Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Luck


I found a four leaf clover on Friday. Within three hours of that, I had a brand new TV, which came with a free DVD player. Considering that the two TV's my family owned prior to that were both teenagers, and represented the pinnacle of TV technology in the early 90’s, the new addition to the family is most welcome.

Just to show off, here is the clover, together with a normal three leaf clover form the same stem.



On a side note, why is finding a deformed reject considerred lucky? If I came across a five-legged cat, would I get a new car?
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On Eating in Order


I had a special request to explain my eating habits. It’s a complicated process developed over the last twenty years of my life, and I have no idea how it started. It’s probably OCD, but I can’t guarantee that. It might be related to whatever it is that makes me arrange my books in descending height order on my shelves, and use a ruler to make sure they line up with the spines the same distance from the front of the shelf. It might also have to do with the fact that I keep a spirit level in my room to make sure the pictures are straight on the wall. It’s not that I’m a neat freak – a single glance at anything I own will instantly disprove that – but it’s just some inexplicable urge inside that makes me want to do things a certain way.

These are not rules, you must understand. I am not bound by them. When it comes to eating, I actually break them all the time. I really just eat things in the order I prefer. It's actually a coincidence that the order is so technical. In fact, it’s actually a simple case of “save the best for last”, combined with the fact that I don’t like mixed flavours.

When I eat, I always start with the vegetables. If there are a variety of vegetables on the plate, it really depends on which vegetables I prefer. It’s purely coincidence that I normally eat vegetables in descending order of the wavelength of their reflected light. The order is slightly mixed up. I start on green, and then work my way down the wavelengths to purple. I then take a jump up in wavelength, and then work my way down through red and orange and finally finish off on yellow. I then work in ascending order of luminosity. Darker vegetables are eaten first, while lighter vegetables are eaten afterward. Inevitably, this leads me to eating the starch last. One exception to the above rule is if the vegetable are those that are contained within something else, such as a sauce, or vegetables on a roll, or in a pie. The loose vegetables are dealt with first, and then I move on to the rest. Another exception is made with vegetables that are essentially the same as another vegetable of a different colour. In these cases, both types are grouped into one of the vegetables. For example, red and yellow peppers are classified as dark green, because they are basically the same as green peppers. Likewise, broccoli is classified as almost white, since it’s not really that different to cauliflower (and I just happen to really like broccoli).

Once the vegetables are out of the way, I get to the real food. The principle here is simple. Vegetables go in the same order as described above, then meat, and cheese always comes last. For example, a typical burger will be eaten in the following order: lettuce; tomato; onion; bun; patty (although this may be shortened by eating the bun with one or more of the garnish ingredients in, to save time. The patty is only included in the case of takeaways, in which case taking a burger apart is awkward).

There are a few exceptions: pasta comes after meat, but before cheese; pickles come after meat but before pasta; and guacamole or avocado comes before meat and after starch.

As I eat each stage, I make sure that no food is wasted. I get as many crumbs off the plate as possible without putting in much effort.

If you think I’m crazy, I agree. I’ll accept any donations towards psychiatrist fees.

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On Not Very Much


Take a breath, because this is quite a sentence. I’ve made good use of the semicolon and comma, but they can only do so much.

In this modern age, when almost every aspect of society is dominated by science and technology; when living creatures can be grown from a single cell in a lab; when chemistry is at such an advanced stage that we can make any food, with any flavour, from its component elements; when all the nutrients needed for a living organism to grow strong and healthy can be contained in a concentrated liquid; when modern technology has made available to us dense liquid sprays and odourless pellets that will keep our grass thick and green for the whole of summer; why, then, do we insist on covering our lawns with, quite literally, shit, in the middle of summer, when we know that the heat is just going to make it stink, and that, together with everyone in our neighbourhood, we are going to have to live with an unbearable stench for the next week or two?

