It’s Well Past Time to Speak Up.

Hey folks, I know you come to this blog for puzzles and games content, so I’m going to kick off with that. But please keep reading, because there are bigger things to discuss. Thanks.


dover protest

[A couple of protesters dance their way through the streets of downtown Dover on June 4. Image courtesy of Andre Lamar, Dover Post.]

There is a lot of discussion in the United States right now about discrimination and systemic prejudice. The puzzles and games industry is not immune to this sort of criticism.

Thankfully, just as puzzle and game companies have not been immune to accusations of discrimination, they’re also not outside the scope of grassroots efforts to reform them.

Wizards of the Coast is being confronted about racist imagery and ideas in the Magic: The Gathering card game and their offices. Systemic racism and sexism in the offices of Cards Against Humanity is being called out. People of color took a stand against GAMA’s silence regarding Black Lives Matter, triggering a mass walkout of presenters and panelists, as well as Origins Online being cancelled in the wake of the scandal.

People are speaking up, and that is a very good thing.

There are so many ways to show your support, so many charities and good causes you can donate to.

If you need a puzzly incentive to do so, our friends at Lone Shark Games are offering a downloadable bundle of Marching Bands puzzles in support of Campaign Zero, which works to end police brutality in America.

The folks at DM’s Guild and DriveThruRPG have also put together game bundles in support of Black Lives Matter, the National Police Accountability Project, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, all while spotlighting the work of black creators.

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The real message is… no matter what you do or how you live your life, you simply cannot turn a blind eye to all this.

This blog post started out with the simple idea of sharing these worthwhile causes and talking about the puzzle/game groups that have spoken up.

But to do that without acknowledging the realities of WHY they’re speaking up is irresponsible and cowardly.

America Protests West Hollywood

[LGBTQ community members join Black Lives Matter protesters holding signs and chanting slogans on an intersection in West Hollywood, California on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Image courtesy of AP Photo/Richard Vogel.]

It’s a tumultuous time in world history, particularly in the United States.

As the COVID-19 crisis still looms large over the entire planet, hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of people have taken to the streets in support of people of color and in protest against police brutality, corruption, and systemic racism.

The spark started by the death of George Floyd caught fire, and has ignited powder keg after powder keg, each one filled with years’ worth of names of previous victims, ranging from Philando Castile to Breonna Taylor to Tony McDade. Energized pushes for accountability and reform are gaining traction, and new support systems are emerging to combat the entrenched prejudices in law enforcement and government. All of it centers around three words, a simple truth that hasn’t been treated as either simple or true: Black Lives Matter.

These discussions and protests have also sparked further outrage regarding the treatment of women by police, whether it’s outright violence against women or perceived systemic unwillingness or disinterest to investigate charges of sexual assault. Women’s reproductive autonomy and freedom to make informed choices have been under assault for years, but since the current president took office, those indignities have magnified.

At the same time, the battle for equal rights and representation of LGBTQIA+ individuals rages on. June is Pride Month, and as rainbow flags begin to permeate corporate advertising, the LGBTQ population in general (and nonbinary and trans people in particular) continue to face open harassment and dismissal. Influential public figures like J.K. Rowling challenge the very validity of their existence, marginalizing individuals simply for being brave enough to be themselves.

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[From the Seattle protests on Capital Hill. Image courtesy of Capital Hill Seattle Blog.]

I have endeavored to keep this blog apolitical, ignoring as best I can the news stories of the day to focus on puzzles and games. It’s meant to be an escape for the most part, though I have in the past commented on cultural insensitivity in crosswords, pushed for greater diversity among constructors, and tried to be an ally by spreading the word about projects like Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and The Inkubator.

But silence is consent, a glaring example of the privilege to “stay out of it,” a privilege many people don’t have the luxury of.

And I don’t consent to this.

I could make some insipid metaphor about how crosswords don’t work without both black and white squares, or that the joy of solving puzzles is for everyone.

But I’d rather just say it like this: Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. LGBTQIA+ people matter.

