Across Lite and the New York Times: A Crossword Kerfuffle

How do you solve crosswords, fellow puzzler? Are you a pencil-and-paper solver, an app solver, an online solver?

There are lots of options for solvers, depending on which outlet you’re talking about.

Unfortunately for some fans of the New York Times crossword, there will soon be fewer ways to access the flagship crossword.

It was announced recently that the NYT will no longer be supporting Across Lite, a third-party file format that some solvers use to import the puzzle into their solving app of choice.

I’m not sure how many solvers use Across Lite — there are millions of daily solvers of the Times crossword — but the online reaction has been fairly negative. Both Crossword Twitter and r/crossword feature numerous posts from disillusioned solvers, including Dan Feyer, multiple-time ACPT winner, who considers this little more than a cash grab by the NYT. (He has gone on to explain his point in greater detail in further tweets.)

I have no doubt that the staff at the Times anticipated some kind of blowback. I mean, we’re puzzle people. Puzzlers, despite an incredible capacity to learn and adapt and suss out all sorts of puzzly solutions, can be set in our ways. We like what we like.

While sitting in with my friends at the Penny Dell Puzzles table at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament one year, I offered a woman a free pencil. She went on a three-and-a-half-minute diatribe about the inferiority of the pencil and what she views as appropriate qualities for a solving pencil. After she was done, I waited a few seconds and then said, “Miss, you don’t HAVE to take the pencil.”

Like I said, puzzlers like what they like.

Of course, I can see both sides of the argument. The Times is under no obligation to support non-NYT methods of using the puzzle. I mean, knowing how hard our programmers here at PuzzleNation work to make sure our puzzles are accessible across many platforms, I suspect the NYT has the same issues with their own puzzle distribution, let alone worrying about non-brand formats.

But then again, there are reasons third-party platforms exist. Several solvers with visual impairment issues claim that the official app lacks the functionality they need, and they prefer to solve through third-party apps.

That’s a gap that needs to be closed, and if the NYT won’t, someone else will. I know other apps are already being suggested or developed in the wake of this decision.

One big reason is comfort: solvers are hoping to avoid losing the solving style they prefer.

Others begrudge the NYT for being so proprietary and locking away their expansive library of puzzles behind services that they find unwieldly or unreliable.

I’m intrigued to see what happens in the weeks and months to come. Do other apps rise to prominence and fill the gap formerly served through Across Lite, or will the Times respond to the criticism by stepping back or updating their own platforms?

Either way, I’m sure crossword fans will have plenty to say about it.


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Bringing People Back to Puzzles After a Bad Solving Experience

About a month ago, we discussed crossword difficulty and how it can be daunting to get started in puzzles.

In that post, we shared Lloyd Morgan’s crossword difficulty matrix, a cart that allows new and unfamiliar solvers to seek out different venues based on their difficulty, ensuring they can ease into crosswords and not immediately get discouraged by a puzzle tougher than they’re ready for.

I mentioned the post to a friend of mine who isn’t terribly puzzle-savvy, and he asked, “But what about people who have already had bad experiences with crosswords and might be gun-shy about attempting them again, no matter what difficulty level is promised?”

And that’s a very fair question. How many folks do you know who try something once, and then never again after an unpleasant first encounter? I know several people who won’t touch logic problems because the grid is intimidating and they weren’t eased into the solving style. Cryptograms, Kakuro, puzzle hunts… all of them can be tainted for someone with one bad solving experience.

crisscross

You might think that crisscross-style puzzles (like the one above) would be less intimidating, since they don’t have the same dense grid surrounded by clues that crosswords have, but I’ve found that folks don’t warm to those quickly. No matter how well-constructed the crisscross, it tends to remind people of activity books for kids, and no one wants to feel patronized when trying out a new hobby or giving it another go.

I do have a suggestion, though. I’ve tried this with several friends and acquaintances who had sworn off crosswords entirely, and it not only introduced them to a new puzzle they didn’t know, but opened their eyes to the possibility of more puzzle-solving in the future.

My solution was: Fill-Ins.

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[A sample puzzle from our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles. Check out their fill-in library here!]

For the uninitiated, fill-ins utilize the same general grid style as a crossword. But instead of answering numbered clues to place the words in the grid, you’re already given the answer words, organized by word length. Your task is to place them all into the grid, using other words and letters in the grid to guide you.

Solving fill-ins helps remove the intimidation factor of crosswords in three ways.

1. No trivia or outside knowledge is required, which removes a huge burden from a solver who has probably felt overwhelmed by crossword cluing in the past.

