An Audio-Book Review: My Fyunch(click) is Crazy Eddie!

The Mote in God’s Eye

By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Published by National Library Service the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Read by John Polk

 

The Book:

I have read this book through several times over the past four decades. The first time was just after it was released and, not so strangely, it was considered a classic almost instantly. Well, why not? Two of the leading authors of the day were collaborating on a first contact story and other leading authors were bestowing high praise on the work and you know what? It was not just the usual fellow author’s bland recommendation for the book jacket.

I forget which pair of fantasy and/or SF writers used to scribble out such words of recommendation for each other, but I do recall that at least once the recommendation was something like “He’s done it again!” No, this was not like that. This book garnered heart-felt praise from some of the top writers of the day.

This was not a simple story about two ships meeting in space, but a clash of cultures and technologies between two entirely different species. It takes place when the Second “Empire of Man” (From Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history) is on the ascendance, but still meeting with resistance and rebellion especially in the outlying sectors. The men of the Empire have just managed to pull themselves out a dark age and are trying to rebuild Mankind’s sphere of influence into a peaceful and prosperous union.

I cannot say all is going well; there are problems and some of those problems are on the ship of Commander Lord Roderick Blaine, INSS MacArthur. They are supposed to be on their way back to the center of the Empire, after a stop on New Scotland, a world on the far side of the Coalsack Nebula when their plans are changed by the sighting of an alien vessel diving toward the sun of the New Caledonian system. Rod orders his ship to intercept the probe, but when they retrieve it and take it back to New Caledonia it turns out everyone on board is dead, but none of them are even remotely human, making them the first truly sentient aliens encountered by humans and Rod may have killed them.

In spite of that bad start Rod and his ship are assigned, along with another ship commanded by an Admiral Kutuzov to travel to the most likely system the probe might have come from. What they discover there might be the greatest threat to humanity mankind has ever met.

The people of that system (The Mote, so named because from the New Caledonia system it looks like a small bit of light at the edge of a much larger star, Murcheson’s Eye) are called Moties and have an advanced space-going technology. They are a specialized species with members who have been specially bred over the millennia to their jobs so anything a Motie does is superb. Indeed, they seem to do everything better and faster than humans can and the only thing that keeps them bottled up in their own system is the fact that they have not discovered two key technologies the humans have; faster-than-light travel and a force field called the Langston field. Later it turns out they have the first and as time goes on it seem likely that now they know it exists, they will develop the second too.

The question is, can humans dare to let the Moties out of their system and if they do, can the Moties be depended on to remain at peace with the human worlds?

 

The Audiobook:

I’ll admit that when I found this, I thought it was the Audible recording by L J Ganser, but I was in no way disappointed by Mister Polk’s reading! It was a professional, no-nonsense reading that had me listening from the start.

It would have been easy to use various funny voices for the Moties. Physically they are cartoonish in appearance, covered in fur and with a natural expression on their faces that looks like a gentle smile, and while the Mediator class (those Moties bred for communications and deal-making) has the ability to mimic any voice perfectly, it still might have been tempting for a reader to use cartoonish voices for them or especially the Master Moties. Fortunately, Mister Polk gave them the respect they deserved and make no attempt to make them sound like unusual and funny-sounding aliens.

So, in my opinion, the book remains a classic of science fiction and John Polk’s reading was excellent.

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An Audio-Book Review: Maybe His Name Should Have Been Murphy?

The Martian

By Andy Weir

Published by Podium Publishing

Read by R. C. Bray

Wow! It’s been nearly a month since my last review? Oops I forgot to post my review of The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which I also have yet to write. Well, look for it next week!

The Book:

I’ll admit it, I did not realize that the movie starring Matt Damon had been adapted from a novel. I probably should have. Certainly when I have mentioned that discovery to friends they unanimously replied “Well, duh!” (okay, I’m paraphrasing outrageously there). Part of the problem, I suspect, is that these days I am too busy plotting and writing my own books (not to mention the thousand other hobbies I have – the day job doesn’t count as a distraction, does it?) to have much time to actually read books other than my own. That, as I have said here several times previously, is why I listen to so many audiobooks. I can do it while driving, so more time for literary pursuits – Yay!