Whether they’re family, friends, coworkers, or strangers, they matter. They have a right to be themselves, to be heard, to be treated as equals, to walk without fear, to enjoy the same privileges and creature comforts everyone else does.

People are out there right now, donating their time, money, and energy to fix problems that have been ignored for way too long. Some of them are putting their lives in danger by doing so.

There are many ways to help. But the very first place to start is to declare yourself an ally. Speak up, loudly and often.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.


But I want to do more than just declare my support. I want to educate myself. I want to help educate others. I want to reach out in a puzzly way that helps build this community.

So today I’m posting the first in an ongoing series of puzzles on important social topics. I do this in the hopes that people will not only enjoy the puzzles, but learn from them and engage with subjects they may be unfamiliar with.

June 19th is fast approaching, and it marks an important milestone in Black history. It marks the date in 1865 that enslaved men and women in Texas were finally informed that they were free.

Yes, more than two years after Lincoln first issued his executive order, Major General Gordon Granger and a group of Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, to finally share this important news.

You can read more about June 19th here, and hopefully the puzzle below serves as some small incentive to keep learning.

pn pt puzzle 1-2 image

[Click this link to download a PDF of this puzzle.]

If you have suggestions for more topics for me to cover in future puzzles, please let me know. If you’re a person of color and you’d like to share a puzzle of your own, or to collaborate with me on a puzzle, please let me know.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you have ideas, please let me know. If you’re a trans person, or a non-binary individual, and you feel underrepresented in puzzles, please let me know.

I would like this to become something bigger, but hopefully, this is at the very least a start.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for standing up, speaking up, and fighting the good fight.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.

How Far Crosswords Have Come (and How Much Farther They Have to Go)

Problem-solving-crossword

The battle to decrease gender inequality and increase representation in crosswords is ongoing. More people than ever are speaking up on behalf of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ constructors, and non-binary individuals when it comes to who is constructing the puzzles (and being properly credited), as well as how members of those groups are represented by current grid entries and cluing.

Natan Last is one of many people standing up to make crosswords better, more inclusive, and more emblematic of a richer melting pot of solvers and constructors. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Last neatly encapsulates both the movement for a more inclusive crossword publishing community and the many obstacles that stand in its way.

He starts with a single example — a debut puzzle by a female constructor, Sally Hoelscher — and the conversation that ensued when one puzzle aficionado asked about the ratio of women’s names to men’s names in the puzzle.

becoming

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

Originally there were no men’s names. One entry was edited in. And a discussion about parity in puzzles followed.

Last uses this example as a springboard into the greater argument about how modern crossword editing (and editors) discriminate through gatekeeping under the guise of what’s “familiar” or “obscure.”

From the article:

Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

kondo

[Image courtesy of CNBC.]

But what is kept out is only part of the problem, of course. Last goes on to mention many of the same insensitive and offensive clues and entries we (and other outlets) have cited in the past.

He caps off this part of the article by highlighting Will Shortz’s responses to these troubling questions:

But when prodded about insensitive edits, he denied them, adding: “If a puzzlemaker is unhappy with our style of editing, then they should send their work elsewhere (or publish it themselves to keep complete control).”

A pretty damning statement, to be sure.

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Turning away from the problems represented by the most famous daily crossword in the world, Last pivots, turning a spotlight on those who are helping turn the tide in terms of representation and inclusivity.

He shouts-out well-respected and innovative editors like Erik Agard (of USA Today‘s crossword), David Steinberg (of Andrew McMeel Universal’s Puzzles and Games division), and Liz Maynes-Aminzade (of The New Yorker crossword), heaping praise on a fresh constructor-editor partnership that encourages new voices and greater diversity of content.

Last also mentions worthy projects like the Inkubator, Women of Letters, and Queer Qrosswords, as well as the Women’s March crossword movement inspired by the work of Rebecca Falcon.

Across the entire article, Last highlights a system problem in crosswords, challenges those responsible to do better, and praises those who are working for the greater good. And he does so in about a dozen paragraphs. That’s all. It’s efficiency and flow worthy of a top-notch constructor.

