Archive | January, 2021

Meaningless Debating Societies

31 Jan

My daughter wanted to stay home from school on Friday. Eventually we finally got down to the reason–that was when her school’s “community meeting” happened. When ADD kids are forced into a meeting, boredom is crushing.

What’s even more sad is that Elizabeth is the class vice-president–which means (in theory) she should have a role in this student council, but she doesn’t. Since she has ADD like her daddy, but hasn’t had years of experience with crushingly boring meetings, it is sheer torture for her. So my wife asked me to write a letter to the school explaining what could be done to make those meetings less painful for ADD kids (of which, her Montessori school has LOTS). So here’s my advice:

First – Have a clear and simple agenda

Most meetings can be handled with a simple email. However, since elementary schools don’t have email, you could just make an announcement and get on with life. So if you need a meeting, make it a simple one with clear goals that you want to achieve. Meetings where people are just there to “check-in” or “get to know each other” are generally worthless. You don’t get “camaraderie” in a conference room.

What’s sad is that most meetings I’ve been to in the corporate world is to force one person to make a decision (usually the bosses’ boss); everyone else is window dressing.

Second – Give everyone something to do

In my current meetings, my job is to report on one thing, and then I stay silent for the other 90%. So when I still had to meet in person, I learned how to look busy and entertain myself. I learned how to write in Quikscript so that it looked like I was diligently taking notes, but in reality, I was writing snarky comments to amuse myself.

As for what we do during online meetings, well… this best captures that:

What I suggested to my daughter’s teacher was to give everyone something to do. I suggested having a timekeeper (to limit the amount of time kids had to take) and giving my daughter the responsibility to set the agenda. When you’re invested in the meeting, then it’s easier to pay attention, and feel like you got something out of it.

I find it interesting that even just looking at the first picture I found for this post, I noticed three people holding phones and three people with cameras. I can’t believe that what Miss Congeniality had to say was that important, but hey, it was a staged shot! My point is that they had something to do.

Third – Keep it efficient

If you can be efficient, quickly addressing the issues, and tabling any comments that are extraneous to the agenda (because some people just want to hear themselves talk), then you can be out of the meeting quickly, and people feel like they accomplished something.

If you can do those three things, then meetings can actually… well, mean something. Otherwise, so many meetings devolve into meaningless debating societies. But what do you think? Is there a fourth rule I’m missing? Let me know in the comments below!

“Everything is worth what someone will pay for it.”

30 Jan

I ran into a cool term the other day: hedonic pricing. Basically, it comes down to what the buyer thinks is important in making the purchase. They are willing to pay more if other factors are favorable, less is not. It’s market psychology!

It has been known for some time. The quote I used as my blog title comes from Publilus Syrus, a freed Roman slave who became famous for his pithy sayings that they were collected in a book written about 50 BCE. So… this has been with us for some time.

The best example of hedonic pricing is in real estate. If the house you want is closer to where you work, or has better schools, or is on a lake… you are more willing to pay more for a house, even if it has less amenities in the house itself.

This goes along with my own maxim, which is “You pay for convenience.” Say I go to my local convenience store where they serve breakfast sandwiches. There are two fast food places on the opposing corners, and I know that I can get a better breakfast sandwich (that I don’t have to microwave) by just going across the street. But if I’m in my car, do I really want to spend another five minutes to cross the intersection, get in line, make my order, wait, and then get out with my better sandwich? Or do I take what is right in front of me for the same price? External factors at work that have nothing to do with the product–it’s all location!

Antiques work off this concept exclusively. There’s several shows which are all about antique dealers going into other people’s garages and finding stuff that they’ve just been having rust or rot there. You pay them a little, they’re grateful, then the dealers turn around and sell that object for a whole lot more. Because to the original owner, it means nothing–but it might mean the world to someone else.

For example, there is an Avalon Hill board game called War and Peace, which was a simulation of the Napoleonic Wars. My brother and I played this as a kid and it got lost in the move. It was probably $20-30 new when we got it, but now (if you can find it), people will sell it for $200. Now this game means a lot to me, even if I can’t find anyone to ever play it with me, but it doesn’t mean letting go of $200. So the hedonic pricing for me means that “I’m willing to pay a lot, but a lot less than $200.”

