Waltz onomatopoeia / FRI 12-31-21 / Kitchen brand whose name is an ambigram / Colorful custardy concoction / Agatha Christie novel named after Death's mount in Revelation / Component of three of the five French "mother sauces" / Does laundry or pays bills in modern lingo / Double or triple drink / Melancholiac's list / Group portrayed in Slacker and Reality Bites familiarly

Friday, December 31, 2021

Constructor: Meghan Morris

Relative difficulty: Challenging

THEME: none 

Word of the Day: ambigram (19A: Kitchen brand whose name is an ambigram) —
something (such as an image of a written word or phrase) that is intended or able to be oriented in either of two ways for viewing or reading // NOTE: The word was apparently introduced by the author and cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter (born 1945) in chapter 13 of the book Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (New York, 1985). (merriam-webster.com)
• • •

Started and finished in the NW, which is by far the hardest and the weakest part of this puzzle, so let's come back to that later and start by saying that this is basically a solid Friday puzzle. Didn't have quite the flow or zing that I like on Fridays, due in large part to those very, very cut-off NE and SW corners, which played like entirely separate mini-puzzles and then were almost no help at all getting into the meat of the puzzle (speaking of MEAT, side note: that was my first [Ren Faire concession] (MEAD)). The cluing also felt harder than normal throughout, causing it to feel more like a Saturday fight than a Friday fling. Still, the anchor answers (those crossing 15s) are very strong and once you get into them and bring them down, they give you a framework to get into every part of the grid (except the aforementioned iso-corners) and work things out. I for one definitely needed the LETS from LETS THINGS SLIDE as well as the RATTLE from RATTLESNAKE BITE to even begin to make serious headway in that NW section. As with yesterday, I found the "modern lingo" a little off-putting, first because there is no bit of "modern lingo" I find more off-putting than "adulting"—it's not cosplay, it's just paying your bills, it's fine, you don't need to continue to infantilize yourself well into your 30s, come on. So while ADULTS (as a verb) was easy enough to get, it was not a joy to get (11D: Does laundry or pays bills, in modern lingo) (laundry!?! that's "adulting"? yeesh, that is a low bar). SLAYS (61A: Crushes it) was less irksome, and off-putting only in the sense that it is yet another instance of white mainstream culture appropriating a term from a subculture (in this case, Black / queer). I love the slang as slang, but as with "woke" yesterday, I just think the clue should give credit where credit is due—mention queer ball culture, or "Paris is Burning," or even Beyoncé. You can spare the ink.

Now about the NW corner. Maybe I'll start with -THS. I just ... I ... so ... this is ... *twenty-seven years*! That's how long it's been since -THS has been in the puzzle. It's so, so bad, and much worse than other bad answers because there's no easy way to clue it, so what we get is the Worst answer in the puzzle doubling as one of the toughest answers in the puzzle. Most weak fill you can just blow by. But this one, this one you have to sit with. You are forced to linger. And the thing is, you think the problem is *you*. "Why can't I figure this out?" you wonder, "What is wrong with me?" And *then* you get it, and it's ... -THS. And so now you're (rightly) mad at the puzzle, not yourself. -THS. Just say it out loud a bunch of times. I'm begging constructors—erase it from your wordlists. It's bad enough that we are going to have a wordlist-inspired "UM, NO" epidemic for the next 100 years; don't let -THS sneak into the modern crossword ecosystem like some Maleskan-era* invasive species. Stand firm! Ugh, not happy when I have to spend time on what should be an inconsequential three-letter answer, but -THS is a three-alarmer, so I gotta do what I gotta do. The other issues up here are APAT crossing APLAY—they are bad individually, but together they are a cringe tornado. I also wonder about "THE PALE HORSE," an answer I want to like, but ... that is a pretty obscure Christie title. I can rattle off a dozen or so Christie titles, but that is not one of them (it was apparently made into an BBC mini-series in 2020, but like so much of 2020, I don't remember that). The clue helps a little, but the THE remained recalcitrant for a bit (I had ON A...). I don't think that particular Christie title really rises to the level of crossworthiness, but then I also think "eh, it's gettable and it's kind of colorful, so it's OK." If it hadn't been gummed up in this already icky corner, I probably would've minded its relative obscurity much less. I had no idea who TAMARA was (5D: Actress Taylor of TV's "Bones"), or that there was custard in FRUIT TART (1A: Colorful custardy confection), but those are more *me* problems.

STEPSON before STEPDAD messed me up a bit (48A: Relative by marriage), as did the fact that I couldn't remember ELWOOD's name and only wanted ELROY, which wouldn't fit (43A: One of the Blues Brothers). "LAWD!" was very tough, but I like it (38D: "Heavens!"). Wanted VENUTO before VENETO (57A: Street featured in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (that's also 50-Across)) (50A = IN ROME), and PLAYA before PLATA (49D: South America's Rio de la ___). The one answer that baffled me the most was probably GASPS (10A: Sudden inspirations). The misdirection on "inspirations" absolutely froze me. Was not expecting "literal intakes of breath" to be the meaning there. Clever, if ruthless. So this one wobbled a bit, but ultimately held up, I thought. Tough but fair, and pleasingly wide-ranging in its subject matter. A nice way to round out the year. See you in 2022, everyone. 