When I did become aware of The Martian as a novel, however, I was happy to grab an audio copy and start listening. If, like me, you have only seen the movie. You will know that the movie is a geek-fest of scientific minutiae and, amazingly, much of it is fairly good science… well, for a movie. The book is much more so and, as it progressed, I discovered that the holes I did catch in the movie were very much filled in by the book. I guess we all know that movies that adapt novels have to cut out a lot of details that were in the books and in many science fiction stories that can lead to bad science when a screen writer cuts out essential facts that would have made it hold together. On the other hand, there are whole You Tube channels devoted to pointing out the plot holes, bad science and other inconsistencies in movies, so I guess they stay in business, but the rest of us have to put up with the bad science (e.g. How many times should Sandra Bullock’s character be dead in the movie Gravity? I lost count.) most of the time.

The book, in fact, has more hard science in it that I might have thought was possible and still manage to tell a good story and not be labeled as a text book. It’s the story of an astronaut, Mark Watney, who is part of the third manned expedition to Mars and is left stranded on Mars by the rest of the crew of the Ares 3 mission. Much like Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone, he should have been dead. In Watney’s case he had been struck by something sharp and pointy that stuck into him through his pressure suit. If the wind driving, makeshift spear hadn’t killed him a hole in his suit should have.

I suspect Mister Weir decided to have anything that could go wrong do so, but find a plausible way in which to have Watney survive anyway, and I should grant this much; he did make it plausible. However, Watney should have been dead and his crewmates did the right thing in abandoning him, but then how is Watney to survive an extended stay on Mars with the leftovers from a mission that had only been supplied to last thirty days? Also how was he to communicate with NASA to let them know he was alive when the only beacon capable of reaching Earth on the Ares 3 mission had left Mars with the rest of the crew?

Watney, it turns out is an extremely clever botanist and engineer and somehow manages to solve those problems and a lot more one step at a time, although along the way, he manages to blow himself up a couple of times, solves a heating problem with a box of extremely radioactive pellets so dangerous, it was a Nasa protocol that they should not be allowed within four kilometers from the Mars station (aka the Hab, for “Habitat”), and a bunch of other mistakes that he somehow manages to survive and learn from. Each one seems realistic at the time, but looking back, you have to wonder how dead should he be? Well, As I said, I think that was the point of the book.

Along with Watney’s own, understandable mistakes, Mars itself seems to be conspiring against him with even more problems to be solved that there was time for in the movie, including having him unwittingly drive into a Martian sandstorm destined to last for months and which, if he doesn’t figure it out in time would leave him stranded with neither food not water nor any hope of rescue from the then-returning Hermes craft.

I think it was obvious from the start of both movie and novel that Watney would survive. The question was, how and would it be believable when it happened? Well, yes, I found it very believable and it was a fun story from start to finish.

 

The Audiobook:

 

For the most part I forgot that the story was not being read by Matt Damon. Bray’s vocal mannerisms, when reading Watney’s first person narrative, were amazingly similar to Damon’s – even more amazing because, as far as I can tell, this recording was produced before the movie was made. The only flaw in the reading for me was that Mister Bray went a bit heavy on the accents, probably to emphasize the crew (both astronauts and support team at NASA) were an international mix and not just a lot of children and grandchildren of one-time immigrants (something that does not come up in the movie). I’m not saying the accents were wrong, per se, but Many of them were thick enough to block out more daylight than the sandstorm Watney started to drive into. It’s similar to the funny voices complaint I have with other readers.

Even so, I give R. C. Bray high marks for his reading of an entertaining, well-written and informative novel. Well done all around.

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An Audio-Book Review: Hocus-Pocus, Change the Focus!

Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl Book 1

By Diana Wynne Jones

Published by Recorded Books

Read by Jenny Sterlin

 

The Book:

Here is another book I haven’t read in years and years. In fact, I first read it back when it first came out over 30 years ago. Diana Wynne Jones has always been one of my favorite authors and this was one of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most.

