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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Meta Physician

Solvers with a taste for traditional American crossword puzzles have no shortage of opportunities to slake their thirst, beginning with the puzzles that appear daily in the newspaper. But if you also like an extra helping of gamesmanship along with your crossword, you should know about Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest.

Gaffney is a professional crossword constructor, one of the best and most prolific in the nation. Every Friday afternoon he puts up a weekly contest on his website, offering not just a crossword but a puzzle on top of that puzzle—a meta-puzzle, or “meta” for short. To successfully complete the challenge, you have to solve the crossword, then figure out the meta and solve that as well.

Are there instructions? Don’t be silly. Figuring out what the puzzle is constitutes part of the puzzle (and how meta is that?). All you’re told is the general category of the answer you’re looking for: an American college, a unit of measurement, perhaps even just “a six-letter word.” How to derive it—that’s up to you, and it’s where Gaffney’s devious inventiveness comes into full flower.

Like the New York Times daily puzzle, which gets increasingly difficult as the week progresses, Gaffney’s weekly challenges grow steeper over the course of the month. The first Friday of each month is a comparative pushover. For instance, a Week One puzzle last year had the theme entries TICKLED PINK, CLEAR AS MUD, SIR FRANCIS BACON, DIGITAL PEN and I GOT YOU BABE, and a record number of solvers deduced that the answer to the meta—given as a “farm animal”—was PIG.

But as the month goes on, the puzzles get harder (and the months with five Fridays in them give Gaffney extra scope for trickery). Often the first question to tackle is where the theme entries are, or even if there are any. Is there a hidden connection among them? Does the trail to the meta even start with the completed grid, or is it hidden within the clues? And although the constructions are scrupulously fair, Gaffney, like any good puzzler, is not above placing a deliberate red herring in hopes of tricking an unwary solver.

One recent killer meta asked for the name of a well-known American corporation; the key was noticing that if you shaded in every N, I, K, and E in the completed grid, you got a picture of Nike’s famous “swoosh” logo. Another, titled “Livin’ Large,” had long theme entries that were famously composed only of lower-case letters (“craigslist,” “thirtysomething” and “e.e. cummings”), but the answer was derived from the only capital letters in the grid, including the P in iPhone and the last two letters of “on TV.”

The site keeps track of successful solvers, and Gaffney offers prizes and public recognition to those who have been tireless in their pursuit of a solution. But for most visitors, the joy of the chase is reward enough. A new puzzle—by happy coincidence, a newbie-friendly Week One—will be posted on Friday; if you haven’t been solving Gaffney’s puzzles, this is a fine time to start.

Have you solved Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword before? Please share here, along with contributions to this week’s cluing challenge: DEVIOUS. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.

Critical Theory

In our last post, we argued that crossword critics can be inspired by love and respect for the object of their critiques. This generated some discussion in the comments, which you can check out, but also among our Facebook friends. While we still agree with everything we said then, in this post, we will express agreement with some objections that were raised to our basic point. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well, then, we contradict ourselves: we are large, we contain multi-dudes. Or a couple of dudes, anyway.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, puzzle creators were among the ones who argued that crossword criticism is pointless, too negative or just uninteresting. For example, Puzzability constructor Amy Goldstein writes:

Even as a puzzle writer, I’m not really interested in reading about or discussing the details of the daily puzzle. I’m interested in solving them, and then moving on.

Our guess is that a majority of puzzle solvers feel pretty much the same way—perhaps even a large majority. It’s impossible to know for sure, since those solvers are by definition not the ones who frequent the blogs. Editors need to keep those solvers in mind, and if their numbers are indeed greater, this would have some implications: offending a few critics by breaking a convention may be for the greater good if it results in a more entertaining puzzle for the many.

Game and puzzle designer Mike Selinker writes:

I choose not to read reviews of anything I do, because I’m a much harsher critic of my work than anyone else will ever be.

