Sunday, November 25, 2012

Triplanetary: A Tale of Cosmic Adventure

Triplanetary: A Tale of Cosmic AdventureTriplanetary: A Tale of Cosmic Adventure by E.E. Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've heard people rave about how Doc Smith's work was one of the early space operas and that it influenced many later science fiction masterpieces. This may be true, but I'm thinking that just because it was influential, doesn't mean I have to like it. And I don't much.

It's been pointed out by others that this book hasn't aged well, and maybe that's my problem with it. Then again, the Hardy Boys haven't aged well, and I still (guilty pleasure alert) like some of the series. But I read those as a child, so there's a bit of nostalgia that goes with my reading of the Hardy Boys. Not so with Smith's novel, Triplanetary. I wasn't a child when Doc Smith's first works came out, so I don't have that glittering/blinding cloud of nostalgia around his work, like the one that engulfs me when I read Hardy Boys.

Maybe seeing Flash Gordon reruns at about the same time that Star Wars came out back in the '70s caused a rift in my mind, a gaping gulf between "then" and "now" (or what was "now" at the time). Pan Star Wars all you want, but the original movie is both derived from the old Flash Gordon serials and a reworking of the trappings in a beautiful and brilliant "new" (again, speaking relatively of time) packaging. I loved it, and still do. Flash Gordon is laughable, and was laughable even when I was a child. And because it's laughable, I kind of enjoy the campiness of it all. But I don't take it as seriously as it takes itself.

And maybe that's my problem. Perhaps I went into this book ready to take it seriously, hence I was seriously disappointed. I can't look back on it and glory in the unintentional silliness of it all - the chauvinism, the absolutely terrible dialogue, and the deus ex machina (and here, I mean literally "machine") that jerks the plot in unlikely directions and destroys pacing. All of this makes for an agitating read full of overstimulus, like overdosing on cocaine or deciding, against all better judgement, that you should take the plunge off the 3 story tall water slide only to find that it wasn't such a good idea just as your butt clears the drop. Smith's attempts in this vein seem like a way to buy off, rather than reward the reader for patience. And I know not everyone wrote like that back in that day and age, so don't feed me the "His writing was a product of the time" line.

The one aspect of the book that I did enjoy didn't involve the human characters at all. I actually quite liked the alien race, the Nevians. But the whole mess between Triplanetary (the human alliance) and these amphibian aliens could have been avoided, had someone just stopped for a moment and talked about the abundance of iron resources available in the asteroid belt. Why didn't anyone think of that? Can't we all just get along?!?

So I finished the book. I can honestly say that. I won't be reading any more of E.E. "Doc" Smith's work, however. I've had enough. Too much, in fact. I can only be force-fed so many unlikely twists and perfect saves before declaring: "Doc Smith is to hyperbole in science fiction what Monty Hall was to giveaways."

Still, I liked the aliens. At least they made sense. In fact, rather than destroying the galaxy, the aliens are saving a bit of the galaxy by keeping my rating of this book at two stars, rather than one.

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A Mapmaker's Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice

A Mapmaker’s Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of VeniceA Mapmaker’s Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice by James Cowan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book when it first came out in 1997, then just reread it again. I wish I would not have reread it, since the shine has faded. If this is your first dip into a fictional pseudo-history, you might like A Mapmaker's Dream, as I did on the first reading. At the time, I was eyeball-deep in academic texts on history and some philosophical writings (Foucault, Derrida, and Chomsky, mostly). So the escape into a fictional realm that read like non-fiction was a treat.

