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1st July 2014

6:18pm: Onwards and Backwards!
I didn't need it, and it was cheap on eBay because Windows XP was installed and a removable part had gone missing. Besides, they are built like a tank and are very heavy.

But it will take Linux, and it might have a reasonable life. It doesn't look to have had heavy use.

For the price on eBay, around GBP 150 for a basic complete one, a Panasonic Toughbook looks a good deal for a back-up computer. No way am I going to carry it anywhere. It's a bit low on CPU power and RAM. It's old tech, IDE rather than SATA, but it has WiFi and Bluetooth. Oh, and the keyboard doesn't have any sign of wear.

I think I might have a bit of fun. I can get the bits to restore it, but who really needs an internal optical drive? It has USB ports.

I paid rather less for mine. It's running a few useful-to-me programs.

It's not going to get used much, but it's there for if I need it, and I think it will last. It looks as though it will get Linux, and that likely means I shall use BitTorrent Sync.

Anyway, it's a nice distraction for a sad time of year
4:21pm: Worldcon Computing Plans
I have been thinking about the computing support I shall have at the Worldcon in London, and the world is changing. Here's a few observations.

1: There's a lot of Wifi around, and you can get a an internet connection with a Smartphone. The venue holds some big tech-related events, but that's no guarantee against things being sluggish. Best not plan on getting a fast connection to anything.

2: Power Banks, those rechargeable batteries that can recharge your phone, or anything else with a USB connector set up to recharge that way. are becoming commonplace. That sort of tech can make a big difference. I have seen one with a built-in solar panel, and that might still be a bit of a gimmick.

3: I am thinking of getting a wall-wart with two USB connectors. Always remember to get the right leads for your hardware.

4: A calendar App on your smartphone looks like a good way of arranging meetings. A worldcon is big and complicated. Exchanging messages with SMS text rather than voice calls is also useful. GPS? I have my doubts about the reliability but it isn't worthless. You might at least get an idea of which way to walk.

5: A tablet with an add-on keyboard isn't a bad choice, but a wired keyboard might be a better choice than Bluetooth.

6: This may be the biggie: What's called an OTG adaptor lets you connect most tablets and Smartphones to a USB stick. Great, you can back-up all those pictures you took. The lead is a couple of quid, and you may need a file-manager App for your tablet.

6a: Check how you can get your data off your digital camera. It may look just like a USB drive to your Tablet, or you may just use some spare memory cards. If you go the memory card route,having cheap card reader, USB connected via the OTG adaptor, is still useful. Either way, you can make back-up copies, and a Tablet screen is big enough to show people the pictures.

6b: Test this before the con. For a camera, spare memory cards may be best. For snapshots from your smartphone, the OTG route may be easier.

Make a packing list. two copies. Leave one copy safe at home, take the other with you.

Some of this stuff is very recent. What worked at an event last year might have been superseded as a a good answer.

Whatever you use, be comfortable with it when you use it. Go off and practice with your camera. If you are fussing too much about just which button to press, somebody significant is going to end up with a tree growing out of their head.

22nd May 2014

3:59pm: Off to Vote
I am going to vote for the party I want to represent me in Europe.

My local Westminster MP sent a panicky message about the dreadful consequences of not voting for his party, and it seems he is terrified of losing his seat in the Westminster election next year. It seems they get a lot of localised information from this election, which gets fed into the models for the Westminster election.

I shall not tell you how I plan to vote. But he writes as though I voted for him in the last election. I think that if I were running opinion polls in the next year I would, without asking specifics about the past vote, be enquiring if people intended to vote for a different party than in this EU election.

I wish I could tell which election or referendum they are campaigning for. Probably all of them. And some of the issues are so different.

12th March 2014

12:20am: Meanwhile...
Why is the General Election next year?

My MP is a vulgar racist bigot, with a habit of insulting members of rival parties in local government, especially when they are women.

There are certainly questionable decisions being made in local government. But if you don't agree with him, plonk!

And he's playing all the dog-whistles of the extreme right, immigrants and the EU, while applauding the work of some class-AAA loons. I'm not talking British politics here, I'm talking of people such as Matthias Rath, whose psychoceramic theories on HIV/AIDS, and who also happens to be an anti-EU campaigner.

