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Puzzles for September, 2016
with Jeff Chen comments

POW Thu 9/1/2016

★ Schrödinger! Ben adds to the short list of puzzles displaying duality, using the GENDER FLUID concept of identity. The four special squares are animated below — part of a house can be a ROOM or a ROOF, fabricate can be MAKE or FAKE, etc.

I really liked the fresh feel of this puzzle. Ben gives us material that both feels simultaneously new and timeless. ESPNU is such a weird string of letters, but ESPN U is definitely gettable even if you're not a subscriber. LOW ART, QUEER as part of LGBTQ, a great term in the clue for PUENTE — Nuyorican = Puerto Rican in New York — even MUSTY / FUSTY, it was a joy to solve all throughout.

Of the Schrödinger squares, my favorite was SAME sex … or was that SAFE sex? As Peter Gordon once emphasized, a great Schrödinger should exhibit real duality, making the solver pause as he/she tries to figure out which of two equally-correct-sounding possibilities is the "right" one. And with both options here as appropriate as well as colorful phrases, it's the huge winner of the four special squares.

I wasn't as taken with some of the other Schrödinger squares, filling in either M or F without giving it a second thought. [Reveal a secret, say] seemed like it had to be FESS UP. Afterward, thinking about it, MESS UP did fit, but FESS UP was the clear choice without looking back. Same with MAKE for [Fabricate] — FAKE does fit, as with fabricating a lie, but it feels like much more a stretch than MAKE. [It's combined at the beginning] felt like a tortured way to say PREFIX, but PREMIX didn't give me a pause.

But overall, I really liked the idea of using GENDER FLUIDity as the rationale for a Schrödinger, and the smooth, fresh fill — with all kinds of great DYSTOPIA, ODYSSEY, EQUUS, DANDY entries — made for an extremely enjoyable solve.

P.S. [Snake's place, partially] — the Snake river winds through OREGON. Tricky clue!

Fri 9/2/2016

Big corners like the NW and SE are so daunting! As a constructor, they remind me of my many (many many) failed attempts to fill such wide-open spaces without resorting to ugly gluey bits or strange long entries. And as a solver, I shudder at the thought of how hard it is to break in; to get any sort of toehold. It's even harder when a corner is so isolated like these two are — just one entry apiece taping them to the middle of the puzzle.

Even tougher after I finished the middle, and realized that ?????WAY could be so many things … as could AIR????? ! This is a great tip for constructors working with sections like these, since retaining that type of flexibility is so important when trying to connect a giant corner to the rest of the puzzle.

In the middle section, I liked the KNEECAPS / CAR RADIO / PREREQ section a lot. THIRTY TWO ACROSS was a bit out of place to me, as it was the lone self-referential answer/clue — I felt like it could have made for a better themed puzzle entry, along with two or three other similarly done answers. Getting A DAY right over A PIPE seemed inelegant, but thankfully the rest of the middle was relatively smooth. (BE SORE, I'm still trying to figure out if I like you or not.)

So, So, SO tough to finish the corners (I didn't complete the lower one). I was really impressed with the upper left — it's so rare to get a giant corner like this filled with great assets like BROADWAY and BRAS TRAP. Er, BRA STRAP. For those of us who play Ultimate, we should probably let the clue get a pass — it's a technicality that a great majority of Ultimate players use Discraft brand discs, not Frisbees (which are weighted all funny).

The SE corner didn't do as much for me. As much as I loved RIOT GEAR, things like ASPIRANT and BORN INTO are the type of neutralish answers I'm more used to seeing in these chunky regions. Being held together with some OISE glue and the odd-sounding IS NEAR didn't do it any favors.

Even though my solve was frustrated by how separated the three parts of the puzzle were, as a constructor I have tremendous appreciation for that NW corner. Really beautiful work there.

Sat 9/3/2016

There's a reason why Will schedules some themelesses square for a Saturday, the toughest slot of the week. No matter how straightforward you go with a clue for ZUGZWANG, if you've never heard of it before, it takes nearly every crossing to work it out. What a cool German term! Although it nearly stymied me, the crossings made it fair game, and I really liked learning it. Okay, NED Jarrett could be JED, TED, RED, etc., but with ZUGZWA?G in place, you should be able to make the best guess at that last letter.

Speaking of stymied, there was a lot that nearly broke my spirit, but I ultimately pulled through successfully. Here are some points that might help illuminate:

  • HEDDA Hopper was a noted gossip columnist of the early 20th century.
  • How could GREW mean "waxed"? When one waxed poetic, for example.
  • NOBIS means "us" in Latin, as in "ora pro nobis" = "pray for us." I think it's tough but fair.
  • EMEND seems like it should be "amend," doesn't it? But it specifically means "to make corrections or improvements in (a text) by critical editing." Editor-speak!
  • RFD = "rural free delivery." Whoo, tough.
  • SOC = sociology, I think. Never seen that used in real life.

I'm not sure people still say HOMESLICE, but I did love PARTY FOUL, ON THE FRITZ, the full ETON COLLEGE, and even the at-first-weird-seeming YEAR ZERO. What else would you call 0 AD / BC, though?

Although there was a bit much of the RFD SOC ESTO NSW type of crossword glue for my taste, I really enjoyed some of the learning — especially ZUGZWANG. Definitely a term we should all try sneaking into daily conversation.

I'm talking to you, JESS RILEY!!!

Sun 9/4/2016ONE BY ONE

Rebus variant from Tom today, two letters used as a straight rebus in the down direction, while an ampersand is inserted for the across direction. Example: B&O RAILROAD crosses EL(BO)WS. There have been a few ampersand rebus puzzles before, but I don't remember anything exactly like this. We've fixed up the answers (see below) as best as possible (so the answers accurately make sense with the clues).

Tom is so good about introducing fun, fresh fill to his puzzles. This one doesn't have a ton of room for bonus fill, since it uses eight — really 16 — mostly longish theme answers, but Tom still manages to work in so much colorful material. NEED A LIFT? LAPEL PIN. HUMAN RIGHTS. YOU LOSE, with the famous anecdote about Coolidge's terseness. And that's on top of all the strong themers, like NOT TO WORRY, MOTORBIKES. AS PER USUAL, indeed! All those great entries really helped keep my attention through the solve.

However, at some point, all constructors must pay the piper. It's hard to imagine such a GOLIATH amount of sizzling themers and fill without some cost, and there was more than I usually see from a McCoy puzzle. A couple of SST, ANAT, A TEE, SEI is perfectly fine for a Sunday 140-worder. But there were a few head-scratchers today. Although it does appear to be a word, UNUSE stuck in my craw. DILATER did too — "dilator," as in a compound that dilates, would have been fine. IN A TUB feels like a six-letter partial. SEA RAT … I did find it by Googling, but it doesn't roll off my tongue.

