Carl Banks' Blog

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List of Things I Refuse to Start

I, having been myself for more than 3 and a half decades, have learned a few things about myself. One thing being, I am very good at abstention but very bad at moderation. For this reason there are many things I refuse to do even once, for fear that I might become hooked and have to face the looming burden of abstaining since I don't trust myself to moderate.

Here's a short list of those things.

  • Alcohol
  • Any other drug prone to habit-forming
  • Multiplayer online games
  • Any sleeping pill at all
  • Golf
  • Sudoku
Tags: abstention, moderation
Last Edited: 25 January 2014, 12:44 AM
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Things Americans really are bad at

A lot of times, people on the Internet (and sometimes even in real life), when lamenting some defect in humanity will begin their sentence with the word "Americans", as if Americans are the only people in the world who have questionable societal weaknesses.

Normally I roll my eyes at this. People are people everywhere, and a lot of "America's weaknesses" are really humanity's.

However, culture is also culture, and different cultures are different, so there are bound to be some things America really is bad at. Here are a couple examples I could think of.

  • Schooling. The American educational system isn't bad, per se. We hear a lot of the stories we hear about Taiwanese and German kids learning differential equations in third grade when American kids struggle with adding fractions, but those stories are usually missing some vitally important context (like, for example, maybe the Taiwanese kids have no humanities, art, or history, and represent only the top 2%).

    However, one aspect where Amercian schooling just sucks is the emphasis on obedience, and absolute trust in the instructor. I believe this creates an attitude in Americans that authority is something that must be placated at all times. This carries over to real life. I've noticed that a lot of Americans completely overestimate the risk of confronting management.

    Other countries don't seem to have this issue. People seem to have enjoyed schooling more in other countries, and be more at ease at their work.

  • Geography. I don't really think this is the educational system's fault. We do a reasonable job teaching geography, but for cultural reasons Americans don't retain it, whereas they do much better in other countries. This, I believe, is mostly due to the fact that it doesn't really matter much what direction you are heading in in America, you will end up in a place that speaks the same language and has more or less the same culture, except near somet of the borders.

  • Freeway driving. European philosophy tends to favor not hard limits on speed, as we do in America, but on obeying respectful driving rules such as never cruising in the left lane and not tailgating.

    Street driving, however, is another matter entirely.

  • Another thing that Americans do on the road that is beyond retarded is to merge a mile ahead of a merge point. People who merge early will then get mad when someone who isn't retarded decides to drive down the lane everyone is getting out of.

    Studies have shown that staying in lane and zippering at the merge point will get more cars through the merge faster, and cause traffic to back up less. But that's beside the point. The point is, Americans get irrirated at "cheaters" that they are deliberately enabling. If everyone just stayed in their lane and zippered at the merge point, nobody could "cheat".

    In Europe, people zipper at merges.

Tags: america, driving, education, geography
Last Edited: 27 December 2013, 7:33 PM
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This post will be missed

File this one under the "Is this the kind of thing you spend your time thinking about?" files. I don't care. It bothers me.

If someone close to you dies, do you miss them? If someone you like can't make it to an event you're attending, do you miss them? Of course you do.

So why, if you miss them, do you say, "You will be missed", instead of "I will miss you"? What, are you afraid to commit to it or something? You miss this person, wish they were here, but you can't even muster the never to say it in the active voice.

And don't give be any bull like, "Well, I was just saying it's generally true and is not specific to me." Pshaw. You can say, "We'll all miss you", or, "Everyone will miss you", and not have to be a generalizing non-commital pussy.

So the next time you miss someone, say it, and own it, and don't just generalize.

Tags: passive_voice, rant
Last Edited: 5 November 2013, 10:46 PM
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Books I'm Embarrassed not to Have Read Yet

The other day I was looking for a B read (I was in the middle of my A read) and pondering what I should start on next, began to think about what books I'd be embarrassed if it were revealed that I'd never read it.

Of course, the obvious thing to do in that situation is to make a list and post it publicly on the Internet, so everyone can see what I have never read.

