Monday, October 23, 2017

On Crosswordese

My puzzle ran in today's NYT.  It's a pretty good one I think.  As (bad) luck would have it, a puzzle with a very similar theme ran in the WSJ fairly recently, but I like mine better because it has ANOTHER DIMENSION.  (That's the third time I used that joke in writing, by the way.)

I don't have too much more to say about my puzzle (for now, sometimes I post addenda after reading reviews and comments).  Instead I'd like to give some thoughts on a general subject: Crosswordese.  I read the major crossword blogs pretty much daily, and I often get annoyed when people miscategorize all bad fill as Crosswordese.  To me, Crosswordese has a specific definition.  To wit...

Crosswordese is a concept familiar to the most casual crossword puzzle solvers, even if they don't call it that.  When I first started doing crosswords, about twenty years ago, I quickly built up a mental list of words and abbreviations I had never heard of and would never use, but needed to know in order to be a good solver.  Anything to do with wings was ALAE or ALAR; anything with molding in the clue was probably OGEE; the Alaskan island was ATTU; and a direction at sea was ALEE.  I probably could have lived my entire life just fine without knowing that OLEO was an early term for margarine, popularize during WWII rationing -- although I would have totally missed the joke on The Simpons when Grandpa gets an artillery shell full of oleo in his Krusty Meal.

Today, Crosswordese is a very common term in the solver community.  It even has its own Wikipedia page.  The problem, however, is that nobody seems to know exactly what it means, and as result the term Crosswordese is, in my opinion, often applied inappropriately.  It has come to be used to describe any overused, boring entry.  It's essentially synonymous with "bad fill."  But this misses a crucial component of what I consider Crosswordese: its near exclusivity to crossword puzzles.

Here's my definition of Crosswordese.

Frequent crossword puzzle entries of which a significant majority of the solving population would be unfamiliar were it not for crossword puzzles.

Notice this makes Crosswordese different from bad fill.  (Although there is significant overlap -- you could argue the former is a subset of the the latter.)  As an example, consider the three E-names ENOS, ESAU, an ESME.  According to the Wikipedia page, each of these is Crosswordese.  However, according to my definition, ENOS is clearly not because (almost) everybody has heard the name ENOS outside of crosswords.  If you're a baseball fan, you've likely heard of Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter (or Enos Cabell, if you're a baseball fanatic like me); if you watched The Dukes of Hazzard, you probably know Enos from that show (and you're probably bothered by the fact you loved a car with a Confederate flag painted on it); or you might know Enos from the bible or the space chimp.  The point is, the name ENOS is well-known outside of Crossworld.  The same cannot be said for ESAU or ESME -- a relatively minor character in the Bible and a titular name only big-time Salinger fans are likely to know.

Another type of Crosswordese are those entries with which solvers are familiar, but not in the form in which they appear in the grid.  For example, AANDE and ONEA are crossword puzzle staples, even though they are always written as A&E and 1-A "in the wild."  Other types of entries I put in this pile include variants nobody uses (AMEBA), plural abbreviations nobody uses in the plural form (STES), random partials (IN IS), random roman numerals you almost certainly would never see outside of crossword puzzles (MMCI), random affixes people never use by themselves (OON), and especially random plural affixes people never use by themselves (OSES).   These types of entries represent my least favorite form of Crosswordese because they feel like extra cheating to me.  I try to never use them in my puzzles.

A lot of foreign words and phrases are also Crosswordese, but certainly not all of them.  HERR and FRAU are legit entries, in my book, but not NIE or EIS.  There is only so much German your typical solver will know.  There are a good number of proper nouns that also qualify as Crosswordese, though, I would argue, not some of the most common crossword names like OTT, ONO, and ENYA (but definitely ERLE, EERO, and ESAI, among other ).

So, to give a final, recapping example: OREO not Crosswordese, OREM Crosswordese, OREL I'm not sure about.  Does the average solver remember "The Bulldog"?

Friday, September 29, 2017


As I mention in my notes at XWordInfo and Word Play, I came up with the seed answers to this one, while watching football, so it's fitting -- in a very stretched way -- that football would be at the forefront of many people's minds this week.  I hate that it's so difficult to enjoy the NFL today.  I used to live for football Sunday.  As a grad student, I would get all my work done by Saturday night, go to the neighborhood sports bar around noon Sunday, order some breakfast and a Bloody Mary, and overstimulate myself with seven NFL games at once.  After I had my first kid, literally the first thing I did when I got home from the hospital was call DIRECTV so that I could get NFL Sunday Ticket.  But now everything is different.  There's CTE; there's Kaepernick being blackballed; there's the fact that I'm a 40-year-old man whose emotional state is somewhat dependent on how a group of kids I don't know perform in a weekly game; and then there's the overriding feeling that the NFL cares nothing about its fans and is just trying to squeeze every last nickle out us (because that's what it's doing) -- TV blackouts, tax-payer-funded stadiums, PSLs, $100 parking, endless commercial breaks, pop-up ads on every highlight video, etc.  At some point, enough is enough.  My compromise this year is that I'm still following football, but I'm not paying for it in anyway (other than consuming the ads of its sponsors, which I can't avoid without tuning out completely).  It's a tenuous deal.

[A good article by Eric Reid (above left).]

