Every Single One Of My Titles

Commas, Man.

We’re all writers or readers here, so we all know where I’m going with this.  You’ve no doubt run across passages while reading where a comma has been tragically omitted or inserted where it had no place being or not being.

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Here’s a shining example of a piece of text that really could have used three commas and some accessories, like an “and” or an “or” between the pregnant and the children.  Sure, it’s just a sign, not literature.  But it gets the point across, and I really don’t want to go citing passage like this from a fellow author without giving him or her a heads up quietly first to allow revision. Because let’s face it, critics can be cruel in reviews at times.  I really don’t want to go out of my way to provide ammunition in public.  Or in private — let reviewers find their own ammunition.  They definitely will, and the majority of them can spot a massive punctuation error very well without aid, thankyouverymuch.

Just for the heck of it, and because what I had to say today didn’t take much saying, I’m going to leave a couple more examples of various errors — actual and contrived — here for your viewing pleasure.  Enjoy!

Poor kids!

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I find the Oxford comma is the best choice in most situations.

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Of course, there is fertile ground for error beyond the comma.

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George Carlin verbally illustrates the consequences of screwing up a comma.

CAUTION: if “George Carlin” wasn’t warning enough, THIS VIDEO CONTAINS NOT SAFE FOR WORK LANGUAGE.

     And finally, here’s a link to “25 Unfortunate Sentences That Could Really Use A Comma” at Hypervocal — and, thankfully, it is NOT a slideshow.

If there’s anything I dislike more than a sentence tragically destroyed by an error of grammar, it’s a slideshow on the internet.

Who Do You Write?

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The old saw goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  If you write, the odds are you’ve flattered one, or more likely several, other writers.  As writers, we all begin as readers.  We dig around in the gigantic atmosphere of literature that surrounds us, plucking this and that out of the air, finding what we like and what we don’t.

And when we start to write our own stories, we begin by imitating.  Oh, we don’t necessarily set out to copy author X’s novel Y — though I’ve seen that happen.  Once upon a time I watched a former friend grind out over two hundred handwritten pages of a clone of The Hobbit with the serial numbers barely even filed off.  Instead of a ring, it was a necklace (I think), but it still had to be dumped into a volcano.  The hobbits were called something different, and they were silly practical jokers.  Gandalf had a different name and a different colored robe, but he still puffed his pipe sagely and set the plot in motion.

That’s way too much imitation.  And it might be a waste of time — but that depends.

Depends upon what, you ask?  It depends upon the writer.  My former friend was convinced that he was writing a totally original story, through the exercise of some incredible acrobatics of denial.  I remember pointing out the parallels, and I remember him coming up with some convoluted excuse for why he really wasn’t imitating anyone else.  He was full of shit, of course, but he couldn’t see it.

Imitation is bad if you’re fooling yourself about it.

Now, take the same situation, and imagine a beginning writer who has decided to write a knockoff of The Hobbit as a writing exercise.  This imaginary writer isn’t too sure of himself and doesn’t think he has what it takes to come up with a decent plot for a novel.  But he still wants to practice and grow in his craft.  So he sets off to imitate, knowing he’s imitating.  He’s building on something earlier, and as he goes, he’s seeing what he can add to it.  With that attitude, by the time he gets to the end, he may be confident enough to write a new ending, add subplots, diverge, venture into new territory.

Look, I woudn’t want to do that.  But I can see that, with honest self-appraisal and a consciousness of what you’re doing, such an exercise could have value.  Looking back at my writing, I notice that the farther back I look, the more likely I am to be able to identify influences on my style and tone.  One story smacks of Heinlein, another has a stretch that’s dry like Asimov in the middle of the Foundation trilogy, another was probably written after I’d read some Steinbeck.  That’s not to compare myself to them, but it is to say that those writers and others rubbed off on me.  I admire their work.  I enjoyed reading their work.  And in the beginning, before my own voice as a writer really began to develop, I was prone to imitating the way they wrote — even without realizing.

