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Puzzles for September, 2014
with Jeff Chen comments

Mon 9/1/2014

Anagramming theme today, the letters in TAMES rearranged at the end of five themers. This one took me much longer than an average Monday, as I got held up at PERLE MESTA, needing every cross to figure out this baffling entry. I enjoyed looking her up though — someone nicknamed "the hostess with the mostest" is bound to be interesting.

I liked how Allan worked in his Scrabbly letters today. Too often a J or a Q feels shoehorned in, with compromises galore. But not only is SUSIE Q a really fun entry with an unusual Q ending, it's worked in so smoothly with QUALM. Well done. Same goes for the J up at JAPES / JIM. Those relatively unconstrained areas make for great opportunities to integrate one of these rare letters.

The puzzle has an older feel to it, what with PERLE MESTA, ADLAI, EGAD, DECO clued to the '30 style, ODAY with an "Old..." clue, ZOOT suit. I understand Will's desire to cater to different subsets of his broad audience, and this one will no doubt play better to the older market segments than the younger ones. I personally would like to see less concentration; a wider variety of old and new entries in a single puzzle. Personal preference.

I liked the fact that Allan kept his glue bits to a minimum. It would have been nice if they didn't come from the same category, though — MSGS, SSGTS, SYNS all feel a little too similar, so they stuck out in my mind.

Finally, nice extra effort put in with the revealer, TAMES, helping to explain the theme to novice solvers. It's awfully difficult to find a nice phrase ending in TAMES (LION TAMES feels awkward) so it's a good way to put that final anagram permutation to work.

Tue 9/2/2014

Today's puzzle takes us back to school, with TEXTBOOK, ROOM and BOARD being types of COLLEGE EXPENSES. Of course, no BEER is drunk by undergrads under the age of 21. Ahem.

Nice job disguising the theme. TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE does relate directly to textbooks, but the others made the theme opaque until the revealer. I enjoy when I have to work a little to figure out what's going on. I did find it a bit odd that TEXTBOOK wasn't pluralized, but it's pretty difficult to find a snappy phrase involving TEXTBOOKS. Plus, I didn't crack much of any TEXTBOOK during undergrad, much less TEXTBOOKS, so perhaps it's fine.

Good thing neither my mom nor dad do crosswords, or read these comments.

Ethan does something unusual today, drawing upon short slots for snappy entries. Three and four-letter entries (fives to a lesser extent) are so prevalent that it's tough to do anything interesting with them. UM, NO is such a great colloquial entry. And MUSTI looks so bizarre in the grid, but MUST I? makes for a snazzy phrase. Well done.

I had an initial hitch when I started the puzzle, hitting the crossing ADEN and SNELL right off the bat, so I was worried about the quality of the fill. Turns out the rest of the puzzle was well executed. ADEN and SNELL aren't "bad" entries per se, but I would much prefer to avoid them as part of my solve, especially when they pop up right off the bat. It might be different if ADEN had more geographic or historical significance, or if I were a fisherman.

Finally, it was useful to read Will's comments about Ethan's strong cluing. Gives me more impetus to redouble my efforts to improve my clue-writing skills. Sometimes it's too easy to get lazy on clue-writing, assuming that Will's going to change them anyway.

Wed 9/3/2014

I've enjoyed getting to know Pete through these comments. Turns out that both of us are boys at heart, so I smiled at today's puzzle. I didn't know what was going on, and hitting HEAD STARTS made me laugh out loud. You'd think I'd be tired of potty humor by age 42, but no.

I'm impressed that Pete found such great theme phrases, given how constrained he must have been. Often you can find enough theme entries, but pairing them symmetrically can be another story. PRIVY COUNCIL is one of the few "PRIVY ___" phrases out there, and what can you make out of WC but WC HANDY and WC FIELDS? It is nice that CAN and JOHN both give good flexibility, but still, finding a theme set that follows crossword rules can often be problematic.

Does toilet humor belong in the NYT crossword? I'm not sure. As much as I enjoyed the theme, I was surprised to see it. Perhaps I'm being too much of a stickler — I'm sure there are many solvers who will have my heh-heh-heh boyish reaction as well — but there's something undignified about it appearing in the hallowed tradition of the NYT. I enjoyed the theme immensely and might have given this puzzle the POW! If it had been in a different venue.

I appreciate Pete's efforts to incorporate long fill. I was struggling to spell KAZAKHSTAN correctly during my solve, so I was amused when Pete spelled it KAZAHKSTAN too when he sent me his notes. There was a good amount of esoterica today, but I did enjoy learning LANTANA, a ROSCOE being a mob gun, and the mysterious (but what was probably many people's favorite show?) DAKTARI. Perhaps a tad much new info to glean out of one puzzle? Not sure.

BTW, hopefully people have noticed Pete's Benjamin Button act, his pictures gradually going back in time. By the time he hits his 100th puzzle, we'll need a baby pic. LOO-king sharp! (Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)

Thu 9/4/2014

Sam flips his lid today, or more accurately flips his lids. Fun to uncover the crazy REKL??????? pattern and wonder what the heck was going on. Nice selection of a wide range of headgear, ranging from HELMET to SOMBRERO to ARODEF. Er, FEDORA.

Using short theme entries can be tricky. FEDORA and HELMET are such shorties that they risk getting lost among the fill. That wasn't an issue today since it became clear that there were reversed entries, but it did confuse me that the center across entry, DAYBOOK, wasn't part of the theme. I kept on wondering what type a KOOBYAD was, or what I had entered incorrectly. It would have been nice to have EIPKROP (PORKPIE) in that slot, with a current clue to Heisenberg's headgear in "Breaking Bad," for example. Incorporating one more themer would have been more work and potentially necessitated a little crossword glue, but I think it would have been worth it.

I always like seeing a constructor's personality come through, and maybe Sam's work shines to me in this way because he's one of the first constructors I met in person? The puzzle channeled Sam with OH BOY!, and LLB (Sam's a lawyer specializing in tax law) and even [Atlanta-to-Charleston dir.] was a nice nod to his recent move to GA. But the best is the clue for IRS — "Many Unhappy Returns" indeed! I really enjoy these inside looks.

Pretty nice grid, with just one spot that felt a bit wonky to me. As much as I love MIXOLOGIST, it constrains the west section quite a bit. Along with HELMET and YARMULKE, it forces three glue bits into place: TASSE, A RIDE, ERICK (who?). Perhaps there could be a better combination there with MIXOLOGIST in place, but perhaps a less snazzy entry there could have smoothed things out to better overall effect.

Very fun solve. I tip my tah to you, sir!

POW Fri 9/5/2014

★ Joe continues to impress me with his experimentation in constructing. If you haven't noticed, he's recently given me commentary on his older puzzles, which I've found fascinating. Joe falls on one end of the spectrum, using all the software at his disposal to execute on his very creative puzzles, and I've picked up some neat tips by reading through and learning more about his approach.

