Book Report: On a Roll

This is a book about business, yet it's a good book. It's Howard Jonas' autobiography. He starts out operating a hot-dog pushcart. He moves on to distributing those tourism brochures you see in hotel lobbies. He starts doing a variety of mail-order business. He becomes a telecom mogul. Whoa--that's a leap.

Along the way, you learn about his principles. This is good; he has some principles that I disagree with, but he states them well. It's good to have articulate people to disagree with--they're the ones you're most likely to learn from.

long the way, you see places where he's had to compromise his principles--those are pretty educational, too. And that reminds you that these principles are, uhm, tempered by experience and stuff.

There's a temptation to make a joke about "how the sausage is made", but he doesn't talk about how hot dogs are made. He does give some hints about how to make some superior onions for hot dogs, though.

For example, early on he talks about how he took on a manager to help run a small business. He spotted someone running a deli and thought that someone who could manage a deli could manage just about anything. (I'm oversimplifying, but you get the idea.) I threw a nerd hissyfit. I'm soooo tired of the MBA attitude that someone who can manage something can manage anything. But But Jonas then goes on to point out that this management-skill-transferability... he points out that it doesn't transfer so well for technical teams. Which would explain a few things. It would explain why my past experience on technical teams dealing with managers... uhm, managers best suited to running delicatessens... it would explain why that experience has been poor. But the idea that the transferability works well outside technical fields--that would also explain why the MBAs keep suggesting that it would work well.

It's a good book. It has some good jokes, too. Check it out.

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Book Report: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I guess I made through ~100 pages of palace intrigue before I realized I don't especially want to read through that much palace intrigue. Yeah, that's right, I'm yet another person who made it partway through Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and then wimped out.

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Puzzlehunts are Everywhere, even my Parents' House

Yeah, I should really work on a write-up about BANG XX. But today I hung out with family. My cousin Nancy, her husband, and her son came over to my parents' place for a visit, staying last night & today. Conversation last night revealed that her son likes treasure hunt games. My parents helpfully pointed out that I could make a treasure hunt game. So this morning, while I waited on some errands at home before heading back to my parents' place to continue the family frolic, I wrote a little treasure hunt, jotting down puzzles and riddles on seven index cards, ready to tape up at various spots in the house.

I tried to aim it at a five-year-old, didn't know if I could. I didn't know how good he was at reading--I knew he could read "cat" but maybe not "valentine". But he'd almost certainly have a grown-up along providing help. Could I get away with using good word-puzzly words like "gubernatorial"? What if he didn't need to understand those words? Hmm, my thoughts waffled. I needn't have worried, though. When I mentioned this morning that I'd brought over a treasure hunt, it turned out that he wanted to run the hunt, not play in it. So... we had a puzzlehunt that was probably too hard for a five-year-old, but probably too easy for four clever grown-ups. Then again, the kid seemed to enjoy watching them going through the puzzlehunt anyhow, so... Success, I guess.

You can see how you would have done. I dunno how easy this is if you aren't familiar with my parents' house, and you probably aren't.

First puzzle:

In the Garden:

Yellow on the outside
White inside the outside
Yellow inside the inside the outside

Second puzzle:

In front of the house:

I clean shoes,
But I'm dirtier than feet

Look under me

Third puzzle:

In the first floor hallway:

My first is in CHEETAH , but not in COMPLICATED
My second is in PUMA , but not in MISPRONOUNCED
My third is in LION, but not in COPYCATTING
My fourth is in LYNX, but not in OXYMORON

Look on the floor

Fourth puzzle:

In the living room:

[Here, there was a long strip cut out of the index card. Underneath were taped pieces of index card. The pieces said

  • DIO
  • DOL
  • DRA
  • HIN
  • KBE
  • LOO


the fifth puzzle:

In the ground floor hallway:

"House" has five letters
I don't know how they got there
A house can have letters, too.
How do they get in?

the sixth puzzle:

In the kitchen:

The coldest door in the house!