Anyway... about my puzzle.  I think this one came out pretty well.  The long answers are nice, and there is not a lot of glue -- at least I don't think there is a lot glue.  I've found what constitutes crossword glue is very subjective.  There have been many times in which my puzzles have been dinged by the critics for containing too much glue, and then I read their examples and protest to myself, "That's not glue!"  In this puzzle, the only two answers I really don't like are RELO, which sounds very made-up-y to me, and ACERB, which is in the dictionary, but for which I can find no references "in the wild," save one:

[From Shakespeare's "Othello"]

I also don't love PIPPA, surprisingly.  I still think she is Crossworthy, but when I conceived of this puzzle years ago she was in the news big-time.  She had just been maid-of-honor in her sister's big wedding, and I figured she was going to hang around like a Kardashian for years to come.  Now it seems like she's hardly in the news -- the American news, at least -- at all.

This puzzle seems to be relatively well-received.  Jeff Chen at XWordInfo didn't love the layout because it necessitates a lot of three-letter words.  That's a critique, I suspect, is shared by less 1% of the solving population.  As a constructor I fret about the word statistics of a puzzle (word count, distribution, cheater squares, etc.), as I solver I never notice them or care -- maybe subconsciously I do, but I dunno.  By the way, I noticed that in my notes I wrote "conservation" instead of "conversation."  I did it at Word Play too -- nobody caught it apparently.

Rex Parker said it was "fun," which is almost the equivalent of a five-star review.  He complained about the clue for MOT, which at first I thought was petty, but now I actually mostly agree with.  One thing crossword constructors and editors should try to do is make the language in puzzles match the language outside of puzzles as closely as possible.  Rex is right when he says nobody ever uses the term MOT interchangeably with "Zinger."  To experienced solvers, this is something we've learned to gloss over, but to newbies, I suspect, it could be a potential turn-off.  With that said, only experienced solvers can handle a Friday puzzle, so in this case, it's a moot discussion.

Amy Reynaldo, over at Crossword Fiend, said she was tired -- not of my puzzle, just in general.  Fair enough.  I blog every once in a while for like 50 people.  Doing what she does must be like a part-time job.

Some bullet points.

  • The clue for HOVERBOARDS is weird.  It makes it sound like people actually used hoverboards as transportation today, like they are recumbent bicycles or something.  In the clue I submitted, I referenced Back to the Future II, which I think is the only proper way to write a clue for it.  (Oh, apparently there are things called "hoverboards" that aren't really hoverboards.)
  • I put TELEKINESIS into this puzzle after watching this.
  • JOLLY RANCHER was the candy of my childhood, so I'm happy to be responsible for its puzzle debut.
  • I'm particularly proud of my clues for COS, TRES, and APU.
  • IN ANGER makes me think of this Oasis song.
  • Run-DMC and ADIDAS in the same puzzle is a nice touch, if you were an MTV watcher in the '80s.

Until next time...

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Crossworld Olio

The puzzle in today's NYT is mine.  It's fine.  I might or might not talk about it more than that.  I have a few other things I'd like to discuss, and my blogging time always goes by sooner than I think it will.

First, I wanted to follow up on my last post about my ambivalence toward constructor pay.  (In the comments section, Will Shortz actually chimes in with some thoughts, which was unexpected and kinda cool -- I appreciate he took the time to do that.)  I did submit a puzzle to the NYT after writing it.  My "constructor block" went away (kinda), and I got what I think is a decent idea, so I constructed it up and submitted it.  I'm reconciling the low pay (relative to what the puzzle brings in for the paper) by not buying a subscription to the online paper.  I still want to read it, so I'm just going to abuse the ten free articles they give you each month -- if you use Chrome and Internet Explorer and your tablet and your phone then that's forty free articles a month, which is more than enough for me.  Normal I wouldn't do that.  I very much believe in paying for the content I consume, if the provider is charging for it.  However, I make an exception when I feel I'm being taken advantage of in some way or things aren't totally "fair," in which case, I have no compunction about using a (legal or at least legalish) end-around the payment process, if one exists.*  So a "free" subscription to NYT seems more equitable to me.

Second, I wanted draw some attention to Evan Birnholz's ongoing critique (i.e., panning) of Timothy Parker's Universal crossword puzzle, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe.  It's hilarious.  Although being that Evan apparently regularly solves the puzzle, I'm not sure who the joke is on.  If solvers complain about the quality of the NYT puzzle, they should take a look at Evan's Twitter feed.  (Although, being better than a daily puzzle from a guy so out of ideas that he literally plagiarized other crosswords is not exactly a high bar to clear.)

[You will have to find Evan on Twitter if you want to read the entire thread.  I couldn't figure out how to link to a tweet.]

My question: What exactly happened to Mr. Parker?  Am I remembering things incorrectly or were his puzzles once halfway decent?  I feel like his old USA Today puzzles, while always being a step below those of the NYT and the LAT, were at least palatable.  I actually cut my constructing teeth as a USA Today contributor.  The summer before I started grad school, back in the mid-twenty-aughts, I was living in the spare bedroom of my sister and brother in-law, and I didn't have much to do, so I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning constructing and listening to The O'Franken Factor on the now defunct Air America Radio.  It was $50 a pop at USA Today back then, and I probably sold them about 15 puzzles in the span of a few months.  Parker would get back to me about a submission within a day or two, and the answer was almost always "yes."  It was great.  Although, being that the answer for puzzles of similar quality at the NYT or the LAT was usually "no," perhaps I am in fact misremembering how good the USA Today puzzle was under Parker.