We can relate! Between us, we have who knows how many decades of experience as solvers, constructors and editors of cryptic crosswords. While we don’t adhere to them 100 percent, we know US cryptic conventions backward and forward. For every single puzzle, we spend much time critiquing each other’s clues, then responding to feedback from at least half a dozen sophisticated test solvers. So frankly, if a critic tells us we are violating one of their cherished expectations, that is hardly news to us.

But then, slavish enforcement of supposed rules is not really what criticism should be about, is it? As we see it:

• Not all constructors need to adhere to the same aesthetic.

• Clear standards can be good, but there is a place for unpredictability and surprises.

• Conventions are not rules, and moreover conventions for a puzzle need not and should not be as rigid as rules for a game.

We welcome thoughtful comments from open-minded cryptic critics, but please tell us something we do not know.

This week’s cryptic challenge: WHITMAN. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Critical Condition

This week, the blogger Braze pointed us to a post from last year by the crossword blogger Jim Horne. Horne used to blog regularly about The New York Times’s daily crossword, but gave it up, he says, because (among other reasons) he was dismayed by the high level of negativity among those commenting regularly on the daily puzzle (especially on such sites as Amy Reynaldo’s Diary of a Crossword Fiend and Rex Parker’s blog).

“I enjoy New York Times crosswords,” he writes, as if confessing to a shameful secret.

Horne goes on to make some perceptive points about the shortcomings of much crossword commentary—particularly the apparently boundless conservatism of longtime solvers, and their reliance on rules to decide whether a puzzle is successful or not. We’ve encountered a little of that hidebound viewpoint in the responses to our own puzzles.

But fundamentally, Horne’s post is based on a misconception about what criticism is for—and criticism, in the broad sense, is what the sites he mentions are all about. Offering a critique of something isn’t the opposite of loving or enjoying or appreciating it, as he intimates humorously in his opening; rather, for many solvers, the two go hand in hand.

Commenters who demand the best, as they see it, from the Times crossword do so not out of spite, or a desire to belittle the efforts of the constructors or editor Will Shortz. They do it because the Times crossword is regarded, quite rightly, as the standard-bearer in American puzzledom. Holding it to the highest possible aesthetic standard is another way of saying that the quality of the puzzle is worth caring about passionately.

Of course, thoughtful people can, and should, disagree about what that standard should be, and we’ve hashed out many of these issues on this blog. How important is symmetry in the disposition of a grid layout, or theme entries? What kind of knowledge should solvers be expected to have?

Yet the notion that there are love and appreciation on one side, and criticism on the other, turns on a false dichotomy. There is plenty of room for casual enjoyment of puzzles, just as there is in the case of any creative endeavor. Even the fiercest critic sometimes likes to leave judgment behind and simply take what’s given. But when they don’t—when they subject a puzzle to a rigorous and tough-minded assessment of its virtues and flaws—that too is a sign of appreciation.

What are your thoughts on criticism? Please share here, along with contributions to this week’s cluing challenge: CARPING. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.

How Hard Can It Be?

As we mention at the end of every post, there is a blog dedicated to the Nation puzzle, which is maintained by Braze. He posts full solutions of the current online puzzle on the subsequent Monday or Tuesday, well in advance of the arrival of the hard-copy puzzle. His blog is also where you can ask for hints, and comment on specific clues.

On the day when the puzzle appears on TheNation.com, Braze gives it an overall difficulty rating, based on his own solving experience. As we construct the puzzles, we try to avoid having too many very easy clues, and too many very difficult clues. Of course, that still leaves a bit of a range. In comparison with the other two North American weekly black-square cryptics, Braze finds that our puzzles generally are more challenging than Cox and Rathvon’s (in The National Post), but easier than Fraser Simpson’s (in the Globe and Mail). We asked him to elaborate.

