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.]


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?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Like Walter White On Condoleeza Rice

My second BuzzFeed crossword puzzle ran today.  Hopefully it will not be my last, but we shall see.  I don't have anything pending, and I don't have plans to submit anything in the near future.  In fact, it's unclear to me exactly what is the submission procedure now.  The puzzle is evidently going through some growing pains, and so the BZF crossword editor (Caleb Madison) sent out an email to BZF contributors detailing some possible changes on the horizon -- particularly a move away from the traditional 15 x 15 crossword puzzle toward smaller, more novelty type puzzles.  Currently BuzzFeed is still running three crossword puzzles per week (easy, medium, hard), but it's not clear to me if that is only until the current backlog of accepted puzzles runs out, or if that is the new normal.  So ... I dunno.

I do hope the BFZ puzzle sticks around for a while in some form that approximates a traditional crossword puzzle (smaller grids would be cool, if they are 13 x 13, or something like that, but I hope it doesn't become like the NYT Mini).  I've every much enjoyed constructing my two BZF puzzles, and I also enjoy solving them regularly.  Yeah, sometimes the tone, the forced "hipness" (which often means awkward jack-off jokes and drug references) can be a turnoff, but I still think they are fun -- and some of the themeless puzzles have been downright tremendous so far.  I'd like to see that continue.  (Note: see addendum for more on this topic.)

But anyway, on to today's puzzle, my puzzle.

For some reason, I really like the phrase LIKE WHITE ON RICE, and it happens to be 15 letters, so I decided to make it the center of a crossword puzzle.  I then got the idea to stack things in the gird that are white on top of things that are rice, but there was a big problem in that the only thing that is really rice is rice, because rice isn't an adjective.  So all my rice things ended up being people with the last name Rice.  So it occurred to me to just make all my white things people named White, and then I would have a legit theme idea.

But the transition from theme idea to workable grid was substantially more difficult with this puzzle than it is with most my other puzzles.  I spent hours and hours -- entering and erasing, rotating the grid, flipping theme entries, moving around cheater squares, etc. -- just trying to come up with something that was workable.  I finally did, but the residue of my strain is evident to the savvy solver.

For instance, one might notice that each "white on rice" pair its own little subsection with only a single white square providing an entrĂ©e.  I don't like this, but it's the only way I could get the grid to work.  Also, there are many short answers that got locked into place by some of the weird letter combinations imposed by the theme (e.g., NYY, DRJ, OMG, UNM, CNN, MTA).  So the fill isn't quite as clean as I would like it.  And lastly, some of the Whites and Rices are not as famous as I would prefer -- BETTY and JERRY, yes; RON and JIM, eh...

So this puzzle isn't perfect -- I probably wouldn't put it in my personal puzzle pantheon -- but I do think it is pretty good, and I'm proud of it.

Some bullets before I go:

  • The vast majority of the clues are mine, although one thing Caleb did is add the names "White" and "Rice" explicitly to the theme clues.  In my version, these were absent.  I like the way I did it better, but I understand what Caleb was doing.  He was making it less opaque for the solver, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Also, I would've liked circles around the Whites and Rices, but the BZF software apparently can't do circles in grids. 
  • Another notable Caleb clue is "Inanimate opponent of a costly American war with many prisoners," which I very much appreciate and agree with politically (Johann Hari's book on the subject Chasing the Scream is fantastic), but, in this case, I went with something easier, because I was worried that little section could be unsolvable otherwise (again, Ron White and Jim Rice, aren't exactly Walter White and Condoleeza Rice).  Also, I would have used the word "in" instead of "of" in the clue.  Using "of" makes it sound like the drugs are part of an anitwar movement.  
  • I like my clue for TRUMP.
  • When DEPECHE MODE came out with their album Violator, I played it so much at my friend's house that he crushed it with a skateboard.  It was his CD.
  • Caleb didn't like EMERSONS as an answer, but ultimately let it stand.  I don't mind plural last names because we use them all the time -- "Keeping up with the Joneses" and whatnot.
  • Jim Rice, fine ballplayer, not a deserving Hall of Famer.
  • Glen Rice, fine basketball player, also probably really did once hook up with Sarah Palin -- not that it's any of my business (but I read the Deadspin article on it all the same).
  • In my last post, I described Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" as "number one on the 'Songs that are Actually Really Good But that You Can't Stand Because You've Heard Them Over and Over and Over Again' list."  Well, if that's the case, "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes is a close second.  Let's go out on a different cut from Jack and Meg instead.

