A Puzzly Nom de Plume?

[Image courtesy of Writers Write.]

There was an intriguing blog post on The Wall Street Journal‘s website a few days ago about their crossword editor, Mike Shenk.

For those who don’t know, Shenk is a well-respected name in the world of puzzles who has contributed puzzles to numerous outlets, including GAMES Magazine, The New York Times, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and of course, The Wall Street Journal.

The blog post revealed that Shenk had published puzzles in the WSJ under pseudonyms in the past, but going forward, that would no longer be the case. In the spirit of transparency, any puzzles constructed by Shenk would appear under his real name.

Greater transparency in crossword publishing is definitely a good thing. If you recall, part of the issue with Timothy Parker’s tenure for the Universal Crossword involved other constructors’ puzzles being reprinted under Parker’s pseudonyms instead of the actual constructor’s name. Ben Tausig found one example, and further investigation turned up others.

From a FiveThirtyEight article discussing the story:

The puzzles in question repeated themes, answers, grids and clues from Times puzzles published years earlier. Hundreds more of the puzzles edited by Parker are nearly verbatim copies of previous puzzles that Parker also edited. Most of those have been republished under fake author names.

Obviously, no such accusations mar Shenk’s tenure at The Wall Street Journal. His reputation is pristine.

[Image courtesy of Politico.]

But it made me wonder. Last year, we discussed how many women were being published in various crossword outlets. From January 1st to April 29th of 2018, nine out of the 99 puzzles published by The Wall Street Journal were constructed by women. Were some of those actually Shenk under a pseudonym? (One of the noms de plume mentioned in the WSJ blog post was Alice Long.)

Naturally, this whole topic got me thinking about pseudonyms in general. In British crosswords, most constructors (or setters, as they’re called in the UK) publish under a pseudonym. Among loyal solvers, names like Araucaria, Qaos, Paul, Enigmatist, Shed, and Crucible are as familiar there as C.C. Burnikel, Jeff Chen, Brendan Emmett Quigley, or Patrick Berry would be here.

How common are pseudonyms in American-style crosswords, do you suppose? Has usage of aliases increased or decreased over the years? I might have to follow up on that in the future.

In the meantime, it’s intriguing to see one of the most respected crossword outlets in the market today, The Wall Street Journal, take a stand on visibility and transparency in puzzle publishing. Maybe it’s the start of something bigger.


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A Happy Ending and A New Beginning for the Universal Crossword!

Some stories have happy endings, eventually.

In one particular case, it took nearly three years for the satisfying resolution to arrive.

Allow me to explain.

In March of 2016, programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

The troubling pattern uncovered by Tausig and Pwanson sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, president of Lone Shark Games and puzzle constructor, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

Parker was out as far as USA Today went, but his relationship with Universal Uclick was still unclear. (Even now, despite inquiries, I’m unable to determine if he’s still associated with Universal Uclick.)

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles.

And, as I said, the story has a happy ending. Constructor David Steinberg has been named the new editor of the Universal Crossword and Universal Sunday Crossword!

Although this means the end of The Puzzle Society Crossword that Steinberg was previously editing (as it is being folded into the Universal Crossword), there is a bright side, as it guarantees fresh, well-vetted puzzles for many more solvers from a young, respected voice in the field.

David’s resume is impressive, as the youngest constructor to be published in The LA Times crossword, and the second-youngest to be published in The NY Times. He was also named the crossword editor for the 24 newspapers associated with The Orange County Register.

Between those accomplishments, his work with the archival Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and his prolific and creative crossword output, it’s obvious why Universal Uclick (now Andrew McMeels Universal) would want him for the job.

Several puzzles under his stewardship have already appeared, featuring constructors like Jim Peredo, Doug Peterson, and Samuel A. Donaldson!

David offered some details in an announcement email:

Each week I’m publishing eight themed Universal crosswords—seven 15x15s and one 21×21. Puzzles appear in all venues that formerly ran the Universal Crossword, as well as in those that ran the Puzzle Society Crossword.

Among the many new venues that run the 15x15s are The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Seattle Times; new venues that run both the 15x15s and the 21x21s include The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, and The Miami Herald. The Universal Crossword is also truly universal, appearing in countries as far-flung as China, India, and Saudi Arabia!

We wish David the best of luck in his latest puzzly endeavor. We know the Universal Crossword is in great hands!


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PN Trivia Scavenger Hunt: Answers & Winner!

