You Do the Math

Solving The NYT Mini Crossword In Seconds
Solving The NYT Mini Crossword In Seconds

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Wordplay, The CROSSWORD COLUMN

You Do the Math

Jennifer Nebergall starts the count with her New York Times crossword debut.

How many disks does it take to tire out a border collie? This one handled several, at a competitive event in Tokyo in 2008.

SUNDAY PUZZLE — I confess to being a bit intimidated by the arithmetic title and introduction of today’s puzzle, but everything turns out fine. Jennifer Nebergall is a former finance director at the University of Colorado (which sounds daunting); she’s also a new constructor who started solving puzzles over Sunday brunches with her husband, which evolved to solving during their baby’s naps. Eventually everyone started sleeping through the night, I imagine, and the inspiration to conceive a crossword came about.

The theme today is one of those that’s accessible but has a second layer of complexity that some solvers could miss, and there’s a lot of substantial, entertaining fill. The forces combine to make a very polished first effort with a vibe that reminds me of some of my favorites.

Tricky Clues

My kind of wordplay today, thoughtful, humorous, fairly gotcha-free: clues for AMEXES, MARS, AUTO LOAN, CATS and IAMSAM, to name a few.

14A: This clue, “Extemporizes,” makes me think of improv class more than the art of seduction, which is what its corresponding entry evokes — VAMPS. Theda Bara and Pola Negri are common clues for this entry in earlier Times puzzles (as are the tops of shoes). Etymologically, the sirenic meaning (that I think of) is probably from vampire, while the ad-lib meaning is probably after the shoe part that was often repaired and replaced, back when things were less disposable.

23A: This actress has been in steady rotation in the puzzle since 1981, and not once did the origin of her name bear mention — who knew that MERYL Streep was ever Mary Louise (and who knew that she could have wound up being called “Cathy Street?”).

5D: This is a debut, a familiar term for gardeners referring to a desired trait in plants you like, a trait that tends to be far more common in weeds (which are often defined simply as “any plant growing in the wrong place”). Think dandelions, whose tiny propeller seeds are SELF SOWN all over the place — hopefully you have plants you adore, like cornflowers or poppies, that do the same for you.

9D: Some of you may decry this as not-a-word, although it is — SYNCHED and “synced” are both acceptable as the shortened version of synchronized. There are regional and contextual preferences as well (“sync” is more common in computerese, apparently, as it’s referred to in Unix). I’ll stick with “‘N Sync” for this particular case, because everyone likes that.

43D: I went for the unenthusiastic “you’re OK” here, rather than the far more encouraging YOU ROCK that’s called for. This is one of those that looks funny at a glance with no spaces between words in a grid (same with WET INK, a couple of columns over).

Today’s Theme

There are five theme clues today, all italicized, at 27-, 42-, 66-, 95- and 106-Across. All of the clues are equations, although I registered only two of them as such, and they solve to common phrases or terms.

Actually, I’ll freely admit that even the two simpler ones sneaked up on me. The first one is at 27-Across, “‘That was great!’ – ‘No, it stunk!’,” which presents itself as an oppositional exchange of some sort about an event, some little argument. I’m sure more observant solvers read that “–” as a minus sign because of the title of the puzzle, but I just saw it as a dash, and solved this entry — DIFFERENCE OF OPINIONS — with that in mind. The second one is 95-Across, “Bear x Tiger,” and that’s where the theme should have clonked me right on the head, but it didn’t. My initial idea was along the lines of ANIMAL “crosses,” which seemed too obvious, and I read right over the “x” as a multiplication sign even after I filled in PRODUCT for the second part of this entry.

At 66-Across things swam into focus: “Cattle in [cattle/pigs]” seems like a basic arithmetic question on a school quiz, and the two animals in question are both from the barnyard, so the economic term we’re looking for as a pun answer makes sense. Aha! I realized what I had missed on my first two themers — subtract to get a DIFFERENCE, multiply to get a PRODUCT.

I almost began to feel smart, until Ms. Nebergall decided to bring in … statistics. The last two entries include two of the most common terms used when dealing with a data set. One is concealed in a feature of a road (and refers to the set’s middle); one refers to something you might find on a road (and refers to the set’s most common element).

You may have noticed that addition was left out of the theme set. No pun intended — between the vibrant fill and the theme that gently unraveled itself to me, I really enjoyed this solve and consider it greater than the sum of its parts.

Constructor Notes

I am delighted to be making my crossword debut. I began doing crossword puzzles only a few years ago. When I decided to set a goal of constructing one myself and hopefully seeing it in The New York Times, I had no idea how challenging and humbling it would be.

Although the theme and theme answers have stayed the same since its inception, the rest of the grid underwent multiple iterations before it became the puzzle you see today. I am so grateful to Wyna Liu and the entire puzzle staff for their patience, guidance, and encouragement throughout the process. I am pleased with the final product, and along with a theme that appeals to the math geek in me, there are more than a few entries that just made me smile. I hope you enjoy it.

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