Environmentalist Leopold / FRI 1-31-20 / Command from director's chair / Jon who wrote illustrated Palindromania / Noted figure in Raphael's school of athens / treat whose name means literally flash of lightning

Friday, January 31, 2020

Constructor: John Guzzetta and Michael Hawkins

Relative difficulty: Easy (untimed, clipboard solve)

THEME: none

Word of the Day: ALDO Leopold (21A: Environmentalist ___ Leopold, author of the best-selling "A Sand County Almanac") —
Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948) was an American author, philosopher, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1949), which has sold more than two million copies.
Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation. His ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement, with his ecocentric or holistic ethics regarding land. He emphasized biodiversity and ecology and was a founder of the science of wildlife management. (wikipedia)
• • •

This was OK. Fine. No strong negative or positive reactions from me. I wish there had been more remarkable fill. GRYFFINDOR was nice (28D: Potter's house). MIND BLOWN is an expression that already feels trite and annoying, but crossword puzzle-wise I guess it counts as "fresh" (12D: [Jaw hits the floor]) Everything else was just sort of TETRIS-y, i.e. the pieces fell into place, and that's that. I was surprised at how easy it was. Usually when I solve just upon waking, there are still some cobwebs and my solve feels a little sluggish, at least initially. But here, it was SPARS to REI to INDIA and on and on, without a single hesitation until the entire NW was done and I was way down in the SW—first clue I looked at where I didn't guess the answer instantly was 32D: Temptation to steal (WILD PITCH). I had WIL- in place and no idea. But a few seconds later I had the next two letters from crosses and I was off to the races again. First annoyance came at 52D: Jon who wrote and illustrated "Palindromania!" (AGEE). This is some crosswordese that is supposed to appeal to puzzle / word people but for me does the opposite. You've got AGEE in your grid. Just go with James. You want to add difficulty to your puzzle, make the clues for the other stuff harder. Don't lard the grid with short names you decided to get cute with—today, not just AGEE but COE (who?) and ALDO (same). Because the grid is on the bland side, my most lasting impression of the puzzle was "why are all these dudes of marginal fame in this grid?"

I thought the palindrome dude was gonna mess me up pretty bad because neither 56A: D-day (GO TIME) nor 60A: Noted figure in Raphael's "School of Athens" (EUCLID) came to me from their first few crosses, but MIL gave me the fourth cross for both answers, and both answers then became clear and again I was off. Slowest part of the puzzle for me was the SE because I unhesitatingly wrote in UNFRIEND at 61A: Spurn on social media (UNFOLLOW). It's a much bigger deal to UNFRIEND someone than to simply UNFOLLOW them. I also wanted BOLD (correct!) DEED (nope!) at 58A: Bit of derring-do (BOLD MOVE). My answer seems correcter. DEED seems more apt for the swashbuckling suggested by "derring-do." BOLD MOVE could apply in any context. But the answers in the grid aren't wrong. They just trapped me, temporarily. Didn't take me too long to climb out, and then it was smooth sailing to the end in the NE, where only ALDO gave me any pause. I didn't know the COWGIRLS song (whereas I know at least two songs where BIGGIRLS don't cry), but I never fell for BIG because the CO- was already in place. Not sure why the clue doesn't mention the artist: Brooks & Dunn (feat. REBA!) are big names in country music (27A: Ones who "Don't Cry," according to a 2008 country hit). Looking back over the grid, I'm really glad I never saw the COE clue (!?) (26A: George ___, original cast member of "S.N.L."), and I'm really glad the shoe guy (MCAN) was a gimme (23D: Last name on a shoe box), because otherwise that MCAN / COE cross could've been treacherous. That is all.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Official of ancient Rome / THU 1-30-20 / Arrow poison / Gift that comes in pieces / Star Wars Jedi familiarly

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Constructor: Emily Carroll 

Relative difficulty: Easy (time irrelevant as I still don't have the rebus-function on my solving software down pat yet, so I had to figure out the keystroke pattern and kept getting it wrong ... so I restarted time but at that point I was about a quarter done with the grid ... I dunno, rebuses are weird, time-wise depending on how you're doing the multiple-letter thing; point is, it was not hard)

THEME: PLAY HIDE AND SEEK (40A: Participate in a common children's game, as illustrated in this puzzle) — IT is in the NW corner, ME is in the SE corner, and various squares in between contain temperatures representing the relative distance of that square from ME (farthest away = COLD; next closest = COOL, next closest = WARM; closest = HOT)

Theme answers:
Word of the Day: CURARE (2D: Arrow poison) —
1a complex poison of South American Indians used on arrow tips that causes muscle relaxation and paralysis, includes various substances of plant and animal origin, and typically contains an alkaloid extracted from one of two South American vines (Strychnos toxifera of the family Loganiaceae or Chondodendron tomentosum of the family Menispermaceae) as the primary active ingredient (wikipedia)
• • •

Got the rebus thing instantly with IT COUPLE. Well, "got" may be an overstatement, as I wasn't entirely sure, but IT COUPLE was my first guess, and though I didn't get the "IT'S A JOB" cross right away, IT felt like a probably opener. After that, the rebus squares seemed like random words to me. I got COOL next and had no idea what COOL had to do with IT ... although, I guess IT is cool, in the sense of IT COUPLE. Like ... people think they're cool!? OK. Puzzle's not giving me any trouble yet, so I just roll with it. Then I get the COLD square and I really give up on understanding this thing. Even After Getting The Revealer, I had no idea what the rebus squares are about, which leads me to the one big thing that keeps this puzzle from working: the whole COLD, WARM, HOT thing has (and I can't say this strongly enough) *nothing* to do with playing hide-and-seek. This puzzle conflates two related but decidedly different games: hide-and-seek and some variation of hunt-the-thimble (where an *object* is hidden and someone tries to find it while being given the familiar temperature clues). Yes, you could say that figuratively the seeker (IT) is cool, warm, etc., but that is definitely not not not part of the game. It's too bad that it's off, because I like the idea. It's a cute and ambitious concept, and it's pretty neatly executed. It's a nice variation on the rebus puzzle. But the fact that hide-and-seek just doesn't work this way is really hard to see past.