I went looking for some old USA Today newspapers with my puzzles in them -- I know I had some lying around at one point -- but I couldn't find any.  What I did find instead was a notebook full of "original versions."  (This must be very exciting for you, reader.  You get to see masterpieces in their rawest forms!  It's like when I went to Mozarthaus in Vienna, and they had a bunch of his compositions as he first wrote them with ink and parchment.)  Back in the day, I would frequently construct on graph paper because I didn't always have access to a computer at home, let alone crossword puzzle constructing software (hard to believe, today, and this wasn't that long ago).  Here are a few that I believe actually appeared in USA Today circa 2003.

[I used to number the margins to the right and below the grid in reverse order, so that I wouldn't screw up the symmetry -- pretty smart, huh?]

Pirate puns!  RATED ARRR!  BUCK AN EAR!  Actually, I had to revised this grid, because it contained BOOTY CALL, which was too racy (changed to BABY BOOTY).  I remember I sent this to Peter Gordon first, and in the submission, I explained what a booty call was.  He wrote back a polite "no thank you," but then at the end he wrote something like, "By the way, I know what a booty call is!"  In my defense, in the only picture I had ever seen of him, he was wearing a bow tie.  I thought he was some sort of fusty stuffed shirt who wouldn't know what a booty call is.  I guess I shouldn't stereotype.  Lesson learned: Don't ever wear a bow tie.

The long entries in this puzzle were given punny clues, so it was something like:
"Soldier Field team's lethargy?"
"Talismans belonging to actor Peter and family?"
"Spy work?"
Not too exciting.

This is my absolute favorite -- three coffee-related puns, all pretty weak (unlike how I prefer my coffee), with the revealer COFFEEHOUSE TALK.  Is that even a thing?  Coffeehousing is a thing in board games, in which you chatter idly to distract an opponent, but COFFEEHOUSE TALK?  I don't think that's an actual thing.  No matter.

Well, I'm out of time.  So I guess I'm not going to talk about my puzzle today.  That is, unless I have a chance to jump back on this afternoon.  Sometimes I have things to say after I read the reviews.

Until next time...

Oh, one last thing.  I'm on Twitter, and I currently have a pathetically small number of followers, because I almost never tweet, and I almost never tweet, because I have a pathetically small number of followers.  @DamonGulczynsk1 if you want to help me break the Catch-22.  I've decide to tweet about once a day, so even if I'm lame, I won't be clogging up your home page.

[Update: 10am Friday]
Okay a few last, last things.  I just wanted to give five quick thoughts on today's puzzle.
  1. As if you need further proof that crossword puzzle solving is an extremely subjective endeavor, note that Rex Parker, and Jeff Chen and Amy Reynaldo basically say opposite things about my puzzle.  Rex thinks there is "nothing wrong" with it but that it was "flat."  Jeff says that it has "a ton of great fill," but too much "glue."  Amy calls it "zippy" (my favorite description), but doesn't like seeing ENOLA in a puzzle (fair enough, I will try to retire that one).  You can't win with everybody.  I've learned the only person I need to please when it comes to constructing is the man in the mirror... and Will Shortz.
  2.  Speaking of pleasing myself -- ahem -- I love my clue for FRENEMY.  The first time I ever heard the term (from an episode of Sex and the City, I think), I immediately thought of Reggie and Archie.  They are the epitome of frenemies.
  3. I've never heard of this Saul Bellow novel Herzog.  My HERZOG power rankings: Werner, Whitey, and there is no third place.
  4. Sometimes I think I'm really smart, and then I read about people like John Von NEUMANN, and I think "well, I'm at least kinda smart."
  5. My apologies for the AHAS/LEV/AVEO section of the puzzle.  I know it's awful, but I painted myself into a corner and needed to sacrifice a few squares to save the rest of the puzzle.  It happens. 
*Speaking of which, if anybody has the NFL Sunday Ticket package and wants to give me their online credentials, so that I can logon and watch from my device, by all means, hit me up.  I don't buy it anymore, for a variety of reasons, but I still get a pretty bad yen to watch the Seahawks every Sunday.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Should NYT Constructors Demand More Money?

[This is the grid I submitted.  It's the same as the final version, save the first letter in the puzzle.  During edit this was changed to BIG A/BSS.  I think my entries are better, but I understand (I think) the logic behind the change.  RIGA/RSS could be a straight-up Natick at the R, whereas BIG A/BSS is inferable, even if less elegant.]

The puzzle in today's New York Times is a themeless one by me.  I like it fine -- standard Friday fare, I think.  Actually, I'm going to give myself more credit: I think it's a little better than the average Friday puzzle.  I don't have too much to say about it other than that, but I do want to talk about something else crossword puzzle related.

A few days ago, noted crossword puzzle blogger Rex Parker sent out an intriguing tweet calling for constructors to stop "submit[ting] xwords to the NYT until they pay fairly".

I was going to send a reply tweet with some thoughts, but I didn't, because over the years I've developed a strong aversion to responding to things on social media.  I found one of three things happens: (1) nobody cares or responds to my post; (2) somebody cares too much, and I end up in a "comments battle," in which nobody can express themselves fully, both sides just dig in deeper and deeper, and nothing gets accomplished, other than I waste a bunch of time to get stressed out and irritated over nothing; (3) I have a satisfying and informative exchange.  I will let you guess which of these three happens to me the least frequently, by far.  I do post comments on-line, but it's typically about uncontroversial topics in fora in which I already feel comfortable.  (Twitter is not one of these; I think I have three followers and have sent fewer than ten tweets total.)

But this is a topic I'm interested in, so I want to write about it.  The first question:

What is fair pay?
Currently the NYT pays constructors $300 for daily puzzles and $1,000 for Sunday puzzles.  After some number of puzzles (20, I think), you get a 20% increase, so I now get $360 for a daily and $1,200 for a Sunday (theoretically, I haven't submitted a Sunday-sized puzzle in years).  If you do the arithmetic, this means the NYT likely pays its constructors less than $175,000 total per year.

