April 30, 2006

Mousetrap - 51

Fitting Image
myImager.com
Many of us want to play with pictures a little bit, for our personal pages, our blogs, or just for fun. Free image editing software? Nothing worth the name, if you’ve used the good stuff (do write in if you know something I don’t – and puhleeze don’t talk about MS Paint or whatever it’s called). Pro software costs too much and of course you wouldn’t dream of bootlegging it, would you? This free service can fill that gap to a surprising extent. You will need a broadband connection, I must warn you. You can upload an image (up to 500 kb), and zap it with a bunch of tools: basic stuff like cropping, resizing, turning and flipping; more complicated things like adjusting levels and saturation and suchlike; some drawing and optimisation tools; and even a selection of filters and effects. You could also create an image from scratch. There’s a pro version that lets you work with larger images, but for most of us, the vanilla interface will more than suffice.

Squeak
angry alien productions
Take your favourite movies – or even the ones you don’t like. Now, imagine them summarised in 30 seconds. Better still, imagine them parodied i 30 seconds. By rabbits. Cartoon rabbits with squeaky voices. Got that? No? Very well, go see this site. Yes, you’ll need a fastish connection because you’ll have to wait for large flash files to load. And you’ll need a sound card. What can you expect to see? There’s Brokeback Mountain, Pulp Fiction, Star Wars, Titanic, and more, with “new releases” every now and then. Get bag of carrots and sit back.

Grandma said so
Hints and Things
“My name is June and I am a plump, old, grey wrinkly living in the south of England.” Now, with an About Us section that begins like that, how can you not be charmed? The site’s owner, a lady called June Jackson, created it to pass on the kind of stuff that normally gets handed down the generations by word of mouth. It’s all neatly organised with a room metaphor: you’ll find the library, kitchen, utility room, garage, garden, workshop, a games section, an office, and so on. And of course, there’s a “spare room” which has the stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else (which sounds like my desk). Anyway, you’ll find stuff like how to stop your running shoes from stinking up the place, many uses for vinegar, how to choose a sofa, life after a stroke, even info on computer viruses and hoaxes and scams. And that’s just a random pick. Go see Granny Jackson. She has lots to say.

The end
The Death Clock
How long have you got in this vale of tears, then? Hit this site, fill in date of birth, sex, your general outlook in life, whether you smoke or not, and hit the button. And you get a little pop-up that starts counting down the seconds you have left. Um. I have things to do in a hurry. See you next week.. I hope.


Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 30th April, 2006.

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April 23, 2006

Mousetrap - 50

We, the undersigned
PetitionOnline, The Petition Site, iPetitions, Petition Spot, Go Petition, Petition Them
Want changes in public life? Or to raise awareness for a worthy cause and influence opinion? Unhappy about government policy, and it’s too far to the next election? Historically, if you knew (or hoped) that enough people shared your views to make a difference, you would draw up a petition and wear out shoe-leather persuading fellow citizens to sign it. Sites like this one take the process online, not only eliminating the legwork but also widening your base: the WWWorld is your oyster. Most of these sites offer tips on writing petitions, extra tools for activists, and a paid membership option. Some require petitions to be vetted.

Who you are
Interactive Johari Window
Invented in the 50s to map awareness of personality traits, the Johari window asks you to pick the adjectives you think describe you from a fixed list. You then ask friends or colleagues to do likewise (no peeking at your list). Result: a grid that shows you the differences and similarities between your perceptions of yourself and how others think of you, which can be... startlingly. This page webifies the process, letting you point-and-click off a grid, and save your results online. You get a unique URL which you can mail to pals, and after a while (they’ll be so relieved it isn’t you usual dumbass jokes), hey presto, you get your own Johari window.

