Sunday, December 10, 2023

LAT tk (Gareth)  


NYT 15:08 (Nate) 


USA Today tk (Darby)  


Universal (Sunday) 12:37 (Jim) 


Universal 2:57 (norah) 


WaPo 4:48 (Matthew) 


Zachary David Levy and Jeff Chen’s New York Times crossword, “Political Pun-ditry” — Nate’s write-up

12.10.2023 Sunday New York Times Crossword

12.10.2023 Sunday New York Times Crossword

– 21A: ALONG PARTY LINES [The club’s bouncer earned a living …]
– 30A: HOT BUTTON ISSUES [The fashion magazine’s editor focused on fasteners in her …]
– 40A: LAME DUCK BILLS [The veterinarian specialized in mending …]
– 62A: SPEAKERS OF THE HOUSE [The sound engineer was obsessed with the …]
– 71A: GRASS ROOTS MOVEMENT [The groundskeeper spent years studying …]
– 94A: CAMPAIGN CHAIR [The weary general sat in his …]
– 105A: CABINET POSITION [The carpenter measured twice for the ideal …]
– 120A: AN ACT OF CONGRESS [The paid escort was fined for …]

This puzzle … was not for me. Many of the theme entry puns felt lazy. The plural answer for 62A felt unnatural, the answer for 40A felt forced to its clue, and do you measure twice for positioning in carpentry (I thought it was measure twice, cut once)?

The clue for 120A made me want to stop solving the puzzle entirely. I genuinely do not understand why the person referenced in that clue couldn’t have been, as some friends suggested, a couple’s counselor or an on-set intimacy coordinator or someone relevant in a way that felt less judgmental / less steeped in straight male gaze, sex shame, and ick. I’m shocked that any number of people in the editing process saw 120A and gave it a thumbs up. At the very least, why is the escort being fined? If you have to clue via an escort, why not something more matter-of-fact like [The paid escort engaged in …]? In my view, sex work is legitimate work, so the angle of this clue did not feel great to me. BAH, indeed.

On a positive note, there was some nice theme density in this puzzle and the fill largely felt clean and accessible, though not much was inspiring to me. Is there much in the puzzle that distinguishes it from one that would have been published 10-15 years ago? I reckon we can chalk this up to the editors liking some “classic” puzzles to be in the mix of Sundays?

Though this puzzle wasn’t for me, I hope it was enjoyable for some of you. What did you think? Let us know in the comments section – and have a nice weekend!

Themeless Sunday 63 by Adrian Johnson and Taylor Johnson, norah’s review; 2:57

THEME: none!

Favorite entries:

univ-12-10-2023 johnson and johnson

univ-12-10-2023 johnson and johnson

  • RIGHTONTHEMONEY 56A [Exact]. One of my favorite things in easy themelesses is short clues for long entries. This was used as a revealer in something I solved in the last week so I recalled it quickly as well. Nicely done.
  • ICEPLANET 33D [Hoth in “Star Wars”, e.g.] Is this always clued as a Star Wars reference, and never as Ceres or Pluto?
  • CHARADES 34D [Acting contest?] Cute!
  • SPEEDDIAL 2D [Make a quick call?] Cute!
  • THATSRICH 32A [“You’re one to talk!”] Cute!


I really enjoy the unusual layout of this grid skeleton – it eschews the normal 10-10-13-10-10 or so style we frequently see in the Universal themelesses and gives us a little more of a “cookie” shape with corner cutouts, big chips in the middle, and spanners in the third and thirteenth rows. (hey guys i’m gonna steal this grid! :) ) Really enjoy seeing long propers like CELESTENG too!

Taylor Johnson is the creator of Lemonade Disco crosswords, an indie project currently taking submissions.

Thanks Adrian, Taylor, and the Universal team!

Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner’s Washington Post crossword, “Traffic Advisory” — Matthew’s write-up

Laura Braunstein & Jesse Lansner’s Washington Post crossword solution, “Traffic Advisory”, 12/10/23

Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner are the collaborator guest pairing this week, and have dialed up a retelling of common phrases to parse them as traffic terms, and to clue them as “Traffic Advisories”. It’s a good time:

  • 23a [“Pirates have spilled their treasue on the highway; watch out for ___”] CHEST CONGESTION
  • 30a [“When Otis Williams is merging, let him go first; you must always ___”] YIELD TO TEMPTATION. Otis Williams being a member of the R&B / Soul group The Temptations.
  • 55a [“The polls to decide on the best roadway divider are busy; expect delays for the ___”] MEDIAN VOTER. I found this one a little tougher to parse, myself.
    58a [“Cops are tracking velocity with analog sensors today; I just saw one with a ___”] SPEED DIAL
  • 77a [“Warning: There are fruit preserves all over the road. It’s ___”] JAM PACKED
  • 81a [“There’s a male deer walking unhurriedly in the right-hand lane, so be sure to ___”] PASS THE BUCK
  • 96a [“There’s an intersection where you’ll have to navigate with your read end. First, lean into one side, then ___”] TURN THE OTHER CHEEK
  • 113a [“If you’re feeling sad, the side of the road has a convenient ___”] SHOULDER TO CRY ON

YIELD TO TEMPTATION and SHOULDER TO CRY ON are the standouts for me, I think. I’m just noticing now (which is to say that it didn’t impact my solve at all) that all but the first themer have the “traffic” term at the front. That would have been a nice, if unimportant, touch had it been true of all.

Outside of the theme, I found this puzzle pretty smooth sailing — not a lot of vertical stuff and particularly in the middle it feels like there’s a section for each themer. But it was a good time.


  • 14a [Territory returned to China in 1999] MACAO. I never seem to get the O vs U spelling right on my first pass of this entry.
    63a [Alternative to a hi-hat or crash] RIDE. I recognized this as drummer terminology from the clue, but needed all the crossings.
    110a [Drag queen name before Lott or Chrome] MONA. I imagine the -o- is pronounced differently in each name.

Paul Coulter’s Universal Sunday crossword, “Belly of the Beast”—Jim’s review

Theme answers come in pairs. In the upper half of the grid are familiar phrases featuring an animal. In the lower half are familiar phrases that hide the name of a famous example of each animal, as identified by circles. The revealer is STUFFED ANIMAL (111a, [Cuddly toy (and a hint to what’s exemplified in 62-, 85- and 91-Across)]).

Universal Sunday crossword solution · “Belly of the Beast” · Paul Coulter · 12.10.23

  • 23a [“Rocky III” hit song] EYE OF THE TIGER and 62a [“Zip it!” (*exemplifying 23-Across)] “BUTTON YOUR LIP!” Tony, the cereal mascot.
  • 37a [Kids’ game in which two players toss an object to keep it away from a third] MONKEY IN THE MIDDLE and 85a [“Such a shame, bro” (*exemplifying 37-Across)] “WHAT A BUMMER!” Abu from Aladdin.
  • 48a [Like Richard I] LION-HEARTED and 91a [Early term for an automobile (*exemplifying 48-Across)] HORSELESS CARRIAGE. Scar from The Lion King. I’d find it more elegant if this phrase didn’t feature another animal.

Enjoyable theme with lively, colloquial phrases. It’s interesting that all three named animals are animated characters with two of them from Disney films. I wonder what other options got left out.

Fill highlights include TREE RINGS, WATER WAGON, AIRSHOW, GO TIME, and the quaint GOOD EGG. I think YEET [Hurl, in modern slang] is a good addition to the crossword lexicon, but I’m not sure how long it will last. It seemed like there might be some thorny areas in the grid, mostly centering around proper names (of which there are a lot). That CLAIRE / TESSIE / CHERI / SOIREE area looks like one. ALMA / T-GEL / OLGA might be another as well as the EAMES / HAWN crossing.

Clues of note:

  • 22a. [Sid Caesar’s comedy partner Fabray]. NANETTE. I know the name but didn’t know she was a partner to Sid Caesar. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like “Burns and Allen.”
  • 25a. [Chosen to play, say]. ON A TEAM. Meh to this one. Both clue and answer. Still not sure what the clue is going after. I might’ve gone with something like [Working together, say].
  • 53a. [National’s opponent?]. AVIS. A tougher clue in that section packed with proper names and French words. Maybe play it a little straighter here?
  • 10d. [Item that some grocery store customers provide for themselves]. BAG. Seriously, why isn’t everyone bringing their own bags to the stores these days, especially for big grocery-shopping trips? There are so many reasons to do so, the least of which is that you’re not stuck with a mountain of plastic bags at home. I hate to think people are just then throwing them in the garbage. Ugh.
  • 56d. [B.O. letters?]. SRO. It took me until just now to realize the B.O. is for Box Office.
  • 57d. [Whistle blower?]. COP. Really? When do they do this? I guess traffic cops might. How many of us encounter traffic cops?

