Monday, 29 May 2023

Satellite 8 – my first SF con since the Before Times

I’ve spent the last weekend at Satellite 8, the latest in the long-running Glasgow SF convention series. This isn’t actually the first post-Covid Satellite con, but although I had my membership and was excited about Satellite 7 last year, I ended up coming down with Covid the day before it started, so had to miss out on the whole thing. Although Satellite tends to run every couple of years, on that schedule, the next one would have been in the same year as the Glasgow 2024 WorldCon, so they decided to run two cons in as many years and then take a break. I signed up as soon as I heard about it, but, in a first, my usual con-going buddies ended up not going this year, as did a couple of other regulars that I would usually hang out with when I wasn’t doing anything else. So this my was my first congoing experience where I didn’t have close friends who were also along. I was worrying about this right up to the wire, but as it was, everything worked out okay.

On the Friday night, I went for dinner with a friend, hung out for a few hours and came back in time for the ceilidh. I was also worried that I might struggle with finding a dance partner, if I wasn’t there with people I knew, but it turned out that that wasn’t a problem. I am, unfortunately, terrible with names, but I definitely danced with The Red Wizard, Ila and someone who I discovered several days later was Meg, the friend of a friend. There were several others too, but I didn’t get their names. This was my first ceilidh since Satellite 6 in 2018, I think, and I was quite out of practice. I thought I know the Gay Gordons, the traditional starting dance, but Red definitely needed to keep me right there – it took quite a while to find my rhythm (well, what little rhythm I ever have). I definitely warmed up after that and threw myself into it with my old abandon. The band could have done with a dedicated caller, someone who would have called during the first few iterations of the dances, as there were a few times when we pretty much all lost the plot a bit, but everyone had fun. I had to leave before the second half though, to get my train home. But while I was there, I still managed to dance every (formal) dance. I did skip the slow waltz that didn’t have any formal steps – one of the things I love about ceilidhs is that someone tells you what to do, and not having that, I was happy to sit that out!

I took an early night on the Saturday, heading home after the end of programming and had planned to do the same on the Sunday, when I was forced (forced, I tell you!) to stay right until the end of the Dead Laika Party by Naveed asking me if I wanted to come with him and his group for dinner. I had a box full of food waiting for me on my doorstep, but, what the hell, it’ll keep! So I went along, had some very interesting conversations with Ila (who turns out to be Naveed’s child), Brian and Caroline amongst others. There were discussions around bookshops and stories about cons past, and sleeping ten people in a twin room, which they say was a lot of fun, but to me sounds like the opposite. I do like my luxury though, and it was a different time.  After dinner we came back for the quiz which was already well underway.  Ila and I joined an existing team, while others sat and chatted, or had to leave at that point.

I’m really grateful to Naveed for including me in his group for this. I’m perfectly happy to go to programming on my own and even chat to people in the bar, but I would never have asked to tag along to a dinner group, or asked people I didn’t know well to come with me.

And right at the end of the con, at the closing ceremony, Meg introduced me to John Coxon, of Octothorpe podcast fame. I’ve been a fan, and regular correspondent, of Octothorpe for some time now although I’ve never actually met any of the hosts. I didn’t think that John was going to be at Satellite, given some comments by him on a recent podcast, so wasn’t really looking out for him, but it turns out that he’s friends with Meg and she took the opportunity to introduce us. I didn’t get a chance for a proper conversation, but I’m glad to have turned a parasocial relationship into a (sort of) actual social one. I hope that I’ll be able to tag the other Octothrope-ers at my next con, but given that I almost failed to find John at a con of about 150 people, I don’t know how much chance I’d have at a WorldCon, which will be an order of magnitude larger!