Who you are (the dark side)
The Nohari Window
Like the previous item, this is a personality awareness mapping tool. But it lists the antonyms of the words from the Johari window. In other words, your failings. Use the same methods – make your choices, get your pals to fill in theirs, compare the results – but you get a list of the negatives instead of the nice-nice stuff. Not recommended if your ego is easily bruised. But, hey, be fair, it gives your pals a chance to get back at you for making them fill out your Johari window.

This Week’s Blog

The world in your window
Global Voices
There’s one thing the Indian blogosphere (or Blogger Pradesh, as I like to call it) has in common with the USA’s: for all its vibrancy, it can be irritatingly insular. For me, Global Voices brings back the reason why I got hooked on blogs in the first place – the views and counterviews across borders, the very personal windows into other worlds. It is “a non-profit global citizens’ media project, sponsored by and launched from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School.” It operates through regional editors and bloggers across the globe who pick and link to the best posts in their areas. Sorted by country (160+ covered) and with over 50 subject tags, there’s loads to read every day, insights, views, reports, issues that you may have never heard otherwise. GV is also expanding the conversation with podcasts and video, and supporting other citizens’ media projects.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 23rd April, 2006.

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April 16, 2006

Mousetrap - 49

Hidden treasures
The Easter Egg Archive
We’re not talking about the sugary ovoids your Christian pals will give the kids today. But yes, it’s a related concept. In some parts of the world, on Easter Sunday, eggs are hidden for children to find. And in the world of computers, an Easter Egg is a hidden doodad of some kind, put in thanks to a programmer’s quirk, or as an inside joke, completely irrelevant to the software’s function. If you’ve had an email address for a bit, chances are you’ve got the forward about the flight simulator in Microsoft Excel. Well, that’s an Easter Egg. The definition seems to have broadened since I last looked, and now includes TV shows, movies, books and art as well. This site collects (yes, you can contribute) and lists these little bits of whimsy, and it can get pretty addictive. There’s also a discussion board. Warning: pretty often, the site forces you to watch an ad before showing you the page you want, which can get tiresome.

A bird in hand
Songbird
Songbird is a new music player, built on Firefox’s browser engine, and the enlightened and the apostles of open source have been enthusing on it awhile. It has all the standard music player functions, plus it promises to play music right off the web, “without leaving the page.” As with Firefox, expect the open source community to rally round, creating extensions that will expand its features. Keep an eye out on the community forum. Play on!

The Force with you be
Wookieepedia, the Star Wars Wiki
It all started when the Star Wars information on Wikipedia became, shall we say, a leetle too abundant. Complaints happened. So loyal fans now run their own wiki, with the freedom to go into loving, obsessive detail on every aspect of the series. If you’re visiting for the first time, you’ll be floored by the amount of info. If you’re a fan, you already know about this. (Yes, of course, you must go see the official site at www.starwars.com, which, besides a lot of fun data, will also try and sell you stuff.)

Beam me up
Memory Alpha
If there’s a breed of fan that’s even more fervent than Star Wars fans, it has to be the Trekkies. With the various TV series and the movies (or what the fans call the “canon”), they admittedly have more to be crazy about. There’s oodles of info here (it’s the largest of the Wikia Wikities, I’m told), but if that’s not enough for you, there’s also the Non-Canon Star Trek Wikicity at startrek.wikia.com, which pays homage to the novels, RPG sourcebooks, video games, comic books, and other material And www.startrek.com, the official site, has an enormous amount of fun stuff, including a massive searchable library.

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This Week’s Blog

ChroniKill
The dullest blog in the world
Many bloggers I know look down on the kind of diary blog that goes into obsessive detail about the blogger’s life. This blog is quite the most delicious send-up of the genre. To describe it in detail would be to ruin it for you, but hey, the title is a give-away.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 16th April, 2006.

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April 09, 2006

Mousetrap - 48

Gah
Annoyances.org
Windows may be ubiquitous, and it certainly is a marketing poster child, but, as you probably know, it can be a tad, well, annoying. This site owes it existence to just that quality. It won this columnist’s heart with the home page visual of the MS paperclip being stomped, and continued to charm me with its neatly compartmented annoyances, and the easy-to-follow instructions for overcoming them. There are also forums, with the questions and tips in each section indicating whether there are discussions on those topics. There’s even a humour section. Much needed to face a life with Microsoft, no?

