Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Indie puzzle highlights

May 28: A-to-Gen Z Crosswords (Ada Nicolle)

June 20: Untitled (Kaitlin Hsu, The New York War Crimes)

June 23: Themeless 77 (Ryan McCarty, The Modern Crossword)

June 23: Going a Little Overboard (Adam Wagner, Westwords)









A-to-Gen Z Crosswords (Ada Nicolle)

The marketing copy on the back of Ada's book advertises that "it's giving 'big brain'" and that it's perfect for people you agree "most mainstream crosswords are in need of a glow-up," which presents a very particular idea of what it means for a crossword to be "Gen Z": almost a caricature of the mainstream media's conception of "Gen Z slang," which I put in scare quotes because it's really appropriated AAVE. And that's a pity, because I think Ada's conception of Gen Z crosswords is quite different.

I've featured plenty of Ada's puzzles in these highlights before, and if you solve her Patreon puzzles, you've already know her style. Solving 72 of them in quick succession really threw one aspect of that style into sharp relief for me, though. After I finished the book, I went through and added phrases I liked to my wordlist, as I do whenever I solve something. But there was a conspicuous number of phrases that I liked in the context of the puzzles that I nonetheless didn't add to my own wordlist, phrases like FOR THE WII and ATE A WHOLE THING OF. These are prototypical examples of "green paint" phrases, which are definitely things that people say but don't have distinct meanings or connotations that aren't figureoutable a priori from the literal meanings of the words.

I tend to avoid green paint when I construct, but as a solver, I actually kind of like it in Ada's puzzles because I know it's used deliberately and thoughtfully. My read on Ada's style is that it's an attempt to stay attuned to the landscape of language as it's actually used. So entries that speak to Gen Z solvers aren't just things like YEET or whatever, but also particular turns of phrase that ring true to the ears of someone who's been around young people for the last couple of decades. So FOR THE WII and ATE A WHOLE THING OF may be green paint, but they also gives the solver a pang of recognition that yeah, that's exactly how you phrase that.

The antepenultimate puzzle from the book has a stack that includes GOOD LISTENER, which is apt because that's exactly what you have to be to be able to produce puzzles like these. That includes paying attention to phraseologies like the ones mentioned above, but also keeping an ear out for particular cultural phenomena like (all from the same puzzle) MLG MONTAGES, AFFILIATE LINKS, and COFFEE SHOP AU. I don't know of any constructor whose ear is as finely and specifically tuned as Ada's.

Untitled (Kaitlin Hsu)

(Full disclosure: I've been working with both Kaitlin and some of the people involved with the New York War Crimes on organizing this letter.) I'm a huge fan of the New York War Crimes as a publication; the work they're doing to provide a leftist, anti-colonialist alternative to papers like the New York Times is vital. So I'm delighted that they now have a weekly crossword, particularly because the crossword is such a central part of the identity of the New York Times itself. They've published a number of puzzles with very impressive themes, but this puzzle, despite its relative simplicity, is the best illustration so far of their ethos.

The revealer is THE RADICAL LEFT, clued as [Rightwing pejorative for anybody who simply... cares about other people, or a hint to the theme clues in this puzzle]. The theme entries all start with words meaning "radical," and are all clued with a leftist bent: (LIT)TLE PAKISTAN is [Neighborhood where you can hear Urdu, pick up mithai, and if you're in Brooklyn, participate in an independence mela every August], (HOT)EL WORKERS is [Housekeepers, clerks, and the 300,000 members of labor union UNITE HERE], and (FAB)RIC SCRAPS is [Materials used by the group Hope In The Art World for their "From Occupation to Liberation" quilt, displayed outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 24, 2024]. It's a perfect example of how a theme that theoretically has a ton of possible options can be elevated by choosing very thoughtfully from those options.

But it's in the choice of entries and clues for the fill that Kaitlin's puzzle really shines. There's particular attention paid to Palestinians and other Arabs, with OLIVE TREE clued as [Plant that symbolizes Palestinian rootedness to the land], plus ARAB clued as [Radius of ___ American Writers (literary community that promotes the work of Etel Adnan and Fady Joudah, among others)]. But equally, the puzzle recognizes that it's crucial to draw connections between decolonial and antiracist struggles around the world. Kaitlin chooses to use the OAHU clue to highlight Haunani-Kay Trask's From a Native Daughter, a text which explicitly links Hawaiian resistance to U.S. colonialism and Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonialism (which itself, of course, is actively supported by the U.S.). Similarly, YELLOW is clued with reference to "Yellow Peril supports Black Power," a slogan that has been used by Asian Americans to express support for radical Black movements. This kind of cluing is not uncommon in the crossword blogosphere, but it's hard to overstate how thrilling it is to see it in an outlet that explicitly mimics the format of the New York Times, whose ideological function is utterly at odds with this approach. It's a way to imagine the way that things in the crossworld, and the world of media writ large, could be.