I had a good laugh before fixing up the answers for our database — AW ROOT BEER feels like a seed for another puzzle. ["Dang it, do we have to have Barq's again?"]. BO RAILROAD might be [Stinky train option?].

I'm easily amused.

All in all, I would have liked something a little more different than the normal rebus or the play on ampersands, but Tom wove in enough really strong entries that I still was entertained.

Mon 9/5/2016

"Words that can be preceded by" theme today, something we rarely see these days. (Most editors take very few of them now.) A few months ago, Tracy asked me about this idea, and I mentioned that although it is indeed a "words that can be preceded by," what might help elevate it is that some of the terms — SKINNY (JEANS), LOW RISE (JEANS) — are fresh, colorful phrases. It also has a somewhat "fashionable" feel to it, making it a little more upscale.

Tracy does a nice job with her grid, especially considering the theme density. Five longish phrases, including a 15-letter one, are tougher to fill around than jamming oneself into a pair of SKINNY JEANS. Just getting a smoothish, cleanish result is an accomplishment, but Tracy works to give us the nice UP AND AT IT (AT EM would have been just perfect!). TWO HANDED is more workmanlike, but getting some OPAQUE, ENSUITE helps elevate the solve. I like seeing those careful touches, showing the constructor's desire to do something more for the solver.

Relative lack of DRECK, too — I was almost all the way through the puzzle before I hitched at the south. Not surprising that two themers (FLARE GUNS and CUT OFF SAW) sandwiching a six-letter word (ENESCO) would be the boggiest section. All the ENESCO crossings are fair (although that entry in itself might turn off some novice solvers), but to have any ?STAR, NEURO, and the slightly odd UNCAP doesn't do that region any favors. It's a lot to cram into one tiny section.

I wasn't familiar with the term FLARE JEANS, but fashion is not at all my forte, and it does Google well. I felt as a mechanical engineer I should know CUT OFF SAW, but it didn't hit my ear very well as something like, say, CHOP SAW. Research shows it's a real thing though — perhaps I've been out of engineering too long.

Nice execution through most of the puzzle, along with some great phrases like SKINNY DIP and BAGGY EYES, helping to overcome my personal ennui with this type of theme.

Tue 9/6/2016

A collection of phrases meaning [sigh]. Kind of a downer to focus so heavily on resignation, but Tim found some wonderfully colorful phrases. THEMS THE BREAKS, AND SO IT GOES, WIN SOME LOSE SOME, QUE SERA SERA, THAT'S LIFE are all phrases I'd happily count as an asset in a themeless puzzle. I also liked how the last one broke the pattern, as a literal phrase of resignation — I QUIT! Fun to lull the solver into a pattern and then hit them with a sort of punchline.

Really nice gridwork; I wouldn't expect anything else from Tim. Even with so many long themers — including ones forcing black square placement (between THATS LIFE / I QUIT), reducing flexibility tremendously — Tim navigates his grid well. Working in two long downs is tough with this theme set, but BORE FRUIT and DEERSKINS are both nice. There's even a little HYBRID, some GHOSTS, OTTERS, and a PRELIM to jazz things up further.

Smooth results, too, with just the lower left giving me a tiny pause. It's tough to work a little corner like that when it's constrained by two themers — one starting with a Q — so to end with an AHL (American Hockey League) and TOA is pretty minor. There are a few other things like EBRO (minor-ish rivers are an inside joke to constructors, as they can be so useful but so head-scratching to newer solvers) and the odd-sounding EXSTAR, but as a whole, the puzzle flowed so well.

A lot of really strong theme phrases, but overall, the idea got repetitive for my taste. With Tim's flair for the innovative, I was hoping to get something new with how THEMS / THE BREAKS *literally* broke in two. Alas, no. I did really like that final rimshot of I QUIT breaking the pattern though; a literal line of resignation.

Wed 9/7/2016

Debut! Right up my alley, as my cooking skills are just a touch above [stick food in microwave]. Fun to get a sense for the old days when HOT POCKETS and RAMEN NOODLES were some of my staples. Gave the puzzle a younger vibe, taking me back with an odd sense of nostalgia. Not sure why I liked stomach-turning HOT POCKETS so much...

Rare for a five-letter entry to catch my attention. I tried to sign up for HBO GO to watch "Silicon Valley" … but I couldn't figure it out. Yes, I'm now that old guy who doesn't understand newfangled technologies. Notwithstanding my ineptitude, I found myself staring at the odd HBOGO letter sequence, my brain struggling to parse it. Neat a-ha when it finally clicked.

ADAMA is another newish entry that didn't strike me as well. I watched most of BSG (Battlestar Galactica) but I had trouble with his name. Thankfully, the crossings were fair, and it was in a nice section featuring ADAGE / MAXIM crossing each other, which helped drown out some of the ADAMA struggle.

Generally pretty smooth for a debut. I did have some trouble with the lower left, where CDC crosses the confusing EDM (electronic … dance … music?), and SIA gave this pop-music idiot a long pause, hoping against hope that SAMOSA was right. Will has said that he avoids acronyms unless they're really, really well-known (like CDC), and I see his point even more clearly here with EDM. Tough to clue it in a way that explains to the solver what those randomish-seeming letters are.

The punchline — I CAN'T COOK — felt like it should be right up my alley, but I floundered, struggling to figure out how it works; why it's funny. This might have been an instance where maybe another quick-food item would have been better; no "revealer" necessary. (I do like COLD PIZZA, even more so because the preparation instructions = [Eat].)

And perhaps having four (or five) all-microwave easy edibles would have been nice? Some extra layer to tighten things up, as there are so many types of "instant" foods. Overall though, nice to get a young-feeling debut.

Thu 9/8/2016

Black squares get a literal interpretation today, five of them used as the word BLACK (see illustration below). I had some great a-ha moments, struggling with how FEET could possibly be [Montana Indians]. Very cool click to realize it was (BLACK)FEET. Same with [Driveway covering], which had to be TAR … except it was the much more interesting (BLACK)TOP.

Neat to have so many theme answers squeezed in. We "fix up" answers so they match the given clues, so there was quite a bit of work today — 18 answers to correct for our word list / database! That's a ton of theme material to squeeze in. Granted, much of it is just three or four letters long, but when you intersect so many of them, a grid quickly becomes inflexible. We highlighted all the theme material to demonstrate how many crossings Joanne had to work with.

Pretty nice job, filling around so many constraints. There were very few entries that made me hitch — I even liked YOSHI, as back in the day, I played many a Nintendo game all the way through. Even scanning through a second time, I couldn't pick out much that disturbed me.

