Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Brains

So I was watching a few minutes of PBS while my hair was turning blondish. And as a result of the fact that I was watching while my hair was changing color, I only saw a few minutes. But it was about neanderthals, who fascinate to no end.
They were talking about how neanderthals were a little dumb, and may not have had the right brain composition for creating language. They said that we might be able to surmise, from the size and shape of their brain, that their parietal and temporal lobes may have been smaller than ours. The graphic showed this super massive frontal lobe. Knowing, as I do, about ten facts about the human brain, I know that the frontal lobe controls our sense of what's socially appropriate. Which then gave me a great mental image of neanderthals sitting about in smoking jackets playing bridge. Only they weren't that bright, so they probably played euchre.
The evidence suggests that neanderthals never came up with ranged weapons, like spears or arrows. And it occurred to me to wonder, if I'd never heard of ranged weapons, would I invent them? Because the neanderthals apparently just walked up to their prey and stabbed them. Further evidenced by the fact that male neanderthal skeletons are full of broken bones. I've got to say, the second or third time I got trampled by a mastodon, I'd invent throwing. Or start eating veggies. Did neanderthals and mastodons exist at the same time?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Albatross etymology included

The albatross is a noble, yet silly bird. They're known for being large, performing nutty mating dances, and of course, being metaphors for things. Etymology types think that albatross was a mispronunciation, or at least misunderstanding, of the Spanish word alcatraz, for gannet or pelican. Even though the albatross is neither a gannet nor a pelican. It's a sea bird, close enough.
The name for the island Alcatraz comes from the Arabic by way of arcane Spanish word for pelican, and it was so-named because it was home to a bunch of pelicans before it was home to a bunch of prisoners. Imagine if they'd named the island Pelican instead. Not nearly so ominous-sounding. Although I suppose it only sounds ominous because of the association. If I remember my sociology correctly, the act of ascribing meaning to something based on association is called symbolic interactionism
Pelicans don't live on Alcatraz anymore, nor do prisoners, as the prison was closed in the sixties due to high operating expenses. The island is inhabited today by lots of other sea birds, along with lots of tourists. Myself, I was near Alcatraz once. An actual trip to the island was more expensive than my cheap ass was willing to pay, so instead, Jean and I paid a dude twenty bucks to sail us by it on his houseboat. Which seemed perfectly legit at the time. And a shout-out to Jean's man Chris, who inexplicably wanted to be mentioned in my blog. 
Maybe if I'd had a chance of seeing pelicans I'd have coughed up the extra dough. Part of me has always suspected pelicans aren't real. I mean, they're a pretty absurd animal when you think about it. They have a built-in fishing net. That's not normal.
According to legend, the pelican, during times of drought, will pierce her own breast and feed her blood to her young to keep them from dying. It's not true, nor even possible as far as I know, but this did lead early Christians to use the pelican to symbolize Christ. Which at least makes slightly more sense than using a fish, in my opinion, anyway. Fish are smelly and not too bright, plus we eat them. 
You caught me; this isn't a pelican. It is, however,
a rather deranged-looking parrot. A parrot, who,
incidentally bit the crap out of my finger as soon as
I was done taking this picture. 

Where can I get a suit like this?

superheroes batman superman - He's Here to Save Your Grammar

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Albatross etymology not included

Some days, I can't think of a thing to write about, and I can't imagine why I started this bloody blog in the first place. Someone once told me that they wished they could do a Vulcan mind meld with me and glean from me all the random crap I knew about the English language and I thought "Well yes, I do know rather a lot about the English language. This could be the subject of that blog I've been meaning to start." The random crap I knew lasted a good ten posts, I'm afraid. I do run across facts I had no idea I knew rather frequently when writing, but in general, I have to actually do research to make blog posts these days. Of all the nonsense.


Really, I'm only posting this link because the headline made me
guffaw out loud. I wasn't able to find Spock mind-melding with
a humpback whale, which is too bad because it's among the funniest
moments in geek movie history.

So anyway, some days I can't think of a thing to write about. Other days I fall down a lexicographical rabbit hole so deep that picking a single thing about which to blog is absurd. Like today, while picking over the corpse of the local Borders, I found Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik by Bill Casselman who is, from the few pages I've read, a big fat snooty snob who thinks his ability to use and or memorize a thesaurus makes him better than everybody else. And I'd like to rant about that.


