NYT Mini for Sunday, April 24, 2016

Constructor: Joel Fagliano

Relative Difficulty: Medium-Challenging

Theme: OBAMA Offspring — Obama's two daughters both appear in the grid, cross-referenced with Obama himself, thus:

  • MALIA — [6A: Daughter of 3-Down]
  • SASHA — [8A: Daughter of 3-Down]
  • OBAMA — [3D: 44th president]

Word of the Day: ACERB

a·cer·bic  (ə-sûr′bĭk) also a·cerb (ə-sûrb′)


1. Sour or bitter tasting; acid. See Synonyms at bitter, sour.
2. Sharp or biting, as in character or expression: "At times, the playwright allows an acerbic tone to pierce through otherwise arid or flowery prose" (Alvin Klein). (thefreedictionary.com)

This played slightly more difficult than it felt like it should have, for pretty much one reason only. SASHA and MALIA, as anyone who has done more than a few crosswords during the past seven years knows, contain the same number of letters AND share two letters in common AND are full of ultra-common letters. Thus we've all gotten used to encountering clues along the lines of "one of the Obama offspring", immediately tossing in A's at the 2nd and 5th position, and moving on without further hesitation. It's just a part of our lives now.

Due to its letter content, certainly, SASHA is slightly more common than MALIA (or perhaps more than slightly; Nate Silver hasn't done the analysis on that yet AFAIK), but I for one prefer to hedge my bets and leave the other three letters open. Surely, SURELY the constructor knew this, and thought it would be a cute little mindtrap around which to orchestrate a puzzle, and I guess on balance it more or less is, though it was slightly irritating in the moment. Anyway, immediately "knowing" three of the ten answers is, in this instance, not as helpful as you would otherwise think, given that exactly which daughter goes where is both epistemically and practically unknowable without getting at least one of the crosses in place. In retrospect, probably on balance an irritation that was more rewarding in the end than not, and makes this a successful puzzle. Barely.

IRISH [2D]  would appear to be an unfortunate technical failure. The clue, on my screen, reads "Word suggested by these emojis:", followed by the letters IE and a clover. It was inferable easily enough from just the clover but I was preoccupied by the mysterious IE. Going back over the puzzle after it was done I thought maybe there was a truncation issue at play here (as sometimes happens with the clues on my laptop screen, frustratingly). Usually if I zoom in or out on the page that fixes it, but not this time. I (ludicrously) thought maybe it was supposed to be "I B [clover]." Turns out, the IE was supposed to be an Irish flag symbol, and it displays correctly on the mobile version of the puzzle.

So....this is pretty disappointing. I realize the Mini is kind of aimed at the mobile market, and that it's free, so I probably shouldn't complain, but still, I wish the NYT would get its act together. If you can't ensure that a puzzle (including all of its clues) is going to display correctly on ALL of the platforms on which its offered than the puzzle really needs to be rewritten, or at least given a disclaimer. In fairness, I should note that, historically, display issues like this have run the the other way (that is, they affect the mobile version and NOT the browser version), and in the last few years they have gotten MUCH better at providing such disclaimers and, if necessary, giving mobile users a link to a PDF they can print out. So props for that, but that doesn't mean you should let things slide on the other end.

The other thing that made this thing a bit tricky was ACERB [4A: Sour-tasting]. Not a variation you hear often, at least outside of a poetic or literary context. Totally legit, just not the first thing that jumps to your mind, especially when it's clued in what appears to be a literal, tongue-oriented meaning like this. But that's fine. I'm down with it. Also, I've never ever heard of this particular CARA [5D: Actress/model Delevingne]. Not exactly an easy given name to infer, either. I'm looking at her IMDB page now, and I've seen precisely...zero of her films. Looks like she has only been acting since 2012. I might be inclined to call bullshit on this entry, if not for the fact that I have no concept of how famous she is as a model since I really have no interest or understanding of the whole modelling thing, so maybe it's just me.

Readers, please feel free to chime in on this one.

Signed, Jonathan Gibson, tongue-oriented meaning of CrossWorld