You should read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.


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Crossword Tournament From Your Couch Recap!

ctfccouch

This past weekend was supposed to be the 43rd year of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but that event was postponed due to the ongoing public health crisis.

But something amazing arose from the ashes of those plans. A small, intrepid group of puzzlers worked night and day for more than a week, bringing an at-home crossword tournament to life: Crossword Tournament From Your Couch. (AKA #CouchWord on Twitter.)

And in doing so, they hosted the biggest crossword tournament in history. According to the Google scoresheet, more than 1,800 solvers took part in the event (with at least 1,300 tackling ALL of the puzzles).

Over the course of a few hours, and thanks to the Herculean efforts of a hard-working few, the puzzle community came together for an afternoon of fun, frivolity, and frantic puzzle-solving.

Oh, and in this recap, I will be discussing the tournament puzzles somewhat, so if you want to remain completely unspoiled, stop reading here. (Or better yet, click here to solve the puzzles for yourselves!)


Before I get into the event itself, I want to highlight the folks who made it all possible.

The initial idea belongs to Kevin Der, who put out the rallying cry to fellow puzzlers. He ran the tech side of the event alongside Finn Vigeland, coordinating each puzzle’s release, the overlapping livestreams, and the live-solving finals.

livestreampic2

Hosting duties were ably carried out by Ryan Hecht and Brian Cimmet, who kept the energy light, made sure the participants were well-informed, and even interviewed fellow constructors and event organizers in the downtime between tournament puzzles.

The tournament puzzles — 4 tournament puzzles, 1 championship playoff puzzle, and 2 warm-up puzzles — were constructed by Byron Walden, Rachel Fabi, Joel Fagliano, Robyn Weintraub, Patrick Blindauer, Finn Vigeland, Laura Braunstein, and Jesse Lansner.

Jeremy Horwitz, Natan Last, and Ellen Ripstein were credited as test-solvers, and Jeff Davidson, Stephanie Yeung, and Vincent Siao were credited as tech support/magic gurus.

The Inkubator was credited as tournament sponsor.

Assembling and running this event was a monumental, complex undertaking, and my sincerest appreciation and utmost respect (and AWE) goes out to everyone involved in making CTFYC possible.


catpuzzle

[Image courtesy of @ladywinifredcat.]

So, how did the tournament itself go?

Well, participants logged into the website and selected one of three divisions in which to compete:

  • The Chesterfield Division (for individuals who in the past few years have finished in the top 20% of a major crossword tournament)
  • The Futon Division (for all other individual participants)
  • The Love Seat Division (for two participants who want to solve together)

Upon logging in, a warm-up puzzle created by Robyn Weintraub awaited solvers. “Get the Pillows Ready” allowed solvers to get familiar with the online solving interface and start getting in a tournament mindset.

tournamentpuzzlepage

The tournament itself was set to begin at approximately 1 PM with the livestream of Ryan and Brian, our amiable emcees who covered the rules, other tournament info, and so on.

The livestream was warm and welcoming, and the accompanying chat area was packed with new faces as well as familiar puzzlers. The usual suspects from ACPT were all there, alongside constructors, puzzle enthusiasts, and top-notch solvers. It was genuinely heartwarming to see so many names I recognized from the puzzle world participating.

livestreampic

Soon, a second warm-up puzzle became available — Rachel Fabi’s “Put Your Feet Up” — a small, Saturday mini-sized puzzle that still managed to be tricky. (And I personally loved the Fleabag reference.) It was a great way for solvers to get their pre-tournament juices flowing AND served to ensure that all of the tech was working for the organizers.


From the livechat:

“Changed my system font to Papyrus so that I could win Worst Handwriting.” — Neville Fogarty


yellowfolder

[Image courtesy of @vickieastus.]

The first tournament puzzle was scheduled for 1:30ish, and to the credit of the organizers, we only started a few minutes late.