We're stuck with him for another year. We're stuck with the whole damned mess of one-percenter bigots. And, I'll be honest, both sides have form for fumbling us into wars.

May 2015 cannot come too soon. All we get this year is the European Parliament Election.

Maybe I should vote UKIP, and let the bastards think they will have an easy win next year.

8th March 2014

1:10pm: Russian Anti-West sanctions.
Since Livejournal has been Russian-owned for years, we maybe shouldn't be relying on it for the time being.

Though there are still all the usual reasons to be concerned about whether you use passwords anywhere else, or have unique data here. But if I wanted to arrange a meeting for myself and my friends at the Eastercon, while there are some advantages in using this place, I would feel uncomfortable about expecting anyone to read anything posted here in the next couple of months.

23rd February 2014

12:29pm: The Saga of the New ISP
It's the second week now, and the actual data speeds delivered are better than my former ISP, TalkTalk, was able to reliably deliver. It's the weekend, and I wouldn't expect data rates to be this good. Though I am wondering a little if some of the speedtext tools out there are pessimistic. After a bit of furkling behind furniture with various tools, I've installed one of those ADSL filters for an NTE5 box, which completely separates voice wiring from ADSL. That's made a big difference to the ADSL bit rate, instead of relying on plug-in filters at every socket.

One of the tools the professional BT engineers use is a thing called a "Krone". This pushes the wire into the IDC terminal and automatically trims the end. You can get a cheap plastic thing from your local DIY store which does the IDC shove.

So, do I spend twenty-five quid? Don't be silly. But there are clone Krones on eBay for silly prices, delivery included and costing less that a couple of litres of petrol. And for the scale of job I was doing, it doesn't really have to last.

Since the existing extension boxes all had the BT logo I was fairly confident that I could rely on the standard colour code, but I checked anyway.

The punchdown tool has a fold-out hook to pull the wires out of an IDC terminal. It worked as advertised, trimming the wire. Reconnected and checked for dial tone. OK. Called in to the landline phone with my mobile. Everything rang that should.

The total cost of parts and tools was under a tenner.

And the speed of the ADSL connection has doubled. I should have done this years ago.

15th February 2014

1:25pm: Memo to self
When Sun Tzu said that there are some battles that should not be fought, he wasn't thinking of the feminists who blame all men, neither had he any experience of American gun nuts enamoured of the self-defence magic bullet that never misses (and never risks PTSD when you see what you have done).

So long as society is ruled by an elite that does the 1984-stomp to their inferiors, there will be people who seek somebody they can still be superior to. In the Deep South, the poor whites could lynch a nigger. I'm not sure race is out of the equation, but women are in the same territory today, and it doesn't matter where you are on the ladder, the woman is an easy target.

Is it a coincidence that it is men who dominate the pro-gun faction in the USA?

I've enough counter-evidence that I would not add "Do not argue with an American" to that list of bad ideas, but the actions of that country seem strong evidence for the idea that the ruling elite are sociopathic, at best. And my country sometimes seems no better. There is an unbroken history of war that often gains us nothing. For every Falklands War there is another outbreak of the Black and Tans.

The problem isn't merely violence directed at women. There is the idea, permeating so much of our thinking, that conflict, rather than cooperation, has to be the answer.

Churchill was a man who commanded violence, but he was at least willing to talk. And it is talking that has brought a sometimes fitful peace to all of Ireland. Part of the cause of the war which filled so much of my life was a ruling elite in Northern Ireland practicing that 1984-stomp.

I am lucky. I don't have the direct experience of violence, though maybe you can inherit PTSD in the habits your parents pass on. The last time I was in hospital, some of my jokes had negative albedo. But I look up, and I see the boot coming down. It's a very classy boot, the sort of made-to-measure boot that came off a personal last, and costs more than a month's minimum wage. I almost envy the feet that can be put in boots like that.

But it's still a boot, stamping on a human face, and I don't have to imagine it.

So what does that "all men" streak in feminism do? It's looking like a divide and rule strategy. And who wants us to waste that energy on an internecine conflict.

Who doesn't want us to organise?

14th February 2014

11:13pm: The new ISP
The transfer to the the new ISP happened earlier this evening, and was pretty smooth. The router is frustratingly idiot-proof, I'd like a few more options to have a manual choice, but stuff is working. The speed should improve as the hardware self-adjusts, but the data delivered is already looking better as a percentage of the possible. It looks like streaming media might even be usable at peak times.

