Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My Past Comes Back To Haunt Me Again

My current boss is safe but my former boss is toast, if I ever get my hands on him. I’m referring of course to the guy who hired me to do copy-editing work for an alleged online encyclopedia that turned out to be a spam-writing outfit. (I had no idea those things were done on Internet assembly lines, did you?) I’ve spent the last half-hour on blog hygiene maintenance deleting spambot links: Blogger’s anti-spam program must’ve taken a serious beating, because I got hit with over 50 spam comments in the threads.

The bots admire my work, however. Commenter “Online Pharmacy” said: wr4NG2 Your blog is great. Articles is interesting! while “Buy Viagra in New Zealand” thought: CagOOe Wonderful blog. “Cheapest Motel in Salt Lake Ut” and “Dangers of Meridia,” meanwhile, both agree with my recent observations on politics and life: actually, that's brilliant. Thank you. I'm going to pass that on to a couple of people.

I don’t recognize any of those posters. However, I was strongly tempted to click on the links provided by commenters “Alaska Cruise Tours,” “Ringtones,” “Mesothelioma Lawyers in Chicago” and “Wedding Caterers” to see if they led to essays I edited back in the day, only I’m afraid of catching the computer-virus equivalent of Aids. But if ever I get the chance to surf the Internet on the Oval Office computer, I am so clicking on those links.

EDIT: Since I so rarely have time to post twice in one day (or even week) anymore, I just wanted to point out my other post about going to a Furries convention.

Hell Hath No Furries

What a crushing disappointment the Furry convention turned out to be, from the perspective of one hoping to write a really funny sex story about it. I salvaged what I could and called the result "Hell Hath No Furries" because "Who Do I Have To Blow To Get Invited To A Goddamned Orgy Around Here Anyway" would've been too long and completely unlikely to avoid editorial vetting.

But certain to lead to embarrassing consequences if anyone took it literally.


EDIT: And in April 2010, I see the old link no longer works, so I'll paste the text here for archival purposes.

Hell Hath No Furries

For some people, dressing up like a stuffed animal is more than just a hobby. It's a way of life. Our reporter attends the 2007 Furries convention.

By Jennifer Abel

When I said I'd be going to a Furry convention incognito as a black cat, the response was almost unanimous: what the hell's a Furry?

What fun to answer. Furries, I explained, are like transvestites with an added twist: instead of claiming to be a woman trapped in a man's body, they say they're animals in human bodies. And wear animal outfits called "fursuits," similar to the costumes worn by cartoon characters at theme parks only with openings in sexually strategic places.

"How do you know all this?" came the next question, which I answered with links to sources ranging from "those crazy Americans" British documentaries to a 2001 Vanity Fair piece that still inspires growls among Furries — who say the portrayals of bestiality, animal-suited sex and a near-complete lack of social skills in the article — misrepresents Furrydom as a whole.

At any rate, when I learned there'd be a Halloween convention called FurFright at Waterbury's Grand Hotel I immediately e-mailed a request for a press pass, and got a polite-yet-firm response discussing their strict no-media policy (common among Furry gatherings, I learned, since the Vanity Fair story).

Thus I went undercover, after visiting a Halloween store to buy a belled collar, velvet cat ears and a nice piece of tail (30 inches, if you think length matters).

The best-known fan conventions, or cons, are probably the Star Trek gatherings where aficionados pay good money to wear Vulcan ears, discuss Federation arcana and rub shoulders with actors from the show.

Furrydom got its start at sci-fi and comic cons featuring art displays of human-animal or human-alien hybrids. (Think of all those sexy aliens from Stars Trek and Wars who look exactly like hot women wearing body paint and forehead prosthetics.)

Broadly, "Furry" refers to any fan of anthropomorphic-animal art or literature. Furrydom broke out of the sci-fi/fantasy ghetto and became its own subculture in the '90s, when the Internet made it easy for people with diverse interests to find each other.

FurFright was harder to get into than any sci-fi or comic con I've seen. Con admission's usually easy: fork over your entrance fee and get a badge. The Furries demanded photo ID. You also had to fill out an electronic form with your name, age and address, and choose from a list of available species; I picked "Feline/Cat."

