Friday, January 27, 2017

Don't Hate the Elver, Hate the Eeler

[Published version]

One of the hardest things for me as a crossword puzzle constructor is avoiding the "great answer trap."  That is, when you have a "great" answer in your puzzle (or a "great" section), and you are unwilling to let it go, no matter how difficult it makes completing the rest of the puzzle, no many how many undesirable compromises it requires.  I've gotten a lot better about this as I've gained more experience (I now try to embrace the YAHOO philosophy -- You Always Have Other Options* -- and I try to remind myself that my great entries are never as great as I think), but it's still something with which I constantly have to grapple.

In a bold attempt to combat the great answer trap, I came up with the idea of making two puzzles in parallel with very similar grid shapes.  My thinking behind this was that if I came up with a great answer that didn't fit in puzzle A, I could use it in puzzle B, which would not have the exact same constraints as puzzle A, and therefore would be more amenable to my great answer.  In this way, I would be able to keep my great answers and get rid of them (and move on) at the same time.  Win-win.  But of course it didn't work at all.  It's probably pretty obvious why.  Once you get a few entries into each puzzle they diverge to the point that you can't just move an entry from one puzzle to the other.

What ended up happening is that I just made two themeless puzzles with the same basic shape but very different fill.  You can see the grids below.

[Two rejected crossword puzzles]

I submitted both puzzles... and both were rejected.  It was the lower left corner with each of them.  In the first one, Will didn't like IT'S DEJA VU, because it's not really a standalone phrase.  (The saying is "it's deja vu all over again.")  In the second one, he just felt like the Southwest was way too drab -- which it is.  I fell into a different trap there, the "surely, everyone likes what I like" trap.  I went to University of Maryland for grad school, so I overrated how good of an entry TERRAPINS is.

Of the two I actually think the first one is more promising, but I got the impression that Will and Co. liked the second one better, so I reworked the lower left corner (which turned into a rework of the entire lower half) and submitted a new version.  As you probably already pieced together, it was accepted.

I'm curious to see people's responses to it.  Joel Fagliano, in the acceptance email, said, "Filled with lively vocabulary, and practically no compromises. One of your better constructions to date. Big yes on this, for a Saturday," which I was pleasantly surprised by.  I actually wouldn't put this one among my best puzzles.  I like it, of course.  I think it's good.  But if I was putting together a portfolio of my ten best puzzles or so, I'm not sure this one would make the cut.  But, hey, if other people really like it that's totally cool by me.  It's certainly better than the alternative.  We shall see.

Alright. let's do a few bullets and call it a post.

  • If DOSCH were a thing, I would have made BAD JOKE into DAD JOKE.  It's only a matter of time before this neologism finds its way into a crossword puzzle grid.
  • My clue for BON JOVI referenced "Lay Your Hands on Me" (changed during editing to "Blaze of Glory"), which is my favorite Bon Jovi song by far.  I'm not a huge fan by any means, but I do have a soft spot for "Lay Your Hands on Me," because it's the first song on the album New Jersey, which my friend got on cassette in fifth grade, and we would listen to the first track, rewind it to the beginning, and repeat ad nauseam.  That's a funny thing to think about now -- rewinding.  I remember buying cassettes based almost entirely on what the first song was on each side, because those were the only ones you could easily find.  Rewinding and fast-forwarding to the exact start of a song is something kids today will never have to deal with.  Actually, come to think of it, it's something I almost never had to deal with.  By the time I really got into music, CD players were already pretty mainstream.  I still remember my first CD: Flesh and Blood by Poison.  Don't worry, I redeemed myself with my second CD: Shake Your Money Maker by The Black Crowes.
  • The RED ROBIN with which I'm most familiar is the hamburger joint.  I loved this place as a kid.  As an adult, eh... not so much.
  • The HOT SPUR with which I'm most familiar is Tottenham Hotspur F.C. of the English Premier League.  I don't follow soccer, but what I've found is that I've consumed so much sports throughout my life that now I somehow just absorb it through osmosis.  Even when I'm not actively paying attention I still know basically what's going on -- like I haven't been watching the Australian Open and I don't really follow tennis, but I know both top seeds have already been eliminated.  (Update: I saw Serena beat Venus in an all-Williams.  Hell yeah!  I love the Williams sisters.  Serena might be my very favorite athlete ever.)
  • I used to know a song about JOHN HENRY as a kid.  The only part I remember now is the lyric "John Henry was a man who could beat a machine."  I wonder if I can find it online.  Ah, yes, easy.  It's a pretty well-known song.  Although it doesn't actually have the lyric I remember.  This isn't surprising at all.  Things are almost never verbatim how you remember them.  One of the interesting things about keeping a blog is going back and rereading it years later.  It's like auto-correct for your memories.