...and the seventh puzzle showed a simple pigpen cipher and a message encoded in that cipher.
So I still don't know whether or not this puzzle would have worked OK for a five-year-old. But now I know that grown-ups are good sports about tromping around the house solving clues.

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Book Report: Letting Go of the Words

I'm a professional technical writer and I recommend this book about writing: Letting Go of the Words. I theoretically train engineers so that they can write clearly. This book would help those people--will help those people. I'm going recommend it. (Brief pause to log on to work and recommend the book on my internal blog-equivalent... Ah, thank you for your patience.) I don't tend to recommend writing books to engineers. Just The Elements of Style sometimes, but that book doesn't address the problems most of these geniuses have when writing.

I work with a bunch of web programmers. They might be confused by some chapters of this book, chapters which talk more about usability issues than about word choice. Protip: some of the same goofs that can make a web page unusable can make a web page's words unreadable.

But there are chapters about word choice, too. And about keeping your audience in mind, and figuring out what they're trying to do, and helping them to do that.

Of course, plenty of this stuff is controversial--amongst technical writers, who are detail-oriented folks who tend to bicker over minutiae. Maybe I like this book because I largely agree with its point of view. I'm sure that some of my colleagues would consider it harmful. (OMG a quick overview blurb before the three paragraphs of background material necessary to truly understand that blurb!!?! Yeah, I'll burn in hell for that by some standards--but maybe I'll let folks know whether it's worth their time slogging through those three paragraphs, spare some of those people the trouble.) Maybe I should ask other writers what books they recommend, make sure I'm listening to other points of view. But it took me so long to find a book that I'd recommend, I just kinda assumed none of them had a book that they recommended. I learned my craft in the school of hard knocks, didn't everyone?

Anyhow, I'm excited. So yay.

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Book Report: Gaudy Century

I'm taking the day off work today. It's the day after a Bay Area Night Game (a rather-fun instance thereof). It was one of those Bay Area Night Games that actually happens at night, and thus I was up way past my bedtime last night. But I was prepared! As a veteran of these games, I've learned an important night game technique: schedule a vacation day for the day after.

Today I slept in. And I made it to the kinda-newly-opened California Academy of Sciences. This was my first time seeing the place since it re-opened. There was new stuff to see--the rain forest exhibit is pretty darned nice; not as impressive as the Eden Project, say, but much much easier to reach from my apartment. There's a big penguin display. There were "old friends" to look at, too: the pendulum, the alligator pit. I was sad to see that the two-headed gopher snake had died, but honestly it wasn't especially active back when it was alive.

I was bumbling around, not paying much attention to some taxiderm-ified bear, except that I noticed "Monarch". This was a locally-famous bear&emdash;famous as a publicity stunt by Hearst, the newspaper magnate. It's a sad story--Hearst hired a hunter to bring a live bear back to the city. The bear, named "Monarch", lived the rest of his life in captivity; but the local zoo didn't want him, so he was just in some cage in Golden Gate Park. His image appeared on the papers; the Examiner was "The Monarch of the Dailies". His image also appeared on the California flag--I guess if you're a flag designer who needs some bear, art, it's handy to have a captive grizzly to look at. Too bad that the California grizzlies were going extinct around this time. (You can call up the museum's phone-based interpretive text for Monarch: 1-415-294-3602, then enter 6#)

Why did I have this bit of San Francisco history rattling around in my head? A few months ago, I read Gaudy Century, a book of anecdotes and maybe-history of San Francisco newspapers.

Newspapers are in trouble these days, but newspapers have always been in trouble. This book is full of tales of newspapers going under. Most newspapers started up without a business plan more sophisticated than that of the Underpants Gnomes.

There has been much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth over the ongoing collapse of newspapers. Sure, there are blogs--but those don't have armies of fact-checkers. Then again, newspapers get things wrong. If you've ever seen a Real Journalism article about something where you know the facts--at first, it can be jarring when you see how far off they are from the facts.