Themeless 77 (Ryan McCarty)

Ryan is the master of themelesses with wide-open centers, which are his trademark (so much so that he's coined his own term for them, "chasms"). So he knows better than anybody that chasms, while they're obviously very hard to fill in and of themselves, also put a lot of pressure on the corners of the grid. Once you've got a chasm that you like, you generally have very little freedom to change the ends of any of the long entries in the chasm, because they intersect so intricately and because they take up so much real estate that there's not much freedom to add black squares to the corners (aside from helper squares in the very corners). So a themeless with a beautiful chasm will often feel noticeably weaker in the corners, as if the corners are there merely to support the center. You can see the effects of this in my most recent themeless on this here blog - I wanted to keep the word count extra low, and that meant using some entries that simply wouldn't be interesting enough to support a stack in any other type of themeless.

So I was frankly stunned when I solved this puzzle and the corners could easily pass muster in a chasmless themeless. A stack of HEMP FARMS/ONCE A WEEK/SAND WEDGE crossing RED SAUCE/MEGASTAR/SKECHERS is something I'd expect to see as the anchor of a 15x15 themeless. Here, it's merely part of Ryan's 19x19 canvas. Elsewhere in the corners, we've got NOODLE TAG, MICRONAP, AYO EDEBIRI, IOWA NICE, AI-POWERED appropriately near FINANCE BRO, and more. To include all that in a grid whose center stacks are WIZARD BEARD/COMEDY TEAMS/DOUBLE BONDS and DARK ACADEMIA/COUNTRY BALLAD/GOOD TO SEE YOU feels like, well, wizardry.

Going a Little Overboard (Adam Wagner)

Sometimes, all you need to create a unique solving experience is to make a slight tweak to something that's been done many times before. Adam's Westwords puzzle does just that. Most constructors using HANG TEN as a revealer would put Across entries in the grid that have the string TEN, and then have that string head vertically through an intersecting Down entry - the type of theme that's done all the time, particularly in the Wall Street Journal. Instead, Adam made a tiny adjustment to the idea: he hung the string TEN vertically in the clues instead.

I say a tiny adjustment, but I definitely don't want to imply that it was obvious or easy. If it had been either of those things, surely someone would have thought to do it before. But there's a very good reason people don't do it: crossword clues aren't normally laid out in perfectly regimented grid patterns, so you can't just make a string of letters go vertically through a series of clues. Adam's masterstroke is to use a monospaced font for the clues, so he could finesse the character counts of the clues to make the TENs go in perfect vertical lines. For example: 4-Across is UNTIE, clued as [Opposite of fast]. It should really be [Opposite of fasten], but the E has dropped down to the 6-Across clue, [Staunchly averse], which should really be [Staunchly avers] (ASSERTS), and the N has dropped down to the 8-Across clue, [Unappealing goon], which should really be [Unappealing goo] (SNOT). Not only do the clues have to line up perfectly, the corresponding grid entries are stacked, so it's simultaneously constrained on both fronts.

This would be incredible in any context, but it's especially apt for Puzzle 5. Like many tournaments, Westwords has one brutally hard, outside-the-box puzzle designed to really weed people out; for Westwords, just as for the ACPT, this is Puzzle 5. An ideal Puzzle 5, for me, is an original gimmick that resists standard puzzle-solving techniques, but that isn't so unusual that a top solver can't be expected to figure it out within the time limit. This gimmick ticks both the boxes, since it's highly original, but is still only one step removed from something very familiar.

