Interesting article about a plagiarism scandal in the crossword world which you can find on Nate Silver's website fivethirtyeight.com here. It's the perfect sort of story for the wonky statistic type of journalism that site has perfected. The evidence is pretty strong, especially seeing the examples cited. Having done some 700 puzzles over the last two years, I definitely am impressed by the ability to avoid duplication of theme, and perhaps even more by the ability to craft new clues. Just to be clear, the scandal does not implicate the NYT; rather it is puzzles like these that have been plagiarized.
On to today's puzzle. How do Will Shortz and Joel Fagliano decide whether a themeless will be a Friday or a Saturday offering? Is there an algorithm which determines difficulty? Obviously, your mileage will vary from grid to grid. Certain composers' styles resonate more cleanly with my solving mindset, so it must be an imperfect science.
That being said, I thought yesterday's puzzle was more of a Saturday difficulty, and today's more of a Friday difficulty. The most clear evidence of that is in the relative solving times: today I was six minutes faster! But what is it that made it so much more straightforward for me?
It started at 1A: Like a drumhead (TAUT) - I give this a B-. The answer seems like it could be nothing else, really, in four letters anyway. ARNE Duncan was also a gimme. 2D: Body undergoing desertification (ARALSEA) took only a few seconds to interpret. So, in under a minute, I had the NW filled in, along with MENNONITE leading out into the center. ILOVELA was a rational guess.
In fact, I thought I might be under 10 minutes for this puzzle, but it got more complex pretty quickly. Probably putting in gaspS at 9D: Reacts to a bombshell (REELS) hurt somewhat. I couldn't get IMBRUE even with the ____UE in place. But when I got PETERFALK (nice to have his whole name there), it led all the way into the SE corner. I liked 38A: Bush native to the South (JEB). Only where was the exclamation point?
I managed to open up the SW corner by getting 34A: Husky fare? (TAMALE), referring to the corn husk that is usually the container for the food. I had wanted kibbLE at first, but that's a little too straightforward for the appended question mark. Not to mention that it was wrong.
It's a nice triple stack of 10-letter answers in the SW. I like 56A: Try to win hands down? (ARMWRESTLE) the best. That's a fine entry. It was also around this time that I finally figured out 7D: Quiet after the storm, maybe (SILENTTREATMENT). I really love both the clue and answer here.
I also like the triple stack in the NE, only 5A: "Forget about it!" (NOSIREEBOB) doesn't seem quite right. I would say "not a big deal", or "no worries". 16A: What may hold a body of evidence? (CRIMESCENE) is my favorite in this puzzle. I wanted maybe a morgue, but this is probably a little more tasteful.