It starts out as a typical fantasy novel in a typical pseudo-medieval world although as the story progresses I get the impression the world culture is closer to Regency or Victorian era than Medieval what with the descriptions of the town of Market Chipping with hat shops and bakeries and, later, a flower shop.

Sophie is the eldest daughter of three and works in her step-mother’s hat shop while her younger sisters have been sent out to serve apprenticeships elsewhere. One day, Sophie has a run-in with the infamous Witch of the Wastes who casts a spell that transforms Sophie into an old crone. Realizing she cannot stay in Market Chipping (by her own internal logic, you might not agree, I did not, but on first read I kind of went with the flow and did not question it) Sophie takes to the road and, by the end of the day, catches up with the mysterious castle of Wizard Howl, a building that moves from place to place, seemingly at random.

Howl has a horrendous reputation for capturing young girls and eating their hearts, but Sophie, being an old crone, figures she’s safe enough and goes on in. Howl is currently out, but his apprentice, Michael and captive demon, Calcifer, are in and so, Sophies decides to stay. By sheer stubbornness she manages to make herself a part of the castle crew and the adventure continues. She eventually learns that Howl’s bad reputation is a fiction, made up by Howl, himself, but Sophie makes a deal with Calcifer that he will release her from the curse she is under if she finds a way to break his contract with Howl.

The story twists and turns in a very fun way that includes a trip to another world called “Wales,” which Sophie learns has nothing to do with those big sea creatures.

This novel was adapted by Hayao Miyazaki as a fabulous anime motion picture which I really enjoyed as well, but, in truth, the full story is a much deeper and more engrossing one than the one in the movie. It has a great plot line that changes every time you might think you know how it is all going to turn out in the end (and not the ending that you may have seen in the movie) and it is a fun ride all the way there.

 

The Audiobook:

I really enjoyed listening to Jenny Sterlin’s reading of this book. I’m not sure if I might have enjoyed her reading of some other, unrelated book, but for this fairytale-like novel she read perfectly, capturing the characters with apt vocalizations that, except with the case of Calcifer never resort to annoying “funny voices,” and really… what does a demon sound like? I certainly did not find myself objecting to her interpretation.

So, a really great and fun book and it’s read very nicely as well. And, just think, I have two more related stories in this series to go!

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An Audio-Book Review: I Love the Night Life!

Stalking the Unicorn: A Fable of Tonight

John Justin Mallory Book 1

By Mike Resnick

Published by Audible Studios

Read by Peter Ganim

 

The Book:

It has been a long time since I first read this story and was not aware there had been two sequels written since then although I should have. The standard mantra of publishers when a book sells well is “Give me another just like it, but different.”

This is a nice mix of light fantasy with detective noir, which, while not exactly an original idea, was definitely presented with Mister Resnick’s own spin. John Justin Mallory, is a down and currently out detective drinking the New Year in by himself in his office when an elf walks in and offers him a job at any price; he must find a missing unicorn before dawn. Sounds easy? Well, not to me, but it turns out that the unicorn is the very least of what Mallory is about to encounter.

The elf, brings Mallory from his shabby New York office down and then back up into an entirely different New York City where all manners of fantasy creatures exist and the kingpin of the local underworld is a real demon called the Grundy.

For the most part I think it’s a great story although in the latter quarter of the story feels as though the author found it had not gone on as long as planned and needed a bunch of padding. Every time I think we’ve reached a climax, it turns out there’s one more loose thread to be resolved and that leads to another and then another until, finally the book had enough pages and he could stop writing. Is that what happened? Well, probably not, but it felt that way to me.

In spite of that, however, I did enjoy the story. It is a fun journey through a fantasy world as seen through the eyes of a classic hard-boiled detective. I look forward to listening to the other two.

 

The Audiobook

I thought Peter Ganim read this book fairly well. There were some flaws in his reading, but most of my complaints were related to some of the accents he used to differentiate the characters. The elf, for example had a Germanic name, so his lines were delivered with a very heavy and somewhat hard-to-listen-to Germanic accent of a sort one does not normally hear outside of a comedy sketch. Actually, I thought the accent was thicker than the one Arte Johnson used on the old “Laugh-In” show… Verrry interrresting, but hard to listen to. (Am I dating myself there? Well, if so, feel free to look that up on YouTube. Nothing is too out of date for You Tube!)