Since that time I've discovered (and sometimes rediscovered) several authors who do the same thing much better than Cowan did here and, despite the chronology of my encounters with their works, did it earlier, as well. If you feel the need to read A Mapmaker's Dream, may I recommend, rather, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars, Rhys Hughes' A New Universal History of Infamy, Ivo Andric's The Bridge on the Drina, or Norman Lock's/George Belden's Land of the Snow Men? Each of these handles the pseudo-historical fiction sub-genre with greater joy and acumen than Cowan's novel. Each of these novels had me voraciously chewing my way through them and at least a couple of them have stood up well on a re-read (Calvino's and Hughes' in particular). These works filled me with excitement and (sometimes grim) laughter, whereas the philosophizing in Cowan's work had the opposite effect, at least the second time around. A Mapmaker's Dream was, as the title might imply, a soporific, causing me to dream more than to read. Like a drug, it's easy to build up a tolerance for this sort of thing and need a stronger, headier dose of the stuff to get excited about it. Unfortunately, I didn't find my fix between the covers of this book. To quote Huey Lewis (apologies, I'm a child of the '80s): "I need a new drug".

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade

The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug TradeThe Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade by Alfred W. McCoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a Teaching Assistant for Dr. McCoy while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We taught his highly regarded class on "The Vietnam Wars" together, with him as lecturer and me and another graduate assistant as teachers of the breakout sessions. These were some of my fondest memories of my college career.

Dr. McCoy is an outstanding and rigorous scholar, though this work walks the fine line between journalism and history in a similar way to how Michel Foucault walks the line between philosophy and history. I can vouch for McCoy's authenticity. I've seen his HEAVILY redacted CIA and FBI files. While a graduate student, when he began this research, he had an FBI agent assigned to watch him, even going so far as to follow McCoy for hours at a time and investigate the work that he was doing at the library. Creepy stuff, but not altogether surprising to me. I was raised in the military by a father who had classified clearance and who told me some fairly scary stuff after his clearance ran out post-retirement (though there are still many things that Dad will take to the grave with him, things that I will never know). I've also seen OSI (Office of Special Investigations) in action tracking the comings and goings of high school students, GIs, and their families. So, while McCoy's work might seem a bit paranoid, at first blush, don't blow this work off as the work of some crazed conspiracy theorist or paranoid anarchist. You'll find the book thoroughly researched and well-reasoned.

If half of what Dr. McCoy says is true (and I believe much more than half of it is true), then the CIA has a lot to hide and much to answer for. One cannot blame the CIA entirely for their complacency in the Southest Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central American drug trade. To be fair, federal funding maneuvers and congressional budget cuts might have pushed the agency to raise money in whatever way possible (c.f. Iran/Contra scandal). But McCoy's research into the degree to which the CIA was/is involved in the worldwide drug trade is fairly damning of the agency itself.

Not a book for those who like to live with their head in the sand, but too-well documented, researched, and verified to be dismissed as the lunacy of some crackpot. And aren't accusations of insanity a historically-proven way of discrediting one's detractors? Read the book (brace yourself - it's going to take a while) and decide whether or not Dr. McCoy is raving or revealing.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner, #1)The Maze Runner by James Dashner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Preamble: I apologize up front about the spoilers in this review. They are hidden, but if you don't want to know some of the spoilers, don't click on them! Fair warning!

Review: I read this at the encouragement of one of my kids, who dearly loves this book. So let me state right up front, buddy, I'm glad you loved this book. Now I'm going to express my opinion. Please remember that we're all allowed to have our opinions, even if mine is wrong.

Now, I didn't hate The Maze Runner by any means. But I didn't love it either. It was . . . likable. Likeable, but not loveable. Perhaps I'm just too jaded to really appreciate YA fiction (though I did love The Amulet of Samarkand. Speaking of which, I really need to reread it and write a review). Maybe I'm getting too old to appreciate YA characters (though I really connected with Ender of Ender's Game).

In any case, I think the real problem is that Dashner got some things backwards. I was frankly put off by the blatant foreshadowing or, more appropriately, "backshadowing" that Dashner used like a blunt object to hit readers over the head with information. The (view spoiler) that provides so much of the impetus for the plot could have been carefully employed to maneuver the reader's thoughts and emotions into place for a brilliant ending. But I felt that Dashner used it as a cheap parlor trick.