Addendum: A few hours after posting this I received an email Caleb sent to contributors stating that the BZF puzzle will continue in its three-puzzle-a-week format (MWF), and that Tuesday and Thursday will be devoted to smaller puzzles.  Cool!  He also said to keep submitting puzzles as usual, so I will probably do that.  All I need is a great idea -- anybody got one?

Friday, December 18, 2015

A New Old New York Times Themeless Puzzle

[Grid shot lifted from Diary of a Crossword Fiend]

The good thing about getting a crossword puzzle published in the New York Times is that you get a crossword puzzle published in the New York Times.  It's a big audience, certainly in the thousands, probably in the hundred-thousands (in the millions? probably not), and likely containing a handful of very famous people, by whom I would be completely star-struck if I peeped into their kitchens in the morning and saw them solving my puzzle over cups of coffee.  (Being a huge baseball fan, after seeing Wordplay, I like to imagine Mike Mussina has done a few of my puzzles.)  The bad thing about getting a crossword puzzle published in the New York Times is that the process is l-o-ng.  The turn-around time -- the time it takes from submission to publication -- is at least a few months and often (and in this case) a few years.

In the past, this hasn't been such a big deal.  The solver doesn't know (or care) when a puzzle is submitted and the essential elements of a good crossword puzzle aren't usually that time sensitive -- a good bit of word play in 2015 is still going to be a good bit of word play in 2017, and if a splashy word or phrase doesn't hold up for at least a few years, it's probably not as splashy as you think.  Lately, however, I've been finding the submission-to-publication lag very annoying.  The reason is that about three years ago I started constructing themeless puzzles that were good enough to publish.  I built up an NYT cache of five or so puzzles and now they are starting to run.  (One ran in September, another ran in April.)  This is fantastic, I'm stoked about it, but it would have been fantasticer, and I would have been stokeder about it three years ago, when the puzzles were representative of my current work.  I've really tried to make strides toward improving my themeless puzzles, and I feel like I have, so it's a bit -- I'm not sure what the right word is, dismaying is too strong -- irksome? -- that's not right either, but I'll go with it for lack of a better option -- it's a bit irksome to see work I did when I was very much a themeless-puzzle novice being published today when I've since stepped up my game.

I can't help but focus on the flaws of my earlier puzzles -- the things I would change today -- instead of just enjoying them.  I did it a bit with my last two NYT puzzles, and I'm doing it big time today.  The first thing I did when I saw this grid recently was cringe at the bottom section: REPOT, TSOS, ARBORED, MERLINS (partially saved by Will's Harry Potter clue) all in the same section, with INSTR just a stone's throw away -- that's just shabby fill.  There are many good things in this puzzle too (it did get published after all), but the bad parts bother me more than the good parts make me happy.

And it's not just that I'm being my own worst critic.  I recently had a themeless puzzle run at BuzzFeed that I made just a few months ago that think is superb (seriously, check it out, if you haven't already); it's that I know I could do this puzzle better today, and so it feels as if I'm looking at an inferior version of my work.  And that's a little frustrating.

But, when it comes down to it, nobody but me really cares anyway, so let's do some quick bullet points and call it a post...

