Ori Brian’s New York Times crossword, “Animal Hybrids” —Nate’s write-up
We’re headed to the zoo in today’s Sunday NYT puzzle! Let’s dive in:
– 22A: BREAK THE ICE [Get a party started? [bee, hare tick]]
– 28A: WET BLANKET [Buzzkill [bat, elk, newt]]
– 34A: PARKING SPACE [A little of a lot? [carp, pig, snake]]
– 47A: WATERMELON PATCH [Locale of many vines [cat, elephant, worm]]
– 62A: BATHROOM SCALE [Something you might step on by the shower [cobra, moth, seal]]
– 78A: GENERAL HOSPITAL [Long-running soap opera that debuted in 1963 [ant, gorilla, sheep]]
– 91A: GLOBE THEATRE [London landmark [beetle, hog, rat]]
– 98A: GOLDEN GATE [Bridge that’s painted International Orange [dog, eel, gnat]]
– 108A: CROSSBREEDS [Mixes animal species … as eight answers in this puzzle do?]
What a fun, well-executed theme! Each themer is an anagram of the trio of animals at the end of its respective clue, showing what happens when you hybridize those animals. I appreciated that no animals were repeated throughout the puzzle, that every themer was thoroughly in-the-language, and that the puzzle felt dense with theme. Why do I want to bet that Ori originally named this puzzle Animal Crossing (after the super popular video game franchise) and the title was changed in editing?
Also, kudos to Ori for making such a smooth grid – it feels like one of the cleaner Sunday NYT grids this year, which made it even more of a pleasure to solve.
Other random thoughts:
– 15A: PIN [Spare part?] – This was cute!
– 31A: PAWNS [Subjects of some promotions] – Fun misdirect here
– 83A: MENU [One might be accessed by a QR code, nowadays] – To my dismay!
– 5D: ALKALIS [Lime and soda, e.g.] – Clever! This clue is trickily referring to lime (calcium oxide) and soda (sodium carbonate), both basic materials.
– 21D: LANCE BASS [‘N Sync member who later became a gay rights activist] – I love seeing shout outs to the LGBTQ+ community!
– 99D: OCHO [Number of planetas en el sistema solar] – How strange to not just have the full clue in Spanish, especially since there are so many cognates that make it not too hard to figure out what the clue is saying.
PS – Shout out to everyone in New York for Lollapuzzoola! I hope you had a great time and I’m only majorly jealous to have missed it.
PPS – Today’s puzzle reminds me to shout out the fun new anagram game, Anigrams, made with love by two people from within our very own crossword community, Adam Wagner and Rafael Musa. Each day, you get a set of letters to anagram into a word. After figuring out that first word, you get an additional letter and need to figure out a totally new word that all the letters anagram to, and on and on. It’s a fun challenge with cute animal graphics and (thankfully for me!) kind hints. Check it out!
Evan Birnholz’s Washington Post crossword, “Hearsay”— Jim Q’s write-up
Before I get to this mind-bender of a puzzle, I want to note that this will be the last time I will regularly blog the WaPo. New, upcoming responsibilities at school will make it impossible for me to give it the attention it deserves. Plus, after… five years?… I think a new perspective is in order.
I quite literally stumbled upon Evan’s puzzles a long time ago. I was rushing out the door to play piano for a local high school musical production, and I needed something to distract me during the tedious rehearsal. I had solved all my regular puzzles for the day, and somehow— through a link or a Google search— found devilcross.com. It was a freshly launched independent crossword site, and I printed the single puzzle it offered and headed out.
I don’t remember how many musical cues I missed that night due to that puzzle, but I was hooked. The devilcross puzzle was uniquely clever, featuring a cluing style that was a voice all its own. The indie crossword concept was new to me (I think it’s fair to say there weren’t all that many indie sites at the time), and I was thrilled that it existed. The hardest part was sitting on my hands waiting for the next puzzle to come out. I knew I had hit upon brilliance, and I must admit, I enjoyed knowing that this secret little site existed while the masses flocked to the bigger publications.