2. It makes empty crossword grids less intimidating. Do you ever have those moments where you read three or four crossword clues in a row and you don’t immediately conjure up answers? And then you look at all those empty spaces in the grid and feel dumb? It happens. But fill-ins often have a set word to get you started, and once you start placing letters, recognizing useful crossings, and filling the grid, all that goes away.

3. Fill-ins help strengthen another skill valuable in crossword solving: letter-blank recognition. If you see B _ U _ , a regular solver instantly starts listing off possibilities: BOUT, BLUE, BLUR, BAUD, etc. But a new solver can look over at the four-letter words, scan the list, and see what fits, helping to build that mental lexicon for future solving.

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After solving a handful of fill-ins, word placement goes quicker, confidence in filling in those letter blanks increases, and empty grids become fields of potential puzzle fun, not stark empty spaces.

And honestly, it’s a pretty cool feeling to make puzzles enjoyable again for someone. When I get a phone call a month or so after introducing them to fill-ins, and they ask what other puzzles are out there, or where a good place to start with crosswords might be, that’s a win.

Then, of course, I direct them to Daily POP Crosswords. Because we’re the best. (And also to other puzzle outlets like our friends at Penny Press, of course.)

Do you have any suggestions for helping restore a love of puzzles to those previously burned, spurned, or disappointed, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Share them in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Themeless Crosswords Vs. Themed Crosswords?

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When you think of crossword puzzles, what comes to mind? The grid first, or maybe the clues? When you picture your default crossword, is it a themed puzzle or themeless?

I ask because something of a kerfuffle was sparked on Twitter over the weekend regarding themeless puzzles vs. themed puzzles, and as you might expect, fellow puzzler, I have thoughts on the subject.

So how did all this start? With a blog post by crossword reviewer Rex Parker.

If you’re unaware, Rex is a constructor in his own right, but is far better known in the crossword world for his curmudgeonly reviews of the New York Times crossword. He frequently makes fair points, but they can be lost amid his personal views regarding particular clues and entries. (Often, if he doesn’t know it, it’s obscure. Which is not the same thing at all.) He’s sort of a “you love him or you don’t” figure in the crossword sphere.

I genuinely believe his commentary, however inconsistent or caustic at times, comes from a sincere desire to be engaged, entertained, and wowed by the puzzles he is so clearly invested in. But again, sometimes he can’t see the forest for the trees, and when your brand is “guy who bellyaches about crosswords,” you often play into what people expect from you.

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[Now, to be fair, Rex is no Grandpa Simpson. But I simply couldn’t resist, given how he’s become synonymous with “grumpy fan who knows better than you.” And I’m so so very tired of gatekeeping fandom in general.]

And on Sunday, he carved into a Robyn Weintraub 21x themeless crossword with some serious vitriol:

This is very good for what it is, but unfortunately (for me), what it is is a Sunday themeless, and these are just never going to be interesting to me. As I’ve said before, it’s a giant (literally, giant! 21×21!) shrug. A Sunday-sized “we give up, here’s some stuff.” It’s too easy to be that interesting, and since the grid is so big, the construction doesn’t feel particularly special.

That is, yeah, you can get a lot of longish answers into a 21×21. There’s lots of room. I just don’t care as much as I ought to care. And today’s grid shape was really vanilla. No, wait, I like vanilla. A vanilla malt is the best thing in the world. Let’s call it “boilerplate” instead. It looks like a template of some kind. It’s a very clean grid, and many of the entries here are interesting, but the overall effect of said entries in a Sunday themeless is ho-hum.

There’s a reason the NYTXW didn’t do Sunday themelesses until, what, like two or three years ago? It’s because they’re a cop-out. I hear that some people enjoy them. I’m happy for them. For me, they’re a non-event. There’s no real low, no real high, just … middle middle middle. Time passes, and then the puzzle is done. Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest. Certainly, from a blogging perspective, this is much much worse, as there’s really hardly anything to say.

Wow.

Now, this post is not intended to be a burial of Rex and his opinions. Even though I wholeheartedly disagree with his dim view of his puzzle.

It’s worth discussing because I’m someone who didn’t initially get the appeal of themeless crosswords.

weintraub themeless

[Robyn’s thoroughly impressive Sunday themeless grid.]

I’ve always liked puzzles, and tried my hand at solving New York Times-level crosswords many times before I ended up as part of the puzzle world. Once I really immersed myself in themed puzzles, I quickly started to appreciate the amount of skill, creativity, and hard work that went into a satisfying themed crossword.