And then people accuse pigs of being filthy.
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On Libraries Part II


I wrote about the new library system before. The system requires users to log on each time they want to search the database. Some of the workstations have speakers, and in a library where everyone glares at you when you turn pages too loudly, the computer blasts forth the Windows log on sound (You know which one I’m talking about). It’s been like that for a couple of weeks, and no one’s changed it yet. Those darn penguins are trying to ruin the education system again.
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On Common Language Part III: The Alphantoesicrifersii


Actually, that’s ‘alphanumericsheeppig’. As in the address to this blog. It’s not that difficult to get. I understand when a person accidentally calls it ‘alphanumericsheepdog’, and that’s OK. Even I occasionally throw a goat in. (Not literally, mind you. Goats, like sheep, are rather difficult to throw. Rabbits are much easier to throw, but I don’t tend to throw them in that often.)

What I cannot understand is ‘alphantoesicrifersii’. It’s not even a word. Google currently returns zero results for it. It does not exist in the public space on the internet, and, as far as I’m concerned, that means it does not exist. I suspect that by tomorrow, Google will have found it, but that’s what Google is. Google is the collective mind of the human race, so if one man makes something up, then so does Google.

‘Alphantoesicrifersii’ is what my cellphone’s predictive text setting offers me when I type ‘alphanumericsheeppig’. I’ve always wondered what made the programmer put that in. Is it unique to my cellphone? And what does it mean? Does it even have a meaning? If not, then does that mean that I am allowed to give a meaning to it? Surely if my meaning gets generally accepted, then the word will be included in a dictionary, and I will have made a contribution to the English language. It’s unlikely, but it would be nice. All I need is for everyone I know to use the word regularly in casual conversation.

The new definition is:
Alphantoesicrifersii: /‘æl.f æn.tuː.zɪk . /hɜː. rɪf. ər. siː/ (v.) (1) the inclusion of an absolutely pointless entry in a list, just for the sake of having fun, or (2) the inclusion of said word for no particular reason, or (3) being in the state of boredom that could lead one to want to include said word in said list.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Google Part VIII: A Pencil's Kinetic Energy


A Google search that somehow lead to this blog (I have no idea how) was “kinetic energy of a pencil landed on the carpet”. I’m quite proud of this, since it’s a scientific topic (probably from a 10 year old, but still). The answer is quite simply zero. Once it has landed, it has no kinetic energy. If we change the question slightly, and consider a pencil an instant before it lands on the carpet, things become a bit more interesting. Neglecting air friction, and assuming an average sized wooden pencil dropped from an average table, you’re looking at about 30 mJ, or in imperial units, 0.007 cal. If you’re looking at the explosive energy (as in kiloton explosive), it’s about 7 millionths of a gram. Not very worthwhile, if you ask me. If you want to drop a decent amount of kinetic energy on your carpet, consider dropping a truck off a cliff.

Taking air resistance into account (since I have no excuses), you’ll have a Reynold’s number of about 2000 (at sea level on a slightly warm day), nowhere near enough to cause turbulence in the boundary layer, and lose about 0.7 mJ if the pencil falls sideward. If the pencil falls point down, then your Reynold’s number is a bit higher at 40000, which means you’ve got slightly less skin friction. Not to mention that the pressure drag is way down. If that happens, you only lose about 0.1 mJ of kinetic energy.

I bet your Google search didn’t tell you that… all you would have found, if you fixed up your search, was the good old Ek = ½.m.v^2 and Ep = m.g.h formulae.
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On Convenient Parking Spaces


I have seen this twice in the past couple of weeks – once at university and once at a shopping centre. Obviously, the best parking space is the one closest to the entrance. And if there is room for an extra parking space even closer (even if it is not really a parking space), then that is even better. I’m not talking about those that drive up onto the pavement (that’s what SUVs are for, didn’t you know?), but simply those who will park in the road, obstructing traffic, just so that they don’t have to walk.

This sort of thing is quite popular at both locations, and so those that look after such things at their respective workplaces organised for a no parking sign to be placed next to the last parking space, just to remind people that there is no closer parking.

In the past two weeks, I have seen two people stop, get out of their cars, move the no parking sign out of their way, and then park there.