Gaudy Century is a book on the history of San Francisco newspapers. It was written by John Bruce, an editor of the Chronicle. I guess it's riddled with errors. Unlike a blog with a nice comments system which allows feedback from around the world, this was a physical book. Thus, the only errors I know about are those that inspired previous readers of this library book to scribble in the margins--or those which triggered my b---s--- alarm and prompted me to look things up.

This book claims that the first newspaper for "negroes" was published in San Francisco. There's no detail backing up this claim; The relevant Wikipedia article on "African American newspapers" disagrees and cites sources. What made Bruce so sure that San Francisco was first? We'll never know; he doesn't tell us.

A few pages later, book says "The People's Party won [the San Francisco city election] with a scant margin." Someone underlined that "scant" and wrote "Check your facts, Bruce!" out in the margin.

Later on, he claimed that the term "hoodlums" originated in San Francisco. I looked that one up--and folks agree with him there. But it's not a good sign when the reader's tempted to double-check claims because "I bet I could fact-check this with a simple web search for [etymology hoodlum]" rather than because "This is an especially outrageous claim."

I ended up treating this book as a book of local myths and legends. Seen that way, it has some good yarns. Maybe Hearst was exciting. Maybe the de Youngs were murderous. Maybe some things in this book were true; or maybe they're better than that.

Here's a strange thing about newspapers: it seems that plenty of them were founded hoping to sway personal opinion. This whole teetering-on-the-edge of economic collapse seems familiar because most of these newspapers weren't started up with sound business plans--they were trying to get people to read, but were harvesting minds, not dollars. That is, they'd present reports of current events, financed by advertising, hoping that folks would adopt the opinions of the editors. Why didn't they just publish their opinions? Of those who wanted to spread their opinions, why did so many choose news reports as the, uhm, hook? Why not, say, recipes?

Growing up, I wasn't too excited about newspapers. Reading this book--I guess maybe my lack of excitement might be because the San Francisco papers were relatively weak-sauce. I hope that some medium emerges that serves investigative reporters well; or if not "well", at least better than newspapers have. And ideally that medium would allow for reader comments--if the margins of this book, are any indication, it's useful to let your readers check your facts.

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Book Report: The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest

Just hours left until BANG XX. Can I claim that this is an appropriate time for a book report for a book that has 20 in its title? It's my blog; I can claim anything.

The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest: A fun fluffy novel set in Silicon Valley. I sure hope that these characters were exaggerated for comedic effect. The characters in this book seem even more warped than the nerds I deal with on a daily basis. There is something to be said for fun fluffy novels.

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Link: McGuffin GC post

Burninator Corey dug out some notes from being GC on the excellent The McGuffin Game. Some good stuff in there for aspiring GC folks, I bet.

Securing a location is a lot like investing: it doesn't take a lot of work, but it does take time. ... Establish a route and set locations along that route early. Not everything needs to be set in stone, and some puzzles may fit better at locations that you haven't yet chosen.

This echoes some of the "Roadtrip" posts at the Muppet Movie game blog. (You have been following the Muppet Movie bog, right?)

On hints versus teams' competitive natures:

No team tried to game our hint system. With hindsight, I believe that worrying that teams would try to squeeze hints out of us that they didn't deserve was an unfounded worry. In fact, often it was us who would call teams and ask them if they needed a hint. Teams trying to advance their position by asking for hints was not something we should worry about in future games.

I've heard Alexandra talk about past games in which a few folks called up, seemingly to "fish" info out of GC without it counting as a hint. So I guess some of that goes on. All of the cases she talked about were more "social engineering" than "messing with the hint system", though.

If you're in to puzzle-huntish games, this is a good read. I just quoted a few excerpts. Check it out.


Book Report: The Lord of Castle Black

Some might say it's been too hectic of a week for me to post a book report, but prepare to be amazed at my review of The Lord of Castle Black:

Swashbuckling swords and sorcery.