Mister Ganim had a few other questionable vocal choices, but for the most part I think he was a fairly good reader. Not great, but then how many truly great readers are there? Even the greats don’t perform at their best every time and while I may have had some minor complaints, Peter Ganim read this one as good or better than most I have listened to.

So, an entertaining story that mixes genres in a fun way and ready like your typical Hard-boiled detective novel. Bring on the second book of the series!

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An Audio-Book Review: Come the Revolution…

Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

A lecture series by Professor Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.  Suffolk University

Published by The Learning Company (aka The Great Courses)

 

The Lectures:

I’ve listened to a number of courses published by The Learning Company or The Great Courses and so far, have enjoyed them all. This one is no exception even though, for some reason, my copy decided it did not want to play them back in sequence when I copied it into a flash drive to listen to while driving. Well, I fancy that I’m fairly knowledgeable about colonial American history, or at least know enough about the basic chronology that I could put it all in order as I listened and for the most part that worked for me. It means I missed a bit of how the course built chronologically from the start of colonization to the War of Independence (between the USA and Britain to be specific), and I think that in order is the best way to take it all in. That is certainly how Dr. Allison designed the course.

The lecture series mostly covers the thirteen British colonies that eventually became the United States of America. I was kind of hoping the course might include even more. I don’t know how geography is being taught these days, but my elementary school teachers were careful to teach us that the USA is just one part of America, and that it was somewhat arrogant for us to call ourselves Americans when Canadians, Mexican and everyone from Central and South America could be called Americans too. However, the subject is a big one even just covering the area that would become the United States.

Besides, while most of the lectures cover those colonies from New England to Georgia, Dr. Allison does spend some time discussing New France and how it became Canada and how some of the refugees from Arcadia made their way to Louisiana (where Arcadian was eventually shortened to “Cajun.”), another lecture linking France, Senegal and Louisiana and even had a lecture about Spain’s colonies and  another about Santa Fe and the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. However, most of the action does take place in the British colonies.

And while I still consider myself fairly well-informed about colonial American history, I must admit that Dr. Allison covered events like Bacons Rebellion of which I did not know anything and have to admit that while I knew a bit about the development of the Carolinas I had only an inkling of how Georgia was built, so the series was not wasted on me and I’m glad I listened to it.

Now, while looking up some details about this series I happened to read a few reviews by others. One reviewer claimed that Dr. Allison said, in the first lecture that Persian was a Germanic language. If you have read that review, I have to say that that’s not the way I heard it. He quite clearly said that English was a Germanic language. Now, possibly, my copy was re-recorded and corrected or else that other reviewer got it wrong. FTR: Persian is an Iranian Language and both the Iranian and Germanic families of languages are subsets of the IndoEuropean language group, but so far as I heard, it never came up in the lectures… Given the subject matter why would it? I’m fairly sure there were no Persian attempts to colonize New Jersey.

The lectures are delivered in a smooth and entertaining manner and the data is presented in an easy to absorb way. All told, this was another fine offering from The Great Courses.

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An Audio-Book Review: Trekking Through Deepest, Darkest Karastan!

Dragons at Crumbling Castle: And Other Tales

By Terry Pratchett

Published by Listening Library

Read by Julian Rhind-Tutt

 

The Book:

This has been marketed as a children’s book with lots of bold (and by “bold” I mean many changes in print size and font to emphasize what is happening in each story) printing and over a hundred fun, black and white illustrations by Mark Beech. So, I suppose it is for kids in many ways, but I have always said that “A good story is a good story regardless of genre or intended audience,” and these are good stories. I, of course, listened to the audiobook and did not actually read it, so I had to find examples of the drawings on-line. It is also possible that by listening, rather than reading, the stories did not seem to be just for kids, or maybe I just like children’s stories. That seems likely too.