  • Dune, Frank Herbert
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain. (In fact other than a couple short stories I've read almost nothing by Twain.)
  • The Odyssey, Homer
  • Something by Ayn Rand
  • Something by Nietzsche
  • Something by Lovecraft

It was almost painful to think about the situation of admitting I'd never read Dune. That one I'm taking care of right it now.

The Mark Twain was is pretty painful as well. I have to give America its props. America, you may have noticed, doesn't have too many classic writers compared to England. (I believe this is because America was nation-building for its first hundred or so years and had not a many resources to devote to more artistic endeavors. By the time America came into its own as a civilized country, the art form that was drawing all the talent was cinema.) So I really have to read one of the few American authors who can hold his own with the greats.

Ayn Rand and Nietzsche are authors I don't expect to agree with much (except for that irritating little "grain of truth" you know you can't argue with), but part of being well-rounded is exposure to ideas you might not agree with.

Tags: embarrassment, literature
Last Edited: 13 October 2013, 12:14 PM
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Reconstruction of Prehistory in the Kingkiller Chronicle

With all the talk about Game of Thrones lately, which is a series I haven't read and/or seen, I thought it wouldn't be too weird if I wrote a post about another fantasy series I got sucked into, namely the Kingkiller Chronicle, by Patrick Rothfuss.

However, the post is extraordinarily long so I've tagged it as not appearing in the main blog.

Click here for the full version.

Here is the tl;dr version:

  • There are three races: Ruach, Fairies, and Men. Fairies and Ruach are the same species; Fairies are Ruach that have been changed into a new race by Shaping magic.
  • The Shapers created the Faen Realm as a playbox. Iax stole the moon into the playbox and that started the Creation War.
  • The Stormwal mountains are the front of the Creation War. To the west is the Ergen Empire, the Shapers domain, populated entirely by Ruach. To the east is the Knowers Domain, which may be populated by Ruach, but the bulk of the armies is Men.
  • The Knowers' goal is to attack Fae, steal the moon back, and destroy the Fae, and the Ergen empire, but the war never actually made it to the Faen Realm, because it was necessary to conquer all of Ergen first.
  • The Knowers dominate the war until the appearance of Lanre, who turns the tide.
  • Some time after Drossen Tor, Lanre begins to conspire with seven others (inlucing Lyra) against the Empire.
  • Lyra changes her mind, and Lanre kills her in his rage.
  • Lanre speaks tries to get a panacea from the Ctheah and ends up with great power, but can't resurrect Lyra, and falls into despair.
  • Lanre and the Chandrian betray seven cities to the enemy. One city (the city Lyra would have betrayed, Antus, located in present-day Yll) does not fall and the empire is left with hope.
  • The Chandrian set themselves up as kings of the conquered lands. Yll is protected by the Amyr and Singers. The Creation War becomes a stalemate.
  • Yll becomes a civilized society, inventing writing (Yllish knots).
  • At some point, a revolutionary called Taborlin the Great arises in the eastern part of Chandrian lands, and is the first person who is able to defeat the Chandrian, using Shaping magic, and the amazing thing is that he is a human rather than a Ruach.
  • Taborlin frees Tinue, which is henceforth called the Free City, creates a Lockless box the holds the Chandrian's former power, and establishes the Lockless Line.
  • The Chandrian can no longer rule openly and must now strike like lightning from a clear blue sky.
  • Humans in the lands freed by Taborlin begin to make strides in civilization, invent more convenient writing, and quickly overtake Yll in power and knowledge.
  • At beginning of known written history, Ceald develops currency, the Aturan Empire is founded, and the map gels into the form we know today.
  • Wary of the threat posed by Atur, the Amyr use backhanded tactics to gain influence in Aturan empire (namely, they set themselves up as an organization connected to the Tehlin church that had autonomous power in the Aturan empire).
  • When the Aturan empire collapsed, the Amyr went back to being a secret organization.
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Jane Austen's Greatness

I recently think I put my finger on what makes Jane Austen so great, and I did it by comparing her to John Steinbeck, in particular, his novel East of Eden.