  • To all the ELVER haters out there: Elvers are real things in real life.  If you don't believe me, click here or here or here.  Eelers on the other hand are total bullshit.
A few additional thoughts, added after reading some of the reviews of my puzzle.
  • Jeff Chen at XWordInfo seemed to mostly like the puzzle, but he found it frustrating because he had a rough time in some sections (and not, apparently, in a satisfying, "a-ha moment" type of way).
  • Deb Amlen at Word Play also liked it (but her column is never very critical of the puzzle) but also found it hard. Difficulty, of course, is highly subjective, as evidenced by the fact that...
  • Amy Reynaldo at Crossword Fiend  definitely liked it, but found it too easy...
  • And Rex Parker didn't enjoy it very much because he found it way too easy.
  • Rex also implied that kir is Crosswordese, which, in my opinion, it most definitely is not.  It's a word I've seen many times outside of crossword puzzles (like on drink menus at French restaurants).  In fact, here's an article written last year about how kirs are becoming trendy.  Whether or not this is true or not, I do think it strongly indicates kirs are real things even to non-crossword solvers.
  • He also posted a tweet of a scuba instructor and equipment technician who had never heard of AIR PIPE.  Fair enough, it doesn't appear to be super common, but you can find it "in the wild," so it's not totally made up.  Here's a quote from the website of Gensis Diving Institute of Florida (bold is mine): 
Minimum Age 10 years, Jr. Open Water Certificate, or equivalent, open water equipment with compass, 50 lb lift bag, 10 ft rope and 2 marker buoys. It is suggested to have a pony bottle of 30 cu ft with an air pipe attached to a low-pressure inflator hose of the regulator. 
*I got this acronym from the notes of another constructor, but I can't remember whom.  If anybody knows who coined this, please post it in the comments, so that I can give credit where credit is due.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Wednesday Puzzle on Thursday

I was really hoping this one would run on Wednesday.  One of my goals in crossword puzzle constructing is to hit for the New York Times "cycle," and Hump Day is proving elusive.  It's the only one I need.  I thought this one could be it, but... alas.

Also, I just think this puzzle is more Wednesday appropriate.  I think it's clever enough, but it's not tricky.  It's straightforward.  It's not a rebus, and there are no twists or jumps or anything.  I've heard Will doesn't want Thursdays to necessarily be trick puzzles -- the only criterion is that they be harder than Wednesdays and easier than Fridays.  And that makes a lot of sense to me.  After all if the solver knows there is always going to be a trick then the trick isn't as tricky as it would be if there was the possibility of no trick.

(On a somewhat related note, I've never understood why some log-in passwords require you to use upper case characters, special characters, etc.  Doesn't this requirement limit the space of possible passwords, thus making it less secure?  Isn't it better to give users the option of these characters to allow for the largest space of passwords possible?  Perhaps I'm thinking of this too much like a mathematician.  Maybe it's more psychological: Unless people are forced to use special characters, they won't.  I honestly don't know.)

But I might not be representative of the general crossword puzzle solving audience.  My fear is that solvers will be expecting something trickier, and this puzzle will feel like a bit of a let down as a result.  I'm writing this before any reviews have been posted, so we shall see.


The first theme entry for this puzzle didn't ultimately make it into the puzzle.  I wanted MAGNUM PI ("Champagne bottle that holds 3.14159... liters?"), but I couldn't find other good symmetric entries with the initials at the end, so I had to change course.

But even after going in a different direction, it took two attempts to get an acceptance.  The first grid I submitted is given below.

I was asked to rework it because of 48-Across -- GI BILL ("Invoice for a karate uniform?").  Neither Joel nor Will had ever heard of a gi.  I didn't mind changing the puzzle, but I was quite surprised, as I thought gis were common knowledge.  Well, maybe not everybody was a fan of MMA back when fighters could wear gis into the ring.

