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THEME: "California, Here I Come" — CA added to familiar (-ish) phrases, resulting in wacky phrases:
STREAMING INCA (23A: Ancient Peruvian using Netflix?)
CAST ELSEWHERE (33A: "No fishing here!"?)
DEEP SPACE CANINE (51A: Dog whose rocket went off course?)
YOU MAKE ME WANNA CASH OUT (65A: Comment to an annoying blackjack dealer?)
REALLY BIG CASHEW (82A: Part of a jumbo trail mix?) (for you youngsters out there, that … is an Ed Sullivan pun … here, this should make it clear:)
BACALL HANDLER (97A: Agent for Bogart's partner?) (for you non-sports fans, this is primarily a basketball term, used of whoever's, uh, handling the ball)
THE LIFE OF PICA (111A: "12-Point Type: A History"?)
Word of the Day: NYALAS (59D: Spiral-horned antelopes) —
The nyala (Nyala angasii or Tragelaphus angasii), also called inyala, is a spiral-horned antelope native to southern Africa. It is a species of the family Bovidae and genus Nyala, also considered to be in the genus Tragelaphus. It was first described in 1849 by George French Angas. The body length is 135–195 cm (53–77 in), and it weighs 55–140 kg (121–309 lb). The coat is rusty or rufous brown in females and juveniles, but grows a dark brown or slate grey, often tinged with blue, in adult males. Females and young males have ten or more white stripes on their sides. Only males have horns, 60–83 cm (24–33 in) long and yellow-tipped. It exhibits the highest sexual dimorphism among the spiral-horned antelopes. (wikipedia)
• • •
I checked out early with this one. How early? This early.
I'm not kidding. I didn't have good feelings about this one even before starting (title telegraphed the theme, for one thing…) and then, yeah, 1-Across. It's so … something. It's a word. It's a non-terrible word. It's just … dusty, crosswordwise. Today, it's a tone-setter. It made me worry about what this solving experience was going to be like, and my worry was not unjustified. I was not wrong about how I would ultimately feel about the puzzle. Prediction was: humor would be groan-worthy, and fill would be crusty. And I was right and right. I can't even take the time to enumerate all the issues. Too depressing. But the main ones are: theme ridiculously basic and obvious and infinitely replicable, with mostly flat or bizarre theme answers; lots of stale fill; and a cultural center of gravity way way before my time (the last issue being a matter of taste more than quality, admittedly).
Add-a-letter? Really? Again? Man. I mean, yeah, technically it's two letters, but still. The "Funny" bar has to be Very High if the theme's going to be this slight, and today's "Funny" bar doesn't even clear my knees.
TIRO—Wow. Just wow. I literally LOL'd at 26A: Newbie: Var. Putting "Var." on "Newbie" is like putting a gray wig and mustache on a baby, only much less funny
SAD CASE—Ugh x a million. I had SAD SACK, which is an actual, better, phrase.
LETITIA—A spelling adventure!
AWACS (34D: High-tech surveillance acronym)
That's not even *close* to a full accounting of the mediocre / subpar stuff. Just the "high" lights. CORNIER puzzles, I've rarely seen. Is the Sunday submission pile this shallow? My kingdom for an EDITOR. Etc. Last night, I asked my Twitter followers to tell me what to say about this puzzle, but apparently not everyone does their puzzle at 6:30pm on Saturday night, so I got only a few responses.
"[H]ad to put it away because I was bored silly. Unlike me, but jeez."
"I am starting to wonder if I am having a stroke while trying to do the puzzle today."
"Non-slog Sundays are a dying breed."
"It stopped being interesting, so I stopped solving it."
"Four unforgivable answers in top two rows, including lame themer based on random phrase. Never got better. What's not to like?"
"Who says BALTO?"
Then Erik Agard told me to play this:
Couple more things:
Brendan Emmett Quigley (named "Constructor of the Year" for 2014 over at "Diary of a Crossword Fiend") is now offering up a subscription to his "Marching Bands" puzzles. 26 puzzles over the course of a year, all fresh, hot and new. To read more about this (awesome) puzzle type and support the project, Go Here.
Lastly, here's a letter to the editor that the NYT didn't publish. I told its author I'd run it, since it's about language use in puzzles (specifically, an acrostic puzzle from a couple weeks back). (Note: my printing the letter does not necessarily indicate my endorsement of the ideas contained therein)
I was disappointed to see the offensive acrostic puzzle clues “Kook, Psycho, Lunatic” and answer “Nutcase” in the March 8, 2015, Sunday Magazine. These words are no different than using a similarly demeaning epithet to describe a racial or cultural characteristic. Why then is it acceptable to use such derogatory language to describe a spectrum of brain disorders? Mental illness is a disease, not a joke.
