I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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To know another language is to have a second soul.

— Charlemagne


<July 2018>




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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 7/16/2018

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:41 PM Pacific

  10:00 PM

There are a variety of editorial truisms: long sentences are hard to read; lists should be parallel; consistency is good. This wisdom is taught, and it's reinforced by personal experience; editors are themselves readers, after all, and they monitor their own reactions when reading.

However, there isn't always hard data that editors can point to to support what experience and insight tells them is true. But sometimes there is, and just this week I ran across something that underscores the editorial push toward consistency, and I was pretty excited about it.

I'm in a linguistics class right now, and one of our lectures was by the linguist Gareth Carrol, who uses eye-tracking studies to understand how people read. He started his lecture by noting that people do not read smoothly across the page, line by line. They stop on words (fixations); they jump (saccades); they back up (regressions). By studying what's happening with these movements, linguists can determine where people are having trouble with a text, and importantly, where they're not.

Heat map from eye-tracking study (source).

In our lecture, he discussed binomials, which are pairs of words linked by and: fish and chips, bread and butter, salt and pepper. An interesting thing about binomials is that they have a conventional order: people say I'm sick and tired of it; they don't say I'm tired and sick of it.

Eye tracking studies have determined that people can read binomials quickly. It's like the brain sees a familiar binomial and says "Oh, I get this" and can flit to the next bit of text. In an experiment, Carrol and his researchers wrote some stories that included invented binomials—pairs like wire and pipes and leaves and grass. These are perfectly normal pairs of words, but not binomials that have a conventional order.

So what did they learn? A couple of things:

  • People took longer to process these unfamiliar (invented) binomials than to process familiar ones. But …
  • If people saw the same invented binomial four or five times in a story, they acclimated to it and were able to process it faster.

To my mind, this translates easily to the editorial guideline of consistency.

Of course, I'm in the world of tech writing. We already know in our world that readers don't really want to read-read; they want information, and the faster, the better. If you want to reduce friction for the reader (that is, reduce fixations), be conventional. Use words consistently and construct text consistently. By doing this, science says that you're reducing the effort that the reader has to make to process the text, and the sooner they can back to doing whatever it is that they were reading about.

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  08:09 AM

It's Friday the 13th! But it's Friday! I'm conflicted.

Friend Nancy alerted me this week to an interesting term: search void, also known as data void. This describes a peculiar weakness, you might call it, of how web search results are ranked.

It might help to know that search rankings (or page rank, as Google calls it[1]), works by counting how many pages link to a specific page. The more pages link to a specific page, and the more "authoritative" those pages are, the higher a page appears in the search results. "Authoritative" here is defined as a page that itself ranks high. If a well-known, high-traffic blogger links to one of your blog posts, your post will get a big rankings boost.[2] A similar example occurs on Twitter: if someone with tons of followers retweets one of your tweets, many people will see and possibly retweet your original.

The idea is a kind of digital crowdsourcing—the internet at large decides which pages are the best, and those rise to the top of the search results. A flaw can result, however, if a lot of content is produced and cross-linked about a topic, but that information is one-sided or niche. An article in Wired that describes this uses the example of vitamin K shots for newborns. A passionate anti-shot community has produced a lot of content warning of the dangers of these shots. There is not (or was not) a corresponding community of passionate pro-shotters, so there was a period during which if you searched for info about vitamin K for newborns, there was a data void: the top-ranked search results represented a kind of skewed data sampling. This information showed up at the top of the search listings, and people presumably assumed it was the "best" information, even though it doesn't represent a majority view about the subject.

As our information sources become more siloed, we're all going to become more subject to search/data voids. I suppose the first defense is to know that there's a word for the phenomenon.

For origins, a fun one that I learned from Jonathon Owen. In English, we got the word lettuce from Old French, and there are cognates like lechuga in Spanish. (Hold that thought.) It gets more interesting when we go further back. In Latin, the name was lactuca. The lac- part means "milk", because wilder members of the lettuce family have milky juice. That lac particle is what you see in lactate and lactose, and whose relatives are caffè latte and café au lait. (In Spanish, milk is leche, which hey look, is right there in lechuga.) The lac particle also shows up in the word galaxy/galactic, which comes from a Greek word for the Milky Way. Got milk? Yes you do.