He also misses the opportunity to really make the reader care deeply about (view spoiler) relationship, not to mention the relationship between Thomas and Chuck, (view spoiler). Rather than allowing Thomas to love deeply and passionately, which would have endeared readers to him (and others), the (view spoiler) got in the way of us getting to know and love him, flattening him out as a character.

The plot itself is strange and intriguing. Because this is the first book in a series, I found the ending unsatisfactory. I sort of want to read the next book, since I'd like to understand some of the mysteries, and I want to give Dashner the chance to redeem himself, but time being what it is, I'm not rushing to the bookstore to add the sequel to my TBR pile.

I suspect that if you're willing to go the distance, and if you're not an over-educated snob like me, you might love this book. Again, I'm not in love with it, but I'm in like with it. Maybe, some date in the future, if/when I read the sequels, I might bump the star rating up. But for the meantime, The Maze Runner remains stuck in the maze at 3 stars.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cobalt 60

Cobalt-60Cobalt-60 by Vaughn Bodé
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A strange book in so many ways, Cobalt 60 is a posthumous collaboration between the late Vaughn Bode and his son Mark Bode. Many have referred to Bode (the elder)as a hippie, but Cobalt 60 is anything but a story about peace and love and flowers. The plot is not terribly complex, but is satisfying enough, with a comically self-deprecating ending that carries the "peasant girl is really a princess" trope to its only logical, and ridiculous, conclusion. The dialogue ranges from informal to obscene. The artwork is what really pushes this from a 3 to a 4 star book, for me. Tracing the dates of when each was conceptualized and realized, it becomes clear that Cobalt 60 served as a strong artistic inspiration to Ralph Bakshi's movie Wizards. One also sees in the Bodes' work a powerful influence on much of the adult comic art of the late '70s and '80s as manifest in such magazines as Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated (Mark Bode's comics have appeared in both, incidentally). This world of aliens, mutants, swords, and science fiction is brought to vivid life through the Bodes' bleak, yet endearing scenes of desolation. Even at it's most violent and bloody, the post-apocalyptic world of Cobalt 60 is, somehow, cute. Take, for instance, the horde of man-and-crocodile-eating mutant crocodile soldiers. They are stupid, crass, crude, trigger happy, cannibalistic, and, darn it, really loveable! Even the Cobalt 60's arch-nemesis, the diminutive Strontium 90, could be marketed as a plushy doll by some enterprising toy company. Cobalt 60, the serious butt-(and head)-kicking assassin is a brooding, terse figure who takes himself so seriously that his ultimate fate seems perfectly fitting and ironic.

Recommended for those who like artistic hippies who have been corrupted by a libertarian streak and post-apocalyptic sword and laser fiction that glowers, then laughs at itself. Nihilistic and heartwarming at the same time - perfect for those with a dark sense of humor, but without the stark sarcasm oftentimes present in such works.

If you can't find the work at a decent price, you might want to go to Mark Bode's website and drop him a line. That's how I found my copy - straight from the source. Of course, that was a few years back. Good luck!

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization

Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western CivilizationLanguage of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization by Marija Gimbutas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gimbutas' seminal (I use the word ironically) work is a beautiful, yet flawed, artifact. The plethora of images showing carvings and etchings on neolithic pottery and statuary, for the most part, is astounding and worth the price of the book alone. Gimbutas provides a taxonomy of these neolithic (and some paleolithic and some bronze age) patterns and representations based on her idea that there was once a Mother Goddess cult that spread from Anatolia into Eastern Europe between the 8th and 3rd centuries, BC.

As a catalog of neolithic imagery, the book is commendable. One can even accept that several of the themes represented were common across large geographical areas and over long periods of human history. The universally-awe-inspiring notions of life, death, and rebirth seem to have inspired much of this art. An obvious example of the neolithic understanding of these themes comes in the form of a burial of an older community member in a fetal position within a womb-shaped tomb. This theme is repeated at several locations over the course of thousands of years.