Too bad the theme clunks, because the grid looks pretty good. Pretty good except for:

  • EDILE (59D: Official of ancient Rome) — fine, it's a term, but it's a bit of an obscurity and reeks of the Maleskan era. Really stands out (badly) in a grid that's otherwise pretty free of old crosswordese.
  • TEHEES (10D: Snickers) — I will never come around on even the singular TEHEE, to say nothing of the plural. I've only ever heard the vowel sounds in the first and second syllable as the same, a long "E," so that one-"E"'d first syllable is always going to feel wrong to me.
  • NON-PC (52A: Like much stand-up comedy) — as *I* have said, for years now, the concept of PC, and the answers UNPC and NONPC, are guh-arbage. The term "PC" was made up by racist sexist homophobic ****s who wanted to continue to be able to say racist sexist homphobic things while never hearing criticism. Someone is only being "PC" when they're put off by something *you're* not put off by. But your sensitivities are probably just fine. Manly and patriotic, even. Whatever. You can shove allllll the "PC"-related answers very very far ... away. 
Nothing else bugged me that much. 

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Nightcap go-with in brief / WED 1-29-20 / Robotic supervillain in first Avengers sequel / Spanish table wine / Female compadre / Drooping flower feature

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Constructor: Jeremy Newton

Relative difficulty: Challenging (for me ... some names were ???? and the cluing was horrendous all around)

THEME: [Want an actor...] — actors whose last names + FOR can mean "want" are used as objects of desire in phrases that pun on their names:

Theme answers:
  • LONG FOR NIA (17A: Want an actress from "Soul Food")
  • PINE FOR CHRIS (23A: Want an actor from "Wonder Woman")
  • JONES FOR JANUARY (36A: Want an actress from "Mad Men")
  • YEN FOR DONNIE (44A: Want an actor from "Rogue One")
  • HOPE FOR BOB (55A: Want an actor from "Here Come the Girls")
Word of the Day: Donnie Yes (44A) —
Donnie Yen Ji-dan[2] (Chinese甄子丹; born 27 July 1963) is a Hong Kong actor, martial artist, film director, producer, action choreographer, stuntman and multiple-time world wushu tournament champion ("Wushu" is the Chinese term for "martial arts" (武 "Wu" = military or martial, 術 "Shu" = art).) (wikipedia)
• • •

Not to put to fine a point on it, but ... this was bracingly terrible. Not gonna spend much time writing about it because I liked literally no part of it ... [scans grid] ... FINE POINT, maybe I liked FINE POINT? ... but that's it (3D: Common kind of pen for illustrators). The theme is corny and gets thinner as you go on. The themers are all so much from the same universe, being actors, so that's not great from an exclusionary standpoint (i.e. big movie fans in, others can f off), and they're also from the Same Damn Kind of *&$^% Blockbuster Franchise Sequel Movie I Have Given Up Watching. Two superhero movies *and* a Star Wars universe movie (*and* you want me to choke down ULTRON too? Come on) (59A: Robotic supervillain in the first "Avengers" sequel). When I talk about having "balance" in your grid, this ... decidedly Is Not It. Also never heard of Donnie Yen, which doesn't mean he's not worth knowing, just that his name familiarity is an outlier and I would've liked to meet him maybe in a regular clue for YEN first. Also, YEN is not a verb (no, stop, put your dictionary away, be real, it's not. You have a YEN for someone, you don't YEN for them. You don't). Also, why did you exhume Bob Hope for this. There are outliers and then there are ooouuuutttttlllliiiieeeerrrrrsssss. Also, "HOPE FOR" is even weaker than "YEN FOR" in that "hope" doesn't even come close to evoking the same kind of desire as the other verbs. EFS all around for the theme (also, an ef for EFS, which is bad).

Had RAISE and thought ??? Then it ended up being ... A BET??! Just ... RAISE A BET!?!?!  ugh that is about as real and solid as PARK A CAR and anyway you've already got your stupid POKER clue over there in the center, stop bludgeoning me. OLA is bad, CrapOLA is so much worse (though it does describe this puzzle). All the tricky or "?" clues were torture, and not the good kind of torture where you finally get it and think "ah, good one." The bad kind, where you have to struggle and are ultimately left only with a disappointed "oh" or a "what?!" [The buck stops here] is a horrible clue, and I mean horrible clue, for BANK. Not even a "?" on that stupid thing??? It's not literally true! What am I, an 8-year old in 1964 taking a single dollar bill to the BANK? Ugh. I actually had to run the alphabet at 39A: They're often lit (_OTS) because oh we're still making fun of alcoholics with cutesy clues, and also, until I got JANUARY there was no way on god's green that I was going to think PJS was a [Nightcap go-with, in brief]. Never. If you'd added [, maybe], then ... maybe. But otherwise, those aren't sufficiently related to qualify for "go-with." You went to [Danish coins] for ØRE, why why why? Foreign coinage and diacritically marked letters (like Ø and Ñ) are things you steer away from, not smash into. The EPA no longer seeks clean skies, or clean anything, please stop pretending.  Its current leader is *literally* opposed to limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Stop. Pretending. BYA BYA BYA! I mean, bye.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

P.S. an ARIA = "bars" (musical passages) for a "single" (i.e. soloist), hence (16A: Single's bars?).