It almost feels not worth talking about the programming at Satellite 8, but that would be to do the committee a disservice. Satellite cons always have a strong science theme running through them and this year was no different. I went to both the day guest talks, on the Saturday from Prof Yvonne Perrie on using nanoparticles for drug and vaccine delivery; and on the Sunday by Prof Colin McInnes on exploratory engineering on the edges of known physics. I’ve been to other lectures (at previous Satellites, in fact) by Prof McInnes and he’s always great, but Prof Perrie was also very engaging and informative. As well as that, I went to talks on the future of print (it ain’t dead, whatever the pundits would have you believe); the economics of generation starships; Meg’s excellent interview with author guest of honour Chris Priest; a panel on how to fuel our society in the future and several others.  And thanks to Satellite 8, I’ve finally been to see the Govan Stones!  Despite having lived in Glasgow for over a quarter of a century, I’ve never actually managed to see the Stones, so when I saw that there was a private tour available, I jumped at the chance!  And I’m glad I did, as I’ve been learning bits about the Viking influence on Britain and this was another set of connections to add there.

The dealers’ room was small but perfectly formed.  I found a few of my dance partners from the ceilidh were dealers by day, as well as enthusiastic dancers by night (again, apologies, but I can’t remember names).  My haul was small but, I hope, well curated.  The art show was lovely, but although were several pieces I might have wanted to buy, alas this month has been tighter than I would like (pay deductions from my taking part in the UCU Rising strike action amongst other things conspired against me bidding).

I will, of course, grumble a bit at con bar prices.  £3.25 for a lemonade at the con bar and for tea at the hotel bar, while £2.50 for tea at the con bar for a much smaller cup is taking the proverbial.  It would have been nice if the con could have afforded to subsidise tea, as they’ve done in previous Satellites, but I appreciate that there’s too many areas to spend money and not enough of it to go around.

Over the course of the weekend, I had a lot of fun, and met a bunch of really nice new people.  I’m always immensely grateful to the Satellite committee stalwarts who run themselves ragged every time and then come back a few years later and do it all again.  My thanks – your effort is very much appreciated!

As for me, I’ve already got my WorldCon membership, and I’m eyeing up the 2025 Eastercon, which is coming to Northern Ireland for the first time.  I’ve got to support a con in the Old Country, don’t I?  And, of course, I’ll be definitely going to Satellite 9, whenever it happens!

Sunday, 5 February 2023

Publishing links to book reviews on Mastodon

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about exporting my GoodReads reviews to WordPress.  At the end of that, I provided the script and bookmarklet that I use to do this myself.  GoodReads lets you automatically tweet your review, a feature that I’ve used for years, and now that Twitter seems to be on its last legs, I’d like to be able to continue to put out links to my reviews on social media, to Mastodon, which is where I’m spending more time.  So I spent some time this weekend updating my script so that it can now optionally toot a link to the review on your behalf.  The links to the script and bookmarklet haven’t changed, but you can find them below.



Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Happy New Year

Happy new year to everyone!  My annual retrospective is now up, as usual, on my website.

The old year comes to its end
We pause and reflect on what has been
And in the year to come
We continue to fight for a better future
Happy New Year

Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Happy centenary BBC

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC celebrated its 100th anniversary.  Its mission now, as it was in 1921, is to inform, educate, and entertain.  In its first hundred years, the BBC has achieved some stunning output, from The Goon Show and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue to Eastenders, from Doctor Who to Blue Planet.  Its output is respected and admired throughout the world, and, through the World Service, has spread British “soft power” far and wide.  And, I fear, it’s no longer the powerhouse it once was.

While I think the BBC continues to educate and entertain, for several years now I’ve started to distrust its news output.  The UK news has been England-focussed forever, but I really started to notice it in the run-up to the 2014 IndyRef in Scotland.  We’d had a courteous and in-depth conversation over the course of a good two years, and then in the weeks leading up to the vote itself, the London media woke up to the fact that something was happening north of the Watford Gap.  The BBC sent its big hitters up, people who, until that point, had taken no interest and didn’t really bother to get up to speed on the situation.  Despite having a whole division based in Scotland, it wasn’t the BBC Scotland journalists who were asked to comment, but the names from London.

Since then, I’ve observed how the BBC treats the nations and regions, and it’s not great.  While the national and regional arms of the organisation are good at what they do, the “national” news output fails to leverage that insight, and provides reports that, from here, seem biased in the extreme.  It’s a joke amongst my circle now that whatever the news story, the BBC will try to blame Nicola Sturgeon.  That’s a bit unfair, but the sentiment stands.