[1] Page rank is a satisfactory lexical intersection of the term web page and the name Larry Page, one of Google's founders.

[2] This statement is only mostly true.

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  11:33 PM

The other day I was taking an introductory training class for some technology at work. There was a slide that outlined the technology, and one of the bullet points had an asterisk next to it. At the bottom of the page was this footnote:

Most strong statements like this are only mostly true. Don’t worry about it.

I had to stop for a while to ponder the pedagogical implications of this footnote.

There's an inherent problem in trying to describe something complicated to a newbie: how do you start? If someone knows absolutely nothing about, say, playing bridge, or verbs in Spanish, or physics, or grammar, you have to give them a large-picture, broad-stroke overview of this thing they're about to dive into.

This is hard. One reason is that people who are familiar with some domain frequently have difficulty coming up with sufficiently high-level overviews that make sense to a beginner. I've had a couple of people attempt to explain the game of bridge to me, but they could not come up with a simple, comprehensible explanation of the bidding process.[1]

A closely related reason is that experts often cannot let go of details. For example, in your first week of Spanish class, the teacher tells you that the verb hablar means "to speak," and that to say "I speak" you cut off -ar and add -o: hablo. And that this is the pattern for any verb that ends in -ar. So to say "I take," you use the verb tomar and turn it into tomo.

Easy! Powerful! Also, of course, only mostly true: there are irregular verbs and reflexive verbs and other fun. But throwing those additional details at you in the first week of Spanish 101 is counterproductive. There will be time to sort out the exceptions later, once you understand some basics.

I took physics in high school, and when you start, you're learning a lot about f=ma. I have memories of homework problems involving blocks being pulled or pushed, and the problems always said something like "… ignoring the effects of air resistance." A beginning physics student has enough to think about when calculating the effect of gravitational acceleration without trying to factor in air resistance and all the other real-life variables that come into play. In fact, there's a well-known joke in the physics community about a "spherical cow" that represents the ultimate in simplifying a model.

One more example. In the linguistics community, it's widely discussed that even if kids are taught grammar, it's not taught very well. People who are experts in grammar will sometimes complain (example) that the explanations we give students are hopelessly simplistic. "A noun is the name for a person, place, or thing," goes a typical definition. This doesn't adequately cover gerunds ("Smoking is bad for you") or concepts ("Orange is the new black") or many other ways in which we noun things.

But this gets back to the point. If you're faced with a classroom of 8-year-olds, how do you tell them what a noun is? Using terms like "lexical category" and "defined by its role in the sentence" is not going to work. You have to start somewhere.[2][3]

And that means ignoring messy details. As one of the commenters on the linked grammar post describes it, "It's quite normal for us to use 'lies to children' in education." Or, to get back to where we started, you sometimes have to make strong statements that are only mostly true.

[1] There are people can do this; it just wasn't the people I was playing with.

[2] By coincidence, I ran across a video that tries to explain what nouns and verbs are. We can have a think about whether this is a description that would be suitable for first-time grammar leaners.

[3] And another! Jed Hartman (of Hartman's Law of Prescriptive Retaliation) also has an entry Coming Down with Noun Syndrome about the challenges of identifying parts of speech. ("[A]s usual, the truth is a little more complicated than we were taught. Oops.")

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  09:24 AM

Happy belated birthdays, Canada and America!

Not long ago, Friend Heather posted something on Twitter that introduced me to the term asterism. I don’t consider myself unliterate in the basic vocabulary of science, so I was surprised I’d never learned this word before.

