williamallenpepper

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Archive for the month “January, 2013”

TIME AND RELATIVE DIMENSIONS

You know how as the years go by, your weight can sort of gradually increase without you really even realizing it until suddenly you  discover you need to buy fat pants?

Life is kind of like that.

The first couple years I was in college, I went back to my old high school two or three times to visit a favorite teacher (I dedicated my first book In the St. Nick of Time to him). It was only six months to two years or so after I left that school as a student, but th place felt different. Familiar and foreign all at the same time. I didn’t recognize any of the students and they all seemed so young to the “grown up” college me.

At the end of my freshman year of college, my parents sold the family home and moved out of state. Several years later, they decided to move back to our hometown and, coincidentally, our old house was up for sale again. I arranged to come for a visit the weekend they were going to do a walk through, just so I could get a peek inside. It was REALLY weird.

I had lived in that house from age three until I went away to college. I KNEW this house inside and out, literally. The house I was walking through now as an adult was much the same. The same blue aluminum siding and black shutters. The same landscaping. The same old, ugly purple jungle gym in the backyard (Dad cemented the legs into the ground very well. That thing will outlast every other man-made structure in existence) Inside, except for an expanded master bedroom suite and a laundry room move from the basement to the second floor, the layout was pretty much the same.

But it was also all different. New paint, new furniture, new layout. The note I had taped on the inside of my bedroom closet above the door one of the last times I was in the house before it was sold was gone. I don’t remember what I wrote for my impromptu time capsule, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, “Hey. Whoever finds this note I left, go ahead and destroy it.”

The house also felt bigger, somehow. That’s probably just because the previous (subsequent?) owners had already moved out and taken most of their stuff with them. The emptiness added to the feeling I had at the time that this was my house, but wasn’t. I described as being like if houses had siblings; look alike, but with different personalities. This was like a brother to my house, but not my house. My parents must have felt the same. They didn’t buy it back.

Around the same time, the city demolished my old elementary school and built a whole new school on the same lot. Same name, same spot, different building.  It creeped me out every time I drove by. It was like being caught in a parallel universe.

Elementary schools were on my mind recently (and really, finally, I’m getting to what inspired this blog post). I attended my daughter’s winter carnival at her school. For some reason, I was particularly noticing how small the place seemed. The classrooms, the furniture, everything. It’s logical, of course, and everyone knows that, but I couldn’t help think about my elementary school (the pre-demolition one). Was it that small too? Did it feel small when I was a student there? Does it just seem small because I’m an adult?

So what does all this tell us? That I think about weird shit? Probably. (My wife can attest.) But I think it also points to how a lot of the basics of reality – the passage of time, the distance and size and meaning of the objects around us – are subjective. The properties of the things we hold dear fluctuate as we move through life, both in time and space.

Not a revolutionary revelation probably. I just find it comforting to be reminded now and then what a dynamic, changing (evolving?) thing life is sometimes.

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MY PERSONAL “REVOLUTION”

Remember that show “Lost”? That was a good show. I miss it.

There’s a new show on NBC that debuted last fall called “Revolution” and it has a definite “Lost” feel. The series opened fifteen years after a nation-wide (World-wide? Well, we don’t know yet) mysterious (and permanent?) power blackout plunged everyone back to pioneer days. Every single electronic device instantly quit working and has been dead since. The government has crumbled and the country is divided into different territories, each controlled by a repressive militia. What the world and the cast of main characters – militia and revolutionaries – were like before the world changed is told in bits and pieces in flashbacks. Oh, and the show is not shy about killing off main characters, just like “Lost”.

Full disclosure, I DVR the show and I’m several episodes behind (no spoilers if you comment, please), but am enjoying it very much.

Or…at least I WAS.

I was until I experienced my own personal “Revolution.” How did this horrible fate crash down upon me like all those airplanes and cars when the power shut down on the show? It’s almost too horrible to commit to paper…er pixels. Well, here it is.

