Mel Rosen’s Tuesday, 3/11/14 NYT crossword puzzle (ed. Will Shortz)


March 11, 2014 by manvspuzzle



IN BUD.  Four theme answers begin with the letters B-U and end with the letter D.  Then there’s the revealer.

Theme Answers:

  • 20A — Idles : BUMS AROUND
  • 33A — Allied supply route to China during W.W. II : BURMA ROAD
  • 41A — Having a rounded end, as pliers : BULLNOSED
  • 52A — Having a rounded end, as pliers : BUTTONWOOD
  • 49D — About to bloom … or a hint to 20-, 33-, 41- and 52-Across : IN BUD


Something Good: Old-Fashionedness.  Yeah, you heard me.  More below.


3 11 14

Man, this blogging thing can really wear you down.  Like, emotionally.  I used to just solve puzzles like this, maybe complain anonymously on someone else’s blog, and then move on with my life.  Probably solve 3 or 4 other puzzles throughout the course of the day.  But now my *whole day* is usually consumed with this *one* puzzle.  Thinking about it, writing about it, reading about it.

It’s that thinking part that I think has been the biggest benefit to this whole endeavor.  It used to be so easy for me to follow the cool crowd whenever the time came to be bitchy, because a crossing like ANIL/ILIA seemed so *obviously* sucky.  I don’t know why.  Just because that’s what I had been constantly told by the very few voices in the crossword blogosphere.  And because it’s what made sense to me, personally.  I came to believe it.  I don’t really *know* ANIL or ILIA (or AGIN or TNOTE or OLIN or RIGA or SITU).  They’re so weird!  I only see them in puzzles!  How can that be a good thing?

But now I really have to contemplate that perspective, deeply, sometimes for many days in a row.  When I see something I don’t like, can I reasonably take the position that it’s objectively “bad?”  If so, why?  The answer has to be better than, essentially, “because that’s how a couple hundred of us feel.”

And that’s really it, right?  Isn’t that how so many crossword standards are determined?  For example, I remember reading somewhere a while back that it’s generally agreed on that more than 14 proper nouns in a puzzle is too many.  Says who?  A couple hundred people, maybe.  I dunno, maybe 500.  Maybe even 1,000.

That’s still just a sliver of the solving community.  While the blogosphere is full of people from all different walks of life, I have a half-baked hunch that there’s still a basic tie that binds; regardless of age, gender, whatever, most bloggers and commenters have some essential traits in common.  I can’t say for sure what all of those traits are, but the big one is that they’re the kind of people who solve puzzles and comment about them on the Internet.  Not everyone does that.  Most people I know in my real life who solve puzzles don’t even know about the blogs.

My point is that all of us who do this daily arguing are kinda cliquey.  Popular kids high-fiving each other and making fun of the dorks.  Giving the occasional swirly in the form of a nasty blog-post.  Swooning over the quarterback while duct-taping the hall monitor’s butt cheeks together.

There, I knew I’d get to an uncomfortable metaphor eventually.

I dunno.  I just hate it when we forget that while there are Quigleys and Berrys and Lempels and Gorskis in the world, who usually appeal to us personally, there are also constructors who appeal to other people.  Think about it.  Mel Rosen *likes* this puzzle.  So does Will Shortz.  So do the test solvers.  So do, probably, thousands and thousands of people around the world today.  They’re not idiots.  Shouldn’t we acknowledge their existence?  And their right to, if they want, enjoy words that we think are ugly, or enjoy themes that we find boring or inconsistent or poorly-executed?  Just because they may not have a voice in the blogosphere doesn’t mean they aren’t real and that their tastes aren’t an important factor in the overall appeal of this *immense* institution (the NYT crossword, that is).

All I’m saying is that this puzzle is for everybody.  Everybody.  That’s part of its essence.  From what I can tell, that’s been Will Shortz’s project over the last 20 years.  To produce a product for everybody, from 14-year-old genius hackers to 95-year-old senile great-grandmothers.  To produce a puzzle made by everybody, from teenagers to centenarians.  We’re all probably aware that for a while there, pre-Shortz, the puzzle was not built for or produced by everyone.  Will changed that.  But he didn’t change it by just making it appeal to a younger, hipper crowd (which, at least at the time, was *his* crowd).  That would be the same difference.  This puzzle is for everyone.  That’s what I like about it.

I’m not saying that every puzzle tickles my personal fancy every day.  I have Fireball and BEQ and other independent puzzles to like most days because they’re basically made for me.  But this is still my favorite puzzle, because it’s about variety, different perspectives and bringing people together.  I really believe that, and *that’s* what appeals to me day in and day out.

Someday, when the universe explodes, none of us will care whether ANIL crossed ILIA.  But we might care about how we chose to interact with constructors, solvers, and editors everywhere.  I just think we should keep that in mind.

