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Friday, April 30, 2004
I am Jeff's unabashed love of TV

Haven't done any TV show reviews for a little over a week, so I'll play catch-up. Since I never know the names of episode numbers of the shows, I'll identify them by original air date.

Like before, there will be SPOILERS AHEAD, so consider yourself warned.

The Sopranos (4/25) - Just what we needed after the intensity of the last few weeks: some downtime and a good whacking (everyone caught the irony of the second (and third) hit of the season coming during a mostly light episode, right?). I loved seeing how petty everyone could be, from Junior spoiling the surprise party because he wasn't invited, to Tony B. filming Carmella's ass and Tony's gut because he felt like an errand boy, to Dr. Russ insulting Tony's gift to Carm's father. The brief scenes between Tony and his kids and (soon to be ex?) wife went a long way towards re-establishing Tony as a likeable lug, which seems to be contrary to how he's been portrayed in the rest of the season. While one never knows what plots the writers are going to pick up on later (what ever happened to the Russian again?), it's safe to assume that Tony B's killing of Joey Peeps for Little Carmine will have lasting repercussions. A few lingering questions: Why have we never seen that Junior and Carmella's father were such good friends till now? Why is it that, until a few weeks back, I never knew that Carm's father liked Tony? In fact, based on the old Sunday dinners, I would have guessed that he didn't like Tony at all.

Deadwood (4/25) - So Swearengen isn't all bad, after all? While it didn't strike me as out of character for him to want to alert the people of Deadwood to the possible epidemic, I was VERY disturbed by the wink that he threw to the priest after confirming that he was okay. Swearengen may have done a lot of things in the first few episodes, but I never got the sense that his gruff exterior hid a soft interior until that wink. I'm starting to sense that Tolliver, who wanted to keep the news of the Smallpox outbreak to himself, may actually be the worse of the two saloon owners. The fight between Bullock and the Indian was really well done, and showed a side of Bullock that we hadn't yet seen (and that was almost too gruesome in concept to watch): the way that he ruthlessly bashed the Indian's skull in really gave me the shivers, yet somehow, it still struck me as in character. Bullock may be one of the few men in Deadwood with a sense of right and wrong, but he's not above doing what has to be done. (Nice to see him and Utter give the Indian a befitting burial). I'm also still trying to figure out Trixie's game with the widow Garret. Oh, and the scene with Swearengen, Tolliver and Doc Cochran "editing" Merrick's paper may just be the most entertaining scene so far this season.

Alias (4/25) - Everything proceeds apace, meaning that a lot happens, but nothing is really cleared up. This show has become a pretty much non-stop hellride, with few of the character bits that it seemed to contain in the early seasons. Can someone who watches the show tell me when Lauren found out that Vaughn and Sydney knew that she was the mole? Because, as far as I know, they found out last episode, the same episode where she reaffirmed her desire to maintain her status as a mole, and then she revealed herself to each of them in this episode. I'm interested to see where things go with the Passenger plot, but if they don't start providing some answers to the Rimbaldi plot, I may give up on this show, as the Rimbaldi plot seems to be getting as thick as the conspiracy in the X-Files, with just as much chance for a satisfactory conclusion.

24 (4/20 & 4/27) - The show's becoming interesting again, though not as riveting as it once was. There was really no need to revisit the "Kim in danger" plot again in the 4/20 episode, but at least they worked it into the plot this year (as opposed to last year). I don't think I have ever loathed a character in a TV show as much as I loathe Chloe, and not in a good way either. She get my vote for "worst character . . . ever." Based on some of the decisions that have been made recently, though, there is absolutely no way that the Palmer will be re-elected, and Jack should almost certainly be put in prison at the end of the season. If they get renewed for another season, I'm hoping that we can see an all new cast, with maybe only Tony sticking around as head of CTU. If not, my suspension of disbelief may just be stretched too far.

