Which is harder to create from scratch?
At the New York Times, acrostics are those rectangular Second Sunday puzzles that appear on alternate weeks in the magazine. Most crossword solvers summarily ignore them but acrostics have a loyal, even fanatical following. The passion and, yes, smugness of the fans reminds me of those annoying people who drive electric cars. That naturally raises the question, which is harder to construct?
At first, building an electric car sounds difficult, but Elon Musk proved it’s a piece of cake. With exactly as much background in the automobile business as I have, he was able to put together a little roadster that some hail as the beginning of the end of the ICE age. ICE, as in Internal Combustion Engine. Here’s how he did it. Follow these same simple steps for your own electric vehicle.
Elon noticed right away that batteries are heavy so everything else had better be light. No problem. He found a French company willing to build some carbon fiber body panels that weigh next to nothing. Next, he convinced an English company to slap them together to make a car body, add some details like seats and a steering wheel, and then ship that shell (car nuts call it a glider) to California. Now all he needed were the bits to make the machine actually go – a battery and a motor. He had to build his motor himself, but how hard could that be? Make one about the size and shape of a watermelon and wrap it around the rear axel. Easy. There are about 10,000 parts found in normal cars that you don’t need.
The battery seems hard because there’s all that chemistry and stuff but stuff turns out to be the answer. Build a box and stick it right behind the seats. Then jam it full with 6,000 laptop batteries. That’s it. Finis. I have no idea what to do with all those battery-less laptops but perhaps you can sell them on Craig’s List. This video contains a few more details.
How do you know your car works? Jump into the driver’s seat, switch on the flux capacitor, and press the gas pedal. Hmm, we better call it the accelerator pedal. Take note of how long it takes you to reach 60 mph. If your stopwatch says 3.7 seconds, you’ve built a Roadster rival.
(I’m skipping over the part where you finance it all by starting PayPal first and then selling that for hundreds of millions of dollars.)
Making an acrostic
Acrostics, on the other hand, require a little more imagination. In case you’re not up on the art form, let me explain how it works. Each puzzle has up to 26 crossword-like clues. Maybe they’re more like cryptic crosswords clues. Most, I have to say, are hard. On the first pass through, you might only get one or two of them but don’t worry, that’s by design.
Each letter in each answer word maps to a specific location on a 8 by 27 grid that, when filled in, will contain a quote from a book. It’s laid out in such a way that you can see the word breaks but not the punctuation. (Hyphens are the exception, you see those.) You don’t even know where sentences end.
In a normal crossword, you can make progress two ways; by looking at Across clues or Down clues. That’s what puzzle insiders mean when they say that each square is checked – it’s part of two clues. Acrostic squares are checked too. There’s the 26 or so clues, but there’s also the quote. You make progress either by solving clues, or by looking at the quote and using sentence logic to guess likely letters. Lone squares are probably A or I, since those are the only one-letter words in English. (Careful, though, the quote might be designed to trick you!) T followed by H followed by one more letter is probably THE. And so on. The usual experience is that it’s a big struggle until you get a few consecutive quote words and then the puzzle tends to fall rather quickly after that.
So far all this sounds like an unusual but not necessarily magical experience. Ah, but here’s the kicker. There’s yet another check on some squares. If you read the first letters of each answer in order, it spells the author and name of the book the quote is from. Now we’ve gone from moderately impressive to completely amazing.
Can you see the problems for the acrostic constructor? First, you need a quote that’s the right length, close to but not exceeding 216 squares, including spaces. Not just any quote, though. It needs to be one that includes all the letters used to spell the author and title. This constraint alone means that most quotes you’d like to use are simply impossible. Then you need to scramble all the letters into words, each one starting with one of those author or title letters. (Remember, no more than 26 of them!) Then you need to come up with a set of brilliant clues.
If that isn’t amazing enough, there’s yet one more level to this magic trick. Often, many of those answer words or clues are related somehow to the theme of the quote.
Yikes. You’re better off trying to build an electric car.
How can I try one?
If you mean how can you try an electric car, they’re now easy to find. Everybody is making them now. Ask for a test drive.
If you mean acrostics, I can help you there. The downside of acrostics is that the paper-and-pencil method of transferring letters between answers and the quote grid is error-prone and, well, boring. Computers make it fun. The NYT website lets you do them online. My XWord Info site always lets you solve the most recent NYT acrostic here. Each Times acrostic is constructed by the brilliant team of Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon.
It turns out Hex, as they’re collectively known (for reasons that escape me) aren’t the only regular acrostic constructors. I also urge you to check out American Acrostics by Cynthia Morris. Click on “This Week’s Puzzle” to try one. The setup and constraints are slightly different but the central idea is identical. The over-arching theme is American History. That sounds like yet another big constraint but since Americans keep making more history, she’s unlikely to run out of material any time soon.
I no longer work for the New York Times but I’m often asked, ok I’m sometimes asked, ok I’ve been asked three times, if I’m still going to write my annual year-end wrap up of notable crossword achievements. Uh. Ok. Sure. Coming soon.