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.

Friday, May 27, 2016

First Friday



My first Friday.  It’s fine Friday fare, nothing fantastically fabulous, but I feel it’s fairly fun.  With its publication, I now only need a Wednesday puzzle to complete the New York Times “cross cycle” (a puzzle published on each day of the week).  For the past year or so, I’ve been submitting puzzles I think are Wednesday worthy, but they either get rejected or they run on a different day.  I have a puzzle set to appear in a few weeks that I thought -- nay, prayed -- would run on Wednesday, but it’s going to be a Thursday.  Dang!  C’mon, Mr. Shortz, help a fella out!

Anyway, although I feel my best themeless puzzles are still in the queue, I like this one okay.  It’s got a nice debut entry (NOTAGBACKS), a few other zippy long answers (e.g., WHATAJERK, WAXESPOETIC), and not a ton of crud (with one notable exception, discussed below).  What else can you ask for?  I have a feeling the “too many proper nouns!” / “who’s ever heard of x?!” / “crossword puzzles aren’t supposed to be trivia contests!” crowd is not going to be particularly fond of this one.  So I've formulated a preemptive response to these anti-name scolds: (a) the proper nouns in this puzzle are at least spread out over many different aspects of culture; you’ve got Shakespeare, classical music, pop music, world leaders, sports, TV, art, and literature – they cut a pretty broad swath, no?; (b) I like proper nouns in my puzzle; (c) despite (b), I have made a concerted effort to limit the amount of proper nouns I use in my puzzles; this one was submitted before I received any feedback from my previous puzzles and before I had a puzzle rejected for the express reason that it contained too many names.


The non-proper noun NOTAGBACKS was my one and only seed entry in this puzzle.  SKINFLICKS came next off the K.  I like this crossing, because it takes me back to my childhood.  NOTAGBACKS because I have fond memories of playing tag in my neighborhood (we used to say, “back back no tag backs” for some reason); SKINFLICKS because I also have fond memories of going to the video store and trying to pick out the raciest movie I could find that my parents would still let me rent.  It was a simple joy, a delightfully tricky challenge of which kids today will never know.  I mean, I don't think video rental stores even exist anymore.


My success rate of scoring genuinely dirty movies was essentially nil, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  The best I ever did was I once convinced my parents to rent Revenge of the Nerds.  But there was one big catch: They insisted on watching it with me.  To this day, those two hours still rank quite highly on my “Most Awkward Moments of My Life” list.  Also, Revenge of the Nerds is a terrible movie with an awful message.  A group of nerds are rejected by the jocks and the hot chicks who date the jocks, so they respond with some hilarious high-jinks, like setting up secret cameras in a sorority so that they can record women disrobing.  Funny!  You just have to ignore the fact that in real life that's stalking, and it's actually a very serious crime.  And then at the end of the movie the main nerd rapes the main jock’s girlfriend, but everything is cool, because she thought he was really good in bed!  This is actually what happens.  Arthur Chu wrote a really good article a few years back that touches on this.  It is still worth a read.

So renting Revenge of the Nerds turned out to be a failure, and I don't remember scoring any other off-color rentals.  The skin flick I was always most intrigued by was Flesh Gordon.  (With a name like that, how could I not be?)  I used to stare at its cover -- always to the left of Fletch in the comedy section -- in wonder.  I knew my parents would never let me rent it, so I told myself that once I was old enough, I would get it for sure.  But, of course, once I actually was old enough to rent it on my own, I had little desire to do so – just like I also didn’t want to eat an entire box of Garfield Fruit Snacks and drink a case of Hi-C...  You know, I wonder if Flesh Gordon is available on Netflix.  Maybe I’ll rent it sometime.  Maybe it will be really campy and funny.  Or maybe it will be terrible, and I’ll wish I had spent those precious hours of free time doing something I actually enjoy.  Yeah, that one is much more likely.



Alright, I think I’ve gone far enough astray from the ostensible topic of this post (my puzzle).  Let’s hit a few bullet points and call it a day.