The words we use to describe things inform our perception of them. Even in the seemingly benign guise of a word puzzle they are powerful tools. Will Shortz has devoted his career to using them with flair and style but unfortunately last week his editing missed the mark. As the mother of someone with schizophrenia I am sensitive to the stigma embedded in the language used to describe it. People suffering from mental illness deserve our compassion and respect, not being reduced to pejorative stereotypes. You can do better. It is time for a more enlightened approach to idle entertainment.
Creighton Taylor National Alliance on Mental Illness – Maine chapter member Maine Behavioral Healthcare Board of Trustee Chairperson of Maine Behavioral Healthcare Advisory Committee Member of Spring Harbor Hospital “Linking Families” Committee
Word of the Day: SNAPCHAT (34D: Disappearing communication system?) —
Snapchat is a photo messaging application developed by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown, then Stanford University students. Using the application, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. These sent photographs and videos are known as "Snaps". Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps (as of April 2014, the range is from 1 to 10 seconds), after which they will be hidden from the recipient's device and deleted from Snapchat's servers.
According to Snapchat in May 2014, the app's users were sending 700 million photos and videos per day, while Snapchat Stories content was being viewed 500 million times per day. The company has a valuation of $10–$20 billion depending on various sources. (wikipedia)
• • •
Wow, this is just ridiculously good. I think Steinberg is quickly turning himself into one of the great themeless constructors. Heir apparent to Patrick Berry. This puzzle doesn't have many weak spots at all, and its strong spots are everywhere. All over. All the stacks. All the columns. They are chock full of life and wit and (LEMON) ZEST. Let's see ... SCARUM—that, I don't like. But holy moly you'd need like six more SCARUMs (scara?) to make this thing less than good. I want to scream to all themeless constructs and would-be themeless constructors: aim for This. It's not just good in places; it's good Everywhere. The NYT has become somewhat schizophrenic of late, serving up mediocre fare better than half the time, but then dropping GEMs here and there by the great constructors who still regularly submit to them. I've said it before, and I'm saying it again now: Steinberg is one of a handful of constructors keeping the NYT's overall quality passable. A lot of talent has been syphoned off to other places. Speaking of, you should really check out David Steinberg's *other* current puzzle—the latest American Values Club Crossword. It's called "Inside Dope," which, as I told editor Ben Tausig, is the Same Title as a crossword puzzle I once made, and with a very similar theme. But, as I also told him, David's is better. Get it here for a $1, or just become a AVCX subscriber already: they're thick with constructing talent over there.
I knew I was in for a fun ride pretty quickly when NOH IMSET WITSEND and XER gave me BIKINI WAX. That was the first answer in a killer 3-stack: BIKINI WAX / ECONOMIZE / DEATH STAR. Conjures images of Vader having some personal grooming done, because, well, he had a coupon, so why not? Calling a BIKINI WAX "hair-raising" seems a bit tenuous, but it allows for a clever misdirection, so I'll allow it.
[Kid who had an original Rubik's cube, e.g.] => REXPARKER
The cluing was pretty tough throughout, with lots of initially annoying but ultimately mostly pretty good "?" clues. Also, some clues were vague enough to throw me off, at least for a bit. NE was pretty tough, with two not-terribly-famous names one over the other (DUANE Hanson / ERICA Hill). Luckily, after getting ODEON, I pulled the trigger on both names, with just their first letters in place. I figured that starting "E" in five letters, that name was gonna be ERICA (or ERIKA). Also, I know the name DIANE Hanson, so I just went with that. Fortuitous! Turns out Dian Hanson spells her name without an "E." She's a porn editor and historian. She's done a lot of Taschen books on pin-up / girly mag art. She was interviewed in the (great) film "Crumb." So of course her name was in my head. Anyway, DIANE to DUANE, not a big leap. As you can see here, I got into that corner and down YEAR ZERO, with just a little error there are the top (later fixed, obviously):
As someone with a vendetta against the Charmin Bears (they're the only animal I want hunted to extinction), I wasn't exactly excited about 57A: They're taken to go (LAXATIVES), but it's nice to see the NYT … I'm gonna say "loosen up" a little. Yes, I'm gonna say it, alright. The exclamation point on this thing, for me, was SNAPCHAT. Gives the grid a nice, youthful glow. Nobody who uses SNAPCHAT would say "CRIPES!" but that's what I love about crosswords—words that normally wouldn't have anything to do with each other get to hang out, mix it up. Diversity! It's a legitimate value.
THEME: UTAH (STATE) (31A: University suggested by this puzzle's black squares) — all the grid's black square blocks form, roughly, the shape of Utah. Two other theme answers relate to Utah:
TABERNACLE CHOIR (19A: Temple Square group founded in 1847) [shouldn't this have "MORMON" in front of it?]