I was slower to come around on themeless puzzles. I liked figuring out the trick of a themed puzzle, and I didn’t give themeless puzzles much thought. Thankfully, friends of the blog Patti Varol and Keith Yarborough (both of whom also helped open my eyes to so many terrific puzzle outlets and constructors) encouraged me to solve themeless puzzles more.

And I started to see that you don’t need a theme to show off the same skill, creativity, and hard work that goes into a crossword.

As I said in my wrap-up of the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League (yeah, I went from never solving themeless crosswords to eagerly anticipating a two-month tournament full of them!):

I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

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And it’s disappointing that an influential voice in crosswords sees a themeless Sunday puzzle as a waste of time. (Constructor Eric Berlin has rightfully noted that Rex isn’t against all themeless puzzles, and has stated in the past that he often looks forward to the Friday themeless.)

Which makes it all the more strange that he’d choose to die on this particular hill. Robyn is a well-respected constructor, and her byline alone is a welcome sight for many puzzle fans, themeless or themed. The response online to this themeless puzzle was very positive overall; even in the comments section of Rex’s blog post, the majority of the responses celebrated Robyn’s themeless as a terrific solve.

I would argue that the occasional Sunday themeless puzzle is a good thing. Not only is it a nice break from the expected norm, but having puzzles the caliber of this one will bring more eyes to the merits of themeless crosswords in general.

The sheer variety in fresh, exciting, and thought-provoking grid entries alone makes them worthwhile. Themed puzzles are great, obviously, but they can also severely limit how interesting you can make the rest of the grid once the theme has been figured out.

Great constructors and engaging cluing can overcome that, but it’s a limitation that themeless crosswords simply don’t have. The fill is EVERYTHING, and that pushes constructors to be as creative as possible with their grid designs, the often ambitious crossings and stacks of long entries, and all that delightfully unexpected vocabulary.

Rex says, “Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest.”

I think you’ll find many solvers and constructors disagree. There’s as much beauty and value in a skilled themeless as there is in a deftly-constructed themed puzzle.

And to say a well-constructed themeless is on par with a “disastrous” themed puzzle is just ridiculous. Sure, for his brand, he gets more mileage taking apart a bad puzzle than discussing a good one, but a good solve and good blog fodder aren’t the same thing at all.

As I said before, you can learn a lot from Rex’s blog. Plenty of constructors have gleaned valuable lessons about theme entries, grid fill, and more from his critiques. But punching down against a particular style of crosswording benefits no one, particularly when it can easily be misconstrued as a shot against themeless puzzles in general..

Thank you, Robyn Weintraub, for a banger of a Sunday puzzle, and thank you, Evan Birnholz, for championing the cause of themeless crosswords (and bringing this to my attention.)

Do you enjoy themeless puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Need Crosswords Sorted by Difficulty? Look No Further!

A quick reminder before today’s blog post:

ThinkFun’s Cold Case: A Story to Die For is available for preorder today on Amazon and the ThinkFun website!

Click here to check out our spoiler-free review!


Getting into crosswords can be daunting for new puzzlers. Maybe you’ve solved the syndicated puzzle in your local paper, or you’ve downloaded one of those fabulous apps like Daily POP Crosswords, and you’ve enjoyed, but you’re looking to expand your solving horizons.

The New York Times crossword is well-known, for sure, but has an intimidating reputation as the flagship brand. You know other companies and newspapers have crosswords, but you’re just not sure where to start.

We’ve got good news for you on that front.

A constructor and crossword enthusiast named Lloyd Morgan has assembled what he calls the crossword difficulty matrix, and it’s a thoroughly impressive launchpad for new and inexperienced crossword fans to explore a lot of terrific puzzles and crossword venues.

[Click here for a larger version!]

He originally launched a version of the crossword difficulty matrix on Reddit, and then expanded and adapted it based on feedback from fellow solvers. His goal was to create a guide for new solvers that would help them find the right puzzles and difficulty rankings for their puzzly comfort level.

Not only does he cover major outlets like The New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Universal, but he also looped in Kings syndicated constructors like Joseph and Sheffer, plus some other outlets casual solvers might not even be aware of!

I haven’t really seen anything like this made available for enthusiastic solvers before, and I think he did a terrific job.

Then again, I’m not the savviest crossword solver around.

[Me, watching faster and more clever solvers posting their solve times.]

But I do know some pretty savvy cruciverbalists, so I reached out to some topnotch and experienced constructors and solvers and asked for their thoughts on the crossword difficulty matrix.

Wordplay blogger and brilliant crossword lady Deb Amlen thought it was a totally fair breakdown of puzzle difficulty, though she noted, “I still believe that if you asked 10 solvers about the difficulty of a puzzle, you will get 10 different answers.” TRUTH.