  • Overall the cluing feels a bit musty me -- too straightforward.  It needs a little more pizzazz, some zig and some zag.  I was going to blame Will and Joel for this, but in looking at my original submission, I see they changed a relatively small percentage of the clues.  The mundanity is almost entirely on me.
  • The counter to my point above is that I've found solvers rarely complain about clues that are too straightforward.  The opposite reaction is much more common, whereby solvers complain clues are too clever by half or trying too hard or too obscure.  When in doubt, play it down the middle.  But I think it's possible to be too down the middle.  It's a tricky balancing act, and I don't think I quite got it right with this one.  Live and learn.
  • My least favorite entry in this puzzle is APIE, by far.  I think it and SSR are the only big liabilities in the puzzle.  Jeff Chen at XWord info disagrees, also calling out AME, INICE, LALA, and ESO.  I see these more as neutral, or, at least, something between neutral and liability.  Although, I would like to see La La Anthony get some puzzle love (my clue for LALA) -- a person with 500K Google hits is much better than nonsense syllables, in my mind.
  • Actually, INICE is a liability too, if only because ONICE is such a more frequently used phrase.  In this particular instance, it is especially unfortunate because it crosses GILLS ("Half-cup measures"), leading to a possible GOLLS/ONICE error.  (A few people, including Jeff, said they made this very mistake.)  What happened is that I tried for a clever clue for GILLS ("Measures for people whose cups are half-full?"), but Will/Joel nixed the pun.  That's fine, but in that case, I'd much, much rather go with a clue that references fish, so that it's something the solver knows for sure.
  • Actually actually, in retrospect, I would probably do away with GILLS altogether and make it GOLDS.  That would give us the superior ONICE, but it would also require changing ULNAS to EDNAS, which is a downgrade.  (Plural names = meh.)  The main reason I didn't do this is because I didn't want the dupe ONICE and ONEND so close together, but this is a silly reason as solvers rarely notice/care about dupes like this.  Live and learn.
  • In my previous puzzle, I used WILLACATHER, so it was cool to get OPIONEERS into this one.  I would love to tell you I’m a huge Willa Cather fan and have read all her work, but the truth is I had never even heard of her prior to her inclusion in my last puzzle.  I did, however, read her Wikipedia page, which, although surely not as substantial as the novels she wrote, is still pretty interesting.
  • Speaking of writers.  I'm a wannabe writer myself.  In fact, I recently wrote a book about baseball that word nerds might enjoy.  (It's got a review on Amazon!  And I don't think it's from a family member!)  You should buy it, even if you have no interest in the subject -- just put it on your bookshelf.  It looks nice; the cover is very close to ETON blue.
Until next time...

PS -- I notice there is some debate about "real trooper" vs. "real trouper".  I think the former is correct for the purposes of a standalone idiom.  Perhaps it should be trouper, grammatically, but the phrase "real trooper" has been co-opted by the general public, in a way that "real trouper" hasn't.  See the screenshot below:


I rest my case.

Friday, March 25, 2016

And If the Sun Comes Up Tomorrow, Let Her Be, Let Her Be

Another crossword puzzle of mine was published in the New York Times today.  Good.  I’m slowly reaching my goal of becoming a “famous” constructor.  I doubt I will ever reach Elizabeth Gorski level – she’s the Leonhard Euler of crossword puzzle construction – but I would like to get to the point where every solver who cares about bylines recognizes my name, says “Oh, him again,” and then either smiles or sighs depending on their taste.


I submitted this puzzle about a year and a half ago, which is a pretty typical turnaround time for one of my themeless puzzles.  I groused a few entries ago about the lag time from submission to publication in the New York Times, because I feel like it causes a misrepresentation of my current constructing skills.  I don't feel that way as strongly with this puzzle, but the sentiment is still there a bit.  To use a sports analogy: I feel like I'm nearing my prime, but solvers are doing my rookie year puzzles.

To take the comparison further, consider the career of retired baseball pitcher Randy Johnson.*  In the early ‘90s, he was decent enough ballplayer -- a legit major league starter, but not a star.  He threw a few great games and showed promise, but he was inconsistent and wild.  So he worked on his control, and within a few years he was one of the best pitchers in the game.  Now imagine it is 1993 -- Johnson’s first great season -- but instead of seeing what’s happening in the current season, baseball fans can only see his games from two years earlier, 1991.  Nobody will see his 1993 season until 1995, when he will be in the midst of an even better season.  That would be a bit frustrating for Johnson, right?  That’s how I feel.  And, yes, I am aware that I just compared myself to one of the greatest players in baseball history.  I’m cool with that.


[Randy Johnson's killer fastballer.  Don't watch if you really love birds.]