  • The highlight of this puzzle for me is definitely WIFFLEBALL.  It's a nice lively answer, with a major personal connection, as I spent much of my youth playing Wiffle Ball Home Run Derby.  In fact, one summer, when I was about 14, I played a full "season" of it with my friend Jeff, where we each adopted a major league lineup (he was the Braves; I was the Mariners) and carefully record our stats after each game on his Apple IIe computer (it was old even back then).  Because I'm such a baseball obsessive (have you seen my book?), I would bat from the same side of the plate as the real player I was emulating even though I couldn't really hit left-handed.  Come to think of it, I couldn't really hit right-handed either.  I didn't win very often.
  • I got BELLYLAUGH from Jenny McCarthy's book "Belly Laughs," which is currently sitting on my bookshelf.  I'm not exactly sure how it got there, and I haven't read it, but I bet it's hilarious!  I'm being sarcastic, if you couldn't tell.  Jenny McCarthy is not funny... especially when it comes to her "well-researched" views on vaccines.
  • Where have you gone, Mr. AYKROYD?  I saw Ghostbusters again recently (still holds up, for the most part), and one thing I was struck by was how much the Ghostbusters smoke throughout the movie.  I don't think that would fly today.  Your protagonist can smoke bad guys without remorse, but he (or she, but mostly he, it's Hollywood after all) can't be shown smoking a cigarette.  It's a bad message for the kids.
  • I posit that Queen's ARENAROCK anthem "Another One Bites the Dust" is number one on the "Songs that are Actually Really Good But that You Can't Stand Because You've Heard Them Over and Over and Over Again" list.  Seriously, the bass line is great, and Freddie Mercury kills it on vocals.  If I had never heard Queen before, and somebody played me this song, I'm sure it would blow my mind.  Instead, when I hear this song, I want to blow off my head.  (Not literally -- stop gun violence!)
  • I will leave you with the song "Blackbird."  It was originally performed by those Fab Four MOPTOPS and later used in a cover of EAZYE's song "Boyz-n-the-Hood."  It's a fitting way to go out.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Making of BuzzFeed Themeless 8: A (Darlene) Love Story

I had a great idea.  I was going to make a three-minute video about the making of this crossword puzzle.  It’s just the type of silly, self-indulgent project I would find enjoyable.  I was going to put the empty grid of my puzzle on the screen, and then show it being filled in while I provide background narration, talking a bit about the process, but mainly giving fun facts about the marquee entries.  I was also going to show relevant pictures and YouTube clips.  I was going to do this for every crossword puzzle I make -- this one would be the first.  It was going to be a new “thing.”  And it was going to be great!

The problem is that I don’t really know how to do this.  The only software I know how to use that can even kinda make videos like this is PowerPoint, but when I actually sat down to make such a PowerPoint presentation things quickly fell apart.  I made a short test video, and the sound quality was not great, the animation was choppy, and my narration was stilted.  Nothing flowed.  I probably could have lived with this, but the bigger problem is that I could not figure out how to make the YouTube videos work right.  I got horribly frustrated, and then my three-month-old son started crying, so I just deleted everything in a fit of pique, and that was that.  But still, I think it is a good idea.  A short, witty (well, hopefully witty) video about the making of a crossword puzzle – somebody would watch that, right?


BuzzFeed Themeless 8.

[This grid shot was lifted from Amy Reynaldo's excellent "Diary of a Crossword Fiend" blog.  Please don't sue me for copyright infringement.]

I started this puzzle with SWEEPTHELEG.  It was my only seed answer.  It comes, of course, from the 1984 film “The Karate Kid.”  I saw this movie in the theater when I was seven-years-old, and I remember three things from it: 1) It was the greatest movie I had ever seen (mainly because I was seven and it was the most recent movie I had ever seen); 2) My grandpa stayed home to watch football instead of seeing it, which makes much more sense now than it did then; 3) My mom made sure to point out that the adult (Sensei Kreese) was the “real” bad guy, not the kid (Johnny).  And in watching the clip below, I say she was right.

[Sensei John Kreese was played by actor Martin Kove.  Is KOVE crossworthy?]

I really like the northwest stack of SWEEPTHELEG, THEREYOUARE, and AARONSORKIN, especially so since it led the way for HOOBASTANK to make its crossword puzzle debut (to my knowledge, anyway).  I had heard the name Hoobastank, but thought I didn’t know any of their songs, but I actually did know at least one of them.  “The Reason” got some pretty good radio play in the early twenty-aughts.  Not really my type of music.

