Brash Jeff: I can Guess That Theme in two entries.
BOOT CAMP …
HAT TRICK … Things you can wear!
THIMBLE RIG … Things you can wear!
Ahem. You already guessed that. Bzzzzt!
IRON MAIDEN … Things you can wear!
Well, technically you could wear an IRON MAIDEN. It wouldn't be comfortable, but you could—
Bzzt bzzt bzzt!!!
I love getting bamboozled by a Monday theme. Hitting the revealer—MONOPOLY tokens—I slapped my forehead. I should have gotten it. At least, I should have stopped guessing "Things you can wear."
The BOOT, HAT, THIMBLE, IRON, DOG, aren't a complete set, but it'd be impossible to include all the kooky items they've used over the years. A penguin? T. rex? Don't even get me started on the Pokemon collector's set. I choose you, Pikachu!
What's most important is that the theme set screams MONOPOLY, and this does just that. I'd never heard of THIMBLE RIG, but the THIMBLE is one of the iconic tokens. (The one I always got stuck with. Seriously, a THIMBLE?)
Maybe I'd have used WHEELBARROW RACE in there instead, paired with IRON SUPPLEMENTS. My brother always got infuriated when we landed on the same spot, and I invoked the wheelbarrow carry rule. Your token goes onto mine, and then you have to pay rider's fees, doubling with each step.
What, you never played Calvinopoly?
Stellar gridwork, as I've come to expect from Christina. She did everything right—squeezing BOOT CAMP and HAT TRICK together for smart overall themer spacing, wisely alternating her long down slots (DADS TO BE not interacting much with COWBOYS), choosing great bonuses (SHARK OIL and NO CAN DO!), and all the while, minimizing her crossword glue.
Making a crossword isn't rocket science, yet forcing yourself to work with only common short words and names is something that few constructors adhere to. The great majority give in and say "good enough" way too quickly. Not Christina, always putting in the serious time and hard work required.
Exemplary Monday offering. I'll be pointing newbs to this one, and that's the highest Monday compliment I can give.
★ You would think that a writer who locks himself in his writing cave day after day, pounding out words that are mostly crap but maybe just maybe a few of them are halfway decent and if he's lucky he'll one day have an OEUVRE of works that generations use as doorstops and/or toilet paper, would figure out this theme right away.
Of course! It's the story about a burglary in a SORORITY house, the job pulled off by a Scot named MAC, using knowledge of FIBONACCI numbers to crack the SAFE's code. Oh, and don't forget the HORSE that he uses in the complex scam.
HORSE D'OEURVE might just be the worst menu typo ever.
While I jest about the heist, the five minutes I strained, trying to figure out the theme, was no joke. There's an eternal debate, whether crossword constructors should bash their solvers over the head with a revealer, or if allowing them to work out the concept on their own is better.
In the end, I greatly appreciated working out the novel (ha) progression, PASSAGE to CHAPTER to BOOK to SERIES to OEUVRE. Tough to discover, though, and I wonder how many general solvers will toss the puzzle aside without ever understanding the clever concept.
The clue for EGS didn't help, either. I fixated on that, sure that it must be a revealer — especially since one of those e.g.s was in a clue for the last theme answer. Come on!
I finished with an error, with OPENENDED / AVEDY. Given its clue, I couldn't imagine that OPENENDED could be anything but that, and if Aveda and Aveeno are brand names, why not Avedy? Although the clue [Question whose answer can go almost anywhere] is both clever and accurate, solvers would be better served by something like [Broad question, slangily].
There's this tale about a fox and this bunch of grapes …
A revision would have been nice, to eliminate HAP and CIDE, as well as TOEJAM with its unnecessarily graphic cluing. And that crazy EGS, of course.
Overall, though, the writer in me loved the subtly-presented progression, and that trumps all. While I had enough reservations about the warts in execution to pause a long moment before giving it the POW!, the concept was something I'd never seen before. That's a rare occurrence, indeed.
★ I've seen a ton of plays on UNITED NATIONS, so I groaned when I uncovered the first themer. It was interesting that AD LIB connected CHAD and LIBYA, but I wanted there to be something more. Ah well, what can you do? At least this was a novel approach to this tried and true theme type.
I continued my solve, my interest piqued by some of the long finds, TRIAGE between AUSTRIA and GERMANY is a great discovery. Since there are so many possible ways to pair up two countries in the same part of the world, long finds like this stand out much more than shorties like SCAM connecting LAOS and CAMBODIA.
It wasn't until well after I finished that I got a nagging feeling in the back of my head. Did I miss something? Even after reading Adam's note, it didn't quite register.
To say my geography knowledge is poor would be offending the word poor, so I looked up CHAD and LIBYA. Curiously, they're right next to each other.