Anyway…

This puzzle is my first published attempt at a super low word count puzzle.  It’s only 64 words (52 of which are longer than four letters), but filling it in was less daunting than one might think, because of the four Tetris-looking blocks of cheater squares.  I think the staircase pattern helps as well.  Honestly, this isn’t my favorite grid layout in the world, but I think it’s a nice changeup (keeping the baseball theme going) to the typical stack-heavy themeless patterns.  It’s something different, which is good.  You gotta throw off the solver's timing once in a while -- mix it up.



I’m mostly happy with the way it turned out, but it does have a few cringe-worthy parts that I might have been able to eliminate if I made it today.  My least favorite part is the EAPOE, SATANS, RATINE section.  That’s an abbreviated name on top of a random possessive on top of an obscure, boring word.  That's not great.  Then there is SAR on STER, which is less offensive, but also ugly.  But that one is pretty well cooked into the puzzle.  The EAPOE part I might be able to extricate and replace with something better.  But then again maybe not.  That was the last part of the puzzle I filled in, and it took me a very long time, so maybe that area is just thorny and there will be compromises no matter what.  Plus, it is holding together the SATINSHEETS/MEMORYHOLE crossing, which I quite like.  SATINSHEETS reminds me of the Madonna song “Express Yourself” (Satin Sheets are very romantic, but what happens when you’re not in bed…), and MEMORYHOLE reminds me of the Savage Lovecast.  Of course, it is originally from 1984 (pretty good book -- although I think Orwell got it all wrong on mass surveillance, but that's a whole other topic), but that is not where I got it.  As I explain in my XWord Info notes:

I had MEMORY???? for the longest time and kept cycling through various options (e.g., MEMORYCARD, MEMORYLANE), but couldn't get anything to work right. Then one night I was working on the puzzle listening to Dan Savage's "Savage Lovecast," and a woman called Dan saying she had a one-off affair, asking if she should tell her husband about it. Dan told her that if she thought she would never do it again then she should not tell him and instead she should slide it down her "memory hole." How serendipitous! Who knew marital infidelities could aid the construction of crossword puzzles?



OK, let’s hit some bullets and call it a post.

  • According to Jim Horne at XWord Info, this grid pattern has been used one other time, 18 years ago.  It is the grid with the fewest words in the Crossword Compiler library (in my version, at least).
  • Hootie & The Blowfish were inescapable my sophomore year of high school.   I never really liked them -- kinda sappy -- but whenever I hear their songs now I get all nostalgic.  I was happy to debut LETHERCRY in a puzzle. 
  • Speaking of sappy, nostalgia-inducing songs, I originally clued CETERA as "'Glory of Love' singer Peter".  I suspected it would get changed, but I had to try.  I fucking love that song.  I am a man who would fight for your h-o-n-or...
  • MOMJEANS was my only seed entry.  It was inspired by our president.  And I thought the clue for it -- "What some women are waist-high in" -- was pretty good.  I think Will changed it a bit, but I'm pretty sure I came up with the gist of it.
  • Late entry, but I've been noticing that the initial feedback from blog commenters on this puzzle has been mostly positive, and yet Rex Parker panned it (Amy liked it though).  Interesting.  The truth of the matter is that I still have no idea which of my puzzles people will like and which ones they will dislike.
Alright, that's it for this entry.

*Speaking of Randy Johnson, he has a very underrated double-entendre name.  Think about it: Randy Johnson.  One of the great tragedies in baseball history is that, despite playing in the same league for nearly half a decade, Randy Johnson never faced off against longtime Twins outfielder Randy Bush.  You can read more about Mr. Johnson, Mr. Bush, and plenty of other players with great names (even some you can't make juvenile puns about) in my terrific book Urban Shocker All-Stars: The 100 Greatest Baseball Names Ever.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

It's Not Plagiarism; It's a Sequel Puzzle: '90s Fads

I didn't plagiarize anybody, but I did borrow a theme idea from myself.


On June 26, 2006, a puzzle of mine ran in the NYT with the theme '80s fads.  (It was chosen as one of "Will Shortz's Favorite Puzzles," which I point out only for context -- the context being that I want to brag.)  Since that was just about 10 years, I figured -- hey, why not a '90s fads puzzle?  Devoid of a decent answer, I decided to make such a puzzle.  I always liked the idea of a crossword puzzle sequel, anyway.  In fact, I would love it if I could keep going with this theme every decade, but I think it will end here.  The '00s don't feel like a "thing" in the same way as the other decades.

[Can you name each of the '90s music artists below?]






