The India, Ink. comedy show

I made myself watch the archived video of the thesis presentation I gave yesterday afternoon, and it’s not as embarrassing as I’d expected, so I’m posting it for your amusement. There’s a full transcript after the jump, including the slides, since you can’t read them in the video; a few citations; and one correction. I probably said some other things that are inaccurate—particularly, I’m thinking, in my answer to Nancy Hechinger’s question about combination audio- and e- books at the very end. All I know about Enhanced BooksEditions is what I heard in their TOC presentation, to which I arrived late. Smackdowns welcome.

In defense of the presentation’s being, um, a bit vague in parts—like, the last several minutes before the Q&A—I’d like to point out that (1) I was still editing my slides until one minute before I had to step up to get miked, and (2) InDesign decided to crash as I tried to print my talking points cheat-sheet, and I hadn’t been done writing them, anyway, so I didn’t have much to go on, especially toward the end. I wung it. It’s not the most unprepared I’ve ever been for a presentation, but it’s in the top three, I’m pretty sure. Also, (3) I’d had less than two hours of sleep.

You should watch some of my classmates’ presentations, too. I saw only a handful of them—not even all those that took place after mine was over—and I doubt the videos do them justice, but I can attest that in person, the following presenters slew mightily: Neo (Sangzoon) Barc, Sara Bremen, Marco Castro Cosio, Jayoung Chung, Ozge Kirimlioglu, Carolina Vallejo, and Filippo Vanucci.