6th February 2014

3:04pm: Change looming
Sometime in February, I shall be changing my ISP. After a long time, and a couple of takeovers, the service collapsed. It looks overloaded by streaming video.

There's a couple of big changes in the works, and the company seems ignorant of them. Nothing about IPv6, which is maybe easy for me, but worrying, and nothing about the effects of rolling out "superfast" broadband. I might be getting, and paying for, a big speed increase, for which I see no delivery plan.

There are several distinct streaming video services I can use, from the UK broadcasters (iPlayer from the BBC, for instance) and from third parties such as Netflix and Lovefilm. And my ISP is offering their own, with no sign I can see that they can deliver the data.

I shall take my chances with somebody else.

What this means for you, dear reader, is that the images scattered through these journal entries shall vanish. They're stored on a minimal web-space freebie stored by my old ISP. I have a copy of the data, but I doubt I shall bother finding an alternative location. It's going to be a while before the actual change, so grab them while you can.

13th January 2014

8:29pm: Book Hurling
It's been a long time, and virtual book-hurling can be rather expensive if you don't keep a firm hold on your Kindle, but it has just happened again. There is a certain class of SF writer, often ex-military, who seems to delight in the hard-line authoritarian prone to cruelty. There may be an in story reason for it, but, like the rape of a female character, it's just a standard easy motive. His family are killed, and so he takes bloody revenge.

He turns into a monster.

In this instance, he orders several hundred men crucified, and seems to enjoy giving the order.

OK, so war might make a monster of any of us. My grandfather did his share of killing in Flanders, and I have a feeling that the PTSD got handed down, diluted somewhat, though the generations. You tend to copy your parents. They set the starting point for your experience.

I've also read the histories of a lot of wars, and there are details which don't always get talked about.

It makes a lot of Military SF more than a little uncomfortable, but it's the politics which grate. There is a pattern of the successful soldier, but it doesn't require the rather ugly racism and sexism of the modern hard right. In the days of mass armies, roughly 1790 to 1990, it was folly, or a sign of desperation. for a country to send women to combat. And there are people who see that reluctance and think it means that women are somehow incapable. There are people who think that socialists, in all their forms, cannot be good soldiers.

And then they write their stories, and their good soldiers are the ones who crucify prisoners, for the best of all possible reasons.

That book deserved to be hurled with relativistic velocity.

My heroes have fought, and seen the horror, and been tempted. They come back changed. But, partly because they are part of a community, because they have something better than revenge to fight for, they do not see the monster when they look in a mirror. At the end of the day, they have made choices they can feel proud of.

If you go against them, if you threaten what they hold dear, you might as well buy your coffin now, and pay the gravedigger. Yes, they will be scared. They are, after all, in a battle, and they are still sane. But what they fight for is not revenge, but peace. They fight not for the already dead, but for the living to come.

They fight for the future.

A Wolf in the Fold

His world is turning pretty damn dark. It's not quite ours, but Wolf is not the sort of guy who makes a desert and calls it peace.

6th January 2014

12:42pm: The Twitter Effect
The Tweet, as with the sound-bite, seems to becoming a staple of debate. Used well, it can provided a memorable tage for an issue or for an opinion. But it has the same weakness of being too short to actally discuss anything. And some of the recent changes to the UI are going to change things in ways we cannot predict.

It is too easy to do the digital equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears, without the person on the other side of the conversation knowing.

It is possible for images to be attched to the Tweet, expressing some view, but if any of the usual statistical tricks are used, it becomes hard to challenge the lie, and explain the fault. There is no debate, just a shouting match.

An example: the Conservative Party tweeted a graphic on youth unemployment, showing a huge increase in the rate over the lifetime of the previsous Labour government. The graph was based on two figures, 1997 when Labour took power, and 2010 when the Conservatives took over, with a straight line connecting them.

This obscures any effects of the 2008 financial crash. It also hides any improvement there might have been between 1997 and 2008.

There are also the usual tricks of not showing the bottom of the graph, the zero-line, and not labeling the axes, which tends to hide just how many years this rise took. And if we had a similar graph for the Conservative years, there could be a drop because school-leaving age has just increased.