My key fob doesn’t work anymore. You know, that thing on your key chain that you get with any car you bought in the last thirty years with the buttons to unlock/lock the doors, open the trunk, sound the alarm, whatever? Yeah, I’ve got one but it doesn’t work. It did work; worked just fine for many years. Now, kaput. Granted, my car is ten-years-old, but I always assumed, baring some sort of catastrophic external force like a train runs over it or something, this thing would last forever.  But it didn’t. And it’s not like you can just run to Walgreens pick up a couple lithium batteries, unscrew the back of the fob and throw ’em in. Oh, no, that would be TOO EASY. The fobs are constructed that way.

Hmmm. Could the Monroe Militia be behind this? (Seriously. Watch the show.) Maybe the inventor of the fob was in on it all along! Keep an eye on your fobs, people (not a euphamism). This could be the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.

So now, I’m reduced to having to lock and unlock my car by actually sticking my key in the lock and turning it.  And I can’t unlock my car from a hundred feet away. I actually have to stand there for four seconds unlocking the door before I can get in. The humanity!

How on earth did Miles Standish ever live like this?

*Sigh*

“EVENT” MOVIES – PRO OR CON?

“Zero Dark Thirty,” the new movie from Kathryn Bigelow (director of “The Hurt Locker”) about the search for Osama bin Laden is getting lots of attention. It’s a Golden Globes winner and an Oscar nominee. That’s not surprising. Event movies usually are, especially ones about such a powerful topic (unlike, say, “Wayne’s World,” which was also an event movie back in the day, but, yeah, not really the same kind of thing). It’s a movie that puts a huge segment of the shared human experience up on the big screen, gives everyone an outlet for the emotion the last decade-plus have engendered.

And it’s a movie I have no interest in seeing. Not necessarily because of the waterboarding, torture stuff that the film has been accused of validating and/or exploiting. That’s a judgment call I can make for myself if I choose to see the film. And I’m not necessarily anti-war movie. The actors are probably excellent. I know the director is good. On paper, there’s not a whole lot of reason NOT to see the film.

It’s just that I’ve already seen the story of the hunt for bin Laden. It was called the nightly news. And NPR. And newspapers, press conferences, pundits, around the water cooler, and, well, Twitter.

It’s tempting to say I’m just not big on movies about historical events. BUT…I am very interested in “Lincoln”. I liked movies like “Schindler’s List”. Slavery and the Holocaust are not exactly feel-good, “Wayne’s World” type cinematic entertainment. It’s not an aversion to learning something at the movies.

Is it just that the bin Laden stuff is too close in time? Bigelow’s other big current events movie, “The Hurt Locker,” I did see and it was excellent. But there were at least a few years between when the movie came out and the setting of the film. It feels like the bin Laden thing is still front page news.

And I already get a newspaper.

So what say you? Is “Zero Dark Thirty” worth my ten bucks and two hours? Should I wait for it to show up on Netflix? Skip it all together?

THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF FOOD ALLERGIES

On January 9, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a case that could have a huge impact on people dealing with food allergies. The parents of a young girl, Shannon and Joseph Knudsen, sued Tiger Tots Community Child Care Center Corporation. The Knudsens had applied to have their daughter enrolled in the daycare center. At that time, they disclosed the child had a tree nut allergy and outlined an emergency care plan with the center’s directors. The center said staff and liability issues rendered the center unable to meet Knudsen’s request and rejected their child’s application. The Knudsens sued on the basis that the refusal amounted to disability discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

The District Court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, rejecting the argument that the child had a “disability” as contemplated by Iowa civil rights law. The Knudsens appealed. The appeals court noted that summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the party asking for summary judgment is entitled to it as a matter of law. Iowa law defines “disability” as “the physical or mental condition of a person which constitutes a substantial disability…” Iowa Code Section 216.2(5). The Court noted that, in the past, Iowa Courts have found common purpose between the Americans With Disabilities Act and civil rights law and that federal law offers a good framework for analyzing what a “disability” is.

The ADA defines “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities of such individual.” Further, ADA provides one of the “rules of construction” is that “an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.”

The appeals court noted that no one disputed the child’s tree nut allergy was “episodic or in remission”. The Court further found that there is, however, a question as to whether that allergy would substantially limit a major life activity “when active.” Because District Court didn’t consider that question, the case was remanded back to the District Court level for further consideration. That’s where the case is now.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, the US Justice Department just settled a case with Lesley University. A student complained that the university which has a “mandatory” food plan (you have to pay for the food served by the dining hall whether you can eat it or not) was discriminating by not allowing the student to be exempt from the meal plan even though celiac disease (an inability to absorb gluten, found in wheat, rye and barley which can cause serious stomach problems) prevents the student from eating the food.