On first blush, this might not seem that low.  I would gladly write the New York Times puzzle everyday for that annual salary.  But, of course, the quality of the puzzle would suffer drastically, because I would very quickly run out of good ideas, and I would be time-pressed on the weak ideas I did have.  If I'm getting over half my puzzles rejected now, when I can cultivated them over days or even weeks, how would things look if I had to pump one out everyday?  I don't think any constructor could keep that pace (although Zhouqin Burnikel appears to be trying!).

That's the thing about the NYT puzzle.  It's the cream of the crop (as judged by Will Shortz, of course), culled from the oeuvres of many good constructors.  It's like having an inhuman super constructor on staff.  And what is fair pay for an inhuman super constructor?  Well, it depends, I suppose, on how much revenue they generate for the paper.  And on this topic we can only guess.  I don't know of any publicly available analysis speaking to this, and it's possible the paper doesn't even really know itself, as it's a very difficult thing to quantify.

But here's a number I'll throw out there: $8 million a year.  It comes from this guy, whose source is a BuzzFeed article, whose source is somebody "familiar with" the paper.  This only includes money from the digital crossword puzzle subscription, so it is very clearly an underestimate of the total amount the puzzle generates for the paper, as it excludes the puzzle's probably still rather substantial dead-tree value.  But I'd rather underestimate than overestimate, so let's go with $8 million.

There is no hard-and-fast rule dictating the percentage of a business' sales that should go to payroll, but from what I can gather reading online, it's usually between 15% and 30%.  So let's go 20%.  On $8 million, that's $1.6 million.  Let's say half of this goes to NYT crossword puzzle staff -- editors, testers, bloggers, etc. -- and half of it goes to the constructors.  (I have no idea what the real percentage is; I'm just trying to make reasonable, conservative guesses, here.)  That's $800,000 a year for constructors.  That's roughly five times more than we get now.

If I'm not wildly overestimating things (and I suspect, if anything, I'm way off in the other direction) then the New York Times could easily afford to pay constructors around $1,800 for a daily puzzle and $4,500 for a Sunday puzzle.  That's a significant bump.

So then what gives, why don't they pay more?
The obvious answer: They don't have to.

I suspect that this is due, in large part, to inertia.  This is the pay model that was in place decades ago, so it's the pay model that's in place now.  I don't think businesses alter their operations to increase costs unless they are absolutely forced to.  And the NYT puzzle seems to be selling fine.  From their perspective -- why change?

After all, even if you think there are better puzzles out there now (say, Fireball or various indies), the NYT has the reputation and they have Will Shortz, who's not just a crossword celebrity, but an actual celebrity.  These two reasons are enough for people to buy the puzzle (for now, anyway).  In the short to medium term, the solvers are mostly expendable.  The "puzzle master" Will Shortz is the star, and the paper is clearly staking a claim on his reputation.  You can see this in the print version of the puzzle: Will's name appears larger and in a more prominent location than the constructor's.

And, by the way, this isn't a criticism of Will, with whom I've only had positive (if limited) correspondences.  He earned his reputation through decades of good work.  Throughout his tenure, he's significantly transformed the NYT puzzle in a positive way and deserves a lot of credit for that.  Also, I think I heard that he's the main reason why the constructor has a byline at all (previously we were anonymous).  And he claims to be an advocate for higher constructor pay.  To what extent and what that means exactly -- I have no idea.

Now, if all the top constructors heeded Rex Parker's call and stopped submitting to the NYT, then I do think the quality of the puzzle would degrade enough that solvers would eventually catch on and get their puzzle fix elsewhere.  (Rex would tell you -- or rather, he does tell you, everyday on his blog -- that the quality erosion is already in full effect and has been for years.  I'm not nearly as down on the NYT puzzle as he is, but, if I'm being honest, I don't think he's totally wrong.)

But a "constructors' strike" is not something that's likely to happen.  For one thing, there is a collective action problem.  For another thing, there is no "constructors' union".  Somebody would have to organize all this from scratch, and I don't see anybody agitating to step up and do so.  And even if somebody did, I don't know if a critical mass of constructors would go along with it.  I suspect a decent percentage of us: (a) don't think we're underpaid (they take the libertarian view -- our work is worth only what we can sell it for on the open market); (b) don't care; (c) do care, but are still willing to submit.

I definitely fall (fell?) into camp (c).  In the same Twitter thread mentioned above, Rex attributes this general perspective to ego and the thrill of seeing one's name in the paper.  He's not totally wrong, but I think he's overly cynical.  It is exciting to see your byline appear above something in the New York Times.  But the thrill wears off pretty quickly.  What it's more about for me is distribution infrastructure.  When you do something you think is cool, you want to share it with as many people as possible.  It's not ego; it's a different compulsion.  And the New York Times is still the best for this.  They have the biggest audience.  I once tried to get my own indie site going, and it sucked and I hated it.  I'd much rather send my puzzles somewhere and be done with them.

There's also the fact that constructors love constructing and do it as a hobby for fun all the time.  If you have a hobby, and you can make a couple grand a year on it, it feels a lot like "found" money.  It's hard to get riled up about worker exploitation, when you are periodically getting $360 checks, for spending your free time the way you want to spend it.  I'm well aware that I can only do this because I don't depend on crossword puzzles as part of my income and that this mindset is precisely what allows places like the New York Times to underpay everybody.  But on the other hand, it doesn't feel right to tell somebody they shouldn't sell their work for whatever they are willing to sell it for.

