Just because Jim Horne and I are both sheltering in place doesn't mean that we can't yell into our TV phones at each other!
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Jim: You might not remember, but a TV is an outdated device used to display programming such as sitcoms—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.
Tuesday's job is tough — it has to be easy and welcoming enough for newish solvers, but also interesting for more experienced folks. This theme hit that sweet spot, such a clever link between the Tarot and well-known "THE ___" phrases. I've done a lot of Tarot puzzles and a lot of "THE ___" puzzles, and I've never thought of connecting them. Brava!
Speaking of that balance of easy vs. interesting, there's so much to love about the grid. Four 15-letter entries can be tough to work around, but Olivia produced such a smooth, accessible product for newbs, while also working in MR TOAD, OPEN WIDE, SMART KEY, KISSED UP for the veterans. Check out how wisely she spaced out OPEN WIDE and SMART KEY, using black squares to separate everything judiciously.
The one ding was ASLOW, which could have been massaged out with a black square at the A (and at the T of KLIMT). That would have also allowed removal of OCHS and/or ACER. The northwest corner of a crossword is so important in setting tone and expectations; an extra set of black squares would have been well worth it.
It's rare for me to take interest in a Monday or Tuesday theme, and I was curious enough to research the other Tarot cards to see what other phrases might have been possible. Spurring on curiosity is a great thing!
I'm glad Olivia pared it back from a 21x21, as that would have gotten old. The 15x15 format is perfect for this tidy and novel concept.
★ It's rare that I do a week's worth of puzzles and one jumps out at me as an instant POW! winner. Today's fit that bill. Impressive from a constructor's standpoint, and a delightfully challenging and entertaining solving experience.
Those gigantic SW and NE were especially mind-blowing. Regions of 7x7(ish) scream I CANNOT BE FILLED WITH BOTH SNAZZINESS AND SMOOTHNESS! I've tried it and failed. I've come up with a relatively smooth product, and also a relatively snazzy one, but never both at the same time. I even went as far as to send in a 58-worder to Will Shortz, who kindly said it was a strong construction but lacked color.
Let's call a spade a spade: it would have sucked to solve. I'm glad Will rejected it.
I like how Trenton balanced ease of construction vs. solving flow. The center isn't perfect — it does sort of cut up the puzzle into four quadrants — but it's workable. I never felt like I was completely cut off, stuck like a duck.
It did help that my knowledge of Trenton's love for rare letters breezed me through that NE. Superhero ... let's see, who has a rare letter … AQUAMAN! That led to AQUINAS and I was off to the races.
Fantastic long entries, too. HILARITY ENSUES? Dang it, I wish I had debuted that one! PARKING GARAGES isn't colorful in itself, but it has so much potential for a clever clue. Get it, you get tickets in PARKING GARAGES? Not speeding tickets, but entry tickets?
That one could have used some clevering up.
So much to love in this one. First-class use of the mid-length fill slots — WITS END, LAB MICE, MAKE PAR, I MANAGE, ALTO SAX, BEELINE, CLIP ART, SASHIMI. That's great for a normal themeless featuring 7-letter entries, and it's phenomenal for a construction this daunting.
Beautiful work all around. Both the constructor and the solver in me give Trenton a standing O.
★ It takes a lot to overcome my rebus fatigue, but the notion of circles representing balloons, popping into POPs? Delightful!
Add in brass-ring quality themers: IS THE POPE CATHOLIC is fantastic on so many levels — so colorful, so fun to say, and rarely seen in crosswords since it's 17 letters. I'm usually not a fan of words hidden in other single words, but APOPLEXY is such a crazy entry. HIPPOPOTAMUSES did make me wonder if HIPPOPOTAMI was the correct plural, and that made me love it even more.
(Thanks to Matt Gaffney for sending me a hilarious Hiphopopotamus link!)
Some problems in the short fill left me with that same feeling you get after losing at the ring toss 58 times in a row, though. It would have been one thing if it were only minor offenders like ACS (no one uses this to refer to multiple air conditioners, but it's easy enough to figure out), ERE and NAE, but PES? SKAT? OESTE?
Take a close look at the slew of themer intersections. IS THE POPE CATHOLIC crosses TOOTSIE POP crosses HIPPOPOTAMUSES crosses RED POPPY, and APOPLEXY crosses POPULAR. So much inflexibility is enough to make any constructor cross. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
As much as I liked Ed's ambitious long themers, a couple of shorter ones like POPPY (instead of RED POPPY), POPPA, POPEYE, POPULI, AIRPOP, etc. would have allowed for a smoother, better overall end product. I appreciated Ed's sentiment, but the notion of POP sounds vs. non-POP sounds didn't occur to me while solving.
Such a beautiful carnival effect — so charming, those circles — representing balloons suddenly blossoming into POPs. My big smiles made it easy enough to overlook the problems in execution.
SUPERFREAK + SACRE BLUE + ZORRO MASK? IT FIGURES to add up to I HAD A BLAST with a STANDING O.
Wow, so much color, so much sparkle!
I'm usually a stickler for cleanliness when it comes to 70-word themeless puzzles — they're a relatively easy construction task — but I'm more than fine with some OK SO / NOT US / TGI to get the explosion of fireworks all throughout.
Hardly a SNOOZEFEST or an UTTER BORE — having both in one corner made for a nice tie-in. Something so fortuitous when two long answers happen to fit in an isolated region.