I know I would get really fed up if I got a parking ticket (because I never intentionally park illegally), but I always wonder, would these people pay the fine without complaining?
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On Advertising


Advertising can be hilarious. It’s amazing what lengths people go through to make their product seem appealing. A recent campaign on billboards throughout the city made me laugh, but here’s another advert that made me laugh a bit. How it is relevant, I don’t know.



That was just a diversion. The thing I really wanted to talk about is the recent advertising campaign around the city by Multichoice, advertising DSTV. They use three mini-billboards attached to three consecutive street light poles. They show a single scoop ice-cream for R5 a day and advertise a basic package. Then a double scoop ice-cream for R8 a day, and advertise a medium level package. Then they show a triple scoop ice-cream for R15 a day, and advertise a full package. The intention is to say that DSTV is cheap and affordable if you look at it on a daily cost basis.

The truth is, if I had the choice between DSTV and a triple scoop ice-cream, then ignoring the health risks, I’d take a triple scoop ice-cream every day. I understand that they are just trying to say that sacrificing just one ice-cream a day is all you need to do to afford DSTV. The problem is that I do not know a single person who has ice-cream every day. I probably never will, since they’re probably too huge to make it through the door.

The whole thing reminds me of a life insurance advert that used to be on TV when I was in high school. It was a ridiculously long advert. I think it was during the infomercials (which I used to watch during school holidays, having not much else to do). I remember the line “For no more than the price of a sandwich a day, you and your family can have the cover they deserve.” It’s a good point, but the choice of airing time was a bit poor. They used to show shortly before noon – roughly the time my stomach was starting to point out (rather loudly, the way someone would point something out after a night (and probably afternoon and morning) of non-stop drinking) that a sandwich would be a much more welcome right then.

If you expect people to sacrifice a meal for your product, then it had better be an incredible product.
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On Door Handle Sparks


It’s quite annoying that door handles enjoy shocking people that use them. I understand that they might want to be left alone, but some of us need to go places, and it’s really inconsiderate to play practical jokes like that. Why can’t all door handles be made of plastic (like on car doors), so that they don’t shoot of sparks.

The computer labs at university are particularly guilty of this. I can avoid getting the unexpected shock by expecting it. This makes it much more bearable. I brush the back of my hand against the handle to discharge it first. I still get shocked, but at least it’s not unexpected. This habit has probably made it much worse for me when I actually do get shocked unexpectedly. When leaving the computer lab, the door is unlocked by moving your student card across a sensor. My student card is connected to a chain of key rings, with a key on the end. Occasionally, the key swings and bumps the metal door frame. Occasionally, part of a key ring is touching the palm of my hand. People always stare when you suddenly jump and pull your hand back, causing the keys to jingle. It would probably be quite funny to watch, if it were someone else doing it.

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On Pointing Things Out


My mind is quite simple. It can only focus on a very limited number of things at a time. I also think very deeply, and slowly, and when I do, I am essentially disconnected from the outside world. Because of this, I usually don’t notice something until its pointed out.

When winter gets going, I don’t notice the weather changing. I wake up each morning, and get dressed for summer. Yes, it might be cold then, and it probably is, but how am I supposed to know. I don’t religiously watch weather reports or read thermometers. (I actually do have a thermometer next to my bed, but apart from a midsummer evening (when it is accurate to within 2°C) it says nothing more than too hot or too cold. The problem is that it’s been there for the last ten years, so I don’t notice it anymore.) Several hours later someone asks me, “Aren’t you cold?” It takes a few seconds for it to sink in, and then I’m shivering for the rest of the day.

People that point things out are very inconsiderate.

They are doing road works late at night not that far from my house. If the wind is just right (which it has been for the last couple of weeks), then the beeping of reversing trucks travels through the air and reaches my house. It’s actually quite loud, but I didn’t notice until my mother mentioned that she hadn’t been able to sleep for two nights because of it. Of course, that night, I kept hearing the beeping. (Luckily, it didn’t affect my sleep. I could sleep through the end of the world.)