I did notice that there were a ton of short answers; very few long themers / pieces of fill. I like a few long entries here and there, which helps a grid to breathe; to not feel constricted. A main reason for the slightly choked feel of the grid is that Joanne went up to 82 words, four past the normal 78 limit. Understandable given all the constraints she put on herself, but there is a good reason that most 15x15 crosswords rigidly adhere to the 78-word limit.

(I read Joanne's commentary with great interest. Such a different original intent; not sure which I like better.)

I would have liked some way of making the five special black squares stand out more, as there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why those five squares acted as BLACK and the others didn't. Using logic like "black squares that don't touch any others are the special ones," or better yet, a visual within those special squares? But overall, uncovering all those theme answers in unexpected places entertained me.

Fri 9/9/2016

A couple of strong feature entries seeding this puzzle, GAZILLION, STINKEYE, BIG WHOOP, and JUMPS SHIP giving each corner some sizzle. I particularly liked the STINKEYE / SUPERFLY crossing — something about that sounds so pleasing.

Kristian uses a traditional layout, with a triple-stack of long answers in each corner. Without many other long answers, you have to really make each and every answer in all four stacks sing. I thought Kristian did quite well in the lower right, with USPOSTAGE giving me fits as I tried to parse it as (something)+STAGE. I'm still not sure if US POSTAGE sounds right — POSTAGE RATE hits my ear better — but I love the way the space threw me off. It's a shame that TEEN ANGST just appeared a few weeks ago, as seeing it again so soon took away from its impact. But it's still a very nice answer.

I wasn't quite as hot on the other corners. The upper right, for example, felt like it left some potential on the table, with COLONELS more a neutral answer, and EGOSURFS has been in crosswords quite a few times now, making it feel less-than-fresh to me.

And in the upper left, UP TO GRADE … doesn't UP TO CODE sound better? Or MADE THE GRADE? UP TO GRADE felt like a wonky combination of the two.

Most any themeless will require a bit of crossword glue, given how much white space there inevitably is. For me, REE and INA are pretty easy to take, not seeming very intrusive to the solving flow. And I don't mind diving deeper into the well of esoterica with some ERGOT (a grain disease) and OUIDA (not the most recognizable author) and SEAU (I vaguely know Junior Seau from days when I had the time and inclination to watch football), but as a whole, there's quite a bit of glue holding this one together. Toss in a POPPET valve (as a mechanical engineer, I know that one, but I bet it'll be rough for many) and ex-MLB commissioner Bud SELIG, and it seems like a lot.

But still, some really strong entries anchoring this one.

POW Sat 9/10/2016

★ Beautiful grid from one of the best in the business. Peter has such a knack for assembling snazzy, colorful entries in a way that doesn't require much — if any — crossword glue. Sometimes themeless constructors tell me, "But I only needed to use four little gluey bits!" (I say this myself at times.) Years ago, that would have been good, perhaps even exceptional. But now, it's tough when the bar gets set by constructors like Peter, who finds ways to make vivid puzzles with virtually no glue.

It's a slightly different take on the usual themeless pattern, with Peter "turning the corner" up in the NW and the SE. It's hard enough to create a triple-stack of great answers without many gluey entries. It's even harder when you run a 7x3 chunk straight through that triple-stack. And it's still harder yet to do this without resorting to 1.) ugly short answers or 2.) neutral answers that just take up space.

The NW is just jaw-dropping. SPIFFED UP / PHNOM PENH / ALEX ROCCO is a strong triple (I didn't remember who ALEX ROCCO was, but as a lover of "The Godfather," a clip of Moe Greene made him come immediately to mind). And to run SPARE ME / PH LEVEL / IN EXILE — three colorful assets — straight through that stack = no wastage of potential at all. Converting so many intersecting slots into prime material is incredible. Plus, two Xs up there!

Okay, some might balk at fMRI (functional MRI). I knew this immediately through my pharma background, but I can see why it might elicit grumbles. Thankfully, that starting F is easy to get through the crossing entry, and MRI should be known to most all.

Excellent work in the opposite corner, too. This nerd loves NERD ALERT (I'm making a siren sound right now as I wave my arm in the air), and getting JOYRIDE and MAE WEST through that stack is good stuff. ALL OVER is more neutral, but getting two strong answers running through the PALMOLIVE / AREA CODES / NERD ALERT stack is hard to do. I wasn't quite as taken with this corner since AREA CODES has been used many times in crosswords, thus taking away from its impact. But still, great work.

It's not perfect — TOEJAM made me slightly gag, and SKEE-LO was tough even given my fascination with rappers — but there's so much strong material and clues. Even something as innocuous as [Non-PC sort] meaning "not a PC but a MAC USER" is a highlight. Great stuff all throughout.

P.S. In craps, ELEVEN and seven are called "naturals." I dig craps terminology.

Sun 9/11/2016SACK TIME

Given my short attention span, I like having an easy-peasy Sunday puzzle every once in a while — today's fit that bill. I enjoyed the "bed" visual formed by black squares in the middle of the grid, and the MONSTER / DUST BUNNY hiding underneath gave me a grin. Something so playful about that! The rest of the theme was a bit straightforward for my taste — phrases containing the words PILLOW, BLANKET, SHEETS, PAD — but it was nice that they came in the correct order of making one's bed. (If you waste your time on such nonsense as making your bed, folding your clothes, etc.)

Some long fill forced by the bed visual. Any time you work with such a long line of black squares, you have to surround it with entries of equal length or longer — otherwise, you'd create a two-letter word. It's very difficult to stack long entries like this, but SLEEPOVER / ADD TO THE MIX / SAW LOGS is sure a nice result.

Stacking entries in this way comes at a price. Not a surprise that it's the rockiest place in the grid, with OLDS / GET A / PTL / URI working hard to hold everything in place. Each one of those is minor, but as a whole, that's a lot of glue. The other side came out much smoother, with just a WDS as the cost. Very nice work on the underside of the bed.

And with so much theme material — along with the bed visual — there are just so many places where themers must interact with each other. The lower left exemplifies this. CAME DOWN IN SHEETS is atop MESSAGE PAD, and the black squares try so hard to give good separation, but there's just so much overlap to deal with. SANDIA crossing SCARNE might be a killer for some, and ISSO / PREF / INE / APACE / LST is not an unusual price for such an arrangement of themers.

Although there were a few glue-laden regions throughout the grid, most everything was gettable and came easy. And the visual of that bed, with the MONSTER underneath, brought forth some really fun "Monsters Inc." type imagery.

Mon 9/12/2016

Homonyms paired to make kooky phrases. It reminded me of one I worked on with a friend a few years back, but I like how Acme and Judge Vic picked out examples that are very accessible to novice solvers for this Monday puzzle. It was also nice to see consistency, each themer using the same verb tense for the first word + a plural noun for the second.