21 thoughts on “Mel Rosen’s Tuesday, 3/11/14 NYT crossword puzzle (ed. Will Shortz)

  1. howardb42 says:

    Wow, yeah. Good point.
    All my big words were used up this weekend.

  2. Anonymous says:

    RIGA and SITU most people should know.

  3. What makes ANIL-meets-ILIA bad isn’t the opinion of a few hundred “bitchy” people. What makes it bad is its effect on a brand-new solver who gets stymied by them. Not everyone is a cruciverbal masochist who loves to be stumped. Many would-be solvers hit the skids in a crossword, suspect that they really *ought* to know these things, feel inadequate, say “I can’t do these things,” and never pick up a crossword again. I want every newbie who tries a Monday puzzle to have a fair shot at finishing, and to feel accomplished rather than dumb. I think the danger of alienating beginners is a more significant concern than the appeal of getting a Z word (GLAZED/ZEAL) into the grid. I love a good Scrabbly entry, but not at the cost of smooth fill.

    As for the “14 propers,” I personally whiz through puzzles with lots of names, but after years of hearing my commenters complain about “too many names,” I realized that having too many proper nouns feels unfair to many solvers. They prefer dictionary-grade words, not trivia-test names. Seems like when there are, say, 12 or fewer, hardly anyone complains. When you get much higher, solving becomes objectively a different task: one of recalling names and guessing at spellings. Some of us love the names but we aren’t the only solvers doing the puzzles. (You’re far from the first person to challenge the legitimacy of my gestalt 14 limit.)

    • Z says:

      Here’s a thought – ILIA/ANIL may actually be part of the cachet of the NYTX. Before I started doing these on a daily basis I would wonder, “Who the f*$# knows this?” The idea of solving a Sunday in pen caused wonder exactly because of those kinds of obscurities.

      Part of the feeling of accomplishment of solving a NYTX is that not just anybody can do it. Indeed, if it is too easy people complain. What I learned from reading the blogs is to just commit a certain level of esoterica to memory if the letters are useful.

      This is not to say that I think ILIA/ANIL is “good.” Rather, I would like to call it “less than optimal.”

      Thanks for the background on the 14 limit. Even 12 seems high to me, but it is good to know that it comes from experience as opposed to being just plucked out of the air.

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        There’s zero cachet to bad fill. From the New York Times Crossword Specification Sheet:

        “Do not use partial phrases longer than five letters (ONE TO A, A STITCH IN, etc.), uninteresting obscurity, (a Bulgarian village, a water bug genus, etc.) or uncommon abbreviations or foreign words. Keep crosswordese to a minimum.”

      • Z says:

        I’ve read the spec sheet before, and yet ANIL/ILIA, ELENI, ÊTRE (clued by fûmes no less), Random Pope the RRN, PEE DEE.

        Would it be better if the uninteresting never appeared. Sure. But does the fact that people could get ÊTRE from fûmes give them and the puzzle a certain cachet? Yep. Would I prefer that the cachet was only from cleverness crossed with the interesting rather than the ostensibly not permitted? Sure. But it isn’t.

  4. Matt Gaffney says:

    Is it really your position that there is no such thing as “bad fill” in a crossword simply because someone out there will know it?

    Please reply. I have to know if that’s what you really think. And if the answer is “no,” could you give me an example or two of what you’d consider to be bad fill? I really do want to know that too.

    Matt Gaffney

    • manvspuzzle says:

      I feel like this is a great example of the problem I see with the whole “fill question” and the people who act like there’s a definitive answer. There isn’t. That’s my position. I hope other readers don’t feel like I took the position “there is no such thing as bad fill.” The issue is not that simple. It’s like taking a position that some food is “good” or “bad,” end of story. Things aren’t that simple. Acting like they are is just foolish. Can you point out to us where you saw in my post that I said, or even really implied, “there’s no such thing as bad fill”?

      Imagine that a top food critic in this country continuously made the argument that certain ingredients are just intrinsically awful. Just to make it feel gross, let’s say anchovies, Limburger cheese, and goat testicles. And every time one of those ingredients showed up on her plate, no matter what, she just gave a bad review which focused mainly on the flavor and texture of that particular ingredient. Or maybe she would say that the rest of the dish was ok, but would always make a point to rebuke the chef for including the Limburger or whatever. And then humiliate the restaurant owner. Every single goddamn time.

      Would you consider that good, constructive criticism? It would influence lots of readers to shy away from eating that stuff, that’s for sure. And probably influence lots of chefs to start cooking without testicles. Sheesh, why does that critic keep going to that restaurant?