People shouldn’t point out annoying things. Wait… I do that all the time, don’t I?

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On Going Forward in Simple English


Have you been listening to business reports on the radio recently? Ten years ago, people would have said “taking a long-term view”, but over the last few months, people have started saying “looking at things going forward”. It’s strange watching language evolve right in front of your eyes. I understand that it is the popular way to put it at the moment, and that it’s trying to sound modern, but it really does sound like they’re adapting their speech for a Wikipedia Simple English article.

I’ve always wondered how these things started out. I can see one person in an office who wants to sound modern and different. (Probably the guy who’s away every second week on a “effective management” course, and not embarrassed to wear a bright yellow shirt to a meeting. He doesn’t wear ties, but if he did, it would probably be neon purple. In other words, the attention seeker.) He’s sick of hearing everyone using the same words, so he comes up with a new way of saying something, just to sound different. Because its so funny, everyone starts mimicking it, and before they know it, they start using his words unintentionally. At first it is “Bob in the corner office” who has the weird way of talking. Then suddenly it’s “those guys in marketing”, then “those guys on the seventh floor”. For a brief time, it becomes “those guys at head office”, and then suddenly, no one notices any more since it’s the accepted way. Suddenly, the previous term sounds old fashioned.

(On a side note: This whole idea of a large group picking up a mannerism from some one else happens all the time. In third year, we had a lecturer who ended every sentence with a ‘with’ or ‘of’. He had very good technical English, and would give a clear and well structured sentence and end off with an ‘of’. “The controller sends a 24V signal which triggers the contactor, and this switches off the motor of.” I can’t say that it wasn’t funny, and in time, some of my classmates (me included) found ourselves doing it occasionally. It took a couple of months to lose the habit.)
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Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Some Vaguely Related Ideas


It’s been winter for so long now, but it’s finally over. Spring is here, and the insect eggs that have been lying dormant for the last six months are starting to hatch. Those creatures that eat insects are coming out of hiding. The birds are returning from the warmer north, and overnight, a pair of doves managed to permanently fix the pool brush to the wall with their nest. Along with the insects, the spiders have also come out of hiding.

In order to get away from the birds, spiders are attracted indoors, but they prefer the dark and damp places away from human activity. The perfect place is behind bookshelves, but the drains appear to offer a seemingly suitable alternative. Unfortunately, they are suitable for a single day, at most, because each evening, at more or less the same time, I run the bath.

A week ago, a spider had decided to make its home in the plughole of the bath. It was not a smart choice, although it was not a fatal mistake. Without noticing the spider, I ran the bath and got in. Relaxing in the bath, I felt a tickling feeling on my left ear. I brushed it, and thought nothing of it. But the feeling persisted, and seemed to be moving across my ear. I submerged that side of my head to try get rid of it, and when I came up, I noticed a spider floating in the water. I was raised to never hurt spiders, so I picked it up and placed it on the floor, and blew it to dry it a bit. It lay motionless for a while, but eventually got up and moved away. Thinking nothing of it, I continued with my normal routine.

That night, while lying in bed, my ear was starting to itch slightly. By the next morning, it felt like it was on fire. By afternoon, the base of my ear was swollen and red, and the skin felt bruised. That night, the pain in my ear forced me to sleep on my right hand side, which is something I don’t often do.

I am deaf in my right ear, and if I block out my left ear, I shut out the world. That makes it really easy to sleep. Lying with my deaf ear against the pillow, my left ear was open to the world, and I was reminded of the loud night-time world that I was so used to being able to just switch off.

I used to wear a hearing aid. I still would, if my ear didn’t reject it. I will be getting an unconventional type of hearing aid soon. It’s just a matter of waiting for the equipment to arrive in the country, and scheduling an operation. A few weeks ago, I was trying out a test version of this hearing aid, and I noticed that the volume control had numbers marked on it to indicate the level. To turn the hearing aid off, you turn the volume right down to zero. There is a slight click to indicate that the device is switched off. When you put the device on, it should be switched off; otherwise it sends really loud feedback pulsing through your skull. Once it is connected properly, then you can set the volume to the desired level, which you do by ear. You turn the wheel until it sounds right. Why do little numbers have to show the level, when the device is attached to the side of your head where you can’t see it, and you have to turn the volume off to remove the device anyway? It’s just another case of someone not thinking.