..and plain old mistakes
The Slip-Up Archive
A companion site to the previous item, it lists the little hidden thingies aren’t intentional. It features sections on movies, TV, books, and quotes. A certain world leader with the middle initial “W” figures prominently in the last-named. Like its senior sibling, reader contributions are welcome, and there’s a discussion board.

Video vici
Witness
It began in 1992, founded by music icon Peter Gabriel, and is now an international non-profit that has partnered 200 human-rights groups in 60 countries. Its methods are simple: it provides its partners with video cameras so they can record human rights violations or their aftermath. Faced with visual evidence, these violations are difficult to ignore. Their films see wide circulation in the mass media, and even the festival circuit. The site documents Witness’s successes, and has their “rights alert” films available for viewing.

Different worlds
Worldmapper
Of course you know your world map with all its familiar shapes, even if you’re unable to name every country. But geography isn’t the only way to view the world. And this site illustrates that vividly. You can view the relative importance (or impact) of countries on a bunch of other parameters, like population, resources, wealth and lots more. While the material is copyrighted, the site promises that permission to re-use for non-profits and NGOs will usually be given. That’s for the much more detailed and larger images, of course. For you and me and our PCs, the sizes on the site reveal all we could want to know. [Link via Dina Mehta.]

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This Week’s Blog

Sporting
The BlockHole
One of the many sports blogs around, yes, but it’s been around for a while – well, a year-and-a-half – and it’s run by three techies (though it looks like only one of them is posting regularly these days) who choose to spell their home town “Calcutta.” The name should warn you that it has a tad too much cricket – for my taste, at least (okay, okay, lynch me later) – but it does give other sports their place in the sun. The site once featured an interesting regular quiz, which seems to have run out of steam. But the longer thought pieces are a pleasant change from much of the sports blogging I see: no rabid jingoism, no half-baked analysis. On the whole, worth your time.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 9th April, 2006.

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April 02, 2006

Mousetrap - 47

Pushing back the shadows
Askios
In the Blank Noise Project on street harassment (covered in this column three weeks ago), I found a staggering number of stories about child sexual abuse. Far from it being the rare occurrence I thought it was, huge percentages of children in this country have been abused. Much of it is either just not known or brushed under various carpets by those who could do something about it. And the victims often wind up not talking about it either, and carrying the scars all their lives. Askios is run by a survivor who found that many people s/he knew were also victims. “Not all of them have access to the professional help I had, and so this site is a way of sharing with them, and anyone else who is searching for information, empathy and hope.” The site seeks to help adult victims understand, and heal themselves, with a bunch of resources and projects that include a mailing list and a blog. Askios, by the way, is a Greek word meaning “shadowless.”

Other sites:
Stop it Now! The Campaign to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse
Also see the dmoz Open Directory Project’s list of links to sites focussed on child abuse

dus-nau-aath
ChildLine India
To carry on with the same thought, kids, in this country and elsewhere, are our most vulnerable citizens. Those of us lucky enough to take safe homes, families and education for granted can barely begin to grasp what it means to grow up without them. ChildLine aims to give a lifeline to kids who have nowhere else to turn. Set up almost ten years ago in Bombay, its model is simple. The Department of telecommunications made a toll-free number – 1098 – available. Kids or concerned adults in (as per the site) 54 cities can call the number and 24/7 and be sure of getting at the very least, a trained, sympathetic ear at the other end. If they need more help, their volunteers go over and provide it. The site lists the organisation’s evolution and reach, and tells you how you can help. By the way, if you do want to help, and if you’re in Bombay, they’re hosting a fundraiser today at Shanmukhananda Hall, with Shankar, Loy and Ehsaan. Contact 55447776 or mail pooja@childlineindia.org.in or see the ‘What’s New’ page on the site.