Try explaining how two correct figures are turned into a lie, with only 140 characters.

ad hominem arguments are easier. Twitter exposes you to abuse and vituperation from anyone who disagrees with you. You might thing some views deserve that response. I know I am tempted. But it is a slow poisoning of human discourse.

Incidentally, my web browser and my Android tablet give me rather different views. The Android App's UI has diverged from the web page in how the tweets are organised. For me, the end result disrupts a conversation. Add the paid-advertising tweets to break things up even more.

Compared to Usenet, Twitter is a lot less readable. But the people are the same, good and bad.

3rd December 2013

11:09am: We few, we happy few...
Yesterday, NaNoWriMo released a couple of figures on this years run of the challenge.

Over 300,000 started.

41940 writers reached the 50000 word target, which is fewer than 1 in 7.

Looking over what I wrote, I didn't have a clear enough idea of what was going to happen in my plot. It went off at a tangent, and some of the stuff I set up in the early part was missing from the later parts of the story.

But, truth here, there are stories floating around in the news media which are full of holes. Various claims exist of huge sums of money which came out of Iraq in a less than honest manner. Similarly, there are claims of money defrauded from the Sochi Winter Olympics project. Both sets of stories talk about 20 billion, whatever the currency, which is no small sum. Whether it is truly the property of the widow of some Nigerian politician, or a payoff by Russian politicians to their cronies, or the late Saddam's personal fortune, it's always 20 billion, and that in itself is suspicious.

But if it exists, how do you launder it? How do you get it into an apparently legitimate business and use it to make money? HSBC, which started in the days when Opium was going illicitly into China and still seems to have connections with Mexican drug cartels, cannot hide that much business. It would need the resources, and the regulatory connivance, of a major financial centre.

But I came across the way in which Freeports, the modern version of the old bonded warehouse, are being used to store such things as expensive works of art, beyond the reach of tax systems, and that diverted me. How might it be if that planeload of banknotes reported to have arrived in Moscow from Iraq was sitting in a Freeport facility? The original story said "wooden pallets" but what if it was in standard air-freight containers? They're metal boxes, anonymous to the casual gaze and secure from easy pilfering. What if a movement order is introduced to the system?

And all the while you are doing this you need to be avoiding the NSA snooping.

I did write up a modern equivalent of the old spy tradecraft involving two people passing data by mesh networking while traveling along the Thames on a sort of water-bus. They don't need to see or talk to each other. Their smartphones do all the work.

There's all sorts of bits and pieces in those 50000 words which could end up in a real novel, a here and now story of financial shenanigans in a world where everyone is being spied on.

I admit I would feel happier about the NSA if they would stop those people making illegal telephone sales calls.

And then I read Burl Barer's Capture the Saint, which is an imperfect echo of the early Leslie Charteris books, and I began to think "I can write better than that".

27th November 2013

6:38pm: Busy Day, have a Kit Kat.
I reached the NaNoWriMo target today, and now my Nexus 7 is installing Android 4.4, known as Kit Kat. So I am having a break.
11:19am: Nearly there.
I have just a few hundred words to go on NaNoWriMo, and a nicely-sized chunk of story to give me a margin for any differences in word-count between the Verification app and the word-count in Scrivener.

I have a few scenes which won't survive past first draft, but they still count for NaNoWriMo. Scrivener does make it easier to organise that sort of change. The publishing industry apparently uses Word as a standard tool to handle the editing. It seems to have happened almost by accident. Buried in that behemoth of unknown features are the tools they need to keep track of who changed what.

And if you are being paid for a book it would be a business expense, tax deductible.

But now, lunch.

17th November 2013

11:27pm: The words keep rolling, they just keep rolling along
I cleared 35,000 words today. There were a couple of pauses to check background, a few other minor distractiona, and I'm not sure that they're good words. But NaNoWriMo is not about good words.

The passion was there.

I could finish with a little over 1000 words per day. My average, so far, is twice that, but I have had a few bad days.

We've had a murder and an Archbishop supplying a briefing on money laundering.

12th November 2013

6:35pm: Meanwhile, inside the sewing machine...
Well, not really inside. When I got this Singer machine I thought it was a model 100, known as a Featherweight but not at all like the original old-fashioned Featherweight.