Under the agreement, the university will provide gluten-free food options in the dining hall, let students pre-order, provide dedicated storage and preparation areas to avoid contamination, train staff about food allergies and pay a cash settlement to students affected by all this.

A lot of people read stuff like this, shake their heads, and scoff at whiny people . I could cite statistics about how food allergies are increasing, not going down. I could refer you to horrible stories about kids dying from eating the wrong thing. I could tell you how freaky it is to send your six-year-old out into the world to play, armed with an epinephrine pen you hope she’ll never have to stab herself with.

I’m not going to do any of that because it won’t matter. It won’t matter because most people who don’t have a food allergy simply don’t get how serious it is. They think being allergic to shellfish or nuts is like getting the sniffles from your grandma’s cat, getting watery eyes when the pollen count goes up in the spring, or feeling itchy from a wool sweater.

It’s not like that.

Yes, those things can happen. But people with food allergies hope that’s the worst that happens. Some with a nut allergy, though, doesn’t just get the sniffles if they eat a nut. They stop breathing. Touching peanut oil or dust can be just as threatening. Eating something cooked in a pan that had nuts in it or processed on a factory’s machine that also processes nuts can trigger an allergic reaction.

School cafeterias and daycare centers are not restaurants. If a person has a food allergy, they can try to avoid menu items at a restaurant. But if the person with the allergy is a toddler in daycare or a college kid who has to eat in the dining hall, they cannot. Not to mention that, while all public establishments have a duty not to put people at risk, schools and daycares are different. They have a heightened duty to keep the kids and students in their care safe. Asking the daycare, the elementary school, or the college to make safe alternative foods available – no required change to what they offer everyone else – is a minimal intrusion to protect a life.

That’s just what I think.

WRITING V. EDITING

Writing is rewriting.

All you writers have heard that, right?

It’s true, of course. The first draft of that novel, article, short story, essay, or chapter probably isn’t very good. Oh, it may be good in some ways – a clever phrase, strong voice, good topic if nothing else – but something will always be out of sync. The main idea is confusing, the voice is weak, the plot is dull, the characters are dull. It turns out you’re actually rewriting the phone book. The white pages, not the fun yellow pages. Something’s not right.

Some writers actually like the editing process better than the writing process. I used to think I did. That’s where the story really comes together, after all. You trim the fat, tighten the prose, whatever other slogan you can crib from Weight Watchers. But lately, with my current WORK IN PROGRESS, I’m having second thoughts about that bias. Know why?

Outlining.

The book I’m writing right now is the first one that I’ve really, seriously, outlined. I mean something more than scribbling notes on scraps of paper as inspiration strikes at 2 a.m. or on the interstate driving somewhere. For this book, before I wrote anything, I just sat and tried to outline every chapter, every character, every plot point as best as could. The goal wasn’t an inflexible agenda, but – I hoped – a clear roadmap, in contrast to past writing efforts which were mostly meanderings through the countryside with a vague sense that civilization lay over the next hill somewhere, the route marked by a trail of half-legible (on a good day) scraps of paper. So this time, I resolved to do an honest-to-god outline.

And doing it SUCKED.

But it’s also been the most valuable writing thing I’ve ever done. (Well, second most valuable. The first being when I was a wise-ass college kid pitching a guide to college life to a publisher called “Knowing When It’s Time to Call Mom” only to be asked in big, block-lettered, red pen, “Billy, you’re undoubtedly a nice kid, but when’s the last time you called YOUR mom?” Yeah, that book didn’t go anywhere.)

Anyway, for this one, I decided it was time to let go of the by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to novel construction. Being a pantser is more fun; just sit at the keyboard and go. But you spend an awful lot of time back-tracking trying to remember when George walked through door. What he was wearing. Was his name really George? What’s this book about again? Why the hell did I name him “George”?