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

*to be fair, even Maleska only used -THS once; -THS is much more of a Farrar-era thing, appearing twelve times between 1950 and 1968 before disappearing and then returning only spectrally, once every generation or so ...

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Popular bumper sticker of the 2000s / THU 12-30-21 / Sunfish with colorful gill covers / Virulent negativity in modern parlance / Goddess often depicted with wings / Classic poem set in bleak December / Evansville baseball team or Erie hockey team

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Constructor: John Ewbank

Relative difficulty: Easy

THEME: XXX (38A: Symbol for the starts of 18-, 27-, 46- and 58-Across) — just what it says: "XXX" can represent the first word of all the themers:

Theme answers:
  • ADULT TEETH (18A: They stay and bite)
  • "THIRTY ROCK" (27A: Emmy-winning comedy series of 2007, 2008 and 2009)
  • KISSES BUTT (46A: Gians favor using abject flattery, informally)
  • BOOZEHOUND (58A: Souse)
Word of the Day: RED EAR (6D: Sunfish with colorful gill covers) —
a common sunfish (Lepomis microlophus) of the southern and eastern U.S. that resembles the bluegill but has the back part of the operculum bright orange red and that feeds especially on snails  called also shellcracker (merriam-webster.com) 
• • •

There's "current" and then there's "desperate to seem current," and I think this puzzle falls more into the latter category. I winced rather than rejoiced at its two "hey look at me being current!" answers—at HATERADE for being not "modern parlance" at all (that's a '90s term—see also "ALL THAT AND A BAG OF CHIPS") (12D: Virulent negativity, in modern parlance), and at STAY WOKE for invoking "woke" discourse in a flip and uncontextualized kind of way ("catchphrase?") (37D: Social justice catchphrase). "Woke" is a word that came out of Black political activism and then got appropriated by white people (surprise) in all kinds of ironic and / or openly hostile ways to the point where now all I hear when I hear the word is a kind of mockery, a cheapening and debasing of everything "social justice" is supposed to stand for; I especially feel this way when the word is being wielded by white people. Context matters (here's a good overview of the history of "woke" from merriam-webster.com). In short: clue it as "Black" or don't use it, thank you. Other bad vibes: the NRA (again, your FDR clue doesn't fool me) and especially DR. OZ, an answer that, when I finally got it, elicited a "oh F*** you!" so loud I feared I might wake my wife. That asshole is not only a dangerous purveyor of snake oil and medical disinformation of all kinds, he's now running for Congress. As a Republican (duh). I do like the timbre of the word BOOZEHOUND, but again, the puzzle's long-standing habit of mocking alcoholics makes me sad. Not making me sad today: ADULT TEETH and PEEPHOLE and "THE RAVEN" and, oddly, COEXIST (don't get me wrong, I find bumper-sticker (and lawn-sign) sloganeering ... well, let's just say, it's not my aesthetic, but this was the one answer where I got a genuine "Aha!" today, the phrase "Popular bumper sticker" meaning nothing to me ... until it did). 

I should probably mention the theme. It's a Thursday, so the theme is supposed to be The Thing. Not Stan Lee's The Thing or John Carpenter's The Thing (though that would be cool), but, you know, like, the centerpiece, the raison d'etre, etc. But this theme wasn't anywhere near Thursday-worthy. Felt Tuesday, maybe Wednesday, but there's absolutely nothing tricky or difficult about it. First two themers were just ... answers. Straightforward. I wondered how they were related, but I didn't wonder much. Then I hit XXX, which I got in no time ... and that was that. The next two themers, like the first two, had straightforward clues. Game over. I would've enjoyed this more as a Tuesday or a Wednesday theme. Not the puzzle's fault that it got slotted on a Thursday. It's just that when you come to a Thursday, you expect a curveball—the wildest thing the puzzle has to offer for the week. But no curves here. 80mph fastball right over the plate.

You used up your one "OH" on "OH, YEAH," no you may not have another to make "OH, WOW." Petition denied. KISSES ASS is the phrase, KISSES BUTT feels euphemistic / 10-year-oldish, though I can't dispute the realness of the phrase. "THIRTY ROCK" doesn't quite work for me since the number in the title is always written out numerically ("30 Rock"). Never heard of RED EAR, but that's the only answer that caused any difficulty today. GAY ICON is nice, but I've seen it a few times now (first appearance in the NYTXW was back in 2008!), so it doesn't have the wow factor it once did. To be clear, it's still a good term; put it in your crosswords all you want! But it's a wordlist word now (i.e. it's in every constructor's wordlist—the giant database that fuels most constructing software), so don't overestimate its originality. And give the NYTXW some credit for actually normalizing GAY ICONs and lots of other LGBTQ-related terms in recent years.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

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Thick liquidy clump / WED 12-29-21 / Van Gogh's art dealer brother / 1980s fad items advertised as the gift that grows / Stereotypical lumberjack feature / Lettered awards show host / Lettered home on the range when no one's home