Time Transcript
0:00 Hello! My name is India Amos, and I am—[applause]—a textist.
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0:17 I was an incessant reader in grade school, I was an English major in college, my first job out of college was working as a clerk in a bookstore for minimum wage, and almost every job I’ve had since then has been in the book field: working at nonprofits, running a visiting writers program, designing books, working as a managing editor at a small press, working as managing editor for a number of silly literary magazines that nobody reads, and designing books here at ITP—[applause]
0:56 But I also, at the same time that I started learning to design books, started learning HTML. So the two are irreparably linked in my mind. I see them as both containers for text. I’m very open to the idea that text can be displayed on multiple devices and should be accessible to everyone regardless of whether they have this kind of computer or that kind of browser, and you should be able to read it on your cellphone. It’s for transmitting information. It’s about the information that’s in the text.
1:33 However, I have been known to acquire books just because they look pretty. I have been known to acquire more than one version of the same book just because I find it interesting that they look different. And like presumably most people who are drawn to working in publishing, I’m invested in the physical properties and the emotional quality of reading a paper book.
1:57 But while I’m drawn to beautiful containers, I’m also concerned about sustainability. And, knowing how the publishing industry works, from the inside, I know that it’s not sustainable the way it currently operates right now. People say, “Why do books cost so much?” Well, part of it is because we’re dragging trees across the planet all the time. [laughter] That’s why your paperback now costs—that used to be the dollar-fifty paperback—now costs seven dollars. Because it probably got printed someplace really far away, the trees got dragged from somewhere really far away, and all of that costs money. And then they pulp them when they don’t sell, which is also wasteful.
2:47 Right now you could argue that electronic readers are also not sustainable. Obviously all that stuff ends up in landfills when it becomes obsolete. But I do think that electronic is the way it’s going to go for most of the things that we read every day. Obviously there will still be keepsake books, art books, cookbooks—certain kinds of books lend themselves to having a physical copy. Reference books. A lot of people here have been assigned readings on the Safari Books Online, and I know in one class people complained that they didn’t feel like they’d really read it when they read it online, and that it’s—I know from experience that it’s harder if you have the textbook on the screen that you’re working on, that you’re trying to code on, and you’re looking at a textbook about how to code. You really want it to be next to you so you can look at both at the same time. So I think the book will persist but that we’ll see a lot more different variants of it.
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3:53 And, so, of course I thought, “Well, what can I do for a thesis project that will allow me to read as many trashy books as possible?” [laughter]
4:03 And because I’m interested in that experience of reading the book, I wanted to try it on as many devices as possible. And that required reading an awful lot of junk—and classics, of course. I read Benjamin Franklin, and The Three Musketeers, and then a lot of romance novels.
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4:27 And I read them on one of these [pointing to iMac on the desk]—
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4:29 I read them on one of these [pointing to MacBook]—
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4:32 I read them on one of these, which you’ve probably all seen [holding up a Kindle 2]—
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4:36 And on this is actually what I did most of my reading on, in many different applications.
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4:45 I also looked at these other devices. There’s a Barnes and Noble nook. The iPad you may recognize. This is a Kobo that just came out in Canada last week, and I had someone smuggle one down here for me so that I could press all the buttons on it last night and find out that you can’t actually bookmark anything in it, which is just bizarre. This is a Sony Reader.
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5:09 And so all of these—every single one of them—has a different interface. These are all—these are iPhone applications, but it’s just an example. They all have different settings. They all have different ways of dealing with really basic stuff that normally would be the province of a book designer, like me. I would choose the typeface; I would choose the spacing. I would choose whether it’s justified along both sides or whether it’s ragged right along one side, and how much space there is between the lines—it’s designed to give you a certain impression. But when you’re reading things on all these different devices, you have to be able to change it, to suit your device and to suit your needs.
5:54 You may not know [holding up iPod] that people who are dyslexic apparently have a better time reading on a small screen that turns pages one at a time.1 So they see a single chunk of text rather than scrolling. If you scroll, you lose that sense of what you’re reading if you’re dyslexic, apparently. Or if you have a not-so-great working memory—if you have very little short-term memory so that you can carry what you’ve read on when you turn the page.
6:27 Also, people who are visually impaired need really big text. And right now we have large-type books, but the size is constrained by the cost. Because when you make the type larger, you end up with a lot more paper—that you’re dragging across the planet, back and forth, and pulping—and that you have to move into the stores where the people who have the vision impairment actually buy their books, which is hard to predict. And it’s wasteful. Whereas on an electronic device, theoretically you can make the type as big as you want. What happens, though, is they all have different—[pointing to slide] We have “gigantic” text here, “large-ish,” “huge,” “normal,” “largest,” “smallest”—it’s arbitrary. And the largest type size on the Kindle application on the iPad is apparently not very large,2 so that’s not helpful. And that’s a pretty major application.
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7:22 So we’ve come—for five hundred years we’ve been working on perfecting this book thing, and yet