East of Eden follows the lives two families in living in the Salinas Valley: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. The Hamiltons are based on Steinbeck's own family on his mother's side (in fact, Steinbeck himself appears in a few scenes as a child). The Trasks, however, are purely fictional.

Steinbeck is not quite at the level of the great classic writers, and East of Eden belies this fact, in my opinion, but in a fascinating way. Comparing the scenes that focus on the Trasks to those that focus on the Hamiltons, it's hard to imagine that they take place in the same universe. The events in the Hamiltons' lives, based on the lives of real people, seem highly familiar and realistic. A few scenes really hit home compared to my own life, such as the scene after Sam Hamilton fainted and his family realized he was getting too old for farm life, and they were all passing a bottle of liquor around deciding what to do.

The Trasks, however, live in a world of subtle fantasy. It's not that the events in their lives weren't real things that happen to people (although there were several events more sensational than most families ever have to deal with). No, the subtle fantasy comes from how the events were arranged to provide a cosmic meaning to the whole thing. Real lives have no comic meaning (that we can discern, anyway), they just happen. Real lives don't have foreshadowing, don't follow a three-act structure, and don't use arc words. The Trasks lives had all these things, and so they seemed fictional compared to the Hamiltons.

I want to point out that this something I felt first, then analysed later. It's the sort of thing that seems bit odd and uncanny while reading, but one doesn't identify the discrepancy until reflecting on the story afterward. I'm fairly certain Steinbeck wasn't doing this on purpose (if he had been I suspect he would have done things to make the contrast more apparent, but who knows?), and that's where he belies his not-quite-among-the-greatest writing ability.

Jane Austen, however, achieves this level of complete realism, but with characters that are completely fictional. I realized that I'd had the same reactions to scenes in Emma and Pride and Prejudice as I'd had to scenes of the Hamiltons in East of Eden, and that's when I realized just how life-like Austen's characters and situations are. For instance, I was awed by the familiarity of the scene when Lizzy and Jane had to correct their mother on aspects of English law. Scenes like this show Austen almost casually finding that familiarity of daily life in her fictional characters that Steinbeck could only find the ones he based on real life.

Oftentimes it's hard to see what makes a particular creator great. But then you reflect on the their works a bit, analyse them a bit, compare and constrast them to other works, and suddenly they rise up to reveal their greatness. It always amazes when that happens.

Tags: jane_austen, john_steinbeck, literature, realism
Last Edited: 8 April 2013, 10:25 PM
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Alien Spaceship, Eh

I found proof of aliens visiting Earth! Here is a photograph capturing an Alien Spaceship on Google Steet View as it flies over the Mackenzie River in northern Canada.

Seriously, it was kind of exciting. I sometimes see cool images on Google street view and wonder how people found them. Now I've found one.

Tags: alien_spaceship, aliens, google_street_view
Last Edited: 7 March 2013, 11:00 PM
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Firefox Pinned Tabs Annoyance

I wanted to write a note about one thing that annoys me in Firefox. I've found out that I like this feature called "Application Tabs" or "Pinned Tabs", where you choose a tab and to be permanently displayed, but with only an icon and no close button.

The tabs have a few deal-breaker problems, though.

  1. They sporadically disappear on restart

  2. If I click on a link to an external site in an application tab, it will load the external site in the application tab, rather than a new tab. This makes it "not actually an application tab".

    I realize that it's not always straightforward to know whether a new page is part of the same website or not, but web pages with a different hostname or top-level domain name are part of a different site the vast majority of the time. And a pattern match can be used for advanced users who want finer control.

  3. If you are looking at a page in an application tab, and you use the browser's URL bar or search bar to go to another site, it loads the new location in the app tab. This is unforgivable. With an embedded link there's some question whether the link points a new site or not; if you go through the URL bar it's obviously a new site and should load in a new tab.

This might be the thing that could push me over to Chrome, if if turns out its application tabs behave better than Firefox's.

Tags: application_tabs, firefox, rant
Last Edited: 1 March 2013, 2:24 PM
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My Coca-Cola Cookie recipe

Here is my recipe for Coca-Cola Cookies. They are kind of like molasses cookies, but without the spices and replacing the molasses with syrupized Coca-Cola. It might be interesting to try this reciple with root beer, ginger ale, or even Pepsi, but I tried it with Coke because A. Coke is a classic American beverage, and B. Coke has an herbal pungency that other drinks don't have.