The man at the registration desk looked suspiciously at my driver's license. Glanced at his computer. Back at the license. Now at me. Did that e-mail put my name on a media blackball list?

Then I remembered. "The change-of-address sticker's on the back," I said of my license. "And my hair's black because I was still Goth then."

He laughed and held the license next to my face. "I guess it does look like you."

How disheartening.

But despite the difficulty getting in, the convention looked much like any other: people in street clothes, folks in full costume, and others in everyday garb with a con accessory or two: no superhero capes, but plenty of animal tails poking out from shirt bottoms.

The day's first discussion panel, advertised as an "icebreaker," was moderated by a man in his 40s who wore jeans and a Trix Rabbit shirt, and called himself Wally Wabbit. There were also three men who self-identified as a Skunk, Coyote and Dog. Coyote wore jeans, a T-shirt with a picture of his namesake, a tail and paw-shaped bedroom slippers. Everyone else wore street clothes. (By dint of my ears and tail, I looked more animalistic than half the people there.)

Skunk, a nice-looking man somewhere in his 30s, introduced himself as a computer engineer from the Boston area. Coyote had another technical job. Both recognized me as someone who'd never been to a Furry convention before.

That's another difference between a Furry con and its sci-fi/fantasy predecessors: the majority of the Furries knew each other, either from earlier cons or Internet chat rooms. Walk through a sci-fi or comic con and you'll get no shortage of party invitations to check out some space-opera bootleg or a copy of the latest anime craze. I found no open invitations from strangers among the Furries.

The dealers' room, another convention staple, had a strict no-photographs rule, likely due to the original artwork for sale within. Most showed human bodies with animal heads and tails, usually in everyday human situations.

A few dealers had albums with adults-only warnings on the covers. The animal-accented human bodies inside were nude, posing alone or in softcore situations with others. (There's no apparent bias against interspecies coupling in Furrydom.)

Still, the adult stuff was rare and hidden from view. Everything else was child-safe: animal T-shirts, high-quality plush dolls and cartoons of the sort you find in kids' books. By fan-convention standards, it was all pretty tame.

Beside the dealers' and panel rooms, most convention space focused on social activities: group-action video games and Dance Dance Revolution machines, or tables for card and board games. Another room showed animal-themed movies like Chicken Run all day.

Outside the dealers' room I ran into Coyote, who invited me to join a group of fursuiters for dinner at a nearby buffet.

"I'm not a fursuiter," I said.

"Yes, you are," he replied, pointing to my ears and tail. I smiled and agreed to meet him later.

Earlier, I'd noticed a room labeled "Headless Lounge, for fursuiters, performers and staff only." Once I knew I qualified as a fursuiter, I went in for a look.

And left almost immediately. The room was far too cold for anyone in street clothes. Multiple fans spinning full blast amplified the already-high air conditioning, and enormous tubs of ice and chilled drinks covered the tables. People in fursuits with the heads off reclined on the floor. The Headless Lounge was a cooldown room, protecting people in heavy fursuits from dehydration or heatstroke.

When a few dozen of us met in the lobby for dinner, those of us with cars were asked to give rides to those without. I drove Skunk and his friend Monkey (in full-human garb) to a nearby buffet.

Monkey, a college student, mentioned his concern over the next big Furry con: it was scheduled for when he'd be at home, so he needed an excuse to give his parents.

"Your parents don't know?" I asked.

"No. They wouldn't approve."

"I don't see why. I've seen much weirder stuff at sci-fi and comic cons than anything here."

"Media sensationalism," Skunk said. "When the media does a story about Fur fandom, they pick the weirdest, most extreme people and say we're all like that."

No comment from me. I later asked him what the real, non-sensational face of Furry fandom looks like.

"It all varies," he said. "Some people just like anthropomorphic art. As for people relating to animals, it ranges from 'I think they're cool' to 'I have traits in common, like I'm quiet as a mouse,' to 'Yes, I am a wolf in a human body and I must run free with my furry brothers!'"

I laughed. "Still beats being a Klingon. So what makes you a skunk?"

"I like the striking colors ... and I was a maladjusted kid. When a skunk walks into the room, everybody leaves."