Puzzle #1, “Hollywood Ending” by Joel Fagliano, was a 15x puzzle with a 15-minute time limit.

In all, it was a really fun starter with a good hook — entries that end with items found on a Hollywood set, a la JAVASCRIPT. I got stuck in the upper right corner for about two minutes, because I didn’t want to make a mistake, but doing so slowed me down considerably.

With the online solving, results were tabulated much faster than you’d expect from past tournaments, so you could view the leaderboard and see who was on top quite quickly.

At the end of puzzle 1, many of the usual suspects were on top, along with rookie (and bewilderingly constructor) Will Nediger:

leaderboardafterpuzzle1

After solving, competitors were welcome to return to the livestream chat and treat the chatroom like the lobby at the ACPT, sharing thoughts and commiserating on their solves.

Puzzle #2, “Raise the Roof” by Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner, was a 17x puzzle with a 25-minute time limit.

This puzzle had a solid punny hook, phrases where the letter T became P, so you had PICKLE ME ELMO instead of TICKLE ME ELMO. This was accompanied by great fill, although some were tougher entries (like SEZ WHO and NEOPET). I made one dumb mistake, leading to my only error of the tournament, but otherwise, I enjoyed the puzzle.

(I also enjoyed the conversation about The Westing Game in the livestream chat kicked off by the entry RASKIN.)

leaderboardafterpuzzle2

Errors by Dan Feyer and Erik Agard opened up a few spots in the top 15, so at least I was in good company with my own error.

At this point, players were invited to take a break before the next two puzzles. The tentative time for that was around 3 PM.

As I surfed the livechat during the break, the feedback for the tournament was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone was enjoying the communal puzzling, and compliments for both the constructors and organizers were plentiful.


From the livechat:

“Yeah, the bad news for the organizers is that this is working so well we’re all going to come to expect it now. :)” — Steve Thurman


Before Puzzle #3, Brian and Ryan had video interviews with Joel, Laura, and Jesse about their puzzles. It was a very cool touch to hear the constructors talk about the origins of each puzzle and how they ended up in the tournament. More of this in the future, please!

joellaurajesse

[Image courtesy of @tinmanic.]

Soon, we were back, and it was time for the second half of the tournament.

Puzzle #3, “Look Up” by Patrick Blindauer, was a 15x puzzle with a 30-minute time limit. So everyone was expecting some trickery afoot.

Blindauer didn’t disappoint, naturally, offering up a clever hook that took entries in a different direction, mixed with lots of long crossings which made getting into the puzzle difficult. All in all, it was a worthy tournament puzzle.

leaderboardafterpuzzle3

I managed to capture this screengrab of the top 15 after Puzzle 3 before the leaderboard went down. As you can see, the blistering speed of Erik Agard and Dan Feyer had them back in the top 15.

Yes, we managed to break the leaderboard on Google Sheets at this point. (This just made the design for the solving interface even MORE impressive, because it never broke down, even with more than a thousand solvers using it at the same time.)

I was ranked 292 after Puzzle 3, which I felt pretty good about.


From the livechat:

“Hmm, I can play the ‘where would I be if not for the silly error’ game.” — GP Ryan


After a short break, the final puzzle of regular tournament play was upon us.

Puzzle #4, “Naysayers Only” by Finn Vigeland, was a 19x puzzle with a 40-minute time limit.

This was a strong finisher for the tournament, combining clever cluing with a tough theme where the clues referred not to the answers you filled in, but to what the answers became if you followed the rule in the revealer GET OUT THE VOTE. (For instance, you filled in the answer VAMPIRE SLAYER, but the clue “Camera for a photo shoot with Dracula, in brief?” referred to VAMPIRE SLR, since you would remove “AYE” when you get out the vote.)

Yeah, I completed the grid first and had to go back and reread the grid and clues to actually understand the theme.

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Going into the live playoff final, the top 15 reshuffled a bit. (The board was constantly updating. At one point, I was ranked 283, then 312, then 314. I stopped checking there, because I’m a nerd for Pi.)