Link: XXX, Poison Picnic Puzzlehunts

I'm not cool enough to attend SXSW, but when folks there twitter about attending a puzzlehunt lecture, I pay attention. A lecture about puzzlehunts, forsooth. Apparently, a couple of folks put together a couple of puzzly treasure-huntish games. Furthermore, they wrote them up online. You can tell that they learned some lessons by the time they ran the second one--they provided better cluing on the puzzles, chose less sabotage-prone clue locations, and a couple of teams actually finished.

  • XXX, in which much goes wrong, but the participants figure out they're onto something good
  • Poisoned Picnic, which ends by addressing the winners: "Next time, you guys get to host!"

Maybe we're all re-inventing the wheel here, but it's a fun wheel.

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Book Report: Group Theory in the Bedroom

It's a collection of essays by Brian Hayes--the guy whose magazine article got me into Markov Chain-generated English drivel. I was able to follow most of these essays, which was darned nice since I'm not a math guru.

  • Clock of Ages Thinking about the Long Now Foundation and related topics. He points out that it would make sense for the Clock of the Long Now to be associated with a nuclear waste site--if you're going to go to the trouble to set up an institution to last 10000 years, maybe that's what you need to warn other folks away from something that's going to stay toxic for 10000 years. I thought that was my idea. But then I saw it in Anathem, and a few days later I saw it again here. I guess the Long Now Foundation was in the news at the same time as Yucca Flats and Carlsbad. Maybe plenty of geeks were thinking the same way.
  • Inventing the Genetic Code Some mistteps along the way, explained. I couldn't follow much of this.
  • Statistics of Deadly Quarrels What happens when a statistician tries to count up casualties in brawls, border conflicts, battles, and world-ranging total wars. Lewis Fry Richardson tried to do this. It's not easy. Everyone lies about casualty counts. It's sometimes difficult to figure out where one war ends and the next squabble begins.
  • Dividing the Continent How would you algorithmically determine the contiental divide of a 2-D surface in 3-D?
  • On the Teeth of Wheels An introduction to clockwork computing. If you have a clock and you want it to do something once every N ticks, you might set up a gear wheel with N teeth to do something once per rotation. But what if N is large, so that you can't fit that many teeth on a wheel? Then you might set up a few wheels in different numbers of teeth, some attached at the axle, some with interlocking teeth. And you'd learn a lot about factoring.
  • Naming Names Namespaces, hashing
  • Group Theory in the Bedroom Considering mattress-flipping as a series of mathematical procedures and as a documentation problem.

There were more essays than just those, too.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, even appearing simultaneously in Redmond and Palo Alto

Behold, it is notes from Microsoft Puzzle Hunt 1[23]. I volunteered at the bay area simulcast. I took a couple of crappy cameraphone photos of the playtest. I dressed up as the angel of death and other folks took videos! Anyhow, scattered notes.

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Book Report: Hackers and Painters

It's a bunch of essays by Paul Graham about software development and other kinds of development. Some of these essays are interesting, some are irritating. They're interesting because Paul has a well-spoken, cranky take on many topics. They're irritating because he attributes his opinions to all computers geeks. "We hackers know this." "We hackers think that." There were plenty of times when I thought "I agree with this sentiment", but there were also plenty of times when I thought "What do you mean 'we'?"

I don't believe in absolute Quality with a capital Q. I don't believe it's the genius of creative people is to discern that Quality. If I wanted to read about Quality, I could go read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance. In that book, the Quality-delusion is attributed to an insane person, not to me. Thus, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is less irritating than Hackers and Painters. I'm not a Libertarian. I'm not. I'm glad that other languages have stolen cool features from LISP, but I don't especially want to code in LISP ever again. There are plenty of places where foreach makes more sense than recursion does; I'm glad your language is optimized to not blow stack on tail recursion, but if your language supported a foreach loop, you wouldn't have to worry about that @^*% in the first place.

Now that I go back and flip through the book, looking for something nice to say about it, I keep thinking "Oh, this was just a rant" and "Someone else said it better". So I'm not sure what good things I can say about the book--which is strange because I did enjoy reading it. I guess I enjoyed it because it touches on topics that interest me.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, even scattered around San Francisco

I typed up some notes on BATH 4 DIchotomY. Like some notes about things I worried about that turned out not to be problems. And things I didn't worry about that turned out to be problems. And, at long last, revealing which of my plans was thwarted by Santarchy.