After dinner the con was more crowded, and lots of full-fursuiters milled about. Over the low murmur of voices I heard the constant click of cameras: Fursuiters showing off their costumes and posing for pictures.

Skunk suggested I attend the "Friday Furpocalypse" which, despite its ominous name, consisted of organized games ranging from relay races to Furry-themed versions of game shows. During the "Furry Match Game," a man wearing a hunter costume and carrying a giant plush carrot walked in, stalked by a terrifying mutant rabbit with enormous fangs and oversized claws.

Children's cartoons, Red Cross fundraisers, team sports and adult content kept discreetly out of sight. How wholesome.

Every half-hour I went to the bathroom to take notes in a private stall, and at 9 p.m. wrote: "May as well have gone to a Catholic school Halloween party. The dance starts in half an hour. Maybe something will happen there."

When I heard the strains of "Hungry Like The Wolf" emanating from the ballroom, I walked in to see a little toddler girl dancing with someone in a bunny suit. A minute later the girl abandoned the bunny to pull a cartoon fox onto the dance floor. She got more excited each time a new animal entered the room (good thing the mutant rabbit had left).

One man leaning against the wall surveyed the scene with a proud expression. "She's definitely my daughter," he smiled at me. "Look how much fun she's having."

"Of course," I said. "She's in a roomful of giant stuffed animals all come to life and dancing with her."

"You know," her father said reflectively, "I haven't been to a con since Anthrocon [another Furry gathering] a few years ago. These are the only people I trust. There's definitely a friendly vibe here."

There was. But what about the sex vibes I'd hoped to find? If I'd peeked behind every hotel-room door I probably would've found something, but that's true at any gathering of hundreds of people far from home. The Furry convention wasn't a sex thing but the exact opposite: an innocent world of children's-book animals, where a 3-year-old can roam with impunity and a maladjusted kid can enter the room with nobody leaving.

In 2002 a sociologist named David Rust published "The Sociology of Furry Fandom," based on surveys he'd taken in the late '90s. Rust noted that Furries tend to have a higher percentage of homosexuals than the regular population, but the "perception that Furries tend to be sexually overt and promiscuous" is "skewed."

And while the Furries obviously have a shared interest in anthropomorphic themes, their defining characteristics found by Rust were "a higher tolerance (than within mainstream culture) for displays of affection or friendliness" and for "variety in sexual orientation and activity."

Still, none of that sexual openness was visible to me. At 11:30 p.m. I attended an adults-only panel called "Safety Furst." Was this, then, where the infamous Furry sleaze was to be found? Maybe a lesson on how to do bunnysuit bondage without suffocating your partner?

Nope. Same safe-sex/anti-STD lecture you can find in any middle school.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dichotomy Exposed

The words "liberal" and "conservative" have been so degraded by modern political discourse that it's damned difficult to figure out what they actually stand for these days. But, behold! A moment of insight that should settle the question once and for all.

It's quite simple: the difference between liberals and conservatives boils down to what excuses they use to take your freedom away. If your rights are stepped on in the name of Saving The Earth, Protecting Your Health, or For The Children (post-birth) it's a liberal doing the stepping; if freedom is eroded in the name of Making America Strong, Protecting American Morality or For The Children (pre-birth) it's a conservative chipping it away.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Romantic Ghosts And Miscellaneous Stuff

Under ordinary circumstances I'd complain about the dreary damp weather we've been having, but with California burning and Georgia nearly desiccated that would be ridiculous. So I'll just say I had an odd week, trying to get back into things after disappearing for a vacation. Luckily, two interesting press releases landed in my in-box (considering how rare even one story-worthy press release is, if I were a character in a novel written by a decent author last week would've been rejected as a deus ex machina) so instead of going off on some political tear I just did some unusually respectful stories about a team of local ghost-hunters and a college student who discusses literary works of the romance-novel genre. Turns out it has nothing in common with the incident that led me to cheat on you last year. Hope you're not still upset about that.