Like all volume control switches, it is impossible to set it exactly where you want it. It’s always just to loud, or just to quiet. It’s like most controls, actually. Especially air conditioners. The setting you want is always in between something. The room will either be too hot or too cold. One lecture theatre at the university is particularly bad. What made things worse, was that when the unit had been installed, someone had had the idea of sealing up all the windows. The air in the room was always dry and stale, no matter what the weather outside was, and although the air conditioner has a range of temperatures which the control pad implies that it is able to maintain, the unit only ever seemed to have two settings – namely “off” and “arctic blizzard”. Having it on made the air too dry and leaving it off made the room to stuffy. Last year, our class decided that the best solution would just be to open to windows. One day, with the aid of an electric drill with a screwdriver attachment, the class managed to unseal some of the windows. It worked. The room is still never the right temperature, but at least the air is breathable.

Having the electric drill, a couple of us decided to play a prank on a class mate. This involved drilling a couple of holes in his pencil case, and bolting it closed. A touch of super glue made sure that it would stay bolted shut permanently. This year, we played a prank on the same student. While a couple of people distracted him, someone managed to remove his calculator from his bag. During a break, a friend and I went to a nearby room and dismantled his calculator. We put it back together carefully, making sure that the ‘plus’, ‘multiply’, ‘subtract’ and ‘divide’ buttons were switched around.

In primary school, when I still had a cheap simple calculator, I used to take it apart and randomly arrange the buttons so that no one would steal my calculator. There was also a polarised film over the display, and turning it over would invert the colours on the screen. I used to love the fact that my calculator looked completely different to anyone else’s. Unfortunately, my calculators are far more complicated now, and rather than using a cheap plastic film, the glass in the display is polarised. That makes the calculator slightly less customisable, and it annoys me that my calculator looks so much like everyone else’s.

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On Disabled Parking


Not parking that is incapacitated, but parking that is reserved for disabled people.

I understand the need for it. When I was in high school, I injured my knee quite badly in a hockey game, and I landed up on crutches for a while. Looking back at that time, I sympathise with disabled people and the elderly who have difficulty walking, and I understand why the best parking spaces are reserved for them. What I don’t understand is why people who can’t walk altogether and need wheelchairs are allowed to park there. Especially those people who use electric wheelchairs.

It takes far more effort for me to walk from the furthest parking space to the entrance than it does for someone to simply hold a lever forward until he gets there.

I think that the furthest parking space in each parking lot should be made 50% wider, and reserved for wheelchair users. It’s time they stopped being so lazy and let the real crippled people use the parking spaces that were intended for them.
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Monday, September 7, 2009

On Google - Part VII: On Google - Part VII


I already knew that the programmers at Google had a sense of humour, but I have just discovered another nice touch. Try Google 'recursion'. There is another interesting post about this here.

(On a side note for those who don't know what recursion is, do the following:
  1.   Proceed to step 2.
  2.   Proceed to step 3.
  3.   Repeat steps 1 to 2.)
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Sunday, September 6, 2009

On Unfinished Work


I’ve realized that I’ve managed to finish all of my blog posts so far (I hope). You should realize that that’s unusual for me. I hardly ever finish stuff. Admittedly, most posts do sit as half finished drafts for weeks, but you’d still expect that s

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On Common Language Part II


A word that’s always fascinated me is ‘terrific’. The true meaning of this word, if one looks at the origins, and follows the rules of language, the meaning is “invokes terror”. So next time you say “That was terrific”, bear in mind that you are actually saying is “That invoked terror.”

I have heard that some parts of Europe use the word ‘terrible’ instead of ‘terrific’. This led to some mild confusion when someone told me “That band’s terrible. I love them.” Terrible would actually mean that it had the potential to invoke terror.

