Feel free to send me anything I missed!
Palliative Clues. In January, beloved cryptic constructor John Galbraith Graham, AKA Araucaria, left a note over a crossword that he had “18 down of the 19, which is being treated with 13 15.” 18-Down was “Sign of growth” (CANCER), 19-Across “Food transporter heard to gradually reduce an endless effusion” (OESOPHAGUS, with the British spelling), and 13 and 15-Across were “Friendly (say) vicar at ease (say) with arrangement for coping with 18 down” (PALLIATIVE CARE).
It was a shocking, yet appropriately serene, move from the British reverend, 91, who had spent fifty years reinventing the cryptic clue. “I asked them last week how long I’d got,” he said in January, “but nobody knows how long you’ve got! They said it won’t be years and years, but it could be a large number of months.” He passed away in November. His last puzzle included “Warning not to outstay welcome I encountered in African country”—I MET in TOGO, or TIME TO GO.
The year also saw the loss of one of the States’ few master cryptic constructors, Frank W. Lewis, who had built puzzles for The Nation and to sharpen the wits of his fellow employees at the NSA. He was 98.
Shylock The Clue. Tribune Media Services triggered a cultural rift when it clued JEW as “Shylock, e.g.” The greedy, murderous, Shakespearean villain is referred to as “the Jew,” and his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is sometimes quoted as an attack on anti-Semitism, but his name also invokes racist stereotypes. The syndicate apologized. It’s highly unlikely that the puzzle author and editor both intended such a reading. Russian mayoral candidate Nikolai Levichev, meanwhile, published puzzles with slurs against Jews and blacks that seem more intentional.
Is It Brain Surgery?: “Forget crosswords, have sex instead! Science says you should!” shouted a number of secondary outlets in response to a Rutgers study, often taking the opportunity to feature some “O faces” in the name of research illustration. The study, not without merit, was one of several recommending unconventional methods (such as learning a new skill) to prevent Alzheimer’s, always a source of anxiety for America’s aging population. It seems most likely that a combination of stimulating activities is better for the brain than any one cure-all, as I wrote irritably back then. But crosswording and neurology can still inform each other. Studies of how cryptic solvers’ brains work have yielded interesting insights into “fluid thinking.”
The Rescue of XWord Info. It was a good year for crossword scholarship, all told, thanks to several histories coinciding with the crossword’s 100th anniversary. But we nearly lost one of the greats: XWord Info. XWI has been chronicling all the puzzles in Will Shortz’s New York Times career, and thanks to coordination with David Steinberg’s Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, it’s well on its way to covering the paper’s entire 71-year puzzle feature history. However, issues with the critical community drove site creator Jim Horne to step down from day-to-day management and very nearly close up shop before handing the reins over to Jeff Chen. Chen has added personal commentary by himself, Shortz, and the constructors, making XWord Info an even better resource than before.
Where Are The Women? Ben Tausig had an extraordinary year, publishing one of the best-ever crossword histories, editing a collection of work by young constructors, and continuing to edit The American Values Crossword, pioneering an improved compensation model for crossword-makers. His greatest single contribution to the scene, though, may have been this essay (reflecting a chapter in his history book), in which he asks a question that really should have come up before: why has the number of women creating and editing crosswords dropped so precipitously? And what can be done about it?
The Times, the Post, the Situation. After a drop in profits early in the year, the New York Times firmly rebounded, with its stock climbing from an $8.07 low in February to a $16.14 high at the end of the year. On the other hand, The Washington Post essentially became Jeff Bezos’ toy. Some newspaper industry analysts talk hopefully of “signs of stabilization” thanks to new, ever-more-digital models, but for the most part, it’s the same old story of continued consolidation, falling circulation, and all of us actively wondering how long secondary print features like the Post Puzzler and CrosSynergy can go without feeling the bite. The New York Times has made its crossword a profitable division even on a bad year, but to do so requires a certain infrastructure that’s difficult to sustain when layoffs become as regular as holidays.