From the livechat:

“Shout out to the 11 Davids who are ahead of me in the rankings. Watch your backs.” — David Whyte


After Puzzle #4, Brian and Ryan attempted to interview Patrick, but that didn’t go so well, because the audience couldn’t hear Patrick. The interview with Finn went much better.

Then they announced the finalists for each division who would be participating in the live playoffs.

In the Chesterfield Division, it would be Paolo Pasco, David Plotkin, and Tyler Hinman.

In the Futon Division, it would be Will Nediger, Jason Juang, and Ricky Liu, the top three rookies.

As the top 3 competitors in each division were “sequestered” during the prep for the live playoffs, the playoff puzzle was released for non-finalists to enjoy.

The playoff puzzle, “Couch Your Words” by Byron Walden, was a themeless 15x puzzle with a 15-minute time limit. It also had two sets of clues: the difficult Chesterfield set, aka the A level clues, and the somewhat easier Futon set.

I looked at the Chesterfield clues, but I quickly bailed to try the Futon set. And honestly, even with the Futon Division clues, I found the puzzle pretty tough with ALL the long crossings. As you’d expect from Byron, it was a terrific, well-constructed grid, a very worthy choice to close out the day’s events.


From the livechat:

“Puzzle 5 in this tournament is so hard it doesn’t exist.” — Natan Last


The Futon Division solvers went first, and the three rookie solvers acquitted themselves well.

futonlivescreamfinalsbetter

[Image courtesy of @tinmanic.]

Each solver’s time was linked to when they clicked “Start” and when they clicked “I’m done”, so you couldn’t immediately tell who won based on who finished first, because with the livestream lag, it was hard to tell who started first.

In the end, Will completed the puzzle in 4 minutes flat, Jason wasn’t far behind with 4:48, and Ricky closed out the trio with 6:20. Impressive efforts all around!

There were a few more technical issues before the Chesterfield Division playoffs could begin but eventually the tech team got things sorted and the main event started.

During both the prep and the solving, Brian and Ryan interviewed Byron about the finale puzzle and about constructing and cluing in general. It was a terrific bonus mini-seminar on puzzling!

Finally, all was ready and the top three solvers took center stage.

chesterfieldlivestreamfinals

The final was over in less than six minutes.

Tyler, as you might expect from the five-time champ, blasted through the grid, completing it in 4:07. Paolo wasn’t far behind with 4:41, and David, a perennial top finisher, closed out the trio with 5:57.

Again, we had to wait for the official times due to lag, but it was worth the wait.


Here are your Crossword Tournament From Your Couch results:

  • Chesterfield Division: Tyler Hinman, Paolo Pasco, David Plotkin
  • Futon Division: Will Nediger, Jason Juang, Ricky Liu
  • Love Seat Division: Sam Ezersky and Madison Clague, Justin Werfel and Marta Herschkopf, Mike Berman and unnamed partner

After announcing the winners and finalists — and giving another well-deserved shout-out to all of the organizers and folks who made the marvelous event possible — the livestream chat was left running so that participants could talk and enjoy a virtual happy-hour mixer.


From the livechat:

“Anyone else never been to ACPT or Lollapuzzoola, but getting an itch to go after today??” — Josh Beu Forsythe


Even if it hadn’t been the biggest crossword tournament in history, Crossword Tournament From Your Couch would still have been a fantastic success.

More than just a tremendous stand-in for ACPT, CTFYC brought together established puzzlers and newbies for an afternoon of much-needed distraction. (According to the organizers, it was the first tournament for more than 1200 of the participants!)

Thank you once again to everyone involved in this brilliant endeavor. What a treat it was.

myresults


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A Women’s March for Crosswords

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For years now, we’ve been discussing the gender gap in crossword construction and representation of women in published outlets. Heck, in 2018, we even shared detailed statistics on the percentage of women published by major outlets, thanks to the research of Patti Varol and Erik Agard.