This "windmill" layout of themers is usually easier to work with than a more traditional layout of every themer going horizontally — the windmill pattern allows for more space between themers. It tends to make adding in bonus fill harder though, so I appreciate the effort to work in ONE PIECE, a colorful entry. IRISH SEA ain't bad, either.

I don't mind a bit of minor glue like ASSN (pretty common) and RRs (who hasn't tried to collect all the RRs in a game of Monopoly?). And SGT is used everywhere … but not S SGT. This one irks me more, since it feels like a constructor's crutch, as that first letter can be M, S, or T. It's similar to ?STAR, where that question mark can be so many things. Feels inelegant.

LOCI doesn't bother me even in a Monday puzzle, as long as all the crosses are fair. Granted, I did take a lot of math in college, but it is a real word that NYT readers ought to know.

ENO, ERTE, ESAI are all real people; ones I have no problem with since they've all achieved adequate fame in their careers. To have three of them in one puzzle feels like too much to me though — I can imagine a newer solver struggling with any one of them, much less all three. (MAUD Adams might be a fourth.)

Easy-breezy Monday theme, although since there are so many possible homonym pairs that can work like this (AIRS HEIRS, SCENTS CENTS, DYES DIES, WRITES RIGHTS, etc.), it would have been nice to get some extra element to tighten up the theme. Not sure what that might be — all long ones? All ones with huge spelling changes? — but it's fun to think about.

Tue 9/13/2016

I think the theme is … entries with two Qs? At first, I was underwhelmed, as there have to be a ton of entries with two Qs, yeah? Not the case! I only searched for a few minutes, but the few others I turned up were QUOTE UNQUOTE, UNIQUELY QUALIFIED, QUID PRO QUO, QUADRATIC EQUATION, QUELQUECHOSE, QUEEQUEG, QLEARQUIL, LIQUOR IS QUICKER, BURLESQUE QUEEN(S). Shows what I know!

Although having so few theme squares made the theme feel thin, it did allow Stan to play with a wide-open grid. A couple of long entries, the juicy CUE CARDS and MORTIMER, gave me a smile (as I reminisced about "Trading Places" and "Arsenic and Old Lace"), and a whole slew of seven-letter fill in the corners. There wasn't anything sizzling in that mid-length material, but I did appreciate TORPEDO, POITIER, and the good use of the Qs in ACQUITS and MACAQUE. These are all fun words, although I wish at least some of those seven-letter entries had really jumped out at me like CUE CARDS.

Speaking of CUE CARDS, is that related to the theme? Or could it have been? Sometimes I think puzzles don't give solvers enough credit when they use an overt "revealer" phrase at the end of the puzzle, summarizing what's going on with the theme. Here, I think there's untapped potential for some wordplay, some fun CUE of CUES phrases that could enrich the theme. Not quite sure what that might be, though. If only TWO CUES or CUE PAIR or something were a real phrase.

But Stan does a nice job of smoothly filling his grid, only a minor SCI and … that's it. Pretty darn good work considering he had to work around six Qs — not an easy task. I personally would have preferred more colorful fill, especially more multi-word phrases like CUE CARDS, at the cost of a few more gluey bits. Since the grid is so beautifully clean — pretty much immaculate — I doubt I would have even noticed two or three more bits as minor as SCI. But it's a reasonable decision to go almost perfectly clean, if not that snazzy.

Wed 9/14/2016

PICTURE / FRAME telling us that all perimeter answers are motion PICTUREs. At first I felt like the revealer was inelegant, placed into odd locations with no symmetry, but I liked Dan's effort to save that by using the ACADEMY to balance everything out.

Great gridwork. It's so hard to build around perimeter themers, since they immediately make the four corners so inflexible. At first I thought Dan had a ton of freedom in choosing from hundreds of single-word movies out there, but reading his notes (about how each of the perimeter movies are Best Picture nominees) made me realize how little flexibility he really had. Most any pair of crossing perimeter answers in a corner means trouble, and having such a limited set can mean trouble.

But that NW came out so strong, kicked off by AVATAR and AMADEUS, including the nice VARIETAL / ANGELINA / REDDIT. There aren't any fantastic multi-word entries like IT'S A GIRL, but given the ultra-tough constraint of having AVATAR / AMADEUS fixed into place in a big space, I can only imagine how much time Dan spent working through that corner, restarting when he hit even the most minor of crossword glue. Now this is the way to start a puzzle!

The SE wasn't quite as nice, given the I MET partial and HITHERTO (although the lawyers in the solving audience might disagree with me), but it's still very smooth. I'm so resigned to seeing two or three ugly bits like I MET in a corner of perimeter puzzles — to get such effortless-seeming results was a great and pleasant surprise.

Perimeter puzzles also often show signs of strain as the constructor tries to merge everything in the middle, but Dan also does well here. Keeping his NW and SE corners big and wide-open means he can spend a bunch of black squares in the middle of the puzzle, helping him knit the four corners together more easily. RENA was the only head-scratcher for me, but she is a soap star, and all the crosses are fair.

Been a while since we had a perimeter theme, and usually it's pretty apparent what's going on because of all the crossword glue needed to hold the thing together. Really nice craftsmanship from Dan today.

Thu 9/15/2016

I'll admit, I was one of the DNFs (did not finishes) Ian mentioned — I stopped doing this puzzle about a quarter of the way through (and 15 minutes in). Anagrams can be really fun, but I poop out after a few of them, so 70+ was way too much for me. I have a feeling Scrabble fans might love the sheer quantity, though.

I looked through the finished grid and admired a lot of the clue/entry pairs. I was stumped by the very first one, and I smiled at what I had missed afterward — [Trio who released …] was actually [Tori who released …]. As Ian mentioned, it's absolutely perfect for this theme, as the clue sounded so natural, masking its deviousness. Same goes for [Isabel of mathematics fame], which is actually [Blaise …]. Great anagram find, along with the very innocent-seeming clue.

There were enough others, though, where the clue felt so tortured that I knew something odd was going on — [Causal negative] seemed like a typo, [Lima expense] felt like it wasn't grammatically right, etc. It's pretty easy to get a few of these anagrams to be perfectly disguised, as with Tori/Tori, but to get all 70+ of them might be near impossible. I do like the effort to make all the clues fit the pattern, but enough of them didn't work for me that the effect lost some of its magic.

I did love figuring out (after looking at the solution grid) that [Trap #1 …] ALSO fit the pattern! I was wondering why they were listed as three separate traps, and the a-ha discovery that the clues actually meant [Part #1 …] was brilliant. Particularly appropriate that "part" anagrams into "trap."

A very smooth grid, even though Ian had to work with a strict constraint: he couldn't allow even one entry that couldn't be clued in this tricky way. A single ALAI or something might have meant disaster. And there were even a few nice entries like SPARTAN, O CANADA, FRIGATE to boot.

