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.

Weird.

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.


Nonstarter.

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

Zugzwang


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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

In Silent Lucidity

[Final version]

I do believe I set a personal record on this one for most full-scale reworks of a grid before final acceptance.  What appeared in today's New York Times (see above) was Grid #4.  I've certainly redone little sections of a puzzle over and over again countless times.  But as far as major changes go, I don't think I've done more than two version, maybe three, but never four.  Until now...

My initial grid is given below.  I had it completely clued up, converted to Word documents, and ready to print out and mail off to Will.

[Version 1]

But I didn't actually do it because I didn't like UNVOICED and NONVOCAL.  They're boring.  I felt I needed something snazzier in those spots, so I came up with the idea of using words that follow SILENT, but cluing them as if the SILENT was actually there.  In effect, the SILENT would be silent.  This later got changed to a more straightforward version, in which the circles (or shaded squares) are explicitly referenced in the clue.  It is a little different, but the basic idea is the same, and I'm not sure the solver would have appreciated the "silent SILENT" aspect anyway.

This gave me the grid below, which I submitted.

[Version 2]

And it was accepted, but with a nontrivial revision needed.  Can you guess why?  I knew why before I even sent it.  It's the COACH K, ANSARI, KID CUDI section.  That's just too much not-super-famous, know-it-or-you-don't pop culture for one section.  I highly suspected this would be the case before I submitted it, but I decided to try it anyway, because I like this version.  I like puzzles steeped in pop culture and proper nouns.  That's kinda my thing.  I figured I might as well own it, and at least try to do it the way I like it best.

But that's why editors exist.  Will thought a lot of solvers would find that section unfair/undesirable, and, judging by comments I've received on some of my more pop culture-heavy puzzles in the past, he's almost certainly right.  Fair enough.

Let's try it again.

[Version 3]

Very close, but this grid also has a problem -- well, not so much a problem as a small infelicity.  Can you see it?  It's the pair of symmetric cheater squares by AKIN and INGA.  I've actually never known Will to be particularly bothered by cheater squares, so I was a bit surprised when he asked me to try to remove them.  I certainly would have appreciated it if he told me to do this before I redid the grid, but, to be fair, he did say that he would accept this grid as is if removing the cheater squares proved to be too much of a challenge.  But what would it say about my constructing skills if I couldn't meet Will's request?  Of course I was going to remove them now.

So I did.  And I finally got the final version.  I'm mostly happy with how it came out.  I would have liked to get more exciting answers in the long down slots containing COLORING and NONBASIC, but the theme really constrained those areas.  FANZINES and FAIR GAME are decent entries, though, and there is very little dreck in this grid.  The only answer I really don't like is NITA Naldi.  Apparently she was a pretty big star in her day, but her day was a pretty long time ago.

Alright, some bullets, and then that will be that.
  • Is the first L in LLAMA really a silent letter?  Couldn't you just as easily say it's the second L?  Or say that LL is a common letter combination that makes an L-sound, the same way GH sometimes makes an F-sound, so neither L is silent?  I spent way too long thinking about this.  Ultimately, I deemed LLAMA was okay as stands, because our convention with LLAMA seems to be that the first L is silent.  As evidence, see the screenshot below, snipped from the Cruciverb database:
  • As a parent of two relatively new boys (three and nine months), I'm glad my clue for COLIC -- "Woe for newborns (and thus new parents as well)" -- made the cut.
  • Lots of personal likes for me in this one.  I loved Rob REINER's movie Stand By Me as a kid; I very much enjoy Sissy SPACEK's work in Bloodline; and Downton Abbey (with maid EDNA Braithwaite) was probably the show my wife and I most agreed on.  Although, come to think of it, I've never seen TORA Tora Tora; I'm not a huge fan of EMILIO Estivez's oeuvre (I'm about five years too young to have experienced peak "Brat Pack"); I've never seen OLIVIA Wilde in House (because I've never seen House, period); I don't have a particular affinity for ANI DiFranco; and I would have no idea who NITA Naldi was if not for crossword puzzles.  So perhaps my likes are actually outweighed by my dislikes/don't cares.
  • Oh, but I also love Claude AKINS.  In fact, I run a FANZINE for The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.  You should check it out.  (Ha-ha, tricked you!  Now you have to buy one.)
  • Here is a quote from Jeff Chen over at XWordInfo: "It would have risen to the very top of my list of favorite silent letter puzzles if the down answer[s] also [were silent]. I'm 95% sure that'd be impossible to pull off though, given how many crossings you'd need to fix in place. Ah well, a guy can dream."  95%?  For me it was 100%.  I tried.  I really tried.
  • I'm seeing a comment online that the puzzle was too easy.  I agree!  This should have been a Wednesday.  And if it was I would have completed the "NYT Day of the Week Cycle."  Oh well.
  • Before I go, I will leave you with Queensryche's Silent Lucidity.  I really hate this song.