Caleb had me redo the northeast and southwest corners because each one contained an objectionable short answer (EME and ELG, respectively).  I think the revised versions are better, although I don’t like STRIATED because it’s boring, and I don’t like LYINEYES because … well,

I do however like the pairing of IRONMIKE with TYSON, because it reminds me of one of my very favorite Nintendo games: “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!”  If you are not familiar with this game, you control a boxer who has to fight his way through a circuit of ethnically offensive stereotypes (a weak Frenchman, a mystical Indian, a drunk Russian, etc.) to earn a championship match against … a convicted sex offender!  It’s incredibly fun, though.  Just remember, a quick body blow on the third hop is the only way to defeat Bald Bull’s bull charge.

The southeast stack took me about as long to finish as the entire rest of the puzzle.  In my experience, this isn’t unusual, because by the end of the puzzle you have so many things already locked into place that there aren't that many workable options.  My breakthrough was SUPERSOAKER, which I like a lot because it's a good entry and because it's not on any of my word lists.  I just saw it organically.  Actually, I saw that SUPER------ would fit, so I just started going through all the “super” things I could think of, hoping something would work -- and something did.

I think that’s actually a decent tip for novice constructors: If you get an entry from a word list that doesn't quite work, take a moment to see if there might be a similar entry, perhaps not from a word list, that does work.  I found this to be a good way to come up with decent, never-before-used entries – or at least to finish a section that AutoFill would tell you is impossible.

Anyway, that’s my puzzle.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Here's some Darlene Love for the road. 'Tis the season!

Bonus bullets:  I wrote everything up to this point last night before seeing the final edit, so a few quick thoughts now that I've seen the final version.

  • Most the clues are my clues, but Caleb changed some to, I think, make the puzzle more BuzzFeed-y, which is good.  That's what an editor should do.  
  • I have no idea what Pen 15 is; I've never heard of "Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl;" and I disagree that technology has rendered ROTE learning useless.  (I actually think there can be great value derived from brute force memorization, but that's a whole other topic.)
  • The SUED clue got cut off in my .puz version, but it was supposed to reference a joke Bill Maher made about Donald Trump being the spawn of his mother and an orangutan.
  • Two clues I wish would have stayed: "Fighter who once chewed a man's ear off ... literally" for TYSON, and "Her boots were made for walking (and that's just what they did)" for SINATRA.  Oh well.  No biggie.
  • I like Caleb's clues for ERI, MEATPIE, FRAT, STRIATED and WARP (good misdirection, using "pervert" as a verb) better than my original clues, which were all kinda boring.
  • I think this went well.  I hope to contribute to BuzzFeed again in the future.
  • Oh, did you notice my head-shot photo?  Dapper!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

I'm Not Bicurious, But I'm Bicurious-Curious

My tenth puzzle ran today in the New York Times.  It received mixed, but I would say mostly positive, reviews from the critics.  Rex Parker wrote, "The majority of this puzzle was amazing.  The end ... well, we'll get to that..."  He really didn't like the SE corner.  Amy Reynaldo gave it four stars.  And Jeff Chen, thought it was ... just OK, maybe.  It's tough to tell with Jeff, because he isn't really a critic.  He is not going to pan a puzzle the way Rex will, and he prefers to temper even modest criticism with a compliment.  For example, he wrote, "Damon's layout doesn't allow for a lot of long (8+ letter) answers, but he does have some seven-letter slots to shore up the snazziness. FAUX FUR is a great one. I would have liked a couple more," which is about as "vicious" as he gets.  (And by the way, I like the way Jeff is, and I like Rex's and Amy's styles too; there is room in Crossworld for a range of different personalities.)