Fri 9/16/2016

Patrick had me at the clue for ENGINEERS: [Scientists dream about doing great things. ENGINEERS do them.] It's something we all know to be true, deep down in our hearts, isn't it? Admit it! If James Michener said it, it must be true. Ipso facto, Q.E.D.!

No? Dammit Jim, I'm an engineer, not a logician!

Speaking of engineering, what a great job of engineering in this grid. Typical themelesses rely on a lot of three- and four-letter words to hold the longer material together. Without the shorties, the constructor is forced to work with giant open spaces, the likes of which often prove unfillable — unless you resort to a lot of neutral or flat-out ugly entries, that is. I rarely tackle any sort of quad-stack, since I've found that after dozens of hours, I end up relying on a couple of ugly little bits, along with some ho-hum space-fillers. That's not the kind of solving experience I relish.

None of Patrick's four corners is absolutely perfect, but they all get pretty darn close. The SW stood out for me, so much great material packed into that stack. COIN PURSE / HONOR ROLL / JET SETS are all excellent, with just ENGRAFTED a bit blah. But with KING JAMES running through it all — along with no liabilities down there — that's some incredible work.

Patrick uses a construction technique today that I've slowly picked up on over the years: it doesn't look or feel like he's segmenting the grid into quadrants, but he carefully places his middle black squares so that he can very nearly work on each section by itself. Once you place the S of ACHES, the S of PRATES, and set KING JAMES in, that SW can be tackled independently of everything else.

It's a tremendous advantage to be able to work on a subsection without worrying about the rest of the puzzle. And since there are enough entrances in and exits out of each corner, the puzzle still breathes. Great trade-off between the constructor's and the solvers' needs; very smart placement of those central black squares.

I wasn't aware of OLD BAILEY, a British criminal court, but I enjoyed learning about it. Along with some fantastic clue / entry pairs — [Life preserver?] getting at Life cereal in a CEREAL BOX, e.g. — it's a beautiful piece of grid engineering. Most weeks I'd easily give it the POW! but later this week there's another one I liked even better.

Sat 9/17/2016

NOT GONNA LIE, this was an entertaining solve. I really enjoy that sort of colloquial phrase in a themeless, giving it a snappy feel, like a movie with well-written dialogue. Other entries like SPACE CADET and PLAYERS ENTRANCE added to that impression.

Interesting structure, what with all the longish answers intersecting to form a huge grid skeleton. Check out how much of the puzzle is affected by SPACE CADET running through PLAYERS ENTRANCE / USED CAR SALESMAN, through the CAESAR SALAD / FARMERS ONLY / NOT GONNA LIE stack, through ENAMELWARE. Talk about constraints! Such a large, interlocked skeleton ups the difficulty level when it comes to filling any one little subsection.

FARMERS ONLY didn't have much impact on me at first, but boy did I get a kick out of researching it. Who would have thought there would be a dating site specifically for farmers? And there's something so fun about the tagline "Sign up for free to find a farmer, rancher, cowboy, cowgirl or animal lover." There does appear to be some controversy as to whether it's "real" or a "scam," but that only adds to its intrigue for me. Nice pick for a marquee entry.

A themeless that features such long, intersecting entries runs the risk of not having much else. Since I've seen CAESAR SALAD several times in puzzles over the years, I was really hoping there would be a little extra somethin' somethin' in the grid. I enjoyed WHAT A DAY but the only other long entry was FOUL LINE, which seemed like a valid but strange way of saying "free throw line."

There were a few shorter colorful words like DUCATS, VELCRO and ROMANIA, but not much else in the mid-length material caught my attention. Still, it is nice to get some of these mid-length entries, as crossword puzzles often put them in the backseat, tending instead to lean on long themers and short fill.

Some of the short entries made the puzzle feel too easy for a Saturday — ADES, REA, ATL are very difficult to clue in obfuscating ways — but overall, a couple of great long entries buoyed by a clean grid and some interesting mid-length fill.


★ It's been seven years of constructing, and I've only now started to realize how difficult it is to create a captivating Sunday 140-word puzzle. Part of it is the sheer difficulty of adhering to Will's limit of at most 140 words — WAY harder than some other editors' 144 max — but a bigger part is coming up with a concept that holds solvers' attention through a 21x21 grid. This gets even tougher when considering how varied the NYT's solving population is.

Personally, I often don't enjoy the Sunday puzzle as much as I would like — I often get tired of it halfway through or even sooner. And I have very high expectations for Jeremy — I think he's one of the greats when it comes to Sunday puzzles — so I was honestly a little disappointed to figure out that this was "just" a theme including the dashes inside entries like UH-OH and PUSH-UP BRA. Felt like I had seen similar punctuation-related themes before (2015, 2013, 2007.)

Great a-ha moment to discover that wait, there was more! Took me over half of the puzzle to finally realize that Jeremy had replaced some regular words with hyphenated phrases — PHOENIX, AZ going to PHOENIX A-Z was so amusing. And each themer using an interesting word-to-hyphenated-word substitution helped hold my attention. My favorite was AMERICAN GOT HI-C for its unusual breaking of GOTHIC into GOT HI-C, plus the amusing result.

Jeremy is so good with his long fill. There wasn't as much as we usually see from him — CROP CIRCLE, TIME LOCKS, and VIP LINES the standouts — but there's a reason for that. Any time you have to work with crossing entries, a grid quickly becomes tough to fill. He could have gotten away with relying on short dashed fill like UH-OH and HA-HA everywhere, but I love how he pushed himself to work in THE PO-PO (slang for the police), FREE WI-FI, and PUSH-UP BRA. Doesn't leave much room for long fill throughout the grid, but when all your theme material is this good, that doesn't matter very much.

Really tough to hold my attention all the way through a Sunday puzzle. Big thanks to Jeremy for this one that greatly succeeded!

Mon 9/19/2016

Such a fun idea, HOLLYWOOD SQUARES interpreted as films that have perfect squares in their titles. Neat that C.C. was able to uncover a set that worked perfectly with crossword symmetry.

I really liked that C.C. strove for a tight(-ish) set, using just the first four perfect squares. There probably are a bunch of movies with HUNDRED in their title, and maybe some with MILLION or 49 or even a GROSS (=144, which just happens to be a perfect square!). So sticking to the first four is pretty nice.

I would have loved for them to be presented in numerical order, though. I know, it's a lot to ask for, and likely impossible given the constraints of crossword symmetry. But it would have been so elegant to get the ONE, FOUR, NINE, SIXTEEN progression. It would also have been great for all these movies to be more … well-received? To have made more at the box office? How impressive would it have been if all four movies were Titanic-esque blockbusters?

A tough set of lengths to work with. If C.C. had kicked off the puzzle with THE FOUR SEASONS, it would have had to be in row four instead of row three (in order to prevent a ton of black squares in the NW and SE corners). That would have squished all the themers together, and good spacing is key to most puzzles. As it is, this placement of themers is just about as good as you can do, but it forces a ton of vertical entries that need to interact with two long themers.