So what I’m saying is— and yes, I will continue to say this at every opportunity I get for many years to come— I was a huge Birnholz fan before most of his audience today knew who he was. And to have the experience to regularly critique and comment on his puzzles (a position I fell into because a sub was needed one day… and then I just stayed) has been a distinct honor.
And I can’t really imagine a better puzzle to go out on than this one.
THEME: Meta! Something to do with “Secret Agents” if the title is any indication.
Step 1: Solve the puzzle
Sometimes, with a meta, you finish the grid and have no clue what differentiates theme answers (or entries that can lead to the meta answers) from regular fill. That can be frustrating. This is not the case in this puzzle. If you successfully solve this puzzle, then you can’t help but discover there are four names of fictional secret agents hidden in the black squares. They are:
And hey… let’s say you’re not into solving meta puzzles. Stop right there. You still had a good solve. Perhaps it feels a little thin of a theme for a 21x, but just that much is pretty darn brilliant. Take a moment to enjoy the Birnholzian standard that the regular fill on both sides of the hidden agents are still valid crossword fill. For instance, in BOURNE the first letter of that entry is clued with AHAB and BOOP. But with the B hidden in a black square, AHA and OOP appear instead, both perfectly valid bits of crossword fill.That happens forty times. The fact that this is expected from Evan should not overshadow just how mind-blowing that is.
For those ready to delve deeper in the meta, we have a note. For me, solving from the .puz version offered on this site, it says
You are a special agent looking for a secret dossier. After finishing this puzzle, visit herbach.dnsalias.com/WaPo/Dossier where you must enter a four-digit code (Note: Enter the same code in the User and Password fields). The dossier will give you clues about how to find the two-word phrase that is this puzzle’s meta answer.
Well, what could that code be?
Often times, the key is hidden in the bottom right corner of the puzzle. And indeed it is here. The entry MOLE is clued [Secret agent … and a word whose letters, when applied to this puzzle’s secret agents, hint at a four-digit code]. So, let’s apply MOLE somehow!
Step 2: Apply MOLE to the secret agents.
Well, at least one of each of those letters appears in the names. In order there is an M in SMILEY, and O in BOND, an L in PEEL, and an E in BOURNE. In SMILEY, the M is in the second position. Could that indicate a number?
- SMILEY… POSITION 2
- BOND… POSITION 2
- PEEL… POSITION 4
- BOURNE… POSITION 6.
Could the code be 2246?
Step 3: Enter the code into the link as instructed then say “no way” aloud.
Martin has set up a special password protected page in order to access the rest of the puzzle. The solver is met with this when visiting the provided link:
Then, once the password is entered, we get another downloadable puzzle:
Step 4: Solve the next puzzle.
This little guy is an 11 x 11 and a fairly simple solve. So puzzlers exhausted after the much tougher 21x can rest easy. I had this filled in under three minutes.
There are some clues to nudge the solver in this puzzle too. Namely the clue for NAMES [Code ___ (things often assumed by secret agents … although some use their real ones)] and WORDS [Code ___ (terms that form a secret message … like four answers in the larger puzzle that correspond with four clues found in this dossier)]. The wordiness of at last one made my head spin a bit. But a click came relatively soon after. I mean, with the first puzzle in mind, there are some NAMES that stick out in this one.
- JASON, clued [Character in classic horror films] is also the first name of Agent BOURNE.
- EMMA, clued [Golden Globe Award-winning actress Stone] is also the first name of Agent PEEL. (EMMA PEEL is new to me btw)
- GEORGE, clued [One of the Beatles] is also the first name of Agent SMILEY.
- JAMES, clued [NBA star who was selected first overall in the NBA draft] is also the name of Agent BOND.
Ok. Now what?
Step 5: Apply clues for those names to the larger puzzle.
The nudge in the clue for WORDS really gave me anxiety as I tried to parse what it meant. I mean, I was a Manhattan or two deep at the time, so I’m sure that didn’t help. Instead, I simply asked myself WWBD? What Would Birnholz Do? Knowing his puzzles so well (and I’m pretty sure I have solved all of his puzzles published for public consumption) offers its perks. Here, the clue for EMMA [Golden Globe Award-winning actress Stone] made me initially think SHARON, and I vaguely recalled filling in a SHARON in the larger grid. And hey… that clue [One of the Beatles] seems intentionally broad, doesn’t it? Well, if you find four entries in the larger grid that also work for those clues, you will arrive at the meta.