Alright, a few quick bullets and let's call it post.

  • In the first version of my puzzle, noticed that the entry is ID CARD (no plural), so that it is symmetric with GI BILL.  My clue for this was "Item 'played' to explain instinctive, impulsive behavior?", which I think is pretty good (but it doesn't really work in the plural).  I just like the idea of "playing the id card," whenever you do stupid.
  • In one of my early puzzles, I used the clue "'Downton Abbey' maid" for EDNA, and a few solvers complained because there is a much more prominent maid on the show named Anna.  So of course, I used the same clue this time.  I'm glad that it didn't get changed.
  • I'm also glad that my RADIOHEAD clue -- "Band that used a pay-what-you-want model to sell their 2007 album" -- didn't get changed.  I love that they did this, and I love the album -- In Rainbows.  I bought it for however many dollars ten pounds was worth in 2007.
  • A clue I was sad to see is "Annual mystery-writing award" for EDGAR.  That certainly is not my clue.  To me there is only one EDGAR, and he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
[Better than David Ortiz]

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Crossword Coincidence (Crossincidence?)

Below is a grid I submit to Lollapuzzoola just a few months.  It was (kindly) rejected, and I completely forgot about it... until I did today's New York Times puzzle, which is also pictured below.


If you ever think somebody "stole" an idea, keep this example in mind before passing judgement.  Coincidences happen.

[My grid]

[Jim Peredo's NYT grid, courtesy of XWordInfo]

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Scam Artist

Honestly, seeing this crossword puzzle run brings me little joy at the moment.  I’m still depressed about Tuesday’s election.  I mean, I’m fine, I can carry on normally at work and with my family, but taking joy in frivolities like crossword puzzles – I’m just not there yet.  I feel like I got dumped by America.  Seriously, the last time I felt this gutted was in 2004 when my girlfriend at the time left me for another dude.  It was a complicated, long-distance type of thing, and everybody was much better off for it, but at the time I was beyond devastated.

There is a passage somewhere in the book East of Eden – I swear it’s in there, but every time I look for it I can’t find it – in which a catatonically heartbroken Adam Trask is visited by his acquaintance Samuel Hamilton.  And Samuel tells him, basically, to just live his life, to do all the things he usually does, to act as if everything is normal, and then one day he will realize that it is.  It's simple advice, but I've found it to be helpful in tough times.

To this end...

I started this puzzle with THAT'S A BIG IF.  That was my one seed answer.  Then I threw down WELL, SHUT MY MOUTH, which reminds me of Dana Carvey's Church Lady from SNL, which is strange considering I never watched SNL regularly, and that's not even the Church Lady's catchphrase.

 From those two entries, I developed version 1 of this grid.

[Version 1]

It's got some good stuff in it -- JUST YOU WAIT, DE STIJL, PLAYER PIANO.  (Hey, it also has TRASK!  I didn't even notice that when I wrote the previous paragraph.  What a coincidence!)  But I didn't think it was NYT-submission-worthy.  You can probably see why.  RBH, A BLUR, RIS -- these could not stand.  Also, I wasn't sure enough solvers would appreciate BEER SNOB. (Coming of drinking age in the greater Seattle region, where there are dozens and dozens of microbreweries, this phrase is well-ingrained in my vernacular.)  So I redid the grid.

[Version 2]

The problem with this, however, is that I didn't actually improve the puzzle.  Now I had MISADDS, AS A TEAM, and SET AT in the upper-left corner, JODI in the upper-right corner, ENDE in the lower-right, and tons of other bad entries that I failed to clean up all over the puzzle.  There are the tortured plurals ARNOS and ETHS (one of each is bad enough), and then RUTA, which I literally don't even know what it is.  Also, THE ELVIS (a peanut butter and banana sandwich), an entry I really liked at first, now looked much iffier than BEER SNOB.  This wouldn't do either.

So, I apparently made another version.  

[Version 3]

I say "apparently" because I honestly don't remember making this version.  It was just there in my folder among all the previous versions.  So I don't know why I didn't make it the final version.  Maybe I just thought I could beat it?  I don't know.  