I assume that life at Bill Casselman's house is a bit like this

In the introduction to his book, he demands to know whether we should "take our clue about how we speak English from sullen, letterless thugs out on a day pass." I must be one of said sullen letterless thugs, because I have no clue what he's even talking about. He also decries the vocabularies "upwardly mobile rap record producer with the IQ of a beach pebble and the arsenal of Iraq." From this, I can only assume he's listened to about four rap artists ever. Most of the good ones can do things with words that word nerds like me can only dream of.


I'm not saying the words all make sense when strung together,
but I'm pretty sure Emily Dickinson would be tempted to hang
up her rhyming shoes upon hearing this. Either that or smugly assert
that this load of crap could never be sung to the tune of
Gilligan's Island



But wait! Read a little further and you'll find an etymology for albatross that will blow you away and lead you down a rabbit hole that drops you off at Alice the Goon. But by then you'll find you've spent so much time rambling aimlessly and posting random YouTube videos that you're linguistically exhausted and haven't the time or the inclination to share what you've learned, and so instead, you promise to albatross another day, and leave this as a consolation prize. 



Friday, August 19, 2011

Come back! I want to count your toes!

As you are reading this, I am, I would hope, sweltering by a pool with a virgin daiquiri and a decent cigar (unless you're my mother, in which case, scratch the cigar). Yes, I'm visiting beautiful Key West, Florida, while my dear Andy soaks up the cable TV in my apartment and tries to keep the cats from eating everything we love, including each other.
Do you like how I slipped in that we have a house sitter? Way more clever than leaving the TV blaring.
So seeing as I'm (hopefully) soaking up the sun in the Keys, I will tell you that key as in island is etymologically unrelated to key, as in the thing that locks the door. Key as in the island comes from the Spanish cayo. A key is the same thing as a cay, also from the Spanish cayo (obviously), which is a low island formed on the surface of a coral reef. 
They do, in fact, grow key limes in Key West. They do not grow turkeys in Turkey, though the birds do mistakenly get their name from the place, which you can read all about in last year's Thanksgiving post.
Lime also comes from Spanish, from the word lima, meaning citrus fruit. Limey became a nickname for the British because British sailors ate limes to ward off scurvy. 
Scurvy is an awesome word, but even more awesome is the word it may descend from, skyrbjugr, an Old Norse word for a disease caused from drinking sour milk.
There is no island off the Florida Keys called Kokomo, contrary to what the Beach Boys claim. There is a Kokomo Indiana, and that's kind of a cruel joke. No offense to Indiana or anything, but if you were looking for bodies in the sand, tropical drinks melting in your hand, and falling in love to the rhythm of a steel drum band, and you were looking for it in Indiana, you'd be looking for a while. 
This isn't a particularly long post, but seeing as I'm making it at 11:30 on the eve of my vacation, I think you can suck it up. Like I'm sucking up my daiquiri. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sunday Sermon: The Lives of the Saints


This is the sermon I gave yesterday morning. Afterward, some dude came up to me and told me that I have "horrible diction." Exact words. I'm glad my message was so inspiring :)


I was raised Catholic. Very Catholic.  But, as I grew older, I began seeing glimpses of the Catholic church outside the liberal, progressive bubble in which I'd grown up. I was raised by nuns who told me that women could be anything, but I began meeting Catholics who insisted that women had no place on the altar. Growing up, I'd never heard a whole lot of condemnation of homosexuality, but I began to hear from Catholics who were openly hateful toward gays - to the point of treating them as sub-human. I was raised to be pro life, but among the people I loved, that meant having a deep and abiding respect and love for all human life, and helping people who were pregnant. I started seeing a pro-life movement that was about hate and condemnation - a community that wanted to protect fetuses but did not respect the humanity of people once they were out of the womb.
And that made me angry. I was mad that the church that had loved me into being was home to so many awful people who used the faith that I loved as an excuse for behaving inexcusably. I felt betrayed; I was disillusioned, and I left. Still, I stayed mad for a long time, and for years I wanted nothing to do with Catholicism.
I mellowed out with time, and looking back at my upbringing, couldn't ignore all the good that the church I knew did. I looked to Catholics like the ones I'm going to talk about today, and I knew that there must be something of value there. Becoming a UU has helped with that. As UUs, we believe in the value of every spiritual path - and over the years I have been coming here, I've become more and more comfortable with and respectful of the traditions in which I was raised. For a lot of reasons, I know that that spiritual path is not for me, but I want to talk today about the amazing things I've learned from the people who have walked that path.