An asterism is a recognizable arrangement of stars in the sky, like the Big Dipper. Wait, you might be saying, isn’t that a constellation? Yes. Sort of. In vernacular, non-astronomic usage, a constellation is indeed any old recognizable pattern of stars that has a name (con: with, together; stella: star).[1]

Anyway, for purposes of formal astronomy, the list of constellations that had been identified over the millennia and around the world turned out not to be consistent or rigorous enough. So in 1922, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) sorted it all out and created a map that covered the whole sky, dividing it up into 88 official constellations.

The official map of constellations includes all the arrangements of stars that you see and that you can probably identify. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true: not all the patterns you know are a constellation, and might not even be within a single constellation. For example, the Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major, but that constellation includes many other stars. Similarly, the Pleiades is just a “star cluster,” not technically a constellation. Or, as I now know, an asterism.

Origins. I've been watching a lot of baseball lately, because the Seattle Mariners have been doing pretty well. I therefore have heard the terms sacrifice fly and sacrifice bunt with some regularity. Which led me to wonder what the origins are of the term sacrifice.

A sacrifice is something you give up in exchange (hopefully) for something else of value. In baseball, you give up the batter, who's likely to get out, in exchange for advancing runners already on base. Originally, the sacrifice was less metaphorical: a sacrifice meant offering something (bread or a goat or a lamb or an ox) in a ritualistic way as "propitiation or homage" (OED). We've been using this word in English since the 1200s, when we got it from our then-new overlords, the Norman French.

Which gets us to the origins. The sacri- part is related to sacred; a sacrifice was originally a religious ritual. And the -fice part is Latin for "to make, do" (Spanish hacer) a term that has many relatives, like facile, factory, affect, gratify, and seriously, dozens more. So sacrifice is, like, doing the holy.

[1] I love this explanation in Wikipedia: “typically representing animals, mythological people or gods, mythological creatures, or manufactured devices.” “Manufactured devices,” isn’t that great? So, like, a plow. Which in turn leads to amusing speculation about what figures and “manufactured devices” we’d find in the sky these days. Maybe like this?

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  09:55 AM

Here it is June in the northern hemisphere, and already I'm sad that the days are starting to get shorter. Perhaps if I got outside more I wouldn’t have this problem.

I got a great new word this week by watching one of John McIntyre's periodic videos. This week he talked about thinnernyms, which constitute a special set of words that tend to show up in headlines, because the words are short. You've seen them: to vie, to vow, to quell, a pact, to dub, ire, a probe, to slate, to mull, to ink, to rue.

The UK writer and editor Andy Bodle cataloged a bunch of thinnernyms, which he lists as a "thinnernymicon" in an article in The Guardian from 2014.[1] (Brilliant headline for the article: "Sub ire as hacks slash word length.") In that same article, Bodle reports that he was "inordinately pleased" with himself for coining the word thinnernym, but was told that others had done so before him. (I can't antedate the word, tho.) As McIntyre notes, thinnernyms are useful when a writer needs a headline in a constrained space like a narrow newspaper column, and that perhaps the move to web-based news removes this constraint. It would be a bit of a shame if the art of wielding thinnernyms were lost.

Origins. One thing we talk a lot about in corporate America these days is bias (well, more specifically anti-bias training and unconscious bias.) Where does the word bias come from, I occasionally wonder.

Our corporate usage of the term is metaphoric, meaning having preconceived notions about something—that is, leaning to one side. But there are also more concrete definitions in math, electronics, and sewing and cooking ("cut on the bias "). In these cases, the word more specifically means oblique or diagonal.

Some of the earliest uses in English refer to sports: in the game of bowls, a ball could be weighted on one side, causing it to roll not-straight, so that the ball was said to "have bias." But there are also cites that show bias meaning just "diagonal." The OED has a note telling us that they can't decide which sense appeared first.

But everyone seems to agree that we got the word from French, and that it has cognates in other languages like Old Catalan. That means it probably came into French from Latin (bigassius), and Latin got it from a Greek word epikarsios, meaning "on the oblique." Is a theory. (The initial ep- lost its e and p became b, because phonology.) Douglas Harper relates the karsios root to an old proposed root *sker that is the source of many words, including scar, sheer, screw, shard, and shore, all having to do with obliques and diagonals in one form or another.