Until next time...

Update: Lin-Manuel Miranda responded to a tweet referencing my puzzle!  How cool is this?  Do you think this could be my in for tickets?




Sunday, June 5, 2016

Indie 500 2016 Recap: Menito Mussolini

The second annual Indie 500 crossword puzzle tournament was held yesterday here in Washington, D.C.  I competed in it, just as I did last year, bringing my career grand total number of tournaments up to two.  I would love to compete in other tourneys, but with two small boys, just getting out of the house to go downtown for one day is a big deal.  One day I'll compete in more tournaments.  That day might be 18 years from now, but it will come.

I finished 30th out of 77 participants in the "Outside Track" (i.e., the JV division).*  But my ranking is not the important part.  The lede of the story of the tournament is that it was awesome!  Seriously.  I had a blast.  I had fun last year too, but this year was more fun for a variety of reasons.  The biggest one is that I met more people.  It is a very welcoming community, and I shook hands and made small talk with a bunch of friendly folks -- bloggers, fellow constructors, general crossword puzzle enthusiasts, etc.  It was great.  I've had several puzzles run in the NY Times over the last few months (another one coming up this Thursday), which I think helped facilitate interactions, as I had a few people come up and tell me they recognized my name from bylines.  This was very cool.  There are few better feelings than having somebody you've never met come up and tell you they like your work.  Bringing some joy -- no matter how small -- to other people lives is my definition of success as a constructor.  If that comes off as sappy or pretentious, please know I mean it in the most earnest and humble way possible. 

Anyway, let's have a look at the puzzles, shall we?

Puzzle 1: Peter Broda and Lena Webb


Because I don't have the speed to compete with the top solvers, even in the JV division, I set a goal for myself this year to finish all the puzzles without any errors.  I failed within the first ten minutes of the tournament.  As you can see above I put MFA/MENITO, when it should be BFA/BENITO.  The across answer could very easily have been MFA (master of fine arts, as opposed to bachelor of fine arts), but Mussolini's first name -- the clue for the down entry -- was most definitely not MENITO.  The problem here is that Mussolini's first name didn't come to mind initially, so I thought "I don't know it; it could be anything," but I actually did know it, and had I taken ten seconds to think about it, I would've come up with the correct answer, BENITO.  Plus, even if I didn't know it, BENITO is an actual name (Benito Santiago was 1987 NL Rookie of the Year, after all); MENITO isn't.  I realized my error about 30 seconds after handing in my puzzle.  Few things are more frustrating than this.  Grrr....

Despite my error, this is probably my favorite puzzle of the tournament.  The theme is simple -- THAT'S MY JAM is the revealer, and each of the theme entries are songs that start with types of jams (e.g., RASPBERRY BERET) -- but well executed and the puzzle was just plain fun.

Puzzle 2: Andy Kravis and Neville Fogarty


I filled this one in correctly, but on the slow side.  The theme was prom-based puns, so, for instance, one clue had something to do with a limo and the answer was IT'S A STRETCH.  I'm not anti-pun, but they have to be done really well for me to appreciate them.  They need to be at least mildly funny, and they need to feel "natural."  These puns didn't quite land for me.  They were amusing enough, but they felt too contrived.  Also, could have done without the extended 17x17 grid, but whatever -- decent enough puzzle.     

Puzzle 3: Sam Trabucco



This was the puzzle of the bunch that I didn't really care for, and, yet, ironically, it is the puzzle I scored the best on relative to the competition.  I didn't make a single mistake (two in a row!), and I narrowly missed scoring in the top-10 in my division.  I would have finished in the top-10 easily, if I turned in my puzzle as soon as I finished (and gave it a quick error check).  But I sat there for an extra 30 seconds or so trying to figure out if I missed something in the theme.  I didn't; it's just that the theme doesn't really make sense to me.

The idea is that somebody has poor reception on a cell phone, and it is making their words that have silent letters be misinterpreted as different words pronounced as if they didn't have silent letters.  For example, the clue for 1-Across was something like "Military unit (Hold on, I'm going through a tunnel...)."  The answer is then CORPSE, because it is pronounced the way CORPS (a military unit) would be pronounced if it didn't have a silent S.  Another example, is OTTOMAN was given a clue as if it is AUTUMN (again with the parenthetical reference to a bad connection), because the latter would be pronounced like the former if it didn't have a silent N.  Then there was the revealer CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW in the middle of the grid.