And if you’re the type who delights in Indian accomplishments on a global level, here’s one genuinely worth crowing about: ChildLine’s model was extended to form Child Help International which links 81 such helplines in 70 countries.

Your right to know
Right to Information Act, 2005 & the RTI Portal
Not many people know we actually have a Right to Information. The first site is the Act itself, and the second “attempts to provide a RTI Portal Gateway to the citizens for Quick search of information, web published by various departments in Government.” Use it. It’s your right. And while you’re at it, see also http://chennairti.googlepages.com/, which is a citizen’s initiative in Chennai which seeks to help citizens make the most of the act. [Links via Bala Pitchandi]

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 2nd April, 2006.

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April 01, 2006

The Sahib's in Pachmarhi, Gunga Din

If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on a week in the hills, would Pachmarhi reward you, my son? Armed with pre-arranged hospitality from MP Tourism, one sallied forth in search of colonial cottages and Raj nostalgia.

The drive in is a good one. Excellent straight road across the plain from Pipariya, the nearest railhead, and then a well-maintained hill road that winds its way up to Pachmarhi through the Satpura National Park. The temperature dropped perceptibly as we climbed, and was positively bracing by the time we got to the top.

A quick run through the market area, several twists and turns, and we were home, at the Satpura Retreat.

Off on a quiet lane, far from the madding crowds at the market place, its outer walls are painted a light green, and, for some strange reason, the roof tiles are a darker shade of the same colour.

That is your basic introduction to the decoration style that results from governments and public tenders, that one affectionately refers to as Erm, Government department Art Dekho (EGAD, for short). Colonial? Well, one has eaten the MPTDC’s salt, but one has professional obligations to this magazine. So, the kindest thing one can say is that the place has been made efficiently livable. Aside from some of the woodwork – which, in most places has been painted over rather than polished – once you’re inside your room, the only clue that you’re in a restored colonial cottage and not a cookie-cutter resort, is the height of the ceilings and the generous spread of the room itself. No four-poster, no carved wooden legs on the bed, no claw-foot bathtub. There is an ornamental fireplace, but the “ornamental” bit is strictly in the eyes of its designer; it is painted in hideous colours. And while the electrical fittings dangle from authentically long stems, they’re modern in the worst way. Fluorescent bulbs, fans with rakishly angled blades.. argh. The bathroom fittings are, er, ah, um, well – you know, funny pseudo-bronzy faucets and stuff like that? Ah well. I suppose one should be thankful for modern plumbing instead of chamber pots. But the fact is, I’ve seen railway station waiting rooms with more authentic period furniture and fittings (admittedly more a result of bureaucracy than design), so getting the real thing can’t be that difficult.

The food is decent and plentiful, and reasonably priced. But again, don’t expect to be downing mulligatawny soup and kedgeree. One eccentricity of the worthy MPTDC is that they have the same menu across all their properties across the state, heritage or not. That said, there’s reasonable variety, and they’re flexible enough to rustle up an off-menu sandwich if your little heart so desires.

The good side now. The rooms are comfortable, and just six rooms mean that that the place is never crowded, and that a vigilant member of the staff is usually within polite hailing distance. The service is warm and friendly, and the staff seem to know just when you want to shoot the breeze a little and when to leave you alone.
A broad, cool wrap-around verandah looks out on to a lovely little garden (make sure you get one of the three rooms that open out thataway) with a wonderful view of the Satpuras on the horizon. Bees and dragonflies go about their business, and birds dart around, presumably making said B&Bs their business. So, if tranquillity and a generous dollop of nature rocks your boat, this is a lovely place to get yours.

I would have been content to spend my stay ensconced in wicker chair with a good book, but Kedar, my photographer, has been instructed by the photo editor to get Lots Of Activity Shots. So, off we go in a hired Gypsy. But first, noblesse must be obliged, so we visit the two other heritage cottages MP Tourism runs, Rock End Manor and Glen View.