I hear grumbling every now and then about constructors relying too heavily on software, but why wouldn't you use all the tools at your disposal? Sure, you need to exercise care as you lay out and fill a puzzle to make sure it's clean and snappily filled, but computers make that so much easier. Trying out dozens or even hundreds of grid arrangements is invaluable. And if software enables new developments and directions, I'm all for it.

My experience today started out mixed. I like triple- and quad-stacks, as they're a visually stunning sight. But we've had so many of them that I apply normal criteria to them these days: snazziness plus cleanliness. So when I ran into a smattering of ETH, ITT, the old-timey ALDO / POLA next to each other, HOTL / ANGE, I was a little disappointed, truth be told.

But when I finally hit that WAITING entry, I paused, thinking that there was no way someone could spell out a word in Morse code through the black squares. Impossible! I grinned as I checked the Morse code chart and saw DOT DASH DASH in row four corresponded to W. Joe pulled off something new, different, and cool yet again.

Granted, some people will point out that this is more a puzzle for constructors than solvers. And I wish that the word WAITING had instead been MORSE CODE or even something meta like DOT DASH, but that does seem impossible. I imagine that very few words would fit into a crossword grid like WAITING did. A CHALLENGE TO YOU ALL: is there anything even remotely thematic to Morse code that one could form out of a symmetric grid?

I love seeing these puzzles that push the boundaries. If you have a chance, go back and read Joe's other Constructor's Notes. Even if you don't like some of the puzzles, I would find it difficult not to admire his pushing of the envelope.

Sat 9/6/2014

Wow, what a workout today! At the 20 minute mark (where I usually finish), I had filled in maybe half the grid. James uses an unusual pattern today, giving us two large L-bends and two big 6x5 open sections, and each of the quadrants was tough to break into.

Why was it so difficult, I wondered? Part of it was that certain entries, while nice, are difficult to clue in a fun or clever way. Take CELERY SEED for example. Either you know what this is or you don't (the latter camp for me), and with a vague clue, it took nearly every cross to figure it out. Same goes for RADIO EDIT, which gets a similar definitional clue.

Even the great entries (both snazzy and allow for a clever clue) get beautiful but extremely difficult clues. PINKY SWEAR is such a fantastic entry, and [Use a two-digit confirmation code?] made it shine even further. So tough, though! I thought about security codes on a smartphone, perhaps some sort of binary code reference, etc. And it didn't help that there was a trap laid at ["Ish"]. S is such a prevalent letter that I plunked in SORTA, and let it sit there for way too long.

Turning those big L-corners is a construction nightmare. James does well to integrate really lively long fill in both of them. CROAKED and STAINED are more neutral entries, but there rest of the entries stand out, especially HANGOVER and SQUIRT GUN for me. So tricky to get all the crossings to work, though. In the SE we see ORI and A RAP, pretty darn good. But the NW gives us a dreaded KON? / ?EH crossing. All it takes is one weird crossing to give solvers fits. Not knowing KONY 2012, I debated between MEH, YEH, and NEH, which all seemed reasonable given the ambiguous ["Uh-huh"]. KONM looked too weird, so I narrowed it to KONY and KONN. I chose poorly.

Aside from that, I enjoyed the workout. Some wicked hard clues for great entries — the clues for PUREES and PUTS ASIDE and ROAD RUNNER were pure gold. That last one was my favorite — "Beep beep" indeed!


A delight working with Tracy. She's creative, thoughtful about entry selection, skilled, and most importantly, willing to go the extra mile to create the best experience possible for the solver. It was her idea to place the individual N E W S squares in the grid, which I thought was a beautiful added touch to the center compass.

Filling this bad boy was no walk in the park, and I was impressed at how well Tracy's first attempts went in various quadrants. Sometimes people get lazy, calling a handful of glue-y bits good enough, so I was happy to see Tracy's willingness to go back and forth, trying again and again to improve the quality of long entries or to eliminate even just one ugly piece of fill.

It's too bad Across Lite can't handle these types of graphics, or handle odd rebus-like squares. (Sorry for those of you struggling to figure out how to enter that compass rose into each of the eight special squares.) I'm glad that the NYT tech team is taking on the challenge, improving their online solver app bit by bit. I met one person on their team (Scott Koenig) at the ACPT this year, and was impressed at his drive to to give the online solver the best possible experience, accommodating all the wacky things we constructors do. I'm looking forward to seeing how the app handles this rule-breaker.

I get a kick out of collaborating with people who are thoughtful, kind, and willing to work their butts off to create the best possible solver experience. Feel free to drop me a line if you're like Tracy! FYI, these days I focus mostly on Sunday-size puzzles, since they're a great need for Will, Rich (Norris) and Patti (Varol).

Mon 9/8/2014

Dan gives us theme entries each with five O's, tying it nicely together with THE BIG FIVE OH. Relatively smooth grid; a good start to the week.

How can you find theme entries like this, you might wonder? The old way is to try pulling it out of your memory banks, which still works just fine. But you can also try our Finder page, which gives you a quick way to search for a pattern such as "*O*O*O*O*O*". This will return all the matching strings that have ever been used in the NYT crossword as well as many from outside sources — if nothing else, it's a nice first pass, giving you possible entries such as:


A handy way to sort through possible themers. I tend to prefer ones that haven't seen much use, but the most important to me is to pick ones that are snappy and interesting to solvers. With so many choices available, it's important to be selective and pick only the best of the best. I like Dan's choices, BOOK OF MORMON and VOODOO DOLL in particular.

I did find it a bit odd that there weren't five themers, which somehow in my mind would have made more sense with THE BIG FIVE OH. Thinking about it some more, that doesn't necessarily exemplify THE BIG FIVE OH any more than three themers. Hmm. (I never claimed to be logical.) I also did find it a bit odd to have OOO at the central down spot and not have it tie into the theme somehow, especially since there are three themers with the five O's. It's not necessarily a bad thing; it just made me wonder if that was supposed to be part of the theme or not. It'd be one thing if the area were so constrained that OOO were the only option, but our old friend Yoko ONO could have fit there just as easily. Probably best to avoid such confusion on a Monday, methinks.

Finally, Dan does a great job of selecting single-word fill entries. Often, multiple-word entries are snazzier, but if you're careful about your choice of single words, they can be just as strong. SORORITY and HOOLIGAN are such fun words, ripe for imagery.

ADDED NOTE: aha, my spidey sense tingled for a reason! Dan let me know that the Easter Egg is the set of five "eggs" (the grouping of five O's) in the center of the puzzle. Fun!

Tue 9/9/2014

What a nice visual, a twist-related lyric "twisting" down the center of the puzzle. Makes for a pretty picture and also gives a lift to hear that catchy line running through my head.

What does Will mean by "triply-checked"? Ah, the dreaded diagonal. Constructors typically avoid working with diagonal entries, because they quickly constrain all the regions they run through. A short diagonal entry isn't that tough to work with, but start increasing the length and the difficulty level quickly escalates. Ed does a nice job of isolating his twisting entry through the use of 1.) black squares, 2.) spreading his themers as far away as possible, and 3.) using a 78-word puzzle.