Check out how much overlap is there is between THE FOUR SEASONS and HOLLYWOOD SQUARES, for example. C.C. uses her black squares to separate the two as best as possible, but there's still a OENO in the middle. Fine by itself, but when she squeezes in DONUT HOLE (mmm!) in the NW corner, all the constraints force her into an AMOI and an unfortunate AKELA / BAHA crossing, perhaps a killer for novice solvers.

A smile-inducing idea, but with a couple of inelegancies forced by the lack of flexibility in themer choices.

POW Tue 9/20/2016

★ Such a fun puzzle! I'm still addicted to "The Great British Bake-off," and my mouth watered as I read the clues. I normally skip over any clue that looks too long, but I stopped to read [Layers of sherry-soaked torte, homemade custard and fruit served chilled in a giant stem glass] several times. I can barely look at that without going to the fridge and wishing there was an ENGLISH TRIFLE waiting for me!

Fun punchline, too. Although the ENGLISH TRIFLE, BAKED ALASKA, and PLUM PUDDING do look a lot like cakes, they technically aren't. NO PIECE OF CAKE is so apt. Neat a-ha!

Speaking of NO PIECE OF CAKE, this puzzle wasn't a piece of cake for me — but in a good way. I stopped very early at … RUCHE? I double-checked all my crossings to find my error, but everything was fine. Then I remembered that Tracy is big into certain crafts, so learning that word for decorative edging gave me a grin. Very glad every crossing was a gimme, though!

Very nice gridwork overall. DARE WE SAY is fun, and I can't type YOU SEND ME without breaking into song. And I really liked her mid-length stuff. PRUSSIA, SVELTE, NICOISE, SUCKER — what interesting words. Great to see MELINDA Gates get her due, too. Amazing what the Gates are attempting to do for the world.

A couple of minor gluey bits in Max BAER (yes a boxing champ, but from such a long time ago), plural Spanish TIOS, GLO. But all of these are so negligible. Tracy took such care in putting together each and every section of her grid.

Another minor point: I usually don't care if a grid entry is duplicated in a clue, but DARE WE SAY felt cheapened to me by seeing ["I dare you"!] for the DO IT clue. The two in close proximity made it stand out even more. This is an awfully nit-picky thing, but it did jump out at me as inelegant.

Just about everything I want in a Tuesday. Delicious puzzle.

Wed 9/21/2016

ROCKET J SQUIRREL! Just like in Matt's debut puzzle, a single entry (in that case, CALVINBALL) can generate such a connection for me. As a latchkey kid, I watched every single "Rocky and Bullwinkle" at least five times. It's a wonder I ever learned anything — besides Rocky's full name, that is.

SCRAMBLE THE JETS is vivid and fun, too, hinting at the circled letters.

A friend recently asked me about an anagramming idea, where he was going to put five randomly-ordered letters in the middle of phrases. I told him I wasn't a huge fan, since so much anagramming has been done that you really have to do something special in order to stand out. His task seemed way too easy.

Anagramming JETS is definitely a challenge — Js are so inflexible to work with, and having just one vowel adds another level of difficulty. ROCKET J SQUIRREL is such a beautiful way to hide the J E T S letters. COURT JESTER is another excellent one, although it does stand out as the only themer where you could have the J E T S letters in two places (using the first or second T). I only barely recognized JULES ET JIM, but what a neat way to work ino those four letters.

METS JERSEY was the only one that felt slightly off to me. It is a real thing, no doubt. But it did feel somewhat arbitrary, opening a Pandora's box for METS CAP or METS JACKET or METS GAME, etc. Hmm.

I liked the long entries, PERORATE a fun word to learn. ("Bloviate" is another one I like to describe windbaggery.) A treat to get LARKSPUR, CALLER ID and ON DEMAND, along with some fun mid-length ROOMIE, ANKLET, HEXAPOD.

Not such a treat to get the assortment of OJO, LEK, AS IM, SSR, IS TOO, etc. — quite A DRAG. It's the trade-off constructors face so often: perfectly smooth with not much zing, or a ton of color with a proportional amount of crossword glue?

Still, ROCKET J. SQUIRREL hiding an anagram of JETS, which he constantly does! I'll remember the puzzle for that alone.

Thu 9/22/2016

Homophones of foreign numbers making kooky phrases. The chemistry nerd in me really enjoyed TRES ELEMENTS, and I liked DREI MARTINIS (DREI = German for three) a lot, too. I've seen a lot of foreign number crosswords, but this is a new take on it. I enjoyed it.

I was so curious to see what pattern would emerge from the themers. Would it be a numerical progression? (7, 3, 6, 3, 8 … no.) One number from each of five major languages? (French, German, German, Spanish, French … no.) It looks as though Jeffrey chose based on what would work with crossword symmetry and in-the-language base phrases. That's perfectly fine, but I sure would have loved some extra element to tighten up the theme or make it feel less random.

Neat to see LIAM NEESON's full name. I had a more ambivalent feeling about the TECH SECTOR. I invest money for friends and family (passive indexing / asset allocation, nothing fancy), and TECH SECTOR is definitely in use. I think "tech stocks" is a more common term, though, what with that term being thrown around all the time on MSNBC. And the clue … [Part of the Dow] didn't seem quite right. Yes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average does have some tech companies in it, but there's no "tech sector" component to it. Why not clue TECH SECTOR to the NASDAQ, which houses a much higher percentage of tech stocks?

There were only a few gluey bits in the grid, really just EVENER ("more even," yeah?) making me wince. I would have said it was a pretty nicely put-together grid, but DIECI really stuck in my craw. First, 10 in Italian isn't something I see that often. More importantly, it muddies the theme for me. I kept thinking maybe it tied together the themers somehow? There's no rule against having an extra foreign number as fill when your theme is all about foreign numbers--I guess I fall on the other side of the fence from Jeffrey and Will--but it strikes me as extremely inelegant.

So, a fun twist on foreign numbers, but it felt like there was a lot of potential left on the table.

Fri 9/23/2016

I generally dig Andrew's classical / fine arts-tinged voice, and there are some great entries along that line: WAX POETIC crossing ANCIENTS and BOETHIUS (I was supposed to read the Consolation in college, and got about 0.5 pages in), AUTOTUNE, even STREISAND with the great clue — Nixon sure was paranoid! Along with the fun INANIMATE OBJECT and YOU'VE BEEN SERVED, there was a lot I admired.

A couple of entries made the puzzle less enjoyable for me, though. I generally think some people take crossword puzzles way too seriously, but WOMANIZING sure left a bad aftertaste for me. I'm not sure why that is — perhaps because I have a daughter now? I think puzzles should first and foremost be fun, and it's hard for me to see WOMANIZING as fun in any way.