So what do you do about it?
Well, I'm probably not submitting to the New York Times for a while, but that's more because I have "constructor's block" than anything else.  To make matters worse, after a tremendous streak of acceptances, I've had my last few puzzles rejected, and it's perpetuated something of a crossword funk.  I don't feel like I have any good ideas, and when I do get one, it completely falls apart when I attempt to translate it to the grid.  Right now, it feels like I'm done submitting to the NYT, because it feels like I'm done submitting everywhere.  But that's probably not the case.  I'll probably come out this, and when I do, I'm not exactly sure how I will proceed.

Well, I think I've spilled enough ink on this topic for now.  Please comment if you have any criticisms or thoughts on this analysis.  Until next time...

Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday's Puzzle and an Indie 500 Recap

Friday's Puzzle
A puzzle of mine is running in the New York Times today.  It's one I made a while ago, which is unsurprising, since the queue for NYT themeless puzzles is l-l-l-long.  I've actually stopped submitting themeless puzzles for the time being, in part because the field is so crowded.  The NYT themeless supply apparently far outweighs its demand, so it's getting harder to get themeless puzzles accepted and the wait until they run is just as long as always.  Also, I'm currently going through a bit of a "blah" period with respect to puzzle making in general.  My crossword-constructing battery is low, and I have other projects I want to work on in my (very limited) spare time, so I will probably take a little respite from constructing.  However, I still have a bunch of puzzles in the NYT pipeline (both submitted and already accepted), and these breaks never last too long, so my fans, of which I can only assume I have myriad, should hardly even notice my absence.

Anyway, I don't have much to say about today's puzzle,* so instead I will give a recap of my favorite annual crossword puzzle tournament -- and also the only one I've ever attended -- The Indie 500.

*One thing I will say: I wish the clue for FRANZ FERDINAND wasn't so straightforward.  The clue I submitted was something like "Royal Prince who famously died in an automobile along with his wife in 1914."  Now that has some teeth to it.

Indie 500 Recap
This is my third year at the tournament (it's also the tournament's third year at the tournament), and each year I seem to arrive on the latish end of the *time* spectrum despite living just a few miles from the tournament's location -- or maybe it's because of this.  Many solvers come in from out of town, so this is the only reason they are in D.C. to begin with.  But I go through my usual morning routine (clothing and feeding two small children) before the tournament starts, and my usual morning routine involves me rushing out the door like a madman.

There's only scattered seating available in the tournament ballroom when I arrive, so I grab two available seats in the corner.  I'm supposed to meet a friend there, but he no-shows -- even worse, he doesn't text me to say he can't make it, so I'm there holding his seat like a schmo while the last few entrants are looking for a place to sit.  When people ask if the seat is taken, I have to do that apologetic, shoulder-shruggy "yeah, sorry."  Man, I hate that.  (After the tournament ended, he texted to say something came up and his phone battery was dead all day.  That sounds pretty excuse-y to me, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, lest something serious happened, and I'm the asshole for even broaching the subject.  Also, he never expressly asked me to save him a seat, so it's kinda on me anyway.)

I had two goals going into this competition: (1) Finish all the puzzles in the allotted time without error; (2) Don't finish in the top 25% of the field.  The latter is so that I will still qualify for the "Outside Track" (the JV Division) next year.  The former is my own goal since the actual goal of the tournament -- winning -- is not achievable given my current skill level.  I keep telling myself that one of these years I'm going to give competitive solving a serious go and train and try to be a force in my division, but I never do, and I doubt I ever will.  The truth is I don't love doing crossword puzzles.  I very much like doing crossword puzzles, but I'm not fanatical about it the way the top solvers are.  (I've always been way more into constructing than solving.)  I usually "only" do one a day, often in the background while I'm at work, which isn't nearly sufficient to get me near the top of even the lower division.  So I set my own little goals and enjoy the puzzles and the company.

Speaking of the puzzles...

Puzzle 1: "Before and After" by Angela Olson Halsted

A straight-over-the-plate, easy-breezy, Monday-level puzzle to kick things off.  The theme answers consisted of two words, one of which can precede the word TIME (the tournament theme, if you didn't already know) and one of which can follow the word TIME, paired together in zany ways.  So one theme answer was HAMMMER BANDITS (Hammer Time/Time Bandits), and the clue was "Construction site thieves?"  Then everything was tied together using Cyndi Lauper's timeless hit "___ After ___".

I thought this puzzle was pretty good.  It was enjoyable and didn't have any big flaws, but I'm not crazy about the randomness of the TIME phrases.  There are countless combinations one can come up with (Gratis use of the flute on Super Mario Bros. 3?: FREE WARP), so the ones that are chosen really have to hit the mark -- be very funny or clever -- or tie together in some other way.  The ones in this puzzle are fine; they're cute, but none of them stuck with me after I finished.

And I finished quickly, for me -- 5:03 with no errors.  This was actually near the top of the Outside Track.  I always thought I was more of a long-distance solver than a sprinter, but it seems to be the exact opposite.  What I really need to do is work on my endurance, as the bigger puzzles gave me much more trouble than this one.

Puzzle 2: "Jam Session" by Paolo Pasco

A nice offering by constructing wunderkind Paolo Pasco.  (He apparently couldn't be at the tournament because he had to take his SATs; I don't think this was a joke.)  This one had four CRUNCH TIME theme answers with a unit of time "crunched" two-letters per box.  The clues were also written under a faux time crunch, so they got sloppier and sloppier as the puzzle went on (e.g., "Suffres s form" for HAS).  I liked that added dimension, but I heard several other solvers grumbling about it between rounds.  I could see how, in the context of solving under an actual time crunch, one might find it annoying, but I thought it was fun.