The black squares are such a helpful factor. Check out the blocks separating the E O N of COME ON. If those hadn't been there, Ed would have had to find words that are "triply-checked" i.e. they have to work with the diagonal, the horizontal, and the vertical words. No fun. The fact that the themers are pushed to the sides and thus only minimally interact with the "twist" is also helpful. Finally, going up to the max of 78 words allows Ed to deploy a whole lot of black squares throughout the middle of the puzzle, reducing the "triply-checked" areas.

Anytime there are few long theme entries — this one only has two which take up long slots — you'll need to incorporate long fill. I like the ones Ed selects; sparkly indeed. It was sort of neat that WALL SOCKET and POWER STRIP were related, although it made me wonder if I was missing something, i.e. was CHUBBY CHECKER's original job an electrician? (Perhaps it's that he electrified the world?) POWER STRIP does unfortunately constrain that west section, making for the awkward CLEW and A REED. I tried modeling that to see if it was easy to clean up, and it was not. Perhaps an alternate piece of fill to POWER STRIP could have made it smoother?

But all in all, a fantastic visual impact which I'm sure will have high resonance to those who witnessed the CHUBBY CHECKER craze firsthand. Even for those of us who didn't, I found it a fun way to learn a bit more about that period in American music.

Wed 9/10/2014

Jim does a fantastic job of themer selection today. There are many phrases that end with BEEN, THERE, DONE, and THAT, so I like that he picked four colloquial, catchy ones. HOW YOU BEEN, PUT ER THERE, NO HARM DONE, GIVE ME THAT! A strong quartet + good specificity = elegance.

I had to look up "Been there done that" AND "T-shirt" though. Perhaps I'm missing something — is this specific to T-shirts? I don't know that I've actually seen a T-shirt with that saying on it. It's quite possible that it's more a regional thing, as Jim has moved around a lot (currently in England — maybe it's a Brit thing?). In any case, I was a bit mystified when I hit T SHIRT. Sometimes I like when there is no revealer, but I doubt I would have figured out the hidden BEEN THERE DONE THAT without one. I tried to think of what might have worked better, but all I could come up with was HO HUM. Hmm. Hum.

The long fill entries present a perfect example of the trade-offs often seen in crosswords. Check out that NE corner, a beautiful little section with no glue and featuring UFOS, KARTS, SKINS (although I would much prefer not acknowledging the Redskins and their crazy lack of consideration to ethnic groups). However, UNABASHEDLY is a neutral word, neither great nor bad. Friendly letters though, which makes that NE possible, in part.

Then look at the SW corner. OCEAN BREEZE, such a lovely entry! I'd guess it got a check mark from Will (he gives strong entries checks, weak ones minuses in his evaluations). But that Z does present some problems — relatively few four-letter words end in Z. I'm perfectly fine with ECARD (the term, not getting them and having to quickly hit mute when the annoying music comes on), but the A LIE partial isn't great and EGADS feels not so great. EGAD I can buy, EGADS not as much.

Same goes for the north and south regions. I love OLD TOWN and HOO HAHS as fill, but ELKE + LOA + KWH + ENS makes for a bit of inelegance. Any one or two of those is fine, four of them not so much. Even though the north section is not as strong in terms of long fill (PER YEAR is a bit dry even for this finance guy), I appreciate the smoothness of the region.

All in all though, I really liked what Jim did here with the four theme phrases. Great selection of snazzy, colloquial phrases that all tie together.

ADDED NOTE: Jim tells me that "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt" is idiomatic. I've never heard of it before, but perhaps I'll start using it. Fun phrase.

Thu 9/11/2014 CHANGE OF HEART

It's rare for a NYT weekday puzzle to have a title, and this one was not only necessary but a perfect description. What a great theme concept, the middle letter of each across entry modified, thus given a CHANGE OF HEART. Patrick is one of the few constructors out there that pushes the boundaries like this. Even if the puzzle wasn't to your taste, I'd find it hard to deny that this one will be remembered. Trying out crazy new things is great for the crossword art form.

I stumbled upon the effectiveness of the "downs-only" approach once I figured out what was going on, but my solve of 20+ minutes makes Joon's sub-5 that much more awe-inspiring. I struggled mightily with the G of GERARDO, eventually guessing BERARDO. It would have been fantastic if the across entries could only have been one possible (wrong) thing, as that would have given some measure of "checking" each square, but to even achieve this level of what Patrick did is pretty incredible.

Frankly, I have no idea how he did it. The constraint of each across entry having to possibly be a different but equally valid word seems so constraining. It's a bit easier in that he's gone up to 84 words, thus being able to use shorter word lengths. But even then, to find such gems as TAKES PART / TAKE APART and FIREWATER / FIRE EATER is impressive. A quick software program to sort through a word list to find appropriate pairs could help there, but when you extend this constraint to the entire puzzle — wow, what an undertaking!

Finally, I find it so neat to hear about the collaboration and support Will and Patrick both mention. Will could have easily have said that Lollapuzzoola is a competitor to his ACPT so he'd prefer not to plug it, but he went out of his way to help publicize it to the enormous NYT audience. The thing I like best about the great majority of the crossword community is its exhibition of uplifting, positive qualities, and this exemplifies it to a tee.

Fri 9/12/2014

[Out of gear?] is one of my favorite clues in quite a while, repurposing a familiar phrase to a completely different use. NAKED = out of "gear" indeed!

Michael uses a standard-ish layout today, focusing on four triple-stacks in the four corners. I appreciate how wide-open it is, each region flowing smoothly into the next, with few choke points. It's also admirable that he connected the regions with some long words. Check out the NE region for example. Using YTTRIA, GO FIRST, BE NICE TO / CRAYONED, KEPT FIT to join those regions is pretty neat. I'm not entirely convinced that CRAYONED is in regular usage, but in any case, that quintet of long answers is an elegant way to connect up two subsections.

Those triple-stacks of 11-letter entries are so hard. There are usually going to be a few hiccups due to all the constraints, and it's best if those glue bits can be spread out across different categories. I love the triple of STADIUM ROCK / IM OUTTA HERE / TAKES THE RAP — all just beautiful entries — but I'm less a fan of a triplet of esoteric names in the same region. AOKI and MAHRE are perhaps famous-enough people, but I wouldn't expect the general public to have as much familiarity with them as WOODS and MAIER, say. And as much as I loved Michael CERA in Arrested Development and Juno, having him round out the triplet of AOKI / MAHRE / CERA is perhaps less than ideal.

Clean work on the opposite corner, with just RWE sticking out. Even DVD / VCRS turned from neutral to a plus in my book with the elegant crossing. The long answers aren't as nice as in the NW though, with INTERSPERSE being slightly above neutral to me, and DRIVE TO WORK feeling arbitrary. DRIVE TO WORK is a fine clue for COMMUTE, but as an answer it opens up DRIVE A CAR or WALK TO WORK or DRIVE TO THE PARK as equally arbitrary answers.

A lot of strong long fill today, HOW ON EARTH and ITS COOL being exemplary. Even short stuff like EUROPOP and KEPT FIT added to the overall effect. Some glue required to hold everything together (MTS/EHS DIR/ADM, nice try hiding in those corners!) but it made for a flowing Friday solve. Themelesses like this, with few choke points, often make for great Fridays, as they give the solver so many opportunities to break into each region.