It turned out to be a model 106 Featherweight, which maybe doesn't exist, according to Google. Anyway, I got things sussed out. It does zig-zag and blind hem stitching, and lets you do buttonholes. But the electric power connection is European rather than UK, a two-pin plug that is similar, but not quite identical to, a shaver plug. It is double insulated, so there is no need for an earth, and you can use a shaver adaptor. And, with a little wiggle room in the voltage standards, we're all compatible here in Europe. Voltages are never rock solid, it's allowed to fluctuate because the demand can vary rather faster than the generating system can respond to.

But remember this when you come to the Worldcon. Some stuff has power supplies which can accommodate the voltage range without any fiddling. Some need you to move a switch (I've only ever seen that on an electric razor). Check the label.

Instead of using a shaver adaptor, which is sometimes easy to lose, I did a bit of hunting on the Web/ I'd seen them before, and I knew that there were Euro to UK adaptors which effectively clamp a UK-standard fused 3-pin plug around the Euro 2-pin plug.

Alternatively, stop off at one of the supermarkets and get a UK-dedicated adapter. Most stuff uses a USB lead, these days, and you can find Apple-compatible stuff even in Tesco.

It's so very different to the last time I went to a Worldcon. I just relied on Duracell.

Oh, the sewing machine runs fine. I think whoever had sold it was scared by what a mechanic charges as a minimum. It wasn't broken, just needed a tangle of thread extracting. Have I mentioned that some key components were standardised by Singer in 1895?

10th November 2013

7:21pm: Another good writing day
I managed to cross the 20,000 word barrier today, on the tenth day of NaNoWriMo, and I am left wondering, a little, just what happens next. I have an idea, It's going to be a man-with-a-gun scene, of sorts.

7th November 2013

6:38pm: Still scribbling
Not much today, yet. I have had too much other stuff happening.

But I am averaging over 2000 words per day, and our hero and heroine are visiting his Gran in Wales. He is finding out a wee bit more than he expected about the ladies.

Incidentally, sewing machines are not complicated. Like all inventions they need a degree of genius for the first. And some of the parts still going into the latest machines have been in production since 1895. Not things like screws, either. Some Victorian engineer got it right.

Some details changed because manufacturing techniques changed.

But some things cannot be improved.

5th November 2013

7:35pm: The plot thickens
Outside, the British are going through their annual ritual of burning a symbolic catholic to death. It is Guy Fawkes night, and we celebrate the failure of the notorious gunpowder plot of 1605, in which a bunch of dissatisfied Catholics tried to blow up Parliament Assembled, complete with the King. They were, one might say, the Muslim Terrorists of their time.

Guy Fawkes was the technician, and somehow the conspirators laid their hands upon a large quantity of gunpowder, which wasn't easily available, and obtained a lease on one of the cellars beneath parliament to "store firewood".

The warrants for the arrest of the other conspirators were issued while Guy Fawkes was being tortured, and the formal record shows his hadn't talked anyway. It starts to look like a set-up. You wonder where the down-time equivalent of the FBI agent was in all this.

Meanwhile, NaNoWriMo is going well. We are now finding out what the problem might be, but is it the big boss going crazy, or an outbreak of money laundering beyond the dreams of avarice? 9700 words so far. It would be sort of nice to break the 10000, but I'm at a break point now. Still it's only a few hundred words.

1st November 2013

7:22pm: And So It Begins
NaNoWriMo starts, and I hit 1900 words for the first day. Which is ahead of target, just enough to feel comfortable. I am using Scrivener, and at the moment it doesn't feel like a big advantage over a word processor. Which might as well be a text editor.

29th October 2013

9:28am: It's that time of year again
We're seeing British politicians start to mouth the platitudes of the season, and wearing their poppies.

This sums up what they're not telling you.Collapse )

28th October 2013

3:13pm: On sewing machines
I have been fiddling around with my mother's old sewing machine. Apart from some non-critical corrosion, it is in pretty good condition, working well, and I have been picking up all sorts of stuff about the hardware.

It's a Singer 99K from 1956, hand-cranked. You can still get many of the parts, and a startling variety of attachments. If you have an old Singer machine lurking somewhere, check Tools for Self Reliance on refurbishing an old sewing machine.