I also like the attention to the solving flow. Moreso than most grids, the design of this puzzle really predisposes solvers to travel in a particular path, from the top to the bottom. It's shaped like a surfboard, only 9 squares wide but 27 squares tall, so there's not much horizontal leeway. Adam thus had a lot of control over what order the vast majority of solvers would encounter the theme entries in, and the sequencing of the theme entries here is very canny. The UNTIE/ASSERTS/SNOT stack that I mentioned above is easily the sneakiest of the four thematic stacks, since all three clues are extremely plausible clues that I wouldn't blink an eye at in a themeless puzzle. The next stack is pretty close, but there's a hint that something might be off - [It may be on tape] and [Sticker in a barn] are both perfectly normal-looking clues (the latter in particular suggests PITCHFORK, which happens to be the same length as the intended answer, BEER LABEL, which is a sticker in a bar). [Was happy to list] is a bit suspicious, though - it has a plausible meaning, but I can't think of a plausible crossword answer for it. The clues in the third stack are [Whit], [Cane], and [Chin] - all single words, so all plausible clues, but the fact that they're all short is a potential tipoff, as is the fact that "chin" doesn't really have a lot of synonyms. Finally, the fourth stack starts with [Gluts of glut] (really [Gluts of gluten], for BAKE SALES), which is a clue you'd never expect to see in a regular crossword. So for solvers who don't figure out the gimmick in the nth stack, the n+1th stack gives them a bit more to go on.

One of the devilish things about a typical Puzzle 5 is that, even if you figure out the gimmick early, the regular clues are no picnic either, so the solve is still extra challenging. Adam really brought his A game to the wordplay clues outside of the theme here: the best ones include [Book seller?] for BLURB, [Making room?] for SHOP, [It might have you cutting and tearing simultaneously] for ONION, and especially [Linguini topper from Pixar] for REMY. All in all, an absolutely ideal Puzzle 5.

Monday, July 1, 2024

Puzzle #229: Freestyle 19

It's been a little while since I've dipped into the well of 21x themelesses, but I've got one for you this week (pdf, puz, pdf solution) - a chunky grid with only 116 words. Be warned, there are lots of long proper names in this one, including a couple of potentially tricky crosses! But they're all people well worth looking into, if they're new to you - I'm especially a fan of 53-Down.

Thanks to Kelsey, Quiara, and Frisco for test-solving!

Monday, June 24, 2024

Puzzle #228: A Quesadilla Cut into Four Pieces

My 4-year-old, like most 4-year-olds, is a pretty picky eater, and there was a phase where a quesadilla cut into four pieces was the one thing he'd reliably eat pretty much any time - hence the title of this puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution). This one was, shockingly, rejected by a certain prestigious literary journal, so you get to solve it here instead.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Indie puzzle highlights: The return

I stopped doing these a while ago, but Zinna's puzzle below has moved me to try to bring them back. I suspect I'll generally be highlighting fewer puzzles, and I'll be publishing on an irregular schedule, but going more in-depth on the puzzles I do highlight. I might also change my definition of indie, depending on which puzzles I'm moved to write about. We'll see!

June 3: Untitled (Sid Sivakumar, Slate)

June 6: 🐻‍❄️ (zinna, zinna bun) 

June 7: 7/30 ("peak performance") (brooke husic, xwords by a ladee)









Untitled (Sid Sivakumar)

Slate's new crossword feature is off to an excellent start. Under Quiara Vasquez's editorship, it stands out from the pack in its willingness to go weird and buck prevailing trends. Amid a welcome spate of crosswords designed to be accessible to newcomers, the Slate puzzle tends (especially in Quiara's own puzzles) to be filled with original and unusual entries chosen for their interesting letter combinations, plus downright zany ripped-from-the-headlines stuff like RFK JR'S BRAIN and the down entry GALF clued in reference to Samuel Alito's upside-down flag. As those two entries also demonstrate, there's a willingness to reference various dangerous ideologues, which many venues would shy away from, citing the "no bummers" principle. (I also recall YEEZUS with a clue referencing how retrospectively appropriate it is that it features a song called "Black Skinhead.") I sometimes cringe at these, and at some of the more experimental cluing approaches, but I do appreciate the refusal to play things safe.

Another aspect of that is that some of the puzzles will have an isolated pocket of wackiness that you wouldn't normally see except as part of a full-blown theme in a full-sized crossword. One of Ben Zimmer's puzzles, for example, had 16 CARRIAGES in the grid, complete with digits. My favorite example of this so far has been Sid's June 3 puzzle, whose last two across entries, stacked on top of each other, are ENDS LATE ([Runs longer than scheduled]) and END SLATE ([Clapboard filmed at the conclusion of a take]).