The title of my message is “The Lives of the Saints.” That's a tiny bit of an exaggeration - I wanted to talk about some 20th century Catholics whom I really admire, but as I wrote and researched, it became clear that the message I wanted to give today centers around one woman who hasn't actually been canonized by the Catholic church, Sr. Dorothy Kazel.
Very briefly, Sister Dorothy Kazel was an Ursuline nun who, in 1980, was one of the “four churchwomen” killed by the military in El Salvador for the crime of giving aid to innocent victims of that country's civil war. Even though she died when I was a baby, she played a significant role in my life, largely because our paths would likely have crossed had she lived. Kazel grew up a few blocks over from where I did, and she was just a couple of years older than my mom and dad. She attended a Catholic school near my neighborhood. When she was a young woman, she became an Ursuline nun, like many of my teachers and relatives. She taught and was a guidance counselor at Beaumont, my high school. My geography teacher had been her best friend. Chances are good that if she hadn't been murdered, she might have taught at Beaumont while I was there.
Kazel attended Ursuline, the same college that I attended, and the author of the biography that I read in preparation for this sermon, Sr. Cynthia Glavac, was one of my writing professors. 
Yet I did see her face every day in high school - smiling serenely from the wall at the top of the stairs, a reminder to us all of faith in action. And her face has stayed with me - I see it every day in my mind's eye, and it guides the choices that I make; and I've got a number of classmates who would say the same.
Sister Dorothy Kazel was an ordinary, bubbly young woman, born to some privilege. She was passionate for roller skating, won beauty contests, and went on dates to places like Nelson's Ledges. But she felt a calling to a religious life, and in her early 20s, she became an Ursuline nun. She worked at various teaching jobs at Sacred Heart Academy and Beaumont School, but she was particularly drawn to working with girls in trouble. Still, she found that teaching wasn't quite what she wanted to do, and became interested in doing missionary work. In 1974, she went to El Salvador.
So what, exactly, did Sister Dorothy Kazel do; what was her life's work, and how did it come to end with her brutal murder? To tell you that, I've got to tell you a little bit about El Salvador, the smallest of the countries of Central America. El Salvador is a country of great poverty in part because of the system of land ownership there. Virtually all of the country's land is owned by fourteen very wealthy families. The people who live on and work the land are not allowed to own it, they must lease the land, and are paid only what the wealthy are willing to part with, which is rarely much. At times, the people have responded by attempting to rise against the system; trying to unionize, organize, and to campaign for rights. The ruling families have always responded to these attempts swiftly and brutally. 
During the great depression, the Salvadoran Communist Party lead an uprising that resulted in the slaughter of 30,000 native people by the army, and a military government has ruled El Salvador ever since. 
In the early 1970s, left wing opposition groups comprised of farmers, workers, union members, and backed by the Catholic church began to advocate once again for workers' rights and economic reforms. Th military government responded with repression, and radical elements on the left resorted to terrorism. The government and ruling families  responded with the all-out slaughter of anyone who even seemed to be sympathetic to the left - people like farmers, union members, teachers, and Catholic clergy. “Death squads” were formed and roamed the countryside openly slaughtering innocent people without reason and without consequence. People who spoke out against the death squads were targeted, tortured, and disfigured before being murdered.
According to one source:
In all, at least 75,000 - 80,000 Salvadorans would be slaughtered;
300,000 would disappear and never be seen again; a million would flee their
homeland; and an additional million would become homeless fugitives, constantly
fleeing the military and police. All of this occurred in a nation of only 5.5 million
people.