[Great song off of The White Stripes album "De Stijl"]

I did finally scratch DE STIJL and rework the grid.  I was very hesitant to do this because I really liked the entry DE STIJL.  But as another constructor (I can't remember who) once wrote, YAHOO -- You Always Have Other Options.  Don't get too attached to an answer that doesn't fit.  You end up making four versions of your puzzles if you do.

[Final version]

Okay, a few bullets before I go.
  • As I mentioned at XWordInfo, I don't love the clue "Hook remover, perhaps" for NOSE JOB because it evokes the term "hooked-nose."  Is it just me or is this a pejorative term?  Maybe it's just me because no dictionary I've seen has it marked as such.  It's certainly not something I would ever say to describe somebody.
  • Speaking of XWordInfo, Jeff Chen had mostly good things to say about this puzzle, but he balked at EVILEST.  I didn't even think twice about this entry.  I guess "most evil" sounds more natural, but if somebody said "evilest" I don't think I would notice anything out of the ordinary.
  • I hate when OSH is clued through OshKosh B'Gosh, because it's only part of a word.  I prefer the Kyrgyzstan city, even if it is kind of obscure.
  • It really is JUST DESERTS.  Desert is an archaic term for something deserved.  It's not "just desserts" although that kinda makes sense as well.  "You forgot to buy sugar?!  Well, then, you're gonna get some pretty bland cookies.  Enjoy your just desserts!"
  • I always try to clue BOZ through ex-Seahawks linebacker Brian "The Boz" Bosworth, and it always gets changed.  Bosworth was somewhat of a big deal back in the mid-'80s.  He's best known for getting run over by Bo Jackson on a play in the end zone, in which he never actually got run over.  (It's actually a pretty ordinary football play.)  This is going to be the titular tale in a new book I'm (slowly) working on:  Actually... The Truth about Bo and "The Boz" and Ninety-Nine Other Misremembered Sports Tales.  It's a working title.  Ninety-nine might get changed to something much smaller.
  • Speaking of books I've written, you can buy my first (and only) one here.  It's got a perfect five-star rating so far!
And two more things that have little to do with crossword puzzles.
  • Thank you to all the veterans for your service.
  • RIP, Leonard Cohen.  About ten years ago I grabbed his album Songs of Love and Hate off my friend's CD rack and copied it on a whim.  I put it on for the first time on a lonely, rainy night while I was studying for qualifying exams.  I think I listened to it five times in a row.  "Avalanche" was the first song I heard and still my favorite.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It's a Nonstarter

Thank goodness for distractions, right?  If you are like me, you've been completely sucked in to the dark star that is the 2016 presidential race.  It's so depressing, but I can't look away, in part because I genuinely feel it's my civic duty to stay informed, in part because we've just never seen a shitshow like this before.  Half of it is noble patriotism; half of it is base rubbernecking.  Either way, I need something to take my mind off of it for a while.  I have two young boys who wake me up before dawn every morning, so drinking isn't much fun anymore, so I turn to sports and crossword puzzles instead.  The Seahawks won a thriller today, and my 17th puzzle will run in the New York Times tomorrow.  That should tide me over until the third debate Wednesday evening.

Anyway... the puzzle.


Did you know what this word meant before you did this puzzle?  I have to confess that I didn’t know the exact definition even after I had completely finished the grid.  As I was filling in the clues, I got to NONSTARTER and paused and thought, “Wait… What exactly is a nonstarter?”  I had obviously heard the term before, but if you asked me what it meant, I would have guessed something like, “a condition that prevents a deal from being made before negotiations can even begin.”  That’s somewhat close.  My definition is an example of a nonstarter, but it is certainly not the correct definition (“a person, plan, or idea that has no chance of succeeding or being effective”).

But in this case, knowing the precise definition of my revealer wasn’t that important.  What was important was coming up with some good "nonstarters."  Ideally, for this type of puzzle – “What do these seemingly disparate things have in common?” – you want three things:

1.      At least four non-revealer theme entries (three feels a bit skimpy),

2.      Each of these entries relating back to the revealer in a different way,

3.      The revealer providing a legitimate “a-ha” moment (the connection is not known by the solver until the end).

I think (hope) I succeeded in each of these.  Certainly I got 1 – that's just counting.  For 2, I thought of four different definitions of starter – an appetizer, a starter pistol, a car starter, and a first-stringer in sports – and then did my best to come up with the opposite of each of these.  The critics have pointed out that MAIN COURSE and LAST LAP are a bit arbitrary, and I can't disagree with them, especially when it comes to the latter.  I tried to come up with something better than LAST LAP, but couldn't do it.  As for 3, well, I don’t know.  It depends on what solvers think.  (And since it’s a Monday puzzle, many solvers probably won’t think anything, because they will speed-solve it and be done with it, before they even have a chance to process it.)

