Posts for September 2005

2005-09-01: Meta: Journal comments

I purged all the comment blacklist entries except for the stuff to catch URLs and re-enabled HTML in comments. Hopefully just the URL block will be sufficient to keep the spammers out. I'm currently rejecting over 100 spam comments a day, which is just way more than I can deal with even on a semi-automated basis without blocking up front, so something like this is necessary until I can get a chance to upgrade to something with captcha support.

I often wish that Movable Type were better at hosting discussions, but it just isn't, and I just don't have much time to try to struggle with it right now. I'm sorry. I feel bad about it, particularly when it catches something from a friend and causes a huge hassle.

I'm hoping to get a chance to switch to WordPress in the near future, but it requires figuring out how I'm going to back up MySQL, getting the software installed and configured with reasonable templates, and making sure that I can keep up with security updates. So basically four or five hours of work, doable but hard to come by at a stretch at the moment.

2005-09-02: Who wins?

I'm not going to get deeply into this right now, since I really need to get work done today and if I start posting links and comments, I'll never stop. But this one comment I can't resist.

You can learn a lot about the real power structures of a country by analyzing who always makes money, even in a disaster. It's nothing about conspiracies. It's nothing about fault or blame. It's an observation about what having power means. Having power means being safe. It means having the infrastructure with which to do contingency planning, the connections to ensure that you have your inside track on whatever wealth there is to be had out of a situation, the riches to be diversified and able to recover from disasters that the people who don't have power cannot easily recover from.

Many large corporations are being generous with the contributions during this catastrophe, and the news media makes a lot of that. On one hand, I don't underestimate the value of those contributions, and I'm quite certain that the individual people working for those corporations are volunteering out of the goodness of their hearts and in many cases are real heroes. On the other hand, it's perfectly legitimate, while thanking them for that contribution, to note the percentage of their free cash that those donations actually represent.

In the long run, lots and lots of people in the Gulf Coast region are going to face catastrophic damage to their finances, their lives, their families, and their possessions. The major stockholders and senior management of Wal-Mart won't. I'm not saying they should; ideally, no one should. But this is the very definition of power versus powerlessness.

2005-09-02: Screening for TV

Just a quick reminder, something that everyone watching the news coverage of Bush's visit to the disaster area should bear in mind:

There is nothing that Bush does that isn't set up in advance. Some of this is simply necessary. It's part of being President. No one talks to him without talking to the Secret Service first. But it's known, from Bush's history with other areas, with how he handles other speeches and events, and from the orders that the Secret Service gives to local officers, that Bush's people screen everyone who appears with him for political beliefs as well.

What this means is that everyone you see on TV having talked to him will agree that he's compassionate, that he's taking control of the situation, and that everything the White House says is true. This doesn't mean that everyone believes this. This is simply because anyone who doesn't believe that is screened out by the invisible people around Bush that you don't see on the TV cameras.

One certainly can hold mixed feelings about what Bush truly thinks and how he's truly reacting, how much of the smirk is a nervous tick versus a real indication of his feelings, how much of his apparent tin ear to certain aspects of the disaster (note, for instance, that he didn't approve of "the response" not "our response") is just accidental. It's really hard to tell what the truth is.

But there's absolutely no way that you'll see any of the unvarnished truth on TV. Everything involving Bush on TV is staged.

2005-09-03: Choice of words

Other people are continuing to catch way more than I could, and I don't have much to add to the reports I'm reading from my LJ friends list among other places. However, one little note that I've not yet seen covered widely.

I'm not sure I really buy the argument against calling the survivors refugees; apparently some people feel that carries a strong negative connotation, but it doesn't for me. However, maybe we could avoid calling handfuls of desperate or criminal people left in New Orleans insurgents, hm?

Also, remember my post from yesterday, warning about believing what you see and hear on Bush's tour? Well, one of the Louisiana senators is saying publically that at least one of his photo ops was staged. Doesn't surprise me a bit. The spin machine is gearing up. Watch out. And watch how the smackdown is going to be levelled at any news media that questions it. CNN is already falling back from asking hard questions into a he-said, she-said reporting style.