I am doubtful about the electric versions of these old machines. I have no reason to think they are unsafe, but they were not built to modern standards. They are big lumps of metal, and they are not properly earthed. You can get replacement add-on motors which are closer to modern safety standards. The originals were well-made, but some of the insulation just does not last.

Also, the old-style machines are big lumps of cast metal. They are heavy. They were made to last. But they are not "Heavy Duty" or "industrial". They're not built to use on a production line. They were made to be versatile, rather than doing one specific job all day. The production line has changed machines and workers.

I've just been shortening the sleeves on a shirt. Take off the cuff, shorten the sleeve, replace the cuff. It's not a wonderful job, though the sewing came out OK, and the shirt does look better.

Now look at this video of how to shorten jeans. The first sewing machine is some sort of industrial, fitted with a zipper foot, so the stitching is right at the edge of the original hem. The second is one of the old Singers, of the general sort I am messing about with. What's industrial about the setup is that you have two different sorts of thread, two different sewing feet, two different jobs, and so two machines.

A "zipper foot"?

A conventional presser foot, which holds the fabric down as the stitch is made, is on both sides of the needle. A zipper foot has a notch at the side, for the needle, and the line of stitches can be very close to the teeth of a zipper, or to the thick hem of those jeans. Here's a comparison.

28th August 2013

8:15pm: Is installing LibreOffice wasted effort?
I missed most of the politics, when LibreOffice forked from OpenOffice, as my mother was dying at the time, and then I noticed Ubuntu had dropped OpenOffice, but it was supposed to be compatible. Until I found, when I hit NaNoWriMo that autumn, that habitual keystroke sequences had stopped working.

It was a simple horizontal line, and there was no way to produce it any more. I fired up the Help, which opened my web browser and shot me at some web page, which looked a lot like Wikipedia, and which didn't know which version of LibreOffice I was using, and told me that there hadn't been any change at all.

I dumped LibreOffice and went back to OpenOffice, writing the experience off to FOSS politics. I wasn't quite disagreeing with the suspicion of Oracle. but I knew it would work as I expected.

This summer, it seems both went for version 4. By now, it's Apache OpenOffice, but I kept being told I couldn't trust "larry". It seems some LibreOffice supporters are out of date. The LibreOffice help still sucks, still describes the process of using the help files as if they were a fairly standard Windows Help system, rather than web pages. The download system supplies a file that is not of a type my Windows 7 system recognises (And it's clearly labelled as for x86 Windows). Go for the Torrent option, it's a slightly smaller file in a format that Windows recognises.

This is not looking good.

Apache OpenOffice is a much smaller download, it installs without trouble, my typing habits work. I don't quite like the new sidebar, but but I am not asking myself "What idiot did that."

It's good that bugs get fixed, but both sides seem too eager to score points by messing around with the UI.

Somebody, I think, needs to tell the FOSS crowd that they can't expect users to fix their cock-ups. Few of us are programmers. We don't have the stacks of tools needed to compile the code. They need to learn how to explain things to ordinary people.

I've a couple of months to sort this stuff out. Right now, it looks like I shall stick with an older version of OpenOffice for NaNoWriMo, because all their fancy efforts are just getting in my way.

23rd August 2013

9:36am: What makes us human?
I think a big part of what makes us human is that we try to come up with explanations for things. We want reasons for events. And that has led to two broad classes of explanation: religion and science.

In my working life, that difference could be summarised as the difference between supplying fertiliser and virgins.

And the whole business of a-conjuring summer in might be a lot more fun than unloading fertiliser in 50kg sacks from a truck.

But fertiliser works.

Though one has to wonder if it is a coincidence that Woodstock happened on a farm.

23rd July 2013

1:14am: What really matters?
I suppose I am your typical English default_royalist. And it is hard for me to think of somebody who flies air-sea rescue helicopters as being an unworthy person.

Looking at the recent news, both the Netherlands and Belgium have new Kings, not because of death but because their parents chose to abdicate. It's a custom with some merit. The history makes that very unlikely here in the UK, but I saw the slow mental decline of my parents before they died, and I am inclined to think that the history is a trap.

And what does the republican idea give us anyway. What would we get with an elected President? Can you imagine a Prime Minister of this country letting an elected President get any real power?

I might live long enough to see a King William. The prospect doesn't scare me. But I can imagine being a pensioner under a President Cameron, and it's a terrifying thought.
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