Imitation is something that happens, deliberate or not, when you are developing a skill, any skill, not just writing.  There’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself.  But as Rowling suggests above, if you’re making a big deal out of trying to appropriate the style or stories of someone else, you’re probably just wasting your time.  You’re better served working on letting your own voice develop its own unique richness and depth.

The End Of Climate Change — 100 Word Story

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The atmosphere’s warming trend slowed suddenly, tapering to a halt in only twenty years. Ocean temperatures shifted their immense inertia to follow suit. The icecaps began to regain weight. The composition of the upper atmosphere changed subtly, and excess carbon precipitated in tiny flecks, staining rains faint gray.

Climate change deniers crowed victoriously. Look how our god provides for us with a repaired environment!

When the aliens arrived demanding slave levies and mountains of resource tribute or else they’d turn off the weather control they’d been exerting from beyond Mars for thirty years — oh, how the deniers wailed and wilted!

Flayed — A New Short Story Available For Preorder Now!

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Cover art by Erik Elliott

Flayed is available for preorder right now, and will be released to your ereader on March 1st. You can find it from the following:

Amazon: Available now!

Barnes & Noble: Available now!

iTunes iBookstore: Available now!

Kobo: Coming soon!

Smashwords: Available now!

And of course, you can click on my name at any of those sources and be directed to my other 60+ titles if you’d like more to read.

The blurb:

A short story, about 3500 words.
Donte is a veteran and a colonist on a struggling new world under a hot young flare star. For most of the colonists, the struggle is in coaxing crops out of the alien soil and avoiding the radiation of the flares. But for Donte, he must also deal with the lingering trauma of war — and a body that feels skinned alive without the armor he once wore in the army.

The preview, about 30% or 1100 words:

     Donte Barnes pilots the tractor through long shadows as the blue sun lowers itself toward the horizon. His hands are gloved even though the day is hot; they itch incessantly. He grinds his teeth and resists the urge to scratch. Every day is an endless series of resistances like this one. Experience tells him that scratching will only make the pain worse, so he carries on, finishes plowing the row he was working on and pulls up to the farmhouse.

     The farm is a co-op, huge and sprawling and subdivided into thirty plots for thirty different crops. The homes of ambitiously-named First City, more of a village, stretch around it in a narrow ring. If you were to see it from the air—and Donte had, when he first arrived—you’d swear it was about to break.

     Jorgen Samuelssen ventures out onto the covered porch to meet Donte as he comes in from the tractor. Jobs normally rotate in the co-op, but Jorgen is always in the kitchen. Yes, cooking is what he does best, but he is also safest inside, out of the punishing deluge of ultraviolet Sapphire pours down upon Cradle. Jorgen is the only person other than Donte on the south side of First City who covers himself completely when he goes outside, and unlike Jorgen, Donte insists upon working outside—the unofficial uniform of the colony is tank top, shorts, and dark skin, the darker the better. Pale-skinned applicants like Jorgen are discouraged from immigrating, to minimize casualties from sunburn and skin cancer.

     But Cradle is not a popular destination, and Jorgen was the first qualified chef to apply, and it took only a little convincing for the colony managers to clear him to immigrate. Standing on the porch, Jorgen wears the same covering as a conservative Islamic woman might, but his head covering thrown back in the shelter of the porch.

     Donte wears the same covering, day and night, out and in; the sun is not why he goes covered. Covered, he itches; uncovered, the pain demands so much medication he might as well never leave his bed.

     “In for the day?” Jorgen asks, holding a bottle of local banana beer out to Donte.

     “No,” Donte says, but he takes the beer. “Got one more row left. But the itching…” he lets his voice trail off and takes a sip of the beer. It’s cool and light; the way they brew it hardly develops enough alcohol content to notice. It also doesn’t demand much more than bananas and water to make, two things the colony has in abundance.

     “Itching’s bad today?”

     “Driving me crazy.”

     “As long as it’s still driving and you haven’t got there yet,” Jorgen says, and opens his own beer. Donte looks over at him, frowning, but the other man is sipping his beer and doesn’t notice. He probably didn’t mean anything by it, Donte thinks. But I’m so damn tired of the crazy war vet stereotype.