2005-09-04: Tiny, interesting haul

My large book order is still waiting on The Algebraist to be published in the US, but I got in a few other small orders.

Mary Gentle -- Ash: A Secret History
Ian McDonald -- River of Gods
Karl Schroeder -- Lady of Mazes

The Gentle and McDonald books I ordered from the UK via Amazon marketplace (much cheaper than ordering directly from Amazon UK), since I wasn't having any luck getting them through Powell's. Lady of Mazes I'm reading next after I finally finish Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I'm thinking about placing another small order, picking up the essay and review collections by John Clute and Gary K. Wolfe, but the latter appears to be unavailable in the US, at least at the moment. I can't even find it on Amazon UK.

2005-09-06: Asimov's, June 2005

Review: Asimov's Science Fiction, June 2005

Editor: Sheila Williams
Issue: Volume 29, No. 6
ISSN: 1065-2698
Pages: 144

This is the best single magazine issue I've read so far. It features solid (or better) stories from several of the best short story authors SF has to offer right now, a good book review column from Peter Heck, and an interesting (if occasionally indulgent) essay from Cory Doctorow on Kurzweil's way-out ideas. This is the first magazine issue I've read that I think might be worth seeking out on its own.

"The Edge of Nowhere" by James Patrick Kelly: Where do people go when they die? In this world, they go to a small town called Nowhere, where all their needs are provided for and they can live on, doing whatever it is that they want to do. This seems to be part of a larger world of ideas, but anyone leaving the town is never heard from again. When agents of the surrounding cognisphere come looking for a book that one of the inhabitants is writing, this becomes a story about creativity, originality, and taking risks. Charming, interesting, and thoughtful. (7)

"The Ice-Cream Man" by James Van Pelt: In a post-apocalyptic world where the inhabitants are mostly supported by scavanging in the rubble of the ruined civilization around them, a man continues to drive an ice-cream truck, trading cones for goods and supplies. What starts as an almost surrealistic setting concept becomes a fascinating twist on pied piper legends and a defense of humanism against the fear of other. Good ending. (8)

"Martyrs' Carnival" by Jay Lake: I wanted to like this story about cult religious practices in a future colony on a desert world, but when the utterly disagreeable religion ended up being right by authorial decree, I lost interest. In the end, there were no characters I could side with. (5)

"Bad Machine" by Kage Baker: What happens when you manage to break all the failsafes on your companion AI as a child and let it grow along with you? You end up with a pirate guardian angel who can do almost anything for you in a heavily computer-controlled world. Add in some uncanny powers of persuasion and you get confused adolescence crossed with some creative computer protection and a difficult ending. Baker doesn't take the ideas very far, but the characterization of the AI is a lot of fun. (7)

"Rainmakers" by Ruth Nestvold: This story reminded me strongly of Nicola Griffith's excellent Ammonite. An outside negotiator comes in to try to resolve a conflict with a native population on a colony world and ends up going native, understanding their nature-driven world view far more deeply than she expected. This isn't as good (or obviously as deep) of a story as Ammonite, and the process of going native is too abrupt and matter-of-fact, without enough justification in the rules of the story. I needed more of a hook to get into the world, but still, interesting. (6)

"The Little Goddess" by Ian McDonald: This is a fantastic story. Set in the same world as McDonald's recent River of Gods (and really wetting my apetite for that novel), it follows the life of a girl who is chosen as the embodiment of the goddess Taleju. McDonald paints a vivid picture of life as the Royal Kumari and of the faint connection to the outside world through a banned network connection. He then follows her through the loss of her status, into a quest for a husband as a normal girl, and then into becoming an AI smuggler. The language is rich and beautiful, the descriptions gorgeous, and the sense of place engrossing. Add a beautiful ending and you get one of the best short stories I've read. Highly recommended. (9)

Rating: 8 out of 10

2005-09-07: Life update

I was going to write another book review today (I'm three behind), but between errands and visiting and finally getting some work done, I didn't get to it. Bagthropes Abroad, So You Want to Be a Wizard, and (finally) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell coming as soon as I get a chance. (I lost last weekend for productivity to a cold and being doped up on Sudafed, so all I got done was reading.)