Sat 9/13/2014

Fun to see some of what makes Josh Josh in this puzzle. I loved the clue for COLOR TV — a neat piece of trivia — and it's a fun reminder that Josh has one of the best jobs out there, working for Jimmy Fallon on NBC. To go along with that theme, he sticks in SNL, and the clue is equally strong. It's not referring to a "chase scene" but a (Chevy) "Chase scene." And as part of a younger generation than me, Josh also employs TEXT ME, a strong freshie. Excellent use of the shorter slots today.

I like that Josh is constantly trying new things. Check out his oeuvre, very few similarities from one themeless skeleton to the next. Today, he drops down to 68 words, with a quasi-segmented grid. The middle is absolutely stunning, as a chunk of 7's and 6's like that is often really tough to fill with snazzy material. COATING is the only neutral-ish entry in there? Wow! Super impressive to see the BAD GIRL / COLOR TV / BIODOME / LET IT GO quality entries packed tight.

The NE and SW are more typical of what we see in themeless corners, triple-stacks with quite a bit of sparkly material in there. EYE SOCKET and IN AMORATA make for a strong SW corner.

The other two corners tread into tricky territory. I'm working on a rhyme for it: "Stacks of three, they're so free; stacks of four, fill some more." Okay, I'm no poet, but the point is that a quad-stack of anything is tough, even if it's simply eight- or seven-letter entries. The SE is nice and clean albeit not super snazzy, with only CB RADIO and AIRSPACE standing out. It's so tough to make those chunky sections really sing. And it's too bad the NW corner has the arbitrary TWO AM and TO SEA with just CHEESEBALL featured.

Finally, ANAGRAM is such a versatile entry. I fall for tricky clues like [Anemone, to name one] time and again. ANEMONE = NAME ONE scrambled. I love that kind of tricksiness, lulling solvers to sleep by employing a crossword convention ("to name one" is seen often along with "for one" or "e.g."). Good mental workout today.


★ So much fun, I didn't want the puzzle to end. Given my short atten — something shiny! — I tend to bog down on Sunday puzzles. Not today. I thought I knew what to expect from the title, but I didn't expect nearly so much entertainment from these clever spoonerisms of celeb names. BEER GOGGLES to GERE BOGGLES is pure gold. Strong base phrase, laugh-inducing kooky result; it doesn't get much better than that.

Sometimes I'm guilty of wanting Sunday puzzles to do too much. I have to remember that I'm not the average NYT solver. So many people leave the NYT Magazine out on the kitchen table, working on the puzzle over hours or even days (by themselves or with friends), and if the theme is too tricky or intricate (a "puzzle more for constructors than solvers"), it's not satisfying if they don't grok it. This puzzle is a fastball straight down the middle for that demographic; a known theme type, not too difficult, with a high degree of solving satisfaction. Even a couple of chuckles.

And check out how well-executed it is. Nine themers is good theme density, and there's a lot of strong fill. I wouldn't expect any less from these two veterans. I like how they break convention a bit. Note how the first themers are in row four? That's unusual, since putting themers in row three is the norm (that helps maximize spacing between theme entries). But they take good advantage of this arrangement in the NE and SW corners. Look at the juicy stuff: WASHRAG, AT PEACE, and the crazy GETSANA = GETS AN A. Now that's using your seven-letter spaces wisely. And a big thumbs-up to SPY-FI. I don't know if that's a term in common use, but I'm going to start using it.

Just like most Sunday NYT puzzles, it had a couple of rough spots. ALY/KIEL tripped me up pretty good, for example. AVY/KIEV sounded just as good, by gum! And as much as I liked OH HAPPY DAY! it caused a high level of fill constraints. Check out the pile-up of UOMO / UNHIP / RPTS / ORA / ANS. Perhaps another piece of long fill would have produced a smoother region. Or a set of cheater squares could have been employed to smooth things out. The rest of the puzzle is relatively smooth, so this concentration of glue stuck out a bit for me.

Finally, one of the nicest a-ha moments in a while. I could not for the life of me what [Polo grounds?] was talking about. I knew some trickery was happening because of the giveaway question mark, but it would not come until I had almost all the crossing answers. Great big headslap when I realized it was all about the (Marco) "Polo grounds." Beautiful stuff.

Mon 9/15/2014

A nice "words that can follow X" type theme. Will doesn't really take them anymore, as they've become overdone, so you need to have something extra special to make one of these work. I was surprised to read Acme's comment about only a few words that can follow JELLY, but indeed, what else is there? A quick search through our Finder page as well as turned up only JELLY DOUGHNUT as something I'd like to eat. Er, see.

Big fan of Acme's utilization of short fill today. There isn't a lot of long fill (only two eight-letter words), but when you choose carefully slot by slot, you can work in things like JOHN DOE, TUVALU, SAVE AS, even the decidedly non-dreck DRECK. Sometimes constructors get accused of "hitting a button" to fill a crossword, but it'd be difficult to make that case here.

I quite liked the choice of themers, although I tried to enter ROLL THE DICE. Rolling a single die seems so forlorn. And after looking back at it, I wondered if JELLY BEAN and JELLY BELLY were a bit too close. But given that the latter is also slang for a pot belly, I think it's perfectly fine.

I would have liked a few more long non-theme fill entries, another pair of 8's or 9's or 10's. With less than five themers, there's almost always a way to work in at least two pairs of long fill. Often, you can get three or even four pairs if you're careful. One way to do that is to start with a 78-word grid like today's and test out taking away a pair of black squares. For instance, take away the black square to the right of OENO. Makes things harder to fill, no doubt, but it also opens up room for another juicy piece of fill.

Of course, doing that would most likely make JAZZ difficult to use, and I do love that NE corner. JAZZ is my one of favorite genres of music, and its 75% Scrabbly letters makes it 75% better. Best of all, there's nary a glue bit up there. It's interesting to experience different people's perspectives — I'm more on the side of not caring about pangrams, and to me, even one little bit like ISE isn't worth a Q. But heck, that quartet of QUAY/QUIT/TAX/ALEX is awfully nice, so I can understand how some solvers would highly approve.

Tue 9/16/2014

Nice straightforward early-week puzzle today, phrases containing three instances of ON. Great revealer, repurposing ON AND ON AND ON (yadda yadda yadda) to tie the theme together. FYI, a search string to use for something like this is *ON?*ON?*ON*, where the question marks represent "any single letter" and the asterisks are "any set of letters with length greater than or equal to 0." If you didn't mind two consecutive ONs, *ON*ON*ON* would be even simpler.

Gary utilizes a great arrangement for long fill today. Check out how TRANSLUCENT, PINE NUTS, TEXT BOOK, and WRITING DESK are both spaced out and alternating, top bottom top bottom. Just as with themers, proper spacing for long fill is key. For any puzzle with less than five themers, I do expect at least two pieces of nice long fill, but four is much better (six is fantastic if you can pull it off cleanly!). This type of layout works so well.

