In other news, Eric Berlin has organized a big charity puzzle pack called Puzzles for Democracy. It’s designed to raise money for the government watchdog group Common Cause, and it features 51 puzzles of many different stripes (crosswords, variety puzzles, logic puzzles, cryptics, and more) from a team of constructors. That’s quite a collection, so check it out if you’re interested.
Five theme answers have circled letters, and each answer has its own revealer describing those letters. The twist is that the revealers are alphanumeric, so you get to write some digits in the squares.
- 23A: [North Hollywood Spa in Los Angeles, e.g.] is BATHHOUSE. It contains a circled H/H/O revealed by 101A: [Chemical formula for a liquid found in a 23 Across (and a description of its circled letters)] which is H2O. The 2 is crossed at 81D: [To be shared by a couple] which is FOR 2.
- 37A: [Bloom featured during an annual D.C. spring festival] is CHERRY BLOSSOM. The circled C/O/O is revealed by 35D: [Chemical formula for a compound absorbed by a tree bearing a 37 Across (and a description of its circled letters)] which is CO2, crossing 48A: [“Texas” dances] which is 2-STEPS.
- 57A: [Video game in which you place flora to defend against an undead horde] is “PLANTS VS. ZOMBIES.” The circled P/S/S/S is revealed by 42D: [Shortened name of a console for 57 Across (and a description of its circled letters)] which is PS3, a shortened name of the PlayStation 3. The 3 is crossed at 55A: [Final part of Act 5 in “Romeo and Juliet”] which is SCENE 3.
- 78A: [Metallica song with the lyric “I’m pulling your strings”] is “MASTER OF PUPPETS.” The circled M/P/P/P is revealed by 116D: [Potential audio file format for 78 Across (and a description of its circled letters)] which is MP3, crossing 125A: [Like the most prestigious Michelin-rated restaurants] which is 3-STAR. In all the years I’ve listened to MP3 files, I’ve never known that it stood for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3. That just leaves us with another abbreviation, MPEG, which apparently stands for Motion Picture Experts Group, but that’s not relevant for solving here. Moving on …
- 110A: [Danger to a computer network] is CYBERSECURITY RISK.” The circled Y/Y/K is revealed by 121D: [1999 tech scare believed to present a major 110 Across (and a description of its circled letters)] which is Y2K, crossing 124A: [Second phase] which is STAGE 2. I remember all those scary reports about how the Y2K bug was supposedly going to cause computers all over the world to crash and bring about technological doomsday. We sort of laugh about it now as the mega-disaster that wasn’t, although this December 2019 Post essay by Zachary Loeb suggests that there were real Y2K-related problems — it’s just that computer programmers addressed them quickly and successfully because they took measures to counteract Y2K well ahead of time.
This theme was actually an offshoot of last week’s “Forming a Bond” puzzle. I had the alphanumeric combo MI6 on my mind and I wondered if there were any phrases with an M followed by exactly six I’s, and ideally no stray M’s anywhere in between. The best ones were probably ADMINISTRATIVE DIVISION, AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT, and AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, but I decided to stick with a standard 21×21 puzzle rather than enlarge it to accommodate one of those.
Working with numbers in crossword answers can sometimes be a bit risky, not just because the digits are unexpected, but because it can be tricky to make them unambiguous in the crossing answers. For instance, there are several PlayStation consoles and if you’re not familiar with “Plants vs. Zombies,” it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the console is the PS2, PS3, PS4, or PS5. Here, though, the circled letters can give you a helping hand. Just count the one circled P and the three circled S’s in “PLANTS VS. ZOMBIES” and you’ve got your answer — it’s a game you can play on the PS3.
One funny spot where this strategy can go a bit wrong, though, is 78A. The answer is “MASTER OF PUPPETS,” but if you don’t know that 82D: [Little, in Italian] is POCO, you could end up with “MASTER OF MUPPETS” by mistake. That would make 116D a nonsensical M2P2, which doesn’t fit. In any event, here is a video that someone made to match up Metallica with the Muppets. Never let it be said that a mistake in a crossword can’t lead to great things.
Some other answers and clues:
- 46A: [Family furball] is PET and 3D: [Fir ball?] is ORNAMENT. I hadn’t planned this clue echo beforehand but I was happy to land on the pun for the ORNAMENT clue.
- 51A: [Plot that’s about 75 percent the size of a football field] is ONE ACRE. A football field covers 57,600 square feet, while one acre is equivalent to 43,560 square feet.
- 104A: [“Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and ___” (book by Andy Greenwald)] is EMO. I mentioned two weeks ago that I might consult this glossary to start finding new angles for EMO clues, and here we are. I just didn’t expect I’d consult it this quickly.
- 14D: [Exhibitionist athletic event] is UNDIE RUN. I’ve never taken part in one, but I’ve been waiting to drop this answer in a puzzle for a while now.
- 38D: [“___ on an Empty Street” (2004 Kings of Convenience album)] is RIOT. You really can’t go wrong with Kings of Convenience, in my opinion. Give “Homesick” and “I’d Rather Dance” a listen.
- 70D: [Reality show?] is TRUTH. Maybe one of the trickier clues today; you have to interpret “show” as meaning “display.”
- 86D: [Individual who governs alone] is MONOCRAT. This was a word I didn’t even know about until writing the puzzle. AUTOCRAT is a plausible (and more common) answer, but the crossing answers won’t allow it.
- 97D: [Fall guy?] is ICARUS. My favorite clue today.
Finally, I know that last week we had a meta, but I couldn’t resist — there’s another one coming up next week. I hope you enjoy it.