I could keep going, but do you have a better example? What bits of ephemera that you would pay far more than the average buyer? Let me know in the comments below!

Now add more exclamation points!!!

29 Jan

When you shop at the eco-conscious grocery store, you end up with strange items in your cabinet. Take, for example, Dr. Bronner’s All-One Toothpaste. Do you see all that little writing on the label? Those are the ravings of a madman.

I was so taken by the… um, enthusiasm of Emanuel Bronner that I went to their corporate website to find out why he felt the need to write his manifesto on a tube of toothpaste. Turns out he was a pre-hippie beatnik who decided to change the world by creating products (starting with soap, because he was a soapmaker) that were free of those evil ingredients.

Fair enough – I’m always inspired by people who believe they can change the world and do, albeit in a small way. However, he never lost those counterculture beliefs, which means someone else had to be doing the books all that time. Let me read to you from Bronner’s toothpaste tube, near the tip:

Zoroaster, the great Asian teacher some 6,000 years back! “He who seeds God’s soil with good seed by loving toil, reaps greater merit-wisdom-progress-freedom-happiness & health than he who writes 180 books, repeats 99 prayers, or sits 100 years in mediation! Exceptions? Absolute none! Confucius, Israel, Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, the type of hardworking men with whom civilization began!

First off, that’s a lot of exclamation points. Second, my guess is that that quote is the only Zoroaster he ever read. Third, Jesus was the opposite of hardworking. He was willing to sacrifice a lot to provide for the preaching of the Word, but his time in the carpenter shed doesn’t make the Gospels.

Now Dr. Brunner (no actual degree, just started calling himself that, and with his German accent, no one disagreed) actually started preaching in Pershing Square, Los Angeles, back in 1950 and sold the peppermint soap on the side. Well, if they don’t buy your preaching, they can read it on the label. And if you can interpret the true meaning of this gem, you’re on the way to enlightenment:

7th: Each swallow works hard to be a perfect pilot-provider-builder-trainer-teacher-lover-mate, no half-true-hate! Have courage & smile, my friend. Think & act 10 years ahead!

Unfortunately, his enthusiasm got in the way of his message, but I find that to be the case of many philosophers. I tried to read Beyond Good and Evil by Fredrich Nietzsche and every chapter sounded like this. Twenty pages of “This is so important! And those other philosophers, they got it wrong–why can’t they see the truth!” without actually giving the nugget he’s excited about. Then at the end of the chapter, finally says something cool like “We are brothers of solitude. Of our midday, most midnight solitude.”

This wasn’t just Nietzsche–my wife encouraged me to read Wasase by Taiaiake Alfred–which is his vision for a non-violent warrior movement to grant Native Americans (or in his case, First Nations) true independence. I read his doctoral dissertation and found it very cool. This book, though… I got about 20 pages through “decolonize” this and “patriarchy” that I realized that he suffered from the same problem. SUPER excited and can’t bring himself to actually TELL US WHAT THE COOL THING IS! I guess if they just went to the cool thing, it would be a pamphlet, and he couldn’t sell it for $20 a pop.

Have you had any luck grokking philosophy? Are the words of the prophets written on the subway walls? Share your story in the comments below!

“And an Ensemble Cast!”

28 Jan

Last night, I was discussing with my son the difficulties with an ensemble cast. How it can work in some instances, but not others. But do you know when you should write for three to nine main characters?

You’re probably wondering, “Gee, what kind of conversations does Marcus have with his son, that cast size becomes a topic?” Well, my son Asher loves acting, and because of COVID and lack of friends, he watches a LOT more TV. So naturally, this is something on his mind.

At my gushing, we also watched League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which generally gets a bad rap, but I love it despite its flaws. Partly because it’s a steampunk movie (and there are precious few of those), but mostly because its the concept of Victorian lit characters coming to life, banding together to fight evil!

I usually blame the fact that most moving-going audiences don’t know their Victorian lit enough to appreciate these characters, but watching it with Asher made me realize another problem–there are too many characters! So you notice in the picture that there are seven (or eight) main characters, a villain (or two), and several secondary characters to keep track of. After the one third mark, none of them have enough screen time for us to really appreciate any of them. You could have taken away Skinner and Sawyer (and maybe Jekyll) and it would have been a much better movie.