In other book news, I've started Lady of Mazes, and so far it looks like Karl Schroeder has written another excellent hard SF novel. I'm also reading another one of Langford's writing collections, which is excellent as always.

Tomorrow and Friday, I'm going to really focus on catching up on e-mail, Debian work, and work work, since I'm going on vacation again on Saturday and kind of want to clear the decks before I do so. Not sure if I'll finish more books before I leave, but I'm sure I'll do a fair bit of reading while on vacation.

I'm not as focused on New Orleans any more, mostly because not as much is happening. The polling results are disappointing; I really hoped that this would break through the partisan political divide in this country, but it's not clear to me that's going to happen. It's too frustrating to really pour energy into, even if more telling stories keep turning up. This is why I keep feeling mostly alienated by politics, that and the lack of political candidates that really represent my beliefs.

Right now, I have a ton of different things going on at once, and really need to do a lot of catching up. INN, News::Gateway, and Usenet politics have definitely gotten the bottom of the barrel in terms of energy and time lately, and I need to do some serious catching up on e-mail and replies.

2005-09-08: mvto 1.14

We've been using vos release -f to release AFS volumes since time immemorial. This forces a full release and a full copy of the volume to each replication site, and we started doing it originally to work around some long-forgotten bug in Transarc AFS. The rest of the world doesn't do this, and I tested omitting the -f successfully, so I've modified mvto to stop passing the -f flag, allowing incremental releases. It makes everything quite a bit faster.

I also fixed a bug in the handling of moving a RW site without an accompanying replica when using the -s flag and cleaned up a few other checks and limitations at the same time.

You can get the latest version from the mvto distribution page.

2005-09-09: One day to vacation

Well, no reviews today either. Ran out of time. However, the work inbox is down to just five messages, I've taken care of the pending traffic in various work team mailing lists, I have new OpenAFS Debian packages just about ready to go, and I whittled down my personal inbox.

Only one day left to do catch-up before vacation, and some of that time has to go to packing. Looks like I'm not going to manage to finish any more books before vacation, so the ones currently in progress are going to have to come with me.

Reservations to get to the airport are made, so I think the only thing left that I have to do for the trip is pack, which should take me about an hour and can be done tomorrow night.

2005-09-15: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Copyright: 2004
ISBN: 1-58234-416-7
Pages: 782

Magic has a grand tradition and sweeping impact on English history, leaving behind not only extensive works of scholarship but political remnants, including a Northern England that is still ruled in theory by John Uskglass, the Raven King, even if he has been inexplicably absent for hundreds of years. It is not, however, something that is still done. It has politely passed out of the realm of gentleman and into the realm of frauds and street con-men, due mostly to the inability of anyone to properly perform it.

Anyone, that is, except for the reclusive Mr. Norrell, the foremost (and least communicative) scholar of magic in the kingdom, who's primary devotion is to the acquiring of every book about magic available so that they will not be misused by lesser lights with inferior understandings. Mr. Norrell may sound like a shadowy and mysterious power; instead, he is more the petty schoolmaster and irascible museum curator who does not want anyone looking at his displays unless they have exactly the correct attitude. He has taught himself to perform magic through his extensive research, but is extremely careful in how he performs it. There are, after all, proper ways to do these things.

Norrell, despite his ability to dispense with the community of purely theoretical magicians, simply does not have the personality to attract attention at court and pursue his grand plan of reviving English magic. Not, that is, until he attracts the attention of all of London in one stroke by resurrecting the wife of a prominant nobleman. The dark and extremely secret bargain that he strikes with fairy to do this, a type of magic that he decries even more vehemently from that point onward, forms the core of the eventual main plot that does develop, but not until much later.

Enter, at this juncture, Jonathan Strange, a forthright and charming fellow who is Norrell's opposite in personality but not in interest. When he acquires his own magic, the only working magic in the kingdom independent of Norrell's, he eventually seeks out Norrell to get access to the library that he holds exclusively. In a surprising and then very insightful turn, Norrell, breaking suddenly from his previous behavior, welcomes Strange as a pupil. Finally, someone to talk to intelligently, and someone who can help revive the practice of English magic properly!