7:32 now we’re back to this. If you’ve ever seen this popular video on YouTube, which I will not play for you, but you get the idea . . .
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7:42 And we’re back to this. Which, to a book designer, is torment. [laughter]
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7:55 This is a table—in case you don’t recognize what that is on the right there—in Ben Franklin’s autobiography.
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8:05 Which brings me to this, one of my favorite tweets ever, which is, to me—”E-books might be okay?” “PAPER SMELLS NICE I READ IT IN THE TUB”—it’s absolutely true, first of all. Every time you see an article about e-books, there’s always somebody in the comments who says, “I love the smell of paper! I’ll never read an e-book, ever!” [laughter] And they probably already have read an e-book. Or they’ve read something electronically. They’ve downloaded a PDF and read it on their screen. They’ve looked at the “Look inside the book” on Amazon to decide which paper book they’re going to buy and smell. [laughter] People read e-books all the time, but they don’t realize that they’re doing it; they don’t think of that as electronic reading.
8:51 And I’m concerned with what does this do to us, to read in a different medium. Because the medium, as we’ve heard, is at least part of the message. And what does it mean when you switch from a medium where you have a sense of space in it, and you can tell how far you are through it, and you maybe have a physical sense of where on the page something that you read is, so that you can find it again, to a device where, yeah, sometimes you can search—you actually can’t search in the Kindle application. A lot of them you can search. Sometimes you can bookmark—not always, as I pointed out. Sometimes it’s very difficult to write notes, if you’re on one of these [holding up iPod] and you don’t have a keyboard and you’re trying to poke out little notes to yourself, it’s a nuisance. What does that do to scholarship? What does that do to how you retain what you read?
9:49 There’s a theory that now that books are searchable, you don’t need to index them anymore. But there’s been a study done showing that when you give people a choice between searching or reading a human-edited index, they find what they’re looking for much faster using the index.3 It’s not the same thing.
10:09 And there’s also been a very good essay written about how library research is changed by using things like search. If you put in the same terms, everyone finds the same thing, over and over. Whereas in the normal course of library research there is an element of serendipity. You see things on the stacks, what you notice depends on how tall you are, perhaps; depends on whether the thing next to it was shelved in the right place.4 And so we’re losing this randomness. And randomness may be part of what creates our knowledge—odd things rubbing up together and giving us ideas.
10:57 So what I have been doing [switching to Web browser]—and sorry I didn’t set this up first—is following a lot of discussions online and trying to get a grasp on what is happening out there. And originally I had thought, “Oh, well, I’ll write a catalogue of all of the features of all these different e-books, and it’ll be great, and I can tell everybody what’s going on. But the field changes so quickly—the software is updated constantly, new hardware comes out every day—it’s really hard to stay on top of it. So it seems to me that the most useful thing now is to just have discussions about it with other people who are interested in the subject, and create a space where people can talk about this. So I have a blog that is already about book stuff, and that a surprising number of people read, and so I’ve started posting really geeky stuff about how these applications work and what the problems are with them. And I’ve been participating in a lot of Twitter conversations with a lot of people in publishing, and also just e-book enthusiasts, and they’re interested in this.
12:23 So, that’s kind of—it’s an ongoing project. It’s an ongoing thesis. I thought it would have an end, at the beginning of the semester. I thought it would be a concrete thing that I could just present to you, and have lots of slides. But, in fact, it’s turned into this open-ended thing. And I’m excited about where e-books are going, I’m excited about the future; I’m also concerned, as I’ve said, about these various issues, about usability, accessibility. There’s also the “digital divide” issue. What happens if books start being published only electronically? Then only people who have electronic devices can access them. Is that a problem? Or is it not, considering that cell phones have such intense penetration in some places where there’s no other technology that’s really prevalent? In Japan, they’re selling something like five million books a year from cell phones alone.5 So . . .
13:30 It’s changing very rapidly, and I just would like to see some more thought put into how this change is affecting our knowledge, and make sure that people are not losing the sense of books as a beautiful thing—they don’t have to be ugly just because they’re electronic—and just finding the place for text in this new world.
14:00 That is all. Thank you. [applause]
14:13 Shawn Van Every: You mentioned right at the beginning that you started doing book design and learning HTML and doing Web design at sort of the same time. I’m wondering, with this proliferation of platforms for e-books, is there design that can be done in each of these platforms? And if not, why do you think they’re actually creating all these different platforms and not just, sort of, taking a Web browser, which is getting really—which has the ability to present very sophisticated designs? I’m just wondering what’s your take on that.
14:57 Me: Basically what a lot of these readers are is Web browsers. The core of most of the e-book formats is HTML. They start with HTML, they put a catalogue in it to show you where the chapters are, and then they wrap it in digital rights management—DRM—so that it can only be used on this device or that device. Essentially it’s the same file, but it’s got different packaging on it. And then what that gets read in is a very primitive browser, and we’re partying like it’s 1997 [laughter] on, for example, the iPad. It has cascading stylesheets support that’s so spotty, it doesn’t support really obvious things.