A friend of mine pointed out that the ghost story would've been much better if I could've written it Hunter Thompson gonzo style. "Soon as the LSD kicked in I kicked down the cemetery gates to grasp the rainbow ghosts streaming from every tomb." Magnificent. I cry for my wasted potential. Or I would if I had the time. No. Must stop blogging. Must resume work on this incognito piece which, verily, is now the official bane of my existence until next week.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Suckin’ Turkey Meat A Full Month Before Thanksgiving

Oh Lordy me, this is probably the most vulgarly titled blog post I’ve ever written. Shame on my parents, who clearly didn't raise me right. And how ever will I manage to look sexy in tight jeans again, now that I’ve made the shameful (for a woman) discovery that I apparently have bigger balls than the entire nation of Turkey and the Bush administration combined?

Read this statement I’m about to type: “As an American citizen, I admit that America has done some scummy things in the past, including the genocide of the American Indians. That’s GEN-O-CIDE. Our predecessors did some evil things.”

There. Wasn’t so hard, and furthermore The Truth Shall Set You Free, but Turkey refuses to say the g-word or much of anything else about what it did to the Armenians in World War One. Now there’s a huge debate over whether the United States should officially recognize the Armenian genocide. President Bush doesn’t want us to, because that would annoy the Turks and we really can’t afford to do that these days.

You know what’s fun? Go to one of those macho patriots whose self-worth is intricately linked to the notion that their country, the USA, can easily and unilaterally kick the ass of any nation on Earth. (If you don’t know how to find such people, they can often be identified by their dinner-plate-sized American-flag belt buckles.) Then say, “From a strategic perspective Bush could well be right, since we can’t afford to lose Turkish support for our Middle Eastern adventures, but doesn’t it suck that we used to be the world’s most ass-kickingest superpower and now we have to be all careful and watch what we say because we can’t afford to piss off Turkey?”

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Not Subtle Enough For Fiction

Condi Rice was spot-on correct today when she said that consolidating too much political power into the hands of a single person can have a corrupting effect on democracy. "In any country," she said, "if you don't have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development."

Can't argue with that. Incidentally, she wasn't discussing her own country (America, the Land of the Free™), but Putin's Russia, whose citizens, she hopes, will one day enjoy "the right to not have to deal with the arbitrary power of the state." She said nothing about a right to be free from torture, however, which is too bad because this post would work a lot better as an irony trifecta than it does as a mere double-dose.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Home Again

Wow, it's good to be back home. This morning I bought a bagful of books from an amazingly cool book fair in Harrisonburg, Virginia (home to James Madison University), then went up to the town of Front Royal to see Skyline Caverns. I also visited a cigarette outlet that sold cartons of cigarettes for half the price they sell for in Connecticut, but of course I didn't buy any because I have such awesome respect for Nutmeg cigarette-tax laws. If not for this aforementioned respect, I might've come home with multiple cartons. But I didn't, because that would be illegal and therefore wrong.

So after the look-but-don't-buy cigarette visit, my Traveling Companion and I sat in a fast-food restaurant poring over a road atlas trying to decide where to go next, and finally figured we'd just go home. We ended up driving through six states in just under six hours: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and finally Connecticut. (If you calculate that we couldn't have made such good time without violating various speed-limit laws, your math is obviously wrong. Check again. Perhaps you forgot to carry the two?) (Also, not to criticize my Traveling Companion or anything, but we made much better time when I drove.)

I'm supposed to take another vacation before the end of the year, to burn through my accumulated days off. I'll have to think of something less exhausting to do.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Sound Of One Hand Slapping

A new Zen koan: if you violate a public indecency law but nobody sees you do it, was the public's sense of decency violated? I ask because today I drove the Skyline Drive, a scenic route through Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. Near the drive's 50-mile mark is Dark Hollow Falls, which can be reached by leaving your car in the Dark Hollow parking area and hiking six-tenths of a mile down a moderately steep trail.

As I hiked down to the waterfall, thunderheads started piling up in the formerly blue skies above. The hot, sticky day got hotter and stickier (and where the hell did all those goddamned gnats come from, anyway?), so by the time I left the waterfall and made it back to the car I was multiple levels of nasty: sweaty, reeking of ineffective bug repellent, frizz-headed and sporting the occasional squashed gnat corpse (slap).

"We're still in the South," said my equally nasty Traveling Companion. "I'm going to do the Southern thing and take my shirt off."