I liked the theme and theme entries, but as I mentioned above, there were a lot of proper names in the grid, and many of the clues skewed older. 3.5 stars.

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28 Responses to Sunday, December 10, 2023

  1. Katie says:

    I have a super nerdy meta-question. Is there an efficient way to search for past NYT (or other) puzzles that got particularly high ratings on crosswordfiend? Or that got a particularly large number of ratings?

    [In other words, if one were aiming to do old NYT puzzles – hoping to do good ones and/or “interesting” ones you’ve missed, for example, but are likely to enjoy – is there a fast way to do that?]

    Also, as Diane once said in Cheers, “Everyone knows hate is not the opposite of love. Indifference is.” So, the number of ratings gives interesting info, too.

    For example, the last 5 weeks yield the data below, for [NYT rating ave, # of reviews], going from 5 weeks ago to today (TBD on ratings “today”):
    Mon; Tues; Wed; Thurs; Fri; Sat; Sun
    2.87,50; 2.79,41; 2.82,51; /2.69,67; 3.48,47; 3.51,47; 2.66,48
    3.04,37; 2.51,42; 2.78,53; /3.18,73; \3.87,53; 3.40,52; 3.52,46
    3.15,47; 2.81,54; 2.76,45; 3.35,37; 3.29,41; 2.15,56; 2.80,57
    3.10,39; 2.93,51; 3.29,48; 3.26,47; 3.24,43; 3.21,47; 3.10,40
    3.11,38; 3.42,52; /1.99,69; \4.09,56; \3.91,44; 2.79,36; [TBD]

    Number of ratings: mean=48, stdev=10
    Ave. rating score: mean=3.1, stdev=0.5
    (rounding signif. digits here)

    *** SPOILER DETAILS BELOW *** (…in case you want to look up any of the puzzles above, I mean…)

    / Most ratings (top 3) – i.e., something interesting is going on:
    #1 = Thurs-Nov16 (Knievel grid, with BUS rebus)
    #2 = Wed-Dec6 (HH – grid pattern, with HH entries)
    #3 = Thurs-Nov9 (Inside Out – lots of parens involved)

    \ Best ratings (top 3) – i.e., easily loveable (apparently):
    #1 = Thurs-Dec7 (Alchemy rebus PB/AU lead-to-gold)
    #2 = Fri-Dec8 (button-shape grid; “senior moments”)
    #3 = Fri-Nov17 (Cheetoh dust; red solo cup; Mobius strips; blamestorm…)

    Yes, this is both a nerdy and very self-interested question. Knowing which oldies-but-goodies to go for, from years ago, would be – very nifty. (xwordinfo highlights particular categories of “interesting” puzzles, but seemingly avoiding qualitative assessment – and for good reason, I think.) Does some other website/blog/etc. already do something like this? Just curious!

    • Katie says:

      WAY too long. I know.

      Short version:
      – Can ratings (and # of ratings) be searched efficiently?
      – Would a monthly “top 3” summary in each category be useful, for posterity?

      • "And the ORCA goes to..." says:

        Forget high ratings. Look for other’s recommendations.

        The website has a list of dozens of categories of different types of NYT crosswords (rebuses, circled letters, unusual grid designs, etc). Included is a list of all 101 puzzles in the book ‘Will Shortz’ Favorite Puzzles’, indexed by date.

        To date, Shortz has compiled a half dozen collections of his favorite crosswords, which are still in print. If you can’t find them in a bookstore, search Ebay or I’ve found numerous puzzle books on each…sometimes at very healthy discounts.

        Finally, search online for the ORCA Awards, the Oscars for cruciverbalists. You’ll find fan-selected ‘best of the year’ favorites in various categories.

        • The ORCA guy...again says:

          Oops…forgot to include in the above suggestions…

          To date, Will Shortz has published three (that I’m aware of) collections (two older, one recent) of the crosswords that premiered at his annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

          American Championship Crosswords (1990;features puzzles from the first 12 years, 1978 – 1989. Includes the origin of the Tournament, with a few b&w photos. )

          Will Shortz’s Tournament Crosswords (1997; all the puzzles from 1990 to 1997. This book has rare b&w photos of the puzzle creators, and trivia about each event).