15:40 More important than that, though, I think, is that you can control certain aspects of this from the designer’s side, but readers want to have control. I’ve talked to a bunch of people who read a lot of e-books and who say, “I hate the books that are designed. I don’t want somebody designing it. I want to be able to change the text and the alignment so that it suits my way of reading.” And so there has to be a balance. I would like to see them look better, but I also think that the flexibility has to be kept there.
16:16 Rob Ryan: I was curious—a lot of what you’re talking about, other than the aesthetics and the art of reading on an e-book reader or on a screen—on the back end of it, I’m curious if you’ve looked at any research like [Maryanne] Wolf, or, I don’t know if you’ve read Proust and the Squid. She’s asked a lot of these same questions. She works at—she’s a researcher at Tufts. And she never really gets to an answer in any of her research, either, about, like, how does this nature of reading in this medium change the nature of how we learn, how we contextualize information, and how the process of reading, which really hasn’t changed very much for thousands of years, how is it going to change coming forward? I wondered how, like, if you looked at any of that after you started addressing some of the aesthetic issues. And then, also, is, in your research in looking at this, are publishers even taking that kind of research into account? They don’t even care. But it’s all profitability?
17:23 Me: No. They’re not aware of it. That’s why I wanted to start this discussion on my space, because—that is, not “my space,” the MySpace, [laughter] but “my space,” with a space in the middle—because I know all these people, and they’re talking aboout e-books every single day; they’re tweeting hundreds of tweets about e-books, and nobody is talking about this. So, yeah. And there’s a surprising amount of research about it, but it’s all buried in SpringerLink, and so nobody can find it.
17:57 Nancy Hechinger: What essentially is—have you found out, other than reading in the bathtub, what people miss in the new way? And then personally I’m wondering about multiple platforms. Because I’ve been finding—it’s an expensive way to go, but I’m trying to read some very thick books lately, and I have it in paper, and then I listen to it, and I have it electronically. I have it in paper because I’ve had it for forty years. But, I mean, I want to be able to make this switch more easily. From listening to—reading by hearing, as opposed to reading by—I mean, is anybody working on—I know you can—you can have text—you can listen to your Kindle, but it’s not the same as a dramatic reading.
18:45 Me: You can listen to your Kindle if the publisher allows you to listen to it. They can turn that on and off on a book-by-book basis.
18:55 There is a company in the UK called Enhanced BooksEditions that is doing audio and text that are synced up. They’re doing iPhone applications, and I know they did one that’s been very popular. But as far as I know, nobody else is doing that right now.
19:14 Publishers are talking about bundling. Some publishers do let you get books in multiple formats. No one is bundling audio and text right now besides Enhanced BooksEditions—that I know of. But right now for me the big issue is you have to decide what you’re going to read the book on before you buy it. You have to know [holding up Kindle], “All right. I want to read it on this. So I have to buy it from Amazon. Or I have to get it in a format that I can get onto this, that may cost me money to transfer a file onto it. And then I can read.” [Picking up iPod] If I want to read it on this, chances are good that I won’t be able to transfer that to my laptop and read it there. So, as I go from place to place, my books can’t follow me. There is one company, Kobo, that is trying to have books that are transferable between all of those different platforms. They have an app for every platform, and then you can move the same book from your phone to your iPod to your laptop, but [DING!] it’s rare. [applause]
  1. Howard Hill, “My iPhone has revolutionised my reading,” Guardian, April 6, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/apr/06/iphone-makes-reading-books-easier. []
  2. “[Kindle.app for iPad] type sizes are limited to five choices, from legal-text small to not quite that big (especially when compared to iBooks’ largest type size, which I referred to yesterday a ‘honkin’ huge’, and I meant it). This is somewhat surprising, since one of the hardware Kindle device’s main attractions is the ability to make type really really large, which is helpful to people hard of sight.” Pablo Defendini, “Kindle on iPad: The Incumbent,” The New Sleekness (weblog), April 8, 2010; http://www.thenewsleekness.com/index.php/kindle-on-ipad-the-incumbent/. []
  3. Noorhidawati Abdullah and Forbes Gibb, “Using a Task-Based Approach in Evaluating the Usability of BoBIs [back-of-book indexes] in an E-book Environment,” Advances in Information Retrieval (Berlin / Heidelberg: Springer, 2008), 246–257. []
  4. Andrew Abbott, “The Traditional Future: A Computational Theory of Library Research,” College & Research Libraries 69:6 (2008), 540–1; http://crl.acrl.org/content/69/6/524.short. He goes on to write, “‘efficient’ search is actually dangerous. The more technology allows us to find exactly what we want, the more we lose this browsing power. Library research, as any real adept knows, consists in the first instance in knowing, when you run across something interesting, that you ought to have wanted to look for it in the first place. Library research is almost never a matter of looking for known items. But looking for known items is the true-indeed the only-glory of the technological library. The technological library thus helps us do something faster, but it is something we almost never want to do; furthermore, it strips us in the process of much of the randomness-in-order on which browsing naturally feeds. In this sense, the technologized library is a disaster.” (541) []
  5. And did you know that 78 percent of all statistics are made up? I totally pulled this number out of my ass, it seems. What I was thinking of was this: “According to the IDPF [International Digital Publishing Forum], in 2006, publishers sold some $22 million worth of e-books in the U.S., numbers which the organization expects top $30 million or more this year. In Asia, where laptops and cell phones are more sophisticated than in the US or Europe, the numbers are much more significant. The Digital Content Association of Japan estimating sales of e-books topping $126 million in 2006, with $58 million of that coming from sales from mobile phones—an increase of some 331% from the previous year..” Emphasis mine. Edward Nawotka, “Our Digital Future,” Publishing Research Quarterly 24:2, 128; http://www.springerlink.com/index/10.1007/s12109-008-9066-y []