But an ensemble cast on screen can work! Take The Avengers, which also have seven main characters. Why? Because you know all these characters already. Apart from Black Widow and Hawkeye, each of these characters had their own movie, so they’re already developed. You don’t need to develop their story in The Avengers; you just want to see them interact with other superheroes that you already love.

Which is why an ensemble cast works great on a TV show. Take Chuck, for example, since me and my kids are going through it right now. As you can see from the picture, nine main characters. Except they’re aren’t–there are three main characters (Chuck, Sarah, and Casey) and then everyone else comes and goes in the plot as needed. Sure, they’re in the opening credits, but only the Trio of Power is in every episode. A TV show lets you do that–provides time for all the characters (even secondary ones) to be developed fully so that you can love them.

That’s why–in my opinion–LXG failed. The other problem was leaning too hard on a LOT of CGI, but I thought the actors gave great performances and it could have worked had the audience known these characters. In novels, you have a middle ground–you have time to develop, but not a LOT of time. So you’re stuck with a balancing act. When I wrote Fatebane, there were four main characters… and even then, that was one too many. So when I wrote the sequel, there were only three. When you’re on a spaceship, the crew is important, but you don’t want so many characters that the reader can’t keep track, so I had the main character, the captain, and the competent officer… everyone else came and went.

What do you think? Have you seen an ensemble cast work in movies? In books? Why do you think that worked? Let me know in the comments below!

Feminist Sci-Fi

27 Jan

Whenever I tell my wife someone is a “feminist,” she asks, “which wave?” Like many words, “feminist” means different things to different people. “Feminist sci-fi” is no exception; in this scenario, it translates as “mad at my dad.”

I picked up a book from the library called Seven Devils by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May. From the cover, it looked pretty good. I’m always looking for new and interesting sci-fi, so I picked it up. When I actually went to read it, I was faced with a searing hatred before I hit Page 1. It was the authors’ dedication:

For the underdogs among us, those who hold the lines, and protest, and write, and speak out, empires only topple brick by brick. And for Hannah, who was always there to help us smash the patriarchy.

Dedication, Seven Devils

I had to actually go downstairs and open the book to find that nugget of defiance. Interestingly, you go to the book preview, it’s strangely missing… hmmmm. To me, this smacks of internet activism–people on both the left and the right who are so gung-ho about toppling whatever–as long as they’re online. They probably have never gone to a protest, and if they had, they were out of there after an hour, certainly before any hanky-panky goes on. These are folks who like to feel they’re part of the “resistance,” as long as all their friends agree with them, and they don’t have to actually do anything.

That put me in a real bad mood trying to get into the book, so I’ll admit, my limited review of Seven Devils is already tarred by my hatred of the dedication. The first scene throws one of our protagonists right into a fight scene. Okay–cool. She’s getting a call from her supervisor reminding her a) to get a move on her mission and b) try not to kill anyone. It’s cute, I’m enjoying it, while at the same time, I’m a bit confused. But that’s okay, because the story’s just starting, and I don’t have to know everything.

So the guys that our protagonist is (accidentally) killing turn out to be able to be controlled by the great computer that runs most of this empire, so once things get hot, the enemy loses free will, and becomes slaves of the computer. Interesting. Tell me more.

Our protagonist escapes and we meet the rest of her team. This is where it loses me. She’s bitchy with her co-workers, her boss sounds like a regular supervisor, and they’re part of the resistance. This tells me that our authors have NO CLUE what a resistance actually looks like. They treat it like a corporate job–with shiny offices, bitchy bosses (for gender equity, a male), and established missions. No, dummies! Resistance movements are rarely well organized. It’s more like a volunteer organization, and once they get successful, they’re military organizations, leaving the volunteers to either shape up or get lost.

So I put the book down. I was already pissed at the dedication, so it didn’t take much. When I looked up “feminist sci-fi” the first example was Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. I love this book. However, there’s nothing feminist or activisty about it. The planet does have gender-flipping aliens and she does a great job playing with alien civilizations. But in the end, what makes it “feminist” is that a woman wrote it… under her own name in 1969.

I’m going too long on this post, so I’ll have to cut it off. Meanwhile, I’ll ask you, what do you think makes a “sci-fi” book “feminist?” Let me know in the comments below!