Scrabble’s De-Crowdsourcing. For all the crosswordy projects crowdsourcing grew to fund in 2013, there was one big one taken out of the public’s hands: Hasbro stopped its 25-year policy of funding the National Scrabble Association, announcing that it would take over the functions of this other NSA. Stefan Fastis, author of Word Freak, had the best grasp of the story’s implications: “The death of Scrabble’s organizing body—which closed on July 1 following years of declining financial support from Hasbro, the game’s owner—reflects a broader conflict between corporate and intellectual forces in American cultural life. Guess which one is winning.” Scrabble is, of course, only tangentially related to the crosswords most of us know as “crosswords,” but it’s not hard to see echoes of this conflict in other venues.
Kickstart The Art. The number of successful Kickstarter-funded projects this year exceeded that of all previous years combined, and otherwise crowdfunded projects are picking up too, with obvious implications for the art form. A certain flavor of quirky, ambitious project—call it “Kickstartable”—may see more use in the coming years. In light of what’s happening to the National Scrabble Association and print markets, this frontier becomes even more important for the art form.
Technical Abstraction. Two of the most notable crosswords of the year were the Adobe Password Crossword and the Regular Expression Crossword. The former alarmed us by showing how easy passwords could be to guess: the latter delighted those who’d learned the advanced logic of character-string searches. Both of them made us consider the ongoing relationship between language and technology. And the market for crossword apps and crossword-like apps continued to mature as the markets for tablets and phablets did.
100 Years, 100 Million Solvers. The crossword turned 100 this year, and just about everybody had some idea how to celebrate. Many special puzzles were composed for the occasion, but none with a bigger audience than Merl Reagle’s Google Doodle. Google has roughly 1 billion monthly visitors and ran the puzzle during the high-traffic weekend before Christmas, putting Reagle’s work before more eyeballs than ever before. Even the Simpsons episode highlighting his work pales in comparison. In fact, the only puzzle that may have been solved more is the Arthur Wynne work that started it all.
Grid for Google Doodle submitted to Google for the crossword’s approaching 100th birthday. There’s a puzzle for it too, with clues and answers, but so long as there’s the vaguest chance Google will use it, I won’t give that away.
I made this one in 2011, I believe, and I tinkered with it a lot before deciding it was now or never. The challenge with this one is to create something the Google homepage can display at a resolution that people can solve without going blind. That’s why I went with a more rectangular logo, with all the letters forced into the same height, without the “G” and “l” going up and the “g” going down. I think it works. Fingers crossed, anyway.
Reblogging for sudden relevance: Google did run a doodle for the crossword’s 100th birthday, they just decided to commission their own. Congrats to Merl Reagle, the author, who certainly deserves the honor of the largest audience of any puzzle ever.
But I gotta say I’m surprised that there’s almost nothing in the crossword puzzle to indicate that it’s a Google Doodle. The logo shows one filled-in answer (33-Across) as “GOOGLE,” but if you work that puzzle, the very same squares are filled in as another word altogether. (Um, spoiler, I guess.) Exactly one clue mentions Google or search engines.
All in all, Google Doodles seem to be less show-offy about the Google logo than they used to be, which gives them more creative freedom, I suppose, but I designed my grid on the assumption that they’d want features uniquely appropriate to the Doodle, not a puzzle that could basically appear anywhere. I always knew sending them that grid was a long shot, but turns out I wasn’t even aiming at the right target!
Still, I see the logic behind what Google ended up with. Google is about making you feel smarter, after all, so an overly demanding grid could easily turn off more of its users than a nice, easy “Mondayish” one like this. Merl does work in an amusing callback to the very first crossword that shows off his chops without overwhelming anybody. Here’s hoping this grid introduces many thousands to the joys of cruciverbalism.
This chubby puzzle actually contains the longest single entry of the five: it’s a quote crossword, wherein selected entries make up multiple parts of a quote. The quote is a great one, by the way: it’s both one of the best lines in Guilded Age and ridiculously practical for this kind of crossword design. I can’t say much more without giving it away, but let’s just say it was easy to make symmetrical and solvable.
Those 3x7 corners, though, they were a bit more challenging. And while the 3x4 river running down the middle was easy to fill, it felt like reaching to clue too many simple words as Guilded-Age-specific. All in all, this probably has the lowest ratio of Guilded Age clues and answers to total clues and answers of the five, but when you see that quote fall into place, well, I think that’ll be a good way to finish up the experience.