LATTER DAY SAINTS (47A: Young followers) [this clue is probably my favorite thing about the puzzle]
Word of the Day: ION BEAM (53A: Ray gun ray) —
[Wait, ray guns are real now? Cool.]
• • •
Take out everything but the theme answers, refill the entire grid competently, and release this on a day where somehow Utah matters, and you've got something. As is, it's yet another decent, cute idea made painful by the less-than-polished fill. I knew things would be GRIM before I made it out of the NW, with its absurd non-phrase IN LATIN and its absurd recherché Frenchism A LA MORT (16A: How zombies like their apple pie?). I was pretty well checked out by the time I got to the NEBO ITES shortly thereafter. Just … done. There's no delight, no play, no craft. There's just fill. The theme, when I got it, felt like an afterthought. I couldn't appreciate it on any level because ISS ISA ATMS SHH OAS HOI IPODS GRIM ASP etc. Worse, though, was the fact that the longer stuff (mostly) had no pop. Short junk can be overlooked when the longer answers pop. Popless, I say, was this. Not to mention the fact that the clues on this puzzle were a huge downer. All the joy of being held HOSTAGE in an ASSISTED living facility. ENCAGEd.
Remember: If you aren't up to filling a low word-count puzzle cleanly, then just don't do it. Please. The bar is just too high today. I mean … Only 62 words, *And* it's themed? No. No way. Unless you are Patrick Berry, stop. Please. I'd say "add black squares to make filling the grid easier," but I see that would ruin your whole (mysterious) Utah vibe. The theme answers aren't interesting enough to hold the puzzle together, and the theme has no topicality, and too much of the fill just doesn't work. It's either bad or dull. Editors have to help shape this stuff. Too often a good idea is DEMEd to be all that's important, and clunky execution is just given a pass. [Is that how you pronounce "DEME"? I have no idea] (49D: Greek township)
I'll give you HIPSTER and SHANKAR and HOSTAGE and PEACH PIT and BEATS ME. Maybe even CONESTOGA and TABITHA. But I will not give you TWEEDLE (one of the least "enticing" words I know) (55A: Entice with music) and I most certainly won't give you the ridiculous, enormous partial, END HOUSE (10D: Agatha Christie's "Peril at ___"). That answer is neck and neck with IN LATIN for Biggest Head-Shaker. Again, there's a clever state pride angle here, but in order for that cleverness to shine, the non-theme fill (which, today, is an enormous part of the grid) has to be, at a minimum, clean. It wasn't.
THEME: RINSE CYCLE (57A: Part of washing … or what's exhibited by the circled letters from top to bottom) — letters in "RINSE" "cycle" (perfectly) through all their sequential permutations (i.e. ERINS, then move "S" to the beginning and you get SERIN, then move "N" to the beginning and you get NSERI, etc., until you get RINSE at the bottom)
SLYTHERINS (19A: Draco Malfoy's housemates in the Harry Potter books)
NOSE RINGS (27A: Some punk accessories)
INTENSE RIVALS (36A: Red Sox and Yankees, e.g.)
SPIN SERVE (43A: Tricky way to put a ball in play)
Word of the Day: Haaretz (39D: Haaretz readers => ISRAELIS) —
Haaretz (Hebrew: הארץ) (lit. "The Land [of Israel]", originally Ḥadashot Ha'aretz – Hebrew: חדשות הארץ, IPA: [χadaˈʃot haˈʔaʁets] – "News [of] the Land [of Israel]") is Israel's oldest daily newspaper. It was founded in 1918 and is now published in both Hebrew and English in Berliner format. The English edition is published and sold together with the International New York Times. Both Hebrew and English editions can be read on the Internet. In North America, it comes out as a weekly newspaper, combining articles from the Friday edition with a roundup from the rest of the week. An independent newspaper of record, some commentators state that it plays the role in Israel that The New York Times plays in the United States. It is known for its staunch left-liberal stance on domestic and foreign issues. (wikipedia)
• • •
My initial reactions to this weren't great. Mixing up letters over and over seemed trite, and though SLYTHERINS is of course a welcome answer, the fill in general seemed decidedly sub-Walden. I don't think I even believe that INTENSE RIVALS is a thing. Like, a stand-alone thing. So while the puzzle didn't seem terrible, it also didn't excite me, at all. Then two things happened. First, I realized that the theme wasn't just "mix up the letters in RINSE"—it was all those letters *cycling*, in order, through their various permutations, and, also, doing so in a way where all permutations are perfectly aligned, one above the next, resulting in a perfect column of circled in answers in the middle of the grid. Those two things demonstrate a high level of craftsmanship, and gave me a somewhat elevated appreciation for the puzzle as a whole. But then … then my feelings went from tepid admiration to something much more positive and much more intense … after I entered … the SW corner!