With a theme this broad, the key is finding the right mix of theme answers.  I wanted fads from different categories, which I think I achieved (toys, TV/hair, apparel, and music), and from different cultures, which I didn't quite achieve, because there isn't a hip-hop fad.  Being that hip-hop was a huge part of the '90s, this is a nontrivial omission.  But I just couldn't get a distinctly '90s hip-hop fad to fit in the grid (OVERALLSWITHONESTRAPUNDONE is way too long).  I tried.

Actually, at one point I had HAMMERPANTS in the grid, but I deleted it when I realized that MC Hammer's first big album Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em wasn't technically released in the '90s.  Except it was.  I got confused because I saw somewhere that MC Hammer performed his megahit single "U Can't Touch This" on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1989, and he did, but it was a "sneak peek" before the studio version was released on his album in January of 1990.  So it's legit '90s after all! (Some might say 2 legit.)  But by the time I realized this, my puzzle had already been accepted.  Oh well, c'est la vie...  And by the way, today MC Hammer is a bit of a joke (because of things like this video), but the dude was hot back in the day.  I have distinct memories of kids trying to copy his dance moves on the playground in middle school.  I was never much of a dancer, but I bet I could still rap all of "U Can't Touch This" if you got me started.

My, my music hits me so hard, makes me say "Oh, my lord"...



Somewhat interestingly I never partook in any of the fads I used in this puzzle.  I never owned a Tamagotchi pet (I think real pets are a waste of time, never mind fake ones); I never sported "The Rachel" hairstyle (I wasn't a huge Friends fan, although I used to watch it on occasion); despite kinda being a wannabe grunge kid (almost by default, I grew up near Seattle) I never owned a pair of Dr. Martens; and I didn't even know who sang "Macarena" until I wrote the clue for this puzzle.  I did, however, once read the English translation of the lyrics.  They don't make much sense.  I'm not sure if something is lost in translation, or if it's just a nonsensical song.  But being that "Macanera" was named by VH1 the "greatest one-hit wonder" of all-time, I'm leaning toward the latter.  Here is the English translation of my favorite verse:

Macarena has a boyfriend who's called...
who's called the last name Vitorino,
and while he was taking his oath as a conscript
she was giving it to two friends ...Aaay!
(repeat once)
I like how it's repeated once.  The listeners really need to understand Macarena's relationship with Vitorino and how she was catting around on him with two friends while he was taking an oath as a conscript (?).  I'm glad that Los del Rios drove this point home with a second telling.



Well, I think this post has more or less run its course.  Let's end with a few parting shots.

  • Does 14-Across have an inaccuracy in the clue?  I think the Wham-O toy is stylized Slip'N Slide without a space between the apostrophe and the N.  (This is how I submitted it.)  On the product page, this is how it is written in the heading and in the logo on its box.  However below this it says Slip ‘N Slide® with a space before the apostrophe, so I'm not sure.
  • My original clue for FIVE0 explicitly referenced the remade version of the show, as the original show was Hawaii Five-O with the letter O, not the number 0, at the end.  The remake uses the number 0.  It's not a big deal, but since the original is the much more well-known show, I wanted to make it clear that it was not the one being referenced.  I imagine most solvers will get the correct answer without giving it much thought.
  • I was aiming for a Wednesday puzzle because this is a day I need to complete "the cycle," but Will Shortz wanted it to be a Monday, and he's the decider.
  • The good thing about a making a puzzle like this is that even if it's not very good, a certain segment of the population will like it anyway because it reminds them of the good old days.  It's like how Jimmy Fallon isn't really funny, put he does skits that make Gen-Xers feel nostalgic, so his show is popular.  (I particularly enjoyed this one.)
  • Finally, a few fads that didn't make the cut:
The aforementioned Hammer pants...



If those aren't your bag, how about Zubaz pants...


Or maybe Umbro shorts...


They go great with a Hypercolor t-shirts...


And some Reebok Pump sneakers...


While rockin' a high top fade in overalls with one strap undone...


Or a Starter jacket (we called them "bombers" for some reason)...


Beanie Babies anybody...


No -- how about some Pogs...


Or Sega Genesis (it's 16-bit!)...


We can play NHLPA Hockey '93; I'll knock your ass out with Bob Probert!

Finally, you really should buy my word-nerdy baseball book: Urban Shocker All-Stars: The 100 Greatest Baseball Names Ever.  It's been getting a lot of great publicity lately!  By which I mean I was contacted by a local radio producer about possibly going on a show sometime in the next few weeks to talk about.  It hasn't happened yet, and might not ever, but, hey, fingers crossed! ... Right?