What do you call half a Splinter?

I’m about halfway through Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. It’s pretty OK. I’ve wanted to read it since, I suppose, it was first released. I was in… um… second grade, I think. The question that’s always bugged me about Star Wars is this: how, years before The Empire Strikes Back, did that kid in elementary school know about the volcano?

I always figured the answer was in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

This probably isn’t true, though it might be. I’m half way through the novel at this point. Luke and Leia are running around on a bog planet, evading some local Imperial entanglements, and have accidentally gotten themselves drawn into a search for the Kaiburr crystal. The crystal is a thing that focuses the Force for a Force-sensitive user. They are running around with a couple of hairy grunting creatures, which I imagine look like really, really big aardvarks.

There’s also an old woman who’s Force-sensitive, and who’s been hiding out from the Empire for the last 40 years. The novel came out in 1978, shortly after the original movie, and–though it’s still considered in continuity–it’s best not to think too hard about the details. (Note: very little of this novel is probably considered in-continuity these days, SM Jan. 7, 2018.)


I’m about half way through, and our heroes are being chased, albeit slowly, across the face of the planet, and, despite the promise of the cover, there’s no evidence of Darth Vader yet. The writing is OK. The plot is OK. The adventure aspects are pretty good, actually. Lots of running around and fighting and blowing things up, monsters, and falling down deep holes. There’s a lot of attention paid to things like charging the weapons and having food and water.

But it feels like kind of a lot of filler. Maybe that’s because I’m looking for that other thing about Darth Vader, and I’m just not taking the time to stop and smell the roses. Or the bog gas. There’s some back story about why the characters are the ones they are, and the setting is the way it is, and stuff, over at Wookiepeedia’s page on the book. I found it interesting, since I also remember getting into an argument with some other kid about what the sequel movie was going to be called in the early 1980’s when Empire was in production.

I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished reading the book.

Hydrox? Isn’t that a drug or something?

Not a drug. A cookie. Named for hydrogen and oxygen, and made of two cookies and a creme filling, like water, you see. I haven’t had a Hydrox in years. Years and years. I don’t actually remember the last time I had a Hydrox. It was probably some time in the middle 1990’s.

For a long, long time I assumed that Hydrox was a knock-off of Oreo. Not true, by–according to Wikipedia–about four years. You see, I grew up with Oreos, and probably threw some sort of snotty fit if my mom ever got anything like, but not actually, Oreos.

This opinion was probably grounded in more than just a “this is what I know” bias. It probably had to do with the actual differences between Hydrox and Oreo. Hydrox cookies are thinner and crisper, and have a stronger chocolate flavor. The creme filling is less sweet, and crumblier.

As I recall, I went through a phase of preferring Hydrox to Oreo. This was probably snootiness. A bit of underdog worship, a bit of not supporting the big guy. You know, liking something not because of its internal qualities, but because of its relative qualities.

I used to work with a guy who liked Hydrox because he liked Hydrox. That buying Hydrox had those other relative qualities was, if you will, icing on the cake. It also added a bit of adventure to his shopping, since by this time, Hydrox was on the wane. Finding them was hit-or-miss.

Now they’re gone, and, while I’m not feeling nostalgic, I would like to try a pack to see if I actually do like them for what they are.

“Into the Fire”

So, we watched “Into the Fire” recently, as Geek Night wends its way through winter. It came, as so many episodes of Babylon 5 do, earlier than I expected. I remember, of course, that it’s a season 4 episode, but I thought it came later than episode 6 of, like, 24 or something. But there it is, sitting pretty at slot 6, on disk 2 of 6 in the season 4 boxed set.

It is, as the term has it, a WHAM episode.

It’s one we’ve been waiting for since the beginning of season 2 (though, to be honest, we’ve actually been waiting for it since the pilot, we just didn’t really know that).

Anyway. The episode opens with Sheridan and the Army of Light taunting both the Vorlons and Shadows into a confrontation. Since coming back from the dead, Sheridan has been bolder about taking on both sides in the war. Originally, the Army of Light was under the tutelage of the Vorlons, but in recent months it had become clear that the Vorlons were playing a longer game than the younger races had imagined. It had never been about defeating the ancient enemy, merely about driving it back. For who knows how long, the Vorlons had been using younger races to … well. It was more like a deadly brawl for the most part.

Lately, the Vorlons had decided to really go on the offensive, and actually beat the Shadows. Apparently. But actually, no. Just wipe out places where the Shadows had influence because…

OK, so there were basically two scenes and a couple of sequences to justify this as the cool episode it is, because looking too closely at the tactical decisions of the Vorlons and Shadows (Vorlons especially) just makes me think, “really? Nobody saw through this before?”

The sequences are the space battle stuff. Ships flying around, shoot-em-up, and like that. Great looking stuff.

The first scene that really rocks is when Londo confronts Morden, telling him to get the Shadow ships off the island they’ve been parked on for the last couple of months. It’s not entirely clear why the Shadow ships had to be parked on Centauri Prime, except for some game-playing with Cartagia, but they were there nonetheless, and Londo wanted them off. Morden, naturally, refused, so Londo blew up the island.

Morden: “You’re insane!”
Londo: “On any other day, you would be wrong. But today–today is a very special day.”

Wow. There are a couple of other scenes on Centauri Prime which are pretty cool. When Vir realizes that Londo is Shadow influenced, and the Vorlon planet killer eclipses their sun from orbit is pretty cool. And it’s pretty cool to see Vir get what he wants from one of his early conversations with Morden. “I’ll look up into your cold, dead eyes, and wave. Like this.”

The other cool scene is a speech by Sheridan culminating in, “get the hell out of our galaxy.” Not all confrontations are about combat, you see. Still, one of our viewers correctly noted that, actually, Lorien provided the final nudge to get all the First Ones to go.