Angel (4/21 & 4/28) - The show seems to be in "oh shit, we're cancelled. Let's wrap up plotlines real quick-like" mode, which is a little sad considering that the show has hit some real high points (notably the episode with the Mexican wrestlers and the Angel-puppet episode) this season. Last week, they gave Conner a send-off which was more than he deserved, but I will say that he was more likeable in that episode than he was in the two years he was a series regular. Then, this week saw the wrap-up of the "Gunn in peril" plot, and the "all-powerful, uncontrollable demon in Fred's body" plot. Both plots wrapped logically enough, I mean, why wouldn't Illyria use her powers to rescue Gunn?, but they still seemed like they were over too quickly. Now they have three weeks to reveal the big bad (I still don't know if it's the Senior Partners or not), beat the big bad, and give the characters some sort of closure. Rumor has it that this cast may continue in TV movies (not bloody likely from where I sit), or that they may join the Buffy cast in a Major Motion Picture(!), but I'm guessing that's still a few years out. It's probably more likely that Whedon will come up with another spinoff (for the record, I'd rather it focus on Giles as Ripper than Spike, who I think works best in small doses) as a mid-season replacement, or that the franchise will just die an abrupt death.

Friends (4/22 & 4/29) - I still watch this? I haven't laughed at this show in years, but yet I still want to see how it ends. My prediction: Ross will fly to France to be with Rachel but his plane will go down in the mid-Atlantic, Phoebe and Mike will become international PETA terrorists, Chandler and Monica will be drawn and quartered by their new neighbors, leaving Joey to move to LA to be in a new sitcom which won't last more than a year.

ER (4/22 & 4/29) - I know I'm probably alone in this, but I honestly think that ER is back on track this year. They have lots of new-ish compelling characters, my favorite being Mekhi Phifer's Dr. Pratt, but Linda Cardellini and Parminder Nagra have been great additions to the cast as well. I like that Luka has gotten over the self-destructive streak that has been dragging him down for the last couple years (the episode where he regained his faith was really fantastic); I like that Carter has finally matured; Maura Tierney has finally regained her role as the emotional core character of the show, after too many seasons of being depressed and depressing. The only characters that they don't know what to do with seem to be Ming-Na's Dr. Chen and Sherry Stringfield's Dr. Lewis, who's been sidelined for the last couple months by her real life pregnancy. The only thing they have left to do is to come up with a really disturbing way to kill off Dr. Corday. Anyway, I'm liking this show again, but I don't really have anything specific to say about these episodes.

Thursday, April 29, 2004
Further adventures at Half Price Books, and Lo, a review!

Ever since I started buying the majority of my comics from Mail Order Comics, my Wednesday trips to the comic shop have been somewhat unfulfilling. In theory, I still get the books I'm most excited about at the LCS, and wait till the end of the month for the rest, including any graphic novels/collections. Unfortunately, that means that I end up getting about 5-6 comics a week, which is significantly fewer than I'm used to getting, so I have a tendency to pick up things that I neither need nor particularly want, just to feel like I'm getting something out of my weekly trip (when you work from home, you try to make the most out of every trip out of the house). So, I'm experimenting with moving my weekly trip to Half Price Books to Wednesdays where I can spend $0.50-$1 each on comics I don't need, instead of the $3 each I would spend at the LCS.

I've mentioned previously that the best thing about HPB is that you never know what they're going to have on any given trip, so I always bring my "list" of comics I want when I go, both to prevent me from buying comics I already have and to gently persuade my purchases in the direction of comics I actually want, instead of simply buying those that look cool or interesting. That said, I have a confession to make: I am weak-willed when it comes to cheap comics. When I'm not finding many books that are on my list, I start pulling out books that aren't on the fabled list. I'm especially susceptible to complete (or almost complete) mini-series' and large chunks of a series (these usually only get me if they are from the beginning of a series, or from the start of a "bold new direction!"). The most pathetic part is that, if I don't find a "full run," the issues that I didn't find from the series that I never actively wanted move onto my "list." Sad, innit?

As a result of my weakness, I am the proud owner of such classic comics as: Beau Smith's Guy Gardner: Warrior, the first 18 or so issues of The Darkstars (I don't even know what this one is about!), an Elongated Man mini from the early 90s, Roy Thomas' Shazam and Crimson Avenger minis, Howard Chaykin's Shadow and Twilight minis, Wildstorm's Savant Garde, and full runs of Green Lantern: Mosaic, the 90s Eclipso series, Steve Vance's recent Deadman series (and the mini that preceded it), the Ostrander/Mandrake Spectre series, and pre-Zero Hour Legionaires to name just a few. I'm particularly weak when it comes to pre-DC Wildstorm books, mid-90s Vertigo books, and DC fifth week events.

