, "Pardon me, old chap, could you pray tell me the score of the match, pip pip?"
TENNIS in movies? I've seen so many plays on tennis — some that are aces — that it takes a lot for another one to make me feel like I'm at center court. I might be missing something that pulls this theme together and makes it an amazing overhead smash. I like the consistency. But what connects tennis to movies?
YOU GOT SERVED didn't work as well as the others. Yes, SERVED is a word in tennis, but who ever GOT SERVED? It'd take one hell of an ace to elicit that yell from a Wimbledon crowd. In your face, Hugh Grant!
Using just three long themers should open up a grid for a ton of bonus entries, and Daniel did well to incorporate the goodies of ACOUSTICS and LUSITANIA, not to mention CASTRATI and RISOTTOS, which run through them.
Perhaps I shouldn't use CASTRATI and "run through" in the same sentence.
A three-long-themer puzzle ought to be perfectly clean, too. Today's does have the TENNIS revealer, which is hard to work around — note SST / SATORI — but it could have been cleaned up. There's too much ENE ORO RIT SEL SYN, along with a dupe of YEA / YES.
I understand Daniel's desire to pack the puzzle chock full of bonuses in case solvers didn't connect with the theme. Overpacking leads to bulges and broken luggage, though. Rearranging the grid skeleton so all his long bonuses were in the down direction would have helped to achieve a better balance overall.
It's so cruel when you come up with an exciting seed idea but can't find other examples. In my mania, I ran through at least three dozen X OR Y phrases. Plus or minus. Give or take. At first, I did all my sifting and sorting manually, but that felt like writing a book by typewriter. Why not tell my computer to do the work for me?
Hello, computer, find phrases using the X OR Y pattern, and then find partial strings where both X and Y can form valid words. Easy peasy!
Stupid computer and its inability to do what I want. Grumble grumble.
It took a couple of sleepless nights to realize that I could write a program that would find phrases containing the X string of letters, then substitute in the Y string, and finally check to see if the result was in my word list. Hooray!
One of the first findings the program spit out was HOT OR NOT and LIKEAS___.
Aargh, idiotic computer, I'll kill you, die die die! LIKE A SNOT isn't a thing!
Oh. LIKE AS NOT. Right.
Then I stared at the next result, FRIEND or FOE and DE___. WTF is DEFOE, the opposite of de friend in Brooklynese? Ha ha ha dumb computer, you made another mistake!
Ah. Daniel Defoe. Ahem.
You're only as smart as the weakest link, which is not my computer.
My original submission used:
CAN YOU BELIEVE IT, IF YOU FILL IN A SINGLE LETTER FOR EACH BLANK, YOU CAN SPELL E R A S E!!! THAT'S SOMETHING AWESOME, RIGHT?
Well, it should be.
Ha ha ha, do you look fat? Don't ask questions if you don't want the answers!
I soon as I typed those sentences, I RUED it.
Seriously though, DO I LOOK FAT hit me the wrong way. First of all, isn't the stereotypical joke "does this dress make me look fat?" Second, it's a stereotype. Third, let's be honest, maybe I have EATETH too much.
72-word themelesses have to be near perfect, given the ever-escalating bar. I enjoyed OFFICE WIFE and MELLO YELLO, a bit of EVIL GENIUS. I did wonder if OFFICE WIFE held connotations of cheating? Made me uncomfortable, but it's fine, if not as amusing as "work spouse."
As did MOHEL, EDDA, ILIAC, and the bizarre strings of EATETH AEAEA. That last one looks like the result when my 3-year-old son gets onto my computer.
Even EVERDEEN might be tough for some. As much as I loved "The Hunger Games" (remember all those ridiculous questions about "does Jennifer Lawrence look too fat to play the role of near-starving Katniss?), I wonder if its specific names will stand the test of time.
I enjoyed some of the long fill, SNEAK PEEKS and EVIL GENIUS in particular, but both of them are hard to clue in clever ways. For a puzzle featuring EVIL GENIUS, there wasn't a lot of wickedly clever wordplay going on.
Solid 66-worder, I'd give it my STAMP OF APPROVAL. I enjoyed the twist on the typical stair stack, Brian working in two 15-letter entries to provide extra color. Neat how he managed to weave so much through the five long across answers. HOME REMEDY, TESLA MOTORS, CAPITAL CITY, ON THE LEVEL are all on the level.
Plus BITE MARK and TRIFECTA? For a puzzle featuring so many ultra-long across answers, it's a feat of construction to add in so much more spice.
I wanted to love MISSILE ENVY, but it felt pitchy. Is it because it's a term from long ago that's fallen by the wayside? Or just not that clever, an in-your-face derivation of "penis envy" with no wordplay involved?
I had a similar feeling about BUDGE AN INCH, which didn't seem as strong without DIDN'T in front. Both of these marquee answers are fine, but I wouldn't call them standouts.
Neither Jim nor I knew TANIKA Ray, but this is a perfect example where I didn't mind learning something. She didn't affect my ability to achieve a victorious finish, and TANIKA looks enough like a name that I didn't give it a second thought. Glad to know about her now.
It's so hard to put together a 66-worder with so many long feature answers cleanly interlocked. Overall, top marks for technical execution, but a couple of bite marks for artistic merit.