But overall, I’m pretty pleased with this one.  It’s nothing earth-shattering; it’s likely going to be forgotten a few days from now, but that’s fine.  If solvers think, “Hey, nice little Monday,” and then get on with their days – that’s all I’m really going for.

Alright, time for some bullets.

  • My goal with this puzzle, as with any puzzle, is to make the non-theme fill as lively as possible while keeping the dreck to a minimum.  I think I succeeded in this regard, but you never know.  I’m frequently surprised about what other people consider junk.  It's all subjective.  One entry I would like to have eliminated is C-SPOT.  I’ve never seen or heard it used before as a slang term for a $100 bill (“Benjamin,” yes; “c-spot” no), and when I Google it, the top links have headlines like “Women's Orgasm Woes: Could 'C-Spot' Be the Culprit?”  But C-SPOT, the money term, is in the dictionary, so I ultimately decided I could live with it.

  • ILANA Glazer!  It was only a matter of time before she and/or ABBI (Jacobson) found their way into a New York Times grid.  They are now pretty big stars, and they have unique names with letter combinations that are very nicely suited to crossword puzzle grids.  ILANA with her alternating vowel, consonant pattern might be the best breakthrough for crossword puzzle constructors since OBAMA.

    Their show, “Broad City,” is also hilarious.  I binge-watched the first three seasons in like a week and a half, and I laughed my ass off.  It’s one of those shows that definitely misses its mark sometimes, but even when it does, I often appreciate it in retrospect.  Like, sometimes I’d watch an episode, and think “meh…” but then it would pop into my head randomly later and I would find it hilarious, even though I didn’t laugh at all when I was actually watching it.  Other times I would just crack up the entire show, like when they answered a personal ad to clean an apartment in their underwear, or the time ILANA was conflicted about hooking up with a hot guy because his improv show was so awful, or... well you can watch the show yourself if you want.

  • Shout out to RFK Stadium in my current city of residence, Washington D.C.  It’s pretty rundown, but still a good place to watch a sporting event because the sightlines are so good from the cheap seats.  I saw the Nationals play there several times before their new stadium opened, and contrary to its reputation, it’s actually a great venue for baseball.  The “layered doughnut” shape has gone out of fashion for stadiums, particularly baseball stadiums, because such layouts require big pillars that restrict the views in some seats, but the good thing about it is that if you are sitting in the upper deck you are right on top of the action.  The stadiums today are so spread back that if you are sitting high in the outfield, you are way too far away from the action.  Seriously, I got some bleacher seats to a Nats game recently and was about to try to stream the game on my phone so that I could actually see home plate.  Well, at least I had a $10.50 Coors Lights in which I could drown my sorrows (until my kids woke me up the next morning).

  • Given my jag at the beginning of the entry, “Finishes with fewer votes” is a very apropos clue for LOSES.  Now let’s just hope the correct man loses in November.  I’m talking about Donald Trump, if you didn’t pick up on that.  I hate that guy and really want him to lose.

Friday, September 2, 2016


With the Summer Olympics still fresh in our collective consciousness (not really, but roll with me here) I feel an analogy between crossword puzzle constructing and a track and field event is particularly apt: Crossword puzzle constructing is like competing in the high jump, in that the bar is continually being raised.  Now, before you complain that this is the least original comparison in the history of comparisons, let me add a twist: It's like competing in a new version of the high jump, in which the bar is raised some unknown amount after you jump.  So you might launch with enough initial velocity to pull off a successful jump, only to have your heels clip the bar that moved up a few inches mid-flight.

So too a crossword puzzle constructor might make a themeless puzzle that is perfectly cromulent by the standards of the day, only to watch it deteriorate, relatively speaking, in the exceptionally long queue of accepted New York Times themeless puzzles, while better, more beautiful puzzles are being published throughout Crossworld.  I felt like this happened, to some degree, to some of my early themeless puzzles, so in order to keep up with the Joneses (the Collinses?) I decided to adopt a new strategy: Make better puzzles.  Make puzzles that will still hold up two years after I make them.