I'm on record as being a fan of themes that play with the rule against dupes, and a big part of that is that said "rule" is, especially now, being actively negotiated. It seems to me that it used to be taken as dogma, but is now in flux because it's not entirely clear that the theoretical motivation behind the rule motivates a strict version of it. The commonly-cited justification is that duplicated entries confuse the solver; if they've already filled in WORD in the grid, they're likely to hesitate if another clue seems to call for the answer WORD or WORDING or PASSWORD. But what kinds of dupes, exactly, does that principle rule out? Some editors will disallow any pairs of entries that are etymologically related, but many shared etymologies are non-obvious to the vast majority of solvers and are unlikely to cause any confusion.

Erik Agard is among the editors who frame the rule as something like: if the two entries are asking different questions, then it's not a dupe. For example, the Apple News+ spec sheet says that having ICE CREAM and DRY ICE in the same grid is fine, since they're asking substantially different questions. The NYT editors seem to have gotten more permissive about dupes recently too, allowing things like BEAR TRAPS and TRAPDOOR in the same grid, which suggests that they're following something similar to the "different questions" principle. Patti Varol, in contrast, still maintains a strict rule against etymologically related words, to say nothing of phrases containing the very same word (which has the virtue of being unambiguous, for both submitting constructors and solvers, as to what's expected).

Sid's puzzle explores a weird edge case - entries that are spelled exactly the same, but have totally different meanings because they're parsed differently. I think I recall an indie puzzle (I forget the constructor, unfortunately) that had both RAT-EATEN and RATE A TEN, and this puzzle does the same sort of thing, though this one has the wrinkle that they both use forms of the word END, so the parses aren't entirely distinct. What I love about this is that it forces the solver to reflect on how they feel about dupes. Should this kind of dupe be allowed as a matter of course? My intuitive reaction is that it would be very weird to see a themed 15x15 puzzle that happened to have GOBY and GO BY in it for no theme-related reason - it would feel unintentional and therefore unsatisfying. So it definitely counts as a dupe in my book, but of course Sid's choice is intentional, and it's thoroughly satisfying - satisfying because the entries are literally at the END of the SLATE crossword. It's done thoughtfully, and provides a provocative shock for the solver. And incidentally, it calls into question the "different questions" principle, since these types of pairs definitely asks different questions, but also feel (at least to me) qualitatively different from ICE CREAM and DRY ICE. Maybe the standard should be "different questions AND different answers." Or maybe hoping that a simple and concise standard will cover all possible cases is foolishly optimistic!

🐻‍❄️ (zinna)

In the essays "The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale" and "The Philosophy of Composition," Edgar Allan Poe takes what he calls "unity of effect" as the guiding principle behind the composition of short stories and poems. For Poe, everything should be in service to the hoped-for effect on the reader. And poems can only achieve unity of effect if they're short enough to be taken in in a single sitting: the pitch of aesthetic excitement that Poe hopes to evoke in the reader can only last for a brief time.

I've been thinking about this lately in terms of crosswords, and particularly the proliferation of minis and midis. I'm not a fan of the recent proliferation of minis (grids that are around 5x5), which are often chosen for reasons that have nothing to do with aesthetics: they're easy to solve on a smartphone, they're cheap to produce, they're compatible with short attention spans, etc. But the proliferation of midis, particularly in indie venues, is more exciting. A lot of these venues are using the midi format to pull off themes, tones, and the like that just wouldn't work in a 15x15 grid. And there's much to be said for using the midi format to achieve something like Poe's unity of effect, which is exactly what Zinna does in this 11x11 grid. (Really, I should say it's a 13x13 grid, though there are no letters in the outermost squares at all.)

In crossword terms, I think of unity of effect mostly as a matter of being completely in control of tone. It's much easier to do that in a midi than in a 15x15 grid, since there are fewer moving parts involved in filling and so it's much easier to exert control over every individual entry. In the middle row, we've got HEART and HANDS, intersecting WRIST and ROSES going down. WRIST is clued as [where a gajra may be tied], referring to a flower garment worn at weddings and other occasions - often made of roses. The puzzle's thematic nexus is clear just from those four entries, and the gentle pastel color gradient in the grid adds to the joyfully loving vibes. (That's why it's fairer to call it a 13x13 grid, since the art is essential to the experience.) In the lower right, there's a cheeky suggestion (but just a suggestion) of eroticism, with LACE clued as [the edge of a nightie, maybe] next to EROS clued as [desire]. The watery secondary theme runs through the two longest downs, SANDCASTLES and INDIAN OCEAN, plus EDDIES, clue as [currents floating against river rocks]. There's a note of wistfulness in this set of entries, particularly with SANDCASTLES ([fortresses swept away by wind and water]) crossing PAST (concisely and poetically clued as [lost present]). The concision of the clues throughout the grid, in fact, is key to the puzzle's feel. [web envelope] for EMAIL is evocative but quick and simple enough so as not to distract from the vibes, and [i love ___] for HER is simple and mysterious enough to reinforce the vibes.