LAOS and CAMBODIA too?
Wait just a second …
Every pair of countries abuts!
I couldn't believe my eyes. I'd never have thought to try something like this because it seems impossible that there would be any longish words formed. To get something like TRIAGE between the bordering nations of AUSTRIA and GERMANY? That's brilliant!
Ah. The title. BORDER CROSSINGS. Double ah, Adam made it as clear he could in his note.
Little did Adam and Will Shortz count on my geographical idiocy.
Solid gridwork, too. I don't love seeing TED CRUZ in my Sunday puzzle, but it does give me a chance to talk up my buddy Craig Mazin's twitter, where he recounts fantastic tales of being TED CRUZ's college roommate.
There's not much else notable in the grid, but with a sprinkling of GOLD STRIKE, SWORD DANCE, EARTH DAY, HOT COCOA, and not much of the DAU (daughter?), ELOI, FRUG, OENO ilk (answer to Adam's question above: I say OENO), it's above average gridwork. I appreciate how well Adam spaced out his themers, wisely squeezing two together in rows 3/4 and 18/19.
This is a fantastic set of finds. I hope that solvers are more astute than me. What a shame if people put this puzzle aside before getting that OMG moment.
★ Caitlyn's gridwork is so strong. I struggled with the top corners of the puzzle, but I got into a groove as I continued, encountering so much great fill: ACTIVEWEAR, SARDINE, HOGWASH, HANGNAIL, NIHILISM, SIM CITY, NESSIE. And I had barely broken into the bottom half of the grid!
The good times kept rolling with AA MILNE, CAPITAL O (tricksy!), ZONE OUT, ESKIMO KISS, MINERAL / ANIMAL linked together. This, my friends, is themeless-caliber work. So much sizzle.
I eventually made the connection that CORNER KICKS hinted at rebuses in the four corners. (KICKS is slang for "shoes.") I continued to struggle, though, and the rebus squares weren't that satisfying to uncover. I had a difficult time figuring out why.
Part of the reason was that I don't know shoes that well, so WEDGE didn't come easily. Also, some of the theme phrases felt like they were too specific. PUMP FAKES, for example, is something I know well from being pump faked out of my Reebok pumps on the court, but if you're not a b-ball fan, that might be mystifying even after filling in every square.
Finally, there's something unsatisfying about all the rebus squares being at known locations. Part of the fun (and frustration) of rebuses is finding the sneaky sneakers. When you know exactly where you need to look, it takes away some excitement of discovery.
Overall though, the fantastic gridwork was more than enough to make up for these issues. I debated over giving this one the POW!, especially since Caitlyn's bar has risen so high so quickly (three out of her last four have won POW!s now). In the end, though, I judge a puzzle by how much entertainment it gave me. By that measure, this one was a big winner.
★ Phrases that morph into equally valid new phrases are my jam, so Yacob and Erik had me at BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD. What a beautiful discovery!
I have a feeling some solvers won't figure out what's going on, so here's a before and after:
None of the rest is as strong as BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD — it's so neat when there are multiple words involved. IN THREE-D did hit that mark, but spelling THREE out is a crossword-specific … "oddity" would be a generous description.
As I would expect from these two (Yacob giving us a smash hit on this last themeless), such a tasty grid! Constructors often fail when they try to go big — 72 words is in themeless territory — but there was no going home today. Even if you didn't enjoy the theme as much as I did, I'd give each of these entries a check (Will Shortz assigns checks and minuses in his grid-assessing process):
Between TACTILE, ANIMATE, and IMPEDED, I'd toss in another checkmark, taking the total up to 8. That's astounding for a puzzle built around five theme entries.
I'd have loved another stunner like BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD, but the four (RE)LOCATIONS worked well enough. It made me want to go search for more. I didn't have time to write the code, but I spent five minutes figuring out how I would do it — I love it when someone gives my brain a challenge. Along with gridwork that greatly enhanced my solving experience, these guys earn another POW! apiece.
★ Oh, that center. Ooh. Ooooh! If you add a googol Os to that "ooh," that'd be more accurate. I've worked with many big centers while developing themelesses, but nothing like this. It wouldn't even occur to me to try, so impossible does it seem. I might attempt it once, and then quickly place a black square at the very center, or maybe scatter two around, like at the A of CYBERATTACK and the R of LOTTERY PICK.
Stunning. I rarely open up a themeless and stare, slack-jawed.
My usual second reaction to something like this is to clench every muscle in my body in preparation for a slew of uglies. Short gloop. Mid-length oddities. Long curiosities. Everything under the Barnum and Bailey sun.
Not today. The middle is more Blaine than Bailey. There are strong feature entries, like LOTTERY PICK (term for a high NBA draft choice), CYBERATTACK, RAT TRAP, STAR STUDENT, SPY CAMS. And there's no short crossword glue — how could there be where there are so few short slots, period?