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Constructor: Simon Marotte and Victor Fleming

Relative difficulty: Medium

THEME: "Lettered" answers — themers, when you say them out loud, sound like a bunch of letters ... I am pretty sure that is all there is to it—if there's some meta puzzle where the 17 letters can be arranged to spell something, well, that's more effort than I'm willing to expend right now:

Theme answers:
  • EMMY EMCEE (17A: Lettered awards show host?) (M, E, M, C)
  • CAGEY ENEMY (30A: Lettered adversary in a battle of wits?) (K, G, N, M, E)
  • EMPTY TEPEE (49A: Lettered home on the range when no one's home?) (M, T, T, P)
  • EASY ESSAY (65A: Lettered school paper that's a snap to write?) (E, Z, S, A)
Word of the Day: "Lohengrin" (11D: Lohengrin's love = ELSA) —

LohengrinWWV 75, is a Romantic opera in three acts composed and written by Richard Wagner, first performed in 1850. The story of the eponymous character is taken from medieval German romance, notably the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, and its sequel Lohengrin, itself inspired by the epic of Garin le Loherain. It is part of the Knight of the Swan legend.

The opera has inspired other works of art. King Ludwig II of Bavaria named his castle Neuschwanstein Castle after the Swan Knight. It was King Ludwig's patronage that later gave Wagner the means and opportunity to complete, build a theatre for, and stage his epic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. He had discontinued composing it at the end of Act II of Siegfried, the third of the Ring tetralogy, to create his radical chromatic masterpiece of the late 1850s, Tristan und Isolde, and his lyrical comic opera of the mid-1860s, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

The most popular and recognizable part of the opera is the Bridal Chorus, colloquially known as "Here Comes the Bride," usually played as a processional at weddings. The orchestral preludes to Acts I and III are also frequently performed separately as concert pieces. (wikipedia)

• • •

Jarringly dated and not up to contemporary standards at all. Both theme and fill feel like they're from another era, another century, and not in some cute nostalgic way, but in a way that makes you appreciate how far even average puzzles have come in the past couple of decades. First, I don't even know what the joke is supposed to be with this theme. That is, how is "lettered" being ... used? Punned on? Am I supposed to imagine that all the "lettered" things earned a "letter" in sports? In high school? Or is the idea that they have all been formally educated? Even the TEPEE? What? The use of "lettered" here is a painfully awkward and confusing way to signal the theme. The clues aren't even wacky—they're just straight clues with "lettered" attached to the beginning. There's nothing wordplay-ish about any of it, so why, why is this happening at all? If you can't get a good revealer to make all these answers make sense, to tie them all up in a neat package, then you need to not be doing this theme at all. Even if the cluing (or hypothetical revealer) had been letter (!) perfect, the premise is still of dubious merit, and the theme answer set does not exactly sparkle. How is anyone gonna get excited about an answer like EASYESSAY? What part of it, clue or answer, produces joy, or even a hint of a smile? These are imagined phrases that just lie there—this puzzle doesn't even have the decency to throw some genuine wackiness my way. It's a load of earnest Blah from start to finish. Also, that is an awkward spelling of TEPEE. Also, EMPTY has that "p" sound, which kind of undermines the theme's central premise. Also, ELLIE conspicuously fulfills the theme concept without being part of the actual theme—ideally you'd get rid of all such non-theme answers. There's really nothing to like about this theme. IT'S not OK

I'm trying to remember the last time I saw [Lohengrin's love] as a clue. Turns out it's only been about four years or so, but you used to see it all the time before "Frozen" came out and absolutely took over ELSA cluing duties. [Lohengrin's love] simply adds to the conspicuous bygone feel of this puzzle. This puzzle coulda run when LOU Bega was dominating the charts or even when Miss ELLIE was all over the TV airwaves. AMY ADAMS and SWOLE are about the only things connecting this thing to the 21st century. The fill is plain and bland and overfamiliar. I'm looking for highlights and not finding any. The only thing that stood out to me about this puzzle, besides its thematic inadequacy, is that western section, which for some reason was 10x more difficult than the rest of the puzzle (very easy). Most of the clues in there just didn't add up. I had LAY AN EGG, but even those "G"s didn't help. The SHOE clue was baffling (27A: It's a little longer than a foot), and I was imagining the "bit" in 36A: Bit of bar food as something much smaller than a WING. ONE UP is confusing when you make golf the context, since being ahead actually means having a stroke count *under* the other person's. Any other sports context would've worked fine for that clue, but ugh, golf, sure. I took "Shout-out" as something ORAL so "HI MOM" didn't occur to me for 28D: Shout-out from the stands (since it usually comes in sign and hot "shouted" form). And of course the one answer I knew in that section (LOU) led me straight into a sinkhole—having the "L" in place at 27D: Muscled, slangily (SWOLE), I wrote in BUILT. But my limited speed failings aren't the real problem here. The weak theme and tepid fill, that's the problem. GLOOP—that just about sums it up. Hoping for better results tomorrow. See you then.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