[Image courtesy of Alaris Health.]

Thank you to everyone who entered our anniversary trivia scavenger hunt! Plenty of solvers, puzzlers, and PuzzleNationers tried their hand at answering all five questions before the deadline at midnight on Wednesday, and many succeeded!

Alas, there can be only one winner. But before we get to that, let’s look at the answers, shall we?


PuzzleNation Anniversary Trivia Scavenger Hunt

1.) One of my favorite recurring features is Puzzles in Pop Culture, where I explore puzzly moments in television, film, and literature. We’ve discussed Sherlock, Hell’s Kitchen, and even Gilmore Girls in installments of Puzzles in Pop Culture.

Question: How do you solve the four gallons of water puzzle?

Answer: There were actually two answers featured in the August 19, 2014 post “Puzzles in Pop Culture: Die Hard with a Vengeance” referenced in this question. Here’s the answer our winner submitted:

1. Fill the 3-gallon jug and pour the water into the 5-gallon jug.
2. Refill the 3-gallon jug and pour the water into the 5-gallon jug until the 5-gallon jug is full, leaving 1 gallon in the 3-gallon jug.
3. Empty the 5-gallon jug and pour the 1 gallon of water from the 3-gallon jug into the 5-gallon jug.
4. Fill the 3-gallon jug again and empty it into the 5-gallon jug, leaving exactly 4 gallons in the 5-gallon jug.


2.) You can’t talk about puzzles without also discussing games, because there’s so much overlap between the two. Game reviews from a puzzle solver’s perspective have become a part of the fabric of PuzzleNation Blog, as has creating your own puzzles and games from scratch.

Question: What’s the name of the DIY game that only requires a bunch of identical blank pieces of paper (like index cards) and something to write with?

Answer: Discussed in our September 15, 2015 post “DIY Pencil and Paper Puzzles,” this game is known as 1000 Blank White Cards.


3.) Naturally, if you’re going to talk puzzles, Sudoku is going to be part of the conversation sooner rather than later. We’ve not only explored the history of Sudoku here, but we’ve been a part of it, debuting brand-new Sudoku variants created by topnotch constructors.

Question: What do you call two overlapping Samurai Sudoku?

Answer: We posted many different Sudoku variants in our December 4, 2014 post “The Wide World of Sudoku,” but the puzzle in question is known as Shogun Sudoku.


4.) A fair amount of puzzle history, both past and present, has been covered here over the last five years. We’ve examined cryptography in the American Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, and beyond. We’ve celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the crossword. And we’ve even discussed scandals in the puzzle world.

Question: What are the names of the programmer and crossword constructor who first uncovered the curious pattern of puzzle repetition in USA Today and Universal Uclick puzzles that eventually led to the ouster of Timothy Parker?

Answer: As discussed in a series of posts entitled “Puzzle Plagiarism,” the programmer’s name is Saul Pwanson and the constructor’s name is Ben Tausig.


5.) In the Internet age, memes and fads appear and disappear faster than ever. A picture or a joke or a news story can sweep the world in a matter of hours, and then vanish forever. On a few occasions, the Internet has become obsessed with certain optical illusions, and we’ve done our best to analyze them from a puzzler’s perspective.

Question: The creators of The Dress appeared on what talk show to put the mystery to bed once and for all?

Answer: Discussed on March 6, 2015 in a Follow-Up Friday post, the mystery of The Dress was laid to rest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.


[Image courtesy of ClipArt Panda.]

And now, without any further ado, we’d like to congratulate our winner, who shall remain nameless. After all, like a lottery winner, she doesn’t want to be mobbed by those hoping for a piece of the action. =)

She’ll be receiving her choice of either a Penny Dell Crosswords App puzzle set download OR a copy of one of the puzzle games we’ve reviewed this year!

Thank again to everyone for playing and for celebrating five years of PuzzleNation Blog with us. We truly could not have done it without you!


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Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

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This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

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The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Roeder reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

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The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: 2016 Countdown edition!

It’s the final Follow-Up Friday of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2016 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Doomsday Prep

One of the big surprises for me this year was discovering that crosswords and puzzle books were hot-ticket items for doomsday preppers. The idea that crosswords belong next to necessities like food, water, shelter, and knowledge was a revealing one, something that gave me great hope for the future, whether we need those caches or not.