RADIUMS is ugly in the plural, but it gets a pass as the sole funky bit in the massive white hole that is the center. I laughed at Ryan's appropriate use of the word "vomitous," too.
Solid corners, too. CRY HAVOC, THE FORCE (think: "Star Wars"), SNO BALLS, the women's soccer powerhouse TEAM USA, and that wannabe COOL MOM we all roll our eyes at, ha ha ha ... hey, wait. One of my kids called me a "cool dad" the other day. Huh.
Some may miss the cleverness behind [Shrunken head?]. LAV is short for "lavatory," so there needs to be some "for short" or "Abbr." tag in the clue. Great use of "shrunken" to do that job, while introducing wit by using a fun phrase.
I'd still have given Ryan the POW! for this masterpiece if it had turned out 80% as strong. I might have to award him 1.25 POW!s today!
★ Huge kudos to Kevin Der and Finn Vigeland for putting together an impromptu online tournament — taking just over a week to do it! Kevin asked if I wanted to be involved, but I sadly had to decline because of two (toddling, loud, attention-seeking, messy, not-staying-away-from-my-computer) reasons. Although I missed out on the live event, I went back and watched parts of the live stream. So entertaining!
In a time when we all so badly need distraction, I salute those that make it happen. Because of that, I was predisposed to like today's puzzle. Then, the flood of fantastic entries and clever clues made it rise head and shoulders above any other puzzle this week.
This grid is a layout all budding themeless constructors should study. All sections are well-connected, making for fine solving flow, and to Byron's point, it's possible to (sort of) subdivide the five regions—the four corners plus the middle—by choosing strategic seed entries.
Once you land on a set of four long intersecting answers (WIFI PASSWORD, STEM PIPELINE, MARSHMALLOWS, HEPPLEWHITE) that test out well, you can work nearly independently on each section. Rigorous testing is critical, though, since some quartets of seed entries will allow for great fill in some corners but will cause trouble in others.
What beautiful entries everywhere. WIFI PASSWORD was my favorite, but every corner contained so much color. COP SHOWS, THEOREMS as those having something to prove, TINY TOON, VERY EASY.
Even better: there were so many clever clues that I stopped counting, amazed at the wealth of riches. Describing TSA as "wanders" — those who use wands — might elicit groans, but for me, it was clue of the year territory.
I can't applaud enough the work that Kevin, Finn, and everyone involved put in. Warms my heart to see such efforts in these trying times.
★ Every Wednesday, I have the pleasure of exchanging thoughts with Jim Horne about a full week worth of puzzles, and it's rare that we agree on which is the standout (if any). I prefer when we laud different puzzles, because Jim often presents a viewpoint I hadn't considered.
Groan, thanks a lot, Yacob, we both thought your puzzle was stellar. Now what are Jim and I supposed to argue about?
Yacob got in touch with me a few months before he submitted this one, asking for feedback. My first impression was that he showed a tremendous amount of talent and that his draft already had a decent shot at acceptance. It had a different SW, and a slightly different SE, though, and I thought it needed improvement.
Often, constructors don't listen to me and just submit. I'm not offended — I'm often wrong, after all — but why ask me if you're not going to at least consider critique? Yacob did everything right. He absorbed my comments, went away for a few weeks, and vastly improved the SW corner. I rarely tell constructors that they have a high chance of acceptance with Will, but this was one instance I was nearly sure Will would say yes.
Fantastic cluing, too. "Pen pals" for CELLMATES. "Barb" making you think about a verbal jab instead of a literal jab from a BLOWDART. I hope you don't [… incur charges overseas] ON SAFARI!
One oddity: the final grid Yacob sent me had a different — and better — southeast corner. As I solved, I noted the weirdness of BATE and LATEN, and confusion set in. I surely would have noted those and recommended he revise, since that region is somewhat flexible. Looking back upon his submission, I noticed that his corner was superior to what was run. Yacob doesn't exactly remember what happened, but he thinks he made a last-minute change before submitting.
Alas! Nothing's perfect. So close, though.
Jim: (wincing) You don't have to yell into your computer from two inches away.
Jeff: Oh. Sorry. How'd you magically get inside my TV computer monitor, anyway? And what's with TV RECEPTION?
Jim: You might not remember, but a TV is an outdated device used to display programming such as sitcoms—
Jeff: I may be a moron, but I'm not that old. I mean … I'm not that young. Wait. (brain overheating) I'm trying to say that I remember TVs, but I'm also older than a lot of the kids these days, so what I meant to say was …
Jeff: I'm a moron.