Something they could do to encourage the various nations of the UK (*cough* England *cough*) to be aware of what’s happening elsewhere is by having something like the Radio 4 programmes Yesterday in Parliament or The Week in Westminster, but dedicated to the other Parliaments and Assemblies in the UK.  This would help make people aware of what’s happening elsewhere in the country and also raise the same awareness within the BBC itself so that when something does bubble up to the national news, it’s maybe not covered in such a superficial manner.

The BBC has always been in danger of capture by the government of the day, when the ten yearly renewal of the Charter comes around, and it feels like the Tories have leveraged that threat very well in order to neuter criticism of the government over the last decade, when they’ve done so much that’s deserved criticism.  While the World Service isn’t what it once was (the government cutting funding to something that is so respected worldwide seems an extraordinary decision based on short-term thinking), its news output is still what I find myself turning to, more often than not, instead of national news for something more balanced and less parochial.

But to inform is just one pillar of the BBC, albeit a hugely important one.  The BBC is still a massive force in the other two pillars (despite the Tories’ best attempts).  For me, Radio 4 and Doctor Who are, alone, enough to justify the licence fee and I’ve had many hours of entertainment from them over the years.  The breadth of that entertainment, from soaps like Eastenders, to sitcoms like the wonderful Ghosts and Only Fools and Horses, to family entertainment shows like Strictly and The Generation Game.  While I’m disappointed that they didn’t really build on it, would any other channel really have put money into Goodness Gracious Me?  Like so many in this country, I grew up with the BBC.  While my parents didn’t go so far as to stop me watching “the commercial channel”, there was a clear implication that the BBC provided the higher-class channels.  I can still remember the number to call for Live & Kicking on a Saturday morning (0181 811 8181, since you ask).

On top of that, you’ve got immense, well-researched documentaries like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series and its follow-ups, long running science programmes like Horizon (aside: while I cringe at attempts to discuss science on news output, actual science programming on the BBC remains excellent), consumer affairs and self-reflection shows, and much, much more.

Whilst the BBC is, by no means, perfect – as I spent several paragraphs above discussing- it’s still a great institution that we should be proud of, and we should work to protect from those who want to neuter or destroy it.  Despite everything, I’m still proud of the BBC and wish it a very happy birthday and another hundred years and more!

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

The results of a bad idea in the shower

I was having a shower the other day and had an idea for a punchline that had me giggling to myself.  Then I found myself working through the story that would lead up to the punchline, and before I knew it I’d written a little flash piece, which I present for your enjoyment on my website.  I warn you, the whole thing is nothing but a (very short) shaggy dog story.  And for the record, I’m not even sorry.

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Having Feelings About the Derry Girls Finale

I’ve loved Derry Girls since the moment very early on when Ma Mary complained that Strabane got wheelie bins before they did.  I both cheered a reference to my hometown and admired the ease with which creator and writer Lisa McGee painted the everyday life and concerns of a Derry family in a relatable (and very funny) way.  Since then I’ve come to adore it for its pitch-perfect representation of the North West of Northern Ireland in the late 90s, and, by extension, of my adolescence.  Not to mention its absolutely banging soundtrack.

Northern Ireland, and the North West in particular, doesn’t get very much traction in the media, outwith tired stereotypes of sectarianism and division, so this slice of life show, complete with ’90s nostalgia was a complete breath of fresh air.  And from the reception it got, not just in other parts of the UK, but worldwide, it seems that its appeal isn’t limited to the Province; it might seem superficially parochial, but its themes are universal.  If you’ve not already seen it, the first season is on Netflix (in the UK) and the whole thing is available on All 4.  You won’t regret it.

The final two episodes aired this week, and both were devastating in their own ways.  The penultimate episode, Halloween, was hilarious, right up to the final scenes.  The final episode, The Agreement, was a double-length special and I was crying solidly for the last ten minutes of it.  Set a year after the events of the previous episode, it leads up to the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, and reflects on the arguments for and against it, particularly through an argument between Erin and Michelle over prisoner release.