What we have here is a collection of Pratchett’s early, and previously unpublished, work back from when he was just starting to write. In the Introduction, he may have tweaked some just a bit. I suspect he tweaked and polished them up a fair amount (I could be wrong…) as these early stories by a young lad (who the older Pratchett said, “Oh, I could teach that lad a thing or two!”) have a certain polish that to my eye are probably only the result of an experienced writer dipping his hand in. However, he did not go in heavy handed and while these stories do not have the sophistication of his later works, they still are entirely Terry Pratchett.

I’ve always wished I could write like Pratchett and have tried several times. I can, but not for very long. I certainly cannot keep it up for an entire book and had to find my own style, but, even so, I look at these stories and go, “Wow! I wish I thought up some of this stuff.”

The first and titular story is about a young boy from King Arthur’s court who goes questing for dragons who have invaded a castle with unexpected results. “Oh? Are you here to help us with the humans who have been bothering us?”  This is a classic Pratchett turn-around in a plot line and a lot of fun. I think my favorite stories were the ones involving The Carpet People (which apparently was expanded into a stand-alone book elsewhere – I’ll have to find a copy): little persons who live in a carpet and (in the first story) must go on a long trek of several inches in search of a new home. A second story involved two from the first story who go sailing on the “Linoleum” in search of “Rug.” Is there life on the Rug? Read for yourself!

I am not saying these stories are perfect. Anything but, I fear. For example, while the Carpet world has some unique creatures and some full-sized monsters (such as the Abominable Wood Worm!) it also seems, at times to have a full ecosystem with all the creatures you might see here in the big world but miniaturized down to Carpet People size. This does not quite work (at least, not to me), but the stories are so much fun I am willing to ignore the minor flaws.

For Pratchett fans this is one more chance to read stories by a favorite author and for children it’s a great introduction to one of modern fantasy’s finest and most humorous writers!

 

The Audiobook:

I have never had a chance to listen to Julian Rhind-Tutt before, so I dd not know what to expect, although I have to admit that I was not particularly worried. Publishers, for the most part, understand their business, and really do try to match up the right talents. As fun as that might sound, we’re probably not going to hear James Earl Jones reading Asimov’s The Caves of Steel or any of the Harry Potter series (although come to think of it, I think I’d enjoy that. He’d probably do a fantastic job at both. He might have read some of the Star Wars books… not sure as I have not listened to any. He’s just not known for that sort of thing although I could see him as part of an ensemble of stars reading Dr. Seuss stories, but…  oh , sorry for the tangent there.) or Johnny Depp reading a Danielle Steele romance (now there’s an unsettling notion!). They could probably manage it, they’re actors, but there are more likely matches that will bring in the sales than, say, Miley Cyrus reading Les Misérables. (NB: relatively new authors might not fare as well unless they have a friend who has an acting career, since a publisher probably won’t want to invest in a top-list star to read a first book. At least I think that explains why…) So, I would expect Pratchett’s publishers, who, in the past, have chosen Tony Robinson, Stephen Briggs, Nigel Planer, Celia Imrie and other similarly talented readers, to chose someone who can really deliver.

And deliver, he does! It sounds as though Mister Rhind-Tuitt was having as much fun reading this book as I did listening to it. At first, I wondered why he was putting as much emotion into some sentences and phrases as he did and then I went on line to look at a sample of the text (Thank you, Amazon!) and realized he was not going over the top, but instead was doing his best to tone down the sensationalistic fonts being used in the text and a good thing too. He read the text, giving it just enough of a boost in those places when large fonts splashed across the page to emphasize it without actually shouting at the listener. I note that he has also read other children’s books by Pratchett, which I will eventually have to get copies of.

So, I think this book was a lot of fun and if not as sophisticated as some of Pratchett’s later work, let’s keep in mind he was a teenager when he first wrote these out. I tried writing at that age too, but none of my stuff was worth holding on to even to illustrate as mistakes. These stories are just plain fun and Julian Rhind-Tutt’s reading of them captures them perfectly!

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An Audio-Book Review: May the “Moral Law” Be With You!