If you're kinky (and alcoholic) you might even try this with a malty beer and more sugar.


This will make about 30 2-inch cookies.


  • ¾ cup butter
  • 1 cup white sugar, plus sugar to roll cookie dough in
  • 1 pretty-well beaten egg
  • ¾ liters Coca-Cola made with sugar [1]
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt

Making the Coca-Cola Syrup

This it the trickiest part. If you are experienced at making candy you should have no problem, but those who've never made it are going to find this to be a trial-and-error experience.

Short instructions:

Boil the cola until it reaches just below soft ball stage, a temperature of 232°F. The ¾ liters should by then be reduced to about ¼ cup.

Longer instructions:

Boil the ¾ liters of Coke in a saucepan, preferrably a non-stick one. You will need to reduce it to about ½ cup before it needs your attention again; this will take awhile. (This might be a good time to cream the sugar and butter together.)

You should have a temperature measuring device handy: a candy thermometer, or one of those infrared temperature scanners. If you have a candy thermometer, attach it to the saucepan and leave it there, making sure the ball isn't touching the bottom or sides. The nice thing about boiling water is that it holds a constant temperature of 212°F. Therefore, while the Coke is boiling off you can make some last-minute calibrations to your measuring device. For example, if your device reads 208°F while the Coke is boiling, it's probably reading about 4 degrees too low, so be sure to add 4 degrees to the reading to get the actual temperature [2]. The nature of the syrup can change dramatically even if you're a few degrees off, so it's important to be as close as possible.

Anyway, after 20 or so minutes of boiling, much of the water will have evaporated, leaving a high-enough concentration of sugar to affect the boiling point. At this stage the temperature of the liquid will start to rise again, rather quickly, so it needs your full attention. Turn down the heat a bit to give yourself more time to react.

You need to wait until the temperature reaches 232°F, then immediately remove it from the heat. (If you have an infrared scanner the reading is going to jump around a bit. Don't just remove it from the heat the first time the number 232 appears on the display: wait until it's jumping around in the vicinity of 232, say between 231 and 233.)

Keep in mind that the liquid will not be syrupy when it's hot; you need to let it cool down before you can test its consistency. To expedite the cooling you can place the saucepan into a larger pan with a shallow layer of cool water. Once the liquid cools to below 110°F, try stirring it gently with a spoon. It should be a bit thicker than maple syrup but thinner than molasses. If it's too thin, boil it again until it reaches 232°F. If the liquid is too thick, or if it has a crusty surface, or especially if it forms into solid thin strings when you pull the spoon away, you need to add some water or some more Coke, stir it up until it's dissolved, and boil it again, stopping at a slightly lower temperature.

If everything has gone well, you will end up with about ¼ cup of Coca-Cola syrup.

Warning: Never stir the Coke while it's boiling, and never, ever, ever scrape down the insides of the pan. Avoid jossling the pan too much when you remove it from the heat.

Note: If you use Coke sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) instead of sugar, these instructions will not work exactly. HFCS reaches its candy stages at higher temperatures than sucrose. When I made this recipe with HFCS Coke I found that waiting till the bubbles just begin to pile up is the time to remove it from the heat, but your mileage may vary.

Mixing the ingredients

These cookies use standard mixing, so if you are familiar with baking cookies you can skip this section. My instructions here are for hand mixing.

  1. Cream together the butter with the sugar until they are thoroughly and evenly mixed.
  2. Add the beaten egg and Coca-Cola syrup to the creamed sugar and mix thoroughly.
  3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Gently stir this mixture into the batter until all the flour is mixed in.

Advice: Beat the egg before adding; this will help to break up the egg whites. The egg is for texture, not structure.

Advice: Don't overmix the dough after adding the flour. We're not making pancakes here, so it's not the end of the world if you overwork the flour a bit, but it's still a good idea to keep it to a minimum.