And as much as I love SHOCK JOCK as a vivid term, pairing it with WOMANIZING was unpleasant. Throw in OCTOPUSSY, which is a great entry on its own, and it felt like the puzzle was trying too hard to be provocative.

Construction-wise, I like Andrew's effort to do something different, concentrating his black squares in the middle of the grid, which really opens up the corners. Very difficult to fill a region cleanly when it has so much white space.

I really enjoyed the upper right from a technical perspective — once you run INANIMATE OBJECT and WAX POETIC through the region, it's tough to get colorful entries without using gluey bits. ANCIENTS is usually a neutral answer for me, but having BOETHIUS right next to it does wonders for it. And I don't mind ROTC, IBAR, or ROCHE at all, since they're all real and common words. (Granted, my last careers were in engineering and pharma.)

Great work in the lower right, too. SCREEN TIME is a snazzy answer along with USB PORTS, and it's all held together like magic, no sign of even minor crossword glue. Bravo there.

Not as much for the lower left. A little OPE, OYEZ, ZEES, ERNE would be about my personal limit for most themelesses. To have them concentrated accentuated their presence.

Overall, nice gridwork along with some great feature entries, but I personally came away with an icky feeling.

Sat 9/24/2016

I really like it when a puzzle forces me to rethink my criteria. For themelesses, I often begin by counting the liabilities: the inelegant bits required to hold a puzzle's long answers together (ONT, for example). If that's more than about four, it feels inelegant, like seeing duct tape or rusty nails holding a piece of fine art together.

For my second criterion, I start by tallying up the assets: vivid, colorful entries (GOSH DARN, e.g.). I add a few points if there's an impressive feature (grid-spanning entries, huge white spaces, etc.), and then subtract the number of liabilities. I've found that if that final result is more than about 10, I love the puzzle. Less than 10 and I don't feel sated, more like eating low-sodium bread than a big fat everything pizza.

Today's puzzle doesn't have that many long entries — just eight of 8+ letters — and some of them I'd consider neutral. PINED FOR feels fine but not something I'd tweet about, and the SOLOMONS would have been better if it had gotten an interesting piece of trivia. There are a few nice seven-letter entries like STARMAP and CODE RED, but even then, the quantity of what I'd call assets isn't very high.

There is something pretty cool about having four grid-spanners intersecting each other — and it makes the construction way harder — so I'd add maybe two points for that.

Given those intersecting long entries, it's not a surprise to see gluey bits like ESAS, LTS, RRS, OLD AS, RETIN, CALS (usually just "cal"), LEM, etc. They are all minor, but there sure are a lot.

So my calculations should predict that my stomach would still be grumbling after low-sodium bread. But I couldn't stop looking at MALALA YOUSAFZAI / PIZZA MARGHERITA / ALL KIDDING ASIDE / LAID IT ON THE LINE. They're all great answers, and I've been wondering when we'd see MALALA's crossword-friendly name. (The bestseller I AM MALALA, too!) To get her full name, with its mind-bending -FZAI ending is such a treat. There's so much to like in that one answer alone.

I'm still trying to figure out why I enjoyed this puzzle so much. Love it when the unexpected happens.

Sun 9/25/2016ADDING ON

Jim came up with a theme idea Will liked, but he had trouble with the construction, going through three grid submissions with none of them accepted. Producing a basic Sunday 140-worder is hard enough, and to spice it up with a few strong entries, while keeping it relatively free of ugly gluey bits, is a formidable task.

So Will put Jim and me in touch. I liked the theme pretty well — GOLDING DIGGER tickled me — and I have a hard time resisting a grid-building challenge. With Jim's offer of a collaboration, I dove in.

Even after many years of making Sunday puzzles now, they rarely come together easily. Nothing different with this one. It took about 20 iterations before finally sensing that this fortuitously interlocking arrangement (SQUARE ROOTING crossing FASTING FORWARD) might be a good direction forward.

Even though I've worked with Will for years now, I'm always learning more about his preferences. I have picked up that one of his least favorite type of entry is the little-known acronym, because these are impossible for some solvers to figure out. For example, there's no way to convey the real meaning of MMPORG, is there? (Massively multi-player online role-playing game.) So it shouldn't have come as a surprise when Will kicked back the grid we finally submitted, which depended on OBO ("or best offer," in classified ads). My spidey sense actually did tingle a little when I put it in — I should have listened.

OBO was unfortunately right in the middle of the grid, so Jim tasked himself with redoing the middle section. It was a very tough region, so he ended up with a few things like RELOST, which I wasn't fond of. The final product you see today was the result of yet another redo.

I still like OBO better than OSE (which replaced it), but I think Will has a point — OSE is something people can figure out based on sucrose, fructose, etc.

Never easy, these Sunday 140-worders.

Mon 9/26/2016

Talk about STUFFing IT! Tim appropriately stuffs seven themers into his grid, a very challenging task. Nice work in intersecting OLIVE BRANCH / TURKEY TROT and ANIMAL HOUSE / PILLOW TALK. It's tough to make seven themers work in a single puzzle, but this sort of intersecting arrangement is one of the best ways of doing so. If you can find two fortuitous crossings, two of your themers effectively go in the slots where long down filler entries usually would go.

So you'd think that the fill would be pretty blah, what with those two long down slots taken up by themers, yeah? But this is Tim we're talking about. He's so good with his fill that it wasn't a surprise to get such goodies as ROLODEX, BAD EGGS, MY LOVE — that's no BUSHWA! Okay, that last one I learned through crosswords, but I love using it. (Perhaps because of the head-scratching it generates.)

Speaking of head-scratching, AGITA (Tim knows me well!) and ETOILE are pretty tough words. Not that they're not legit, but I don't like seeing entries in Monday puzzles that might turn off novice solvers. There is a lot that can fall into the category of "I have to know THAT if I want to do crosswords?!" and some of it I think is absolutely fair game. Having both of these though … I wonder if that would make less-experienced solvers agitacious.

Generally, I think Tim did a very good job given the high theme density, though — might have been just about right for a Tuesday, where I think more esoteric words can play better.

One of my favorite theme types is "how do these disparate elements relate?" I still fondly remember one in particular. Today's puzzle goes toward that idea, but it kind of also sports a "words that can follow X" feel. It is neat that you can have a stuffed animal or a stuffed olive — fairly different — but when you stuff peppers, olives, turkeys, and then pillows, animals, and stockings, they're not diverse enough for my taste.

Tue 9/27/2016

We haven't seen a word ladder in a while. They don't get published that often these days, so when they do, they usually need some lift to make them stand out. I like the pairing of AN APPLE A DAY and CHICKEN SOUP, perfect material to add to the SICK -> WELL ladder.