En route, we stop off at the lake. Brightly-coloured pedal-boats filled with noisy holiday makers dot the serene waters, a horse, a camel – and a small quad bike! – await landlubbers’ custom. A boat tilts precariously as some youths stand up in it to pose for pictures, but, alas, does not tip over. Idiot-proof, these fibreglass flat-bottomed vessels, sadly.

Rock End is a sparkling white house perched on a small rise, off by itself, overlooking acres of meadows. Creepers, a nice garden, many flowers, and one beautiful painted glass widow win my instant approval. Glen View is a rambling old place in its own grounds. But those grounds also have a new, large building that houses a conference room and the dining room (which is also the only MP Tourism property here with a bar), and a multitude of smaller buildings that our enquiries reveal are their standard AC rooms. It is, by far, and despite the newer constructions, the best-looking of them all, with the decor and fittings a little closer to matching the exteriors. One can easily imagine a coach and horses rattling up the driveway. Quite charming.

We spend the next day Doing Pachmarhi in no uncertain terms.

The Church of the Annunciation (or was it Assumption? One’s upbringing is suspect.), better known locally as the Catholic Church, dating back to 1892, is in regular use. It’s in army property, so you’ll have to request the guards to let you in, but it’s worth a visit for the beautiful stained glass. The parish priest, if he is in, will personally welcome you at the door, and point out the objects of interest. Among them, beautiful Belgian stained glass windows, and a carved stone pulpit and baptismal font. Overall, though, it has a mildly antiseptic feel to it. Christ Church, the Anglican church, is closer to the town centre. It is slightly older (1875) and in poor repair; sunlight peeps through holes in the roof, the pews are dusty. But it is in regular use too, with a padre coming in once a week. It’s a far more beautiful church, with its half-dome over the altar, wooden beams, and magnificent stained glass too, despite many a missing pane.

These, however, are not Pachmarhi’s main draw. What brings the teeming masses here, even more than the invigorating climate and the wonderful views, is the cave temples, dedicated mainly dedicated to Shiva (Jata Shankar and Mahadeo are the best-known). There are also cave paintings, most around 1500 years old, but some date back as far as 8000 BC. The temples see brisk custom even off-season and the way of the devoted is lined with stalls selling all manner of religious aids.

For the adventure lovers there is rock climbing, and treks and nature walks to be had, but if you want to see animals, the best options involve overnight stays in forest guest houses. Permission must be arranged before hand, and most hotels will help with that. Don’t expect to see any tigers, the “Satpura Tiger Reserve” signs notwithstanding. Though it must be said: Kedar, on a solo jaunt, spotted fresh panther spoor near one of the cave sites.

Oh yes. In the area known as the Helipad or Landing Field, a private operator has a parasailing operation going. Kedar took a ride, and, desiring to fill the unforgiving minute – and not to look too wimpy – I did too. To the detriment of my coccyx, thanks to a clumsy landing. I type this perched on many soft cushions, but it still hurts more than foes or loving friends, I can confidently assure you.

Thanks to said affliction, one spent the last morning of our stay visiting Pachmarhi’s only (apparently) doctor, and being shot full of painkillers, so very nearly missed out on the find of the trip.

Right next to the Satpura Retreat is Evelyn’s Own, the home of Colonel Rao and his wife. We dropped in on the advice of a taxi driver, and were rewarded amply. In the meagre half-hour we spent chatting with the genial couple, we learn how they bought the place as their retirement home, how they began taking in house guests, and gradually converted some of the outer buildings – garages, stables, etcetera – into guest rooms. The rooms are cosy, all ACed, the service, great, and the company, most excellent. “It’s a quiet place, Pachmarhi,” says ‘Bunny’ Rao (only a fauji can carry off a nickname like that), “and it was partly so that we would get some interesting company.”