P.S. there are much better CESARs than this puzzle's misguided and harmful "celebrity dog trainer." Actor Romero, Labor leader Chavez, French film award, etc. So many. It's bad enough we hunt wolves nearly to extinction; to willfully misunderstand them in order to promote systems of human dominance is really too much, man (thanks to reader Thomas B. for this reference):
It concerns me that many mainstream trainers are still promoting ideas that have long been rejected by the very experts who study this topic most. Any training ideology that relies on your being a "pack leader" or an "alpha" instead of a loving parent to your dog is misguided. The fact that this myth has persisted for so long in the face of science that shows otherwise means that there is much work to do to enlighten the public. (Zak George, HuffPo, 2017)
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Raised to the third puzzle / TUES 12-28-21 / Capital of Latvia / Zoom or TikTok / Vulcan's telepathic link / Where Michelle Obama was born

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Hi, everyone, it’s Clare back for the last Tuesday of December. (How is it already the end of December?!) Hope everyone is having a happy holiday season. I’ve always hated this weird in-between phase after Christmas and before the New Year that makes me feel like all I want to do is sit on the couch and watch sports and eat leftovers and just veg out. The stormy and dreary weather in California at the moment is also not giving me any inclination to get off the couch. Luckily, we have crosswords! 

And now on to the puzzle!

Kathy Wienberg

Relative difficulty: Medium
THEME: HOMEMADE MEALS (56A: Spreads using 20-, 28- and 48-Across?) — Each of the theme answers is an item of food whose name begins with a type of home

Theme answers:
  • LOG CABIN SYRUP (20A: Food topping used at Abe Lincoln’s birthday) 
  • COTTAGE CHEESE (28A: Dairy product used at the Seven Dwarfs' dwelling?) 
  • RANCH DRESSING (48A: Turkey stuffing used at the Ewings' Southfork?)
Word of the Day: HABANERA (6D: Dance named after Cuba's capital) —
Habanera (also called Contradanza, contradanza criolla, danza, or danza criolla) is the Spanish and Spanish-American version of the contradanse, which was an internationally popular style of music and dance in the 18th century, derived from the English country dance and adopted at the court of France. Contradanza was brought to America and there took on folkloric forms that still exist in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Ecuador. In Cuba during the 19th century, it became an important genre, the first written music to be rhythmically based on an African rhythm pattern and the first Cuban dance to gain international popularity, the progenitor of danzón, mambo and cha-cha-cha, with a characteristic "habanera rhythm" and sung lyrics. (Wiki)
• • •
After solving the puzzle, I was left with a general feeling of: Meh. The construction was pretty tight, but I found the theme to be just sort of there. I was so focused on solving that I didn’t realize the beginnings were types of homes until I got to the revealer, and all the realization did was elicit a groan from me. 

Looking back at the theme answers, one of these things is not like the others… LOG CABIN SYRUP is the name of a brand — it’s not a type of food. COTTAGE CHEESE and RANCH DRESSING are both types of food and not brands. I also didn’t think the revealer tied the theme together all that well — the foods are just so random (and two of them are really toppings), and it all felt pretty bland to me. Even my post-Christmas leftovers feel more exciting than ranch dressing, syrup, and cottage cheese. 

The best part of this puzzle was the six 8-letter downs scattered around the puzzle (STILETTO, HABANERA, CLUSTERS, MIND-MELD, CERAMIST, and TAILSPIN). They were nicely spread across the puzzle and served as almost support beams — like three columns with two rows of beams. I liked that construction a lot. 

I did have trouble getting HABANERA (6D), as I’d never heard of this type of dance, and I messed myself up by putting a “v” in there instead of a “b” (because I tried to make it “Havana”) and by mistakenly putting “OSU” for 33A: Tulsa sch. instead of ORU. So I had some issues puzzling that one out. I also haven’t heard the word CERAMIST (38D: Pottery maker) used before, but that one at least wasn’t tough to figure out. Lastly, I’ve gotta say that the clue irked me for TAILSPIN40D: Bad situation for an airplane — because a TAILSPIN isn’t just a “bad” situation for an airplane; it’s a catastrophic situation from which there’s likely no coming back! The clue had me thinking in the realm of a delayed takeoff, not a plane crashing. Anywho, that was just a little nit. 

There were a handful of three-letter words and some four-letter words that were crosswordese, but, for the most part, I thought this puzzle was fresh and tight. The clue and answer combos felt fairly interesting, and it felt like I haven’t seen a lot of these words used often in a puzzle. 

The structure with the themers and long downs did create some oddity going across the puzzle. There were two rows of four three-letter words (starting at 23-Across: ALE, PAN, SOT, EMS and also starting at 51-Across: CHE, DAY, APP, LAS). I don’t have much to note about that other than it looks a tad strange and was weird to solve.