The “Simple” Joy of Vegan Pancakes

26 Jan

Pancakes are one of the all time great comfort foods–it’s main limitation is time. It takes a significant amount of time to prepare and cook, and you may or may not have enough batter, but it’s so worth it. Now remove normal ingredients…

Preparing food in my house is never easy. Anything that requires eggs is out. We avoid meat in the house. Also, onions and garlic, with tomatoes to a lesser degree. That makes cooking a meal rather difficult, even a vegetarian one, because onions and garlic (which I love) are the base of so many of things. Cheese, the basis of all American cuisine, is also out the window and the vegan substitutes never quite have the right attributes to make it work in most dishes.

What does this have to do with pancakes? Eggs are an essential part of any batter, but unlike most substitutes, this is the easiest. Chia “eggs” work just fine; this is chia seeds ground up and mixed with water. Milk is honestly just liquid in most recipes; it doesn’t add anything. So I use a minimum amount of hemp milk (which is only good for cooking) and then use water for the rest.

Because maple syrup isn’t sweet enough for my kids, I have to throw in chocolate chips, otherwise they’ll barely eat anything. Frankly, I think that ruins the aesthetic, but I’m outvoted.

For the dry ingredients, I mix in mostly einkorn flour, which before the gluten free movement, was mostly used for animal feed. (To quote Samuel Johnson: “Oats… in England, a food for horses. In Scotland, food for men.”) Mix in a portion of garbanzo bean flour (for protein, used in Italy during WWII when they were starving and couldn’t get wheat) and brown rice flour (for lift), and of course, a little baking soda and cream of tartar (because baking powder has corn starch), and you’re good!

Of course, the work is never done, because my wife cooked fish on my cast iron skillet two days before and never cleaned it off. So scraping off fish scuz was joyful, and then oiling, then scraping some more, then oiling again. I was willing to throw away the first pancake. But apparently my scraping did enough to clear off the fish scuz and it turned out all right.

So we eat our pancakes with fake butter (Earth Balance Soy Free), maple syrup, and (because we got it as a gift), wild chokecherry syrup. The last was interesting, because it’s one of those Native American things that sounds good. The problem is that there’s so much sugar in it that you can’t taste anything beyond a vague fruit taste. But it still tasted good… but man, that was a long way to go for something simple.

Inspiration in the Midst of Darkness

25 Jan

There’s an old Japanese proverb: death is as light as a feather, duty as heavy as a mountain. I’ve been having trouble lately and several times I thought, “wouldn’t it be just easier if I just ended it all?” Well… not for anybody I love.

This is not a call for help – after all, you don’t read my blog to learn how depressed I am – and to be honest, most of the time I’m not. However, this is just where I am at the moment, and when you’re in the darkness, it’s hard to write about anything else. So forgive me if I go down a dark rabbit hole.

I’m having trouble at work – frankly, I’m close to getting fired – and although I wouldn’t mind leaving my job, I do mind not having a paycheck for a while. When I started my present gig 2 1/2 years ago, it was a godsend. I was a travelling consultant that hadn’t gotten a new contract in three months. Because of the nature of my work, I had saved up enough to pay for the times I was between gigs, but three months was near the end of my savings. Then to find out I could work from home, instead of moving to Dallas, was a huge benefit.

I had worked from home before, but I’d still have to go into the office occasionally–now it was everyday. It’s easy to get bored, and after the honeymoon period, I started screwing up. Although I had places to go to work out of the house, I quickly exhausted them… not that I got kicked out, but the appeal really drained out of it.

I used to be able to ride my bike to places to get some exercise, but then some *@($*#& stole my nice bike out of my backyard. I tried getting two cheaper bikes, but they broke down spectacularly, once the brake failing and causing me to fly over the handlebars and braking my clavicle. I’ve been walking around the neighborhood, but it’s not the same, and certainly not as enjoyable.

Then COVID happened and suddenly the benefits of working from home suddenly ended. Now everyone was home–I didn’t get even the illusion of being at work. Or rather, I was always at work. I couldn’t even do my normal escapes. I used to go to Panera Bread and start work at 6:30, so that I would be out of the house while the morning rush, but even though I could do that again now, it doesn’t open until 7. Even now, when my wife can go back to her office, she doesn’t want to. My son does go to school two days a week, but it’s still online, so he’s even more miserable. And then I can’t seem to do anything right at work.