Which brings us to the nub: if it’s colonial ambience you want (forgive me MP Tourism, but those fireplaces!) I have to say Evelyn’s Own does it better.


The Information

Getting there.

Air: Nearest airport, Bhopal, a little short of 200km.
Rail: Closest station, Pipariya, 50km. However, not all trains stop there. The larger Itarsi junction is 100km away, and many choose to switch to road transport from there.
If you do go via Pipariya, you’ll need to get a taxi to Pachmarhi. It should cost you around Rs 500 off-season. Demand:supply will push the prices up in summer. If you’re staying at an MPTDC property, it makes sense to take a one-minute walk from the station to their Tourist motel, where the staff will help you get a car without getting rooked too badly.

Where to stay

MP Tourism’s colonial cottages (http://www.mptourism.com/dest/pach_accomm.html): Each property has 6 AC Deluxe rooms, at Rs 2990. Don’t bother with the 15 standard AC rooms at Glen View if you want the full experience; they’re newer constructions on the grounds, without a shred of history between them.
Satpura Retreat: +91 7578 252097, mptsatrp@sancharnet.in;
Rock-End Manor: +91 07578 252079, mptremph@sancharnet.in,
Glen View: +91 07578 252533 / 252445, mptgview@sancharnet.in
Evelyn’s Own: 15 rooms, all ACed, from Rs 1500 to Rs 2500. http://www.geocities.com/bunnyrao27/, +91 07578 252056, +91 9425310503, evelynsown@gmail.com

What to do

If you’re at the MP Tourism places, for the prices you’re paying, you shouldn’t stir off the property. But unfortunately, there isn’t much for those who aren’t TV addicts and can only take so much sitting around breathing clean air. If you want to see the sights, they organise tours. A Gypsy with driver will cost you Rs 650 for the full day, up to 60km, or Rs 500 for a half-day up to 30 km. For large groups, Rs 150 per head in a 20-seater bus will ferry you around all the hot spots.
Evelyn’s Own offers you tennis and badminton, some indoor games, a paddling pool, even a tree house. The Raos will also arrange treks and nature walks, and visits to the Satpura National Park. And they’ll even get you a game on the Lord Landsdowne Golf Course for the price of the greens fees. Plus there’s a chance of fascinating conversation with the Colonel and his lady, raconteurs both, and of course they know the area like it was home.


Published in Outlook Traveller, April 2006 edition.



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Cybertrack - 8

Couchsurfing

The best place to set up base, when you’re travelling, is with friends. No room service and housekeeping, yes, but your stay is free, and you get the security of your hosts telling you things about the place you’re in, pointing you to what’s best, warning you about what’s to be avoided, as only a local can do. Perhaps they’ll even wander around with you, and show you the sights.

But, unless you’re a diplomat or have spent a lifetime travelling, its pretty unlikely you’ll have pals to pile on to in every place you want to visit. Couchsurfing gives you the next best thing.

When you join (and that’s free; the site is a non-profit project), you get instant access to 59,172 other couchsurfers (as of this writing) in 187 countries, 11,314 cities., speaking 641languages.

That’s all very well, but how does it work? Like so. You’re headed for X. You specify places in and around X, and, via the site, contact the people who your search throws up. When you get acknowledgments, you take the process further – both sides get to reassure themselves about each other – and if all works well, you wind up with a couch, a place to lay out your sleeping bag, even a room. At worst, you’ll get a little free advice and a coffee. In return, you’re expected to be a good couchsurfer, which means, perhaps, doing chores around the house, and definitely also making your own couch available.

Privacy worries? There are settings you can adjust to selectively make available varying levels of information about yourself. There are also “verified” (by other users) and “vouched for” (involves bank and snailmail verifications) members to help you make your choices.

Does it work well? They claim 25,327 “Successful Surfings” and almost 30,000 “Friendships Created.” Go on in, the water looks good.

Published in the April 2006 edition of Outlook Traveller, in a column called Cybertrack



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