My own feeling on this puzzle: I like it, I'm proud of it, but if I made it today, I would probably do it differently.  I constructed this puzzle over two years ago, when I was very much a low-word-count novice.  Since then, I've made it a point to not only get in the "snazzy" answers, but to do so without comprising the rest of the puzzle with garbage fill and Crosswordese.  So looking back on things, I cringe when I see ALUI, AOUT, IDEE, and especially STES in my puzzle.  I wouldn't stand for this in a puzzle I made today -- I'd work and rework it until I ironed it all out of the puzzle.  But back then I simply didn't have the experience and wherewithal to do this.

But judging from the comments online, people aren't bothered much by the spate of Franco-Crosswordese.  Instead the majority of the criticism, like Rex's, is aimed at that SE corner.  ICEBEARS ("Knoxville hockey squad") seems to be the entry people find most objectionable, which is completely understandable, minor league hockey teams don't really belong in a puzzle (we can grandfather in the Houston Aeros).  The only things I'll say in my defense is that I think ice bear is also a colloquialism for polar bear, so it's (maybe) a real thing outside of being a minor league hockey mascot.  Also, it's completely inferable, and the crosses are fair.  Surprisingly, a few people (including Jeff and Rex) also balked at RAVER, which is very strange to me, as raver has been a normal word in my vocabulary for the last two decades.  I would have gone RAVEN/SCONE, if I thought RAVER was in any way illegitimate.  Also, I actually did have an alternate SE corner that used ICEBEERS instead of ICEBEARS, but I opted not to use it, because I didn't love the plural (ice beer, yes; ice beers, eh...).  Perhaps I made the wrong choice.

So this puzzle wasn't perfect, but like I said, I'm still proud of it.  If nothing else I achieved my goal of getting BLAXPLOITATION and BICURIOUS into a New York Times puzzle.  As Amy Reynaldo wrote: "I asked my husband if my answer grid should highlight BI-CURIOUS or BLAXPLOITATION and he was astonished that these are both in a crossword."  Yes!  Exactly.

Until next time...

(PS: If you are a baseball fan or a word play fan (or both) buy my book, Urban Shocker All-Stars: The 100 Greatest Baseball Names Ever.  It's a fun little read.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Merl Reagle and Two "Holy #$@&%! Moments"

I never met nor corresponded with Merl Reagle.  Truthfully, I haven't even solved many of his puzzles.  Yet, he was a big reason why I started creating crosswords puzzles -- "real" crossword puzzles -- in the first place.

One puzzle I did solve of his was his famous Simpsons puzzle.  It is still my favorite crossword puzzle of all time.  Not because it was so expertly made (although it was), but because it provided the most remarkable solving experience I've ever had.  The puzzle ran in The New York Times on November 26, 2008.  At the time, I was in graduate school putting in long hours on my dissertation.  I was feeling so stressed and so overworked that I was struggling to remain productive.  I decided it was in my best interest to take an entire day off (a "me day," if you want to be cutesy about it).  So I woke up around noon and went to the neighborhood sports bar.   There I watched NFL games, consorted with my fellow locals, and got properly buzzed off whatever shitty "domestic" (i.e., foreign conglomerate-owned) beer was on special.

After the four o'clock games had ended, I went up the street for a falafel and then walked to a bookstore and bought the day's New York Times.  I immediately took out the magazine part containing the crossword puzzle and asked the man at the register to recycle the rest of the paper.  There was no sense in pretending I was going to read any of the articles.  Plus, the Sunday paper is quite thick, and I didn't want to carry the entire thing home.

I made it back to my apartment just in time for the start of The Simpsons.  This was purely accidental.  Despite being my favorite show ever, I hadn't watch it regularly in years.  I just was just looking for something palatable to put on in the background while I solved my puzzle and waited for the late game to start -- The Simpsons happened to be it.  I had no way of knowing this particular episode of the show was going to be about the puzzle I was eagerly anticipating.