Nice placement of the words in the word ladder. I've highlighted them below to help them stand out — such a pretty cascade.

Even though there aren't that many theme squares — just the two 11s and the six 4s for a total of 46 — needing to use so many different theme entries makes for a tough construction. Robert does well to space them all out as best as possible, both left to right and top to bottom. Smart thinking there.

But it does make for filling challenges just about everywhere in the grid. Because so many of the theme entries are short, it means that there must be more long fill than usual — some entries in the grid have to be long (in order to stay under the max 78 word limit), so if the themers aren't long, fill must be.

That makes things tough. Check out the middle left, for example. Robert has the lovely CENTRAL BANK in there — great fill, at least to this macroeconomics geek — but when that has to interact with SICK and AN APPLE A DAY, and then OUT TO WIN / UNLEASH / COALESCE all get into the picture, it's pretty tough to avoid gluey bits like LESE, MCI, DIO, ONS. That's a lot to concentrate into a single region.

OUT TO WIN felt a bit off, too. "In it to win it" would be gold, in my book. OUT TO WIN … wouldn't win. Additionally, having to work with SILK fixed in place, THOS and OLIO are prices to pay.

I like seeing traditional themes like word ladders once in a while, if they have something extra to help them stand out. Although there were some rough patches due to the long AN APPLE A DAY and CHICKEN SOUP, those two entries helped elevate my solving experience.

Wed 9/28/2016

Been a while since we've seen a uniclue theme. I like that this one employs two very different meanings for each uniclue, e.g. ZEST and ZILCH are both synonyms for [Zip], but they they're not synonyms of each other. All nine pairs exhibit this quality, my favorite GRIN and GIRDER both clued by [Beam]. Tricksy!

I had to go back and recount the themers — were there really nine (!) pairs? That is a ton of material to stuff into one grid.

I once thought about doing a uniclue Sunday puzzle. Why not try it with something simple, like pairs of synonyms? Turns out it's much, much harder than you might think, for a few reasons:

  1. Any time you have intersecting themers, the region right around that intersection becomes inflexible.
  2. Think about how many pairs of themers you must have — not want to have, but MUST have, since there are inevitably a bunch of squares that start both an Across and a Down answer.
  3. With so many pairs strewn about the grid, there are bound to be some intersecting theme answers, making your life even more difficult.

That last point might be the toughest of the three. Check out the middle of the puzzle, where GRIN / GIRDER, AFRESH / AT AN END, SHARE / SEVER, and even TAKE FIVE / TAME all must work together. Talk about constraints! AFRESH is more an oddball than the rest of the themers — and all those crossings force YAD. I think it's a fair answer, but right above AFRESH made for an unsavory finish to my solving experience.

Even just one crossing pair can be so rough. STERN and SPONSOR don't need to work with any other pairs, really, but along with some of the longer fill, it all chokes off that north section something fierce — PORTO, ERST, RTE is a lot of glue — albeit minor — in one area.

But overall, I really liked the concept of one clue defining two intersecting answers, in very different ways.

Thu 9/29/2016

Another neat letter-based idea from Jon, this one using DIVIDED BY to represent BY split across the middle — the capital B forms a pair of capital Ds stacked atop each other, and the capital Y forms a capital V sitting on a capital I. I had seen both tricks individually, but to combine them into one — with such a perfect revealer! — was really cool. WITT (wish I had thought of that).

I also loved the fact that the BY in DIVIDED BY was split like the others. Very neat to have the special split happening right within the theme revealer. Nicely consistent.

I got a little confused during my solve, though. The fact that there were other Bs and Ys floating around the grid made me wonder why I shouldn't be splitting up those letters too. It was even more confusing when there was an extra B right in a theme entry: the first B in BOOBY TRAPS. But, I decided that it was totally fair, since there is a clear logic of "only divide the letters B and Y when they're combined into the BY bigram."

It would have been so awesome to not have that confusion. I've constructed enough puzzles with letter restrictions to realize how much the fill can suffer, especially when you choose not to use common letters, but Bs and Ys are a different story. It's a tough call — although BOOBY TRAPS has that confusion-generating first B, it's such a great answer.

Glad that Jon, Will, and Joel decided to eliminate PRESBYOPIC — even having worked in ophthalmic pharma development, that one only barely registered! I would have liked another example where BY weren't just the word BY, though, something like RUBY RED SLIPPERS or TRIPOLI, LIBYA. Alternately, having all BYs be separate words would have given nice consistency.

Excellent gridwork; just a few minor bits in IRED (odd form of IRE), RES, and GSA (General Services Administration). The theme constraint makes filling around those BY regions challenging, so the overall smoothness is even more appreciated than usual. And nice bonuses of CALIPHS, STONE AGE, MAESTRO, EAT DIRT, too. To do all that with so many entries affected by the theme is a fantastic result.

Another really clever idea from Jon. I felt like there was a little potential left on the table, but I still greatly enjoyed the solve — and perhaps even more so, the post-solve analysis. That's a great sign.

POW Fri 9/30/2016

★ Right on my wavelength. The top half of the grid kicked off my solving experience with a bang. I already liked TONE LOC (I like my old school rap) when I hit HACKATHON, and then I uncovered INK BLOT right after that. BABY BJORN and DIVE BAR were next — and I hadn't even gotten to the middle stack yet!

Beautiful triple in VICHYSSOISE (I misspelled it roughly eleventy times before finally getting it right), GHETTO BLASTER, and LBJ. The GHETTO BLASTER holds a lot of cultural significance for me — it makes me think about "Do the Right Thing." One of the most powerful movies of all time, I still feel for Radio Raheem.

HACKATHON might be one of my favorite recent debuts, as it's such an evocative term (a bunch of coders getting together to hack up quick prototypes). There's something so fresh, so juicy about that; makes me want to go back to my college days or my startup days when anything and everything was possible — if you were willing to stay up three days in a row (I was).

All that, for just the very minor prices of TAROS (is it really pluralizable?) and OCTO = yes, please! (I'm fine with OTB, since it's a real thing, apparently common to some folks.)

The bottom half of the puzzle didn't have the same jam-packed zing for me, but HERE GOES, GLOBULIN, and SLAM POETS still stood out. But I LOVE LA is one of those mid-length entries that constructors lean on (I've used it many times) because of the perfect vowel-consonant alternation. It's so darn useful in spots like this. I wouldn't personally count it as an asset — I wonder if people of other generations might?

LIEABED … still thinking. Do I love this or hate it?

Still, there was more than enough in the top half of the grid that I had big smiles overall. I have a feeling it might not play as well for crowds unfamiliar with HACKATHON or BABY BJORN, but considering I have a (very sweaty) BABY BJORN and love to work on coding projects, the ton of colorful, vivid answers hit all the right notes for me.