Oh, and [One with something to prove]? Not GUY WITH A CHIP ON HIS SHOULDER, but literally, a PROSECUTOR trying to prove someone guilty.
I HAD A BLAST indeed, thoroughly superfreaky.
I've always wanted to do a CAMOUFLAGE crossword, but I've never figured out an interesting way to execute it. This is it! At first glance, I thought I missed everything. Indeed, I did — just a s with real CAMOUFLAGEd creatures! It was so much fun to scan through the grid a few times before finally locating CHAMELEON, OCTOPUS, LEAF INSECT, and LEOPARD.
The middle two were especially eye-popping, David managing to hide those in such a clever way. I'd never have thought of trying for LEAF INSECT — it seems impossible to insert those into a grid stealthily. LEA / FIN / SECT, I love it!
I did wonder if it was odd to break up those four creatures with black squares, but the overall effect overshadowed that qualm in a major way. It's an incredibly neat effect, one part "Where's Waldo" and another part "Magic Eye."
AND a ton of bonuses worked in throughout? When you have to build around short fragments, that's usually near impossible. GOES STAG, LACOSTE, TIE CLIP, DOORMAT — that all speaks to the PRO SHOP David runs. Such careful, polished gridwork.
AND a hat tip to DADS changing diapers? With a young son going through potty training, this dad (doing a lot of dirty work) appreciated it.
This notion makes all my dozens of CAMOUFLAGE ideas run to shamefully hide in the woodwork.
★ I've had the pleasure of working on a couple of crosswords with John Guzzetta — we seem to be on similar wavelengths. His comment above made me laugh — about ten years ago, I pulled a prank on a friend, playing Darth Vader's Imperial March (on cello) as she walked down the aisle. During the rehearsal, not the actual ceremony!
I solve so many themelesses that they all tend to run together in a mish-mash of interesting phrases. One rarely stands out, so I appreciate it when I can hang on to something, anything that makes it feel distinctive.
Jill and I have French friends who like to poke fun of their Frenchness — it's delightful to hear Romain say he doesn't care about something "because I'm French" in an exaggerated accent. So many phrases today reminded me of that shrugging attitude: WHO CAN SAY, IT DEPENDS, WHAT GIVES.
I also enjoyed knowing "1-up" for EXTRA LIFE right off the bat, bringing me back to the old days when I'd hang out at the local arcade, a bunch of kids crowded around a "Donkey Kong" machine, our quarters lined up along the top.
Great cluing, too, making short, usually neutral entries stand out. [Some nerve?] elevated OPTIC. The wordplay for RUNE's clue was genius — it may be set in stone, literally!
A couple of minor dings here and there — MAZY and UNHIT are oddballs, and AREOLA is one of those entries we snooty constructors roll our eyes at since it gets used way too much because of its friendly vowels — but overall, a delightful solving experience.
★ YES! Finally, the NYT takes advantage of the Magazine's ability to do something that virtually no other crossword venue can: print in color. What better way to flaunt the fact that not only is print media not dead, but it can be better than e-formats? Yay for all the great old-timey things, said this Luddite!
This Luddite, who is happily using his computer to type this post … huh.
Great theme concept, too, playing on OPERATION's body-part-removal mechanism, interpreting phrases as if those parts were gone. (How anyone could successfully remove those friggin' little pieces without that horrible BZZT! Is beyond me, though.) I loved the ones that surprise, like how SPIT (SHIN)ED becomes SPITED. It'd be even better if SHIN had spanned the two words of the phrase, but that's asking for a lot.
It's not as interesting when a single word becomes another single word, i.e., DE(LIVER)ED to DEED. Slightly better is something like AL(ARM)IST to A-LIST, but it's still not as strong as SPIT (SHINED).
The one outlier: S(HAND)ONG. Since the base phrases aren't clued, they must be easily recognizable in order to generate a strong a-ha moment. Perhaps as a good Taiwanese boy, I should have known the province of SHANDONG, China, but considering I got kicked out of Chinese school as a kid, what do you expect?
I'd have gone with Garry S(HAND)LING or better yet, AX (HAND)LE. Five minutes of coding can do wonders!
It's rare these days that a Sunday puzzle will hold my attention — great fill like SKELETON KEY, BATARANGS, GOOD ONE, DEADPOOL helped tip the scales. Some aspects could have been improved, but overall, an amusing wordplay-based idea that entertained.
★ Brilliant puzzle; my favorite of all of Andrew's stair stacks. A quad of greatness in NO PRESSURE / SECRET CODE / DEGREE MILL / SIERRA CLUB, every single one of them colorful in its own right, and better yet, every single one has the potential for clever cluing. [Green giant] is indeed delightful wordplay for SIERRA CLUB, no telltale question mark required to give away the game.
And almost zero wastage throughout the crossing down entries! It's all too common to need a bunch of neutral entries to hold together a stair-stack. SCARCEST doesn't do much, but SERENA SLAM, TV PRODUCER, LUGE TEAM = a cornucopia of color.
There's yet more? Andrew did such a smart job of quasi-sectioning the SW and NE corners, keeping good solving flow while making his filling job easier. When you can work on a corner independently, it's much easier to optimize for greatness like ADVIL PM, LENS FILTER, DATE NUT, ICE SAWS. Now that's the way to squeeze out every last drop of potential.
Best compliment I can give is that I wish I'd constructed this grid. Andrew's prodigious efforts and hard work in the stair-stack space have clearly paid off.