      Hey, call me crazy, but even though I’ve never liked anchovies, Limburger cheese or goat testicles, I 1) recognize that that’s a very subjective position determined by all sorts of variables, 2) fully understand how someone else might like them, and 3) can contemplate a scenario where some chef somewhere could present them to me in such a way that I might actually enjoy them.

      I realize that’s a long, crazy comparison. But that’s how I feel. In the restaurant world, go ahead and criticize the technique, the presentation, whatever — but the individual ingredients, on their own? Nonsense. Even if you don’t personally like them; even if everyone you associate with doesn’t like them.

      I think it’s the same for crosswords. Criticize the execution, sure. Tear into it if that’s your thing. But the word itself? Ridiculous! Let’s take this puzzle’s ILIA, for example, which was pretty torn up on the blogs. Can you tell me why it’s “bad?” Make a good case and do it without begging the question, as happens too often in the blogosphere. I’m not sure you can. I think you can argue why *you* don’t like it. And you could probably argue how something else that you would like better could have been there. That’s it.

      I know ILIA is relatively obscure. I know that. We all know that. It’s obvious. I’m just saying that I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I encounter all sorts of crap every week that I don’t know, and I’m glad to encounter it because that’s part of the fun. You know, learning. Here, I learned the name of a champion skater. Good for me.

      What I *didn’t* like was that it crossed ANIL. That’s a flaw in execution. Poorly done, I thought. Basically a Natick. I think it’s totally fair to point that out. But I refuse to say that ILIA is bad in and of itself. I just don’t see it that way.

      By the way, I’m totally open to having my opinion changed by some good arguments. I just haven’t seen them yet.

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        So then there is such a thing as bad fill, you’re saying? I’m having a hard time following the long paragraphs and various analogies.

        I say that JUKEBOX, for example, is a better piece of fill than SUBA, for the reason that 100% of solvers will know JUKEBOX and that it is a fun word with many possible cool clues, while perhaps 1% will know SUBA. I say that despite that fact that Mihai Suba of Romania is one of my favorite chess grandmasters.

        That I myself know SUBA does not make it good fill. It is bad fill. The surname of a not-that-famous chess grandmaster is not an interesting thing to learn in and of itself, any more than a 75-mile river in Iceland is interesting. They are bad fill, I say. You don’t?

        You say that the opinions of a crossword editor who think JUKEBOX and SUBA are equally good fill are as valid as the opinions of one who says that JUKEBOX is much better?

      • Z says:

        Matt, here’s what I think he (and Shortz in other places) is saying… I hate corned beef. I hate sauerkraut. I dislike Russian dressing. Rye is my third favorite bread. I love Reubens.

        Suba is bad by itself, but if it ends up being the sauerkraut in a Reuben that I love why focus on the sauerkraut?

        And no, I don’t know whatever possessed me to try my first Reuben, because I did hate all the ingredients at the time.

      • Andrew says:

        I think what he’s trying to say is that the overall fill should not be defined by its worst entry — a “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” type of argument. I’m not sure though — he lost me at “goat testicles.”

        I can forgive a clunker entry here and there, but to use this puzzle, and the ANIL/ILIA crossing as an example, that section of the grid can be improved ten-fold within a matter of minutes. SPADES/LEXUS/AREA/BULLNOSED makes SLAB/PERU/AXEL/DUAL coming down, with RAD changing to RAS. I’m sure there’s a dozen other possibilities that improve that section, even retaining a Scrabbly letter. That was my first try at it.

        Even the best puzzles may have to resort to a bad entry here or there. It’s forgivable in my opinion if it serves as a glue to a good theme or if other options aren’t readily available. Here, the bad crossing serves a dry theme and could easily be avoided.

        If you refuse to say ILIA is bad, can we agree that it’s entirely avoidable and not ideal?

  5. Matt Gaffney says:

    One side in this argument (me, Amy) speaks clearly and on point, the other side (you and the blogger) speak in elaborate analogies.

    You’re saying three bad crossword entries sometimes become good when they’re together? I don’t think that’s what the blogger is saying, and I can’t imagine Shortz saying that.

    • Z says:

      Apologies for the analogy.

      While I appreciate the “don’t judge by the single worst fill” idea, its not the same idea.

      Rather than asserting “no fill can be objectively criticized as bad” what I want to assert is that “no fill can be objectively criticized as bad in isolation.”

      Imagine two puzzles. One has a creative, fresh funny theme, but in trying to make it work the constructor needs a terminal S and a terminal B and SUBA works. The second has small corners with lots of short fill and you see SUBA and immediately wonder why the constructor didn’t use TUBA instead.