I had already left Northern Ireland by this point (it’s to my everlasting regret that I didn’t get a postal vote organised soon enough to vote in the referendum), but I still remember the arguments for and against that this episode plays so well.  But particularly, the conversation that Erin has with her granddad where she worries about all the people killed or injured during the Troubles, and if letting the people who did that out of prison is worth it.  While he responds with hope and optimism for the future were so reflective of that time, and… I just lost it.  I didn’t stop crying until well after the episode ended.  Maybe it wouldn’t affect you as much if you weren’t there, if you don’t remember that time, and everything we poured into the Agreement back then, but it punched me repeatedly in the feels.  From there, to the shots of the various extended cast casting their votes, to that final, jaw-dropping, cameo.

It feels like this is a perfectly timed slice of media.  We’re nearly a quarter of a century beyond the Agreement and a whole generation have grown up never knowing what the Troubles were like, and taking the (imperfect) peace we have now for granted.  And even those of us who remember it can do with being reminded every so often.  Derry Girls did that, and it did it with humour and grace.  And goodness knows that there’s many people who need that reminder.

The Westminster elite rarely notices, never mind cares about, Northern Ireland, but I hope some of them watched that episode and paused for a moment to reflect on what they’re doing and what they’re potentially destroying.

Sunday, 27 February 2022

Favourite books of 2021

I’ve been reviewing the books I read for a very long time on GoodReads, and have recently started archiving them on my own website (separate to this, at BooksOfTheMoon).  While I generate my “year in books” on GR every year, I thought I’d do something a bit different and flag up the ones from last year that I enjoyed the most (yes, this is another list to make an easy blog post!).  The links are to my full reviews.  If any of them intrigue you, I’m sure you can find them yourself at the usual suspects (or your local bookshop, if you happen to have one).

  • Exhalation, by Ted Chiang
    An absolutely breathtaking collection of short stories – some of the best SF I’ve read this century!
  • The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers
    I love all the Wayfarers books, and this is no exception.  I’m sad that this is the last in the series, but it’s a beautiful way to finish it
  • Gunnerkrigg Court, vol 8, by Tom Siddell
    This is the latest collection of my favourite webcomic which is just so good
  • The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells
    To date, this series consists of five novellas and a novel.  I grumble about the commercial pricing of novellas, but this series is worth every penny, they’re such good stories
  • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon)
    I’m a recent convert to Ursula Vernon and her alter ego T. Kingfisher.  This is a delightful story of creative uses of magic
  • Comet Weather, by Liz Williams
    I loved just how evocative this felt. Best read in the autumn.
  • The All Creatures Great and Small series, by James Herriot
    Not books I would have picked out for myself, but a friend bought me the boxset and it turns out I adore them (apart from when horrible things are happening to dogs)

So that’s your lot.  If you’ve read any of them, do tell me what you think, either in the comments for this post; in the comments for the reviews themselves; or on Twitter.

Monday, 3 January 2022

Happy New Year

Happy new year to everyone!  My annual retrospective is now up, as usual, on my website.

The darkest days of winter are behind us
May the lengthening days signify better times
As we look forward to the year to come
Happy New Year

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Podcast Recommendations: Honorary Mentions

In the final part of this series, I’m going to talk about podcasts that don’t make the cut. For the most part, ones that I used to listen to but for whatever reason, fell off. Maybe not for me, but others might still enjoy these.


StarShipSofa is another really early podcast for me. It started off being hosted by two Geordie lads talking in-depth about a specific SF author each episode. Authors covered included Alfred Bester, Michael Moorcock, Henry Cuttner and Charlie Stross. I enjoyed that format and it both taught me new stuff about authors I was already familiar with and introduced me to new writers. At some point, one of the duo left the podcast, and the remaining host transitioned it into more of an audio fiction magazine. I didn’t really have time for these longer episodes any more, so I dropped it. It’s still running though and if you’re looking for SF short stories, you could do much worse.


I think I started listening to the Drabblecast after the host, Norm Sherman (another chap with a great radio voice) guest-hosted Escape Pod a few times. Its tagline is “strange stories, by strange authors, for strange listeners”, and it ran “weird”, often pulp-like, fiction, that was usually, but not always, SF. A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, and each episode would have one of those, followed by a longer story. I used to enjoy this, but it went on extended hiatus, and I eventually dropped it. I understand that it’s back now, but I seem to be spending a lot more time listening to non-fiction, preferring my fiction in written format. If you want weird, often humorous, tales, give this a spin.