  • Growing up in Northern California, I went on a field trip in elementary school during which we tried to PAN (25A) for gold — sadly, it was fruitless, and I didn’t become some multimillionaire from it. But it was still fun. 
  • KALE (47A) is slang for money?? I did not know! I think I’ve heard of “cabbage” as a vegetable that’s slang for money but never KALE
  • I know I ragged on the use of LOG CABIN SYRUP because it’s a brand name, but I do really love this syrup! For whatever weird reason, I’ve always preferred it to the real maple syrup. 
  • Seeing HYDRAS (49D: Mythical Greek monsters) in the puzzle makes me think of the bad guys in the Captain America movies because of their slogan of “Hail Hydra.” Saying that is really just an excuse to note that I saw “Spiderman: No Way Home” last weekend! Masked and vaxxed and boosted, I saw my first movie in a theater in years, and the movie was absolutely incredible. 
  • I get why a STILETTO (3D) is named after a dagger — those things are sharp and pointy (and hard to walk in).
And that's it! Happy almost 2022, everyone.

Signed, Clare Carroll, currently part of my couch
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Three-time Emmy winner for Breaking Bad / MON 12-27-21 / Technical detail for short / Animal whose name means earth pig in Afrikaans / Tennessee Smokies Portland Sea Dogs / Banking giant that makes the Venture card

Monday, December 27, 2021

Constructor: Adam Aaronson

Relative difficulty: Easy (2:38 without really trying)

THEME: DOUBLE-A TEAM (63A: Tennessee Smokies or Portland Sea Dogs ... or what the answers to the starred clues comprise?) — all themers start with two "A"s:

Theme answers:
  • AA BATTERIES (17A: *TV remote inserts, often)
  • AA MEETING (21A: *Sobriety support group session, informally)
  • AARDVARK (30A: *Animal whose name means "earth pig" in Afrikaans)
  • A.A. MILNE (40A: *"Winnie-the-Pooh" writer)
  • A AVERAGE (47A: *4.0 on a transcript)
  • AARON PAUL (53A: *Three-time Emmy winner for "Breaking Bad")
Word of the Day: AARON PAUL (53A) —

Aaron Paul Sturtevant (born August 27, 1979) is an American actor and producer. He is best known for portraying Jesse Pinkman in the AMC series Breaking Bad (2008–2013), for which he won several awards, including the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (2014), Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries, or Television Film (2013), and Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. This made him one of only two actors to win the latter category three times (2010, 2012, 2014), since its separation into comedy and drama. He has also won the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor on Television three times (2009, 2011, 2013), more than any other actor in that category. He reprised the role of Jesse Pinkman six years after the end of the series in the 2019 Netflix film El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, earning further critical acclaim.

Paul began his career with roles in several music videos, guest roles in television, and minor roles in films. In 2007, he had a recurring role as Scott Quittman on the HBO series Big Love (2006–2011). Following Breaking Bad, he starred in films such as Need for Speed (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Eye in the Sky (2015), and Central Intelligence (2016). He also voiced Todd Chavez in the Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman (2014–2020), on which he was also an executive producer, and portrayed Eddie Lane in the Hulu drama series The Path (2016–2018) and Caleb Nichols in the HBO science fiction drama series Westworld (2020). (wikipedia)

• • •

I guess this is a kind of vanity puzzle? Constructors initials ... or first two letters of his last name ... one of those, surely. Whatever, that's fine. Mine yourself for theme ideas, why not? The results aren't terribly inspiring, though, and something just doesn't quite sit right about the theme set. Those answers all do indeed start with "AA" so ... you can't argue with that. But there's a consistency issue for me. Sometimes the "AA" stand alone in the answer (AA MEETING), sometimes they're part of a larger word (AARDVARK). The answers aren't sufficiently different from one another somehow. I mean, you say "A.A." with both Milne and the meeting, which is unfortunate, because otherwise you'd have different pronunciations for every answer. And you actually call the batteries "Double-A batteries," which kind of takes the oomph out of your revealer, DOUBLE-A TEAM, since you've already mentally heard "Double-A" (even if you haven't seen it written out) before you hit the revealer. The set just feels rough, ragtag, not well curated. It feels like one of those puzzles where it's clear the theme isn't that scintillating so the constructor tries to compensate by just putting in a lot of it. A lot of theme. Seven total theme answers on a Monday is a Lot. But as I say, none of it is that exciting. It's just dense. I like AARON PAUL because it's original, and because I'm watching a lot of "BoJack Horseman" right now. But there's not much else that's very exciting. The only wordplay is in the revealer, and it's pretty tepid. The grid isn't built to showcase the fill: it's all short stuff except the themers and then the two long Downs, which are fine, but nothing to write home about. The grid is clean, but that's about as much as I can say about. No sparkle here today.