The puzzle started smoothly; I was into it, but some of the cluing seemed off to me.  I remember being particularly befuddled by the clue "Yul Brynner died the same day as ___ Welles (odd fact)".  I found that clue very, well, odd.  A more astute solver might have suspected something was up, but I'm more of a good "coffee table" solver than I am a true expert, so I just carried on as usual.  That is until Will Shortz and Merl Reagle appeared on my TV and blew my mind.  Crossword puzzle solvers live for the "a-ha moment," but seldom do we get to experience a "holy-fucking-shit moment!" like I did that night.

I excitedly barged into my roommate's room and explained everything to him and his girlfriend, knowing full well that they wouldn't care at all -- that they couldn't care at all.  Without the years of context of being a huge crossword puzzle fan and a huge Simpsons fan (they were neither), there is no reason for anybody to think this was a big deal.  But it was a big deal to me, and I had to tell the only people around, even though I knew they wouldn't get it.


Going back about a decade earlier, I had another crossword-life changing experience involving Mr. Reagle.  I was about 21 at the time, in college, and I had just started creating "crossword puzzles."  I use quotes because I had no idea what I was doing, and what I created resembled actual, publishable crossword puzzles in only the loosest sense.  My puzzles were meandering mish-mashes of words I found interesting (often sports or math words) and could fit together in some way.  There were no themes and no symmetry to the grid; two-letter words were common, as were isolated singleton squares; and the shape of the grid, although rectangular, was whatever size it was when I (arbitrarily) felt like quitting -- 12 x 15, 18 x 13, 20 x 20, whatever.  Everything was handwritten on graph paper, and if I misnumbered the grid, say, I missed 21-Down, I would add a 20-A-Down and a 20-B-Down rather than renumber a large portion of the grid.  My puzzles were awful, but still I showed them off to friends and family as if they were masterpieces.  (Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.)  I had no ambition beyond this.  The thought of publishing a puzzle never even crossed my mind.  It didn't even occur to me that one could publish a puzzle.  For as much though as I gave it, crossword puzzles appeared in the newspaper through immaculate construction.

One summer break, I went to a friend's beach house for a few days.  My friend's mom, knowing I was into crossword puzzles, gave me a Reader's Digest containing an article about crossword puzzle construction.  It was written, of course, by Merl Reagle.  I read the entire article standing in the exact place where it was handed to me (it was in Reader's Digest; it wasn't very long).  The article (which can be found in full here) gave the basics of crossword puzzle construction from A to Z.  It gave the rules and conventions of construction, discussed theme consistency, Crosswordese, and taste considerations.  It also gave me my first crossword-puzzle "holy-fucking-shit moment!".  I had no idea crossword puzzles were a "real thing" in this way.  I didn't know about themes or symmetry or word counts or any of it.  And I certainly didn't know there were people out there who spent their lives thinking about such things.  This was a new, intriguing world to me.  I felt like Ilie Nastase surely felt the first time he learned the basics of tennis or like Isao Aoki during his first round of golf.

When I returned home, I started constructing in a new light.  I also started solving vociferously to get a feel of how real crossword puzzles worked.  I still remember the first themed puzzle I constructed: It was titled PROFESSIONAL COLLABORATIONS.  And the theme answers were as follows:

Ken Shamrock collaborating with Ken Kesey, and others?  ULTIMATEWRITERS
Leonhard Euler collaborating with David Copperfield?  MATHEMAGICIAN
Madeline Albright collaborating with Marilyn Manson? SECRETARYOFHATE

It was not a publishable puzzle, even by the lower standards of the day (you might notice the inconsistent and ugly "and others" in the first clue).  But it was kinda cute, and most importantly, it looked like a publishable puzzle, and the process by which I made it could lead to a publishable puzzle.  And it did.  I had my first puzzle published in Games magazine a few years later.

Anyway, all of this is a long way of saying Merl Reagle was the man.  Even as somebody who did not know him at all, and who was not even very familiar with his work, he had a colossal influence on me as a constructor.  That's how deep and widely spread his roots were in the crossword puzzle community.

Art lives much longer than artists, so while it's true I have done very few of Merl Reagle's puzzles, this doesn't have to always be the case. Someday I hope to have the chance to "discover" him for myself.  I hear he was pretty good.