[1] I wondered about the -icon ending that Bodle used. In England, a pantechnicon is apparently used to mean a warehouse for furniture (also, a big truck for moving furniture). I can't otherwise suss out how the -icon ending might represent a collection of things.

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  06:27 AM

Today is a notable anniversary for me: 15 years ago today, I wrote the first entry on my brand-new blog. As I've recounted before, the blog started as a programming project that was an outgrowth of a book I'd worked on. And a certain amount of "how hard could it be?"

I've got just over 2500 posts, which averages .46 entries per day since I started. (Needless to say, that was before Facebook and Twitter.) Per a somewhat crude count, I've written about 804,000 words. Plus there's a lot of code.

What we write about when we write blog entries

The themes I've addressed have changed over the years, depending on what I was doing. I wrote a lot in the early days about programming, since I was doing a lot of that. When I glance over at the list of the 25 most popular entries, I see that 20 of them pertain to programming in ASP.NET.

But there are some gratifying exceptions:

As I shifted in my career, I wrote more about the process of technical writing and then about editing in general:

I occasionally put together something about Microsoft Word:

I've written about motorcycling, which occasionally intersects with my obsession with traffic:

People who've come by the blog recently will of course know that these days, I post Friday words, about new-to-me words and fun-for-me word histories.

A community of bloggers

One of the great things about blogging in the pre-social media days was the community. You'd comment on a blog, or someone would comment on yours, and you would become blog friends, the way we are now friends with people on Facebook or Twitter who we've never met in person.

I still "know" people on social media who I met originally through blogging. Among them are Ben Zimmer, Colt Kwong, Jeff Atwood, Jerry Kindall, Melanie Spiller, John McIntyre, Jonathon Owen, Lauren Squires, Leon Bambrick, Michael Covarrubias, and Nancy Friedman.

Some of these people I've even managed to meet in real life. :)

But mostly it's for fun

There's serious stuff on the blog, and there are posts here that I have submitted in the past as writing samples for job applications. Writing a blog for this long has—or so I like to think—helped improve my writing. As the world of technical writing moved toward a more friendly voice and tone, the practice I'd had in writing many, many blog entries proved to be professionally useful.

But in the end, it has all been, and continues to be, primarily for my own amusement. Now and then I'll open up the big ol' can of worms that constitutes the code for this blog and make some sort of tweak, which always takes me back to the first days when it was kind of amazing to me that I could even do this. I would never have guessed all those years ago that I'd still be posting here.

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  07:16 PM

I had an interesting close call with Friday Words last week. I was considering jobbymoon as a new-to-me term, a proposed term that’s supposed to refer to a break that you take before starting a new job. (Compare babymoon.) But John Kelly clued us in to the mocking that the term had gotten in certain parts of the British Isles, places where the word job has a, um, vernacular meaning that led to some jolly giggling. So, whew, dodged that bullet.

But there are plenty more new-to-me terms where that came from! For example, just this week I learned the word snaccident (sometimes snackcident). Let’s say that you buy a box of Ritz crackers, and somehow end up eating an entire sleeve of them, or gah, the whole box. Not your fault! It was a snaccident.

Obviously, the word is a portmanteau of snack + accident. The first Urban Dictionary entry I can find is from 2007. Nothing in the mainstream dictionaries. Nothing in the COCA corpus, slightly surprisingly. But it’s obviously out there; there are various t-shirt options, and some great memes. I got it from Twitter, where it made the rounds this week.

Ok, we all know what a litmus test is, right? A common definition is that it’s a kind of binary test. For example, a politician’s attitude about something—gun control, abortion, immigration, environmentalism, etc.—can be a litmus test for some people.

That’s the metaphoric meaning. In chemistry a litmus test tells you whether something is acidic or alkaline (that is, it tells you something about the pH value). You dip a piece of paper—litmus paper—that’s been coated with a special dye into (say) a glass of some solution that you’re testing. If blue litmus paper comes out pink, the solution is acidic; if the red litmus paper comes out blue, the solution is alkaline.