I picked up on the the theme fairly quickly, but spent a lot of time trying to parse out some of the proper nouns.  It wasn't the spate of millennial pop culture that got me, as one familiar with Mr. Pasco's work might think (although I had never heard of this ANSEL Elgort guy), but rather it was some old stuff -- an Ottoman leader named ALI PASHA and a Tom Wolfe story from 1976 called "THE ME DECADE".  I had to Google both of them after I finished to make sure they were correct.  They were, so I was two-for-two with clean grids.

Puzzle 3: "This Mashup's for the Byrds" by Tracy Bennett

Every year there is a puzzle that I do not understand at all while I'm solving it and barely understand after I'm finished and looking back over it carefully.  This year it was Puzzle 3.  The basic idea, which I didn't fully appreciate while solving, is that the theme clues are lyrics from the Byrds song "Turn, Turn, Turn" with one letter added and then the answer is something cute that fits that new lyric.  So the first one is "A time to gather stoners together":  BURNING MAN.  The actual lyric from the song is "A time to gather stones together", but, man, you have to really know the song well to pick up on something that subtle.  And why Burning Man?  It's just an answer that fits?  And then the extra letters apparently spell out RENT, and one of the long down answers is a song from the play Rent.  What the what?  There must be a connection here that I'm missing?  Was Rent written by David Crosby or something?  I totally don't get it.  (On the plus side: cool looking grid.)

In addition to being, in my opinion, too obtuse a concept, the execution seemed off in a few places.  For example, one of the clues was "A time you many embrace", which I cannot read in a manner that makes grammatical sense.  I was able, however, to piece together the answer, GROUP HUG.  In fact, I was able to piece together all the answers.  My times aren't great, but I'm perfectly accurate at the lunch break.

Puzzle 4: "Non-Linear Narratives" by Erik Agard ft. Allegra Kuney

This puzzle was weird -- really weird.  It was also my favorite one of the bunch.  I don't think I can succinctly describe the theme, but it involved writing in animals in the wrong direction, and it had three revealers -- one for a pair of theme answers in the grid, one for another pair of theme answers in the grid, and one for all four of them.  While I was solving it, it seemed like madness, and I honestly wasn't too keen on it, but after finishing I really appreciated it.  It's like when you see a movie and you're not sure if you like it or not, but it sticks with you for the rest of the day, so you conclude that it must have been pretty good -- that's how this puzzle was for me.

It was also, time-wise, probably my worst puzzle of the bunch.  I got stuck in a corner and was getting so irritated, I contemplated filling in half-random guesses just to be done with it, but I'm glad I didn't.  Again, I was not in contention for any sort of real prize, so there was no reason to not stick it out until the bitter end.  And as it turns out I didn't need until the bitter end anyway.  After about ten minutes of staring at the empty boxes and rereading the same clues a hundred times, something clicked (as it often does), and I finished the puzzle without error.  One more to go!

Puzzle 5: "In Search of Lost Time" by Neville Fogarty

A perfectly cromulent add-some-letters/subtract-some-letters puzzle to close out the day.  Other than Puzzle 1, this one was the most straightforward of the set, and coming on the heels of Erik's and Allegra's avant-garde behemoth, it was very welcome for this solver (I'm pointing to myself).  The theme involved adding and subtracting the letters ERA from common phrases to create new zany phrases, e.g., "Secure movie rights for a haboob?" was OPTION DESERT STORM and "Smudge on a Scantron form?" was ERASURE THING.  (I originally read the latter clue as "Smudge on a Scranton form," so I thought it had something to do with The Office.)

This, of course, is a very common crossword conceit, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  A puzzle with a well-worn theme can still be really fun, if it's really well done, and this one was really well done.  Transforming SHOCK TREATMENT into SHOE RACK TREATMENT was especially clever.

And best of all (for me) I solved it without an error.  Yay!  I did it.  Five-for-five!  No mistakes!

I finished 20th of 89 in the Outside Track, and I finished 56th of 128 in the combine field -- a little better than average, which is where I think I fit in in life in general.  Pretty much everybody at the tournament is a really good crossword puzzle solver compared to the general public, and for the things I'm really good at, when I'm tossed in with a group of people who are also really good at them, I feel I'm usually somewhere between the 55th and 60th percentile.  At grad school, I definitely wasn't the best student, but I think I was solidly above average.  In high school wrestling, I would get soundly beaten by state champion contenders, but I was varsity for three years and had a winning record overall.  When I used to play competitive Scrabble, I was usually near the top of the middle division.  Always the same place.

Maybe that's a good new nickname for me "The 57th Percentile".  It doesn't sound too impressive, but one must keep in mind that it's among people who are already quite good at doing the things they are doing.  With that qualifier in mind, it's not too shabby at all.

Anyway, getting back to the tournament, I actually solved the final puzzle faster than any of the finalists in the Outside Track.  Almost certainly this is in very large part because I didn't have the stress of solving in front of everybody on a big board.  Also, I chanced into the trick pretty early on -- I randomly started solving at the bottom first, which I don't do normally (and probably wouldn't have done had I actually been in the finals) -- which allowed me to use the Across clues pretty early on in the process -- a huge boon, obviously.  Congrats to Eric Cockayne, the Outside Track winner, and to Katie Hammil, the Inside Track winner.