#9 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#8 A Puzzly Proposal

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles once again pulled off a heck of a puzzly coup when an intrepid fellow puzzler asked them for help proposing to his girlfriend with a special Simon Says puzzle.

I reached out to the lucky fiancé and got his permission to share the story with the PuzzleNation readership, and as I learned more about who was involved and how they’d managed to make it happen, I enjoyed the story more and more. Here’s hoping for many happy puzzly years ahead for the young couple!

#7 Puzzle Fort

For International Puzzle Day, I built a fort out of puzzle books.

It was awesome. Definitely one of my favorite puzzly moments of the year.

#6 The End of Sudoku?

The Sudoku boom may be over, but Sudoku remains one of the most popular puzzles in the world, and I got to thinking… when would we run out? I mean, eventually, statistically speaking, every single Sudoku puzzle permutation would get used at some point, so when would that happen?

So, I crunched the numbers, and it turns out, we’ve got centuries before that happens. Still, it was a fun mental puzzle to unravel.

#5 Murder Mystery

At some point this year, I let slip to my fellow puzzlers that I’d written and staged murder mystery dinners in the past, but it had been a while since I’d done anything like that. Naturally, they volunteered to be participants, urging me to stage something in the office.

Eventually, I accepted their challenge, pitting myself against a half-dozen or so of my fellow puzzlers, allowing some of them to investigate while others played a part in the mystery. It was an enormous undertaking and an absolute blast that lasted three days, and it was definitely a highlight of the year for me.

#4 Puzzle Plagiarism

There was probably no bigger story in crosswords all year than the accusations of plagiarism leveled against Timothy Parker. The editor of puzzles for USA Today and Universal UClick. After numerous examples of very suspicious repetitions between grids were discovered in a crossword database compiled by programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig, Parker “temporarily stepped back from any editorial role” with their puzzles.

Eventually, Parker was removed from any editorial influence on USA Today’s puzzles, but it remains unknown if he’s still serving in a puzzle-related capacity for Universal Uclick. But the real story here was about integrity in puzzles, as many puzzle and game companies rallied to defend their rights as creators. That’s a cause we can all get behind.

#3 Interviewing the PuzzleNation Team

Our recurring interview feature 5 Questions returned this year, but what made it truly special to me was being able to turn the spotlight on some of my fellow puzzlers here at PuzzleNation as part of celebrating 4 years of PuzzleNation Blog. Introducing readers to our programmer Mike, our Director of Digital Games Fred, and yes, even myself, was a really fun way to celebrate this milestone.

#2 ACPT, CT FIG, and Other Puzzly Events

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting local creators at the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#1 Penny Dell Sudoku and Android Expansion

Those were our two biggest app releases this year, and I just couldn’t choose one over the other. This has been a terrific year for us as puzzle creators, because not only did we beef up our library of Android-available puzzle sets to match our terrific iOS library, but we launched our new Penny Dell Sudoku app across both platforms, broadening the scope of what sort of puzzle apps you can expect from PuzzleNation.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

Thanks for spending 2016 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2017.


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5 Questions with Constructor and Editor Patti Varol!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Patti Varol as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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If you’ve solved crosswords anywhere other than the New York Times for the last few years, you’re bound to have encountered Patti Varol’s clever constructing and crafty cluing. A regular of The Washington Post and other outlets, Patti is a topnotch constructor and a crossword pro.

She’s also no stranger to PuzzleNation Blog, as she has previously contributed advice for constructing your own crosswords and shared her victory at Lollapuzzoola two years ago with the PuzzleNation audience.

Patti was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Patti Varol

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I solved all kinds of puzzles with my grandparents when I was a kid, and games were a big part of family time when I was growing up. A few years after I finished college, I answered an ad for an editorial job with the crossword/variety department at Penny Press — the puzzle test and the interviews for that position, and then taking that job, well, that changed my life. Suddenly, puzzles and games were something to study from the inside out, to take apart and put back together better, to make from scratch. And that was just as much fun as solving them…and I was getting paid to do it.

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2. You keep awfully busy when it comes to puzzles. Can you fill the PuzzleNation audience in on your various puzzle jobs and how they differ from each other?

I do! I’m Rich Norris’s assistant at the L.A. Times Crossword, which means that I write some of his correspondence (I let constructors know what Rich likes or doesn’t like about the puzzles they’ve sent him), and I pre-edit some of the daily puzzles. I also send out the monthly constructor schedule notices and do some of our testing and fact checking.