Its really weird how people twist the meanings of words over time.

(On a side note: No this idea wasn’t planted in my head by Terry Pratchett’s description of elves. The idea was there long before that, but when I did read it, it made me think, “Exactly!”)

(On a completely unrelated side note, it’s almost a year since Collin’s English Dictionary wanted to remove the word ‘skirr’ from the English language, saying it’s archaic and no longer in common use. I think its an awesome word (i.e, invokes awe). For those who don’t know, it’s the term used for the sound a birds wing makes as it moves through the air. The only nice formal definition I’ve been able to find is: skirr (skʉr): (v) to move, run, fly, etc. swiftly and, occasionally, with a whirring sound; (n) a whirring sound.)
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On Pokemon


It’s a perfect example of good intentions without a thought for the consequences. I admit that I was really into Pokémon years ago. More the Gameboy games and the trading card games than the TV show. For those of you unfamiliar with the games, the idea is more mature than you think.

The basic story line of the TV show involves a boy in a magical world with a huge variety of cute and loving creatures. For some reason, there are no schools in this world, and kids are free to wonder around and explore the world on their own. The children are encouraged to capture the creatures and care for them, and respect them. It’s a good message to send out to children. Interesting concept, but no one over the age of four would want to watch it, and no one under that age would understand the message.

The problem is that the TV show was based on a series of video games, aimed at a different audience. The basic idea is that the player collects and trains an army of monsters to take part in one-on-one battles with creatures trained by others. These battles involved attacking your opponent until it "faints” (i.e. is knocked unconscious). They required an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your monsters and their attacks, and those of your enemies. (If it weren’t for the fact that you could just level up and then be unstoppable, they would have been quite technical games.)

It’s an interesting idea for a TV show to teach young children to respect animals, but were the Pokémon games really the best source for the story?

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On Settling Houses


It’s weird how old buildings have creaks and groans. You actually expect that sort of thing to happen in horror movies, and those houses rarely disappoint. But when your own house starts doing it, it is completely unexpected. Especially when it’s late at night, and you’re home alone.

The piping system in my house has always enjoyed groaning. The pipes would groan whenever a tap was turned on or off in the house, and occasionally, several minutes after a bath had been run, or someone had had a shower, there would be a series of taps and creaks from the roof as the pipes cooled down. When you hear these noises, they are not surprising, since they were caused by something you or someone else in the house did.

Recently, our house has started making the creaking, especially with the end of winter winds that always come in August. I was always led to believe that these noises were just the house “settling”. The noises don’t bother me (I actually like living in a house that likes making noises), and the problem is that I think they should.

Anyone who knows anything about engineering knows instinctively that an unexpected noise is the first warning that something is not right. If your car makes a clunking sound, something’s wrong. Even children know this. If you are climbing a tree, and the branch you are sitting on starts creaking and groaning, you move to a thicker branch. There is a scientific reason for this.

A noise happens when a large amount of energy is released in a relatively short period of time. For example, if you drop something, and it hits the ground, it makes a noise because it has to get rid of its kinetic energy to stop. Or if you snap a branch, it makes a noise because it no longer needs the energy to bond the two sections together. In the case of a structure (like a house), the only energy present is the gravitational potential energy (which is caused by the tendency of the house to fall down. The further the house has to fall, the more gravitational potential energy it has). The only way this energy can be released is in the form of kinetic energy, which means the house is moving. If this kinetic energy were to be lost (which must happen, unless the house is in a free fall), it needs to be dissipated in one of three means. Making a noise is by far the easiest. The second is breaking something, which would in turn lead to a noise. The third is heat caused through friction, which is normally accompanied by some form of noise.

The reason I should be worried, I think, is that each time the house creaks, it is falling slightly. Logic dictates that the house only has a finite number of these noises before it all comes crashing down. I hope it’s just an old penguin with a creaky chair that’s found its way into my roof, because I’d prefer my house to stay up.

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