I split pretty quickly after the finals (I wanted to take advantage of my kid-free day and stop by a friend's birthday party), so I missed the annual pie-in-the-face tradition -- each year a solver, selected randomly, gets to throw a pie in the face of a constructor of his or her choosing.  I heard Erik Agard was the pie-ee this year.  It's just as well I missed it, as it makes me feel uncomfortable, to be honest.  I don't get what's enjoyable about watching somebody get hit with a pie in a completely contrived setting.  It seems like a big mess for not much payoff.  It also seems kinda mean to me (even though I know the recipient is very much in on the joke).  But others seem to like it, and it's all in fun, so whatever -- no harm, no foul.

Well, that was my experience at The Indie 500 2017.  It was great.  My final grade for the entire opERAtion: A.  I hope to see you there next year.  Until then...

Friday, May 26, 2017

Keep Your Shade to Yourself... Or Don't (It's Cool Either Way)

If I'm counting correctly, including this puzzle I have nine themeless puzzles in the NYT queue for publication and another two submitted.  Out of these 11 puzzles, this one is my least favorite.  This isn't to say I don't like it.  If I don't like a puzzle I don't submit it.  It's just to say that I like the other ones better.

The flaws with this puzzle gnaw at me more than usual for some reason.  The "Texas" region is particularly grating.  I hate using a plural of an uncommon name, and ETTAS is right on the borderline for me.  It's better than GISELES, but not as good as ANNS.  (Although it does make me feel better that they were contemporaries in the same field.  It's easier to imagine an organic usage of ETTAS in this setting: The two Ettas of mid-twentieth-century jazz -- James and Jones -- had 18 Grammy nominations between them.)  And I really, really hate using partials, so much so that I tried to clue I ATE as a complete sentence.  My clue, changed during edit, was "Already had dinner."  But it was an act of desperation on my part, as I can't really think of a non-contrived scenario in which somebody would say "I ate" as a standalone sentence.  One might say "I ate dinner already" or even "I ate already," but just "I ate?"  Eh, probably not.  Then, to make things even less elegant, ETTAS and I ATE cross the abbreviation SEPT.  Normally I would have no problem with SEPT in my puzzle -- it's a perfectly cromulent abbreviation -- but when it's crossing the two worst answers in the puzzle, it becomes a weak entry as well.  Guilt by association.

The other big thing I'm not so keen on is that I didn't totally nail the long answers.  ANNOTATE and ANTENATAL are both pretty boring, and DIETETICS -- I dunno.  I think it's an interesting word, but your mileage may vary.  I like COLPORTEUR too, because it's fun to say, and I enjoyed learning its definition, but I would understand if others thought it was too obscure for such prime real estate.  Similarly, I like the clue for FLORIDA TECH (classic Saturday-level misdirection), but it's appearance in this puzzle is pretty random.  It's not like Cal Tech or even Georgia Tech when it comes to prestige and notoriety.  I imagine many solvers inferring it from crosses and thinking, "Florida Tech?  Okay.  Sounds like a real place to me."

But, of course, there are many things I like about this puzzle as well.  PALE BLUE DOT is a cool debut entry, especially for Neil de Grasse Tyson fanboys like myself; FLEXITARIAN is pretty good, even if my original clue didn't make the cut ("Person you might occasionally have beef with?"); HAVISHAM is a nice literary reference; and THROW SHADE makes its first (to my knowledge) appearance in a crossword puzzle.  Then there is DON'T THAT BEAT ALL, which is my favorite answer in the grid, because it's a good colloquialism, and because it's very difficult to get any grid-spanning answer through the center of a triple stack, let alone one with some sparkle.

In general, I hope it isn't lost on the solver that this grid shape is a bit more challenging, from a construction standpoint, than that of a typical themeless puzzle.  It's only 66-words, six less than the themeless max, and it has a wide open middle which was a bear to fill.  So I think I did pretty well, given the constraints, but "given the constraints" is not always to the benefit of the solver.  There is is not necessarily a positive correlation between difficulty of construction and enjoyment of solve.

Another area in which I think I did nicely with this puzzle is the mid-range fill.  FACADE, EGO SURF, TOP SHELF, NO FRILLS, NOOGIE, VAPE, BOSOMY, and PREFAB are all solid to good, in my opinion.  

The big question: Overall, does the good outweigh the bad?  I think so, but, just for fun, let's do a full accounting of this puzzle using Jeff Chen's "asset/liability" score.  That is, you simply add up all the "assets" of the puzzle and deduct all the "liabilities."  If this difference is around 10 you have a decent themeless puzzle; if it's much above 10 you have a great puzzle; and if it's much below 10 you have not-so-great puzzle.  Now, obviously this is a highly subjective, overly simplistic metric, but here goes nonetheless...


8.  VAPE  

2.  I ATE

2.  SEPT

I decided to parse the scoring a bit more finely by using half assets and half liabilities.  And under this categorization, my score for this puzzle is 8 + 4 - 2 - 1 = 9, which seems... spot on to me actually.  It completely coheres with my gut feeling on this puzzle.  I guess the system works!

Anyway, I hope you liked this puzzle.  If you didn't, feel free to throw some shade in my direction.  I never object to honest feedback.  Plus, there is a decent chance I won't read it anyway, at least not right away.  We are taking the kids to Sesame Place in Langhorne, PA for the holiday weekend, so I'll be busy with that.  The only "cross words" I'll be dealing with are the ones I'll be muttering under my breath, as I'm pushing through a throng of people so that my sons can shake hands with some poor schmo in an oversize Elmo costume.  Instead of sitting at home refreshing the comment sections of the crossword blogosphere, I'll be spending quality time with the family -- waiting in line so that we can get our picture taken with a giant cardboard cutout of The Count.  It should be fun.

