Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

So I mailed off another NYT submission tonight. It's a Mon/Tue type puzzle, with a theme I've been sitting on for some time. It was a combination of a NYT rejection that arrived last week and seeing Julian Lim's LAT puzzle from last Tuesday (which used another theme I had been sitting on) that got my ass in gear. I wasn't really upset about the rejection; in fact, I anticipated it. It came over 4 months after submission, since I constructed that one well before the crossnerd era. My standards and skills have improved by forcing myself to pump out a couple puzzles a week, though, and I would never construct or submit a grid as unsound as that now. That I'm not even running it here should say a lot, given that it's already finished and I'm lazy. However, I'm still not holding my breath for this one. The theme concept is solid, IMO, but the entries are, by necessity of the theme, kind of ho-hum. The other obstacle to acceptance is some of the fill. Now, I took care to make the fill as smooth as possible (while keeping the vocab at an early-week level - not easy!), and I think it will pass muster. However, the "sparkle" may not be Shortz' cup of tea. ON A DIME, REDBULL, TELECOM, and a PIG/LATIN combo should be fine. SEX SHOP, BO KNOWS, and NEXTGEN may be over the line. Could that fill have been avoided? Absolutely. Was putting it in a stupid thing to do given that it may be the only reason the puzzle is rejected? Absolutely. Then why? Well, I realized that I don't actually care that much about a NYT publication. I care a bit (it forces me to hone my skills and work on my professionalism, and a publication would be cred and smoke/beer money), but not enough to have my voice not come across in the grid and clues. For the most part, I found myself getting bored writing the puzzle; it was kind of a chore. I realized how much I like having basically free reign when it comes to fill and clues, as I do when I write the puzzles on this site and the Campus Crossword ones. I can put into the grid and clues things that I think about and that me and my friends say, listen to, watch, do, etc. These are generally things that would offend little old ladies, not be familiar to several large demographics, be seen as childish and low-brow, or all of the above, any of which is a kiss of death for a puzzle hoping to break into the big leagues. So, if this puzzle isn't accepted I won't lose any sleep. I'll just publish it here and move on to the next one.

Speaking of puzzles (what else would I be speaking about?), there were some gooders this week. Yesterday's Themeless Monday #154 by BEQ was quite good, as was Joe Krozel's Friday NYT (unchecked squares in a NYT!). Puzzle of the week, though, goes to today's Jonesin' themeless. Find it here, and while you're at it, join the group to receive the puzzles in your inbox every week. They're consistently top-notch. Protip: thecrossnerd.com also has a Google Group.

Today's puzzle is my Campus Crosswords offering for Thursday (good news everybody! We've been picked up for an indefinite run in the Harvard Crimson after last week's successful test run. E-mail campus[dot]crosswords[at]gmail[dot]com to get them in your paper). It's another 11x13 with a two-entry mini-theme about science and TV shows. I should point out that I've never actually seen an entire episode of either show, but some of my friends love that shit, so I can't avoid hearing about them.

Sorry, no special crossnerd puzzle this week. Been busy with this and that and the NYT submission. I'll try to have a 15x15 or something equally enticing for next week.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday

Puzzles: Pseudoscience (Campus Crosswords puzzle for Feb 2)
Rating: XW-14A
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Campus Crosswords

It appears I've landed myself a gig. Campus Crosswords is a constructors syndicate producing puzzles specifically for student newspapers. I'll be working alongside four young hotshots to pump out five alternatives to bestcrosswords.com every week. If your university paper runs a shitty crossword or none at all, drop us a line at campus[dot]crosswords[at]gmail[dot]com and we'll work something out. You wouldn't auto-fill the rest of your content, so why settle for computer generated rubbish in your crossword?

The debut puzzles will be running in the Harvard Crimson this week and hopefully in more papers next week. For the time being, they are only available in the print version, but you can solve Wednesday's puzzle by yours truly right here. It's about a Tuesday-NYT difficulty.

Mini Themeless #5, on the other hand, is a bitch and a half. I've been solving all of the old 2010 Post Puzzlers lately, and the sadistic cluing inspired me to let rip with the obfuscation for this one. I'm particularly fond of 1-Across and 41-Down. 12x12 last week, 13x13 this week; almost there.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday

Puzzles: Mini Themeless #5 and Campus Crosswords puzzle for Jan 25
Rating: XW-14A
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Midnight clue

Need sleep. Thus, short post. I went balls out on crosswords early last week, preparing a few new NYT submissions and putting myself 2 weeks ahead on the blog puzzles...or at least that's how I remembered it. I opened up this week's offering at 10pm tonight intending to put the finishing touches on it, and discovered that I had written exactly 3 clues. Bad ones too. Since I normally find cluing a bit of a slog and almost never do an entire puzzle's worth in one sitting, I was worried for the quality of this puzzle. Ironically, I think I ended up doing some of my best cluing tonight (and probably some of my worst, but it'll get the job done), but that's probably just the delirium talking.