The Art of War

By Sun Tzu

Adapted by Stefan Rudnicki

Published by Phoenix Audio

Read by Ron Silver and B. D. Wong with Stefan Rudnicki and Shauna  Zubrugg

 

The Book:

The Art of War is one of those classics of ancient writing that have not only survived into the modern world, but strongly influenced our thinking. Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, military strategist and philosopher. He is thought to have lived from 544 to 496 BC during the Zhou Dynasty which would have made him roughly contemporaneous with Confucius (founder of Confucianism) and Laozi (or Lao Tzu) the founder of Taoism. A quick trip to Wikipedia will reveal that just who and when he was is uncertain, but I think most of the confusion comes from later writers discussing him and his work… or not. It’s also possible that Sun Tsu was a nom de plume. There is also some argument over possible anachronisms in the text, but then it is possible later editors might have added and subtracted from the text over the centuries. Other scholars will tell you he most likely was a real person who wrote the core of this book

The historicity of the man and whether he really wrote this book or is just the name used to compile several editions under, probably does not matter if you are interested in this as a study of military philosophy and possibly even how it can be applied to other aspects of life in the modern world. The book varies only based on who did the translation.

The version we know is a philosophical masterpiece on strategy and conflicts. It has been used as a basis for military thought since it was first distributed internationally and is still referred to by general and businessmen alike. Because it has been with us a very long times there have been quite a few translations from the original, so it’s not a bad idea to read several editions to get a general idea of the scope one can get. It is not an incredibly long book, even with the traditional commentaries, and repeated readings may afford you new insights, especially if you do so every few years.

This edition, is an interesting addition to the corpus of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but might not be the best one to start off with first. I am not sure why, although perhaps to try to either demonstrate how Sun Tzu’s writing is still relevant or to make it all seem to be a practical guide to the modern world, but in compiling this edition some more modern military people, such as Stonewall Jackson, Colin Powell and others were placed in the test. I found them a bit jarring, although I will admit that some of them appear in my one written copy of this book. It’s nice to know that Sun Tzu’s principals can be demonstrated throughout history, but to tell us that notables like Julius Caesar followed these same conventions of warfare almost sounds like an implication that Sun Tzu’s 13 chapters influenced them although it is not very likely Caesar ever heard of Sun Tzu, much less read his work.

Admittedly, this is not the only edition of The Art of War that does this and some of the 19th and early 20th Century additions appear to have become canon and, in a sense, all the earlier Chinese commentators have done the same thing, but do we really need to add still more anecdotes to the book

These more modern insertions were not commentaries on Sun Tzu, although I imagine at least some of those more modern people have read the book, but unrelated statements on military situations that demonstrate, in some aspect, things said by Sun Tzu in whichever chapter they are being used. Some who have read earlier editions and appreciated stories of the Duke of Wellington, et alia, may find these additions interesting. Considering, how the bulk of this work is commentary by others already, I did not feel the need for still more. Perhaps, had this been a serious modern study of Sun Tzu with many examples (and possibly exceptions?) and had the resulting volume been two or three times the size of the original it might have been something I would see as a text book for a college-level class, but the few additions I caught here felt more like someone wanted to leave his own mark on the book.

That was not quite so bad compared to one translation quirk that led them to choose to translate a concept I have previously seen as “Moral Law” (which I had previously read was generally seen as a “Principle of Harmony” similar to Lao Tzu’s Tao) into “The Force.” This was justified as fitting in with military thinking, but it was also admitted that it was done with the “Star Wars” series in mind. That one change ruined the whole book for me as it was impossible to take it seriously after repeated used of “The Force.”

So, definitely do not make this your first foray into the teaching of Master Sun! On the other hand, if you have read other versions and want to increase your acquaintance with Sun Tzu, then it’s not all that bad.

 

The Audiobook:

If I was left cold by aspects of this version of The Art of War, that was not the case of the performances of the actual readers. I did grow a bit tired of the classic (for which read, “borderline cliché” Chinese flute music going on and on in the background at the start and end of each chapter, but I felt the readers presented the subject matter very well and it was a pleasant delight to listen to them.

Since I started listening to this, I have downloaded several other editions of The Art of War which I plan to listen to later this year. It is possible I will rethink my opinions on this as I get through them, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, as I said above, this probably should not be your introduction to Sun Tzu’s classic work, but may provide further valuable insight to someone seeking to study the principles within The Art of War and it is hard to imagine a better reading of it.

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