Once Jim and I got past the first theme entry, we both enjoyed the concept. My inner (and outer) nerd was delighted by a TRIG FUNCTION being a gathering of mathematicians. That entry won Olivia a POW! all by itself. I've used many a MEDICINE BALL but never thought of it as a party for doctors. And I'm married to one! A doctor, not a medicine ball. Just to be clear.
When an idea spurs me on to search for other examples, that's usually a sign it's a winner. I couldn't find many other theme options, which indicates that it's a tight theme. There was only one that could have worked: SOUND MIXER for us Puget Sound folks or CEMENT MIXER for construction workers.
There was JEFF SESSIONS, but no one may know about the top-secret society known as the Joint Jeffiez Jamz. This paragraph will self-destruct in five seconds.
It's a shame that TV RECEPTION wasn't buried in the middle of the grid. It didn't work as well as the others, because who besides me thinks about TV RECEPTION (the antenna I plug into my computer doesn't work as well as it used to) these days? Minor point, though.
I almost didn't give out the POW!, because the gridwork was far from smooth. It's tough to get past a pile-up of ENTR ETH GTE INE REL RRR TOI and the plural MARYS. And while EEG ENT and TSP are usually fine, they multiplied the feeling of this product still being in process. The root of the issue is in grid design, with the long acrosses mucking things up. TRIED ON, ALTER EGO, AGNOSTIC, I RECKON are all great bonuses, but they make gridding so challenging.
I appreciate Olivia's audacity, giving us STEROID, BRASSIERE, GENDER GAP, and BIG CAT as well. Trying to work in so much long fill — both across and down — is flying too close to the sun, though. It needed another round of revision, with major redesign, to better serve newer Tuesday solvers.
Overall, the theme was so delightful that my human side overcame my robot's technical analysis.
★ My memory for crosswords is long. After reading the title, I immediately thought of another of BEQ's Sunday puzzles, playing on As. I steeled myself, wondering if it'd be another A addition. Nothing wrong with that, but so many have been done that the resulting themers have to be spectacular.
Boy, was I wrong! What a playful way to riff on As, words that start with As, but become completely different words when the A sound is removed. APACHE to A PATCHY, ACQUIRE to A CHOIR, ATTACKS to A TAX — such interesting finds!
Best of all, the resulting phrases were amusing. A PATCHY APACHE as Geronimo with peach fuzz? That's a big winner.
Even the ones that weren't as surprising (not much of a spelling change), like A VOWEL AVOWAL, worked out well because of strong cluing. I had never thought of AYE and OUI being all vowels. That elevates a fine theme entry onto the Olympic podium's gold platform.
I wasn't as wild about the solving experience though, wading through such gloop as ALEE AMA ANIS CBER ENE REMS SERE etc. Nor was I excited to hit oddities like PENTODE and BLUE CAP and the outdated RCA DOME / TELSTAR. There was some strong material, like CSI MIAMI, SLIM JIM, RED BEANS, and PR FIRM, but the overall balance made the solve feel bogged down.
My preference is to have easier grids, where you don't even notice the short stuff, along with more strong bonuses. I do understand the perspective that a 136-word grid allows for bigger tracts of white space, making for a more challenging solve. Given how long it takes to finish a Sunday puzzle, I'd take funner over harder every time.
That's a minor issue, paling in comparison to theme quality, though. Some awesome finds, easily holding my attention through the full solve. I especially enjoyed how it seemed at the start like a theme I've seen before, only to slowly reveal itself as something different.
The grid art is so delightful that the crossword could have strangled and eaten a PANDA and I still would have given it the POW!. This might be my favorite piece of grid art of all-time. That's saying something, considering how long our list is — check out the collection.
Alex intended to have those two letters circled — like PANDA eyes! — but Will Shortz went back and forth on this, ultimately deciding that it might confuse solvers. I like that decision.
Ooh! Can you imagine if the lone P and A had some other function; some strong reason for being unchecked? That might have made it my favorite puzzle of all time.
Are there famous PANDAs whose names start with P and A? Researching ... drat, no. Stupid panda namers, get your priorities straight.
Yeah, there's some weirdness in MUR, way too many short words that broke up the flow of my solve, and INDENTER is an inducer of eye-rolling. That's all simply noise that hardly registered against the tremendous signal in this amazing graphic.
★ Before I found my literary agent, I'd read everything agents said regarding what they were seeking. More often than not, the number one criterion was "voice." (Besides "an NYT bestseller." Thanks, very helpful.) It was incredibly frustrating, considering voice usually got defined as "It's impossible to describe, but I know it when I read it."
Over the years, I've figured out that "voice" relates to how someone's work makes you feel. Does it make you happy? Confused in a great, tense way, wanting to read more? Maybe it even creates electric sparks. It's personal, of course, but the best writers' voices soar above everyone else's.