          Will Shortz Games: Championship Crosswords (2021; 60 puzzles from past Tournaments, organized from Easy to Challenging).

          The first two volumes have been long out of print, so finding them may require some digging…but the rare puzzles from Master crossword creators makes them well worth seeking out.

          If you do decide to go spelunking for these puzzle books…
          Happy Hunting!

    • Hi Katie. Just my two cents:

      The star ratings aren’t useful for determining what’s a good puzzle or what’s worth solving. I understand wanting some guidance about trying past puzzles that you may have missed and there’s only so much time in the day, but the star ratings are an extremely flawed metric at best. This is actually a great example of why I think they should be abandoned — using some arbitrary minimum rating to determine which puzzles you solve means the star ratings actively dissuade you from solving many puzzles that you might actually enjoy. I’ll never understand a good purpose for that on a site that promotes what it says are the best puzzles out there.

      But anyhow, if you want specific recommendations, here’s a small (obviously not exhaustive) list of NYT puzzles from the past few years that I particularly liked, in case you missed them:

      Monday, March 6, 2023 by Lynn Lempel
      Monday, Oct. 31, 2022 by Emily Carroll
      Saturday, March 5, 2022 by Nam Jin Yoon
      Friday, Feb. 5, 2021 by Erik Agard
      Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, “Busting Moves” by Paolo Pasco
      Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, themeless 21×21 by Caitlin Reid
      Thursday, June 18, 2020 by Ricky Cruz

      • huda says:

        @Evan Birnholz- I understand and appreciate your point about ratings being an imperfect system, in that a) tastes vary and it’s possible to love what many people disliked; b) sometimes constructors do experiments with new strategies or types of themes and these are fascinating even if they don’t work out perfectly. I personally like to reward them; c) there might be a more “ideal” set of measures of puzzle quality that is not captured by ratings but that true experts may use as a yardstick. Maybe that’s what led to your own personal recommendations.
        Nevertheless, I feel ratings do mean something, and that is how enjoyable the puzzle was to the pool of solvers on this site. If I were a constructor, I would not dismiss the information out of hand. I would think about how come people did or did not enjoy the experience. In writing comments, I try to be honest about what I found fun and where I got stuck, not to complain but to provide what I hope is additional input to constructors.
        In the end, these puzzles are meant for people to enjoy, and getting that input should be one source of useful feedback.

        • Huda:

          Writing specific comments about what you like about the puzzle and what doesn’t work for you is completely different — that’s actual information that could be useful. However, the star ratings don’t provide that. How is a constructor supposed to learn anything about why someone rated a puzzle with 1 star, 2.5 stars, 3.5 stars, or whatever, when they often never explain why they do or what criteria they’re using? Did a person who rated a puzzle 1 star not like the theme? Did they run into some pop culture that they didn’t know? Did they get stuck and think the puzzle was much harder than they expected? Do they just hate seeing the answer OREO again? Or were they having a bad day and felt like being nasty online? You can’t get that information with a star rating — it’s just a number with no other context. It says nothing specific about the quality of the work.

          The star ratings are just a convenient way for anonymous users to trash a puzzle without having to say what they didn’t like about it. And like I said, people unfortunately use the star ratings to determine which crosswords they solve, so they encourage solvers to skip puzzles that they might like without having to form their own opinion about it. I think that’s sad. But it’s also why I encourage constructors not to treat them like they’re meaningful information.

          • Gary R says:

            Evan – I’ve never thought of the ratings here as feedback for constructors. The comments, yes (at least, sometimes), but the ratings, no.

            As a solver, on the other hand, I sometimes find the ratings useful. I often don’t bother with Sun-Tue NYT puzzles, but if I see ratings here that suggest other solvers found one of these puzzles especially good (or even, sometimes, especially bad) I’ll give it a look.

            • huda says:

              It’s interesting that the ratings are not seen as useful feedback…

            • Gary R says:


              I’m retired, but like you, had a career in academia. Some journals have reviewers give numerical ratings, sometimes on multiple dimensions, for an article they have reviewed. I always found the numbers to be of limited value to me as an author (constructor, in crossworld) because every reviewer is grading on a different scale. The value was in the reviewer’s comments.