But the best part about the outline is what happens after that first draft is done. Re-outlining, friend. Building a whole new outline, chapter-by-chapter, based on what I actually wrote. Immediately, when you start re-reading your stuff, questions pop up, inconsistencies you ignored when you were writing become glaring. Re-outlining points those things out. To help organize that process (the pantser in me still cringes at organization) added some columns for chapter-by-chapter notes about the dominant conflicts in the chapters and questions or concerns I have about what’s happened there.

So that’s where I am now. The re-outline is done. Now I’m about to start on the Next Generation Outline wherein I rebuild the story chapter-by-chapter before moving on to Draft 2. I don’t imagine that will suck any less than outlining Draft 1.

Big wheel keep on turnin’…

SPORTS SCANDALS REALLY AREN’T

Lance Armstrong used steroids.

Then lied about it.

Then he talked to Oprah.

We’re cool. Right?

Jerry Sandusky lied about despicable acts.

And so did more or less everyone he worked with.

And his employer.

Manti Te’o lied about…something. We know for sure it was related to a girlfriend he did or didn’t have for reasons that had to do with the Heisman Trophy.

Or the NFL.

Or his sexual orientation.

Or just to punk football fans.

Notre Dame may or may not have known anything.

Who the hell knows?

Also, what the hell is “catfishing”?

That’s the thing with sports scandals. Sports seasons play out – new million-dollar contracts, wins, losses, trades. Every once in a while a scandal erupts. We all wring our hands and express our outrage at the immorality of some and the besmirching of the good name of sportsmanship. Then things go back to normal.

And not much changes.

Then there’s another scandal, we decry the injustice and move on. Scandals have pervaded sports forever. The 1919 Black Sox scandal to paying college athletes to the latest spate of indignities among our athletes and the people who are supposed to be looking out for them. We shouldn’t pretend it never happens and act like we’re shocked when it does. It happens all the time.

The problem with organized sports is not the sports part. Sports are great – teamwork, sportsmanship, athleticism. The problem with organized sports is the organized part. Coaches. Managers. Owners. Committees and boards. Money. Prestige. Power.

Organize kids into football teams, but ignore chronic concussions. Spend way more on college athletic programs than you do on books and professors, and use the power money brings you to cover up the crimes of your coaches, while treating your athletes like spoiled, overpaid professional athletes, instead of like the young kids who are supposed to be getting an education that they are. Put professional athletes on TV, give the players multi-million dollar paychecks for chasing  a ball and do ANYTHING IT TAKES to keep the cash coming.

I didn’t watch the Armstrong interview, but I can tell you how it went. Oprah preached a little. Armstrong spent the whole thing with a smile plastered on his face. Oprah asked him something like, “Dude, you lied, didn’t you?” Armstrong responded, mildly indignant, “Well, yeah, but not really. ’cause everybody does it. I feel bad, sure, but mostly about getting dogged all those years and caught.” Sorry…but not sorry. Sorry only to the extent necessary to rehab his reputation. Oprah concluded, I imagine, with some sort of vague, “Isn’t it a shame,” type coda and then credits rolled.

Keep your seats in the stadium, sportsball fans. Don’t even get up for an eight dollar beer. The next scandal is on the way.

MONOPOLY PIECES: THE RICH GUY RECKONING CONTINUES

Monopoly pieces from etsy dot com

(Thanks etsy.com and Google Images)

America hates capitalism.

America hates rich people.

But you knew this already. Re-electing rampant Commie-Socialist-Do-Gooder-Boy Scout-Joe Biden Wrangler-Al Green Singing-Star Wars Geek- President Obama was proof of this. So is the fiscal cliff nightmare where our “leaders in Congress” (try saying that without laughing) had the gall to raise taxes on people barely making ends meet on $400,000 a year and up. Of course, that’s because the “ends” they were trying to meet were the summer home in Santa Barbara and the villa in Switzerland.

And now, we have the latest assault on the acquisition of wealth. Remember those guys up at the top of this post? Sure you do: the thimble, the little Scottie dog, the top hat, the battleship, the iron, the race car, the horsey, the shoe, the wheelbarrow,  and the cannon were big parts of our childhoods. The boys fought over the racecar; the girls wanted the horsey or the doggie; the boring people wanted the thimble; and the loser in the group got to be the shoe. Then, you engaged in a rousing, family-friendly game of trying to bankrupt your friends and loved ones. What could be more American than that?