Caitlin has voice. There's so much distinctive personality built into this puzzle, from the expressive OH MY GOSH to I DON'T HAVE ALL DAY to STINK EYE. Something old (HAIR TONIC), something NEW AGERS, something BLENDED IN, something STAGE CREW.
Apparently, I still don't have voice.
Such fantastic use of her long slots, not a one I didn't like. STRAIGHTS could have been ho-hum, but not with a clever clue. [They're in good hands]? That's poker hands, that is!
Strong technical merit, too. I've appreciated how her prior crosswords have been so carefully built, avoiding crossword glue much more so than other constructors. Need to smooth out a region? Use cheater squares (the black squares in the upper left and lower right), absolutely!
(Note that not all editors are lax about cheater squares, especially those in the grid's corners. Rich Norris at the LAT frowns mightily upon them, for instance.)
(Also note, I'm fine with ADOS as a plural noun and MIROS as in "what did you think of the Miros on display?" I have no problem with IN ON or HAD IT, either, both of which can stand on their own.)
A couple of amazing clues rounded out the exemplary solving experience. My favorite was NOAH as famous for "seeing double." But close behind was the T.REX "bearing small arms."
A sparkling themeless, outstanding in every way. If I were a crossword agent, I'd sign her in an instant.
★ I dig Will Shortz's notes on Sunday puzzles. Sam is a cryptocurrency trader? What a cryptic job description! (Especially since this MBA doesn't totally get how cryptocurrency works.) A friend of mine participated in a stock-picking game a while back and won it all by heavily shorting Bitcoin. I like the innovative thinking.
Given that Sundays over the past year haven't been that interesting, Sam's innovative thinking today is much appreciated. I use the phrase GIVE THE STINK EYE all the time, but I've never considered interpreting it as "add an I to a synonym of STINK." SMEILL looks so awesomely bizarre, a bit like SMEAGOL.
BE IN THE MOMENT was another perfect example of this single-letter wordplay, a B inside a synonym for MOMENT (INSTANT) = INSTBANT.
Best of all, I enjoyed imagining what will happen to this puzzle in syndication, when overeager copyeditors change GAZACHO back to GAZPACHO. Prepare for befuddlement ...
Not every example worked well, GAZPACHO, for example. SPLIT P is a tortured way to describe "remove one P." Similarly with TEA EXTRACT hinting at "get rid of a T."
I was able to overlook those, though, since Sam did such a great job weaving in bonuses within the fill. For every themer that fell flat or didn't work, there was a handful of HOPE TO GOD, OREO OS, SHAMAN / OO LA LA. I'm usually happy with maybe six or so long bonuses in a grid, so getting a ton of KILL FEE SMOKE RING US SENATE WWI ACE was awesome. BARREL OF FUN and TRES BON are so appropriate!
NO LIKEY … that feels like something okay for me to say (I love how flushed people get when I shout ME NO RIKEY!). Not sure if Sam gets the same pass.
Overall, the conceit has a couple of clunker answers, but it's novel and entertaining, and that's exactly what the NYT Sunday puzzle needs.
(MEAN GIRLS — the main characters being Gretchen WIENERS, Karen SMITH, Regina GEORGE, Cady HERON. I wouldn't have figured it out in a billion years!)
★ The English alphabet offers so many opportunities for playfulness. Assuming capitalization, there are some letters that look like others when upside-down, ones that have reflective symmetry (A, H, I, etc.), splitsies, even some that become others when one half is lopped off. The possibilities for wordplay are endless!
I've seen several crosswords involving a letter or number split into two parts, so I wasn't wowed right off the bat by today's 8 -> double O. In fact, I was annoyed at first when I did the usual rebus schtick, entering OO into each square. Come on, Joe, that's an infinity sign, not an 8!
Nice shift of thinking when I realized my mistake and changed them into 8s.
There are so many touches I appreciated:
There are going to be folks on one end of the spectrum who think this is too easy; that they've seen stuff like this before. On the other end, some newer solvers will never figure out the connection between 8 and ATE. You'll never make everyone happy, but this one did a great job hitting a middle ground. All of Joe's time and effort showed through, both at making his theme feel elegant and at assembling a colorful, clean grid.
★ Oh, GROOOOOOOAN, yet another puzzle with gods hidden in phrases. And Rich Proulx couldn't even be bothered to locate them inside phrases, lazily resorting to circles higgledy-piggledy scattered about?
AND he drew from a mish-mash of backgrounds, Roman, Greek, Norse, and then back to Greek? Come on, at least be consistent! Make more of an effort to ...
I love being slapped upside the head with my ego and stupidity. This is a true WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That) theme, where LOVE CONQUERS ALL contains the god … are you ready for it … this is so awesome … oh my god(s)! … THE GODDESS OF LOVE, VENUS!