      What makes it so annoying to Donte is that the stereotype almost fits. The itching does drive him crazy sometimes; there are days he doesn’t leave his house, but instead stays in and takes enough medication to reduce himself to a stupor. His Veterans Administration paperwork declares him disabled, but the frequent appearance therein of the word ‘psychosomatic’ follows him like a doom, a curse that barred him from the many colony worlds he’d have chosen over this one. Cradle is undermanned, desperate for people; five years out of the six it has existed, its population growth has lagged sorely behind projections. Few people want to go to a young planet circling a young star, to deal with heavy UV and vulcanism and flares. There are nicer worlds to break ground on. The very fact that Cradle was and is unpopular, however, had made them willing to take a chance on a crazy vet with phantom pain syndrome, yet no amputations.

     “No, I haven’t gotten there yet, Jorgen,” Donte says with a sigh, and drains half the remaining beer in a gulp. “You’re safe from me.”

     “You know I didn’t mean it like that, Donte,” Jorgen says. “In fact, I was hoping you’d talk about your troubles a bit. Talking about anything makes bearing it a little easier.”

     “What’s to talk about?” Donte says. “I damn near lived in my armor for two years in the war. And when I was wounded, they took it from me. When I developed this phantom pain thing, they wouldn’t give it back.” He dangles the beer bottle over the side of the porch rail by its neck, wondering if it would break if he dropped it on the hard earth.

     “And so you feel as if you’ve been skinned, all these years.”

     “All these years.” The two men finish their beers in silence.

     “One more row, Samuelssen,” Donte says. “Tell someone to open up the garage. I’ll bring the tractor in, in fifteen minutes.”

     Jorgen watches Donte’s draped and veiled form climb back up into the tractor’s seat, lifting his hem to avoid stepping on it.

     “You’ll have to tell me more than that one day,” he says to the sunset, once the tractor’s engine is running and he’s sure Donte won’t hear.

#

     The next afternoon brings a flare warning. The volatile Sapphire is ringed with monitor satellites orbiting close in, almost skimming the fusion fire. When early signs of a brewing flare erupt, the signal races to Cradle and the warning sirens sound; those who are outside have only minutes to find shelter. At the call of the sirens, Donte is close to one of the shelters in a field of rice near First Landing River. The door of the shack is standing open and he climbs down the steep steel staircase behind it, into the cool. There are only a few other people in it when he arrives. They trade hellos gingerly; everyone knows he goes covered but most of them still feel it’s strange. Donte does his best to ignore it (like the itching, it follows him everywhere) and pours himself a cup of water from the hand pump near the chemical toilets. He picks a spot far from the door and sits down on the concrete floor to wait. Most flares last only an hour or two.

      As with all flares, many people are caught farther from shelter than others. The ones still out when the flare hits don’t drop dead, they make it to shelter also; they’ve just had a dose of radiation, maybe a torso X-ray per minute’s worth. More people straggle in to the shelter Donte has found, a few of them carrying bits of metal or wood they’ve used to attempt to shield their genitals from the invisible shower of charged particles. Hope I didn’t catch a mutant out there, they say almost invariably, as common a cliché as how about that weather or hold my beer and watch this.

     One of the latecomers, covered and veiled like him, wanders over to Donte, begins to turn to sit, hesitates…

I Got Hoaxed While Writing About How Hard It Is For The Future To See The Past Accurately: Theory In Practice

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So, just a few days ago I was writing about a prime consideration for the science fiction writer: imagining how the future may see their past (our present) inaccurately. I mentioned the fact that time is a bit like distance in terms of what can be seen; whether we measure in years or meters, the more distance between you and what you’re viewing, the fewer details you see, and the fuzzier the image. I also mentioned that ‘fuzziness’ in terms of viewing the past — and an aspect to consider when writing about how your characters in the future view our present or the deeper past — means that things get lost. Like, I thought, this bizarre-yet-plausible video game and 8-track music tape driving game:

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…except, as Twitter friend @webmonkees was kind enough to point out, the game is a hoax. What makes my falling for it even more stinging than it already was, I had actually looked at the reference @webmonkees pointed out: a comedy site. Caught up in rapid research, I read only far enough to get the gist of what the ‘double-ender’ was supposed to be: a device for matching background music to themed games. Well, games tend to have background music. Marketing types love things that fit themes. And so, the package was credible enough that my ‘no way’ sense did not engage, and I did not click ‘about us‘ on the comedy page to discover that it was, in fact, a comedy page, and the ‘double-ender’ is a spoof product that never existed.