Advice: Don't substitute brown sugar. Don't use whole wheat flour. Don't add vanilla or any other spices. Any of these can overwhelm the Coke flavor, and make all the work you did reducing it into a syrup useless. I'd even suggest using a baking power without aluminum.

Baking the cookies

It helps to chill the dough a bit before dropping onto the cookie sheet since this dough is a bit on the sticky side.

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  2. Lightly grease a cookie sheet or shallow baking pan. Add a layer of parchment to the pan (the grease will help keep it flat against the pan). Then lightly grease the parchment.
  3. Pluck out a tablespoon-sized clump of cookie dough, roll it into a ball between your palms, then roll the ball in some white sugar to give it a coating. Place the ball on the cookie sheet.
  4. Cover the cookie sheet with 10-20 little balls depending size. You might want to flatten the balls slightly with a wooden spoon; this will give the cookies a bit more of an even thickness.
  5. Place the cookie sheet in the oven and cook for 10 minutes. The cookies are done when the edges are firm. (The tops shouldn't crack.)
  6. Remove from the oven, and immediately slide the parchment off the cookie sheet and onto a cool surface. Let cool, then eat, or store in a sealed container in layers separated by a paper towel.

Advice: Use the parchment. If you follow no other advice, follow this one. Baking on parchment is so much more convenient than baking right on the sheet it isn't even funny.

Advice: Sometimes it's really important to wait until the oven has reached full temperature before you start to bake. This is one of those times.

Advice: Use latex gloves when rolling the dough; it makes things much less messy.

Advice: Don't place the cookies in a rectangular grid pattern; instead, stagger the rows. This will give the cookies a bit more room on the pan.

Advice: Don't wait till the cookies look done. When the edges look barely done, they're done. Take them out.


[1]Where I live, I can easily buy Mexican Coke, which is made with sugar, year round. I suspect there is enough demand for Coke with real sugar that most areas will have some shops that carry it. Look in specialty stores and beverage distributors for it. Otherwise you might have to wait till Passover to get Kosher Coke, which is a bit suboptimal since most people make cookies near Christmastime.
[2]This was the case for my infrared scanner. It turns out that these devices make some assumptions about the emission spectra of the thing it's measuring, and sometimes it's off by a few degrees. I've noticed that it tends to measure things that are dark-colored a few degrees below more brightly-colored items.
Tags: cocacola, cookies, recipe
Last Edited: 25 November 2012, 2:18 PM
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2012 California Propositions

I wrote last post that this year's batch of ballot propositions in California was a lot stupider than the last batch, which I actually voted 50% Yes.

This year, I voted Yes on 4/12. Even then, one of the Yes votes was a veto. (Usually, a Yes vote changes the law, whereas a No vote keeps the law the same, which is why in general a smart batch of propositions gets a lot of Yeses. However, one of the Propositions this year was a veto, so Yes kept the law as-is. Which means this year I voted to change the law 3/12 times.)

Because a Yes vote usually changes the law, and because it can't be undone by legislative action, I have quite high criteria for a Yes. If I feel ambivalent about it I vote No, and there were a couple propositions this year where I was.

Here's how I voted and why.

  • Prop 30: No. This was one of the ones I was ambivalent about: a temporary increase in taxes to fund education. Generally speaking, I have higher criteria for taxes to support education, since it's obvious the politicians are just using education to convince people to agree to more taxes. Because who's going to vote to withhold money from the children? I will, if you're using the kids to manipulate people. Still, with all that considered, I was merely ambivalent about it. (It passed.)

  • Prop 31: No. Set a bunch of constraints on the legislature, set up all kinds of oversight committees, and have state budgets be set over for two years. This was easily the stupidest ballot proposition I've ever seen. A few judiciously placed oversight committees can be a good thing, sometimes, but the number of committees this proposition would have created was beyond excessive, and everything else in the proposition was too stupid to even mention. (It failed.)