12 thoughts on “The India, Ink. comedy show

  1. See? Already I stand corrected. Today I’ve heard twice about iScroll, which is another company that’s creating synced audio+text e-books. It looks kind of like vaporware at the moment, but I gather they’re for real, so maybe they’re just having a glitch with the website.

  2. I love it that you pulled a number out of your ass. I can’t pull numbers out of my ass. A friend once said that I can pull a story out of my ass (this by way of explaining what she meant by ascribing to me an ‘anecdotal imagination’). The capacity to pull numbers out of one’s ass will take you a longer way in this world. I think.

    Here’s to you for doing the deed and getting degreed one more time!

  3. I enjoyed this, and wish I could have seen it presented in person.

    You addressed issues of accessibility and transferability which few of my customary sources discuss, preoccupied with software development rivalries as they are. I can’t say that I’m very interested in any electronic format which prevents me from transferring a book (or a magazine article) between devices as I need to.

    I grew up during decades when books were ubiquitous and cheap. I get sad when I think about how antiquarian that sounds.

  4. Re number-of-books-a-year-sold-on-cellphones-in-Japan SWAGgering, there’s also this figure, which I did not have in mind, but which indicates that my completely made-up figure was way low:

    Harlequin sells 1 million downloads a month to Japanese cell phone users. #dbw #holycrapthatsalotofromance —Cecilia Tan (@ceciliatan), 1:59 PM Jan 26th
  5. @Sheila: Well, I ain’t redegreed yet. Still have to do a fair amount of dirty work, writing and coding, and that’s not going so well. But people have already started talking to me about J-O-Bs, so it’s hard for me to feel apocalyptic about it.

    @Maurice: Yeah, another thing we don’t talk about with e-books is how, by not having them sitting around, visible, all the time, you miss the opportunity for thinking, “Huh. I wonder if maybe that’s a book I’d like to read.”

    One of the bookcases in the living room of the apartment where I grew up was mostly full of books that my parents had bought and read before I was even born. They probably never read them again, but at a certain point in high school or college, I started to get curious about those dusty tomes. I tentatively sampled a bunch of them and was surprised to find that, despite being grownups’ books and all old and stuff, they were good. Good enough that I understood why my parents had kept them around, even though they never pulled them off the shelves except to repaint.

    So, again, I believe serendipity has a huge effect on what we end up reading, and I just don’t see how that’s going to happen with e-books, even if DRM were to magically disappear tomorrow. Seeing that one of your friends has given four stars to a book on Goodreads is very different from having the actual book in front of you, pulling it off the shelf, reading a few pages, and getting sucked in. Free sample chapters help a lot, but they’re not always easy to find, and they’re not always formatted invitingly.

  6. Another error I made, speaking extemporaneously: the company I referred to as “Enhanced Books” is, in the world outside my head, called Enhanced Editions. And the “one that’s been very popular” is The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave, which I kind of remembered but didn’t want to say because Nick Cave always gets mixed up in my head with John Cage and Nicolas Cage—are you noticing a pattern here?—so I avoid the issue by trying never to name any of them.

    Anyway.