To this end, I decided to "cut the crap" from my puzzles.  Of course, there is a certain level of Crosswordese that is always going to be present in any puzzle.  But I'm not talking about the odd OREO or OLEO or ERLE; I'm talking about the things that aren't actually things that we've come to accept in our crossworld puzzles -- things that only people who are well-steeped in crossword argot would have any idea about.  In particular, I've identified five categories of entry I'm trying to eliminate from my puzzles completely:

1) Arbitrary partials.  In yesterday's puzzle there were three such entries -- A PIPE, A DAY, and I LED.  This is three too many for me.  Partials were once a necessary crutch for constructors, but today, with software assistance and massive word lists, I feel confident saying their total elimination from crossword puzzles is possible and would be a net positive.

2) Plural abbreviations that nobody ever actually pluralizes.  PHDS, MBAS, RAS -- plural abbreviations like this are all fine, because people actually use them (e.g., Among the four RAs in Highland Hall there are two future PhDs and two future MBAs).  But can you give me a non-contrived example in which a plural abbreviation like ESTS or STES or ISLS or DECS is used?  No, you cannot.

3) Names in which an ampersand is replaced with the word "AND".  There is so such a root beer brand as A AND W; there is no such a channel as A AND E; and the S AND P is not shorthand for a stock market index.  These things do not exist, so they do not belong in crossword puzzles.

4) Names in which numerals are replaced with words.  This is similar to above.  There was once a spy plane called U-2; there was never one called U-TWO.

5) Random Roman numerals.  This one is the trickiest because I think some Roman numerals are okay -- just not "random" ones.  What makes a Roman numeral random?  To me, it is that it can only be clued through other Roman numerals or through a random year.  For example, CXLI ("10% of MCDX") and MCXI ("45 years after William I invaded England") are both out, but III ("Rocky ___") is fine.  It's a judgement call, but I lean heavily to the side of not using Roman numerals at all.

I bring all this up because this is the first themeless I made with these guidelines in place, and I think it shows.  It's very low word count (just 66 words), and the dreck, I believe, is minimal.  (Some might balk at some of the proper nouns -- ERLE, HEDDA, VESTA, HORAE, NEDS, SALBANDO -- but I've certainly never minded lots of proper nouns in a puzzle.)  So I suspect a solver's opinion of this puzzle will come down to what he or she thinks of the longer answers.  If they think things like ZUGZWANG, ZOOCREW, PARTYFOUL, and HOMESLICE are fun and lively, then they will probably like this puzzle.  If they think these answers are more on the "meh" side, then they probably won't.  I am very curious to see how solvers respond, and I have my fingers crossed that the former camp will be much more populous than the latter.

Adding to the intrigue is that Will and Joel really liked this puzzle.  My initial submission was rejected because half the grid wasn't up to snuff.  So I worked very hard on a revision.  I was hopeful it would be accepted, but I got more than just the typical "Yes!" in response.  Here is what Joel wrote:
This is not just good now, it's great. Maybe your best work yet, actually. The right side is just jam-packed with fresh stuff, and when you pair that with the already stellar left side -- well, we're just really excited to run this.
So at least there are two people who like it.

Alright, before this entry gets too long, let's hit some bullet points and call it a day.

  • I really like the word/concept ZUGZWANG.  As I mentioned at XWordInfo and WordPlay, there is an aspect of compulsion to a zugzwang that I couldn't capture in the clue.  Below is a good example: Whoever's turn it is loses because their only legal moves exposes their pawn to capture.  If you could pass in chess, this would be a stalemate.  But you can't, so it's a zugzwang.