So I’m stuck and have been stuck for months. This work situation happened back in April too, so I guess it was inevitable. But I’m back to that dark space. My brother committed suicide when I was 21, so I know that’s not an option, because I saw what happened to my family. Besides, all that means is that my wife and kids don’t have a parent and a paycheck, and I don’t want to do that to them.

So I cannot die, I can’t work, and I’m not sure what to do. It’s temporary, I’m sure, and things will change… but man, it sucks now. When have you contemplated suicide? Where were you in your life when that happened? Was there a gradual improvement out of that dark spot or was there a singular event? If you’re willing, share in the comments below.

Dance Party USA, whether you want it or not.

24 Jan

Does this sound familiar? You enter a restaurant / café / business and you are barraged by a wall of sound–hard pumping music while you’re trying to get a coffee. You can barely hear the server, they can barely hear you. Why is this a good idea?

There are days I feel like I’m the only one who notices. However, one of my ADD superpowers is that I have an incredible sensitivity to sound, so I can notice sounds that most people don’t actually hear. So when they pump up the tunes, it’s rather painful. As a result I have a couple theories about this little phenomenon.

Nothing Attracts the Crowd like the Crowd

This is the actual theory behind most bar managers and restaurant owners–if you have pumping music in your store, it sounds like people are having fun and there’s a lot of them in there. That means more people will come into your store to buy stuff. And maybe–they won’t want to stay after they buy their crap, because it’s too damn loud to hear themselves think! Quick turnover.

However, when I go into a Starbucks or a Panera Bread, they take the opposite opinion. Go with soft indie rock, because you want people to stay, sit down, and buy more of their product. Sometimes they still keep the volume up too loud for me to be comfortable, but I’ve simply learned to carry a set of headphones in my pocket. I just plug myself in, and from looking around, so do half your customers.

I Gotta Have My Tunes!

I specifically go to a bar that has either has no music or the music is low and in the background… like it’s supposed to be. However, every time one of the regulars comes in, she has to hit that damn jukebox, and crank out her favorite tunes. Why? Because to her, a bar isn’t a bar without loud pumping music. However, since the average age of the bar patrons in this particular bar is 60, I don’t think they come in for the tunes. The problem is that I can barely talk to anyone once the jukebox is playing… which is the main reason I go there.

It doesn’t matter if they’re good tunes or not, if you’re having to shout over the music to talk to folks (which includes, by the way, the barfly in question), it’s not that good. I think it’s an acculturation thing; she’s spent most of her life working in bars, so loud music = bars. Duh. However, when she’s riding in on her motorcycle to the most sappy pop music imaginable, I question her theories… and her taste in music.

So whether business thinks its good for business or whether people expect music in the background, doesn’t really matter, I’ve simply stopped asking the manager to turn it down. Because they just… don’t… get it. So if they look askance at why I’m wearing big headphones in a sports bar, all they have to do is ask to find out why.

Am I the only one who finds the pumping music annoying? Am I overreacting? Let me know in the comments below!

Book v. Movie (1964)

23 Jan

I’ve been on a Bond kick lately, so I decided to actually read one of Ian Fleming’s books, to see how to compared to the movie I loved so much. So I picked up Goldfinger and started reading… wow! There is no comparison.

There wasn’t a great time difference between the book (1959) and the movie (1964), so it was fascinating to see the changes they used to show the story on the big screen. First off, the plot made a hell of a lot more sense! Naturally, in a book, you’ve got plenty of time to explain what’s going on to the audience. Also, I realized later that I grew up with an “edited for television” version of the movie, that (among other things) completely skipped the beginning mission before the credits. So naturally, my opinion of these things are skewed.

Second, Bond did a LOT more spycraft in the book–he actually does spy stuff–rather than just bust into places and see what happens (which they lampshade in the later movies). The written James has a lot more time to brood, to have an inner monologue, not just be the soulless killing/sex machine that we’ve come to know and love.

They compressed a lot of the characters, which makes sense for time, but that means that Jill and Tilly Masterson are actually in the book for a lot longer. You get to know these women (and not in the way you’re thinking). Interestingly enough, Pussy Galore barely appears–Tilly is the female companion that’s dragged with Bond to the US.