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March Madness quartet / TUE 1-28-20 / Branch of mathematics concerned with Möbius strips Klein bottles / Keyboard shortcut for undo on PC / Disposable drink receptacle popular at parties / Parlor ink for short / Body scan for claustrophobe

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Constructor: Trenton Charlson

Relative difficulty: Easy (untimed clipboard solve)

THEME: FINAL FOUR (62A: March Madness quartet ... or, collectively, the second parts of 17-, 25-, 37- and 51-Across?) — second parts of themers are W, X, Y, and Z, respectively, i.e. the FINAL FOUR letters of the alphabet:

Theme answers:
  • COMPOUND W (17A: "The wart stops here" sloganeer)
  • MALCOLM X (25A: Civil rights activist with a Harlem thoroughfare named after him)
  • GENERATION Y (37A: So-called "millennials")
  • CONTROL-Z (51A: Keyboard shortcut for "undo," on a PC)
Word of the Day: NRA (43A: New Deal inits.) —
The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was a prime New Deal agency established by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in 1933. The goal of the administration was to eliminate "cut throat competition" by bringing industry, labor, and government together to create codes of "fair practices" and set prices. The NRA was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and allowed industries to get together and write "codes of fair competition." The codes intended both to reduce "destructive competition" and help workers to set minimum wages and maximum weekly hours, as well as minimum prices at which products could be sold. The NRA also had a two-year renewal charter and was set to expire in June 1935 if not renewed. (wikipedia)
• • •

How hard would it have been to run this on a Tuesday in, let's say, March? I know the theme doesn't have anything to do with college basketball, but with a revealer clue like that, running the puzzle in any month but March just seems silly. You've got at least four Tuesdays in March, right? I doubt you've already got four March-specific Tuesday puzzles lined up for 2020, so why not hold this one? First Tuesday in March? Would've made the revealer much punchier, much more Aha! Oho! AHH. One of those. Running it in January is a bit of a GROANER. But that's not the puzzle's fault, obviously, and I think as Tuesday puzzles go, this one was fine. And it was Very easy, so people are going to enjoy it for that reason if for nothing else. The letter string gimmick feels slight—you could do it with other letter strings—say A, B, C, D or L, M, N, O, P—though the revealer gives it some cohesiveness (yet Another reason to run this thing in the correct month—that revealer has to do a lot of work: help it out!). I found the start of the solve slightly off-putting—all HOODOO and warts—but after that, with the exception of the occasional short gunk you get with almost every puzzle, the fill on this was smooth and even vibrant at times (OPEN MRI, TOPOLOGY, GRANDEUR, THE SAMECOYOTE ... I like all canids). And the themers were also interesting—though I've never used CONTROL-Z in my life and no one uses GENERATION Y. Still, those are valid phrases. Overall, very acceptable work.

The only speed bumps today came early on with the perennial "is it AAH or AHH????" question right off the bat at 1A: Sigh of satisfaction (AHH), an (ironically) unpleasant way to begin. I always want AAH for the relaxation sound, as the vowel should be drawn out (to my ear), but today, AHH it is. Then just figuring out HOODOO took most of the crosses (2D: Jinx). Thought there might be something about "hoax" in there, and then even after getting HOOD- thought, "HOODED?" Then since I thought 24A: Zoom up was something you do on your motorbike, not your airplane (SOAR), well, I think I spent more time with that answer than I spent with the entire bottom half of the grid. I didn't even see some of the Acrosses in the SW (where I finished up). Glad I didn't see NRA—I'm grateful they didn't use the gun clue, but if you throw a random Alphabet Soup clue at me, I'm just going to be confused. Do you have any idea how many [New Deal inits.] there are?? But I lucked into getting all the crosses and never actually seeing the clue. Hurray! I think I had RAVED before I had RAN ON (15A: Yakked and yakked)—I definitely wanted one past-tense word—but nothing else in the grid proved an obstacle for even a moment after I got out of the N/NW. Tight theme, smooth fill, easy clues. I've done (much) worse Tuesdays.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Gaucho's weapon / MON 1-27-20 / Utah city of more than 100,000 / Avian hooter / Culinary concoction much used in French cuisine / Title role for Jude Law in 2004 remake

Monday, January 27, 2020

Constructor: Timothy Polin

Relative difficulty: Medium (actually slow for me at 3:17 because of a couple wrong short answers)

THEME: MOUSTACHES (60A: Archetypically villainous features possessed by the answers to the starred clues) — sigh, whatever

Theme answers:
  • DR. FU MANCHU (18A: *Sinister genius in a series of Sax Rohmer novels)
  • YOSEMITE SAM (23A: *Quick-tempered, gun-toting, rabbit-hating toon)
  • SNIDELY WHIPLASH (38A: *Dudley Do-Right's enemy in old TV cartoons)
  • CAPTAIN HOOK (51A: *Chief pirate in Neverland)

Word of the Day: BOLA (17A: Gaucho's weapon) —
a cord with weights attached to the ends for throwing at and entangling an animal (merriam-webster.com)
• • •

This is a weak theme with terrible fill. Seriously, the short stuff is overwhelmingly yuck. Inexcusably hackneyed and tired. And the theme, sure, if you are an older person who likes remembering ... things  ... then yay, there's SNIDELY WHIPLASH, I guess, but the very premise of this theme is absurd in 2020. Or even 1980. Tom Selleck would like a word, is what I'm saying.

[every dude on this show had a mustache!]

I guess this puzzle is fueled by pop culture nostalgia ... of some kind. I don't get it. MOUSTACHES is a dud of a revealer. Also, in American English, it's more (or very) commonly "mustaches." Look it up!