Hmmm ... all that preamble, just to justify buying six DC "Tangent" books last night (Green Lantern, JLA, Nightwing, Nightwing: Night Force, The Flash, The Atom). In the interest of making that intro worthwhile, then, here's the first in what I hope to be a continuing series of reviews of crappy comics: I read them, so you don't have to. This time up, a mini-series that I'm sure a lot of comic fans have been curious about, but (hopefully) haven't read (another HPB impulse buy from a few months back).

VIOLATOR (1994)
Three issue miniseries
Published by Image Comics/TMP
Written by: Alan Moore (yes, that Alan Moore)
Art by: Bart Sears/Mark Pennington (1&2), Greg Capullo/Pennington

I came into this mini almost completely blind, knowing next to nothing about the Spawn Universe (I never even saw the movie or the animated series), but my curiosity was piqued by Alan Moore's involvement. Also, the price, at $0.25/issue, was right, and let me tell you, this series was worth every penny of that seventy-five cents.

Moore does a pretty good job with the exposition, introducing the dramatis personae (such as they are) and explaining what's going on: the Violator was some sort of powerful demon (called a Phlebiac) who has been cursed by his demon boss, Malebolgia, to live in the form of a short, fat human clown, sans demonic power as a result of some sort of failure to bring Spawn back to Hell. In the tradition of Homer and Milton, Moore appears to begin the story in medias res, with The Violator (hereafter TV) wearing cement shoes and about to be fed to the fishes by mob boss Tony Twistelli (not to be confused with the former St. Louis Blues player, who is most definitely NOT a mob boss), for "wastin' our business associates." However, as he's being thrown in, our ersatz protagonist bites one of the mobsters tie, pulling him down at the same time. Somehow, TV manages to get the gun away from the mobster, shoot him in the face (underwater), shoot through the cement which had hardened around his feet, and escape to the surface where he promptly puts his hand through the face of the guy who he pulled under with him and shoots the other mobsters. This is important, as the disembodied head of "Tommy" will be worn by TV throughout the rest of the mini, and will eventually become a sort-of confessor to our hero.

Upon hearing that TV has escaped, Mr. Twistelli hires a contract killer called "The Admonisher," who likes to reprove his targets for bad manners as he shoots and maims them (if this hadn't come first, I'd guess that the Admonisher came straight out the Garth Ennis playbook), to go after TV. Meanwhile, in Hell, TV's brothers (Vacillator, Vindicator, Vaporizor, and one that they call "Van," but I somehow missed what it stood for) decide that it's unfitting for a Phlebiac to be running around as a human, so they decide to come to earth to kill TV for making them look bad. All three factions (Admonisher, TV and the Phlebiacs) come together in a mall (a little social satire, Mr. Moore?) where they spend the better part of three issues trying to kill each other. It should be noted that the Admonisher may have some sort of powers besides really big guns, as he seems to be able to survive being eaten by a demon.

The non-fight scenes in issue 2 are spent with TV talking to the mobsters head (still on his arm) and recapping his origin and his motivation in life, which is apparently that he's an evil demon and he likes to do evil demon things. Actually, I should probably mention that the dialogue throughout the fight scenes is pretty funny, if you read it as a piss-take of early 90s image comics dialogue (read straight, though, it's awful). It's pretty evident that Moore was having great fun dialoguing these scenes, even if the plotting left a little to be desired.

By the third issue, ole TV has had about enough, so he goes to his sparring partner Spawn to try to get his powers back (I guess Spawn was the one who took them?). After yelling at him a bunch and trying to Look Menacing, Spawn gives TV his powers back because, well, TV said he'd give them back when he was done kicking his brothers asses. Instead, TV kicks Spawn off a building (don't worry, he apparently survives, as his comic is still ongoing). Then, TV goes back to the mall and shows why he is THE VIOLATOR by kicking the snot out of his brothers (he rips one of them in half, I think) and then sending them and the Admonisher back to Hell. Yay! The good guys won, right? After a pointless page of Youngblood recapping what happened in the mall (they weren't actually there, but they pieced together what happened), the epilogue shows that wily TV climbing a building in his demon form and apparently laughing maniacally (without any sound effects), so maybe he isn't such a good guy after all?