  6. Matt Gaffney says:

    If you’re saying that a puzzle can be good and still have some bad fill, then that’s 1) obviously true and 2) not the point being discussed here. The blogger stated that no single word can be criticized objectively as bad fill. I asked him if therefore the word JUKEBOX could be considered by someone to be equal with SUBA and he consider that person’s opinion valid. I await his response, which would seem to have to be “yes,” at which point the discussion would end amusingly.

  7. manvspuzzle says:

    What I’m saying is that something like SUBA has its place. I don’t want to say there is or isn’t objectively bad fill. I don’t think we can or should be that rigid. It may just be semantics at this point. I think what we’re really talking about is a generalized spectrum of opinions related to fill quality, with multiple opportunities for disagreement.

    I agree with you that JUKEBOX has more mass appeal than SUBA, and I personally think it’s a more colorful, “fun” word. And I absolutely wouldn’t like a puzzle that was only made up of SUBA and ILIA and the like, and I would think an editor would be crazy to favor SUBA over JUKEBOX.

    I do disagree with your position that “the surname of a not-that-famous chess grandmaster is not an interesting thing to learn.” I think it’s kind of interesting, and I’m an actual human. I don’t want SUBA out of my life completely. I don’t want to be “protected” from it forever. That’s just my feeling, of course.

    Hopefully that makes sense. I really do believe that SUBA, along with most other words, deserves its moment in the sun. And — to be even more ballsy — I can even imagine a well-constructed, well-edited, and well-received *Monday* puzzle with SUBA in it. I understand the argument that we have to be gentle with beginners, but I think SUBA could probably be presented in a gentle, fun way.

    I truly am not trying to be a jerk about the fill thing. I think if you and I compared notes, we’d find that we’re in 99% agreement about what words are “good” in puzzles and what words are “bad.” I have solved lots of puzzles that I would have done differently if I were the constructor. That I personally thought were poorly done.

    But still, on some weird level, I get enjoyment from that kind of solve, too. It reminds me that other people sometimes see things differently, and I think it’s fun and enlightening. I can’t help it. For better or worse, that’s the kind of solver I am. And I’m just trying to give a voice to the part of me that feels that way.

    I really do hope that makes sense. I should put a disclaimer on everything I write here warning readers that I may be confusing or act like an asshole without thinking. Trying to get better at that.

    Thanks for writing. I must sleep now, but I’m almost definitely going to have a snow day tomorrow, and I’ll be happy to keep talking then if you’d like.

  8. lf72 says:

    This is why your blog has replaced Rex/Amy for my daily crossword check-in. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and your introspection, and for not giving in to knee-jerk nastiness.

    I have a lot of respect for Matt’s place in the crossword world, but his ANSWER THE QUESTION YES OR NO reminds me of dogmatic pundits who attempt to simplify complex issues into sound bytes for their own smug satisfaction. The condescension of “I await his response, which would seem to have to be ‘yes,’ at which point the discussion would end amusingly” is particularly ugly.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Come on, I was earnestly trying to get his views on bad fill, which you have to admit he wasn’t expressing very clearly with the food analogies. And the discussion did end amusingly, since the blogger himself lit into some “gross” (his word) fill in Thursday’s post. Good for him! Some fill is just plain bad. Other fill we can argue about.

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        Oh, and I never used all caps. You added that for effect.

      • Z says:

        “Gross” because he “spent *tons* of time just plugging in fill.” This appears perfectly consistent with what he said here. I infer from his comment that it isn’t any fill in particular but the quantity of it in this puzzle that is “gross.”

        Somewhere else I read a comment calling out ELENI as bad fill, while praising the puzzles at ACPT as being especially clean and free of crap. Imagine my surprise at finding ELENI in the first (or was it the second) puzzle from ACPT. Hmmmm. Maybe ELENI isn’t “just plain bad.”

      • lf72 says:

        You didn’t use all caps, that’s true. The effect, however, is much the same. Surely you realize that’s how you come across; perhaps you don’t care. But nothing about your responses reads as an earnest attempt to understand another viewpoint. You’re trying to bait him into a black/white answer, when it’s clear that he doesn’t see it as a black/white question.

        This, also, is incredibly self-serving: “One side in this argument (me, Amy) speaks clearly and on point, the other side (you and the blogger) speak in elaborate analogies.” Of course you and Amy are clear to each other. You share the same opinion. No one is challenging you to defend your position. You need nothing more than simple declarative statements.

        As I said above, I have a lot of respect for your crossword ingenuity. Your metapuzzles force my brain to attempt strange and wonderful maneuvers. But approaching these disagreements with more humility would earn you far more respect than this snide incredulity. By virtue of your accomplishments, your words carry much more weight in the crossword community than Rex’s or Amy’s, and it would be extraordinary if you took a leadership role in changing the tone of the conversation to something more welcoming, more open, more encouraging, more positive. Please.

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