I’ll rate a puzzle easy if I can roll right along from one quadrant to another, even if a few of the clues are hard and I need the intersecting letters to solve them. I’m likely to rate the puzzle hard if I get stuck more than once or twice or if there’s a section where several tough words intersect each other.

To be more specific about what makes individual clues difficult, Braze chose these examples from puzzle 3227 (from our first year).

• Uncommon indicators (here an unusual reversal indicator for a down clue):
      NEHRU  Former Indian leader exalting primordial chicken (5)

• A less-than-obvious boundary between definition and wordplay (here, Braze first looked for a Thai island):
      HAITIAN  McKellen follows head-over-heels Thai island resident (7)

* Combining different types of wordplay in a single clue (here a single letter followed by an anagram):
      RAINDROP  Reluctantly to begin with, I pardon lousy bit of weather (8)

• Uncommon entries (usually, as here, balanced by straightforward wordplay):
      PURDAH  In Chad, Rupert reversed seclusion (6)

• Crosswordese (“obi” is probably not familiar to non-puzzlers):
      NAIROBI  Rani ruined belt in African city (7)

We enjoy the first three ways to complicate our solvers’ lives; we try to limit uncommon entries to words we like, but we realize not everyone shares our tastes along these lines; and as for the crosswordese, we apologize.

Thanks, Braze!

This week’s cluing challenge: NAIROBI. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Take Five

What do Count Basie, Alice Munro, Rosalind Russell and Father Coughlin all have in common? What about cauliflower, “Dueling Banjos” and cadmium yellow?

The answer has nothing to do with politics, culture or vegetables. Instead, think spelling. What joins these names, words and phrases—and many others like them—is that each of them contains each of the five vowels exactly once (Y doesn’t count).

Eric Chaikin, who has spent decades collecting these lexical gems, calls them “supervocalics,” a term that is nicely self-exemplifying. And the hunt for them has the potential to become a little bit obsessive, as the recent surge of activity in a Facebook group dedicated to supervocalics demonstrates only too plainly.

For those with a taste for such things (and who better than crossword aficionados?), the search for supervocalics offers a perfect balance of ease and reward. Once your brain becomes attuned to this wavelength, you start to see supervocalics everywhere. Organic butter! Musical comedy! Platinum blonde! Word freaks get a little tickle of the cerebral pleasure centers at each of these.

As with any sort of wordplay, some of these are classics. “Sequoia,” for example, is generally considered the shortest supervocalic in common English. “Abstemious” and “facetious” have the extra delightful attribute of having their vowels in alphabetical order, along with “trade discount” and “watering trough.” And new ones come on the scene all the time. Justine Sacco, the PR exec who lost her job in December over a remarkably maladroit tweet, had her fifteen minutes of fame—which was just long enough to be added to the supervocalic roll. The headlines “Jay Leno Quits” and “Jimmy Fallon Debuts” also got their due recently.

Chaikin, the godfather of this pastime, outlined some of the basics in a 2000 article for the quarterly magazine Word Ways, and more recently undertook a comprehensive search for supervocalic celebrities. But there’s plenty of unexplored territory here—in fact, once you start seeing these, it’s hard to stop!

Share your own supervocalics here, along with contributions to this week’s cluing challenge: HOUSEMAID. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.

And the Lits Keep on Coming!

An &lit clue is one in which the definition and the wordplay, instead of being disjunct, each constitute the whole clue. There is something quite satisfying, and sometimes amazing, when a word or phrase can be described at the semantic level (definition) and at the surface level (wordplay) with exactly the same words.

Because of that, it is traditional among most US cryptic constructors to end such clues with an exclamation point. This is a form of boasting, let’s face it, but since we’re not humble, we adhere to the tradition. (Note, however, that sometimes an exclamation point is just an exclamation point.)