David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, thought the matrix was pretty accurate as well, though he suggested a few tweaks regarding “Universal (which has no increase in difficulty during the week for 15x15s, though the Sunday 21×21 is a bit more challenging) and maybe the Wall Street Journal (which I would consider a little easier in the early week).”

Looks like Deb’s prediction is already coming true.

I also reached out to constructor Doug Peterson, one of the most knowledgeable puzzlers in the game today, was also kind enough to offer his thoughts:

I don’t really know the Joseph & Sheffer puzzles, but I believe they’re easy, unthemed 13x13s, so light-green makes sense for those. And I think New York Magazine is Matt Gaffney, so that seems about right too. Yeah, this is well-done. I might tick up the Thursday NY Times a notch, but it varies from week to week.

He had some suggestions for other venues to include as well:

If folks are looking for something else at the Very Difficult/dark-red end of the scale, Fireball [Crosswords] sometimes gets there. They’re definitely a “red” venue. The Inkubator I’d put in that middle yellow/Wednesday area for their themed stuff. And AV Club is literally the entire range above “Very Easy.”

I did ask one or two other puzzlers, but they hadn’t had the chance to reply by press time, so we’ll probably revisit this topic in the future (especially if Lloyd offers an updated version).

But in the meantime, I want to give some well-deserved kudos to Lloyd for this marvelous resource for new solvers. Not only does it include a lot of terrific outlets, but it offers a terrific stepladder of difficulty for them to find ever-increasing challenges whenever they’d like!

Thank you to Lloyd, as well as the marvelous constructors and puzzly folks who offered their thoughts. You’re all part of a brilliant, vibrant, and welcoming crossword community.


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Ask a Puzzler: What’s your puzzly pet peeve?

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Originally this post was going to be a nitpicky little thing where I focused on one of my puzzly pet peeves.

But it occurred to me that this might not just be a pet peeve of mine. It might similarly irk other puzzle people I know.

I then reached out to some of the constructors I know to ask what their puzzly pet peeves are. And, as it turns out, there are lots of silly little things in crosswords and other puzzles that catch the ire of constructors and puzzle-minded folks.

So please join us as we kvetch and complain a little bit and let off some steam about one of our favorite pastimes.

Welcome to Ask a Puzzler: What’s one of your puzzly pet peeves?


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Constructor Joanne Sullivan:

The myth that solving in pen is the highest achievement.

Winners of the ACPT have told me that they never solve in pen. Almost all solvers (including the expert speed-solvers) use pencils at crossword tournaments. You could write a whole article on serious crossword solvers’ pencil preferences–wood vs. mechanical, .5 mm vs. .7 mm lead, disposable vs. refillable, etc.

When I’ve worked as a judge at crossword tournaments, I’ve been irked by solvers who solve in pen and then wrote over their original answers when they made mistakes because they couldn’t erase them. If they insist on using pens, at least they should use ones with erasable ink. Sloppy handwriting in tournament puzzles is also a pain for judges. What’s worse than mere sloppy handwriting is inconsistency. If a contestant always uses the same squiggle to represent a certain letter, it’s easier to determine their intent, but if they form the same letter different ways in different squares, it can be maddening for judges.


Washington Post Crossword editor Evan Birnholz:

A pet peeve of mine is the tendency to refer only to classical or Romantic-era music pieces when writing clues about keys (A MINOR, C MAJOR, etc). Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin are great, but there are other genres and musicians who used those keys, too.


Universal Crossword editor David Steinberg:

I’d say my puzzly pet peeve is when a crossword has too many cross-reference clues (like “See 19-Across”), since it’s always sort of frustrating to be sent all over the grid.


Constructor Doug Peterson:

Clues that want me to think the answer is a “good name” for a certain profession.

For example STU as a [Good name for a cook?] or SUE as a [Good name for a lawyer?]. OTTO for a chauffeur, OWEN for a debtor, PHILIP for a gas station attendant. The list goes on and on. I love third grade riddles as much as anyone, but for some reason these stick in my craw. =)

In my opinion, this sort of thing only works for pets. OREO is a great name for a black-and-white kitten!

oreo


Fireball Crosswords constructor Peter Gordon:

The best I can come up with is when someone feels the need to cross off the clue number after filling in the answer. Why bother doing that?

[PN Blog: I confess. I do this.]


Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen:

It took me a really long time to understand when there was a rebus element in a puzzle. I spent a lot of time cursing at my empty grid before I realized that something must be up.


Daily POP Crosswords constructor Robin Stears:

Puzzle books for little kids, particularly the ones in the dollar stores.

