Monday 23 April 2012


Holy Toledo, week 20 already?! To be honest, I didn't think much beyond the second week when I started this site. I'm going to take a page from the book of Matt Gaffney and set a goal for this puzzle series. Now, Matt's a complete fucking maniac, and his goals are fittingly maniacal. 10,000 daily puzzles!? 1000 weekly metas!? I'd be satisfied if I could think of one meta puzzle that's as good as any of his (speaking of which, I'm completely lost on this week's MGWCC - don't have a sniff. **Late-breaking update: just got it! Don't think I've ever gone 3 for 3 before. Outlook not good on 4 for 4, though**). My goal is decidedly more modest: The Cross Nerd puzzle series will run for at least (but maybe more than) 52 weeks. Since I pretty much started making puzzles at the same time as starting this site and I never know what I'll be doing with my life six months down the road, I really can't say whether or not I'll have the time or desire to continue beyond (or even until) then, but I guarantee another 32 weeks of puzzles.

Speaking of time and desire to make puzzles, this weekend I had neither. I was hit with my first flu in a few years, which rendered me more inclined toward laying in bed watching Twin Peaks than writing clues. I had come up with the theme already, thankfully, but left the grid and cluing a little later than I should have. As you'll see from entries like 4- and 27-Across, this puzzle would have benefitted from a little extra time and attention (for instance, I only noticed after filling most of it that it's a 74/35, which is low (and ill-advised) for a themed puzzle. In fact, I almost had the NW and SE corners filled with one less black square in each, but couldn't get around a few fugly entries). At any rate, I don't think the handful of clunker entries will ruin the solving experience (myself, I value solvability over all else), but I'm acutely aware of them at the moment because of a recent discussion about fill over at Tyler Hinman's blog. A number of top editors, constructors, and solvers have weighed in on the issue, so it's an enlightening read.

Lastly, last week's interview with Steve Riley was a huge hit. A number of people got in touch to say that they enjoyed it, so I'll be doing more. I've been talking with a few constructors about it, but I'd like to make it a somewhat regular feature, so if you're at all involved with puzzles, drop me a line and we'll set something up! Plus, if you're a constructor I'll gladly run one of your puzzles here.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Bobtails
Rating: XW-18A
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 April 2012

All About Steve

As promised, we have a special guest with us this week: give it up one time for Mr. Steven Riley. I met Steve a few months back when we both started constructing for Campus Crosswords. He's been turning out consistently astounding puzzles throughout the semester, and with a tight and very well-reviewed NYT debut a few Fridays back (check it: NYT, 3/23/12) Steve is certainly a constructor to watch. (***Late-breaking update: Steve also has tomorrow's (Wed Apr 18) NYT puzzle! Also, Campus Crosswords constructor/editor Milo Beckman has today's, and it's a gooder***). Let's see what the man has to say for himself, shall we:

Peter: Let’s start with your background outside of puzzles. Tell me about yourself: vocation, avocations, A/S/L, hopes and dreams, etc.

Steve: I’m a self-employed tutor who’s trying to make the transition to a career in clinical psychology. I’m a 31 year old dude who lives in San Francisco with my lovely gf Erica and my crazy cat Banshee. As I write this, she (the cat) is running circles around the living room.

P: What got you into puzzles, and how long have you been at it?

S: I think of myself as a problem solver first and foremost. I get nerd-sniped at the drop of a hat. So, crossword solving came pretty naturally to me. About six months after I started solving them, I remember dropping the word SYZYGY into a puzzle and thinking “man, I’ve gotten better at this.” The next step was building them. I created one as a holiday present for Erica and then tried making a few more just for fun. This was about two years ago, and since then I’ve written about 50 or 60 total.

P: Where have you been published?

S: On 3/23 I had my NYT debut. It was a wide open themeless that I was very proud of. Also, I’m one quarter of the Campus Crosswords syndicate. You should be familiar with them, since you’re another quarter. :) We publish in the Harvard Crimson. I’ve also written a couple of puzzles for weddings, and I had one puzzle that was commissioned by a company I used to work for called vibrantBrains. HYPOTHALAMUS is not a good puzzle entry, but you do what you get paid to do, right?

P: Whose work do you admire as a constructor and enjoy as a solver?

S: As a solver, I look for Patrick Berry’s tagline. I think that guy really has it dialed in as to what makes an enjoyable solve. His themes are never boundary-pushing, his themeless puzzles are never flashy, but every square in every one of his grids flows together like melted chocolate. In terms of construction, I admire Joe Krozel. He’s willing to take an idea to its logical extreme even if it’s risky. I think back on puzzles that stand out from the crowd, and pretty much every one of them belongs to Krozel. Remember the LIES puzzle? Well, if not, here it is.

P: Tell me about your approach to construction. What tools do you use, what do you do with a deadline and a lack of ideas, what qualities do you look for in a seed entry or long fill, etc?