This might be my all-time favorite within the "circles spread throughout phrases" theme type.
CRUCIVERA EXTOLS SUCH WORK DEARLY, SIR!
★ Animal themes have been done ad infinitum in crosswords, so an extra layer is essential. Thankfully, that's what Michael has given us today. Note that it's hardly a loosey-goosey (ha) set of themers, but nice and tight — every phrase is an animal's part, expressed in a possessive format. I enjoyed the 50/50 approach of having two themers as "X OF THE Y," and two as "THE X'S Y."
Outstanding debut gridwork, too. Monday products ought to be newb-friendly, with the potential to convert those on the fence. One major tenet is to make your short stuff unnoticeable, allowing a solver to breeze through without having any needle-scratching-across-a-record moments. There were two blips in ALEE and ORY (the latter heavily globulous), but that's an admirable result for any constructor, much less a rookie.
I appreciate that Michael didn't try to do too much. Stick to 78 words your first couple of times, so you have the best chance of coming through with a beautifully smooth early-week product. Toss in a pair of bonuses like HEAR ME OUT and MY MISTAKE, and call it good. If you can insert a bit of SHA NA NA, DRY HEAT, and a Z in BREEZED, definitely do it! As long as you can do it with minimal compromises, that is.
Too often, experienced constructors hear the call of the dark side, aiming for an audacious product that newer solvers might end up cocking their heads at — or worse. Today's is a perfect example of a welcoming gateway; a crossword with a simple yet novel theme, and a grid that allows for a fist-pumping victory. Bravo!
★ I love it when artists combine two disparate concepts into something unique. I've participated in so many FINAL FOUR pools, created so many single-letter puzzles for crosswords, yet I've never thought of combining them. W X Y Z as the FINAL FOUR of the alphabet — and as final parts of the four themers — is so fun.
Glittery gridwork, too. For those who might not love the theme as much as me, how about some colorful OPEN MRI / TOPOLOGY and GROANER / GRANDEUR in those big corners? Lovely stuff.
Some may argue that TOPOLOGY could be tough for early-week solvers, but educated solvers should at least have heard of a topo(graphic) map, so it's inferable. And if you've never heard the term before, go check out Martin Gardner's work. His Scientific American columns fascinated me as a kid, and my shelves are chock full of his books.
HOODOO … okay, that might be tough, and I'd be more sympathetic to complainers. I'd lend even more an ear to those kvetching about the CANTOR / ORC crossing.
(The inner nerd in me says HA HA HA ALL THAT TIME I SPENT PLAYING D&D PAID OFF! Not surprisingly, I always had low Charisma scores in my character sheets. Even less surprisingly, I didn't care.)
★ Regular readers of this column know that I love Thursday trickery. Nearly every single ground-breaking / avant-garde / mind-blowing work of iconoclasm has come on a Thursday, and for good reason — Will Shortz aims for Thursday to be the hardest themed day of the NYT week.
Will has been consistent in his philosophy, wanting Thursday to be nothing more than harder than Wednesday. However, all the clever, unique, crack-the-mold concepts have to be slated for Thursday — and there are a lot of them. Those pesky constructors and their breaking of every single crossword rule! Lawless agents of chaos!
Not every Thursday can break the mold, though — that's unrealistic. And even if it were possible, I wouldn't want it. My brain likes to be challenged, but it also likes success. Solving something hard but familiar can produce a great feeling.
That was exactly the case today. At first, I was underwhelmed by the theme being a simple sound change, and I wrote it off as not POW! material. Chatting with Jim Horne made me rethink, though, giving more weight to some of my first impressions:
There were a couple of blips, notably that "gimme a sign" as a base phrase doesn't sound as strong as "give me a sign," and there was more crossword glue than I'd like — close to a GROS amount. As much as I enjoyed some of the wide-openness, I'd have preferred a more standard grid layout that would have been easier to fill cleanly.
Barbara did so much right, though. I'm glad that Jim nudge-nudged me to take a second look.
★ Diagonal symmetry is one of the rarest categories in our database. It's a shame, because not only is it distinctive, but it can be aesthetically stunning. That's the case for this sword-ish grid, resembling a medieval coat of arms. My family's crest is currently a set of squiggles drawn by my 5-year-old, so I'm nudging her to, ahem, revise. I'll have to leave copies of this puzzle around to influence her subconsciously.
At just 64 words, this grid almost made our fewest words list. Typically, that makes me worried, since such a feat almost always comes with severe compromises created by the difficulty of filling gigantic white spaces. Ryan did something smart, nibbling away at said white spaces with extra black squares — those three pyramid shapes count for a whopping 12 cheater squares (black squares that don't affect word count), 3 each in the top two pyramids and all 6 of the lowest. Usually, I don't like such a huge count of cheaters, but today's enhance the overall visual impact, without affecting solving flow.