With a simple-ish theme like today's, it's important to pick out strong themers. I love TONY TONI TONE — I don't know their music but what a fun and memorable name — and MONSOON SEASON reminds me of Malaysia, getting caught in a sudden torrential downpour. LONDON ONTARIO doesn't feel as strong to me (plus it's the only one with two consecutive ONs), but perhaps Gary was aiming for more of a "famous city in an unexpected place" clue. For example, PARIS has all sort of fun cluing potential, given that there's a PARIS, Texas. It would have been really fun to have something akin to this here.

I appreciate Gary's short fill today too. Generally not much stuck out me, which is short fill's job. ELEMI I've seen before, and I would prefer not to see it much again, especially in early-week puzzles. Why does it appear, you might ask? Well, one drawback to incorporating a lot of long fill is that it makes short fill harder to get clean. The holy grail of any construction is to get both great fill plus absolutely zero glue. It's easier said than done, though, usually requiring dozens of iterations, trying word after word after word in the TRANSLUCENT slot.

I wonder what it says about me that I plunked in SEVENTHS for [Another round at the buffet, say].

Wed 9/17/2014

Great concept today, a neat a-ha moment upon reaching POLLINATION. After seeing IRIS and ASTER, I had a ho-hum feeling, expecting some sort of "hidden flowers" revealer. But to go back and see BEEs atop the flowers was really cool. I love being surprised by a crossword, and that was a delightful discovery.

It's tricky to execute this type of "X atop Y" type of theme, as your difficulty factor goes up by a factor of maybe 1.5. Check out where EYEBALL is — see how constrained that entry is? Fixing two letters within one entry makes things tough, fixing three letters takes away a lot of flexibility. Luckily, E, B, and A are fairly common letters, and that ??EBA?? does allow some options like ICEBATH, IKEBANA, CUE BALL, etc. Nice way to work through a tough section chock full of constraints.

The constraints do cause some difficulty in the north and south regions, though. A 6x3 region is already difficult — there's a reason why most constructors stay away from wide north and south regions like this — and when you constrain things yet more, you end up with combinations like REDOSE and SSE. Either in isolation can be overlooked; crossing each other is not great. I can more easily overlook a lone SNEE in the south, for example.

Finally, I appreciate C.C. and Don's efforts in giving us good long fill. With a highly-constrained theme like this, I wouldn't expect more than two pieces of long fill. But check out the parallel long downs in the NE and SW. I love SWEET TALK as an entry, and getting TENNESSEE isn't too shabby. Usually these parallel long downs make the surrounding fill tough to get clean. But I like everything around that region. People might complain about ENTs, but when you help the Fellowship of the Ring conquer the very embodiment of evil, I think you're entitled to a little crossword love.

POW Thu 9/18/2014

★ Loved this concept. I could totally see the confusion on the poor person's face as CASEY unhelpfully spelled his name. Reading Will's comment made it even funnier. Big thumbs up.

And the execution is incredibly well done. With five themers plus two short reveals, I'd normally expect some compromises in the fill. It would have been nice to get one pair of long themers in, but I appreciate that he's taken advantage of the 6's and 7's, filling them with such good stuff as ANY DAY, MISSUS, and my favorite, EPSILON with its microeconomics clue. One of my old MBA profs (also a crossword fan) frequents the same coffee shop as me, and I'm going to have to admit that I needed the E to drop it in. Sigh, all the stuff I've forgotten.

Another notable feature of this puzzle is the "fresh fill." As a younger constructor (Joel recently graduated from Pomona), I really appreciate his restraint in tossing in stuff I've never heard of. When it's just KIMYE and YOLO (according to a kid I work with, it stands for "Yo oaf, love ouchies!" — something said before punching the receiver in the arm as hard as possible), I enjoy learning these things. Although sometimes they kind of hurt.

Great clues, too. The one for ALLEYS is fantastic.

I always try to point out stuff I loved as well as stuff I thought could use improvement. Hmm. It would have been nice if CASEY and QRCIU were in more elegant locations. Perhaps pushed all the way to the top and bottom? But that's awfully minor. Those two answers are symmetrically placed, and I bet Joel did this so that the Q in IQS wouldn't be something awkward. ??Q is a tough pattern to fill, after all. Perhaps a touch more puzzle flow? Taking out the black square below NYT would have made the puzzle slightly less partitioned (and closer to the usual 78-word maximum). Would have also allowed for one pair of longer fill entries, but it would have also made the puzzle harder to fill cleanly.

So overall, a great idea, nearly impeccable execution, just nits to pick if I look hard. One of my favorite Thursdays in recent memory.

Fri 9/19/2014

Another one from the young guns today. Finn, a recent graduate of Columbia, features a nice 1-Across with HUMBLEBRAG. Sometimes I worry when I see a definitional clue at 1-Across, as that usually means it's going to something you either know or you don't. But this is a strong one. Not only is it something that's worked its way into the sphere of people as unhip as me, but it's something that can be inferred. Excellent choice to seed the puzzle.

What a beautiful SE corner. It's always tough to come up with three strong stacked answers without having to resort to a couple of glue bits, and Finn's triplet is really well done. SOCIAL LIFE / WINE COOLER / FRESH START almost tells the story of the nerd who became cool once he started drinking. Hmm. Aside from the moral ambiguity, it does evoke a lot of strong pictures. And the fill is so clean, even SWF perfectly fine by me.

Where this puzzle really excels is where that triple turns upward. It's tough to turn a corner like that with just neutral, clean stuff, so to pull off ET VOILA and SEXPERT is pretty darn impressive. Even PROOFER gets an insider's nod to Finn's work in journalism.

It would have been nice to get a little more long stuff. This puzzle doesn't have quite as many 8+ letter entries as a usual themeless (often you see 14-16 slots for 8+ letter entries), which can be fine if the 7's are fully utilized. There are nice entries such as IRONSIDE weaved into the grid, but PALETTES and ORLANDO and CLEARER and UNEARTH won't usually earn checks from Will (I wouldn't think).

AT A SLANT, however, does get a thumbs-up from me today, given its beautiful link to EQUAL, just three slots away. I find it elegant when you can cleverly link close entries, in this case [Level] and [Not level] with slightly different meanings. Clue echoes and cross-references can work so well if they're this close within a grid.

I appreciate Finn's attention to detail, assembling his grid with very little glue. When your only little bits are TRA and ENOL and TELE, that's a success. Quality work from one of the young PHENOMs.

Sat 9/20/2014

Erik is THE MAN! How many people would let me play with the pic on their personal constructor's page for my amusement* (Jill Denny's pic was of Sarah Palin for the longest time)? And after he sent me his notes (in lowercase, as is his wont), he sent me a new set with proper capitalization, in case I had to play by The Man's rules. Well let me tell you, The Man isn't gonna tell me what to do about The Man's notes. Wait...