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Book Report: Altered Carbon

A fun piece of cyberpunky science fiction. Where by "fun... cyberpunky", I of course mean cynical and bleak. Personalities can be placed into new bodies. Criminals are punished by going into forced hibernation, during with other folks might be able to use their bodies. Some people are unbelievably old and jaded. It's a world of miracles, but these miracles have brought no joy.

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Link: Bookarmy

Bookarmy is a book rating website.

Yes, I keep trying book rating websites. I keep hoping they'll turn into book recommendation sites. Bookarmy is a book recommendation website! Or, uhm, maybe. Hmm. Kinda. It hopes to be a book recommendation site?

You might remember a while back I mentioned I used a site called Wikilens. You'd tell it books you like and it would recommend others based on other people's recommendations. It was fun while it lasted; it was a school project and those people aren't in school anymore. The site shut down.

I'm on, where folks can rate things that they've consumed, e.g., books. I hit a milestone there this morning: I rated my 1000th book! But that site doesn't make recommendations. About a year ago, it gave me a list of five people who were "consuming the same things as Larry Hosken". OK, that's not the same as enjoying the same things that I enjoy. But maybe it's close enough. Let's see, is there some easy way for me to find things that these people rated highly, things that I haven't tried yet? Uhm, no. No recommendations here. Here's how I figure I'll celebrate rating my 1000th book: I'm stopping. No more rating books on AllConsuming. It's easy, they have a nice quick UI... but it's not getting me anything.

What? Bookarmy? I'm theoretically talking about Bookarmy? OK.

Someone at work pointed out a new site: It promises book recommendations! So I rated a bunch books on their site. And now I've got recommendations from them. But the recommendations so far... Uhm, they lack credibility.

Bookarmy has three ways of making recommendations:

  • "People like you are reading..."
  • "Your friends books"
  • "More from authors you like"

People like you are reading sounds like a good idea. Bookarmy looks over its list of users to find people who are similar to me, book-taste-wise. Then it looks for books rated highly by those people. I guess. I guess that's what's going on. Elsewhere in their UI, they have a list of people who are my "best matched". So what are the top-recommended books for me in this category?

  • Speak Young adult fiction. Bookarmy recommends this book because it was rated highly by user Twilightrose, who is my best-matched user in all of Bookarmy. How well are we matched? Twilightrose and I have read one book in common: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We are similar in that we disliked it. That's it. That's the extent of our well-matched tastes. This doesn't seem like a credible recommendation.
  • Friction, children's fiction. Also rated highly by Twilightrose. She seems like a nice girl and all. I'm just not sure that our tastes are really that similar. Just sayin'.
  • Looking for Alaska children's fiction. Highly rated by Nathanonline, the Bookarmy user second-most similar to me. What do I have in common with Nathanonline? We both read Crime and Punishment. I disliked Crime and Punishment and Nathanonline liked it. Yet we are considered similar. Maybe that's because Nathanonline rated C&P as "OK" while its average rating is five stars (the maximum). Relative to the rest of the world, we disliked Crime and Punishment. Maybe that's what's going on? Somehow, that's not enough to make me want to pay much attention to his book recommendations. No offense, Nate.

(If I scan down Bookarmy's list of people who are similar to me, at #4 I finally find someone who liked a book that I liked. That's one book that we have in common. On the other hand, if I look at a list of people who have rated many books, I can find someone named "Loosy" who has read a bunch of the same books that I have and we seem to agree more than we disagree. And I just found Loosy by stumbling around haphazardly. Hey, bookarmy people: I'd rather know about people who agree with me on 2/3 books than 1/1 books. I'm surprised Loosy isn't higher on my list of similar people than Nathanonline is.)