S: After about three puzzles filled by hand, I decided to write my own crossword filling software. Because its mine, I have access to the guts and am constantly tweaking the way it fills. I get wordlists from random sources like Wiktionary, so I’m constantly able to fill a grid with fresh phrases. In terms of themes, I prefer stuff related to math, letter patterns, and the geometry of the grid. That kind of thing is easy for me. What’s hard for me is wordplay. I find that what I think of as funny is often thought of as bizarre or offensive by others. For instance, I just got a puzzle rejected by Campus Crosswords because it was too raunchy, even though I thought it was hilarious. As far as I know, that’s the only puzzle that has been rejected by Campus Crosswords. :) For long fill, I basically look for something that is scrabbly and is a bit incongruous to put into a crossword puzzle. The way I see it, crosswords have a bit of a mystic aura surrounding them. It is very common for people to stay away from them because they’re “not smart enough”. Because of this, crosswords are seen as very high brow and very special. So, putting in common and slangy entries can throw off that sense of mysticism and bring the puzzle back to earth. I mean stuff like OH SNAP, or GET BENT, or CRAPOLA. One of the best phrases I ever put into a puzzle was LAME JOKES. It’s scrabbly and has a endearing but common quality to it. Of course, sometimes I’ll go just for pure scrabbliness. One of these times I’m going to fit BLIZZARD OF OZZ into one of our 11x13 grids.

P: The ACPT has taught me that constructors run the gamut as far as solving ability goes. How are you as a solver?

S: I find that I don’t like solving crosswords alone. It’s a team sport for me. With a partner of above average skill, I find that we can get through a Saturday NYT in about 20 minutes, and can get through a Sunday in 30 to 40. I don’t know what that says about me though. :) If I try to tackle anything harder than a Wednesday by myself I end up having a miserable time.

P: What are your thoughts on eye-catching/wide-open grids, convention-shirking themes/gimmicks, etc.? Is it all about the solver, or do you think that grids and gimmicks that push the boundaries and challenge constructors are important as well?

S: It’s definitely NOT all about the solver. It’s all about what you can get away with as a constructor without pissing off your solvers. They’re willing to deal with a certain amount of crap, but anything past that and you’ll hear from them. Personally, I find wide-open grids to be passe. Once there gets to be a convex section of grid that’s about 5x5 or larger, the only letters that will fill that section are the 1-point scrabble letters. Those letters are boring and they have no punch. If someone could create a 60-entry (or lower) grid with a 1.6 (or higher) scrabble average and not overrun the thing with cheater squares, I would rethink my position on open grids. I think the closest to that goal was this gem by Raymond C Young. However, most open grids just don’t have any real feeling to them. I’ll take a punchy 72-worder any day over a dramatically open 54-word Frank Longo monstrosity. As for gimmicks, I feel that they are important in order to prevent solver fatigue. If every theme were replace-a-letter-with-another-letter, solvers would get bored and move on to a different outlet. It’s important to play with the rules every once in awhile in order to figure out which of them are actually important. For instance, were it not for some dude who thought “Only one letter in a box? Screw you!”, we would never have had this beauty (which was Will Shortz’s very first publication as editor).

P: Do you have any specific construction or publication goals that you’re aiming for?

S: My last goal is to get a second themeless into the NYT with stacks of 15s on top and bottom and only 21 black squares. For some reason those numbers are very important to me.

P: Even among the small number of your puzzles I’ve seen, there has been a lot of variety: quote/joke themes, a rebus, and a lipogram, in addition to simpler letter-addition/removal themes. Do you make a concerted effort to try different styles, or do you just go with whatever comes to mind?

S: Thanks for noticing! I actually had to look up “lipogram”. :) I get a lot of inspiration by learning the lore of construction and trying to outdo the master constructors. I’m very competitive. For instance, once I saw that Bob Klahn had created this puzzle, I decided I needed to do better. Of course, I couldn’t. :) But that didn’t stop me from wasting a bunch of time trying. That’s how I’ve learned my limits as a constructor. Now I have a good intuitive idea of what might work and what probably won’t. So now, I focus more on what would make a good effect, or how to reinterpret a phrase to deliberately bend its meaning, rather than aiming for a specific type of puzzle. I daydream quite a bit, and odd ideas can meld together in unexpected ways when you let your mind wander.

Thanks for the interview, Peter!

Hey, pleasure's all mine. Not least because Steve covered puzzle duty for me this week as well! I suspect his "Keeping the Grid Clean" might be one of the puzzles he had in mind when he said that some might find his sense of humour "bizarre or offensive" but personally I love it. Not for the faint of heart, to be sure, but the ostensibly puerile theme is masterfully executed, and there's a brilliant revealer at the end to tie it all elegantly together. Enjoy!

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Keeping the Grid Clean
Rating: XW-18A
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 April 2012


Completely bushed tonight, so not much to say.

First: there will be a special guest puzzle and interview next week, so do be sure to stop by for that.