Loved the mini-theme. CTR is normally a blah abbreviation, a bit of crossword glue needed to stick some great answers together. Using a self-reference in the clue is genius. CTR is at the center of four great answers: ASPECT RATIO, MAGIC TRICKS, LG ELECTRONICS, and PROJECT RUNWAY. I've said before that I'd get tired of mini-themes every weekend, but I love getting clever concepts like this which don't necessitate undue crossword glue. More, please!

A note on cheater squares today. You see the six black Tetris-like tetronimoes? Each one contains a cheater square, a black square that could have been eliminated without changing the word count. I don't mind one pair at all, and two pairs is usually fine. Three is often where my eye for aesthetics tweaks a bit. I actually like the four L-tetronimoes, finding them slightly pleasing, but the two S-tetronimoes in the middle stick out for me. As with most all art, this is a subjective call.

Ah, QUIRRELL! I'm sure this entry will generate discussion, as you either know it or you don't. Given that I've read the series roughly 96.5 times, it was a gimme (although I'll debate whether QUIRRELL actually tried to kill Harry or it was Voldemort acting through the poor professor). No doubt it's an esoteric piece of information, but Harry Potter has gained enough of a place in popular culture that I think it's fine. And even if you disagree with me (and get yourself horcruxed), it's simply one answer within the grid — I appreciate Erik's restraint. I personally would love to see SLUGHORN, CRUCIATUS CURSE, ACCIO, and PATRONUS CHARM in a grid, but I realize most solvers wouldn't care for that. Fie on you, muggles.

Finally, I appreciate Erik's careful choice of his long entries. I was a bit worried when I saw only 12 slots for 8+ letter entries, but check them out (hit the "Analyze" button below to see all the answers listed by length). Every one except UNWIELDY is good to strong, and even UNWIELDY isn't too unwieldy. And Erik adds to his pluses by inserting the language-tasty (but taste-disgusting) CLAMATO into one of the few 7-letter slots. Helps to offset some of the OARERS kind of stuff. Well done.

*I took down the pic of Dick Cheney. I thought it was hilarious, given that he and Erik are diametrically opposed, but my sense of humor is not for everyone.

Sun 9/21/2014 NASCAR ROCKS!

NASCAR ROCKS is a clever title, pointing to the theme of "rock songs punned upon to get NASCAR-related entries." Extremely tough for this non-pop-savvy, non-NASCAR watching crossword solver. Of the five song lyrics punned on, I knew BREAK ON THROUGH and (what I was positive was) DON'T GET FOOLED AGAIN. Poor George Bernard SHAD. That name seemed awfully fishy. (groan)

Speaking of groans, puns are tough to execute well. Today Michael gives us a mixture of perfect homonyms (BREAK/BRAKE), slight changes (FOOLED/FUELED), and outright changes (VIDA/VEHICLE). As a constructor who's never had a pun theme accept in any venue, it's hard for me to say what works and what doesn't. At one ACPT, I hung out with Merl Reagle as he threw out puns, and it seems like the pinnacle of punnery is to elicit a groan. I KISSED A GRILLE = groan for sure! I think? I wasn't even sure if Michael's "hit on your hands" comment was a pun, so I left it alone even though I didn't get it.

Sunday puzzles average about seven themers, so today's five stands out as low. They are all relatively long, so that helps make up for the small quantity. And at 136 words, this qualifies as part of Will's experiment with fewer themers and more long fill. Sure enough, Michael gives us some really nice fill, like ANIMAL HOUSE and SCOUT MOTTO and WAGNERIANS (surely Jim's favorite, as he's a huge fan of the Ring Cycle). Even one-worders like DOGGEREL are well-chosen, a fun word I only vaguely knew before.

The 136 word Sunday puzzle is so difficult to execute on. With so much long fill required, Michael places some of it in the across direction. And as much as I kept reminding myself that ANIMAL HOUSE, CASTS A SPELL, etc. were not part of the theme, I kept asking myself how CITIZEN KANE related to NASCAR. CITIZEN Kasey KAHNE, perhaps? That's the danger of running such long pieces of fill in the across direction.

Additionally, it felt like half of the long fill was more neutral than positive. SPOTLESS, DOCILITY, STAGNANT… those are all fine words, just not ones I would personally put a check mark next to. If the puzzle must depend on non-theme fill, so much of that must sing.

All in all, an interesting instance within Will's running experiment. Even if there had been more snazzy long fill, I think I would have still preferred a little more theme. But it's great to see the boundaries pushed.

Mon 9/22/2014

Ian puts on a clinic today, executing on a synonyms theme with near perfection. I like when a Monday theme isn't blatantly obvious, apparent as soon as you enter a few answers. I wasn't sure what was going on when I finished, and seeing the tie between STICK, CANE, POLE, STAFF, and ROD gave me a neat realization of how everything tied together.

I agree with Ian that synonym puzzles work best when the words are one step removed from their common meanings. ROD, for example, completely camouflages the "stick" meaning. STAFF works nicely as well, STICK and POLE too. CANE is not quite to the same level since sugarcane does have some connection to the cane shape. But still, CANE SUGAR does its job, hiding what's going on to some degree.

It's really impressive how little glue Ian uses in this puzzle. For Monday puzzles, that's so important, as a lone OLIO or even an ERNE can potentially turn off newer solvers. And with five themers, cleanliness is a tall order. Ian does well to choose a seven-letter middle answer, which makes everything much easier than if it were a nine, 11, or a 13. Veteran move.

I did find that the STICKUP in STICKUP MEN stuck out, though. I find consistency elegant, and having a lone instance of "this one does not look like the others" feels a bit off. I'm not sure what an alternate themer would have been though, considering how few "STICK *" answers there are that don't give away the game. STICK IN would work, but it's not nearly as jazzy as STICKUP MEN. So I think Ian's compromise is okay.

Patrick Berry's Crossword Construction book is unfortunately a bit hard to come by. Someone ought to think about writing the follow-on cough cough Livengood.

Tue 9/23/2014

GOLD NUGGETS hidden in the grid today, a neat visual when seen in the print version and pdf. These types of graphics don't occur very frequently in the NYT crossword, partially because not that many people send things like this in, but also (and maybe more importantly), the NYT's syndication partners can have difficulties reprinting the specialized graphics. Tough business the NYT's in.

This is an audacious debut, not for the faint of heart. It may not look like it's that difficult, but to constrain your grid in six places with those 2x2 sections is a nightmare. Gerry does well to semi-segment them so that he could fill sections one by one, not having to worry too much about one influencing the next. Good use of black squares.

Even then though, each of the six sections carries a compromise. The NW is the closest to rock solid, the nice BOGEYING a real bonus. And I don't mind EWER at all. (Most people call it a pitcher, but an ewer by any other name…) It's a shame that NLERS was necessary to hold everything together. Similar issues arise in each of the six areas. I was especially glad to figure out the theme before hitting the SE, as I wasn't familiar with LLDS or ARLEDGE.

There's some debate whether having each GOLD nugget identically laid out (G in the same position every time, the word going the same way each time) or random orientations is better. The former can be elegant. The latter can be more fun though, especially if the concept is transparent — gives the solver an additional challenge. And from a construction standpoint, given the ultra-heavy constraints, being able to rotate and flip the G-O-L-D letters is a very good thing. I can only imagine how rough the fill might have gotten if each GOLD had been identically oriented.