The Catholic church in El Salvador, under the leadership of Archbishop Oscar Romero, refused to turn a blind eye to the violence and oppression. While clergy openly advocated for an end to the violence and repression, priests, nuns, missionaries, and other faithful worked hard to provide aid and protection to victims. For that, Catholics were labeled communists and increasingly became the target of the death squads. 
Romero:
“The Church must cry out by command of God: ‘God has meant the earth
and all it contains for the use of the whole human race. Created wealth
should reach all in just form, under the aegis of justice and accompanied
by charity…’ It saddens and concerns us to see the selfishness with which
means and dispositions are found to nullify the just wage of the
harvesters. How we would wish that the joy of this rain of rubies and all
the harvests of the earth would not be darkened by the tragic sentence
of the Bible: ‘Behold, the day wage of laborers that cut your fields
defrauded by you is crying out, and the cries of the reapers have reached
the ears of the Lord’ [James 5:4]”


March 23, 1980, as Archbishop Romero held up the Eucharistic chalice while celebrating mass, he was shot by a paid assassin. Days later, at Romero's funeral, bombs were thrown and shots fired into the crowd; dozens of people were killed in the panic that ensued. Sister Dorothy Kazel was among the crowd. 
Kazel was doubtless terrified, but her reactions following the events in March were of grief and anger. She continued to do her work as before, telling her parents in one letter that there are just things you have to do, "so you do them." For the next several months, she and her fellow sisters continued to do what they had been doing before; aid refugees, speak out against the persecution, and ignore ever increasing death threats. As clergy members close to her were slaughtered for their unblinking refusal to give up the cause of protection and advocacy, she continued; afraid, but committed. 
On December 2nd, 1980, Sr. Dorothy Kazel and three other women, Jean Donovan, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford disappeared, having last been seen at the airport. Their bodies were found the next morning - they'd been beaten and raped before they were murdered. Members of the military were later found guilty of the murder.
Weeks before her death, Kazel sent the following message to the Diocese of Cleveland:
All of this goes on as normally and as ordinarily as possible. And yet if we look at this little country of El Salvador as a whole, we find that it is all going on in a country that is writing in pain - a country that daily faces the loss of so many of its people - and yet a country that is waiting, hoping, and yearning for peace. The steadfast faith and courage our leaders have to continue preaching the Word of the Lord even though it may mean "laying down your life" for your fellow man in a very real sense...
What is the takeaway here, though? As inspired as I am by Dorothy and her courage, I'm not going to El Salvador. I am not a missionary; I am most assuredly not a nun. Reflecting on that, I think that what inspires me most about Kazel is that she was a woman born to a certain amount of privilege, privilege that she chose to set aside in order to do good work. So I did this, and I want you to do the same, because you know how I like to give homework. I made a list of my privileges. Stuff that I benefit from that I don't even think about. Like the fact that I live in a country in which my government doesn't murder people for seeking justice. The fact that I spend most of my life in the racial majority. I'm middle class, and don't ever have to worry about how I'll keep from starving, or even missing a meal. 
What are your privileges?
Next, I want each of us to decide on a way to set aside one of those privileges - even for a few days or hours. If you're middle class, consider living on a budget below the poverty line for a week, for instance. Don't do this as a social experiment or so that you can feel guilty for what you have; do it and see what it calls you to do. What does the experience teach you about your life and what you're supposed to do with it?
Let me know what you decide to do, and I'll let you know. We'll get back together and compare notes, and hopefully take what we've learned and use it to make the world a little better together.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

This post has nothing to do with jelly beans

I'm reading In the Fullness of Life, a biography of Sr. Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline sister from Cleveland who was killed in El Salvador in 1980. To hear more about that great woman, you must come hear my sermon at church on Sunday - or simply wait until Sunday afternoon for me to post said sermon here.
But for now, I'm thinking of another sister - the author of the book. Sr. Cynthia Glavac was one of my college English professors. She used to write on my papers about what I'd need to know when I was a professional writer, never if. Which meant a lot because she was easily one of the most hard-nosed professors I've ever had. Even for a nun, which is very hard-nosed indeed. She introduced me to William Zinsser's On Writing Well, a book on non-fiction writing just as hard-nosed as she was, and just as influential on my writing.
Zinsser talks a great deal about the need to remove clutter from writing, words like currently, personal, and experiencing, which are almost never necessary. "This road is currently under construction." What purpose does "currently" serve in that sentence? To specify that the road won't always  be under construction? Unless you're in Ohio, you would have to assume that to be true. "He's a personal friend." As opposed to an impersonal one? "Your computer is experiencing technical difficulties" doesn't make your computer any less broken. 
At any rate, it's odd to read a book written by one's mentor. I mean, it's a bit like looking at your own genetic code. Well it would be, if genetic code resembled anything to me but extremely fancy tinker toys. On top of which, her pet peeves seem to have become my pet peeves, meaning her work contains none of my pet peeves. Which makes it the first book I've read in ages that I'm not attacking with a mental red pen. Which isn't to say she's a better author than any of the others I've read lately, or that I am; it's only to say that I won't be finding any instances of currently that need obliterated from her writing.
It's sort of like in sci fi when one character meets a clone of herself and tries to fight herself and it always comes out to a draw. Only I am not a nun. I am most decidedly not a nun.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Follow up on apes