I’m also the editor of The Crosswords Club, which is a monthly publication with six Sunday-sized crosswords. The puzzles are made by some of the best constructors in the business, so they are as fun as they are challenging. Each monthly envelope also has an extra word game, and all of the puzzles have explanatory blurbs with some trivia and etymology. It’s a really neat product – there’s really nothing else like it on the market.

And I also do puzzle testing/proofreading for a few other venues, including some crossword tournaments and puzzle magazines. And I’m a puzzle constructor for the CrosSynergy puzzle syndicate; my crosswords appear in The Washington Post roughly once a month. I also construct puzzles for the LA Times and Crosswords Club occasionally, and I mentor new constructors who seek out my help.

Every venue I work for has a different style guide and different target audience, so it’s a job in itself to keep them all straight. All of these different puzzle jobs have made me a strong, confident editor and constructor. I love what I do, and I love being good at what I do. And I’m only good at what I do because I’ve had the privilege to work with and learn from the best.

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[Image courtesy of Wikihow.com.]

3. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own? What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

A great puzzle has a spark to it — you know right away that it’s something original, fresh, and special. You learn something new, or you see something familiar from a new angle. It’s that aha! moment, that pop. I’m being maddeningly vague here, I realize, but the elements of a great puzzle are elusive and subjective.

That same pop comes when constructing a puzzle, too. Getting a tough grid to come together cleanly, realizing that the right pieces are finally all there in the right order — that can be even more satisfying than solving someone else’s puzzle.

New constructors always seem to start off with more than they can handle: they try to make a Sunday puzzle (21x) before they’ve mastered the smaller daily format, or they try to do a low-word-count themeless before they’re fully comfortable with the 15x themed format. Or they try to cram too much theme in a grid.

Start small, aim big, and you’ll get better with every grid.

4. Between the Timothy Parker plagiarism scandal and the recent Slate article about insensitivity and tone-deafness in cluing in the New York Times crossword, accountability has been a major topic this year in the world of puzzles. As a gatekeeper to getting published yourself, what changes would you like to see made in order to bring crosswords into the 21st century?

Change is already underway, and it’s exciting, because crosswords just keep getting better and better. Just as language evolves — words and their meanings can be as fluid as they can be subjective — so, too, do the media and art forms that rely on language.

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[Image courtesy of HomeSchoolSuccess.com.]

The conversations about crosswords, online and offline, illustrate clearly that the crossword community is made up of some of the smartest, most language-sensitive, funniest people you’ll ever meet. We’re in love with our craft, and sometimes we take ourselves and our work too seriously, which is what happens when you’re passionate about what you do. But it’s so important to remember that puzzles are entertainment, a happy diversion, and if we use language incorrectly or insensitively, we’re not providing that diversion. We have to take our fun very seriously!

When we’re polishing a puzzle, crossword editors have a very specific audience in mind — we know our solvers because we listen to them and because we’re solvers ourselves. Because of this larger, ongoing conversation, we know that our solving audience is bigger and more diverse than ever.

This presents an interesting challenge: how do you make every crossword accessible and fun for every solver, regardless of race, gender, or age? Maybe not every clue and every entry will resonate with every single solver, but as long as I’m not actively alienating a solver, and as long as I’m stretching, testing, and entertaining most of my solvers, I’m doing my job.

And there are so many crosswords available now! In addition to the newspaper dailies, there are paper subscription services like The Crosswords Club, plus email/blog subscriptions by so many talented constructors, and more puzzle books and magazines available on newsstands than ever before.

We’ll always have good, old-fashioned puzzles, but now we also have lively, fresh puzzles with more current pop-culture references. This, too, is what happens when you’re passionate about what you do: your art naturally reflects and includes the community it is a part of.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Solve all the puzzles. All of them. Even the puzzles that, at first glance, look like the kind you don’t like, solve them. And if you don’t know the answers, look them up. There’s no such thing as cheating at a puzzle — it’s all simply research that makes you better at puzzles.

The more you look up, the more you will learn and remember for the next puzzle you solve. And if you want to learn how to make puzzles, or to get better at making puzzles, nothing will teach you more about how a puzzle works than getting stuck — and then unstuck — while solving one.


A huge thank you to Patti for her time. Be sure to check out The Crosswords Club, and follow her on Twitter for baseball tweets and updates on her latest projects! (Her website is currently under construction.) I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!