All in all, a neat visual, forcing some compromises.

Wed 9/24/2014

Movie titles with a single letter changed to X. I kept on thinking I was missing something — the replaced letters spelling something, perhaps — so was glad to read Andy's comments. X-RATED would have been a fun revealer entry, but it would really take a title like he suggested to make it work.

Some fun, kooky resulting answers. I couldn't get through "Eat, Pray, Love" so it was fun to see it razzed with the hilarious wordplay in EAT XRAY LOVE. And how appropriate to change "The Lovely Bones" into THE LOVELY BOXES inside a crossword puzzle. Amusing material.

I like how Andy gives us four nice long downs. All of them are juicy, even the single word LEVITATE shining because 1.) it's a cool word and 2.) gets a great clue. "Get off the ground," i.e. start things up, gets repurposed in a clever way.

Check out the proximity between BETTE DAVIS and LEVITATE though. Generally it's better to stagger long downs to give them more space (like if LEVITATE had been levitated to the top of the grid somehow), as long entries near each other can be difficult to fill cleanly. Andy does well to find DALI to connect these two entries, being able to generally fill cleanly. The plural BRANDTS does stick out a bit in my head though. Even if it were more current, something like MERKELS would still not be super elegant.

I like what Andy did up in the NE corner better, TETHERS both fitting in well and containing common letters to facilitate good fill. Still, the confluence of the two long downs (MAKE SURE and UNFEMININE) and two themers is partially what's forcing the awkward RECT and arbitrary ONE AM. As always, trade-offs.

Nice wordplay today resulting in some fun, kooky movie titles.

Thu 9/25/2014

One of the new generation of young constructors, Alex has come a long way with his gridwork skills. Over the past few years, he's sent me some grids to evaluate, and they've improved immensely. It's great to see how little glue he uses today even in the face of ten quasi-themers, really only SEIZER, SSR, SEG, and UNA. It's nice work.

I hadn't heard this trivia question until very recently, in a Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest. I'm not wild about word searching after the puzzle is done (the satisfaction of completing every box is tarnished a bit when I realize I'm not actually done yet), but I can see how others might really enjoy figuring out where the ten body parts are. I've highlighted them in blue in case you missed any. It would have been really neat to hide the theme more sneakily, not so transparent with the overt note to start the puzzle, but I'm not sure how to do that unless it was in the vein of a contest like Matt's meta-puzzle or perhaps the NYT puzzle Alex referred to.

I like how Alex was able to fairly seamlessly incorporate the ten body parts into other words — I wouldn't even noticed a majority of them if the note hadn't been there. The little GUM hiding in GUMP took me forever to find, it was that well-hidden. The one exception I had was in SACAGAWEA. SACAJAWEA looks so odd to me, always reading about her with the G spelling. And not being totally familiar with JA RULE, I didn't think twice to even question GA RULE. Granted, I really should have at least recognized JA RULE as he's reasonably famous rapper, but I would have much preferred JAW to be hidden in something like NINJA WARRIOR or even JAWAHARLAL NEHRU (which is the magic 15 letter length!). Personal preference of course, as the "proper" spelling of SACAGAWEA is controversial.

A lot of nice fill today, PEACE OUT and MASHUP my favorites, along with a really cool clue for MOZART. Sometimes I get turned off by trivia clues, but to learn that Mozart supposedly identified the pitch of a pig's squeal was a real treat.

POW Fri 9/26/2014

★ I'm really digging Patrick's recent experimentation with the "stairstep" triple-13's (in the middle of the grid). This arrangement has so much potential to fill a themeless grid with even more snazzy long entries than usual. Patrick gives us strong work in grid development — 66-word themelesses are so incredibly difficult to get clean — and as with most all of Patrick's puzzles, the clues really sing with clever word play.

Some beautiful long entries today. One of Patrick's strengths is choosing ones that are both 1.) in the language and 2.) amenable to a sneaky clue. Many constructors select "feature entries" that are the name of their favorite indie band or some piece of lingo/esoterica not very well known. Those can be great, but their clues usually have to be definitional (as if coming out of Webster's) for them to be fair. I so much prefer entries that adhere to both criteria. BINGO NIGHT, for example, is a fantastic answer in itself, and the clue about one's number being called makes it even better.

Given the high bar Patrick's set for himself, I was a little surprised to see the partial C'EST and the obscure card game SKAT, and in adjacent across answers. With just two liabilities, that's less than typically seen in themelesses. For any other constructor I'd shrug them off, barely noticing them. I like how C'EST enables the snappy triple of ROBOTIC / COAL MINE / BACK TALKS, and there doesn't seem to be any way to easily mend that little bit.

I took apart the south section to see how tough that would be to modify. Turns out it's awfully difficult. With DRAGGED OUT, LOUIE LOUIE, and GEOLOGIST (great clue, BTW!) in place, the only fix for SKAT I could find was to place a black square at the S to make KAT (and IDLE, singular). But that causes problems in the north section, turning it from a flawless fill to something not so hot. GET TO becomes something like ATTO; not great. Knowing how much care Patrick puts into his work, I can only imagine him gnashing his teeth, going to all sorts of lengths to figure out how to get rid of a single glue entry.

Sometimes Patrick's puzzles can feel a bit light on Scrabbly letters, since he tends to favor entries with more common letters in order to facilitate cleaner fill. Today's there's just a lone J, but it's integrated so well, not a piece of glue needed to get it in, smooth as silk. And a lovely clue for PJS, making me think about infomercials at first.

I wouldn't say it's quintessential Berry given the two small dings on the bottom row, but it still gave me Berryesque pleasure. Always a treat to see his name on the byline.

Sat 9/27/2014

Five things I think I think: (with a nod to the great Peter King)

1.) What a lively quartet of stacked answers. I CALL EM AS I SEE EM is not only sparkly, but it looks so crazy as ICALLEMASISEEEM. I wasn't sure what BREAKER ONE NINER meant, but it sure sounds like fun CB lingo. And I don't mind ONE'S phrases, which tend to get a bad rap.

2.) Upon further Googling, I wonder if BREAKER ONE NINER is flawed. BREAKER ONE NINE appears to be quite common (BREAKER used to start a transmission, ONE NINE referring to channel 19), but not BREAKER ONE NINER. Perhaps the difference might seem small, but I wonder if it's a huge difference in the CB community. MAS and Jim both remember it as NINER though (and MAS tells me saying NINER helped with clarity), so I'm inclined to believe that some CBer ought to get on Wikipedia and change the entry.

3.) I love how MAS and George have left 16 slots open for 8+ letter entries. Love to see that sort of structure in a themeless skeleton, as longer entries have more potential to be snazzy. That's not easy to do with a quad-stack taking up a lot of your real estate. Nice use of triple-eights in the NW and SE corners. I would count DELAWARE and SENESCENCE and MEANINGLESS as only neutral, not positive, but that's still a pretty good number of snappy entries.