So much of this puzzle is "of old." You can start with the entire set of themers. But then "I'M A PC" is old (and not even iconic, frankly), the very idea of an AD WAR, or a HI MOM sign, seems old. Even the remake of the old movie feels old (7D: Title role for Jude Law in a 2004 remake) (ALFIE). But mostly the fill just feels stale and tired or odd. A single MADLIB? The absurd "laugh" TEHEE. ATON of ETTA and ONAIR and EST SHO ETAIL PSST ACCT YEP OUTTA SOPH AGLOW SWM ALMA. The best thing in the grid is IDLE THREAT, which I had a ton of trouble getting because I had ASAP at 47A: "Right away!" ("STAT!"). Man, it really hurts when you make a mistake you would never have made if you didn't have that *one* letter in place (in this case, the "A") that just happens to be shared by the correct answer and your wrong answer. Anyway, stared at IDLE P- for too long before realizing the "P" was wrong. Weird that the thing that held me up the most was the thing I liked the most, but there you are. Not much else to say. A shrug of a theme with a dud of a revealer and fill from Olde-Timey Mediocrity Land. I will admit to being in something of a bummer of a mood because of the death of LAKER legend Kobe Bryant and his 13yo daughter, Gianna, as well as another family, in a helicopter crash on Sunday. News that Kobe died stunned me. News that his daughter also died broke me a little. I don't have anything profound to say about all this. Just trying to give context to my solving / blogging mood. Take care, everyone.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

UPDATE: On second thought, maybe "villainous" isn't soooo wrong...

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Pollution portmanteau / SUN 1-26-20 / Zen garden accessory / Crossword-loving detective on Brooklyn Nine Nine / Holder of single-game WNBA scoring record 53 points / It got some Xtra flavor in 2001 / Spanish month that anagrams to zodiac sign

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Constructor: Erik Agard

Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging for me, very easy for everyone else (I'm seeing lots of "personal record!"s, while I was in the 11s somewhere, i.e. slower than average)

THEME: "Food Engineering" — Note: "When this puzzle is finished, change one letter in the last word in the answer to each asterisked clue to name a food. The replacement letters, in order, will spell an appropriate phrase." The phrase is BREAK BREAD. Here's how you get there:

Theme answers:
  • SKINNY JEANS (beans, B)
  • TIME FLIES (fries, R)
  • BAR GRAPHS (grapes, E)
  • RIP CURRENTS (currants, A)
  • WHAT A STEAL (steak, K)
  • LIZ CAMBAGE (cabbage, B)
  • CORNER BOOTH (broth, R)
  • EYE POPPER (pepper, E)
  • COPY PASTE (pasta, A)
  • UP AND VANISH (danish, D)
Word of the Day: LIZ CAMBAGE (66A: *Holder of single-game W.N.B.A. scoring record (53 points)) —
Elizabeth "Liz" Cambage (born 18 August 1991) is an Australian professional basketballplayer who plays for the Las Vegas Aces of the Women's National Basketball Association(WNBA) and the Australian Opals. Cambage currently holds the WNBA single-game scoring record with her 53 point performance against the New York Liberty on 17 July 2018. (wikipedia)
• • •

Very unpleasant solve for me, only some of which is the puzzle's fault. My software was lagging, so I'd type or move the cursor, but nothing would happen for a second or so, and then all the backed-up keyboard strokes I'd made would happen at once. Fantastically annoying. Also, for some reason my software did NOT alert me to the "note" (in AcrossLite you get a little yellow note symbol, but in Black Ink ... I think the notebox is just supposed to pop up, but for whatever reason it didn't this time, so at the end, when I was all done, I kept looking at the themers wondering what the Hell was going on. I could see almost-foods, like DVANISH was almost "danish" and ... well, TASTE is embedded in "WHAT A STEAL!" and that's *kinda* related to food. Eventually, I went in to manually check to see if there were puzzle notes and bam, there they were. At that point, following directions made uncovering the hidden message easy, and dull. Paint by numbers. Totally anticlimactic. I'm used to doing really interesting meta-puzzles every week (between Matt Gaffney's Crossword Contest and the Friday WSJ contest), so this one ... just seemed anemic by comparison. I guess it's not really a meta, since you don't have to piece anything together—it's all spelled out for you. But I'd prefer a full-blown meta, a crossword contest of some sort, to this hand-holding "note" baloney. There's gotta be some middle ground between complete inscrutability and spoon-feeding. Anyway, the theme is what it is, and if you liked it, cool. It fell flat for me. *Admittedly* the tech lag and the "note" issues put me in a foul, frustrated mood. Still, I think this wasn't as interesting as it could've been. It's basically a Sunday-sized themeless, but at the end, you can go find a theme if you want. Shrug.

What's also frustrating is the way crosswords made by constructors I very much like have (here and in other venues) been playing really fast and loose with proper names, niche terms, slang, etc. I love learning new things from puzzles, particularly since our popular culture is increasingly segmented and fewer and fewer things can be counted on to be truly "popular" in the sense of "familiar to many different demographics"; pre-internet, even if I didn't watch a TV show, see a movie, listen to a particular band, there was a good chance I at least knew it existed. Today, even being a sports fan / old movie fan / watcher of TV / extremely online person, I don't even have purchase on sizeable areas of culture that are *very* popular (gaming is a good example; anything having to do with reality TV is another). I love that younger constructors are adding their personal predilections and fandoms to the vocabulary of crosswords, but, as with *any* proper name that is not truly universally well known, you *have* to mind your crosses, and the less mainstream your answer, the more you have to take care that surrounding / crossing fill is gettable. It's just polite. You want to invite people *in* to your world, not shut them out on an uninferrable cross. Anyway, this is all to say that LIZ CAMBAGE was, until the very end, a string of random letters to me, and several adjacent answers made putting her name together somewhat brutal. MALODOR? Definitely inferrable, but used by no one and archaic (poetic?) (67D: Bad smell). Then the whole Lisa BONET clue, what the heck (70A: Lisa who "ate no basil," in a palindrome). If you'd just given me a "Cosby Show" clue, or a "Different World" clue, or even an "Angel Heart" clue (the only Lisa BONET movie I've seen, I think), then maybe, but this palindrome clue??? which is basically just saying (I figured out, eventually) that her name is spelled backward in the quoted phrase!?!? So confusing. Also, that is not a famous palindrome. I guess the full palindrome is just "Lisa BONET ate no basil"? Is that it? Sigh. The worst, though, was SMAZE, a word I've never seen ever ever outside of maybe in a crossword once or twice (52D: Pollution portmanteau). I had SMA- and ... nothing. No hope. Eventually, I had SMA-E and ran the alphabet. Also, LIZ makes a woman's name, so I just prayed the "Z" was right and moved on. A singularly icky experience, that whole area.