The further I get from the movie, the more the plot holes and plausibility issues hound me. Maybe you shouldn't see Rise of the Planet of the Apes after all.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Apparently I review movies now

Apes cannot talk, Richard Dawkins tells me, not because of intelligence, but because of the larynx. At least I think it was Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale that told me this. It was a very long book and it had a lot of words, only some of which I understood. Even when I did understand the words, I had a hard time following - reading his writing is kind of like walking through loose sand - dry and dense. But I digress as usual.
Anyhoo, the larynx is an organ inside the throats of people and other critters that helps us breathe and make noises. In apes and human babies, the larynx lives high up in the throat. That lets babies breathe and swallow at the same time, and to scream without losing their voices. In humans, the larynx eventually descends, and that's how we're able to talk. In apes, the larynx doesn't drop, which is one reason apes can't talk.
Which is only a very minor example of the many plausibility issues with Rise of the Planet of the Apes; none of the others of which I can discuss without spilling spoilers. There are some fairly gaping plot holes as well, but I think you'll have that when it comes to movies about super-intelligent apes taking over the planet. There was also the problem of James Franco... has anybody else noticed that he expresses all emotions by squinting? And occasionally not squinting. And sometimes looking down and then dramatically looking up. I guess that gives him a bigger bag of tricks than Richard Gere, who expresses all emotions by blinking; but Gere uses that one trick so artfully that he blows Franco out of the water. But I digress more than usual. It's pretty darn late.
Dramatic squinting

Dramatic squinting

Dramatic Squinting

Dramatic Not (quite) Squinting
So other than the whole plausibility/squinting thing, Rise of Planet of the Apes was a pretty darn good movie. Nowhere in the vicinity of the Tim Burton travesty ten years back. I've always wanted to know how the reality in Planet of the Apes came to pass, and this movie imagined that very well. The animation was phenomenal, and Andy Serkis (who also played Gollum) was brilliant - with help from some epic computer animation - as Caesar the ape. John Lithgow put in an inspired performance as Franco's dad.
I could go on, certainly, but I could also certainly go to bed, which is what I think I'll do. Bottom line: go see it. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Catchphrase

For a while now, I've been trying to figure out where catchphrases come from. They're such an interesting phenomenon. The term comes from 1850, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and comes from the notion that it's supposed to catch in a person's mind.
Some shows seem to be comprised entirely of catchphrases - The Simpsons comes to mind, yet it kind of works. 


On How I Met Your Mother, the character of Barney speaks almost entirely in catch phrases. I wonder if it's supposed to be a commentary on his abject fear of anything approaching real human interaction; a result of his having been abandoned by his father. Or maybe it's a sitcom (sitcom is a term, by the way, coined in TV Guide in 1953 - short for situation comedy.



For the record, after watching the clip above, Jeremy has been wandering around the house saying things like "Whenever I get sad, I stop being sad, and start being awesome." and "This is gonna be legend - wait for it - dary." 


At my work, we're fond of quoting Office Space, specifically asking folks if they "got the memo." I would put up a clip so you'd know what i was talking about, but apparently the Office Space folks are a little vigilant about what goes up on YouTube. Personally, I'm not fond of the Office Space references, as they remind me just how much my job is like Office Space, and that makes me sad. Not that my job isn't awesome. It's just that, well, my department does include multiple Bobs. 
But we also have free pop, free pie, and a Wii in the fitness room. Because I work for that company. Suckas. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When is a racist not a racist?