Well, take a good, long look at that photo. Because, soon, one of your cherished, childhood friends is going to be dead. Executed, revolution style, by the “will of the people.” Hasbro, the company that sells the game Monopoly is running a contest until February 5 on its official Monopoly Facebook page where you can vote for which Monopoly token should be kicked out of the box. Then, before the corpse of this unnamed most precious symbol of financial achievement is even cold (well melted down to make die-cast D&D figures – they still sell those, right?), you can vote on which replacement token you like – robot, helicopter, cat, guitar or diamond ring. A whole array of Commie Pinko Leftist symbols crammed down our board gaming throats. Well, except the ring. What the hell is that doing in there?

“Vive la revolution!” Indeed, Hasbro. What’s next? Executing Mr. Monopoly by feeding him to the Hungry, Hungry Hippos?

Where’s the love for rich people? We used to like them. Remember Warren Buffett? Dude couldn’t understand why his secretary paid a higher tax rate than him? And Donald Trump (“You’re fired! Boo ya!). We all loved that guy!…until he apparently lost his mind, and became obsesses with proving President Obama is, in fact, a space alien (Or something like that. We try not to follow the news.) Today we’re picking on Monopoly. Tomorrow we’ll be throwing Molotov cocktails through Bill Gates’ front window – which is useless because his personal laser drones will shoot them down before they cause any damage.

And what makes this even more insidious is it’s Hasbro itself running this contest. Who got to Mr. Hasbro to make the company do this to itself? Mr. Hasbro! If you’re reading this, nod once. We’re coming to help! Just hold on! I’m just waiting for Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark and that dude who dresses up like the Green Hornet to respond my texts and we’ll pile into the Rich Guy Mobile and come liberate you! I promise.

If I can scrape together gas money.

On the other hand, Scrabble is a pretty fun game too.

WHAT IF BARNES AND NOBLE CLOSES?

With Nook sales revenue down twelve percent during the holidays, and books sales in the stores down about the same, watchers of the book business are worried (again) about Barnes & Noble’s future. It doesn’t help that many of the stores closed in 2012, a dozen or so just since Thanksgiving.

The chain, which has something like 700 stores nationwide, is, by all accounts, in trouble. Only a year or so after Borders finally succumbed to…well, whatever killed it: greed, not having an e-reader, opening too many stores, the demise of print books. The cause depends on who you ask.

And now it seems to be happening to Barnes & Noble. The company hasn’t announced it’s bankrupt or anything, of course. But publishing industry watchers smell blood on the page…er in the water. And this is troubling. With Borders gone, B&N is about the only national chain left. There are some regional ones and some indies still dot the landscape here and there. Maybe they’d get a boost from B&N getting out of the way. But then, B&N got a boost from Borders closing and now that’s evaporated.

So what would be left with if B&N closes? If you’re lucky enough to have an indie in your town, then maybe you don’t care. But what if you don’t?

Amazon.

As with most things retail, Amazon will presumably come out on top. Again. I can’t sneer too much at Amazon, even with their low prices that undercut everyone and the frequent criticism they get for being ruthless with competitors and with the very people and companies who try to sell books and products through them. I do spend more at online booksellers than I do in brick and mortar stores. It’s just a fact.

The reason is simple. Bookstores charge too much for what you get. If I can get the new Stephen King hardcover at Amazon for $14, what can my local B&N offer me that makes it worth driving there and paying $30? Nothing. Yes, I, and many other people, like the ambience. We like meandering through the shelves of books, inhaling the rich scent of coffee and paper. Maybe even flip through a book in one of those overstuffed chairs. (To be honest, though, the chair thing has never really been for me: feels weird to stretch out and get all comfy in the middle of the mall with strangers and Muzak. I’ll just go home to my own overstuffed chair that’s been molded to my proper butt shape, thank you.)

This is the problem with the modern bookstore: It’s not modern at all. Brick and mortar stores these days are little more than warehouses for books. Expensive warehouses. They can’t beat Amazon because there is no cheaper “shelf” space than online.