Speaking of icky, and stying In That Same Area: BLEAH (70D: "Ugh!"). You will or will not be surprised to find out that BLEAH ... is a debut. It's never appeared in a NYTXW before. I submit that this is because it is not a real sound one makes with one's mouth. I would accept (and did try) BLECH before I accepted (or tried) BLEAH. BLAH and BLEH are real. BLECH is very Mad Magazine, which makes it real. BLEAH, I have no idea. It's like ... when you have your primary LEAH, the LEAH you really like, and then your backup: B LEAH. And then adjacent to *that* was ALLTOO, also very hard to pick up (74D: Alarmingly). So basically everything from ALLTOO NW to SMAZE and LIZ CAMBAGE was a disaster. Very rough going. I *did* end up getting it all. But it felt awful. And ALOG is in there too, further BLEAHing things up. Honestly, the rest of the puzzle is kind of a blur. There are good answers in there (e.g. GRAMMAR POLICE and Beethoven's PIANO SONATAS, a new album of which I was literally listening to just this morning). But between the half-baked (!) theme and that whole CAMBAGE-y area, the time I had was more bad than good.

On the Clipboard (observations from the Week in Crosswords):
  • I actually liked a Bruce Haight puzzle for the first time in my life ... and it appeared in the LA Times (???!). How does this guy get a jillion puzzles into the NYT, none of them enjoyable (to me), and then somehow his LAT puzzle is good. I like to think it was rejected by the NYT. I know my best themed puzzle (back when I made puzzle) was rejected by the NYT and published by the LAT, so it wouldn't be the first time. Anyway, he had a nifty little RAISE MONEY puzzle on Thursday, where monetary units appeared inside long Down themers, running backward (i.e. upward, hence the whole "raise" concept). Even the revealer had some raised money in it (YEN!). The rest of the grid was also interesting and not BLEAH (!). This was definitely one of the nicer puzzle suprises of the week.
  • That same puzzle also had one of my favorite clues of the week: [You basked for it] => TAN. Though the clue of the week was very definitely a NYTXW clue—that [Ernst & Young locale] clue for SENATE. Gold.
  • I saw VSCOGIRL as the answer in some crossword (I want to say a New Yorker) and then (just a couple days ago, saw VSCO girl in a clue in the AVXC crossword by Aimee Lucido ("Word Wide Web"). I asked my daughter what the hell "VSCO girl" was and even when she described it to me, it didn't make much sense. Anyway, here's some info, in case "VSCO girl" somehow makes its way into a grid near you.
  • Erik Agard (today's constructor!) continues to do a bang-up job as editor of the USA Today crossword (where women constructors are currently responsible for 76% of this year's puzzles so far) (NYT currently at 20%, which is actually up a tad from recent years). Erik does this great thing with his editing where he freshens up old fill with new clues, often in ways that highlight women or people of color instead of the predictable (often white male) stand-bys. On Thursday, for instance, he gave us an ASHTON that was not Kutcher but Sanders (an actor in the Academy Award-winning "Moonlight"), and instead of Mike ROWE (or whatever other ROWEs there are), we got [Sportscaster Holly] ROWE, who is a sideline college football reporter for ESPN. In both cases, the crosses for those answers are unimpeachably fair, so you aren't left hanging or weirdly struggling if you don't happen to know who these people are (I actually knew neither of them by name, though by sight I definitely know Holly ROWE). Anway, this is good, inclusive editing, and I'm thrilled by it.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Fancy term for a long prison sentence / SAT 1-25-20 / Musical family from Cremona / Olden land north of anglia / Pistolet par exemple / One-third of literary trio

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Constructor: Stella Zawistowski

Relative difficulty: Medium (7-something, with another minute to hunt down an error)

THEME: none

Word of the Day: DURANCE VILE (55A: Fancy term for a long prison sentence) —

durance vile

long prison sentence. He's a known criminal, that's why he's in durance vile. (the free dictionary (idioms))
• • •

This played very unevenly for me. Struggled to start (I feel like I say this every day—maybe that's just the norm), even though DEFAT was a gimme. Never heard of NEGGA (or "Loving," though now that I look at the movie poster, yes, I have heard of it) (3D: Actress Ruth of "Loving") and couldn't see TRUES from the clue and had no idea what a "lemniscate" is and the other Acrosses were just never gonna come. Then later, the SE corner also ground me to a halt, with its honestly ridiculously obscure DURANCE VILE. But as for the rest of the grid, I tore through it like it wasn't there. Can't believe how easy the NE was (30 seconds, tops, for the whole thing), and since PALAVER is a great word that I enjoy, and TRANSFER was a piece of cake, I also got into the SW easily and destroyed it. So two corners were slogs, and the other two I don't remember because they were so easy. I do like 5/6 of the long Acrosses in this thing, and the long Downs are more than solid, so the bones of this one are mostly good. I just wish the difficulty had been way more evenly distributed, and that DURANCE VILE had never ever shown its ridiculous face. I mean, I couldn't even find a good definition of it. Dictionaries have "durance" in them, and they say "usually in the phrase 'durance vile," but then They Do Not Tell Me What That Is. One of the references for DURANCE VILE at freedictionary.com was a book called "Endangered Phrases," which gives you some idea of its, uh, currency. I think the word "Fancy" is outright horrid here. It's meaningless. Unless ... would you use it at black tie events, when discussing your former broker's prison term? Fancy??? The term and the clue are vile. Because "durant" means "during" or "lasting" in French, I put a "T" where the "C" was supposed to go, figuring that maybe "I Love Lucy" was on (in reruns??) on TBS and the clue was just getting cute (57D: "I Love Lucy" network (CBS)). You have to treat answers that outside-common-parlance as if they were nuclear. It would be great if they weren't in the grid at all, but if you really have to use them: crosses, crosses, crosses. Mind your crosses.