Seeing as I promise reviews right in my header yet only ever talk about my own puzzles, try this one on for size: BEQ's Themeless Monday this week was a real corker; easily my favourite from him in who knows how long. He's always fresh, but his puzzles (at least the free ones) tend to have that rough-around-the-edges "indie" feel (I'm not complaining; he's one of my all-time faves and he's been pumping out an average of 2.5 freebies/week for 3 years). This one felt really smooth and elegant, though, and the whiz-bang fill is exceptionally dense. If you're used to crossnerd difficulty, though, well, may god have mercy on your soul...
Also, this (which is linked to from BEQ's page as well) is the most brilliant thing I have ever seen in my life. It's part of this year's M.I.T. Mystery Hunt, which is a weekend-long puzzle-binge extravaganza. If you, like me, don't have an entire evening and a crack team of puzzlers at your disposal, I suggest just peeping the answer. Prepare to be astonished (and remember that this whole "yo dawg" puzzle is like a 20th of the entire Mystery Hunt).

Lastly, my band Ink Road is playing at The Gaslight with The Dustin Ritter Band on Saturday night. If you swing by, mention you heard about the gig here and I'll buy you a drink.

Puzzle: Open the Gates
Rating: XW-14A
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Another themeless double-header

Thursday was back-to-school here in Saskatchewan. I'm still on a workterm, though, so I'm relatively unaffected. However, what that does mean to me is new guerrilla crosswording opportunities. Since last time was such a success and because those giant sudoko boards are just begging to be hijacked, I'll be engaging in a little more bananarchy again this semester. Why stop there, though? If you know of any good guerrilla crosswording locations, let me know. If they're accessible to me (i.e. in the GRA - Greater Regina Area) I'll fill 'em in. If not, just send me the dimensions of the grid and the audience demographics, and I'll send you your very own, customized guerrilla puzzle, on the house. Just print and post the clue sheet, get out your chalk or other non-permanent medium (crossnerd.blogspot.com does not officially endorse destructive vandalism, but then again I can't stop you...), and go to town. In related musings, I'm thinking of bringing guerrilla crosswording to Burning Man. I've been wanting to go for a few years, but never felt like I had anything to offer to the Black Rock community. This might be the thing.

On to today's puzzles. Although 3 are posted, there are technically 2 (or 2 and a 1/2, maybe). Let me explain. Mini-Themeless #3 is actually a puzzle I made for my friends and family pre-crossnerd era. Since they're all Canadian, I slapped a badass bit of cancon in 3-down (and was quite proud of myself for filling around it). Well, I liked the puzzle so much that I wanted to share it with y'all, but my site stats tell me that about 3/5 of you are Yanks. What to do? Believe it or not, only 3 letter swaps were needed to transmogrify the entry into something gettable by my friends south of the border, and with one more swap in the NW-most square all of the crossings worked (they're not ideal, but totally legit)! So, two versions of MT#3 are on the menu today; both are pretty easy solves. MT#4, however, is genuinely difficult, and fairly offensive at times. It's got some showstopping long entries, but overall I wasn't thrilled about the final product. There's nothing horrible about the fill (except the clunker at 16-across), but a grid like this just ends up being a bunch of boring-at-best, questionable-at-worst fill supporting the grid spanners. Anyway, in case you hadn't figured it out 10-across was the seed entry, which seemed like a great idea until I had to clue it. I realized in doing this that although I'm comfortable putting just about anything "in the language" into a grid, it seems somehow less ok when I write the clue. I guess it's because the grid is empirical - simply a snapshot of the language I hear around me - whereas a clue is a subjective thing which will inevitably betray my own feelings about the topic itself. Not to worry, though, I'm not going to be shying away from salty language anytime soon. Just something I'll need to be aware of.

As for more pedestrian matters, the grids today are somewhat unusual. The irregular 11x13 is the same layout as the themeless from a fortnight ago (solve it here), but the other is rather unconventional indeed. It's a 12x12 (even with dimensions other than 15x or 21x, puzzles usually have an odd number of rows and columns, so that there is a center square), and looks somewhat bizarre. It is, in fact, symmetric, but it exhibits folding symmetry about the diagonal, rather than the standard 180 rotational symmetry. I got the idea from Joe Krozel's Aug 7, 2010 NYT puzzle, which is the only completely themeless grid with diagonal symmetry in the Shortz era (an earlier grid, from Feb 21, 2009, by Nothnagel and Walden was a Saturday "themeless," but had a mini-theme related to the grid's symmetry. Also, this quirky old puzzle has two types of coexisting symmetry: the inner formation is diagonally symmetric, while the outer fingers have the typical rotational symmetry. Yes, people actually take a great interest in this shit). Also noteworthy about Krozel's aformentioned grid is that it tied the black-square count record with 18, a record held for nearly 2 years by Kevin G. Der. Now, I'm certainly more curious than a normal person should be about what the practical and absolute theoretical lower limits for black-square and word counts are, but I highly doubt I'll ever be the one pushing those limits. At least not the practical ones (the theoretical limit depends directly on your wordlist, and I'm pretty sure finding it is an NP-Hard problem. I'm not wizardly enough to prove it, though). As much as I appreciate the insane constraint-heavy approach of guys like Krozel and Der, their puzzles are often an unsatisfying solve. Things tend to feel a little forced and inelegant, even if the compromised fill is minimal (there are always a few "ouch"s, of course). However, I do acknowledge that as a grid connossieur I'm somewhat biased by my awareness of the constraints while solving, and I often end up trying to figure out what entry the constructor would have fit in a given slot than mulling over the clues. Some of the runner-up puzzles on the record sheets, though, are quite smooth, and likely came about as a byproduct of the awesomeness of their constructors rather than concerted stabs at hall-of-fame grids. I feel we're at the point now where only the strained efforts are going to make it into the books. The current word-count record (52!?!! - my 12x12 has 48) was set in '05, and none of the titans - Berry, Longo, Estes, Blackard, Nosowsky, etc. - has had a record setter in years. It's only a matter of time before the Krozels and Ders take over. I just hope the puzzles are still fun.