Why Bond is kept alive when going into the final act still makes absolutely no sense, apart from the fact that he’s the main character. The reason that gangsters are there makes a lot more sense. And the way that Bond foils Goldfinger’s plan makes a lot more sense, although I think the movie version of G’s plan was actually better.

There’s a lot less gadgets, certainly less lovin’, and in the end, a much more solid story. Mind you, there are some dated references (because this was the late 50’s), dated terms (I had to look up “commissionaire”), and some dated attitudes (Bond has some theories on what “turns” women to becoming lesbian), but that did not distract me from the plot.

In the end, I really enjoyed Goldfinger the book, despite having watching the movie first, and that makes me very surprised. I’m gonna have to read more of Fleming’s books! Have you had a chance to read the James Bond novels? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Using Amazon Keywords the Right Way

22 Jan

Today’s blog is brought to you by Editor Ed, a small-press publisher, editor, writer, and a good friend.

As an indie self-publisher, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t understand how to use Amazon Keywords correctly for years.  I’ve only recently begun learning how to use them properly, but I’m already seeing results.  It’s not a magic bullet for more sales by any means, but it does seem to help, at least a little.  And all it takes a little time and effort.

Now, I’m NOT an expert on Amazon keywords, which is a huge and complicated topic.  There are ntire books, blogs, and YouTube videos about them.  But hopefully I can offer a few tips and point you in the right direction to learn more.  And, since this is Marcus’ blog, I’ll use his recent-released book Drag’n Drop as an example.

FIRST: An Amazon keyword is not just one word!  Seriously, I’ve seen experienced publishers make this mistake. You have 50 characters to play with, including spaces.  In fact, the most effective keywords area usually phrases, not words.

SECOND: Keywords aren’t descriptors, they’re search terms.  Therefore, it’s best to use keywords that people actually type into Amazon searches.  But how do you know what people type into the Amazon search bar?  Actually, that’s fairly easy: type a word or two in there yourself, let the auto-complete kick in, and see what comes up.

Next, do a search on some of these terms that describe your book, and see how many results come up (be sure to select the category “Books” or “Kindle Store”, or you’ll get a LOT of irrelevant results).  For example, Marcus’ Drag’n Drop is a fantasy novel, so let’s try searching “fantasy.”  Whoa.  Over 50,000 results.  That’s a LOT of competitors!  That’s where the next tip comes in…

THIRD: Be specific! The more specific you are, the less competition you’ll have for each sale.  For example, Drag’n Drop is not just Fantasy (a very broad category), but specifically an Urban Fantasy—so let’s try searching that.  Hmm… over 30,000 results.  An improvement, but still a LOT of competitors.  But now I’m remembering Marcus describes Drag’n Drop as an “alternate history urban fantasy”… so let’s try that!  Whew, only 2000 results!  Now we’re talking!

“But Ed!” I hear you cry. “Why would I want fewer searches to find my book!?”  Well, just because your book comes up in a search doesn’t mean the customer will actually see it.  The unpleasant truth is that if a first-time self-published author’s book is included with 50,000 other search results, it’ll probably be somewhere around 49,990 on that list. At sixteen results per page, a customer will have to click through 3,125 pages before they get to that book, and the chances of that happening are… well, I hate to say impossible, but… yeah, it’s pretty much impossible.

On the other hand, if you only have to compete with 2000 other search results to get your book in front of a customer who’s specifically looking for that type of book, the chances of your book being seen (and purchased!) are a lot better.

For example, I recently released the sword-and-sorcery anthology Sorcery Against Caesar.  Unfortunately, 50,000 results came up for the search term “sword and sorcery,” pretty much guaranteeing the book would rarely be seen by customers.  However, when I switched the keyword to “sword and sandal” (a sub-genre of historical sword-and-sorcery in the ancient Greco-Roman world), I only had 130 competitors—and now my book is on the first page of results for that search term, and sales have been better than I expected!

Keep in mind that all this work and experimentation merely identified one good keyword—and you’ve got six more to go!  As you can guess, finding seven good keywords can take time and effort.  Is it worth it?  That depends.  Your mileage may vary.  But I’d argue it never hurts to try.

Have any blog readers out there had any personal experiences (good or bad) with tinkering with their book’s Amazon keywords? Let me know in the comments below!

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