Had the "A" at 19A: Burning feeling (ANGER) and wanted at least three different things, none of them ANGER: I wanted AGITA, I wanted ARSON, and I wanted ARDOR. Weirdly started this solve with LAG SOLES -ING (inferred suffix of 8D) DOWNS WAR, and then just sat there going nowhere for a bit. Then I went and got NEE MOHEL ENT, and things started to move. Worst mistake I made all day was probably EVE for NYE (56D: Dec. 31). I mean, I was close, in that NYE stands for New Year's EVE, but ... no. And since I had EVE running through what was supposed to be DURANCE VILE, well, I wasn't getting any help undoing EVE until I finally changed SLIDE to FLUME at 45D: Water park feature; then, after trying to think of *any* literary EMILs besides the titular character in "Emil and the Detectives," I eventually just got BRONTË and worked backward. EMILY. NYE. OK. Not with a bang but a whimper, as TSE says.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Hit 2018 film involving gay teenage romance / FRI 1-24-20 / Virtual animal on once-popular website / Term of address for drag queen / John who explored northern Canada / Musical set on Greek island / Finger-pointing activity colloquially / Does some backup dancing / One-named singer whose name sounds like goodbye

Friday, January 24, 2020

Constructor: Scott Earl

Relative difficulty: Easy (more Easy-Medium for me, but people I know seem to be killing it)

THEME: none

Word of the Day: "LOVE, SIMON" (15A: Hit 2018 film involving a gay teenage romance) —
Love, Simon is a 2018 American romantic teen comedy-drama film directed by Greg Berlanti, written by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, and based on the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. The film stars Nick RobinsonJosh Duhamel, and Jennifer Garner. It centers on Simon Spier, a closeted gay high school boy who is forced to balance his friends, his family, and the blackmailer threatening to out him to the entire school, while simultaneously attempting to discover the identity of the anonymous classmate with whom he has fallen in love online.
Love, Simon premiered at the Mardi Gras Film Festival on February 27, 2018, and was released in the United States on March 16, 2018, by 20th Century Fox. Critics praised the film for its "big heart, diverse and talented cast, and revolutionary normalcy", describing it as "tender, sweet, and affecting" and a "hugely charming crowd-pleaser" that is "funny, warm-hearted and life-affirming", with reviews comparing it to the romantic comedy-drama films of John Hughes. Notable as the first film by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teenage romance, it grossed $66 million worldwide. A television series of the same name set in the same universe as the film is currently in development and will be released on Disney+. [...] Love, Simon grossed $40.8 million in the United States and Canada, and $25.4 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $66.3 million, against a production budget of $10–17 million. It is the 15th highest-grossing teen romance film since 1980, and the third-highest by 20th Century Fox after The Fault in Our Stars and Romeo + Juliet.
• • •

Sorry for the short write-up today. I'm a little pressed for time. Or, rather, I don't *want* to be pressed for time, so I'm going to make this shorter than usual. I really hate rushing. Like, a lot. Annnnyhoo, this puzzle was pretty fun. I felt slightly too old for it, in that, since my daughter left for college in 2018, my osmotic absorption of teen stuff has fallen off considerably, and so "LOVE, SIMON" ... missed me. Which is to say, once I got some crosses, I could piece it together—it rang a bell, I'd heard the title, seen the ads, whatever. But it was not a stone-cold gimme in a way that would've knocked about a minute off my time. Couple that with the fact that I mysteriously wrote in CRIKEY at 1D: "My word!," in Britain (BLIMEY!), and you've got the recipe for a slow start. Slowish. But once I got out of there (the NW, that is), only two areas gave me any trouble at all: I dropped in NO PETS instead of NO DOGS at 30D: Restriction that some service animals are exempt from (are there places that allow NO DOGS but are cool with pigs and cats and rats and ferrets etc.?); and then I struggled a bit with both OVEN RACKS (64A: Things that get hot-wired?) and NASTINESS (66A: Armed conflict, euphemistically), which sit one atop the other in the SE. Cute clue on OVEN RACKS. Despise the clue on NASTINESS. Actually, despise anyone who would talk about "armed conflict" that way. Actually, actually, despise the euphemism, probably not the human who said it. It's a huge yuck and an unfortunate way to 'end' an otherwise enjoyable puzzle.

While I didn't get "LOVE, SIMON" quickly, I did get NEOPET, which is definitely something I knew about because of my daughter (23D: Virtual animal on a once-popular website), though I can't remember if she had one / them (she was more into Webkinz, for real, please feel free to put *that* in your grid).

Loved the clue on TWERKS (49D: Does some backup dancing?). The cluing this week, at its best, has been on point. The CHER / "MAMMA MIA!" cross-reference really added to the easiness of this thing. I got "MAMMA MIA!" off of CHER, and I got CHER off of the mere fact that the puzzle wanted a four-letter singer ending in "R"—that's a lot to pick up with no effort. But I guess it made up for my CRIKEY disaster. Aside from NASTINESS, the only thing I didn't really like was a. ENNEAD (I got it easily but prefer to think of the justices as a NONET) (9D: Supreme Court justices, e.g.) and YAH... all alt-spellings of "yes" and "no" are just horrid little three-square plots of muddy ground. Who the hell knows what's going to show up? YES YAS YEP YUP YAH YAW YEH NAH NAW NOT! See also my feelings about [Laugh syllable]. But it's just three squares. It's fine. I thought the grid overall was nice and smooth. Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and play the BLANKET HOG BLAME GAME with your partner!? CRIKEY, it's fun. See you tomorrow. (Hey, this write-up wasn't *that* short after all...)