I’ve carefully avoided spoilers when discussing these Guilded Age puzzles, for pretty obvious reasons, and it’s no exception when I say this: there’s not a lot of wordplay in them. The add-a-letter, drop-a-letter, swap-a-letter themes of your typical Wednesday puzzle, to say nothing of crazy stuff like rebuses or mutant forms, just wasn’t where I wanted to go with these five. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve spoken with a couple of constructing greats who have convinced me to stiffen my standards a little when it comes to fill, and keeping things simple leaves more room for Guilded Age-focused clues and answers.
Some of those answers, though, just wouldn’t fit into a standard grid, and for those, we went Sunday-size.
Seven super-long entries, climbing in length from 15 to 16 to 17 to 21 in the center, before slipping back down (17, 16, 15) in the bottom. It’s tough to get that many of that length in there, which is why the puzzle has those four dotted lines of black in the middle. The two closest to the middle are barely dotted: each of the four only has three passageways through them, each one letter wide and involving a long entry. But every so often, the strain is worth it.
The demographic’s older and the pastime is quieter, but I still get jolted sometimes by how much more genteel the world of crossword enthusiasts is than the webcomics world of my wayward youth. In fact, I sometimes think it’s genteel to a fault— that it might benefit from a shake-up like in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the GAMES Magazine crowd essentially stormed the gates of Eugene T. Maleska’s fortress— if only because it seems like a healthy art form should move people to debate.
I suspect that Jim Horne’s “What Are Crossword Bloggers Thinking?” is as close as we’re going to get for a while. Jim’s a great guy, and one of several I know in crosswords who’s just uncomfortable with conflict, so I expect he’s held off for months or years before airing this fully-formed grievance with crossword reviewers, and particularly with our own Gene Siskel, Rex Parker, whose online grouchiness Jim does not exaggerate. (Rex is a sweetheart in person, though, in my experience.) Jim has dedicated untold hours to preserving data about the New York Times crossword, and I’m not surprised he’s a little defensive about its reputation. And when he reports that the gentility above does not extend to the correspondence he and Jeff Chen gets, well, I’m sure he’s correct.
I do think, though, that he’s going a little far by concluding that his is the lone voice in the NYT's defense. For one thing, while it is remarkable that the Fiend didn’t give it an award last year, it does continue to give the NYT star billing in its daily reviews. Jeff Chen and David Steinberg are carrying on Jim’s historical efforts (which speaks volumes about their own opinion of the Times crossword), but the loudest voice in puzzles is still Will Shortz’s. Will uses it sparingly— I suspect he’s all too mindful of how shrill his predecessor Maleska could sound, especially in Maleska’s later years— but the thing is, he doesn’t need to say much. He’s the guy who decides the puzzles. If he thinks that a set of three near-identical wordplays and then a fourth that has a little added twist is a good idea, he’s going to run it, and with the Times’ circulation, that puzzle’s existence will influence far more people’s opinions of what is and isn’t acceptable in a puzzle than all the blogging in the world.
So why even blog about the puzzles, let alone blog about blogging about them, or blog about blogging about blogging? Because, well, some of us like to examine these things more thoroughly. As Jim points out, those who do are often constructors or speed-solvers, those with extra passion for the art. Sharing that passion can certainly improve that art, and it’s just a fun way to spend the day. Except when it isn’t, and at that point, you know, you got to ask yourself if you want to keep slugging away.
For my part, this debate is having a direct impact on me. Jeff Chen, the very same, recently convinced me that I need to tighten up my word list and my discipline in construction, so I really do care what students of the form think is and isn’t acceptable within it. A while back, I wrote that change-a-letter themes should be either all of one thing, or half of one and half of the other, but Jim makes a persuasive case for that slight final-entry twist, and I think I’ll be trying it more often.
Those pairs of letters are up to something in the third Guilded Age grid, “Shady Business.” I could have resisted the temptation to put quite so many of these special pairs in the grid, which was made extra challenging by the fact that every word that includes these pairs has a clue that relates to Guilded Age. Those thick 6x4 corners at the northwest and southeast were tricky, too: I felt like the puzzle had to have something special for its first and last Across entry.
Still, I couldn’t find too many great words that contained those letter pairs and were really long, so I felt like quantity was the way to go. And two of them even cross the long entry along the middle, which has a clue (“What two letters keep doing in this puzzle, appropriately”) and answer that tie it all together.
So this is a legit clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle today.
We so illin’. Like a villain.