  • There were two articles about crossword puzzles appearing in the mainstream media this week.  I was going to write some thoughts on them in this entry.  But it is already pretty long, so, fearing a "tl;dr" scenario, I put them in a separate post, here.
  • Although I'm a huge baseball history buff, I don't love SAL BANDO's presence in this puzzle.  I don't mind it, but I don't love it either.  I mean, he began his career a half-century ago and isn't an all-time great or anything, so I imagine he is unknown even to many casual baseball fans.  With that said, he was actually a very good ballplayer -- supremely underrated -- and he is one of two baseball Sals who crop up in crossword puzzles from time to time (the other being Sal "The Barber" Maglie), so hardcore solvers were probably able to cull the name "Sal Bando" from the deep recesses of their brains, even if they don't know anything about baseball.
  • I struggled a bit with the clue for HOMESLICE.  I thought about going "Buddy from the block, in dated hip-hop slang," but I thought that would be too easy for Saturday.  Plus, I'm not sure if this term ever really was an authentic part of hip-hop slang.  It seems like it could be something that was only ever used "ironically" by white kids from the suburbs (which is how I know it).  I'm not sure.  And Google isn't much help with this one either.  If you search for "homeslice", you mainly just get links to pizzerias.
  • Below is the grid of my first version of this puzzle.  HOROLOGICAL is boring, but I did have a nice clue for it -- "Like clockwork?"

Bonus bullets:
  • And after I go into great detail about how I tried so very hard to "cut the crap" from this puzzle, what's the biggest complaint mentioned by Jeff Chen at XWordInfo?  "...there was a bit much of the RFD SOC ESTO NSW type of crossword glue for my taste..."  *Sigh.*  I have to say, I don't understand this.  He mentions only four entries, one of which I think is actually a pretty well-known, if old, abbreviation (RFD), and none of the others is terrible.  I stand by it: I think this grid is quite clean, especially for a 66-worder.
  • Well, Amy Reynaldo at Diary of a Crossword Fiend said "mostly the fill is crisp," so I'm rounding that up to her agreeing with me.  Rex Parker didn't really comment about the fill at his blog.  His commentary is much more goofy than critical.  I guess that's better than getting panned.  Interestingly, both he and Amy found it easy for a Saturday, while Jeff found it exceptionally difficult -- different strokes, I guess.

Two Articles About Crossword Puzzles In Mainstream Media

Two articles about crossword puzzles in the main stream media this week.  I have some thoughts on them.

The first is an article in FiveThirtyEight by Oliver Roeder about indie crossword puzzles.  It's mainly just an overview of the current state of indie puzzles, but because it's FiveThirtyEight it tries to use data to make a point about indie puzzles being preferred by solvers.  It has a table of the "Most highly rated crosswords" according to the blog Diary of a Crossword Fiend, which, if you're familiar with said blog, you probably recognize is quite silly.  It's an excellent blog (go Amy!), and I think it's very cool that it got a shout-out, but there is no way that its ratings should be used in any serious analysis about the popularity of crosswords.

Looking at the results from a random day, all of 32 people rated the New York Times puzzle, and that was at least 11 more any other any other puzzle.  Many puzzles routinely get rated by a number of solvers in the single digits or low double digits.  So you are not just talking about a relatively small subset of crossword puzzle solvers -- those who visit the website -- but an even smaller subset among this small subset who actually rate the puzzles.  Plus, the most highly rated crossword on the list is Matt Gaffney's weekly meta puzzle.  It should at least be mentioned that the table includes several different types of puzzles, published at different frequencies, so it's not a straightforward, apples-to-apples comparison.  The author does give a parenthetical caveat, stating that the data "come from a highly selected sample," but an acknowledgement of bad data doesn't magically make it good data from which meaningful inferences can be drawn.

With that said, I'm not trying to be a hater, I enjoyed reading the article and found it both interesting and informative.  My own feeling is that I love indie puzzles, but this love manifests itself in theory much more than it does in practice.  As a solver, I rarely do indie puzzles.  I'm not a fanatical solver, and I only have the time and desire to do one crossword puzzle a day, so I do the New York Times every morning, and then that's about it.  (I also do the Saturday, themeless LA Times puzzle.)  I readily concede that many of the indie puzzles are "better" on average than that of the New York Times, but I like the ritual of solving the NYT puzzle, and I like the communal experience of solving the same puzzle, on the same day as many other people.  The New York Times is still the best for this.