Not sure I'd use any form of ALE (e.g. ALE KEG) (27A: Pub barrel) if I already had IPA (or IPAS) in my grid (1D: Many hoppy brews, in brief), since IPA stands for India Pale ALE, and dupes like that should be avoided if at all possible. Are people going to complain? Well, I am, but people? Probably not. But you know it's inelegant. You know. So fix it. Other than that, there's not much to say bad or good about this puzzle. It's pretty straightforward, fairly plain. There are no challenging parts, no places to get stuck. Hardest thing was 1A: "Ain't that the truth!" ("I'LL SAY!") and that's just because it was the first thing I looked at and so I had nothing to go on and didn't get it at first glance. A few crosses later, I got it, and I never failed to get an answer at first glance again after that. I'm betting lots of people set personal speed records on this thing. I was about 10 seconds off my own record, and I am a *terrible* sprint-solver, mainly because my typing fingers are terribly clumsy. Every fifth keystroke or so seems to go awry, when I'm typing generally (like now) and when I'm solving. So finishing clean in 2:38 without actually trying to speed, that tells me this thing was spectacularly easy, even for a Monday. I enjoyed the clues on COY (11A: "You don't need to be ___, Roy" (rhyming Paul Simon lyric)) and SHEA (58A: Word with butter or Stadium), and enjoyed learning the etymology of AARDVARK. But on the whole, as a puzzle, this one didn't quite measure up.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

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Famous cryptid familiarly / SUN 12-26-21 / Demon of Japanese folklore / Baker's Joy alternative / Form of nepotism symbolically / Onetime collaborator with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre / Nickname for the French Alexandre / Devices with Nunchuks

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Constructor: Christina Iverson

Relative difficulty: Medium

THEME: "Pest Control" — you have to WORK OUT THE BUGS  (113A: Gradually fix something ... or what to do to understand this puzzle's italicized clues) (i.e. take the names of "bugs" out of the clues) in order to make sense of them:

Theme answers:
  • HORSEBACK RIDER (22A: "One wearing chapstick, perhaps")
  • MOTHER (21A: "Malice, more formally")
  • NORTH POLE (32A: "Antarctic coordinate")
  • PUBLIC HOUSE (51A: "Blouse and broach, perhaps")
  • TRUE/FALSE TEST (65A: "It has many beet and beef options") 
  • SPEARHEADED (84A: "Tickled")
  • SOFT DRINK (96A: "Pop fly")
  • CHEESE (116A: "Briefly, e.g.)
  • GET HITCHED (37D: "Antelope, say")
  • GOOGLE MAPS (47D: "Approach for directions")
Word of the Day: Emily OSTER (56D: Economist/author Emily) —

Emily Fair Oster (born February 14, 1980) is an American economist and bestselling author. After receiving a B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard in 2002 and 2006 respectively, Oster taught at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She later moved to Brown University, where she is Professor of Economics. Her research interests span from development economics and health economics to research design and experimental methodology. Her research has received exposure among non-economists through The Wall Street Journal, the SuperFreakonomics bestseller book, and her 2007 TED Talk, among other media sources.

She is the author of three books, Expecting Better, The Family Firm,and Cribsheet, which discuss a data-driven approach to decision-making in pregnancy and parenting. (wikipedia)

• • •

I'm writing this on Christmas evening. It's the second blog post I've written today, and while I'm more than willing to stipulate that this might have something to do with my impatience with this puzzle, I think that even were this a non-holiday on which I had to write but one blog post, the problems with this puzzle (and there are many) would still be problems. I might be less aggrieved by them, but problems they would remain. Let's start with what a dud the theme is from a solving perspective. Yes, you have that initial bit of confusion where you don't understand why the theme answers don't seem to work with their clues, but if you think about the title even a little bit, it shouldn't take you long to grasp the gimmick—remove "pest," get regular clue. Emphasis here on "regular." Because once you figure out  the pest elimination trick, the puzzle gets real dull and real straightforward real quick. The clues aren't clever or funny, they're just ... odd because they've had "pests" added to them, and when you know to look for "pests," then they are very (very) easy to find, and you're just left with plainness. [App for directions] = GOOGLE MAPS. Yep, that is what that app does. Nothing much going on there. And since the rest of the grid is so dense of short stuff, so void of any real interesting fill, once you drain the theme of any interest, you've got nothing left. You just trudge dutifully to the end. There's so much 3,4, and 5-letter fill, and the grid is sooo choppy and fussy, that there are no real opportunities for interesting answers, and it's hard to get any real feeling of flow either. The cluing is toughened up some, perhaps to make up for how easy the theme is, but toughening up short fill never adds much pleasure to the solve, for me. You can see how the fill really deadens the experience. Just stare at a patch like, say, the one in the south, the one that's got IOWAN LOOIE NOONE EKES ONI NESSIE NOTA ANTENNA. Or next door with LSAT AGRA AMEN-RA. There's just all these little crannies filled with RLSTNE letters. The puzzle never really opens up, so it never really gets ... fun.