"I wish I could, too, without getting arrested," I said resentfully. "Damn, I need a shower. Or at least a new shirt [slap] ouch." I took a quick look around: across the parking lot was an RV with a couple of beer-drinking rednecks sitting around it. The lot was otherwise deserted; the few cars in it all belonged to people somewhere on the hiking trail. But there were no restrooms, and the only grouping of trees thick enough to provide a semblance of privacy was also a damnable gnatopia, and I didn't want privacy enough to stand in a cloud of gnats for it.

"You can get dressed in the car after we leave," my Traveling Companion said.

"I'm too dirty to SIT in the car," I said. "It has cloth seats; it's not like they can be wiped down." I took another glance around the lot. "If I sit on the edge of the seat and scrunch down, I could probably do it."

"The guys in the RV might see you."

"They won't see much at this distance. Besides, I don't care about them. I just don't want a cop to see me."

The guys went back into the RV to replenish their beer supplies, and I quickly pulled off my damp top, wiped myself off with it and then replaced it with a clean shirt. "MUCH better," I said to my now-topless Traveling Companion, who put the car in gear and drove off.

Unfortunately, he forgot that his shirt and the camera were on the car's roof. Good thing he caught a glimpse of a green fluttery thing in the rearview mirror. He pulled over and ran back to retrieve the camera and his shirt; by amazing good luck the camera wasn't damaged, although our spare batteries fell out of the case (which we discovered when we ran out of battery power halfway through Luray Caverns a couple hours later).

To the best of my knowledge, no children had their precious snowflake innocence shattered by a ten-second glimpse of me in my bra. And I, looking down at my arms, am pleased to report that gnat bites don't leave visible marks.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Memory Lane Is In The Slums

The Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia, is -- a museum dedicated to maritime stuff, I guess. I'm sure I've seen its exhibits before, but damned if I can remember them. The museum grounds are nicely wooded and full of hiking trails. Back in the day you could bike there too, but that's been prohibited since around the time the Berlin Wall fell. That's because of my father.

The morning of Saturday, November 11, 1989, I was doing some extracurricular school stuff, and my parents and brother went biking at the Mariner's Museum. On one of the trails, my father fell off his bike and broke his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life until he finally escaped it too-many years later. I watched the Berlin Wall tumble on the TV news in the waiting room of the ICU at the hospital next to the museum, and morbidly thought, "When the wall stood, Dad did too."

He spent a few weeks in that hospital getting stabilized before moving to the rehab center at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he spent about a year. (When ex-Superman Christopher Reeve became a quadriplegic a few years later, he went to UVA too. Hearing about Reeve's accident was the first, last and only time I had an emotional reaction to celebrity news.)

Side note to all the "pro-life" fuckwits who insist that assisted suicide should remain illegal no matter what: I sincerely hope you are one day imprisoned in a body as useless and pain-wracked as my father's was. (Even when paralyzed he could still feel pain. Nothing else, though.) If you stick to your "existence uber alles" principles in that instance, then I'll decide your viewpoint is worth respecting. My father wanted to die and had damned good reasons to feel thus, but lacking usable arms made him unable to kill himself and he refused to let anyone else do it for obvious prison-avoidance reasons.

I drove to the Mariner's Museum today, thinking to scratch a masochistic itch to see where the accident happened or at least point to the "No Biking" signs and wax snarkastic about how they should be called the "David Abel Memorial Bans." But the campus of Christopher Newport University, where I snagged a worthless English degree before moving North, has expanded onto the grounds, and for all I know the actual spot has been paved over. The campus itself is now so large I didn't bother going on it, since any buildings I remember are likely gone now anyway.

I'm now out of the region of Virginia where I grew up; I was going to stay in Charlottesville tonight but had no desire to sleep in the shadow of my father's rehab center, so I kept driving until I reached Staunton (which has the double advantage of being someplace I haven't been before, and close to some of the geological-touristy stuff I want to see tomorrow).