But at a certain point, Gimbutas' theoretical notions become questionable at best. For example, her claim that "Whirls and four-corner designs are symbols of becoming and the turnings of cyclical time." OK...says who? Says you? Give me some documentation. Show me your line of reasoning. I want EVIDENCE!

This is the book's fatal flaw - the scientific method here has been flirted with, then abandoned. Gimbutas puts forth several suppositions that are sketchy, at best, and completely unfounded, at their worst. Especially in her longer essays, Gimbutas flies off into a new-age, clearly agenda-driven never-never land without providing hard evidence for her claims, many of which are based on assumptions of cultures long-dead onto which she maps her own interpretation of Greek (particularly Minoan) myth and, sometimes, even modern Jungian psychological analysis (I'm not kidding).

Nevertheless, the book is a valuable jumping off point for further research and, for myself, ideas that inform my own fiction (as opposed to her's). In fact, some of the symbolism of my current novel in progress is derived directly from Gimbutas' interpretation of the Mother Goddess cult artifacts. So I'd be dishonest if I didn't say the work was inspiring and that I stand on the shoulders of fictional giants disguised as legitimate scientists.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers

Salem Brownstone: All Along the WatchtowersSalem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If it was possible to divorce the art of this graphic novel from its underlying story, I would be writing a five star review. Nikhil Singh's artwork is stunning - the sort of thing that would be seen by Aubrey Beardsley and Franz Kafka if the two were to share an acid blotter. It truly is gorgeous and intricate work in the grim vein of Edward Gorey, but with greater detail and an expressionistic streak that contorts (I use the word deliberately) the art noveau baseline.

The story, however, is hackneyed and feels like it stutters throughout. I was never really drawn in by the plot, though the title character is, if not believable, at least distinct from the rest of the characters in the book (most of which I felt were carbon copies of each other or different aspects of a single Gothotype). Dunning distributes deus ex-machina like cheap peppermint candy canes being handed out by a department store Santa, and his lead-the-reader-by-the-nose method of explaining what should organically percolate out of dialogue, staging, etc, is off-putting.

It's really a shame that such a poor plotline could spoil such wonderful artwork. Yet another graphic novel that should have no words, but half-again the art, which could have been used to great effect to tell the story without telling the story.

One star for plot, five stars for art - we meet in the middle, unfortunately, at three stars.

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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Keeping it Honest on Goodreads, part II

Previously, I went on a bit of a rant regarding Goodreads and paid reviews. This blog entry has had more views than any of my other entries (my dark chocolate entry holds the honor of second place - guess you can tell what's most important to people, huh?), so it must have hit a chord. Call me naive, but I think that Goodreads readers, by and large, want to keep the site unsullied by the obvious conflict-of-interest created by paid reviews.

But I'm suspicious (call me pessimistic) of one thing on Goodreads: I wonder how many readers have actually read the books they've claimed to read? I understand that some people use Goodreads of a catalog of what they've read, so they might not necessarily be inclined to review as many books as some of us more prolific reviewers. But I must admit that my perceptions of potential Goodreads friends are colored by the quantity and quality of reviews put out by that individual.

I actively seek Goodreads friends that 1) can point me to good books, 2) aren't afraid to point out bad books, 3) thoughtfully review at least a good portion of the books they read, 4) have reading interests similar to mine, 5) have read widely in several different genres, and 6) like to interact, rather than just give star ratings. Not all of these criteria need to be met for me to say "yes," and I don't put artificial roadblocks in front of potential friends (such as "If you have more friends than books, don't try bother friending me," which, while I understand the desire to discourage obnoxious authors from spamming you with their books, seems like the height of reverse-elitism). But I want proof of at least a couple of these criteria before I pull the trigger on reading friendship.