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


Locale for Ernst and Young / THU 1-23-20 / Mideast diplomat's request when itching to be challenged / Anti-apartheid activist Steve / Overpopulated mazy districts

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Constructor: Barbara Lin

Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium (untimed clipboard solve)

THEME: AYE (59A: Vote heard on the floor ... and at the end of 20-, 31-, 35- and 50-Across) — basic add-a-sound theme:

Theme answers:
  • ROCKS THE BOW TIE (20A: Proudly dresses like Bill Nye or Pee-wee Herman?) (base phrase = "rock the boat")
  • GIMME A SINAI (31A: Mideast diplomat's request, when itching to be challenged?) ("gimme a sign")
  • THE GOOD WIFI (35A: Premier internet connection?) ("The Good Wife")
  • FREE VERSAILLES (50A: Liberate Louis XIV's palace?) ("free verse")
Word of the Day: SONORA (13A: Estado south of Arizona) —
Sonora [...], officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Sonora (English: Free and Sovereign State of Sonora), is one of 32 states which comprise the Federal Entities of Mexico. It is divided into 72 municipalities; the capital city is Hermosillo. Sonora is bordered by the states of Chihuahua to the east, Baja California to the northwest and Sinaloa to the south. To the north, it shares the U.S.–Mexico border primarily with the state of Arizona with a small length with New Mexico, and on the west has a significant share of the coastline of the Gulf of California. (wikipedia)
• • •

Very unusual (and cool) to see a solo woman constructor on a Thursday. And this is a debut, I think (name is not in my "labels" list yet). So, cool and cool. The theme has strengths and weaknesses. The wackiness level here is appropriately high for this kind of thing. The phrases are bonkers in a good way, with the most suspect of them actually being the best of them—the first three themers add the "I" sound without any change to the pronunciation of the base phrase, but FREE VERSAILLES ... I do not pronounce the first "E" in VERSAILLES the same way I pronounce the first "E" in "verse." But as I say, that answer is so wildly inventive that I don't really care about the sound wobble. The main issue I had with the theme was how weak the revealer was, and thus how weak the overall concept was. Yes, adding the "I" sound gets you wackiness, but you need a rationale much stronger than just "here is a thing that also rhymes with 'I'." You need a phrase that punnily suggests the "I"-addition. THIS IS WHERE I COME IN ... well, not that, it won't fit, but, you know, something. *Something*. Just plunking sad little AYE down there in the corner is very low-concept. Very 20th-century off-brand theme move. I also don't get the clue on GIMME A SINAI at all. Or, I don't get the last part of the clue: "itching to be challenged?" Is this some kind of reference to the fact that Sinai is a political and diplomatic hotspot? Also, "GIMME" is not a "request," also that is not how a "diplomat" would speak, also putting an indefinite article before a unique thing is bizarre. GIMME A GATEWAY ARCH! Yeah, there's just the one, so ... ? This themer bummed me out because nothing about "diplomat" was useful in getting the answer. And that whole "itching to be challenged thing" was just detritus. Bleh. But I did enjoy seeing the other themers, so that was nice.

The grid is oddly built. Really alop (to borrow a word I've only ever seen in crosswords). Those NW / SE corners are super open, and completely closed off from the rest of the grid except for the most narrow of passageways. Then the rest of the grid is this super choppy 3- and 4-letter-answer extravaganza. Felt very much like I was in two different solving modes: a M/T mode through the broad middle of the grid, and a F/Sat mode in the NW / SE. Those open corners come out pretty well, or could have come out worse. UNICORN (3D: Start-up worth a billion dollars, in a modern coinage) and CHILLAX (41D: "Simmer down!") make them worth it. Overall, this was a mostly enjoyable experience. The theme definitely needed something extra, but what was there was solid. My biggest mistake of the day was confidently writing in AREOLAE at 2D: Astronomical rings (CORONAE) ("ick" to all Latin plurals, btw). Oh, also PLY for HEN (30A: Layer), though to my slight credit, as soon as I ditched PLY (because astronomical rings weren't gonna end in "L"), HEN was my next first guess. My favorite clue of the day by far was 58A: Locale for Ernst and Young (SENATE). That one got me. It really got me. I was thinking of the accounting firm right to the end. (I liked this one despite the fact that Ernst (Iowa) and Young (Indiana) are both currently protecting a manifestly corrupt president*, so ... yeah, that is some clue)

Five things:
  • 1A: Concerning vision (OCULAR) — I bit hard on this one. That is, I read "concerning" as an adj. meaning "of concern," rather than as the preposition that it is (meaning "regarding"). Me: "How is an OCULAR a 'concerning viszzzh ...' oh. Oh, I see."
  • 49A: Ali who retired undefeated (LAILA) — not sure how I've been putting her into grids for two decades or so and still cannot reliably spell her name correctly. So, LAILA is the boxer, LEILA is a name but not a famous one unless you go to Byron ("Don Juan") or Bizet ("The Pearl Fishers"), LEELA is the one-eyed spaceship captain from "Futurama" (voiced by Katey Sagal, whose first and last names are common crossword fare); and then LAYLA is the Eric Clapton / Derek and the Dominos song. Good luck remembering all that. I know I can't. 
  • 11D: Something with an "x" factor? (ALGEBRA) — had the -BRA part and was completely certain this was going to be an undergarment. "What kind of bra has an 'x' ... maybe the one where the straps cross in the back ... do those have a short name ...?" 
  • 40D: Angers (IRES) — never. Stop doing this. Bury this answer at sea.
  • 35D: Premium network (TMC) — LOL this channel still out here trying to get into puzzles. At least no one is trying to convince us that it is "popular" or HBO's "rival" or some other nonsense this time. 
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


Actress Graff of Mr Belvedere / WED 1-22-20 / Part of crystal radio kit / SS onetime flagship of White Star Line

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Constructor: Alex Eaton-Salners

Relative difficulty: Easy (untimed clipboard solve)