- [Character in classic horror films] IGOR
- [Golden Globe Award-winning actress Stone] SHARON
- [One of the Beatles] PAUL. (***typo fixed… see Martin’s comment below)
- [NBA star who was selected first overall in the NBA draft] YAO
And taking the first letter of each of those entries (the most common of meta tropes) gives you I SPY.
Simply brilliant. Jaw-droppingly so. I haven’t looked yet, but I’m predicting that this puzzle has been rated poorly by some because it is a meta and, for some reason, raters who don’t like that puzzle type will one-star it simply because it is a meta and not for its merits. But ignore those. This is just wonderful. So tightly conceived from start to finish. The “secret agents” are indeed “secret.” They lead to a secret code to find a secret dossier. The dossier has hidden CODE NAMES that point you back to the true MOLEs of the puzzle.
I mean, whaaaaaaa?
With puzzles this mind-bending, I completely forget about the fill and whatnot in the rest of the grid. I remember struggling at one point and maybe perhaps giving rare side eye to a crossing I didn’t think was all that fair, but that’s such a drop in the bucket compared with what amounts to a smooth-as-butter meta that offered just the right amount of resistance and mystery. Unbelievable.
I stopped rating a while ago, but for old times sake: 5 stars! A big 5 stars at that.
And what a puzzle for me to go out on.
Thank you, Evan, for this one, and all of them. There’s truly no such thing as a bad Birnholz puzzle. Nor a mediocre one at that.
What’s more, I truly appreciate how available Evan has made himself with my questions and comments. He always responds to my emails, and in each puzzle he has sent me ahead of its publication date, he has included an apt (often hilarious) music video link. Once in a while, I’ve posted them here. But more often than not, I liked to keep them to myself.
Knowing this was my last regular write-up, he sent me five this time:
Goodbye for now!
Rebecca Goldstein’s Universal Sunday crossword, “Bad Sports”—Jim P’s review
Theme: Familiar phrases of the form X and Y or X, Y, and Z are re-imagined as if they were basic instructions for various sports.
- 23a. [Relay race 101?] GRAB AND GO. Excellent start to the set.
- 25a. [Rugby 101?] TOSS AND TURN. Leaves out the bit about running toward the try zone, but still good.
- 36a. [Cheerleading 101?] TWIST AND SHOUT. Good.
- 48a. [Double Dutch 101?] HOP, SKIP, AND JUMP. If you didn’t think this was a sport, the New York school system would disagree. It made Double Dutch its official sport back in 2008. (Its previous official sport was cricket.)
- 63a. [Bowling 101?] STOP, DROP, AND ROLL. Close! Except the bit about stopping.
- 78a. [Football 101?] BLOCK AND TACKLE. The perfect entry for this theme, I’d say.
- 91a. [Archery 101?] POINT AND SHOOT. Excellent.
- 105a. [Weightlifting 101?] PUMP AND DUMP. Also very good.
- 108a. [Marathon 101?] EAT AND RUN. I was going to quibble about the eating part, but prepping for a running race always involves carbo-loading the day before. So this one is actually spot on.
A wonderful theme. I wouldn’t have thought it could sustain itself with enough entries and enough sports, but I was happy to be proved wrong. It’s consistent, imaginative, well executed, and lots of fun. Kudos!
Despite nine theme answers, there’s still some fun fill—some of it crossing two themers like YOUNG ADULT, GOOSEBUMPS, and RUSH ORDER. Also good: EYEBROW, CHARADE, OLD MEN (to counter the YOUNG ADULT), BIG RED chewing gum, BUN PUP (diner hot dog), and ALL PROS. The only sticking point for me was SHISO [Japanese herb], especially where it crossed SUSIE [Comedian Essman], but the I seemed like the only reasonable choice.
Clues of note:
- 59a. [Noodle once delivered by bicycle]. SOBA. I can’t imagine most people knowing this bit of trivia, and there’s nothing inferable between the noodle and bicycle delivery. But there’s an interesting history here (spoiler: it was the wealthy people who got their noodles delivered).