As I say, we all know this! But what I got interested in is what where the term litmus actually comes from. Perhaps it was invented by someone named Litmus? (Or, like, Litm, whose name was then Latinized?) No. The -mus part is related to moss; the dyes used in litmus paper were originally extracted from various lichens. The lit- part might be from an old Germanic word that meant "color" or "dye." But it might also be related to lac-, as in shellac and lacquer; those both refer to a resin obtained from the lac bug and used as a dye and finish. Depending on how speculative you want to get, it might also be related to lox, as in salmon, due to the color of that fish. I wouldn’t take any of the lac- part of this to the bank, tho.

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  08:42 AM

For those keeping track, we’re coming up on the longest [northern hemisphere] or shortest [southern hemisphere] weekend days this year. Adjust your plans accordingly?

As an experiment, I had my wife vote on which new-to-me term she liked best among my candidates, and she voted for (ready?) the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Which might not sound to you inherently like a winner, but let’s see what you think.

Suppose you are an expert in some field, and you read an article in the news that’s about something in your field. Chances are you’ll at least raise a skeptical eyebrow while you’re reading; you might even end up dismissing the article entirely as ill-informed and a poor representation of something you know very well. (This apparently happens a lot.)

You then turn the page and read an article on some other, different topic, one outside your area of expertise. Although you might have had serious questions about the credibility of the first article, you have no such doubts about the second article.

This is the Gell-Mann amnesia effect: you forgot to bring the same skepticism to the second article that you had about the first. The term was invented by the author Michael Crichton ( Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, etc.); he described the effect in a talk that he gave in 2002.

Crichton was talking about our credulity about the media in general, to the point where he dismisses it entirely. I think that many people would say that there are (other people’s) media outlets that they are willing to dismiss completely (Fox/CNN), but it would be a challenge to bring that level of skepticism to all media, all the time. So I’ll leave the larger implications of the Gell-Mann amnesia effect to you-all to think about.

You’re probably asking why Crichton called this the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Murray Gell-Mann was an American physicist; physics of course is a field that’s notoriously difficult to explain in layperson’s terms. Crichton explains:

I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.

On to fun word origins. Where did the word eavesdropping come from? Eavesdropping means that you’re furtively listening in on someone’s conversation. Eaves are the part of the roof that stick out past the building. The eavesdrop or eavesdrip is the actual dripping of water off the roof and also the area on the ground that gets wet. Fun fact: eavesdrip goes back virtually as far as we have written records in English; there’s a cite from the year 868. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the early things that people wrote down concerned legal stuff, like rules and regulations about property boundaries.

By the 1400s, someone who stood under the eaves to listen at the window was an eavesdropper. And by the 1600s, we had the verb to eavesdrop, which even early on had a metaphoric meaning, i.e., you didn’t actually go stand under the eavesdrop in order to be eavesdropping.

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  12:17 AM

If I told you that this week I learned terms like clew, close-hauled, and no-go zone, I bet quite a few of my friends could guess what I've been up to.

Those terms aside, a new-to-me word this week came from my son, who has a friend who works here in Seattle at … well, at a place frequented by tourists. That person was grumping in social media about the exasperating behaviors of tourons: a blend of tourist and moron.

While I was thinking about this term, Friend Jerry posted a link to this excellent drawing by the Seattle-based artist Joshua Boulet:

Seattle residents will recognize this as Kerry Park, an obligatory stop for tourists because it provides such an amazing view of the city and Mount Rainier. But as the drawing suggests, there can be, um, crowds. Maybe even tourons. (If you aren't from Seattle, you might get the same idea from a sketch that Boulet has on his website of the Colosseum in Rome.)

What surprised my son and me (a little) about the word touron was that it goes back at least to the 1990s. I found a reference in Backpacker magazine from 1996. In the article, they capitalized the word but didn't otherwise explain it, suggesting that they thought their readers would already know it. So it might be older yet. Although it's a blend, it's not necessarily an obvious one unless you're already primed to grok its constituent parts, I guess.