Which brings me to my subject today: in my earlier post, I missed something other than the hoax. I missed the role of the hoax in making the past fuzzy to us.

Hoaxes, along with assumptions and plain old errors, also cloud our vision of the past. Writing science fiction, it might be worth considering how a hoax or mistake could affect the future’s vision of us today. In fact, there could be fertile ground for inspiration here, and for social commentary. A future that believes that the 8-track ‘double-ender’ was real probably doesn’t offer much in the way of stories, but what about a future that believes, due to a clever montage photoshopped headlines, that aliens destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11? Or in the various ‘reptile humanoids hiding among us‘ theories, or that the moon landing being faked is fact rather than conspiracy fiction, or…

…the possibilities are endless. I wonder how many hoaxes, lies, and mistakes are already presented as fact in the history books we have today? And I’m not even counting arguments, soluble and insoluble, among historians over the ‘correct’ version of controversial events.

Part Of Writing Science Fiction Is Asking What The Future Will Forget

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Do you remember this being a thing? I don’t. I do remember the Atari 2600 — plenty of people do. They were all over the place, one of the earliest and most popular video game systems.

But this ‘double-ender’ thing… really? I had no clue before I saw this image. But apparently they saw some success and were an early attempt to mate theme music to games in a way that made sense (and sounded better than the often-cheesy SFX of the 2600).

But my point isn’t “look at this weird thing from the past”… although it’s admittedly a side-point.

My point is, we forget a lot about the past. We’re here, and it’s back there. As with seeing and hearing, the farther something is from us, the less detail we perceive. The same is true of time. The farther back in time a thing is from us, the less we know about it (in general — historians generate specific and focused exceptions). When I’m writing a story that takes place a century or two in the future and the past becomes relevant to the characters, I have to ask myself what they might know and what they might not. What is important to us now, or at least present in our general knowledge, that will be lost to non-historians or entirely lost to the people of the future? If I’m writing something set fifty years from now, maybe they have no clue what Glee was, or that you couldn’t hang a TV on the wall with thumbtacks like a poster. Ten thousand years from now (and I have a couple of stories set that far ahead), and maybe they don’t know what a ‘nation’ was.

Knowledge, like the proverbial pebble dropped in a pond, casts a ripple effect. Knowing one thing implies knowing what a thousand other things are, and it shapes how a person behaves in entirely unrelated matters.

Lack of knowledge acts the same way. And the way you handle that and understand that in your stories about the future will have a ripple effect upon the quality of those stories.

Writing Dilemma: I Like Writing About Writing, But Sometimes The Stories Come Slow

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The title story of this one was a year and a half in the writing. Isolation started as a short story. When I thought I had finished it, I sent it to my wife to see what she thought, as I always do. And she thought that the ending point was WAY too open-ended, left WAY too much unsaid. She wanted to know what happened next, and she was certain that what happened next would be interesting and important and the reader had to know what it was.

I grumbled, but I sort of saw her point, so I put the story on the back burner. And then I came back to it months later when more came to me, and it turned out that she was right. A 5,000 word story, in bits and parts over the course of more months, turned into a 20,000 word story. And the ending was still open-ended, but this time both I and my wife were okay with that.

Back in February 2014, nearly a year ago now, I posted an excerpt from That’s All, a story about a man vaulted from the edge of homelessness into reality-show stardom in a future where television and movies include “emotional tracks” that transmit the emotions of the actors to the audience. I have 15,000 words of that one down, and I think that maybe it wants to be a novel — which would be cool, I haven’t written one of those yet. But I still don’t know what happens next. I have some ideas, but none of them are really resonating strongly with me so far. I re-read it every month or two and think about it. That’s how I operate, sometimes. Some stories come to me all in a rush. Others take time. More time that I’d like.