From this it should be pretty obvious as to why I view Goodreads readers who rate books, but don't have any reviews, with a little suspicion. Sometimes, I must admit viewing them with a lot of suspicion. This is especially true when I see reviewers who have rated hundreds (or even thousands) of books, given 5* ratings to several "difficult" books (Finnegans Wake, Catcher in the Rye, The Tunnel, Molloy, Gravity's Rainbow, you probably know the type of books I mean), yet have not written a review, or whose reviews seem like a repeat of a Wikipedia plot summary. And when I see someone give 5* to something like, say, Jurassic Park (no offense, fun book, but not one of literature's great achievements) and then give 1* to one of the books mentioned above, I want to know why. Why did Jurassic Park deserve 5* at the same time the literary greats mentioned above get 1*?

In the interest of full disclosure, I gave Catcher in the Rye 1* mostly because I hate the protagonist (just did NOT connect with Holden at all) and think the book is highly over-rated. That said, I've friended many people who've rated it a 5* book. We might disagree strongly, but if they can at least convince me that they've read it and have weighed the book's merits, I'm good with that. I've actually learned a lot from reviewers with whom I disagree, gained insights, and viewed things from points of view that I otherwise would not have even considered.

In the end, my judgement may be wrong. Maybe I see ill intent (specifically the intent to appear more well-read, more intellectual, or more populist than one really is) where there is none. Call me paranoid. Or call me diligent in trying to protect what I hope to be a safe-haven of intellectual honesty and ethical behavior. Call me a man of contradiction and sloppy logic. Smear my name all over the interwebs. But please keep it honest on Goodreads.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Around Lake Monona - This Time For Real

Last Spring, I made my initial, unsuccessful foray to walk around Lake Monona. This time: Mission Accomplished! It took me 2 hours and 40 minutes to make it the 11.56 miles from my house to my house. Here's the view from halfway:

I've discovered that there are many, many parks along the rim of Lake Monona. And, unlike my neighborhood, much of the lake is accessible public property, especially around the Isthmus. It's in Monona that people have gobbled up the shoreline with lakeside condos and homes.

I've also discovered that there are several effigy mounds on the hills of the northeast side of the lake. In fact, there's a statue commemorating the effigy mounds called the Effigy Tree, pictured here:

About 3/4 of the way through, I stopped in at a place that I've wanted to visit for a long time, but never took the time to do so: Rossi's Vintage Arcade. It is exactly what it purports to be, an old skool video game and pinball arcade attached to a pizzeria. I saw in there, with my own two eyes, a cave containing my childhood. Wall-to-wall video games, each only $.25 (except for a couple of $.50 pinball games). I know where my monthly allowance is going. Tempest, Galaga, Missile Command, Joust, and, yes, even the Twilight Zone Pinball Game, and a bevy of others are all there, like a resurrected graveyard of my past. I'm not going to lie, people, I almost cried. Seriously. For some reason I have a hankering to go watch Heavy Metal and stay up all night playing AD&D (the *real* version - 1st Edition)! Incidentally, it looks like French TV is going to be doing a TV series based on Metal Hurlant, aka Heavy Metal Magazine. I'll need to learn French now.

Alas, I still had to travel on and my legs reminded me of my age. So I stopped and snapped a photo of this Little Free Library in Monona:

For the uninitiated, the Little Free Library is a volunteer program where citizens buy an artistic . . . well, little library, and set it up in their yard. You walk by, you take a book, you replace it with another book. Unfortunately, most of the books in this one were tripe disguised with the words "New York Times Best Seller". Not to say that NYT can't have a bestseller that's a good book, but none of these were those. There was even one in there by Jodi Picoult. By the way, if Jodi Picoult is your favorite author and you and I somehow became goodreads friends, we'd better end the relationship now. It'll be best for both of us, trust me.