Your friends books If you're reading this, you're probably sad to see that Bookarmy recommends "friends books" to me. You're probably a friend of mine and thinking "Waaahhh Larry told other friends about this bookarmy site and now all those people are cliquishly trading book recommendations but they didn't invite me and they're leaving me out and I'm just going to go sit in the corner and eat worms". But I don't have any friends on Bookarmy. No, wait, I have eight friends on Bookarmy. No, wait, bookarmy's friend system is broken. Eight people have "friended" me on Bookarmy. Bookarmy is a social network site. You know how some people try to "win" on social network sites by having the most friends? So they "friend" everybody? Eight of those people have friended me. I said no to each of them. But but but bookarmy nevertheless says that I have eight friends. And it recommends books from them.

  • Twilight
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

These books have been recommended by people who "friend" people they don't know. The only thing I know about these people is that they have a hobby that I don't have: random "friending". Thus, I'm not inclined to pay much attention to these recommendations. Or I might take these as anti-recommendations--maybe if I read these books, I'll turn into an annoying random-friending-person.

The good news is that I learned some new punctuation today:
Your friend's books: apostrophe before the s indicates that "friend" is singular
Your friends' books: apostrophe after the s indicates that "friends" is plural
Your friends books: mising apostrophe indicates that "friends" is zero

More from authors you like Hey, they can alert me to new books written by authors I've rated highly, yay!

  • Interworld by Neil Gaiman , Michael Reaves. Huh. I like some Neil Gaiman stuff, dislike other Neil Gaiman stuff. I'm kind of surprised this showed up so high on the list.
  • The Web Architect's Handbook by Charles Stross. OK, I like his science fiction, maybe I'd like his technical writing, too. Hmm, according to his website, this 13-year old book on web design is "an historical artifact". Maybe I'll skip it. Still, this seems like the kind of book I'd want to show up on this list--there's no way an algorithm could know the book's out of date. Well done, Bookarmy.
  • How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen. Why is this showing up in a list of books by authors I like? I've rated one Franzen book on Bookarmy. I didn't like that book. My rating reflects that.

Anyhow, if you're on Bookarmy and you know me, feel free to friend me. It's kind of embarrassing being on a social site with no friends. If you'd like to play around on a book-rating site, Bookarmy is fun. And maybe if enough people go there and rate books, they'll have better data. And maybe maybe they'll come up with some better recommendation ranking algorithm... I'm tempted to recommend it, because I would so much like it if there was a book recommendation service that had plenty of data to work with... But, really, it's not working well now.

I talked to a couple of folks about my bad luck on Bookarmy. One of them told me that if I rate books on Amazon, Amazon will tell me about similarly-rated books. Maybe I should try that. I tend to shy away from using Amazon because they oppress their coders. Maybe it's time I got past that.

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Book Report: Predictably Irrational

A series of musings about how people really behave. Or, rather, how they misbehave. Describes experiments about placebos, cheating, and other circumstances in which people lie to themselves and to others. I'd heard about some of these topics. Lately, some economists have pointed out how people don't follow the simple economic model--that people follow other rules, similarly predictable albeit less sensible.

But there were new-to-me ideas in this book. E.g., that to encourage people to be honorable, you might occasionally ask them to swear an oath to be honorable. Not necessarily because you expect them to respect the force behind that oath, but instead to remind them that honor is important, to remind them that they think of themselves as honorable, that they take pride in it.

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Link: Javascript the Good Parts

Yes, I should be writing about BATH4 and MSPH1[23]. But that would require effort. But link posts are easy. So I'll link to a video of Douglas Crockford talking about the good parts of Javascript.

I've been programming in Javascript lately. I approached the language with some trepidation. I'd seen plenty of bad Javascript. But I'd also heard from co-workers that the language itself was pretty good. Maybe I'm late to the party--plenty of folks program Javascript nowadays. But I think there are still some who dodge the language, having done a scream-and-run based on past follies. If you tried JS a while back and hated it, you might want to watch Crockford's talk--he talks about how to use JS's good parts while steering clear of the warts.

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