The History of India Podcast

I know embarrassingly little about my ancestral homeland, so when an acquaintance recommended the History of India Podcast, I jumped at it. Since the history of India is a huge subject, the host, Kit Patrick, chose to focus on the story of one city – Pataliputra and how its story weaves into the wider story of India over the millennia. Since sometimes stuff happens that inconsiderately isn’t around Pataliputra, there are also special episodes that tackle culture, art and more that’s unrelated to the focus city.

The tone of the podcast is very different to others I listen to. It often feels more like a set of lectures (without slides) than anything else, with very little in the way of razzmatazz. There’s a huge amount of information in there, but as time went on, I found I wasn’t really absorbing the material, and I never really looked forward to the next episode. So after about three series, I decided to bow out. But it’s a good solid, detailed introduction to a dauntingly wide subject.

Monster Man

Somewhat differently to the others, Monster Man is a podcast that I’m still, for the moment, listening to. It’s a podcast where the host, James Holloway, is reading through every entry in the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, talking about each one in turn, including its real world history, culture, inspiration and suggestions for how to use it in games. This, I suspect, is a podcast that’s perhaps more of interest to a GM than a player of D&D, but the episodes are short (usually about ten minutes) and I’m half way through the Monster Manual by now, so I figure I’ll keep going until the end of that book. There’s a lot more after that, but unless something really catches my attention, I probably won’t continue beyond that.

There’s actually a spin-off podcast called Patron Deities in which the host gives the Deities and Demigods book the same treatment, except in more detail. Unfortunately, although the first episode was in the main feed, the rest is a subscription-only thing, available if you subscribe to the host’s Patreon. I actually really enjoyed that taster, particularly how it tied the deity back to its origin in the real world and the wider culture that it tied in to.

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

This is only in the honourable mentions because it seems to be over. There have been two seasons, each encompassing 50 items or ideas that helped create the modern economy (plus a handful of extras). It’s another podcast from the indomitable Tim Harford with short episodes in mini-essay format.

And that’s your lot. That’s a whole bunch of podcasts, I hope you’ve found something in this series you like. Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong or what I should be listening to instead/as well. The other parts in the series are listed below.

Thursday, 18 March 2021

A year of living in a Covid world

I last wrote about the Covid-19 pandemic a couple of months into it. It’s now been exactly a year since I last worked a full day in my office, so it seems like a good time to revisit the topic and reflect on the last year.

March 2020 was a strange time. I’d been on strike on and off for several weeks beforehand, and hadn’t been in the office much anyway. There was some low-level worry about this new disease, but it didn’t really seem like much until the very last day of the strike, when the picket was called off, and it suddenly started to feel very real. I came back to work after the strike ended, to find the office already half empty. I didn’t really like the idea of working from home full time, and had intended to try to go into work a few times a week, but just a handful of days later, the full lockdown started. I never expected at that point to a) still be working from home a year later and b) how much I’d come to enjoy it! Although I don’t have to commute any more (which is just so freeing), I still get up at the same time as before but instead use the commute time to go for a walk and listen to podcasts before starting the working day, which I enjoy quite a lot (especially when the weather’s nice). I also go for a long walk after work – my pedometer tells me I’ve been getting ten thousand steps more consistently this last year than ever before – and almost never work after hours any more. Unlike many, I think my work/life balance has been improved since working from home!

I do, of course, realise that I’m very lucky. I live alone and have no dependants, so don’t have to worry about home-schooling or getting under someone else’s feet when trying to work. I’ve got a decent space for working and I’m both well-paid and my job was easy to move to remote working, so I’m still working, much I was before. None of these things are universally true, and I’m very grateful for the advantages I’ve had.

I’ve mostly coped okay with not seeing people in person over the last year. During the period when things opened up in the summer (too much, as we discovered afterwards) I took advantage of it to meet a handful of people, over lunch or in the garden. There are short periods when I miss people intensely, but the drip feed of personal contact, combined with online socialising keeps me sane. While we’ve been back in a full lockdown since January, the online socialising has been fine, although I am looking forward to arranging some outdoor visiting as soon as the weather is clement enough to do so.