And so it goes. That summarizes but the first few hundred pages of Clarke's sprawling debut novel, a monumental, detailed achievement full of small events that are never rushed. It is at times a comedy of manners with magic, and at other times a pre-Victorian fantasy of the intrusion of fey lands and fey concerns, no less threatening for being frequently understated and subtle. Clarke succeeds admirably in her intended construction, and whether that results in delight or frustration depends on one's personal tastes, mood, and perhaps the angle of the light by which one reads it.

Strange & Norrell, perhaps most infuriatingly, steadfastly refuses to go anywhere quickly. This story is about texture more than plot, and the portrait of the world is lovingly uncovered brushstroke by brushstroke, enhanced with various jaunts, adventures, side stories, and interesting scenes that bear only a passing relationship to any primary storyline. There is a villain, imperiled innocents, a plot against the country and king, even a climatic magical battle, but if you're reliant on such things to keep up your interest in a book, this one will be a long slog. The text, but for some ellipticism and a few carefully chosen archaic spellings, is easily readable, but there are nearly 800 pages of it and most of that attention is not lavished on plot. When I was in the mood for it, I loved taking a slow stroll through the world; when I wasn't, I was wishing that Clarke would get on with it already.

Where this book shines, however, is in the convincing portrayal of history. This is in some respects an alternative history, the story of another world in which magic plays a formative role in England, but delightfully it avoids any extended recitation of alternative events. In fact, the details of history are sparse and conveyed incidentally, leaving sufficient room for the reader's imagination and sense of wonder to add any necessary details. Instead, the sense of depth is derived from the entirely fictional history of magic.

Both main characters are, above all else, scholars of magic. They frequently cite their predecessors, debate the merits of different interpretations and positions, analyze the truth of dubious records, and argue over the safety of lines of inquiry and experimentation. In short, they act far more like real scholars than any of the scholarly mages that fill fantasy novels. Combine this with the fiction that this novel is itself a scholarly work of magic history written some decades later, giving rise to the frequent, amusing, and excellently-written footnotes that expand on these frequent debates, and you have history construction through core sampling. The richness and depth of the entirely fictional history of magic infuses all of Clarke's world, giving it a sense of reality and grounding far beyond that of more exhaustive constructions. This could be dry and boring if done poorly, but it is not. Slow, yes, but even the apocryphal stories related in footnotes are suffused with a dry and extremely English sense of wonder.

Neil Gaiman has famously described Strange & Norrell as "the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." I join other reviewers in noting that by English Gaiman almost certainly does not mean "written by someone from England," but rather is attempting to capture the inherent Englishness of the story. Despite adventures in France, Italy, and elsewhere on the continent, this is a story about English magic, English scholarship, English history, English concerns. It deservedly won a Mythopoetic Award and evokes mental images of the Inklings' scholarship as much as their fiction. Oxford dons, pipe smoke, and uniquely British mythology are well-served.

Pacing is one of the most difficult aspects of fiction writing to get right, and normally for a first novel I would be noting a few standard failures that will hopefully improve in later attempts. Here, though, that would not be quite honest; while I found the pacing at times glacial, I believe this was fully intentional rather than a failure of craft. With the exception of the somewhat irrelevant Italian adventures that slow, perhaps unnecessarily, the final burst of action, Clarke's refusal to allow the plot a running start seems a calculated effect. Others clearly adored this; I was less impressed, but will still praise the evident skill.

If I wasn't as enamoured of the pace, or of the strangely unsatisfying ending that failed to provide much emotional release (but left room for subsequent volumes to be appended), I can only praise the characterization. Mr. Norrell is a wonderfully complex character whom one slowly warms to despite a myriad of repeatedly demonstrated flaws, and Strange, despite starting neatly in the mold of brave and likable hero, manages to escape it and become as isolated in his own way as Norrell is by personality. Their connection evolves believably through the story and is one of the better portrayals of deep friendship between academic rivals that I've read. All of those pages aren't wasted; Clarke's brushstrokes are not purely ornamental.