You can read more about &lits in our solving guidelines (links at the end of the post.) Here are some examples from our second year as The Nation’s puzzlers:

ABC’S Basic elements eliminating ignorance at the beginning! (4)

ANIMOSITY ___ is no amity, unfortunately! (9)

ASPIRIN It’s cured pain, sir! (7)

BRIDESMAID Admired sib, potentially?! (10)

CARAVAN Vehicles! (7)

CARGO Primarily cached on a ship! (5)

DECIMAL POINT Remarkably, I’m a pencil dot! (7,5)

DUE PROCESS Criminal course sped! (3,7)

ENRAGED Terribly angered! (7)

GAME Duck, Duck, Goose, for instance! (4)

GLUT Fill belly with victual, ultimately! (4)

GREEN CARD It’s garnered with difficulty, to take first step for citizenship! (5,4)

NASHUA It’s, like, in New Hampshire, near the edges of USA! (6)

PICKETED Chose to surround establishment’s entrance and exit! (8)

RHINO One sporting frightful horn! (5)

RHYME Frost’s utterance! (5)

SPACE AGE It’s characterized by extraordinary escape involving acceleration and gravity! (5,3)

TARANTULA Multi-legged creature amid ultra-creepy arachnids, chiefly! (9)

TERMITE Bug in pursuit of chewed-up tree, for the most part! (7)

TWEET Ultimately, post small bit of text! (5)

WEDGE ISSUE Married gays, initially, beginning to educate children! (5,5)

Admittedly, some are old chestnuts, and some are not as successful as others, but hey, it’s not a bad list!

This week’s clueing challenge: LITERAL. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!

• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog, where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

On Beauty

In Nicholson Baker’s 2009 novel The Anthologist, the narrator and title character—a poet struggling to write the introduction to a collection he’s assembling—compares the pleasures of rhyming verse to those of a crossword puzzle. Rhyme, he posits, is “a powerful form of self-medication…the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next…You are solving a puzzle.”

This parallelism seems to strike Baker’s poet as fruitful, and he goes on:

It’s not a crossword puzzle—it’s better than a crossword puzzle, because you’re actually trying to do something beautiful. But it’s not unrelated. The addicts of crossword puzzles are also distracting themselves. They also don’t want to face the world’s grief head-on. They want that transient pleasure, endlessly repeated, of solving the Rubik’s Cube of verbal intersection. But has anyone ever wept at the beauty of a crossword puzzle? Maybe, maybe. I have not.

Baker is hardly the first to have drawn this comparison, and of course there are famous overlappers between the worlds of literature and puzzledom. Baker cites W. H. Auden; others include Georges Perec and Stephen Sondheim. But as crossword aficionados (OK, addicts) we couldn’t help but bristle a little on coming across this passage.

Sure, with a gun to our heads we would probably concede that a poem is “better” than a crossword puzzle, whatever “better” might happen to mean in that context. For one thing, a poem has multiple layers, and can be appreciated repeatedly. But the idea that a crossword isn’t, potentially at least, a thing of beauty is simply absurd.

What is beauty, after all? Depending on your esthetic framework, it could be symmetry, elegance, proportion—well, a crossword puzzle has all those. If you prefer the untamed wildness of the sublime, a puzzle can provide that as well. Keatsians will find that a crossword puzzle is full of truth, which is all we need to know.

Out of all these possibilities, Baker’s narrator chooses a very strange one indeed: the ability to induce weeping. Why should that be the criterion? (And yes, we have encountered crosswords that made us want to weep, though not at their beauty.) Surely the best crossword puzzles are those that offer their solvers a burst of pure pleasure—the surprising delight of wit, the excitement of human imagination and ingenuity at play. That’s where the joy and the beauty of puzzles are to be found.

This week’s cluing challenge: can you to come up with a cryptic clue for ANTHOLOGIST? Please share here. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.

Sam Who?