Update Paul McFedries traces the word to 1987.

I believe we all recognize the phenomenon of tourists acting in boorish or oblivious ways, and now we also know what to call them. (Not us, of course; we might sometimes be tourists, but we're never tourons.)

Ok, origins. Colleague Peter and I were Hangouting one another the day, and he had this story for me:

I was listening to the radio on the way in this AM, and the DJ mentioned that so and so had struck out for the "umpth" time. You could tell she meant to say "nth" but got caught between umpteenth and nth. So it got me wondering about the origin of umpteen.

Him and me both! So, umpteen is defined as a large and indefinite number. (Sample cite in the OED: "I've got umpteen things for him to sign.") It's a blend of umpty + teen, where teen is the same suffix as in thirteen, fourteen, etc. There are also those adjective forms ("the umptieth time," "the umpteenth time").

The word umpty started off as a "fanciful verbal representation" (OED) of a Morse code dash. More specifically, iddy-umpty was a way of saying "dot-dash"; for example, saying that someone was practicing [the] iddy-umpty meant that they were practicing Morse code.[1] In military slang, umpty came to mean an unknown quantity ("umpty-seven," "umpty-eleven"). I haven't found anything on how umpty went from representing a dash to representing an unknown quantity, but we can speculate that dashes have been used to indicate an omission or an unknown part of something? Maybe. It sure wouldn’t have hurt that umpty is kind of a funny word and combines well (like umpteen). But I'll be clear that about half of what I just said is speculative.

People do still say umpteen and umptieth, obviously, even tho the terms are over a hundred years old (first cite is 1905). But an NGram search shows that umpteen is losing ground to our other favorite indefinite hyperbolic numeral—namely, zillion. The same search shows that umpteen is still staying ahead of gajillion. For now.

[1] Fun fact: in 2007, the FCC in the US dropped the requirement that you had to pass a Morse code test in order to get an amateur radio license.

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  09:16 AM

Boy, the month of May seemed like it lasted about 2 weeks. Hopefully June will stick around a little longer.

The new-to-me word today pertains to a quasi-current event, namely the commemorative coin that was issued for the on-again, off-again summit meeting between the US and North Korea. I'm sure you've seen this:

In reading about this, I learned the term challenge coin. This seems to be well known to a) people who are in or around the military and b) possibly everyone else. But it was new to me. A rough version of the story is that challenge coins—medals, really—commemorate specific organizations or events and are issued to people who belong to the organization or participated in the event.

The "challenge" part has a variety of apocryphal-sounding origins. One story is that a person could be challenged to show their membership in a group, which could be answered by producing the coin.[1] Another story involves (what else?) drinking, where the person could be challenged to produce the requisite coin and would have to pay if they couldn’t produce one.

Although nominally a military thing, civilian organizations also issue challenge coins, which is how we get to the challenge coin commemorating the summit meeting. And you can now not just buy challenge coins (thus seemingly diluting its theoretical symbolic value), but heck, create your own. If all this was new to you as it was to me, you can read more about it in a Mental Floss article.

For surprising word history, today I have yet another military term: shrapnel. Shrapnel refers to the bits and pieces of an exploding munition, or more generally, of an exploding anything. But it actually originally referred to a type of military shell that was explicitly designed to break into pieces in this lethal way.

The more benign part of shrapnel is its etymology. Had you made me guess, I might have mused that it was somehow another military term we got from German (like flak and strafe). But it's not; it's an eponym: the Shrapnel shell was invented by a certain Major Henry Shrapnel (British) in the early 1790s.

I wonder if it would be useful to have a term besides eponym to describe things that are named for people, but are also unpleasant: shrapnel, quisling, boycott, Draconian. Hmm.

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[1] The notion of a permanent and transferable token serving as an authentication mechanism would not impress computer security experts, but we'll let that slide.

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