So there you have it. My epic trek around Lake Monona. I'll have to do it again sometime . . . after the lake has frozen and rethawed. In the meantime, I've got some arcade games to play.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Stirring the Mirror

Stirring the MirrorStirring the Mirror by Christine Boyka Kluge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An ethereal look into the mirror. Ghostly and inescapable. I first caught a glimpse of these reflections years ago when I stumbled across Christine Boyka Kluge's work in the online magazine Diagram. I was impressed by her dexterous use of language, the clever (but not "twee") turn of phrase, and the ability to hang dark, weighty implications behind light, flowing language. In fact, I was impressed enough that I asked her to submit work for my anthology Text:UR, The New Book of Masks. All of her works that I published in Text:UR are present in this collection, along with a diamond mine of scintillating literature. Somewhere between poetry and prose, Kluge's little fictions are bulging with infinity between the words, straining to burst out upon the world, but held back by the author's deft and subtle hand, inviting the reader to reach out with her or his mind in order to grasp the implications behind the text, rather than spoon-feeding blatant plot to the reader's eyes.

The imagery of these fictions is layered and rich, as in "Funnel Cloud":

Like a gargantuan screw, the black cloud carves its way through the miniature landscape. A wheat field uncoils like pencil shavings; crows and shingles scatter like graphite dust. Holsteins, hens, and a swayback mare spiral inside the wind's embrace, then plunge like darts into the orchard.

But the work in Stirring the Mirror isn't about image alone. Kluge has a gift for portraying emotion in a deliciously grim sort of way. Take, for instance, the opening lines of "Jar of Bees":

He stored his anger like a swarm of killer bees in a baby food jar, then hid the jar in the musty dumbwaiter at his core. The passageway under his ribs was dark and drafty, echoing with a warning buzz. Black static surrounded the space once occupied by an incandescent heart.

Links to some of Kluge's work appear at her blog. But to get the full immersive effect of her work, I strongly recommend buying yourself a copy of Stirring the Mirror and walking through these typographical veils that hide worlds. Strongly recommended!

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Wuthering Heights

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*Spoiler Warning!*

It's difficult to comment on such a classic without sounding trite. I have to say, though, that I find Heathcliff to be one of the most compelling characters out there. I didn't find him immediately evil and, in fact, I rather felt for the guy up until he gets physical with his soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Those intense feelings of jealousy and consternation over the ambiguities of his friend/love, as well as the injured sense of justice that he holds - honestly, I've felt all those things rather deeply, at times (more particularly in my teenage years). I felt a great deal of sympathy for the man.

Then things suddenly went wrong. His manipulations of conversations, others' weaknesses, and legalities I can understand, though I myself would never use such tactics. But when he gets downright physically abusive, he crossed the line from emo-with-a-cause to bullying jerk. Suddenly, I found myself despising the man.

In the end, though, I again found myself sympathetic to his madness. The obsession and drive that kept him alive, yearning, and reaching for "his" Catherine were qualities to be admired, to some degree, though with eyes averted enough that onlookers won't think that they are being admired. I found it fitting that this same drive pushed him closer and closer to the death he secretly welcomed. The closer he came to seeing Catherine again, the closer he came to death, and the happier he was. Heathcliff was everything an emo aspires to, always reaching for the unattainable and only satisfied when dying in the process.

Yes, there are a plethora of other characters, each with their own complexity (I am a particular fan of Catherine Earnshaw, a marvelously complex person), but the real action, the real driver behind it all is Heathcliff. Love him or hate him or vacillate back and forth (like I did), he is the engine behind the plot and forms the other characters (sometimes by carving through them).

As far as the writing goes, it's Victorian writing - overwrought, purple, baroque, at times tedious, at times brilliant. My only complaint was the insistence on phonetically spelling out some of the thicker Yorkshire accents. This became a little over the top and I found myself skimming whenever Joseph spoke.

And there's that self-righteous Nelly. Argh. If I had Nelly nagging me and preachifying all the time I might just find myself digging up the body of my dead former girlfriend and . . . well, that explains a whole lot, doesn't it?

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