For the fantastic / alarming visual alone, I'm going to give that SW corner the "Best SW Corner Of All Time" award. If you weren't imagining a MALE (NUDE) engaged in PHONE SEX while wearing a SANTA HAT, well… you are now, and you're welcome. The only thing I'd change about that corner is the "G" in GIMPS. I get that it's supposed to add (I think) to the overall mildly perverted feel of that corner (insofar as "GIMPS" reminds me of "The Gimp" from "Pulp Fiction"), but it's a borderline offensive word (making it a verb doesn't really change that). I'd actually prefer PIMPS there, though I somehow doubt that would fly in the NYT. LIMPS or SIMPS works too. But this is hardly that important. What's important is MALE NUDE PHONE SEX SANTA HAT. *That* is a jolly good time. It's like the rest of the puzzle barely exists...
THEME: NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE NO. 2 — circled letters "descend" the grid, spelling out that title, and then two other random themers are thrown in:
28D: Like the work spelled out by the circled letters (AVANT-GARDE)
12D: Event at which the work spelled out by the circled letters was first exhibited in America (ARMORY SHOW)
Word of the Day: DELAWARE / BAY (7A: With 31-Across, Cape May's locale) —
Delaware Bay is the estuary outlet of the Delaware River on the Northeast seaboard of the United States. Approximately 782 square miles (2,030 km2) in area, the bay's fresh water mixes for many miles with the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean.
This thing gets points for effort and originality. But it gets almost no other points. This is a picture-perfect example of a fine idea botched all to hell. So many problems, but I'll start with the first: the circled letters fill themselves in, especially if you start in the NW (as humans often do) and have even a passing familiarity with major artworks of the 20th century. Here is my grid, very early in the solve:
Now at this point, I can go either way on this puzzle. I love the idea of basing a puzzle around a painting, I love this Duchamp painting in particular (though I confess to not knowing there was a "NO. 2" on the end). But I can already see that the fill on this is heading toward terrible (ANO was my first thing in the grid :( and then TUPI!?!?!), so I'm basically waiting for this puzzle to wow me in the corners—to become something less straightforward and less easy and a bit more clean. Sadly, none of those things happened. No, I take that back—it did get less easy. I foundered in the SW because the ultra-vague 49D: Utterly yielded nothing even though I had ST-. I wanted STONE, as in "STONE fox" or "STONE drunk." But no. Even with STA- I had no idea. Then there's the 62D: Amount to be divided up … starting with a "P" … three letters … so clearly it's POT! (Not!). [Little nothing] was super-ambiguous as well. I had TWEET. Yeah. I know, pretty sad. But that corner's not bad, fill-wise. In fact, it's the best part of the grid, fill-wise. Problems were more in those EENSY little W and E sections. The 3x3s.
The fill in the far west section has a problem that much of the fill in and around the circled squares has: it's bad. AHA ASA ALA all jammed together like that? Individually, those are suboptimal but forgettable. Together, they're a blight. True, fill toward the middle of the grid is worse—*far* worse. ONEON, AST, ASIM (!?!?!?) and CRS (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!?$#@). Those last two shouldn't be allowed to play in any puzzle, ever. But western section has no good excuses. At least fill on the staircase can argue it was coerced. AHA ASA ALA … well, the themer placement isn't doing them any favors, but still. But minor point, probably. At least that section was easily gettable. Unlike its eastern counterpart. This is what my grid looked like at the end:
Looking at it retrospect, I don't know what I didn't guess SHOW. Oh, no, I do. Because 40A: Prepare for planting, say looks like SOW. So I wrote that in. Then I also wrote in ART at 45A: "Thou ___ aloft full-dazzling!": Whitman. And then I was just stuck. In a stupid little 3x3 section. Here's what I resent most about that—"NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE" is a widely known title. AVANT-GARDE is a widely known style. ARMORY SHOW … I guess if you are an aficionado, you know what that is, but general recognizability plummets with that answer. That answer screams "I Am Desperate For Symmetrical Answers Related To This Painting Because MARCEL DUCHAMP and DADA and FUTURISM Just Aren't Working!" So, design-wise, ARMORY SHOW gives you a painful outlier in your theme set. Overall: Good idea, terrible fill, ill-considered execution.
The fact that some solvers will, in fact, know ARMORY SHOW doesn't change the fact that most solvers will never have heard of it. Whereas all will have heard of AVANT-GARDE and most will have head of the painting in question (which is at least inferable with the help of crosses).