Second: As for this week, it's another mini themeless double-header: #8 is my Campus Crosswords puzzle from last Thursday which I thought you might enjoy (although I realize now that I've already used one of the long answers in one of the first Cross Nerd puzzles - bad form, admittedly, but I know that many of you weren't around back then), and #9 is one I whipped up tonight. I like the clue for 5-Across - might seem like a cheap shot, but really, is it any less helpful than a reference to two cities on Earth that you've probably never driven between?

More words, crossed and otherwise, and a guest appearance, next Tuesday.

Puzzles: Mini Themeless nos. 8 & 9
Ratings: XW-14A for #8, XW-18A for #9
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

Tuesday 3 April 2012


(LISZTOMANIA just went in the wordlist)

Late breaking news: Cross Nerd puzzles are now available via Alex Boisvert's Crossword Butler service. If you haven't checked out Crossword Butler, do it here and do it now. Also, hit up Alex's site for some of his fantastic puzzles and a host of useful constructing tools (the algebraic theme entry tool is particularly handy when brainstorming letter-manipulation type themes).

In other news, I've been doing some intense wordlist maintenance lately. Of course, wordlist additions are a daily thing, but up until now my list has been unscored. I recently read through all of Todd McClary's Autofill Project posts, and I was inspired to start thinking about how to best score and organize my list. And now would be a good time, since my list is relatively small: I've got about 120,000 entries, which is a slightly edited version of the "all" database plus 13,000 of my own entries. Now, to the layperson this would seem substantial (when I first took a naive crack at construction several years back, I was stoked to have like 200 solid 10-letter entries after an evening-long brainstorming session. I thought I would be an all-star constructor in no time with these hot words. I gave up in discouragement shortly after, surprise surprise (SURPRISESURPRISE just went in the wordlist)), but I've heard that some of the top dogs have scored databases of 750,000+ words! Obviously, I've got a long way to go, but I've started a more rigorous word-gathering process (carefully poaching all of the good entries and adding all of their inflections, adding lists of US presidents, Popes, alcoholic shots with colorful names like Muff Diver (MUFFDIVER/MUFFDIVERS just went in the wordlist), the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", etc.), and I really should get scoring before the list blows up.

Traditionally, words are given an absolute numerical score. This is used by autofill algorithms to produce fill that is most desirable to the constructor, by starting with the highest-scored words and trying to maximize the combined score of all of the words in the grid. This is a simple but effective way to get the most out of the autofill process, but I see some problems with scoring a wordlist solely by assigning fixed numeric values. For one thing, words may be more or less desirable depending on the context, so it would be nice to have variable scores for certain words. For instance, when making the Cross Nerd puzzles I welcome vulgarity and off-color entries and thus would be tempted to score something like BABYBATTER quite highly (BABYBATTER was already in the wordlist, fyi), although if I was filling a grid for just about any other market I wouldn't want that entry within 100 miles of my puzzle. Furthermore, I don't really know how high or low to score words relative to each other to get the best fill, so I'd like to be able to easily and quickly adjust scores for the purposes of experimentation. Of course I can tell you that BLANKETHOG and SKRILLEX and ETPHONEHOME should be scored higher than RESEATED and UNAMASSED, but how much higher? What differences would you see in the fill if solid but boring 3-letter entries (SEA, e.g.) were scored much higher than showstopping long entries, or vice-versa? My solution, which I've begun to implement in a small wordlist management app, is to tag each word with one or more symbolic values rather than a single absolute score. When a scored wordlist is needed for filling a particular grid, one can be "compiled" using some or all of the symbolically-scored words on the master list. I'm thinking that it might be interesting to be able to break down the master list by length and symbolic score, and assign relative values to each sublist using a graphical interface (say, by placing every sublist at some point along a scale). Numerical scores would then be assigned based on position during the compilation process. That way, you could tinker with the relative values of various types of entries and see what sort of fill results, without ever having to consider whether an entry should be 90 or 91. I'm thinking that I'll have 5 or 6 different scores for general legitimacy/freshness/scrabbly-ness ("Unusable", "Will do in a pinch", "Perfectly legit but not terribly exciting", "OMG must put in your next puzzle", etc) as well as a number of tags like "vulgar", "too indie for the NYT", etc that can be used to filter out undesirable entries altogether. The software to do all of this is not coming together terribly quickly because I tend to not have time for much other than making crosswords (and living the rest of my life, here and there), but I'm excited to at least begin. If I end up with an end product that isn't too esoteric or unwieldy I'll release it free for y'all to use. I'd love to be able to give back to the community, as many of you have already provided tremendously useful tools and advice. The rest of you are just nice people. For the time being, let me know what you think about this approach to wordlist scoring. Do you see any shortcomings? Is this an approach that you would try yourself? Feedback is always welcome here, so don't be afraid to comment or drop me a line.

Moving on to the puzzle, this week's offering is a silly take on an old workhorse of a theme. Started off as a vague idea that made me laugh, but turned out to be a bitch to execute. Hopefully the result is at least coherent. We may never know how Dr. Fill would fare on this one, but we get to see what Watson makes of it.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: The Mystery of the Tired Theme
Rating: XW-18A
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.