Oh, yeah, the art. Well, Bart Sears, who is currently bursting blood vessels and over-muscling heroes monthly in Captain America and the Falcon, does his best Todd McFarlane impression in the first two issues, while Greg Capullo does . . . his best McFarlane impression in issue 3. I suppose that's what they were hired to do, since TMP probably wanted to keep a house style going that early in the series.

Overall, I would recommend this series only to fans of Spawn and his universe. There's really nothing of interest to fans of Alan Moore, unless you want to be a completist. As a non-Spawn fan, I'd give this series a big fat bleh.

Oh, and for the record, last night wasn't a complete bust; I also picked up Sin City: That Yellow Bastard for $9.50, Ghost World for $4.50 and Bruce Wayne: Fugitive v. 1 for $5.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Capsule Movie Reviews

I've seen a fair number of movies lately, both in the theatre and on DVD. Rather than go into a lengthy review of each one (most of them don't deserve it), I'm going to attempt to do capsule reviews. Hopefully it'll be clear which movies I saw in the theatre and which ones I rented.

SPOILER WARNING

*Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Um, wow. This is what movies are all about; too bad I don't feel qualified to talk about this flick the way I think it deserves. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet portray two people who have just ended a two-year relationship that has crumbled, yet are getting a chance to start over with an almost complete blank slate in the space of a few days. Their relationship is utterly believable, almost painful at times, as we watch it more or less move backwards as Carrey's memory of it is erased and he fights to save the good bits. Like I said, I don't feel like I can talk about this movie with any intelligence, but I loved it. The ending especially got me thinking about whether or not I would go back into a relationship knowing it was doomed, but not knowing specifics, or whether any relationship is really doomed from the start. Everyone should see this movie. [Thanks for the recommendation, Ken]

*Walking Tall - As bloated and overlong as most action movies are, you have to hand it to the filmmakers of this revenge/cleaning up the town pic, who get in, get it over with and get back out in just about 70 minutes (including trailers). Honestly, as much as I wish I hadn't spent $8.50 on a movie this short, I don't really have any complaints about this flick. The Rock is a perfectly likable action hero, and I'll happily pay to see him in the movies that I used to watch Ah-nold, Sly, Bruce and Mel in 10 years ago. And Johnny Knoxville plays the sidekick with all of the obnoxious energy you'd expect from him. I'm less concerned about the Hawaiian Dick picture now that I've seen him in something other than Jackass. Overall, nothing to write home about, but a perfectly diverting actioner.

*The House of the Dead - Wow, this was bad. Stupid plot, bad acting, and whoever decided that it was a good idea to intersperse the film with scenes from the video game (or to have characters spin around "GAME OVER" when they die) should be taken out back and shot. I like bad horror movies, and can usually find something redeeming in even the worst of the worst, but this one, I almost couldn't make it to the end of. I find it hard to believe that Rob Zombie's recent foray into horror movies could possibly be any worse than this one.

*They - This Wes Craven produced (I don't think he wrote or directed this, but I can't be bothered to look it up) film is pretty much par for the course as far as Wes Craven shockers go. This time, the plot deals with a psychology student whose friend (I somehow missed their actual relationship, he may have been a case study that she worked on) commits suicide to avoid being taken by "them." It turns out that he suffered from night terrors as a child, as did two of his friends and the psychology student herself. The question, as it usually is in these things, is whether or not these people are insane, or if something is out to get them (well, the audience knows the truth, but the characters don't). A perfectly diverting Wes Craven thriller, in the vein of Candyman or The People Under the Stairs, but not as good as his best. Well-paced, not too long, just enough of what passes for character development in Craven's movies. You can tell that he has developed the making of horror movies down to a science, but I don't know if that's a good thing.