Since then, we’ve seen projects like The Inkubator and Women of Letters highlighting female constructors, and there’s been a concentrated effort in the puzzle community (if not the major outlets) to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

And this month in particular has seen three different projects dedicated to female constructors come to fruition. Although many voices have been involved in these efforts, a huge chunk of the credit definitely belongs to constructor Rebecca Falcon, who pushed for outlets to publish only female constructors for an entire month.

The goal? A Women’s March.

The Wall Street Journal sought to meet Falcon’s request, but they didn’t have enough submitted puzzles to do so. They did do a week of female-constructed puzzles, though, including the traditional Friday contest puzzle with a meta solution, constructed by Joanne Sullivan.

Users of The New York Times Crossword app can also enjoy the fruits of these creative labors, as a Women’s History Month pack of 20 puzzles is available through both the App Store and Google Play as an in-app purchase! This project, accomplished in partnership with The Inkubator, features puzzles by Rebecca Falcon, Joanne Sullivan, Stella Zawistowski, Wendy L. Brandes, Rachel Fabi, Juliana Tringali, Annemarie Brethauer, Martha Jones, Wyna Liu, and Mary Lou Guizzo.

And it should come as no surprise that the ambitious and well-connected David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, succeeded in amassing the talent necessary for a full Women’s March.

As David said in the FB post announcing the project:

Each of the 36 Universal Crosswords this month has been constructed by a different woman or pair of women, and—to my knowledge—10 of the puzzles will be their constructors’ world debuts! Some of the puzzles’ themes are easy, some are a bit tricky, and a few are unlike anything I’ve seen in all my years of editing. One thing I noticed across all the March puzzles, though, was a refreshing woman-centric voice, both in the clues and grids.

Women’s March will continue into April for a few days, since so many women submitted excellent puzzles that the original 36 slots I’d allocated weren’t enough. As I see it, this event is not so much a Women’s March as the beginning of a Universal Crossword Women’s Movement, and I hope the puzzles this month inspire more women to construct for Universal as well as for other markets.

Andrew McMeels Universal put together a graphic celebrating all of the women involved in the project:

womensmarch

It’s so cool to see so many deserving constructors represented, not to mention all of the newcomers to the puzzle community! Here’s hoping that Women’s March is the start of equal puzzle representation across the board. That would be something truly special.

Are you aware of any other crossword outlets participating in Women’s March, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section! We’d love to hear from you AND spread the word!


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A New Venue to Publish More Women!

Long-time readers know that one of my favorite things about the blog is that I can use it to spread the word about different worthwhile projects.

In the past, we’ve proudly provided a signal boost to folks adapting popular games for the visually impaired, game shops that could use more support, and campaigns to encourage and recruit constructors from more diverse backgrounds.

So when I heard about the Kickstarter campaign for The Inkubator, I knew it was another worthwhile project to put a spotlight on.

The brainchild of crossword constructors Tracy Bennett and Laura Braunstein, The Inkubator is a by-email subscription puzzle service where 100% of the puzzles will be constructed by women. (It follows in the footsteps of the wonderful Women of Letters project from last year.)

From the public announcement:

The editors invite women — cis women, trans women, and woman-aligned constructors — to submit themed and themeless crosswords or queries in any stage of development. (If you think you may be eligible to construct, but you’re not sure, you’re eligible to construct. Still not sure? Ask us!) If you’re new to constructing, we’ll make every effort to connect you with a collaborator.

Yes, The Inkubator is not only a publishing outlet for anyone who identifies as female, but it is intended to help and encourage new and inexperienced constructors, providing resources and advice in the hopes of publishing more women.

The Kickstarter has only been up for two days, and they’ve already passed their initial funding goal, proving that there is not only a market for women-driven puzzles, but a lot of support for female constructors as well. They’re currently brainstorming stretch goals for the project right now!

I wish The Inkubator not only luck, but success, and I can’t wait to see what new voices the project helps bring to the fore.

For more details or to donate to The Inkubator, check out the Kickstarter page for the project here.


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