As a constructor, I would love to make indie puzzles and put them up on my own little website for my own little following, but what I've found is that I don't have what it takes to make this happen.  Whether it's poor marketing or lousy networking or lack of patience, there is something in my personality that prevents me from being an effective indie constructor.  I actually tried it for a while.  I had a Seahawks blog, on which I also posted puzzles, but I didn't know how to get eyeballs on it, and I had little interest in figuring it out, so the whole endeavor went kaput.  I found I like it much better when I can make a puzzle and sell it to somebody else who already has the infrastructure in place to disperse it to the masses.  I'm a crossword puzzle mercenary.

Although, I mostly just submit to the New York Times now.  My feeling is I want the most people to do my puzzle as possible.  I'm egotistical that way.  Also, I've been having a much higher success rate of late with submissions to The Gray Lady than I did in the past, so I figure I might as well ride this quasi-hot streak as long as I can.

Anyway, the other article, also by Oliver Roeder, this one in Slate, was about Thursday's New York Times puzzle by noted indie constructor Ben Tausig.  It was a "Schrödinger puzzle," in which four squares could take either the letter M or F and still be correct, and then the big reveal running across the center of the puzzle was GENDER FLUID.  So the M/F squares are supposed to represent the gender fluidity -- the movement between male and female -- some people experience.  It was a nice puzzle.  I enjoyed it.  I also thought it was way overrated.

The Slate article called the puzzle "One of the Most Important Crosswords in New York Times History" in the title, and even if we dismiss this as click bait-y sensationalism, the article itself was also quite hyperbolic.

For one thing, the article touts the newness of the puzzle.  But it wasn't really anything that new.  It's true that the particular phrase GENDER FLUID had never been used in a puzzle before, but cool words and phrases make their puzzle debuts all the time -- and this includes plenty of words and phrases in the LGBTQ argot.  The New York Times crossword puzzle and its editor, Will Shortz, get a lot of grief from various critics (chief among them Rex Parker) for being tone-deaf to certain terms or for overly representing an old, white, male point of view -- and I often agree with such criticism -- but it is not fair to say that Will is unwilling to extend the boundaries of mainstream crossword puzzles and include new vocabulary from different walks of society and culture.  In my experience, he's actually quite open to this.

The two things about it, however, are (1) the puzzles are very much tailored to Will's taste, and he's an older white guy, so everything gets passed through the old white guy filter, which doesn't exactly facilitate diversity (if he had a co-editor who was, say, a woman of color, the "tone-deafness" would probably ebb drastically), and (2) the NYT puzzle moves extremely slowly.  It's usually a few years behind the times.  So when a new term is coined or the connotation of a word changes, it will typically be a long time before this is reflected in a puzzle.  For example, it wasn't until this year that the term CIS was clued as "Modern prefix with gender" instead of the stodgy "U.S.S.R.'s successor."

Nevertheless, there are loads of LGBTQ terms that have appeared in the NYT puzzle before.  A few examples are GAY FRIENDLY, GAY PRIDE, GAYBORHOOD, LGBT, BICURIOUS, QUEER EYE, and TRANS.  Even TRANSGENDERED has been in an NYT puzzle before.  Although I'm not sure that one helps my case being that the clue was "Like some cross-dressers."  Yikes!  The conflation of cross-dressing with transgenderism -- that is... bad.  But, you see my point: GENDER FLUID is a terrific entry for an NYT puzzle, but it's not one that is particularly groundbreaking.

The other thing about this puzzle is that on a technical level it's merely adequate.  Ideally, with Schrödinger puzzles, the clue should be able to "stand alone" with either of the possible answers.  For instance, "Old-seeming" works brilliantly for [F/M]USTY because that is a realistic clue for FUSTY or for MUSTY.  Also, "Word that can precede sex" is good for SA[F/M]E.  But something like "Tough stuff to walk through" for [F/M]IRE is iffy, because although it works for MIRE that would never be a clue for FIRE (is fire "stuff?") .  And "Reveal a secret, say" for [F/M]ESSUP is really contrived, because that clue would never be used for either of those answers by itself.  I found most of the Schrödinger clues in this puzzle to be much more on the "contrived" side than the "brilliant" side.  Of course, making a Schrödinger puzzle is really hard, so I really appreciate the constructor's effort.  He did a decent job, but he didn't totally nail it.

So what we have is a puzzle with a very cool, very creative theme, competent constructed despite an extremely high degree of difficult.  This puzzle is something  I would be very proud of if I constructed it.  It's a good puzzle.  But that's all.