In a recent post we discussed using names in clues. Of course, names may also appear in the diagram, which raises more delicate concerns. Solver Alwyn Eades writes:

I concede that setting a cryptic crossword is very hard, especially when it is for a weekly, rather than one which is to be solved in a day. So I am in admiration of Kosman and Picciotto. Nonetheless, I feel that they have got steadily further off track. Too many of their clues now are not verbal games but tests of general knowledge. That is not what I want from a puzzle; I could play Trivial Pursuit for that. I am particularly concerned that the knowledge required (I would imagine, not being young myself) is unlikely to be within the memories of young people (Sam Spade, Satchmo—to give examples from the last two weeks). Surely the last thing the Nation needs is to discourage young readers.

In theory, we certainly agree with Mr. Eades that the point of cryptic crosswords is wordplay, and not tests of general knowledge. What makes this difficult to carry out in practice is that words have meanings, and not all solvers share the same cultural lexicon.

As solvers, we encountered this all the time in Frank Lewis’s puzzles. Here is one example: h expected his solvers to know that “ties pay the dealer” is a coherent phrase. We were able to solve the corresponding clue because the wordplay told us to anagram “leader.” We would have been completely in the dark about why that was correct, if it weren’t for a friend who is a Gilbert and Sullivan expert. (The phrase appears in Iolanthe.) A subsequent Web search revealed that this is the standard phrasing of a blackjack rule. Certainly gamblers would know this, but how many Nation solvers are gamblers? Still, we were not bitter about it: we appreciated the opportunity to learn something new.

Satchmo and Sam Spade are easy to confirm by asking a friend or a search engine. The key for us as constructors of the Nation puzzle is that if an entry may be unfamiliar to many, the wordplay for it should be straightforward. We can’t guarantee we’ll always get that balance right, of course, but we try. And we hope that a youngster who has never heard of Louis Armstrong but has to enter an anagram of STOMACH in a diagram given S_T_H_O will be able to sort it out by trying to get the A, C, and M into the word in a way that makes it pronounceable.

Mr. Eades is not the first to complain about our choice of cultural references. People have objected to mentions of pop music, sports and mathematics, to name three areas of human knowledge we have drawn from. All we can do is vary the references, so that we expand everyone’s horizons equally. (Or offend everyone equally!) What we cannot do is limit ourselves to a lowest-common-denominator vocabulary, as that would make the puzzle boring for The Nation’s highly literate readership.

This week’s cluing challenge: Can you to come up with a cryptic clue for HORIZONS? Please share here. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.

Parsimony

A solver recently wrote to express confusion over this clue from Puzzle #3316:

   CHEER  Coming back, get to loud ovation (5)

He understood, he said, that the clue was intended as a phonetic reversal: "reach" ("get to") read backwards ("coming back") to yield "cheer." But what was there in the clue to indicate that the reversal was phonetic?

A quick glance at the clue with fresh eyes was enough to reveal the source of his perplexity. Our solver was taking "loud ovation," quite plausibly, as the definition part of the clue; our intention was that "ovation" alone would suffice, leaving "loud" as the phonetic indicator. This was a misstep on our part. A more carefully crafted clue would have—and should have—eliminated that ambiguity.

But as it happens, this minor glitch did throw some light on an often-overlooked aspect of cryptic clues: Namely, the need for a certain amount of parsimony in the definitions. Even though a definition can be long-winded—and heaven knows we've written some wordy ones over the years—it should never risk spilling over into the wordplay part of the clue. It's bad form, in other words, to leave any doubt on the solver's part about where the definition ends and the wordplay begins (or vice versa).

Note that we're talking here about a clue that's already been solved, because up to that point, the constructor's goal is to keep the solver bamboozled. But although the location of the break can be hidden, it should never be ambiguous.

What that means in practice is that a definition generally shouldn't include words that aren't strictly necessary (and thus might plausibly be part of the wordplay) and moreover, that the wordplay shouldn't place words next to the definition that might plausibly be part of it. That was the weakness in our CHEER clue.