So it's seventh grade, and one of my classmates throws something at another classmate's head. The other classmate says something like "Hey, cut it out, jerkoff." The teacher gasps in shock at her inappropriate language, and my classmate is at a loss. She's got no idea that jerkoff isn't an okay thing to say; jerk isn't a bad word, off isn't a bad word, but jerkoff is? Why? Who said?
My sources aren't clear on whether jerk and jerkoff are etymologically related, but if they are, it's a distant relation. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that jerk comes from carnival slang. Sometimes, traveling carnivals would visit towns too small for their own water tower, and the carnival folk would have to procure their own water from a trough or creek. Such towns came to be called jerkwater towns, because the carnies would have to jerk in their own water. People from jerkwater towns eventually became jerks, which I imagine was something like a hick. But, the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, the fact that the word is close to jerkoff probably didn't hurt its popularity.
All of which is to say that I'm not 100% sure Pat Buchanan meant disrespect to president Obama when he referred to Obama as Al Sharpton's "boy" on MSNBC the other day. I mean, I'm sure Buchanan knows that boy can be a very offensive racial slur when said a certain way. During and after slavery, people often referred to African American men of any age as boy, designating them as less than men. Racists still use the term in that way, but when they do, it's usually with a certain intonation.
I'm not sure Buchanan meant the word in that sense. Certainly, it was a poor choice of words. But was it a racist choice of words? It's hard to say. Now, I will point out that if you listen to the entire conversation, Buchanan laughs rather heartily when Sharpton replies "he's nobody's boy, he's your president." Buchanan seems to indicate that he was using the boxing expression "boy in the ring," but I'm a) not even sure that's an actual expression, and b) not sure that's any better. There's also the fact that a minute or so later, he quite deliberately calls the president a boy again, and also refers to the president being "whipped" by an opponent. If he didn't mean it as a racial slur, he's got to be pretty damned dense. Which I'm not saying is out of the question. I would point out, however, that Buchanan has made many, many anti-minority comments in his many years in the public eye, for which he makes absolutely no apology. 

Our language is full of these racial pitfalls, though. I was in my 20s before I learned that monkey is a racist expression that people have used for folks of African descent. I use it as a term of endearment. I only recently learned that it's a racist expression that people have used for folks of Asian descent. 
The expression "call a spade a spade" is supposed to be racist as well, even though we're pretty sure that the expression doesn't have racist origins. However some folks are clearly meaning it that way when they say it. 
I never knew that referring to someone as "his/her bitch" was a reference to prison rape. I always thought it was a reference to dogs. 
Then there's colored, which used to be a polite way to say African American and is now considered a racist thing to say. Even though person of color isn't considered racist.
There's also the expression fo shizzle my nizzle. At some point, members of the hip hop community started using this expression (possibly coined by Snoop Dogg) as a variation on for sure my n----. Then people got mad when white people, most of whom had no idea what nizzle stood for, started using the expression. I mean, isn't it a little weird to make up a  basically nonsensical  expression, use it all the time, and then get mad when other people use it?
Were you aware you're not supposed to call people with developmental disabilities "kids," even if they are, in fact, children, because it's considered diminutive? I mean, I get it, and I try to be sensitive about it, but I tend to refer to anyone my age or younger as a "kid." If I say "there's this kid at work," that kid could very well be 30. Also, it's become unpopular to refer to "mental retardation" because of all the baggage that comes with the word "retarded"; we now say "developmental disability." 
At the group home where I worked, the folks who lived at the group home were once patients, then because patient implied sickness, they became residents. At some point, to remind us that the residents were people who were purchasing a service, they became clients, then consumers. By the time I left direct care, the correct expression was persons served. Here's a thought: let's call them people.
I wonder if other languages have this much baggage.

And now, a joke, which may or may not have come from my grandmother.
Two nuns are in their rooms, and below their window, some hooligans are using very foul language. The nuns complain to the mother superior, who says, "Now now, these are people who work hard all day and like to unwind at night. They're just calling a spade a spade." One of the nuns replies "They're not calling it a spade, they're calling it a fucking shovel."

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