And here we are with the electrifying conclusion to '15: a guest puzzle by AVXW editor Ben Tausig. Everybody here is already an AVXW subsriber, right? What's that? You're not? You're telling me you come to this here site and you don't subscribe to debatably the best indie puzzle out there? For shame. Click on that link and rectify that. Then solve Ben's puzzle. Okay? Okay.
I had a quick chat with Ben and this is what went down.
BEQ: So what the heck is going on today?
Ben: I consolidated a monopoly ... on Monopoly puzzles. Or a mini-monopoly, anyway. For one day. I have the Times puzzle, the AVCX, Buzzfeed, and the BEQ guest spot. All of them are distinct themes timed to the 80th anniversary of Monopoly's patenting on the last day of 1935.
In the world of crosswords, a lot of the obvious ideas, and even the less obvious ones, have been spoken for by now. The bar for doing something original can thus be high. I noticed this anniversary a while ago, and saw an opening for a meta joke of a kind that hadn't been done before, to my knowledge. For solvers who just do one of the puzzles, each works fine on its own. But for the small but dedicated group of solvers finishing multiple puzzles a day, there's an Easter egg.
That was the main impetus, just doing something original that, on one hand, would be hard to replicate because of the amount of work it took, but on the other, didn't throw its own elegance in the way of the solver (as can sometimes happen with novelty constructions, which are the progressive rock of the puzzle world!), and offered fun above all.
A secondary impetus was to sneak politics into the crossword through a backdoor. I don't mean politics in the sense of like, cluing SAX as "Clinton blows it" (which BTW I actually think was a cool moment via Bob Klahn), or of subjecting people to some kind of hot take. It's broader than that. Monopoly, in my experience, is a failure of a game, something you play when you're a kid expecting it to be fulfilling when in fact it's mostly miserable and one-sided. There's something familiar about that to anyone who's ever run a business. You want to do well, and it can of course be rewarding, but ambition carries risks. When you're not profiting, there's a tendency to feel inadequate. And even when you are profiting, there's a tendency to feel like it's never good enough, if you could only make 10% more each month, THEN you could REALLY ... and on it goes.
BEQ: Was it tough to come up with more than one Monopoly puzzle?
Ben: The four puzzles are each written in different voices relative to the system that generates these feelings.
The BEQ guest puzzle is written in the voice of ambition, of shooting for the moon, of buying in without any doubt. The AVCX, meanwhile, is the voice of skepticism, of dissent. But it's mired in contradiction. Finally, the Buzzfeed and Times puzzles are voices of abstention that seek a path out of the ambition/dissent binary through entertainment. They're distractions, each in their own generational way.
At different times in my life I speak in and live through each of these four voices. I wanted to put them all in conversation.
BEQ: I'm under the impression that Monopoly exists only to have promotional tie-ins. "Star Wars Monopoly" say. Hey there's an idea: "AVXW Monopoly."
Ben: I'll get Erik Agard and Aimee Lucido on it.
BEQ:How do you see the state of indie puzzling going into the '16?
Ben: I think things are very healthy, by which I mean that there are more good puzzles than I can keep up with. I'm delighted about the well-deserved moments of legitimacy for folks like Evan Birnholz at the Post. Gaffney, somehow, continues to up the ante. Francis Heaney continues to quietly make the case for crosswords as art. Plenty of people operating at a high level. There's been an uptick in POC and female constructors that feels like a lot of hard work to be inclusive, by some key people, starting to pay off. I feel enormous enthusiasm about a handful of young kids and their brilliant work.
At the same time, I think it would be appropriate for the indie world to do some outreach this year. I firmly believe that there are 10, 20, 100,000 casual solvers out there who would do indie puzzles if they knew about them. A lot of folks aren't connected to the blogs, to the community, and they'll only find us if we advertise. I'd like to see a collective effort of that sort.
BEQ: You teach ethnomusicology as your day job. Talk to me a little bit about that.
Ben: I'm an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University. As with most tenure-track research jobs, my work is roughly half teaching and half research. I teach a 200-student lecture on the history of rock music, and a smaller seminar to graduate students. I love each in their own way. My research focuses on music and protest, and for now I'm focused geographically on Thailand, where I've spent substantial time, and which is the subject of my book-in-progress. I do a lot of reading and a lot of listening, the former primarily on the topic of sound and the latter as widely as possible.
BEQ: How's the kids?
Ben: Great, man. Julius is 3.5 and a raging inferno of imagination. Mae is 15 months and the nicest person I know.
BEQ: As a life-long Cleveland sports fan, what are you looking forward to most: Cavs losing to the Warriors in the Finals in 6 or the Browns wasting their draft pick?
Ben: Both teams are inept. The Cavs' window for a championship has, I'm pretty sure, been sealed tight by Golden State's offense. Not that they could beat the Spurs in the finals either. They're not a bad team, of course, but they're still underachieving, and LeBron keeps celebrating birthdays. I expect to grow old without seeing a Cleveland championship. The tragedy of the Browns is the sole reason I can keep even vaguely paying attention to football, which regards its athletes as castrati. From gutting balls to jostling brains for our own delirious pleasure, that's the evolution of western civilization in a capsule. Sorry what was the question?