Ryan also left himself plenty of long slots for juicy fill, and wow, was the juiciness overflowing! Beautiful marquees in WINE TASTING, KICKSTARTER, POP A WHEELIE, SIDEWALK ART, ICE PALACES, IVE MOVED ON.
Hilarious clue for BAD DATES, too. Way back when I was in the dating pool, is that why all those people had emergencies come up? No, those were all real emergencies, I'm sure.
A frequent reader, John Sutton, wrote in the other day, asking if I could spend a few lines explaining clues that one might never figure out via Google. You can go to AL JARREAU Wikipedia page if you don't know him, for example, but you can't do that with a wordplay clue. Great idea; here are two I noted:
I'll try to do this more for tricksy Friday and Saturday clues.
I didn't connect with everything — LINDROS sounded alien to this red-blooded ‘Murican, LAVA LAKES didn't ring a bell, and SUDSES sounded soapy — but there wasn't anything newfangled that turned off this ol' geezer in the vein of DANK MEMES. All in all, a beautiful product that sang like Excalibur.
★ This is a fantastic example of one of my favorite early-week theme types, where seemingly unconnected phrases suddenly link together in a surprising way. I completely failed at "Name that Theme," and pleasantly smacked my forehead when realizing how OUTSIDE SHOTS described the three themers:
Together, the three form a trifecta of near perfection.
Speaking of perfection, the grid shows a master at his best.
Not only is it a friendly grid for newbs, but it's so juicy. There's no magic to what Ross has achieved, but the time, care, and hard work are much appreciated. All constructors working with four themers can and should be outputting grids as excellent as this one.
This crossword put a huge smile on my face. I'd gladly give it not just to newbs, but to more experienced solvers as well. I love lauding art that's on par with Ansel Adams.
★ Sometimes all it takes is a single entry or clue for a themeless to sing to you. For Jim Horne, it was a clue whose cleverness I missed the first time around. "One" is its final number? I had already filled in most of A CHORUS LINE, so I didn't stop to think about it. I'm so glad Jim pointed out what a great misdirect this is! If you didn't notice the quotation marks, the clue would feel deviously mathematical.
For me, it was STAGFLATION. The MBA in me gets tickled by econ terms, especially one so colorful. (It describes when economic growth is stagnant, but inflation is high — a double whammy.) You'd think that economists are boring, but I have a lot of econ friends who are hilarious.
"Hilarious" in quotes might be a better description.
I had two hesitations before giving this one the POW!:
However, I greatly enjoyed the novelty of the grid design, neither a standard "triple-stacks in each of the four corners" nor a "wide-open middle," but something neatly in between. The smart black square placement allowed for smooth solving flow, while also making it constructor-friendly to fill. I like the trade-offs.
I had been vacillating, POW! or scow, and the conversation Jim and I had pushed it over the edge. It's not easy to cater to a hugely varied solving population.
★ RIDDLE me this: who stumps Jeff at "Name That Theme" on Mondays? NO ONE! Holy mixed up R I D D L Es, Batman!
D'oh! The joke's on me.
During the holiday season, we get inundated with Christmas songs, Christmas presents, Christmas eggnog-that-looks-and-tastes-vaguely-like-snot, that it's fantastic to get a Hanukkah theme today — and a fresh one at that, the letters D R E I D E L spun around within phrases. Although those Ds and Es are common enough, seven letters isn't easy to work with. The only others I found were SOLDIERED ON, BEWILDERED, IDLE DREAM, TUMBLE DRIED, and of course, THE RIDDLER.
Hilarious clue for YODA, too. It's difficult to get creative on Mondays since you don't want to risk confusing newer solvers. [… who could have this clue written?] is delightful. No dark side there.
A couple of sticky points in the grid, particularly a few crossings that might trip up newbs: EUROPA / MARA, SESTET / TRE, ELI / ELROND. I'm guessing that all of these are guessable, but the ambiguities aren't ideal. At the least, they could take away from the sense of unassailable victory you want newbs to feel. Shifting the black squares in the bottom part of the grid could have helped, breaking up those big 6x3 sections.
I enjoy left-right symmetry, and it can be a lifesaver — 14 14 14 12 is a constructor's nightmare! Will Shortz likes it fine, but not all editors do. Today, I could see how an editor might object to those unsightly 2x2 blocks of black squares, but I thought they looked a tiny bit like a dreidel's stem and point.
Ooh, it would have been amazing to arrange more black squares to form the outline of a DREIDEL! I'm constantly thinking about Sunday grid art concepts, and that would have been fantastic. Ah well.