Perhaps in another twelve years I'll have the urge to go back and visit the old neighborhood again, but I doubt it. To hell with Virginia. The only good thing I ever did here was make enough money to leave.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

All Right, Now You're Just Being Insulting

I forgot to tell you what inspired this little vacation of mine in the first place, didn't I? Fact is, as much as I love my job I suspected I was getting just a tiny bit burned out, and this was confirmed last week when a story I wrote on drug asset forfeiture went online. I said nothing that would be a surprise to any libertarian: you can lose your property without even being accused of a crime, the cops get to keep most of what they confiscate which provides corruptive incentives, and so forth.

Next day I got a condescending e-mail chastising me for not mentioning how this whole asset-forfeiture thing is a government plot to drive up drug prices and help the rich get richer and so forth.

I am now getting letters accusing me of having too much faith in our government. That's when a libertarian knows she needs to take a few days off to let her batteries recharge.

Singing Songs About The Southland

JESUS CHRIST IT'S HOT! Sorry, didn't mean to shout. Apparently I've been spoiled, living in New England. Granted things can get miserably overheated in the North, but at least the nights cool down.

Not here, though. I'm writing this from Hampton, Virginia, where as a child I was (along with my brother) perhaps the only dependent in the history of the United States Navy to attend the same school district for ten years straight. (Dad kept getting transferred from ship to ship, but all were docked at one of the 5,285 military bases within a 30-mile radius of my home.)

We drove down the Delmarva peninsula, because my traveling companion had a hankering to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. I was a tad bemused by this; having grown up in an area where crossing a bridge-tunnel was a daily occurrence, I think it's cute to see someone who thinks it's a Big Deal. For those who don't know, the CBBT is a 17-mile-long bridge crossing the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, with two tunnels going beneath the seabed. I'd always thought the engineers built tunnels rather than drawbridges to prevent passing ships from snarling commuter traffic, but just read a few months ago that the actual rationale was so that, in the event of a war, the destruction of the bridges wouldn't make the sea lanes impassable to warships.

In the middle of the bridge you're so far out to sea you can't see any land at all. At least not today, though the humid haze might have had something to do with that. I'd forgotten how the humidity makes the sky here sometimes look more white than blue.

One downside of being a military kid: when you grow up and return to your hometown for a nostalgia fix, you find many of your childhood landmarks off-limits now that you're a civilian. But there were plenty of other landmarks to see, and had you eavesdropped in my car this afternoon you'd have heard a monologue like this:

"First Landing State Park! They changed the name; it used to be Seashore State Park. That's where I lost my sense of smell in a camping accident on Easter weekend when I was eight. Hey, the gun shop's still there! Hasn't even changed his sign. And here's my old elementary school. Still in a ghetto, I see. Damn, I forgot how trashy this area was."

"This probably isn't a good neighborhood to drive through with Connecticut plates," my T.C. pointed out.

"It wasn't too wise to drive through here with Virginia plates either," I said, but turned around and drove out anyway.

But some of it's been spiffed up. The tree-scattered vacant lot where I illicitly learned how to smoke is now a "planned community" of overpriced brick houses with Scottish street names. The scrawny saplings on the street where I grew up are now stately shade trees, though the houses underneath now look smaller than ever.

Tomorrow I'm going to a Waffle House for a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast. If restaurants up North would start carrying that, I'd never need to dip beneath the Mason-Dixon line again.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Road Tripping

Greetings from the thriving metropolis of New Castle, Delaware, where I'm more-or-less comfortably ensconced in a Super 8 with wireless Internet. I've taken a week off to recharge my batteries, and my goal for the next few days is to either avoid news sites altogether or, if I simply must check the news, try to ignore political stuff in lieu of giving a shit about Britney Spears.

Tomorrow I'm going back to the white-trash touristy part of Virginia where I grew up. (Just curious to see how it's changed.) Oh, and if anybody reading this happens to work for the New York State Department of Transportation, specifically the guy in charge of the Tappan Zee Bridge north of Manhattan: those signs you have posted on the bridge saying "Life Is Worth Living" might be more effective at dissuading potential suicides if they weren't posted over a mile before the free Suicide Hotline Phone you have for them to call. Set up an extra couple of phones next to the signs, why don't you?

But, giving credit where credit is due: that sign on the Interstate saying "Last Exit In New York" is far more polite than saying "Last Chance To Avoid Entering New Fucking Jersey." Kudos to you! And to think they say Noo Yawkuhs have no class.
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