THEME: SEVEN SEAS (57A: Result of connecting the circled letters in a certain way, in a punny manner) — There are seven circled "C"s, and those "C"s form the number "7" when you connect them, and every "C" is inside a word that is also the name of a "sea":

Theme answers:
  • CARIBBEAN (17A: Like calypso music)
  • CORAL (19A: Atoll material)
  • CHINA (21A: Porcelain)
  • ADRIATIC (23A: SS ___, onetime flagship of the White Star Line)
  • BALTIC (34A: Second Monopoly avenue)
  • CASPIAN (45A: Prince of Narnia)
  • BLACK (55A: Hugo ___, longtime Supreme Court justice)
Word of the Day: LEE Meriwether (29A: Actress Meriwether) —
Lee Ann Meriwether (born May 27, 1935) is an American actress, former model, and the winner of the 1955 Miss America pageant. She is known for her role as Betty Jones, Buddy Ebsen's secretary and daughter-in-law in the 1970s crime drama Barnaby Jones. The role earned her two Golden Globe Award nominations in 1975 and 1976, and an Emmy Award nomination in 1977. She is also known for her role as Herman Munster's long-haired wife, Lily Munster, on the 1980s sitcom The Munsters Today, as well as for her portrayal of Catwoman, replacing Julie Newmar in the film version of Batman(1966), and for a co-starring role on the science fiction series The Time Tunnel. Meriwether had a recurring role as Ruth Martin on the daytime soap opera All My Children until the end of the series in September 2011. (wikipedia)
• • •

Took one look at the constructor and then another look at the grid, and thought (and perhaps said out loud) "oh god no." I associate the constructor with self-indulgent stunt puzzles that aren't actually fun to solve, and random floating circles ... they just don't bode well (OMEN!). But I dove in and was at first startled at how easy it was. I didn't second-guess or hesitate once for about the first third of the solve, then I literally swore at the puzzle when it somehow expected that I, or anyone, would have any idea what the SS ___ was at 23A. I don't even know what the White Star Line is, how in the world would I know its flagship. Totally and completely bonkers clue (which becomes semi-explainable once you grok the theme, but in the moment, hoo boy, annoying). So I was just tooling along, filling things in pretty easily, watching the "C"s go in but extremely reluctant to fill in *all* of the circles with "C"s for fear that there would be some trick, some twist in the sequence, some variation along the way. So I just worked it like a themeless until I got to SEVEN SEAS, which was, I'll be honest, a genuine, if not jaw-dropping, aha moment. In fact, there was a two-part aha. The first had me thinking "oh, right, seven 'C's form a '7,' cool" but then the next, right on its heels, was that the "C"s were all inside the names of seas. And so I am in the unfamiliar and unlikely position of saying of an particular Alex Eaton-Salners puzzle—I really like this theme. Now, there *are* a few problems. Rough seas ahead!

Let's start with the biggest problem, as I see it, which is that your entire puzzle is built around showcasing the seven-ness of the seas ("C"s) but then ... you ... you let three other "C"s into the grid? Whyyyy? "C"s are not "E"s. You don't actually need them!! And one of them is in IRENIC (and, fittingly, ICK), so please don't tell me they are here to make your grid clean, yeesh. The truly elegant move is to rid the grid of all "C"s except the seven in question. This grid has 10 "C"s. That is the basic fact of this grid that is jeering at this theme from the bleachers. The much less annoying thing about the theme is, as I say, that clue on ADRIATIC. But also the clue on CORAL, frankly. You can see that all of the clues are trying very, very hard to veer away from the sea, so that you won't see the sea ("C D C?") element until the end. I get how hard it must be to get ADRIATIC away from the sea. So you go to a boat no one knows, which is a. still sea-adjacent and b. annoying because no one knows your dumb boat. But ADRIATIC is a hard case. CORAL is not. It's a color. It's a name. You did your due diligence with the other clues, why did you throw CORAL back into the sea with its "Atoll" clue? It's like ... no one thinking through the details that make puzzles truly elegant. Good ideas are being sent out into the world unpolished. Sigh. Whatever. I still enjoyed this puzzle. I just wish that if all the Men at the NYTXW are going to keep publishing the same Men over and over and over (women constructors at a dismal 14% for the year so far), those puzzles would at least be undeniably great. Shaped with care. Spot-on. Try harder. Also, publish more women. But also also, try harder.

Six things:
  • 38A: Actress Graff of "Mr. Belvedere" (ILENE) — oooof. So I'm half mad at myself for forgetting this misbegotten piece of crosswordese, but more mad at the puzzle for putting it in in the first place. Would've let it go but then, in the same section, the puzzle decided to go with Yet Another Bygone Actress's First Name! This is a textbook example of why it's important to *vary* the knowledge bases you're drawing from. Asking for two bygone actress first names in the same tiny section is cruel. Luckily LEE Meriwether is a good bit more famous than ILENE Graff, so I was able to recall her, but sheeeeesh, no.
  • 40A: Stain (TINGE) — had the "T," wrote in TAINT. "Stain" implies something unwanted. TINGE does not. I see how this clue is defensible, but I don't have to like it.
  • 26D: Arcade fixtures (COIN-OPS) — "ooh, mom, can I have a quarter for the COIN-OPS?" asked 1980-me after I'd been taken over by some weird pod people who were bad at approximating actual human language.
  • 15A: Lovefest, literally (ORGY) — Not sure if the clue writer doesn't understand the meaning of "love" or doesn't understand the meaning of "literal."
  • 1A: Kind of wine drinker who might remark "I'm getting hints of unripened banana" (SNOB— and *this* clue makes me think the clue writer doesn't understand the meaning of "snob." There is (literally!) nothing snobby about this "remark." Aficionados are not snobs, per se. Get a grip.
  • 51D: And the following: Abbr. (ET SEQ.) — if you're a constructor and you're ever wondering "is this 'Q' worth it?" check to see if it's in the answer ET SEQ., in which case, no it isn't.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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