The prevailing advice to writers is, write the story no matter what. Make it happen. Bull ahead, write crap, then edit it like a demon and chop it to pieces. And from those pieces, you will assemble your story.

That’s just not how I work. I don’t like writing things when I don’t know where they’re headed. I don’t need an outline; when I do one, it’s skeletal at best. I tend to write organically. But I need to have a destination in my head, no matter if I discard it after a thousand words because things have changed as I have written.

Don’t get me wrong, I do benefit from sitting down and writing when I don’t feel like writing or when I don’t know what happens next. But some stories, for me, just need to marinate for a while. Sometimes for months. Maybe a year or two.

This writing thing is an art, not a science. Maybe my feelings on stories are wrong sometimes, and maybe they’re right. This is an uncertain pursuit, drawing stuff out of a human imagination. We all need to take our chances, follow our feelings, push ourselves to finish work…

…but we also need to back off when we don’t know what comes next and give things time. Or, who knows, maybe you don’t, you lucky bastard. But I do. So it goes.

There’s a reason I keep a dozen projects juggling at once. It’s because I go through ebbs and flows on any one project, and I need other things to go work on while another stalls. To produce writing, I have to have some grasp on how, personally, I work as a creator. And this is just how I work. So it goes.

Sometimes, this means I post an excerpt from a piece of writing and a year later I’m no closer to completion than I was before. I don’t really like doing that, because I like to follow through with my readers. I don’t like to tease what’s not happening soon. And I have come to hesitate to post work in progress because of that, which, today, I have realized is a shame. I like to share, and I think you like to read. Why shouldn’t we share some work in progress, even if its future is uncertain? Hell, everything is uncertain. EVERYTHING. A black hole could swoop in and eat us all tomorrow, or something.

But again, so it goes.

Flash Fiction: The Hitting-Stick

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Base image: SIV_primates.jpg by Wikimedia Commons user Yoky under Creative Commons 3.0 (attribution). Image cropped, color manipulated, effects added, text added.

The Hitting-Stick

by S.A. Barton

copyright 2015

Once, there was a more-than-ape who struck another more-than-ape with a stick.

There was no artifice to the blow. The stick was awkward and leafy; the impact was no more than that of an ordinary more-than-ape fist. The experiment was not repeated for a long time.

But it did happen again, some years later, and more frequently as generations passed. Slowly, slowly, the more-than-apes grew into something more than more-than-apes.

Eventually, a proto-human picked up a very straight hitting-stick and stripped most of the twigs and leaves off before hitting. The blow was much harder than that of a fist. The nameless proto-human hitter smiled a toothy smile and hit again. And again.

#

Much later there was a near-human who, picking a smooth stone out of a dry wash to use in beating a good hitting-stick free from a tree, dropped that stone. By chance, that stone fell against the point of a harder stone. A broad flake leapt from the softer stone and skittered across the gravelly wash.

The near-human (he had a name, Hooruh, a grunt much like the hundred or so other grunts his people had learned to make and assign meaning to) picked the fallen stone up, and then the flake. Hooruh held the two objects, one in each hand, and moved them slowly together. The flake touched the stone. Hooruh shifted the flake to fit the divot it had leapt from.

The flake bit Hooruh’s finger. Hooruh hooted and threw both rock and flake down. He fled.

The experiment was not repeated for a long time. But eventually it was, and Hooruh’s great-times-who-knows-how-many granddaughter left the flake where it fell but took the chipped stone away with her. She used the edge around where the chip had spalled free to hack down sticks and break animal bones slightly quicker than had been possible before—until the edge blunted, which didn’t take all that long.

And similar incidents happened again, and again, more often as time and generations passed, and eventually a near-human thought to drop the soft rock on the hard one over and over to make many little flakes and many poor, jumbled edges. But still, that very rough axe could hack a hitting-stick down considerably faster than a smooth stone, and the many edges made it last a long time.

Later, yet another near-human cut meat with one of the flakes that cut her finger.