*Aswang - A low budget thriller that was apparently originally presented at the 1994 Sundance film festival. The cover makes it sound like it's been unavailable on video since then because of its shocking contents; in reality, it probably hasn't been available because every distributor realized that no one would want to watch it. The concept is good: a young woman decides to "sell" her unborn baby to a rich couple who can't have a child of their own. What she doesn't know is that the family matriarch is a Filipino vampire-creature who feasts on the life-force of unborn fetuses, and that the rich "couple" is actually a brother and his chainsaw-murdering sister who use this ploy to trick young women into coming to their estate in the country. Again, pretty good concept, lame execution. The movie builds way too slowly, and then when the "secret" gets out, it's non-stop stupid action, with lots of gore, until the "twist" climax (hint: the mother doesn't get away). I'd like to see what someone like Andrea Bianchi (of the Italian cult-classic Burial Ground, among others) could do with the same concept.

**Special Bonus**
For anyone who's read this far. Trailer reviews for movies you may not have heard of yet:

*Intermission - well-made trailer for a movie starring some of my favorite British/Irish actors (Colm Meaney, Kelly MacDonald, Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell). I can't tell if it's just a relationship movie, or a movie about how the IRA or some kind of violence affects people's lives and relationships in contemporary Ireland (you never know with those Irish movies), but it certainly got my attention.

*Young Adam - very intriguing trailer for what appears to be a Scottish "noir" (along the lines of Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice) taking place in 1950s Scotland. As far as I can tell, it's about a drifter/writer (Otto's fave Ewan McGregor) who gets involved with a married woman (Tilda Swinton, who I always find strangely attractive), but who may or may not have killed his previous lover.

*The Day After Tomorrow - [me] "Cool, a disaster flick! I love disaster flicks! Oooo, it even goes post new-ice age, intriguing. I'm so there!" [trailer guy] "from Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day . . ." [me] "shit."

*I, Robot - Why do the robots all move like spiders? And while I know that I haven't seen this movie before, why does it feel like I have?

*Garden State - I have no idea what this movie is about (okay, it seems to be about "real life," not about elves or robots, but that's all I know), but this is the best trailer I've seen all year, perfectly juxtaposing images from the movie with Frou Frou's "Let go." From writer-director-star Zach Braff (TV's Scrubs, WTF?).

Brain Salad Surgery

Just wanted to take a moment to welcome my friend Brandon to the world of blogging. Brandon and I haven't really talked much for the last few years, but we wasted many an evening in high school watching Beavis and Butthead and Alternative Nation (with Kennedy!) on MTV, and generally being surly about anything "cool" or "popular."

Brandon also introduced me to some of my now-favorite bands, including Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and the Jayhawks, and was the first friend of mine to admit to liking the Man in Black and Willie Nelson (thus convincing me that it was okay to like some country music). He tried getting me to listen to King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Gentle Giant and Egg, too, but those just didn't take.

I'm pretty sure that Brandon was also involved the first time I ever had an alcoholic beverage, smoked a cigarette and experimented with the chronic. In fact, I think I can blame Brandon for introducing me to all of my vices except gambling (which, for the record, is the only one I engage in with any frequency these days, though certain other vices may creep back in when I'm gambling).

At any rate, welcome to the wonderful world of web logs, Brandon, hope you survive the experience.

Monday, April 26, 2004
Fishing for comments

I've recently come to the conclusion, based on the comments I get, that this establishment tends to be frequented either by folks who come here just for the comics talk or those who come for everything else (movies, TV, poker, etc), with only rare instances of overlap.

As a result, I've been thinking about starting up a new blog just for the comics talk, and leaving this one for everything else. I'm hoping doing so would allow me to focus my writing for a specific "audience" on the comics blog, (and maybe gain me more visits from the comics cognoscenti, who may have given up on this blog as not comics-related enough), and would allow those who visit here for the "everything else" to know that they've entered a comics-free zone when they drop by. That said, I doubt that I would update both every day, so there may be less frequent updates to each one.

So, faithful reader, I'm interested to hear what you have to say, especially anyone who visits these parts without commenting. Please leave a comment or send me an email at the address above and let me know if you'd prefer me to keep my writings all in one place, or if you'd rather I moved the comics-talk to a comics-only blog. I'll make a decision in the next day or two. Thanks.

Sunday, April 25, 2004
Some additional thoughts on poker, upon watching Rounders for the 100,000th time

With the wife out of town, I had considered hitting up one of the local (or semi-local) casinos for some blackjack. For a variety of reasons, none of them particularly good, I didn't. Instead, I stuck Rounders in the DVD player and got my kicks vicariously through Mikey McD and the gang.