- 97a. [Lines of credit?] ODE. A new cluing angle for this old standby? I needed 2/3 of the crossings.
- 60d. [Greek celebratory shout]. “OPA!” I’m happy to see this cluing. Much more fun that [German grandpa].
A fun and flowing Sunday grid. 4.25 stars.
Zhouqin Burnikel’s USA Today crossword, “Broken Link” —Darby’s write-up
Editor: Erik Agard
Theme: Each theme answer splits the letters in LINK, making them broken links.
- 15a [“‘Hmm…’”] LET ME THINK
- 28a [“Subgenre of drum and bass”] LIQUID FUNK
- 59a [“Profession”] LINE OF WORK
This theme was as I expected, though it feels particularly apt since my own WiFi has led to a few broken links as of late. I thought that the theme answers were unique, especially in the brevity of the clues for LET ME THINK and LINE OF WORK. I was unfamiliar with LIQUID FUNK, so I relied entirely on the crosses. As a side note: LIQUID FUNK gained attention in the early 2000s, and the “liquid” element of the title references the “ambient or atmospheric feeling” elements that connect it to EDM.
All of this filled in pretty smoothly for me. PALM SUNDAY and GARAGE were both fun bonuses, and the crossing of the 41a & 42d [“Dinner table protector”] PLACE MAT and COASTER were both a fun bonus, as were the paired 52a and 62a [“Singing voice type”] BASS and ALTO.
This puzzle did not make me say 63a [“‘Ugh, here we go…’”] OH BOY. It was QUITE fun!
Kevin Shustack’s Universal Crossword, “Relieving the Pain” — Jim Q’s write-up
This one was painless, ironically.
THEME: Phrases with OW in them more than once. I think. *not really… I figured it out whilst writing about it.
- HOW NOW BROWN COW. That one has four.
- BOW CHICK-A-WOW WOW. That has three. Also it’s clued as “rhyming,” which I don’t really hear. WOW doesn’t rhyme with WOW and the BOW part seems too far removed.
- UPSIDE DOWN FROWN. Two in that one. OHHHHHH! I see what’s happening now!
- NIGHT ON THE TOWN. There’s one there. SO… the “pain” is gradually being “relieved.”
I like this one a whole lot better now that I sussed it out. Had I solved and not written about it, I’m relatively sure I wouldn’t have noticed the OWs diminishing.
A bit odd that there’s another OW / WO connection with WOMEN in the bottom left. That feels unclean to me. In a theme like this, I don’t think those letters should abut one another anywhere else. WOWED also kinda disrupts the theme. So does MOSCOW. And ON LOW.
Some fun stuff:
- [Wine whose name anagrams to “be calm”] MALBEC. Love this. It’s apt.
- [Corn dog, to a Canadian] POGO. Fun to learn!
- [This stinks!] ODOR. Fun one.
- WISES as an active verb clued [Mouths (off)]. Okay. Sure. It has to cross two theme answers, so forgiven.
- WAS IN / ON LOW / ONE UP / ISR / AS DO I (not ME TOO as I originally entered… that appears elsewhere in the puzzle) that whole middle section is a bit shivery.
Fine idea, and I do love the “pain” receding. But something feels incomplete about it. It lacks a resolution. Like, there’s still pain at the end with the single OW. What makes it stop? And what about the four other OWs in the puzzle that aren’t in the theme entries? Do they get any love?
2.75 stars from me.
Gary Larson & Amy Ensz’s LA Times crossword, “Game for Anything” — Gareth’s summary
The Sunday puzzle by Gary Larson & Amy Ensz features phrases with settings for sports events, repurposed to be interpreted to be referring to same:
- [Track competitions for nudists?], MEETSINTHEFLESH
- [Cross-country competitions for grounds workers?], COFFEERUNS
- [Football competitions for Pepperidge Farm employees?], GOLDFISHBOWLS
- [No-holds-barred competitions for mixed martial artists?], STRIKEANYWHEREMATCHES
- [Field competitions for electricians?], CURRENTEVENTS
- [Baseball competitions for collectors of compact cars?], MINISERIES
- [Boxing competitions for comedians?], BOUTSOFLAUGHTER