The last thing I want to mention about the gestalt of the puzzle is an effect that I often dislike, in which the use of background images/colors in the applet obscures the difference between "white" and "black" squares, so that it's not obvious at a glance where the entries begin and end. I tend to find this obnoxious when it's done thoughtlessly, but I like it in this puzzle, where it evokes the idea of being swept up in life's currents. Yes, life is unpredictable, but it's comforting to be in the hands of a true artist.

7/30 ("peak performance") (brooke husic)

In June, Brooke is doing a 30/30 project where she posts a midi every day on her blog, constructed no more than 24 hours in advance. This puzzle from the project pairs nicely with Zinna's puzzle, as another example of masterful control over tone and content. Clues celebrating sexual pleasure, particular female pleasure, are a staple of Brooke's blog puzzles, but this puzzle has the most concentrated dose of them yet. If you start in the top left, the first one you're likely to run into is [Like some highly-anticipated releases]. What I like about this clue is that it's the exact opposite of innuendo - because it suggests something like album releases or movie releases, you're unlikely to suspect the answer is ORGASMIC until you have a few crossings. That's the exact opposite of the dynamic that the rest of the puzzle serves up, with clues that are clearly suggestive (sometimes as red herrings, sometimes not). So directly below ORGASMIC we have [Urge when it feels amazing] for DON'T STOP, and those two entries cross [Come up against something hard] for the (tame, as it turns out) HIT A WALL.

Turning the corner, we have COME LAST at 10-Down ([Finish second, in many cases]) and POLITER ([More likely to 10-Down]). I particularly like that 10-Down is like Schrodinger's innuendo, in that COME LAST works as an answer for the clue in both sexual and non-sexual senses, and only the clue for POLITER resolves it to a specific sense. Turning the corner again, we have STAYS LATE and SKILL SET ([What you're working with]), neither of which are necessarily sexy, but both of which pick up that connotation from the overall vibe of the puzzle. Then there's GOGO BOOTS clued with a lyric from Chappell Roan's "Red Wine Supernova" - hardly explicit compared to, say, the "wand and a rabbit" double entendre from that song, but still certainly part of the gestalt. All in all, there are 10 intersecting long (7+) answers in this 10x10 grid, and an incredible 8 of them (by my count) work together to conjure up a very specific set of images.

I say by my count because you could certainly take [Thick, stuffed cakes] as an innuendo too, but it doesn't contribute so neatly to the narrative as the other does, so dwelling on it would probably be gilding the lily. (I have no idea whether it's intended as innuendo.) I'm reminded, incidentally, of a footnote in Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness that justifies why Cavell, in his reading of food symbolism in It Happened One Night, chooses not to highlight the obvious phallic significance of the carrot eaten by Claudette Colbert's character. Cavell writes: "An interpretation offered at the wrong place, in the wrong spirit, is as useless, or harmful, as a wrong interpretation. ... Surely we do not need to be told that their relationship has sexual overtones or undercurrents." Despite the obvious double meanings of the words "thick" and "stuffed," I don't think it strengthens the reading of the puzzle to take the gorditas as anything but gorditas.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Puzzle #227: Freestyle 18 (with Matthew Stock)

It's been ages since I've posted a themeless! Whipped this one up with the wonderful Matthew Stock a little while ago (pdf, puz, pdf solution), and now seems as good a time as any to share it.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Puzzle #226: Lower Body Strength

Breaking symmetry for this one (pdf, puz, pdf solution), but there was no way I was gonna be able to squeeze everything in otherwise. Oh, and be forewarned - the theme is NSFW!

Monday, April 22, 2024

Puzzle #225: A Novel Idea

The other day, I noticed that the three most famous books by a certain 15-letter author also have 15-letter titles! Surely I'm the first crossword constructor in history to notice this. Some might say that three book titles and an author name does not an interesting theme make, and it would be better to have some additional theming. But personally, I think this puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is enough.