Very often, they’re nothing more than scaled-down grids with clues written for adults. And for some reason, they all contain the word ARIA, which I doubt children even know, unless Peppa Pig has a friend named Aria. I actually saw one with a Blackjack clue for ACE! Are these kids today playing poker on the playground? At my school, we didn’t learn how to count cards until the eleventh grade. 😉


Constructor Neville Fogarty:

My biggest pet peeve in the world of puzzles is actually in the world of cryptics — indirect anagrams! I can’t stand when a clue involves rearranging letters that you aren’t given. That’s just not fair; there are too many possibilities!

Fortunately, most publishers of cryptics edit these out, but I still see these on occasion from newer setters and indie sites. Yikes!


Oh, and what was the pet peeve that inspired this entry in the first place?

When people call things crosswords that aren’t crosswords.

I get it. You see a clued puzzle where words cross, and you think crossword. But it’s not. It’s a crisscross. It’s a perfectly valid puzzle, but it’s not a crossword.

Perhaps the most egregious example recently was featured on the Hallmark website page for the Crossword Mysteries series of films. They advertise a crossword tie-in to each show. And when you click on it, you get this:

crisscross

That’s not a crossword. And this happens all the time. a blog page or an activity book or a tie-in product related to some pop culture property, you’ll be told there’s a crossword to solve…

And you get a crisscross instead.

Several of my fellow puzzlers chimed in on this topic when I mentioned it as my example of a puzzly pet peeve.

Joanne Sullivan: Oh, don’t get me started! Criss-crosses being passed off as crosswords are bad enough, but I think it’s even worse when clueless designers try to emulate real crosswords but make all kinds of mistakes like lack of symmetry, noncontiguous white squares, unchecked squares, and worst of all, nonsensical numbering. I can’t stand it when fake crosswords in cartoons or fabrics have numbers thrown in them willy-nilly.

Robin Stears: Dang it, you stole my pet peeve. I was just complaining to someone the other day about a book cover with a pseudo-crossword grid that wasn’t really a crossword puzzle at all!

Oh, and puzzle books for kids very often try to pass off criss-crosses as crosswords, too. It’s not just Hallmark — that new People crossword game is not a crossword either. Six words that vaguely overlap do not a crossword puzzle make, and you can quote me on that.


Did you enjoy this fun little venting session, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below, and we might do another Ask a Puzzler post in the future! (But not too often. I don’t want them to start dreading emails from me.)

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Happy (Inter)National Puzzle Day!

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It’s National Puzzle Day, also known as International Puzzle Day, depending on where you are and whether your puzzly activities extend across borders.

Maybe your puzzly Zoom group spans several countries. Maybe you and a friend are using remote-controlled robots to play Jenga. Maybe you’ve gotten hooked on Polish crosswords you’re solving through Google Translate. These are some of most common international ways to enjoy puzzling, of course. I’m sure you have plenty of additional suggestions.

But whether your Puzzle Day is National or International, we have some fun puzzly events and information to share with our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

The first is that tomorrow marks the latest virtual puzzle event being hosted by the ever-inventive Boswords crew. After the wild success that was the Fall Themeless League, they’re hosting a one-day puzzle event on Sunday, the Winter Wondersolve.

Participants will have four puzzles awaiting them — three themed crosswords and a themeless — designed by top-notch constructors, and it’s only $20 to compete live! (If you just want to solve the puzzles outside the tournament, that’s only $10!)

Considering how terrific both the 2020 Boswords tournament and the Fall Themeless League were, I’m expecting a great day of puzzling from the Winter Wondersolve.

Speaking of puzzly events, the long-awaited fourth installment in the Crossword Mysteries series is debuting on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries on Sunday, February 14th at 8 PM Eastern.

And what would be more perfect for Valentine’s Day than a crossword-themed murder mystery about an elevator accident entitled Terminal Descent?

Exactly.

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Of course, the easiest way to celebrate your (Inter)National Puzzle Day is to solve with us! Whether you enjoy crosswords, Sudoku, word seeks, or story-driven puzzling, we’ve got you covered with the click of a button!

Names like Normal Mailer, Mike Mussina, Beverly Sills, Neil Patrick Harris, and many more are proud puzzle fans, so I thought I’d whip up a quick little puzzle about famous crosswords solvers.

Below is a list of eight names.

As you can see, there are letters missing from each name. Coincidentally, those missing letters spell out the phrase CELEBRITY CROSSWORD ENTHUSIASTS.

Can you place the letters in the correct spots to reveal this octet of puzzle-solving celebs?

Good luck and happy solving!


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