The first time I saw Rounders was in the theatre. At that time, I had never really played poker, other than some penny ante games of five card draw in high school. I left the theatre with a distinct distaste for the movie: I didn't understand most of what was going on, and I found Ed Norton's character to be unredeemably distasteful and I felt like he had ruined the movie.

The next time I watched it, it was just beginning it's seemingly endless rotation on HBO shortly after we had begun to play. That time, I was enthralled. I still didn't know half of what they were talking about, as I had yet to be introduced to the joy of Hold 'Em, but I found the poker scenes to be as engaging as anything I had ever seen in a movie. After that, I'm pretty sure I watched it every time it came on, unless I was playing poker (and even then we put it on in the background once or twice). I began to understand the poker scenes, started hating Gretchen Moll's character (she's everything guys don't like about women, yet still utterly believable), and even developed an appreciation for Worm (he's actually a great character).

Now that I've played a lot of poker, read even more about it and watched the last three World Series of Poker tournaments on ESPN, I can follow the poker scenes with no problem. Tonight I even realized how basic some of the explanations are and how unrealistic some of the hands are. I mean, what are the odds of both players getting hands as good as Mike and KGB get every time they go head to head? In my experience, when you go head to head it's much more frequent that you're playing with a busted straight or flush, or maybe a pair or trips.

Early on in the movie, Mikey quotes someone (Amarillo Slim? It's late, I can't be bothered to strain my memory that much) as saying that if you don't know who the sucker is thirty minutes after sitting down at a table, chances are that it's you. To my memory, I have been the sucker exactly once, early on in my days of playing, and in that particular case, there were four suckers and one playa at the table.

Not long after we started playing regularly, a couple friends decided they wanted to play a small game one night to decompress after a particularly stressful week (it was always easier to decompress at the small games, as the games with 8 or more people all vyeing for the conch could be almost as stressful as work). We talked about it during a smoke break at work, and a relatively new employee (actually, a temp) overheard us and asked if he could play. Now this guy was kind of a blowhard: a recent Harvard grad who was slumming in customer service in order to try to get in on the ground floor of a pre-IPO dot com. We were all kind of annoyed by him as everything he said began with "when I was at Harvard . . .," but we weren't that picky about who we played with, so we explained to him that we weren't that good, but he was welcome to join if he wanted to. He told us that he didn't mind, as he had only played "a few times" when he was in college.

He showed up at whatever the appointed time was, probably 9:00, and bought in for the standard buy-in. In hindsight, we should have known from the beginning that he was much better than us: he shuffled better than any of us, played his cards close to the table and had a tendency to distract during the deal. In those days, we were playing variations on seven-card stud (baseball, follow the queen, black maria, high-lo, Chicago, etc) almost exclusively, but he still managed to run the first player out of the game within the first thirty minutes or so. I think I lasted a little over an hour, but I may have bought in for more chips in order to keep playing. The third player got run out after about an hour and a half, while the fourth managed to last a little over two hours (our games usually ran in the neighborhood of 4-5 hours, including a short food break). Once everyone was out, the Harvard prick took all of the money out of the stein that we used to hold it in, apologized for winning our money (now that was a slap in the face!), grabbed his belongings and hurried to be on his way.

Never before (and never since) has any single player run everyone else at the table out of their money, and I think we figured that he left with something like $160. The four of us sat around for awhile, in shock at what had just happened. We were all relatively new to poker, but none of us were complete rubes, and we knew that we had just been taken to town by someone who was, if not a pro, certainly a much better player than you see at standard home games. Too bad for him that he was just a seasonal temp and the rest of us were, shall we say, influential regarding who got hired on permanently after the season was over. I think he realized that he had no shot at getting hired, so he quit not long after the game. Interestingly enough, he also never asked if he could play again.

After that, I vowed (as much as someone with my limited experience could) never again to be the sucker at the table. What that means for me is that I know my abilities, and I will choose who I play with more carefully in the future. I'm also extremely wary of people who pull a Colombo or Mr. Magoo act when they first sit down, as well as anyone who looks at their cards less than I do. As far as I know, I was never again the sucker in our games (insofar as there is ever a sucker in a quarter-ante home game between friends), but I'm sure the rest of the gang feels that way about themselves as well.

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