tl;dr - new guerrilla xwords soon, American and Canadian versions of Themeless #3, Themeless #4 has diagonal symmetry, discussion of same

Share and enjoy the puzzles, and I'll see you next Tuesday.

Puzzles: Mini-Themeless nos. 3 (easy) and 4 (hard)
Rating: XW-PG and XW-MA, respectively
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Welcome to the Future

Let me start off with big ups to Amy at Crossword Fiend for the front page referral. I got in touch with her last week and asked her to surreptitiously throw a link up on her back pages, so the front page hype was a nice surprise. That brought in a lot of new solvers, and a lot of valuable feedback. Mostly, people were gung-ho about the puzzles but hated the look of the site. I aim to please, so the black-on-white and "teenage diary" font are gone forever. When I have a little time I'll spruce the place up a little beyond the current "default" look-and-feel, but for the time being I just want a functional and legible site. Thanks for the honest feedback, folks, and I hope I didn't scare anyone off for good.

The holiday season has been a hoot and a half. Got the fam-damily together, caught up with all my friends, celebrated my dad's 60th birthday (somewhat to his chagrin, but he seemed to be having fun as the night went on), and played gigs on Friday and Saturday night. Speaking of which, Saturday night's performance allowed me the unique opportunity to sit in with my own band. Had our flaky drummer bail a day before the show, and couldn't find a last-minute fill-in (it was NYE, after all). To improve our chances of rounding out the band, I offered to sit in on drums if we could find a replacement bass player instead. The dude we found turned out to be unreal (when I asked him if he knew all of the 50s/60s/70s cover tunes we do, his response was "I played all these songs before they were famous"), and I think the band actually sounded better than it ever did with our usual line-up (oh, and we had a new lead guitarist as well). Now, you big city folks may not understand, but for me performing over-played cover songs for a bunch of old sots in a small-town country bar is a good night out. If you play well, you'll never have a more appreciative audience, and if you suck, you'll never have to see those people again.

Another themed puzzle this week. I'm thinking of alternating themed and themeless, but not as a rule; at any rate there will be another themeless next week with 90% certainty. A couple firsts for me here: first puzzle with stacked theme entries, and the first one I've made using Crossword Compiler. Stacked themes have always terrified me, and this was certainly not my go-to grid choice. However, I was pretty attached to all of the long-ish entries, and after trying a heap of other layouts, this one just worked the best, and the stack crossers aren't TOO godawful (ok, there are a few "ouch!" entries in there that the constructor in me isn't thrilled about, but from a solver's perspective everything should be fair and gettable). Actually, I should clarify one thing: for me the pride of losing my stack-theme v-card is offset by my realization that I actually just found the grid that suits my one and only construction trick. I need grids where the short entries are forced by the givens, but where entire large sections are cordoned off and constraint-free and the long supporting fill is open for whatever vulgarity/buzz-word I want to throw in. That's all the chops I got, right there. I've made it my NY resolution to attempt a more connected, homogeneous, "pudding"-style grid at some point, but don't hold your breath. As for the use of Crossword Compiler, I'll first say that I understand where the mentors, sages, gurus, and such on the cru forums are coming from when they dissuade new constructors from a reliance on auto-fill, and I'm awfully glad that I started without such a crutch. To get the fill I wanted, I found myself using CC to construct in exactly the same way I did without it, just faster. That is, each entry is still handpicked, using regular-expression matching to find options I hadn't considered. CC allowed my to work on the final copy from the get-go, alleviating the need for preparing the puzzle in an idiosyncratic and intermediate paper form before whipping up the final electronic formats, which saved a bunch of time. Other than that, business as usual. FWIW, that's my CC experience. The role of software construction-aids is a topic of endless debate in the community, and I don't think I have anything new to contribute, so I'll leave it at that.

Also, getting rid of the difficulty rating, because metaphors aren't my strong suit and I try to make all the puzzles about the same anyway.

Share and enjoy; new puzzle next Tuesday.

Puzzle: A Load of Bs
Rating: XW-14A
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.