I recommend trying this book to anyone who reads fantasy, in the full knowledge that some portion will fall in love and some portion will put it aside in boredom. It is very much not to everyone's taste, and in fact is somewhat not to mine, but it is still a notable achievement. Give it a try, but perhaps via a library or a friend; you may not want to commit until you see how well the first few hundred pages draw you in.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2005-09-16: Vacation haul

I did do a bit of used book store shopping earlier this week, but hadn't taken the time to write down what I'd gotten. It's a rather esoteric set, in part because I didn't bother to bring my list:

Poul Anderson -- Flandry of Terra (sff)
Jack L. Chalker -- Riders of the Winds (sff)
Jack L. Chalker -- Midnight at the Well of Souls (sff)
Jack L. Chalker -- War of the Maelstrom (sff)
Christopher Hinz -- Liege-Killer (sff)
Gregory Maguire -- Wicked (sff)
Michael Moorcock -- Gloriana (sff)
Clifford D. Simak -- Project Pope (sff)

All the Chalker is because Midnight at the Well of Souls was the one I've had recommended to me as pretty good, but I'd already picked up the first of the Changewinds series and want more of it if I'm going to read through it.

The Hinz and Simak books both came up in a panel at Baycon about forgotten SF, so I figured I'd give them a shot.

Also, my big Powell's order finally shipped, so shortly after I get back home I should get a large influx of new books.

2005-09-21: NNTP standards status

I'm rather behind on posting to my journal, and didn't get started early enough today to update everything, but I have time for a quick note at least. We've resolved the last holdup for the NNTP TLS draft, which means that we've now dealt with all of the IESG concerns for the four NNTP working group drafts.

The only remaining issue is whether to do anything about the 32-bit article number limitation. I'm of the opinion that it's too late to revisit this topic, but several working group members disagree and I'm not sure of the consensus yet. Other than that, though, we're pretty much done. Time to take a break from standards work and shift to programming work, something that I've been very lax in when it comes to NNTP.

2005-09-22: Debian status

New package for the little Stat::lsMode Perl module uploaded and sitting in NEW (thanks, Ben!). OpenAFS 1.4rc4-1 packages also finished, but I don't think the upload worked for some reason. Will have to check on that.

Sam is currently reviewing the Kerberos 1.4.2-1 packages. May need to track down some thread safety issues with the com_err library in e2fsprogs that MIT Kerberos has historically built against in Debian.

I did some bug work with openssh-krb5 today, but it's still unclear whether the reported security issue is really worth another upload. If there is another upload, it will be the last one for the package; after that, people should just use the current openssh packages. They now include Kerberos support. (Speaking of which, I have to install them and make sure they work for me.)

Other than that, I spent today moving things into Subversion. Hopefully new sident and webauth packages tomorrow.

Oh, and the mpich + hdf5 + lam migration that I'm watching as part of my new maintainer application seems to be progressing, but I need to go spend some time hunting down its current status and post an update. A new lam got uploaded today that will hopefully fix the build issue on m68k, so there is that.

2005-09-23: Latest haul

Various book orders from both the US and the UK have all finally arrived and I've collected them all in one place. So many things that I all want to read right now! Here's the full list:

Catherine Asaro -- Schism (sff)
Iain M. Banks -- The Algebraist (sff)
Charlotte Bronte -- Jane Eyre (classic)
John Clute -- Strokes (nf)
Julie E. Czerneda -- In the Company of Others (sff)
Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (ed.) -- The Faery Reel (sff)
Neil Gaiman & Gene Wolfe -- A Walking Tour of the Shambles (nf)
Mary Gentle -- Ash (sff)
Joe Haldeman -- Camouflage (sff)
Elizabeth Hand -- Mortal Love (sff)
David Langford -- The SEX Column (nf)
Ursula K. Le Guin -- Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (nf)
Ian McDonald -- River of Gods (sff)
China Miéville -- Iron Sunrise (sff)
Teresa Nielsen Hayden -- Making Book (nf)
Matt Ruff -- A Romance of Souls (sff)
Geoff Ryman -- The Child Garden (sff)
Dan Simmons -- Olympos (sff)
Johanna Sinisalo -- Troll (sff)
Charles Stross -- Accelerando (sff)
Charles Stross -- Iron Sunrise (sff)
Gary K. Wolfe -- Soundings (nf)

Want to just read and read and read. But I'm being very good and finishing other things first before diving into all my wonderful new stuff. I'm trying to convince myself to alternate between exciting newly purchased books and either Hugo winners or books that others have loaned me.