The silent letter piece is clever, but I don't understand the connection to bad phone service.  I guess it is supposed to be that in the call, the letter that should be pronounced is dropped making it sound like a different word.  But if that's the case, doesn't it seem like the clues and entries are backward?  It seems to me the constructor is playing the part of the caller, actively talking to us, the passively receiving solver (after all, we don't know what to say; it's not our puzzle).  So since that's the case, it seems to me that the constructor should be providing the words with the non-silent letters (via clues), and we the solvers should be hearing the silent letter version (via entries in the grid).  Or maybe I'm overthinking it or missing something completely.  Whatever the case, if the theme is not immediately obvious to the solver even after it's revealed, then it should probably be reworked.

And I don't think I'm alone on feeling this way.  Several people I spoke with expressed similar confusion.  In fact, I heard one guy talking to the constructor about it, and it was a very strange conversation to overhear, because the guy said some unflattering things about the puzzle, but he did so in such a legitimately naive and good-natured way that the constructor couldn't (and didn't seem to) take offense.

None of this, of course, is written with any disrespect toward the constructor, Sam, who is a good constructor (and this puzzle was specifically chosen from multiple submissions to be in the competition, so some well-respected crossword puzzle people must have really liked it).  It is just that not every puzzle hits the mark for every solver.  This one missed for me.  That's okay.

Puzzle 4: Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan


This one was the longest and hardest of the bunch.  But it was good-- almost really good.  The revealer was a bit blah, and it didn't quite work for me to tie everything together.  The theme idea is very clever: Each of the three across clues in certain rows must be proceeded by "One," "Two," and "Three" for them to make sense.  For example, where it says PODUNK, BATMAN, and MONTE, the respective clues are "Horse town,"  "Face rival," and "Card ___."  So the solver has to mentally add in, "one, two, three" to these clues.  Like I said, clever.  But the revealer COUNTINGOFF is... eh... kinda weak.  I would have liked something livelier.  The title of the puzzle referenced a waltz, and maybe it would have been better to use waltz somehow in the revealer instead.  It's not a huge criticism, however, as the puzzle mostly works.

I also finished this one without errors -- just.  There was under three minutes remaining on the clock out of 45 minutes total.  My big issue was an incorrect answer that seemed absolutely right.  (Hate it when this happens.)  The clue was "Fencing partner?" and I had ART THEFT instead of the correct answer ART THIEF.  Both work conceptually.  The clue is a reference to the crime of fencing, and ART THEFT is a partner of fencing (i.e., a crime related to fencing), and ART THIEF is a partner in fencing (i.e, one who facilitates fencing).  This mistake -- along with not knowing the chatspeak term TTFN (ta-ta for now) -- caused me to stroke my chin in confusion for a solid 15 minutes, literally.  I was literally stroking my chin (see pic), and it literally took me 15 minutes (at least) to figure it out.  But figure it out I did.  And I was happy about that.  Moral victories, see.

[Pic was posted to the Facebook profile of Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle.  Big thanks to the photographer (Rex's/Michael's wife Penelope, I believe) for documenting this event so thoroughly.  All the pics are great!]


Puzzle 5: Everybody



This one was a hodge-podge of theme entries from the previous four puzzles.  It was super loosey-goosey, but it worked in the context for which it was created.  It's like at the end of a show featuring several bands, when all the bands get up on stage together and rock out for a little while.  The music created is probably inferior to that by each band individually, but the crowd still enjoys it because it is a final celebration of the experience they've just enjoyed together.  That's how this puzzle played for me.  It was fun.

Anyway, that was the tournament.  There was the final puzzle, of course, and I actually solved it faster than the people on stage.  Of course, I had a huge advantage that I was looking at both sets of clues (the final puzzle is the same for both divisions, but the clues are different).  It is remarkable how much that helps.  I watched the finals -- Christopher Stephens won the Outside Track and Roger Barkan won the Inside Track -- but then I split ASAP.  Kids, remember?

Alright, that's all I got for the Indie 500 2016.  Until next time...

*It's called this because the Indie 500 had a car theme last year.  But this year, it had a prom theme, so I think they should have modified the divisions accordingly -- "Cool Kids" and "Wallflowers?"  Something like that.  Of course, it is still called the Indie 500, so maybe the track designation is still appropriate.