I don’t think print books are dead. If B&N, and other stores, want to pull out of the tailspin, they need to offer something I can’t get online. More face time with authors (and they don’t have to be famous ones). Hell, let me meet and talk to some publishers, editors and agents too. Avid readers are interested in the production side too. More workshops for writers. More book clubs. More staged readings and plays right there in the store. More costume parties (and not just when the new Harry Potter is out) and theme events (Nick Hornby night! Edgar Allen Poe Appreciation Day! Whatever.)

You bookstore guys aren’t doing any of this. And that’s why, we avid readers flip through your stock, smile and wave at the checkout clerk, then go sit in our car and order that same book we just looked at from our smartphones for sixty percent less than you were charging.

So the painful reality is, if B&N does fold completely, Nook owners will be dealing with a different vendor (someone surely will pick up the slack), but otherwise for most of us not much will change.

And that’s the problem.

CIDER UPDATE

Ten days ago, I became a man.

Whoops! Not what I meant! Let me start again.

Ten days ago, I brewed my first batch of hard apple cider. It’s my first try, and it’s from a kit where there’s no science required. I just followed the recipe consisting of the prepackaged stuff provided in the kit. Still, I am quite excited about this. After fermenting for ten days, I tested the keg today and found the must (mixture) was sufficiently not cloudy and the taste test was good. So…it was time.

No, I don’t get to drink it yet. But today was a huge day anyway. I sanitized the bottles and caps, drained the keg into the bottles and proudly admired the results. Each bottle was a beautiful, golden amber, alive with the heady aroma of apple and the promise of good times to come.

So I show a bottle to my wife. All she can muster is, “Yep. Smells like alcohol.” She’s not a drinker (possibly her only flaw), so she doesn’t really get the excitement of making you own hootch. I, on the other hand, can’t wait.

But…wait I must. The must will be carbonating for a week or ten days or so and then, after a week or two chillin’ in the fridge, it’s off to the races! And by races, I mean sitting on the couch with a pint of my own homebrew watching movies.

“Who likes to rock the party? I like to rock the party.” – “Flight of the Conchords”

WHY DO YOU READ?

There are an infinite variety of vices and desires available for coveting in the world by an infinite variety of people. Today’s chosen affliction is: reading. I was going to go with tickling koala bottoms with feather dusters, but decided that might be just a wee-bit too much personal sharing.

So, reading it is.

When I say “reading”, of course, I don’t mean simply sounding out words and forming sentences and taking in information via written communication because you have to. Like taking your medicine. Or watching local TV news.

I mean pleasure reading – taking some of one’s own free time and spending it doing something a lot of other people only do strictly out of necessity. Books, comics, whatever tickles your fancy.

Is such reading a vice or a desire? Don’t know. But a lot of us do it for hours and hours a day, loving it, while others stare at us like we’re committing some sort of heinous act with gardening tools.

So why are some people pleasure readers and others you couldn’t make sit still in a chair with a book if you staple-gunned them to it? Don’t those people want to step out of their own daily drudgery for a while? Learn something new – about themselves or others? Experience a world different from theirs? Just plain have fun?

The answer, of course, is that most of these “non-readers” do all these things in other ways – watching movies, sports, interacting with other humans, whatever. My wife is an occasional pleasure reader; she’ll pick up a book once in a while, devour it, then she’s done for who knows how long. I, on the other hand, rarely go anywhere without two or three pleasure books within reach.

What makes us different? What it is that makes readers derive their pleasure from books when others get it somewhere else?

Damned if I know.

For me, being a writer too, I enjoy books because I appreciate the craft of authoring and publishing a book. I like to read a story not just for the entertainment, but for the professional curiosity of seeing how the author put the story together. I get that from movies too, but for some reason not in quite the same way. Maybe because a movie is a visual and auditory representation of someone else’s interpretation of a text (the script), but a book lets me interpret the words on the page however I want.

The test of a good book for me is not so much did the author give me a perfectly formed world on a silver platter, but rather, did the author give me the rules of the playground and then let me go play.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, yeah. Why do people like to read? If you’re looking up blogs like this one on the Internet, I have to assume you crave the written word. So tell me why. WHY?????

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