There are other problems. Structurally, I always find it awkward when there are non-themers that are as long or longer than theme answers, and here this problem occurs in both directions, with SCHOOL TIES and MAIN THEMES (not-themers) being longer than NORTH POLE and SOFT DRINK (themers) and then AL SHARPTON and HEDGES A BET (not-themers) being just as long as GET HITCHED and GOOGLE MAPS (themers). The shortness of MOTHER and CHEESE doesn't bug me. They don't create visual confusion. It's the phantom themers, the ones that are as long or longer than the *long* themers, but aren't actually themers, they're the ones that bug me. They feel out of place. It's a minor inelegance, I suppose, but long themers shouldn't be equalled or surpassed in length by non-themers; that is my opinion (one born of longstanding precedent) and I'm sticking to it. More annoying was the fact that in the SOFT DRINK clue, the "fly" was hiding in the word ... "fly"!?!? All the other "pests" are hidden inside other words, but "fly" is just ... sitting there, not hiding at all. Weird. Less weird and more outright wrong was the fact that "bee" was the "bug" to be "worked out" in 65A: "It has many beet and beef options" (TRUE/FALSE TEST). The title of the puzzle is "Pest Control," but a bee is not a pest. All the other "pests" are common household invaders, and while, yes, sometimes you might find a giant beehive in your shower, mostly bees are just pollinators that live outside and are pests to NO ONE. They don't belong in this puzzle. I don't think MAIN THEMES is that great a standalone answer, but I *know* HEDGES A BET is terrible. It makes EATS A SANDWICH seem solid as a rock. You can hedge your bets. HEDGE ONE'S BETS is acceptable. I had HEDGES BETS, which is awkward, but still seemed reasonable. But A BET? Deep sigh. It's such an awkward verbs-a-noun phrase. I wish there were more good news here, I really do. But there's just the theme concept, which is cute in theory, but in practice, it ends up being boring. The wordplay never really arrives, the wackiness doesn't land. There are a Lot of theme answers, but more of "not great" is just "more not great."

Other things:
  • 74A: Calling (NICHE) — "find your calling," "find your NICHE" ... I'm not sure these are good as synonyms, but horseshoes/hand grenades I guess. You can swap them out and get reasonably similar phrases, so OK.
  • 89A: They can be graphic (TEES) — as in "t-shirts." I wanted ARTS here.
  • 15D: Geek Squad members, e.g. (I.T. PROS) — oof, so hard to parse, so unsatisfying to finally get. That's a lot of abbreviation for an answer to have without there being *any* abbreviation indicators in the clue. To be fair, though, I don't think there's any clue that's going to get me happy about seeing I.T. PROS. 
  • 23D: Echo, perhaps (APE) — pfft, even after I got this I didn't get it. They are both forms of imitation or copying or repeating. You "echo" someone, you ... "ape" them? These seem like really, really different activities, but again, you can probably lawyer your way into establishing equivalence.
  • 114D: Demon of Japanese folklore (ONI) — I learned this word from comics—there is a comics imprint called ONI. That ... is how I learned it. I see now that it's not a very interesting story. But it is factual. 
This is the last Sunday puzzle of the year. Speaking of end-of-the-year puzzle-related matters, you should get your hands on the latest issue of The New Yorker (dated Dec. 27, 2021). It's a special puzzle-themed issue with lots of truly inventive puzzles by a small army of talented constructors, including an issue-wide meta-puzzle created by Patrick Berry, the ultimate solution to which is a cartoon caption. There's an acrostic, a cryptic, an "Impossible Crossword" by Megan Amram and Paolo Pasco (with both a "Hard" and an "Easy" set of clues), and best of all, there's a beautiful personal essay by Anna Schechtman that opens the issue. It explores the role of crosswords in her life, with particular attention to what it has meant to her to be a *woman* making crosswords. Best of all, from my purely selfish standpoint, she mentions this blog and enshrines the term NATICK in the crossword lexicon forever:

Sincerely, all vanity aside, it's a really wonderful issue. Do check it out. 

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Linguist Okrand who created Klingon / SAT 12-25-21 / Model and body positivity activist Holliday / Something suddenly fashionable / Sarcastic response to an attempt at intimidation / Subject of some MK-Ultra experiments / Units equal to 10 micronewtons

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Constructor: Johan Vass

Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging

THEME: none 

Word of the Day: 12D: Dulcé SLOAN (12D: Dulcé ___, correspondent for "The Daily Show" beginning in 2017) —
Dulcé Lazaria Sloan
 (born July 4, 1983) is an American stand-up comedian, actress and writer. She is a correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Comedy Central. [...] In 2015, she was named a "New Face of Comedy" at the Just For Laughs comedy festival and won the 12th annual StandUp NBC comedy showcase. Her late-night comedy debut followed on Conan in February 2016. A few months later, she won the 2016 Big Sky Comedy Festival in Billings, Montana. Additional TV appearances followed on Comedy Knockout, The Steve Harvey Show., @midnight with Chris Hardwick, and as a correspondent for E! News Daily. Sloan joined The Daily Show as a correspondent in September 2017. Her Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents episode aired in October 2019.  // In voice work, Sloan is the voice of Honeybee in the Fox animated sitcom The Great North[ and has been a panelist on the radio show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!. (wikipedia)
• • •