              Here, as a solver, I find the ratings of some value when the average of a large number of ratings suggest that a puzzle I would not otherwise solve is especially good (or sometimes, bad – morbid curiosity, I guess). For example, this past Tuesday’s NYT had a 3.42 rating from 52 solvers – a large enough deviation from the average rating, with a fairly large number of ratings that I decided to do the puzzle. It didn’t knock my socks off, but I definitely thought it was worth my time.

            • Gary R:

              Right, so my questions are, 1) do you use this same process for deciding whether to solve non-NYT puzzles? Because I think a lot of them are worth doing, too, even if their ratings don’t fall outside whatever standard deviation you’re using. 2) If you enjoyed this past Tuesday’s NYT and occasionally make time to solve Sunday-Tuesday NYT, why not make time to solve Sunday-Tuesday NYT puzzles regularly? There’s nothing magical about whatever the average rating or deviation away from the average is, and there’s no rule that says Sunday-Tuesday puzzles are definitely less interesting than Wednesday-Saturday puzzles.

              Of course there’s not enough time to solve every puzzle out there and I know people inevitably end up picking and choosing which crosswords they do. I just don’t think you should let the star ratings be your criteria for that. There could be a puzzle rated 2.8 or 3.2 stars here that you might still really like, but you’d be missing out on trying it if you’re relying on the star ratings to make that decision for you.

            • Gary R says:

              Hi Evan,

              I don’t usually bother with the M/T NYT puzzles because they’re too easy to provide much entertainment (and I’m not that much of a fan of themes). The Sunday puzzles often just feel like a jumbo-sized Tuesday. So I’ll solve one of these if a large number of raters seem to think it’s especially good, and if the raters think it’s really bad, I’ll sometimes take a look to see why. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I’ll generally solve the TNY puzzle instead of the NYT.

              I also sample the other puzzles covered here when the ratings (if there are more than a few) suggest something special – but usually, one or two puzzles in a day is enough for me.

    • Christopher Smith says:

      What’s fascinating is how passion promotes participation. Looking at days where 53+ people (mean + half SD) submitted, all of them were unusually high or (more commonly) low.

      Also I think I may just do last Wednesday’s puzzle out of morbid curiosity.

      • huda says:

        I agree with the observation that hating or loving a puzzle draws ratings, and Katie is wisely using the number of ratings as one of her indices.

    • Eric says:

      Maybe you’re already doing this, but if not: Pay attention to the constructor’s name. When you enjoy a puzzle by someone whose name you don’t recognize, look for their previous work.

    • Linda says:

      I’ve searched crossword fiend using the title of the puzzle. I’ve had some luck using the date in the url but that’s tedious. Stick the title in the search bar.

  2. cyberdiva says:

    Katie, you may want to take a look at the XWORD INFO site at . It has an amazing amount of info about crossword puzzles, including things like Schrödinger puzzles, Jeff Chen’s Puzzles of the Week, Will Shortz’s favorite puzzles and favorite constructors, and much, much more.

    • Katie says:

      All true! Thanks! :-) Still was specifically curious about more efficient data searches here, in the end. Thanks again! -k

  3. Mary Flaminio says:

    Is the huge puzzle in today’s NYT?

  4. Sophomoric Old Guy says:

    NYT – the puzzle was traditional wordplay, but I agree with Nate it’s not so great. As for why certain weak themes and clues got in, it is because Jeff Chen’s name is tied to the puzzle. Don’t get me wrong, Jeff is very good person and constructor. IMO the editorial staff gives him leeway on a lot of things because he has long been the person who they refer new constructors to for help in getting an iffy puzzle over the line. If I read the Xwordinfo correctly he has had 150 puzzles in the NYT of which 103 are collaborations. Just one man’s opinion.

  5. Dan says:

    “Sid Caesar’s comedy partner Fabray”

    Shows how little I know. I always thought it was Imogene Coca.

    • marciem says:

      I didn’t know either, I always thought of Caesar and Coca as the pair. But Wiki says differently and Nanette Fabray was definite his partner for quite a long stretch after doing guest appearances.

  6. David L says:

    Two Sunday puzzles with puns? Oh joy. At least there are a couple of interesting football games later today.

  7. Pilgrim says:

    LAT – sorry to see there is no formal review, but I thought it was very entertaining and very well done!

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