I love it when a puzzle makes me go off on research rabbit holes. It's a nearly-perfect Hanukkah theme.
★ I love seeing interesting word findings, and IN THE WAY / IN THEORY is a perfect example. There's something so curious about how different those two phrases are, even though they share so many letters. The parsing shift (changing the spacing) makes it even more distinctive. It's the type of discovery that sets off so many crossword constructors' spidey-sense.
I wonder if this finding came first, or the idea of using two-letter state abbreviations to alter phrases across STATE LINEs came first.
COWGIRL / NEW GIRL, COMPANY CAR / COMPACT CAR, ANYONE / ACT ONE — such a parade of delights! This is the second time in two weeks where I've thought that a weekday puzzle could have been expanded into a Sunday. So much for what I previously said about it being a rare occurrence!
Great gridwork too; not a surprise considering Andy and Erik are two of the best in the biz. (Congrats to Erik for his new job as the editor of the USA Today crossword!) So much goodness in ICE PLANET, FIRST LOOK, ETERNAL, PASTEL, TRACHEA, PATOOTIE. Everywhere you look, there's something else that makes the solving experience even better.
I was of two minds (appropriate for this puzzle!) on MEAN MUGS, though. It's probably another thing that millennials make up so that they can have their own language that excludes us, the hopelessly unhip. At least MEAN and MUGS are words I recognize.
I did also wonder about the BECHDEL / COSA crossing. The BECHDEL test is common knowledge in gender studies, but it's not something I'd expect all educated NYT solvers to know how to spell. Crossing it with a mafia term might be a recipe for leaving certain solvers with negative connotations with the name BECHDEL, and that would be unfortunate.
Those are minor nits, though. It's so rare for me to solve a crossword that's novel enough that I can't immediately recall something at least a little like it. Such a joy when that happens, and even better when the craftsmanship is this good. Easy POW! pick.
★ Second puzzle, second POW! for Leslie! Her first one was at one end of the constructing spectrum — an easy-peasy, smooth Monday — and this themeless is at the other. It's a rare individual who has the potential to hit for the cycle, given that a Monday and a Friday puzzle require different skill sets. Check back here in five years; my money says that Leslie will be on the list.
At first glance, this grid doesn't look that much different from a standard 72-word themeless. Take the SE corner for example — triple-stacked 9s are a staple of Friday puzzles. The one big difference is the grid-spanner in the middle, the vivid POLAR BEAR PLUNGE. That has the potential to ice up every corner of the grid.
Leslie wisely used her black squares to separate POLAR BEAR PLUNGE from the NW and SE corners, while still allowing for decent solving flow. However, it's impossible for the ends of POLAR BEAR PLUNGE to not affect the SW and NE corners. I like her decision to break up the outside slots (SPELL / DUE and FAD / AIDES). Many constructors would keep those as 9-letter slots, giving themselves a huge problem. It's easy to construct 9-letter triple stacks when you have few other constraints, but when you fix three letters into place, it becomes much more difficult.
I love how careful Leslie was with her short fill. I'm always picking out some nit in a themeless, but not today. Top-notch work. It's not rocket science — you can get yourself a solid word list and work with the minimum score fixed at a high level — but so many constructors get fed up with the sheer quantity of iterations they must iterate through to get a clean, colorful product like this.
This wanna-be surf bum enjoyed kicking off the puzzle with RASHGUARD (try surfing without one for a day, see what happens), but Jim Horne commented that he'd never ENCOUNTERed it before. So although I see it as a great entry, something like FIRST STEP or ROSE PETAL or SKI SEASON is a safer headliner, given their more universal recognition.
Nearly faultless execution, with both quality and quantity of feature entries. Can't wait until Leslie's next outing!
★ Lynn puts herself in limbo today. Get it, limbo? Because she lowered the bar?
Speaking of lowering the bar, I'll be here all week, folks!
Making a trigram descend is not a novel idea — the one Mary Lou Guizzo and I did a few years ago is just one in this theme class — but Lynn executed it so well. The breakdown:
When it comes to puzzles featuring down-oriented themers, Will Shortz is laxer than other editors about including long across fill, not worrying about muddying up the theme. Today, I like the inclusion of BOARD GAME. That provides color, important since there's not much room for down-oriented long fill (the five themers take up too much space). I'd have loved for READS UP ON to be as snazzy as BOARD GAME, but what can you do.
Same sentiment for the assemblage of ABBR / NGO / ECTO in the NW corner, but that's a reasonable result, given the level of technical difficulty.
Overall, a Monday offering I'd happily give to a newb. I'd likely have to circle the BARs for them afterward, as they're easy to miss (see below for highlighting), but that only shows them how much a genius me be.