4.) A touch too much glue for my taste. I think stunt puzzles deserve more leeway with regards to crossword glue, as they have such potential to push the boundaries. But I've seen enough quad-stacks that I'm not as willing to extend those liberties anymore, at least not to the same degree as before. Some entries like SCH and YEO and GPS are reasonable. Add in A MERE, the odd BEGEM, the forgotten ELIAN, the esoteric ERICK, etc., and it's a lot for me.

5.) I haven't been so stumped by a clue in ages. [Mideast pops?] as ABBA? I can almost always figure these out with enough Googling, but I sat with this one for a full three days before asking Will for the answer. I like the drive for originality in the clue, but I think it would have been so much better if "Mideast pops" was a real thing, like "Boston Pops" or "ice pops" is. Much better to me was the question-marked clue [Smoke without fire?] playing on "where there's smoke, there's fire." Beautiful clue for an even better answer.

Sun 9/28/2014 FOUR BY FOUR

After finishing the puzzle, I was itching for BADA BING BADA BOOM to be in there, so I was glad to see Todd's notes (this is partially why I run constructors' notes above my own). Too bad, but I can understand Will's hesitation to use repeated words in this particular theme, which might act to cheapen the feat.

Speaking of the feat, I was curious how hard it would be to find other 4x4s. My first impression was that it should be pretty easy. BADA BING BADA BOOM, nope. I came up with ALLY ALLY OXEN FREE, CAN'T STOP WON'T STOP, DON'T MESS WITH BILL (awesome song), GOOD LUCK WITH THAT, ONLY TIME WILL TELL, TURN LEAD INTO GOLD, and a few others, but it's a oddly tough constraint, especially if you throw out any with repeated words. So to my pleasant surprise, it made for more tightness than I had first thought.

Nicely laid out grid. Interlocking two pairs of themers really opens up the rest of the grid, leaving plenty of space for snappy fill. Only 136 words makes for a very tough task, but Todd pulled it off quite smoothly. There are plenty of neutral words in there (ANABOLIC, NEGOTIATE eating up two precious long slots) but JOAN OF ARC, NOGOODNIK, WILDCARD, MAHARAJA do add a lot of spice. There's not that much glue required — what's SMEW with you? — less than we see in a typical Sunday. I did really appreciate the smoothness of the solve (especially given how hard that is to do with a 136-worder), although I would have been okay with a little more glue if I could have experienced more great entries in the vein of JOAN OF ARC. Trade-offs, as always.

It did seem odd to me to have a dupe of WITH ARMS WIDE OPEN and OPEN SHOTS. I wonder if that was an oversight or it was considered a necessary evil to enable the 136-word grid? To dupe a word like this in a single grid is a usually big crossword no-no.

A final thought. The title seemed perfect to me when I uncovered the first themer. Four four-letter words = four by four, yes! Then the mathematician in my head (the devil, of course) whispered into my ear about how inaccurate the title was, more appropriate to 4x4 matrices. Alternately, FOUR by FOUR should indicate a single four-letter word next to another single four-letter word, or four of them next to four more (for a total of eight). Luckily, the angel came out and smashed the devil on the head, appropriately with a 4x4.

And they say you'll never use math in real life.

Mon 9/29/2014

It seems only appropriate that a debut constructor would debut a theme that's novel to me. A slice of Americana today, the HOMETOWN HERO MAKES GOOD out of HUMBLE BEGINNINGS. Quintessential Midwest spirit; excellent NYT crossword material.

The theme spoke to me, as I recently wrote to a guy out of this mold, Joe Moravsky, as part of my send-a-fan-letter-a-month goal. As some of you know, I'm obsessed with American Ninja Warrior, and seeing Joe go so far this year on a nearly impossible obstacle course inspired me. He wrote back to me within hours (awesome!) with a funny rejoinder to my comment about the difficulties of climbing in tennis shoes. His response:

LOL, next time rock climbing shoes WILL BE COMING WITH ME.

This is an audacious first puzzle. With five themers, typically newer constructors shy away from incorporating very much longer fill. It was a treat to see HR HALDEMAN and NINE MONTHS appear, but we're also treated with ALL TOLD and CLIP ART. That's a lot of snazzy stuff packed into a grid already dense with constraints. Excellent use of those two 7-letter slots.

The trade-offs. I can never decide if I love or detest YEGGS, appearing in a spot that's somewhat highly constrained (once you fix the snappy OLD MEN). I'm okay with YEGGS when crosses are fair, but I wonder if newer solvers will be turned off by the ESME crossing. I think I was supposed to read ESME in college (along with many other things I skimmed). Or was that OMOO? The SER / PEALE crossing might cause similar dissatisfaction (can someone tell me if church programs really have SER. on them?). I feel it very important to make the Monday puzzle a satisfying entryway into the NYT crossword.

Otherwise though, just a TRY A here, an ANO and an APACE there, not bad. I really like Will's change, as TEN-K always seems so odd to me. I know quite a few constructors who strive for TENK, ONED, etc. but I'm personally not a fan. The 10-K of running and the 10-K of SEC filings are never written TEN-K, so I find it odd.

Nice way to start the week.

Tue 9/30/2014

As a latchkey kid, I watched an embarrassing amount of terrible TV (which was *ahem* incredibly enjoyable). Sometimes I wonder what I could have done if I hadn't spent those three hours a day watching THE PRICE IS RIGHT. Sorry about that, world hunger, but the showcase showdown was on.

Is the show still popular? I sort of paid attention when DREW CAREY took over, but quickly forgot about it again. It seems a bit too niche to have an entire puzzle based around it, but then again, I do know a couple of die-hard fanatics. A few years back, a good friend of mine made it her mission to get her grandmother on the show (accomplished!), thus achieving the top line item on her grandmother's bucket list. Apparently ending world hunger was number two.

Neat representation of the showcase showdown wheel. I especially liked how it intersected THE PRICE IS RIGHT — so fortuitous to have those two H's in exactly the right spots. And I liked the symmetry of BOB BARKER on one side, representing the old guard, and DREW CAREY as the show's attempt to draw in another generation.

It would have been nice to have more theme density, as I was left with a sense of wanting more. I'm not sure what that would be — I'm sure I'm forgetting some catchy phrase related to the show? Also, I found the start position and direction of SHOWCASE SHOWDOWN odd. I tried to read it from the top, clockwise, but that gave the almost-making-sense DOWN SHOWCASE SHOW. The other natural orientation would be to start it where it is but go counter-clockwise, as is the standard with angular measurement. Either could have been possible, the former achieved by running THE PRICE IS RIGHT vertically.

Given only 47 letters of theme density, I'm glad Kyle made strong use of longer fill, giving us some great entries to give the puzzle more meat: LOVE BITES, BREWED UP, BEER CANS, even the kooky but great OK, SO… well done. The constraints are a little more difficult than usual, so Kyle does well to keep the glue bits to the esoteric TERCE and a bit of minor ATA MEI kind of stuff.

Rats, can't think of the catchy phrase. I have to come on down to the conclusion that my memory isn't what it used to be.

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