What brought the pandemic properly home was when my friend Olaf died of Covid-related causes. I hadn’t seen much of him for a while before that, and I regret that now. But there was always supposed to be time ahead of us. He was just my age. Later in 2020 my great uncle also contracted Covid-19 and died of it – although I didn’t really know him. I wonder just how many families have been touched by this – whether it’s someone who died of or became seriously ill with Covid this past year, or know someone who has.

During the summer, I thought we had the thing licked, with case numbers in Scotland down to almost zero. Obviously we know how that ended up. But with the authorities, in the UK and Scotland, insisting that a Christmas loosening of the rules was going to happen, I made arrangements to go back to NI and see my parents, for the first time in a year, only for the last-minute panic and stay-at-home order. At least I’m luckier than many, since my sister and her family live nearby, so I was able to set up an extended household with them and have both Diwali and Christmas with them. But they’re not exactly within walking distance, and although they’ve been kind enough to chauffeur me to and from theirs when we’ve met up (to avoid me having to brave public transport, even when that was allowed), it means that it’s not exactly something I can do on a whim.

Over the course of the year, we can see just how badly the UK fared in terms of cases and deaths compared to comparable countries. We didn’t lock down quickly enough and then we opened too quickly and too hard. We maybe did a bit better in Scotland, but I think we followed England too closely. Our peak of cases and deaths was well below that of England (per million), but still much higher in the first wave than, say, Germany (although their second wave seems to track ours more closely). this is a consequence of far too many politicians baying for the end of restrictions as soon as the graph starts to dip, and a compliant media who amplify those voices at the expense of reason. By the way, there’s great data visualisation on lots of data related to Covid-19 developed by Travelling Tabby, which is a great way to view what can be some quite complex data (although why it takes a student-run travel blog to do this, rather than official sources, I’m not entirely sure).

There’s been worry in the UK that some people have ignored requests to self-isolate if they’ve been in contact with someone who might have the virus. And although it’s not something I can condone, I can understand it. The UK has an insanely low level of statutory sickness benefit (this report shows the UK had the 2nd lowest level of sickness benefit in the EU in 2016), and because of that, there are many people who just can’t afford to not work. This would have been the perfect time to do a large-scale pilot of a universal basic income, or even to raise sickness benefit to a sensible level, but, well, that’s expecting the Tory government to see beyond their own nose.

The most exciting development of the Covid year was probably the speed at which multiple vaccines were developed for it, some using an exciting new technology (mRNA). I’m so excited both by the development and prospect of getting my own jag (although I fully expect that to be some months away yet). That very speed has caused some consternation amongst people worried about just how fast these vaccines were developed (although I think of it the other way around – why are most vaccines so slow to develop?). But everything I’ve read suggests that safety hasn’t been stinted upon, just the long gaps between stages while the developers desperately try to scrounge up some more funding to continue development. If nothing else, lack of money hasn’t been a factor in the development of these vaccines.

The rollout of the vaccine(s) in the UK has been a surprising (to me) success, although I’m not the first to point out that this was the bit they left to the NHS, without outsourcing it to private consultants and/or mates of the governing party. I’ve been watching the number of vaccines given on the Travelling Tabby page and it’s so good to see that number going up and and up. My parents and most of my extended elder family have already had their first dose and I can’t wait to level up my immune system.

After a year of being at home I’m almost dreading returning to the office, and not just because we’re going to be kicked out of our small offices in the beautiful Gilbert Scott Building to open plan working in the awful Tay House. The idea of sitting in an airless meeting room with too many people makes my skin crawl, and much as I’m looking forward to going back to the theatre, I don’t know how well I’ll cope in such a crowd. I already look at films and TV shows from the Before Time and shout at the telly that everyone’s standing too close together and not wearing masks. I imagine we’ll adapt fairly quickly, but the transition will be weird.

So, it’s been a hell of a year. I might have been mostly fine, but an awful lot of people haven’t. Whether it’s through being afraid to leave your home for fear of the disease, losing your job, being furloughed, being a key worker and having to be out in public, having to home-school children, or any combination of those and more, this past year has been difficult. I hope that this shared experience will make us kinder and more compassionate towards each other. I can’t wait to get out and hug my friends and family again, when it’s safe.

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