    So, the Bunny app has won some awards, and you can download a free sample of that and one or two other Enhanced Editions books (how many depends on your location; chapter 1 of Wolf Hall is available in the U.K. but not in the U.S.—burn!) in the iTunes store.

  7. Michael Grothaus ends an article on TUAW comparing reading same book on the iPad with reading a paperback version with:

    I do want to say that I love the iBookstore. I use it now to browse for books I think would be interesting and use the “Get Sample” feature to explore the first few chapters. If I like what I read, I’ll purchase the print edition from Amazon or at my local bookseller.

    Will e-reading do for the book industry what downloads has done for the music industry? Or is new model closer to the film industry, where consumption is staged, great movie, see it in the cinema, okay movie, view it on Netflix or DVD, crap movie graze snatches of it on Utube.

  8. India, I enjoyed reading (mostly — I watched a little of the video) your presentation. And congratulations on finishing the thesis and (soon?) the degree!

    I wonder if you’ve looked at the discussions around magazine publishing on the iPad & related tablet devices at all. I think it might be useful as we’re struggling with a lot of the same issues, and right now it seems to be boiling down to an “apps vs HTML” dilemma.

    For instance, Wired just launched an iPad app that offers all kinds of designerly features not available on a website: The designers can control layouts precisely (and in fact have created separate landscape and portrait layouts for every article in the mag), can make copy flow in and around graphics better, have total control over font faces, and can even deal with kerning pairs. (Whatever those are: I just know they’re important.)

    The app is beautiful and apart from a few very critical responses ( http://informationarchitects.jp/wired-on-ipad-just-like-a-paper-tiger/ ) people generally seem to love the design.

    For an even more extreme example, you can look to the “Elements” app/book by Theodore Gray, which goes way, way beyond anything you could do in EPUB to create a beautiful and interactive book, by way of the app store.

    However, in the Wired app at least you can’t email, Tweet, Facebook, copy, Evernote, Readability, save or otherwise use any of the articles, graphics, etc. All of those features, naturally, are available to anyone reading mag content on our web site, but the web site has much more limited designability.

    HTML5 promises to add a lot of the design controls that our creative team craves, and might address most of the janky formatting and copy-flow problems you rightly complain about.

    The question, as I see it, is whether HTML5 affords enough control to provide a “good enough” design, while still enabling the kinds of use (as opposed to usability) that web pages give to readers.

    If it were just a matter of sitting down and reading 5 or 10 or 100 pages of text, I’d definitely prefer the app.

    But if I want to do something with a magazine, or a book, besides just passively read it, I would rather have HTML. And increasingly I almost never just passively read stuff — I’m almost always engaged with it in some way or another, even if it’s as minimal as clicking the “Read Later” button so I can read it in Instapaper.

  9. Regarding your point “I know from experience that it’s harder if you have the textbook on the screen that you’re working on, that you’re trying to code on, and you’re looking at a textbook about how to code. You really want it to be next to you so you can look at both at the same time”, you can get multiple monitors. In my line of work (law), I’m constantly working off digital databases of information (i.e. reading laws and court cases). I couldn’t get by without a second monitor.

    I think it’s important to address the efficiency with respect to time digital books offer. Again, in my line of work, new information that impacts my clients is available immediately in digital form. The digital publishing of this information enables me and my colleagues to stay up-to-date and do a better job. If I had to wait for it in printed form, I would be out-of-date in some situations.

    That said, I still love going to a physical bookstore. Maybe it’s a holdover pre-digital books when I could spend a day browsing a bookstore and making purchases. On the flipside, I love the immediacy of buying a digital book at home. I want it; I simply pay and download.

    I think you made a very interesting point about searching and researching. You’re right in that digital searches often produces the same results for everyone; whereas searching in a physical library or even a bookstore produces unique results from the browsing effect.

  10. I completely second what @Jon D has to say. Using either multiple monitors (which is what I generally do) or if your main resource is a physical book, some type of holder for it, can help immensely with productivity (and neck strain). I’ not in a field where speed is of essence, but I of course want to be as personally productive as I can because the sooner I finish, the more money I can make, or the more free time I have.

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