is not a [Pained expression]. It is astonishing to me that you can be so creative in your grid design, so attentive to your au courant fill, and then blow it all on a three-letter atrocity. It's bad enough that I have to accept EWW (eww!) as a crossword answer, with its wholly arbitrary double-W; but now, having forced me to reluctantly accept EWW, you go and write a clue that suggests EWW, with an answer that ends in two "W"s, but that ... is not EWW? Instead, it's ... OWW. OWW. OWW? Hey, you know how I know that OWW is absolutely not a thing at all at all (at all)? Guess how many times OWW has been in the puzzle. Guess. Go on, guess. Guess. OK, are you thinking of a number? Is that number zero? Because zero is correct. Zero times before today. LOL, you debuted OWW!?!?! What is the opposite of "Congratulations"? Here we have this big, open grid filled with often quite interesting answers, but because you all thought you were gonna make OWW happen, we are talking about nothing but OWW. Well, I'm talking about nothing but OWW. And you wanna know why? See, it's not just because it's awful, which it is. Awful on its own is just awful. A passing blight. You look at it, wince, and move on. But today, because of where OWW is placed, it creates some real solve-wrecking potential. If, like me, you think the only acceptable -WW [Pained expression] is EWW (which, again, to be clear, before today, was 100% true), then you end up with PHO-E APPS at 1A: Things you might snap on, nowadays. And if you don't absolutely know that the [Model and body positivity activist Holliday] is TESS (I did not absolutely know that), then the combination of your certainty about EWW and the complete plausibility of PHONE APPS is going to carry the day. Nevermind that, in retrospect, TESS Holliday is a more plausible name than NESS Holliday (or Holliday NESS, I guess). We wouldn't be here, I wouldn't be here, if it weren't for OWW, which, again, is a fake non-thing that is fake. EWW is the only -WW [Pained expression] with precedent, PHONE APPS was plausible, so that was what won out. You can't invent [Pained expression]s, and you have to be super duper ultra careful about the *names* you use in a puzzle, *especially* if you're using them around invented [Pained expression]s. I no longer care that you got your cute THE NEW BLACK in the puzzle, or that I love Donna Summer. All the good vibes are gone. All I can see, all I can feel at the end of this solve is OWW

This puzzle is way too fond of names, especially current names. The things about names of the past is the past is more or less accessible to all of us, whereas the present, our present, with its heavily segmented and ensiloed popular culture, is a lot harder to get at if the proper nouns in question are not right up your damn alley. So ELENA DELLE DONNE is famous, for sure (not least because Erik Agard was wearing her jersey when he won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament a while back), but her name is from Mars if you don't follow the WNBA (which it's very easy not to do, as it is with any sports league, and easier now than ever, given, again, the near complete eradication of any "common" culture in the internet era ... you used to know things just by being alive, because they were in the air, whether you wanted to know them or not; that "in the air" quality is harder to gauge now). Dulcé SLOAN is a cool new name, but that's gonna stump lots of people, including people who have watched "The Daily Show," tbh. Jason MOMOA is a star, but you can see how the pop culture density is rising with each of these names. And then there's the MARC clue, which is just self-indulgent (23D: Linguist Okrand who created Klingon = MARC) (?). No reason anyone should know that. Clue may as well just be [Man's name]. KEITEL was very much up my alley, and RAIMI, same, but again, you're really JAMPACKing names in today. Getting your difficulty primarily from know-em-or-you-don't trivia risks alienating solvers, and creating a less entertaining solving experience. You end up simply knowing (or not knowing) things instead of *figuring things out*, which is the more fun aspect of solving. Again, to be very clear—none of the names I've mentioned in this paragraph (except that Klingon guy, bah), including TESS (whom I've seen before, actually), are in and of themselves a problem. Individually, they are all grid-worthy. The problem is the careless spewing of so many names, all from a fairly narrow slice of very contemporary pop culture. It's a matter of balance, and careful handling.

"OOH, I'M SCARED" should really be "OOH, I'M SO SCARED!" if it wants to be properly sarcastic, so though I love the instinct there, the actual execution was a thud for me (31A: Sarcastic response to an attempt at intimidation). See also OH EM GEE, which is horrendous. I get that you want to be cute with your exclamation turned text-clamation turned back into "words," but no one in history has written OH EM GEE anywhere until I wrote it just now. Yeesh. SLEEVELESS DRESS made me LOL because it's the most conspicuous desperation 15, an answer that says "holy shit I'm trying to stack 15s what do I do what do I do ooh I know, all 1-point Scrabble tiles, yes perfect!" THE NEW BLACK and SHORTS WEATHER were great, though "spring" here in central NY is way Way too cold, generally for shorts (well, if you're old like me it is). JAMPACK and GODFORBID make another nice little stack. The shape of the grid is very cool. It reminds me of a rotary phone. I was briefly worried there was going to be an actual phone theme. But no. Just the cool shape. So there was a lot to like here. But again, to reiterate and sum up: OWW

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Saturday!

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

P.S. didn't know what MK-Ultra was so I looked it up just now and, oof, it's grim (28A: Subject of some MK-Ultra experiments). Not sure "illegal human experimentation" is really the vibe you want to put out there on Christmas Day, but everyone celebrates in their own way, I guess...

P.P.S. just snuck a look at my wife's completed puzzle, and guess what? Total. Vindication:

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