  • Prop 32: No. Prohibit unions and corporations from using payroll deductions to fund political campaigns. The claim that this applied equally to unions and corporations was a flat-out lie: unions derive nearly their whole income from payroll deductions, whereas corporations derive none of theirs that way. The lying nature of this proposition's proponents was enough for me to vote No on this. You know, I do think it's unfair to force workers (on pain of losing their jobs) to fund political campaigns they might not agree with, but this proposition went way too far. A well-written proposition to allow workers to earmark a certain portion of their union dues to be isolated from political contributions would be something worth supporting. This proposition was not. (It failed.)

  • Prop 33: No. Allow auto insurance companies factor your prior history of insurance coverage into your current rate. Given how ridiculously specific and unappealing to the general public this proposition was, I am sure it was the work of a small group of people who stood to gain if it passed. That's enough for a No vote from me. It's kind of stupid in any case and puts needless burdens on many drivers though in some respects it does make sense to use as a criterions. (It failed.)

  • Prop 34: Yes. Abolish death penalty in California. Given that criminals will rarely, if ever, make it to the point of execution in this state, as a practical matter it's best to just get rid of it and save everyone a lot of trouble. I generally disapprove of the death penalty in all but the most heinous cases, but those cases so exist. Some asshole shot up a salon recently down in Orange County and was, accordingly to witnesses, sickeningly cruel about it. I'd have no problem if the state wanted to blow that guy's head off with a high caliber rifle. Unfortunately, even that guy has people who will milk the system trying to save his life. And for everyone else eligible for the death penalty, there are doubts and unfair applications and such. So for practical reasons it's better to just let it go. (It failed.)

  • Prop 35: Yes. Increase the penalties for human trafficking. This one was something I really couldn't vote against; my only nagging doubt is why we needed a ballot proposition to do this. The legislature could have done this if the penalties weren't strong enough. (It passed.)

  • Prop 36: Yes. Don't apply the three-strikes law if the third strike is sufficiently non-violent. I really think the sufficiently non-violent crime shouldn't count for strikes 1 and 2 either. Either a crime is bad enough to count toward a lifetime imprisonment, or it isn't, and many of the three-strikes crimes aren't. This prop is at least moving in the right directon. Three strikes is a decent way to escalate the penalty for the worst repeat offenders, but I think a more comprehensive strategy that allows judges' discretion for first time offenses, then gradually removes it and increases penalties as offenses mount up, would be good. But this'll do for now. (It passed.)

  • Prop 37: No. Require labeling of genetically modified food. Here in California, quite a large percentage of products have a notice saying that known carcinogens were used in the manufacturing of these products. The notices are so common that everyone tunes them out: apparently carcinogens are used to manufacture a lot of things, have been forever, and somehow people aren't dying of cancer left and right. Whether we like it or not, the exact same thing would have happened had this proposition passed. Just about every food product would come to contain a GM label, because soon it'll be difficult to find reasonably priced food stock that isn't GM. In any case, most GM is not bad, per se. There are problems: some particular modifications are dubious, and some Big Ag companies are tenaciously absusive when it comes to IP (and they need to be stopped). But this proposition is going to be utterly ineffective. (It failed, surprisingly.)

  • Prop 38: No. Another tax to fund education. For this one, the tax is more stupid, and it's not temporary, so no ambivalence here, this was just a bad idea. (It failed.)

  • Prop 39: No. Tax changes for business operating in multiple states. The law had been that businesses could choose the lesser of two tax systems, and this prop would eliminate the choice, resulting in most companies paying more. I'm ambivalent. It's not like this situation is unheard of. Even we indivuduals have a choice like this in our Federal income tax: we can take a standard deduction or itemized deductions. (It passed.)

  • Prop 40: Yes. A No vote meant that the California Supreme Court would redraw the legislative districts. Of all the headaches we don't need now.... The funny thing is, the split was about 75-25 in favor, and probably would have been higher if people weren't confused about it being a veto vote. Hell, I had to reread the instructions three times to be sure I had it right. (It passed.)

I'll also mention one of the city initiatives. The Santa Monica and Malibu Unified School District wants to raise $320 million by selling bonds. That a third of a billion dollars, one school district. I voted no.

Tags: california, election, voting
Last Edited: 9 November 2012, 11:19 AM
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