Until next time...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Tales of a Grammar Nazi in Go-Go Boots

[Image lifted from XWordInfo where I got the weekly "POW!"  Nice!]

Writing clues is my least favorite part of making crossword puzzles.  If I ever become a professor of cruciverbalism, I'm definitely delegating clue writing to my graduate students.  I might deign to make a suggestion here or there (How about "Work with intelligence?" for SPY STORY -- get it?), but I certainly wouldn't be doing the grunt work.

When I first started constructing puzzles, clue writing was tortuous, and the torture was completely self-imposed.  I would slave over each individual entry trying to think up the cleverest, most personally stylized clue possible.  It took me nearly as long to write the clues as it did to build the grid -- and it took me a long time to build the grid, as this was back in the day when I used graph paper and pencil, and the only "software" I had was an electronic pocket crossword puzzle helper.  (By the way, I feel no romance at all for those days; I much prefer it now, doing everything on Crossword Puzzle Compiler and utilizing massive word lists.)  It was not effort well spent.  What I found is that I was very good at writing clues that were almost certain to be changed during edit.  That is, if my puzzle even got accepted anywhere, which, at that point in my "career," it probably wouldn't.

Although I would like to blame all those stuffy editors for failing to the see the genius in my clue writing, the truth is, I was very likely going about it wrong.  Being clever is good -- most fun puzzles have clever clues -- but not for all 70-some entries.  As a solver, I've come to realize there is often a fine line between clever and annoyingly contrived, and trying to force the former is a great way to achieve the latter.  I think most solvers rely on and appreciate a certain consistency and repetition in cluing.  Editors understand this, which is why clues for a given entry are very frequently the same.  In fact, what I've noticed about the New York Times is that it often goes on a "mini-run" for a particular entry in which clues are the exact same or nearly the exact same for several consecutive puzzles.

For example, here are three screen shots from Cruciverb's database showing the clues for the entry SLAY.  This seems to happen too frequently to be a coincidence.

Eventually I caught on and I stopped putting so much effort into writing original clues.  What I do instead is, for the vast majority of entries, I look it up on Cruciverb, filtering by the publication to which I'm submitting, and then I pick a clue I like that's day appropriate and use it or something very close to it.  I figure, if it's going to be changed to a standard clue during edit anyway, then why not make things easier on everybody?  But then after that I pick out a handful of entries, usually the "marquee" entries, and try to come up with new, clever, and fun clues for them.

Thus far, this process has worked out pretty well.  Most my clues, even my original ones, survive edit (though often slightly reworded), and I don't spend hours and hours writing a bunch of clues that will never see the light of day.  I now feel significantly less like a character in the Beatles' song "Eleanor Rigby."  (Damon Gulczynski writing the clues for a crossword that no one will see.  How can that be?  All the lonely people, where *do* they all come from...)

In this puzzle, I came up with a few clues that I really like.  In fact, one of them is probably my favorite clue I've ever written:

"Type for who this clue will be annoying?" GRAMMAR NAZI

I'm quite proud of that one.  Another one I like:

"A batter receives four for a grand slam" TOTAL BASES

Hopefully fellow baseball nerds will appreciate the redirect from the answer that immediate comes to mind but doesn't fit, RUNS BATTED IN.

Then there is this one:

"Iconic part of Sinatra's attire?" GO-GO BOOTS

I was quite disappointed to see that this one did not survive edit, and that the name "Nancy" was added before Sinatra.  It totally ruins my intent, which was to make the solver first think it was referring to Frank Sinatra (why doesn't FEDORA fit?).  That's a clever misdirect, no?

I'm not sure why it was changed.  The only thing I can think of is that Will thought the solver wouldn't really get it.  Maybe Nancy Sinatra isn't well-known enough or closely enough associated with go-go boots without her first name?  Perhaps.  But she did have a no. 1 hit back in the day explicitly about her boots.  So... I dunno.

Anyway, this puzzle, like the one published a few weeks ago, took me three tries.  The first didn't turn out well at all.  It was one of the earliest themeless puzzles I had ever attempted, and I should have chucked it when I was done with it and called it a learning experience.  I actually can't find a copy of it to post, which I'm not particularly sad about.

Below is my second attempt.

I actually really like this grid, my reasons why are the same ones why it was rejected.  The upper half is a procession of proper nouns -- DISCO STU,  DODIE (Stevens), OTTO HAHN, SAM ELLIOTT, (Justin) THEROUX, DON QUIXOTE, RAQUEL WELCH.  So much good, fun stuff!  But, alas, as I've heard before, not everybody likes what I like, and one thing people seem to like are puzzles that don't feel like a pop culture trivia contest.  So it goes... And if I want to keep publishing puzzles (which I do), so I have to go too.  But that's okay.  I think this one turned out pretty well as it is.  We shall see if people agree.

Until next time...

Friday Morning Update: Judging by what I'm reading on the blogosphere, people do think it turned out pretty well.  More than a few solvers, however, are put off by seeing NAZI in the puzzle, even as part of the tongue-in-cheek phrase GRAMMAR NAZI.  This is completely understandable.  I probably would not use this entry if I made this puzzle today, given the political climate.  I still love the clue though.

Also, I see that in the newspaper version of the puzzle, the clue for EMU included a symbol.  Cool.  That's a good way to liven up a common answer.