Yet another used a big flake to cut a fellow near-human.

And then a brighter one thought to jam flakes into cracks on hitting-sticks for better fellow-cutting. Another held the soft rock in his hands and pounded it on the hard rock over and over so the flaking made a crude but purposeful edge.

They were almost-human now, and soon they were more.

#

A human taught himself to knap flint into a strong, straight edge that could fell not just hitting-sticks, but smallish trees.

A human worked flint chips so broad and fine that she could cut a pig’s throat with hardly an effort—a great improvement over the old way of laboriously clubbing pigs to death.

A human fire-hardened a sapling shaved to a point with a stone axe until it could be pushed all the way through a pig—or a human, and the broad flint chip knife was soon out of fashion for hunting.

Later, a human tipped a hitting-stick with a finely worked pointed flake held on with dried pig gut, and threw it.

#

A human dropped an enormous steel egg of nuclear fire and it hatched over the heads of more than three hundred thousand humans, incinerating and concussing and radiation-poisoning a third of them to death in an instant. Then another human did it again.

#

A human pushed a gargantuan mountain out of space and it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. It made a deep hole from which magma welled, and steam and clouds and fire wreathed the humans’ world.

Later, after a very, very, very long time, a not-quite-human hit a not-quite-human with a stick. It was not clear at the time if they were less than human, or more, or simply different. But the experiment was not repeated for a long time.

#

All the humans were among the stars, preoccupied with newer hitting-sticks, and took no notice.

Alright, The Computer Voice Wasn’t So Hot. So Here I Am Reading “All Flesh Is Grass”.

Give it a listen, it’s one of my freebie stories, a real shortie — only six minutes long, under a thousand words about one possible implication of laboratory-grown meat products.

There are two other stories on my YouTube channel so far, both software-read. Now that I have broken down and gotten a bare-bones basic microphone, I’ll be posting more like this, read by me in my very own voice.

You’ll notice, I think, that my voice is just okay for this kind of thing — part by nature, part by lack of experience. Reading aloud isn’t something I’ve really done before, aside from a few kids’ books for my toddlers. I’m no Morgan Freeman.

In any event, I hope you’ll enjoy what you hear.

Eulogy For An Internet Badass –OR– Why I Cut Arguments Short And Don’t Hesitate On The Block Button

WebsiteRageKirk

A 13 word story:

Decades arguing at strangers

Found dead on his laptop

Stroked out on trollrage

————-

I’ve had my share of internet arguments. Some of them were lengthy, acrimonious, and frankly, in hindsight, utterly ridiculous. Happily, I haven’t gone full ridiculous in quite some time, and I don’t think I’ll be going back in the future.

I still don’t hesitate to disagree online, or even to argue. But these last few years, I have come to understand that no matter how outrageous I find the other person’s position or statements to be, there’s no profit in giving in to anger. “Argument” doesn’t have to be about rage. It’s possible to argue with a bit of sense. And when it’s apparent that the other person is trolling and raging, well, that’s what the block button is for. Just about every place you can have an internet argument has some version of blocking.

I used to avoid using block functions, as if doing so was some badge of open-minded honor. Well, I do take some pride in maintaining an open mind in general. But that doesn’t mean I have to waste my time dealing with abusive people, or with people whose primary or even sole recreation is making other people angry on the internet, or with people who just want to argue to argue.

There are enough trolls online that the trolls can find their own kind to bother after I’ve blocked them, and enough reasonable people, even reasonable people with whom I have deep and fundamental differences of opinion, to find good conversation online no matter how many thousands of people I block on social media and elsewhere.

For as long as I can remember, I have been quick to anger, and my anger can burn very hot. My father was the same way; some of it is my disposition, but it is also a behavior reinforced by his example in my childhood. Later in life, he began to learn to step back from his anger and engage his brain before his temper got him in trouble.

As I recall, he started to really ‘get it’ in his 40s. Well, that’s where I am now.

I guess the apple only fell so far from the tree.

Anyhow. I have no intention of ending up stroked out from rage in front of my computer — because I know how easy it would be for me to end that way if I were to give in to the troll side of the Force.

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