Currently reading: A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein.

2005-09-25: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Review: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones

Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 1996
ISBN: 0-88677-832-8
Pages: 302

Still mentioned regularly by the author blogs and book review sites that I read, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a skewering of the overused tropes and cliches of fantasy novels (particularly the ubiquitous fantasy trilogy) written as a travel guide. The basic conceit is that the reader is travelling to Fantasyland to take a Tour, one which normally comes in three separate travel brochures. This guide tries to explain the local customs, give the tourist an idea of what to expect, and reassure them that being captured by slavers is not as bad as it sounds at the time.

I'll note my biggest dislike first. Except for a very short prefix (and a map that's worth a few smiles, even if it doesn't feature suspiciously square mountain ranges), the whole book is organized alphabetically. This is a disappointing choice.

Except for reference works where the user (not reader) already knows what they're looking up, alphabetical organization is nearly the worst possible choice. It's a failure of imagination, providing no effective structure and guaranteeing random and sometimes jarring transitions when read cover to cover. I have the feeling that it may be part of the spoof, but this sort of book is not a reference work even if it's pretending to be one, and reading it like a reference work isn't as fun. While there are a very small handful of expected jokes one can get out of this structure (I admit I chuckled at "Eternal Quest: See Quest, Eternal"), I would have enjoyed this book much more with a thematic structure. Chapters on clothing, quest structure, places, inhabitants, and so forth would have flowed more smoothly and would have eliminated the need for repeated cross-references and alternate listings that were essentially wasted words (and would have provided editing opportunities to trim out some of the duplicated material).

That significant complaint aside, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a lot of fun. From the bandit spy who is a mandatory employee in any trade caravan to being captured and sold as a galley slave as the way to get to the dragons and/or the Other Continent (for male tourists; female tourists have other routes), I was frequently snickering or laughing out-loud at the entries. Each is short and succinct, not wearing out the joke, and the whole guide fits together in a satisfying way. For a parody encyclopedia, Jones manages to do a surprising amount of consistent world-building, creating an amusing mental image of this imaginary set of Tours. This is a great book to pick up and read a page or two between other things.

Perhaps the best idea in this guide are the OMTs, or Official Management Terms, which are the management-approved ways of referring to certain features of the world. Ambushes happen in rocky defiles, the ever-present stew that everyone lives on is thick and savory, and squalor is invariably noisome. There are even better ones sprinkled throughout the book, and it was amusing (and somewhat depressing) how often the OMT listed for a particular item was exactly what my mind had been anticipating automatically.

If you've spent any time reading traditional episodic fantasy series (Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey, David Eddings, any of the role-playing tie-in novels), you'll recognize quite a bit here. Jones does err in the side of being funny rather than accurate, so many of the generalizations stated baldly here don't actually apply universally, but that is a completely forgivable sin. And enough hits accurately that I bet you'll come away noticing more of those ubiquitous OMTs and wondering just why it is that no one wears socks.

This isn't the sort of book that one reads straight through (particularly given the alphabetic organization), but it's great bathroom reading. I also recommend it as a book to stick into your pack for quick reading in idle moments. I think it could have been better, and in some ways the execution isn't quite up to the idea, but still mildly recommended for any fantasy reader who enjoys poking some fun at their favorite books.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2005-09-26: Locus awards page split

Well, I was going to write a review this evening, but time ran away from me too quickly. I did find a few moments to split my Locus awards pages apart into SF and fantasy pages, though, as I'd been meaning to for quite a while. I've read way more of the SF ones than the fantasy ones, I see.

Currently reading: A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.

2005-09-27: NNTP status

The IESG has approved the TLS and AUTHINFO extension drafts, which means that all four of our drafts have now been approved and are in the RFC Editor queue.

This means that, at long last, the work of the IETF NNTP working group is basically done. We're talking about whether to stick around to do a few more things, but I'm personally leaning towards disbanding the group, going away to do some implementation and gather information, and then come back after a year or so to see what still needs to be done.

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