However, we retain the right to try to mislead solvers, as long as we do it on the up-and-up. This clue, for example, drew criticism from some unwary solvers:

   SMETANA  Inside, Brahms met an Austrian composer (7)

More than one person wrote to object that Smetana was Bohemian, not Austrian. But in this case, "composer" was the sum total of the definition, and "Austrian" part of the wordplay. So the clue, though tricky, was legitimate and unambiguous—because the wordplay requires the A from Austrian, and especially because the definition cannot include "Austrian" and still be correct.

This week's cluing challenge: can you to come up with a cryptic clue for PARSIMONY? Please share here. To comment (and see other readers' comments), please click on this post's title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver's blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.

More is More

In a recent post we discussed the question of consistency in puzzle themes. This is closely related to two other issues that arise in connection with crossword themes: symmetry, and what might be termed economy. There is a de facto convention in US cryptics that theme entries should be placed symmetrically in the diagram, and moreover that carefully choosing a limited number of theme entries is preferable to piling more of them indiscriminately into the diagram.

For solvers who pay attention to that sort of thing, symmetry is of course a help in solving. Moreover, symmetrically placed theme entries mesh nicely with the symmetry of the black squares to create an aesthetically pleasing whole. In fact, even putting aside aesthetics, there is another good argument for symmetry of theme entries. Theme entries reduce the constructor's choices, and they may drastically reduce the options for crossing words. The choices are even fewer if the theme entries are close together, so you can end up with less satisfying entries running in the perpendicular direction. Symmetry prevents those potential jams from congregating in one area of the grid. In short, symmetry helps spread out both the good and the bad of a themed puzzle.

As for the economy in the number of theme entries, it is similarly justified. Too many theme entries means less flexibility for the constructor, and thus a risk of too many undesirable entries. Putting together symmetry, economy, and consistency in themed puzzles results in a certain elegance. In a standard black square cryptic, four symmetrically placed long theme entries, for example, makes for a streamlined and satisfying puzzle, with a decent set of non-thematic entries. We have often done just that for our themes.

And yet!

And yet, there are other ways to have fun with themes. Instead of heeding the symmetry-economy-consistency triad, one can rely on the anarchic fun of packing as many thematic elements as possible into the diagram and/or the clues, and let elegance be damned. For example, Puzzle #3292 had a "notes" theme, where many entries had musical notes in them (SOLar flaRE, mulTILAne, and so on). In order to support our violation of the economy standard, we had to let go of symmetry as well, so as to stuff more theme words into the diagram. Throwing caution to the wind, we also violated the consistency standard, and included STONE (an anagram of "notes") and TRANSCRIPT (a synonym of "notes"). In all, this added up to 14 theme entries—a challenge for us to construct, and (we hope) more fun for our solvers. More recently, Puzzle #3316 included the word "number" in the clues 15 times, and again, we favored sheer quantity over supposed elegance.

Sometimes, as is our wont, we split the difference. At the time of the Arab spring, we created a puzzle in which the name of every one of the 24 members of the Arab League appeared in one clue or another. We ditched parsimony and symmetry, but preserved consistency. In a puzzle for a Nation issue about Amazon, every single clue had a river in it—a victory for consistency and symmetry, but definitely a defeat for economy.

In fact, we often aim for symmetry, even when at first it seems unattainable given our greedy penchant for more of a good thing. In one recent puzzle, we managed to squeeze the names of 11 magazines, plus the word MAGAZINES in a symmetrical arrangement. Of course, that was facilitated by the fact we had many magazines to choose among. In contrast, when we tried to include JANE AUSTEN, PERSUASION, MANSFIELD, PARK, PRIDE, PREJUDICE, SENSE, SENSIBILITY and EMMA in a single diagram, there was little in the way of flexibility, but we still aimed for symmetry.

In other words, we like to mix it up, and we do not stick to a single aesthetic when it comes to themes. 

Today's cluing challenge: how would you clue AESTHETICS? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers' comments), please click on this post's title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver's blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail.

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