Most of the rest of this season was set up in the next episode, “Epiphanies.” It has to do with the Earth Civil War, which has been on the back burner pretty much since sometime before the season 3 finale. Bester was back almost, but not quite not causing trouble. Garibaldi resigned as Chief of Security to go freelance helping people find things and people they’d lost in the Shadow War. Zach and Lyta made some personal connections, and she made some telepath-centric decisions which made things more difficult for Sheridan. And, probably, for her. I could not say, as I say when I could say more than I know… And the Delenn-Sheridan story took its first step toward becoming the Sheridan (Delenn) story.

“I like it” and other thoughts on TRON: Legacy

When Sam Pevensie looks behind the old TRON video game machine in the back of the dusty, decades-closed video game parlor abandoned by his father, he enters a WORLD BEYOND HIS IMAGINATION! In this world, Aslan the Programmer sits in Manichean silence, waiting… for what, exactly? While the specific thing he was waiting for is never made clear, generally, he’s waiting for an opportunity defeat the bad guy, a fascist of his own creation. Then his son arrives, messing up his Zen thing, man.

No, no. Actually, not, or at least there’s more than that. There are plenty of ways to be unkind to the plot of TRON: Legacy. “It’s a Disney movie,” for instance. Or you can spend the entire movie saying, “this is like Star Wars.” Or The Matrix, or The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers… or … well, you get the idea. It’s a fantasy quest movie, and a sequel to a movie which inaugurated a film genre–the virtual-reality-computer-land. Which means that it draws from the same well as all fantasy quest movies, and its progenitor invented some of the tropes we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies, so of course it’s going to remind of us other movies.

The same goes for the visuals. Tight science-fictiony clothes? Got em. Cloaks, hoods, robes, and full-face masks? Got em. Martial arts-y fights? Got em. Car chases, motor cycle chases, aerial dog-fights? Got em.

However, TRON: Legacy does its own thing with these elements. And it does them because it is carrying forward these elements from 1982’s TRON. 1982. The mystic hippie programmer? He’s here now because he was here then. The sleek glowing colorfulness in a black and white world? In 1982 that’s what the future looked like. Crazy hair cuts, and make-up, and the cool kids sitting on low couches at loud dance clubs? That’s been the future since A Clockwork Orange, at least, and possibly even as far back as Metropolis, which TRON owes quite a bit to anyway, and is an aesthetic which reached its high point (if you will) in the middle 1980’s–exactly the moment when Aslan, excuse me, Kevin Flynn got trapped in the machine of his own creation by his highly motivated, if narrow-minded, doppelgänger, Clu. My point is that neither the look and feel, nor the story, of TRON: Legacy is unacceptably derivative; rather, it’s an exemplar of its type (of story), and the times during which it was (within the story) supposed to be created.

There are even a couple of sub-plots with some actual suspense. One is pretty obvious, really, and all I’ll say about it is that it would be nice to have more of the character Tron and more of the actor Bruce Boxleitner in this movie. The other is pretty well done–there are a couple of characters about whom your initial expectations are toyed with before things are made clear.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t spent a lot of time on what the plot actually is. You know: who does what, where, and why. Well, partly it’s because it’s a straight-forward ‘gotta rescue my dad from the bad guy, and save the world’ sort of thing. Partly because if I get into much detail beyond that, it’ll start to look weaker than it is. Here’s why: the movie tells an impossible story. The events in this movie cannot possibly happen. The entire TRON adventure cycle rests on a premise which is simply not possible. You cannot scan a person and then have that person transported into a computer. In the first movie we see the technology at work on an orange, and then we see Kevin Flynn get physically transported by a laser scanner sitting right behind him, strangely, pointed at the work station by which it is controlled. In the new movie, the fact that people are literally transported into the computer is driven home by the fact that Sam Flynn bleeds–which makes it apparent to one and all that he’s not a program: he’s a user.

Anyway. The impossibility of the premise is not a flaw with the movies. But once you’ve accepted that, somehow, these characters are actually–physically–transported into the computer, then there’s really no point in crabbing about the rest of it. It’s internally consistent, it moves from here to there, and the two major Flynns get to grow from where they were at the beginning to where they end up at the end. What more could we reasonably expect from a plot?

About that internal consistency. It’s pretty strange, actually. Water? Smoke? Roast pigs? But, here’s the thing about all that. Kevin Flynn, even in the first movie, has always had remarkable control over the environment within the computer. It’s never explained, beyond “he’s a user” and “he’s the creator.” In the first movie, Kevin notes that it’s elementary physics that energy can always be diverted. He can also revive profoundly damaged programs–he does it in both movies. Perhaps some of this relies on the convertibility of energy and matter. Maybe not. This is all Kevin’s world in a very literal way, though he does not have complete control over the actions of the programs running around within it.

But really, the point of TRON: Legacy isn’t what Kevin Flynn can manipulate within the computer, or what Sam Flynn can do with the light cycles, or ad hoc decision making to attain his goal of rescuing his father and ending tyranny. The point is that, though Kevin and Sam each have the knowledge to manipulate portions of the system, neither has a very clear idea of why they do things. This is not a profound conflict. But the TRON adventure cycle is not a profound story. It’s a dreamland, or–if you will–a four-color sliver age of comics story. There are good guys, there are bad guys, there’s some mumbo-jumbo, there are obstructions, and then things work out.

And here’s where I want to leave it. When things work out, they just sort of work out, and things just sort of keep rolling along. It’s fairly mature, I think. Go back to the earlier comparisons with Star Wars or The Matrix, or even the ending of TRON. In TRON: Legacy, the climactic battle occurs several minutes before the final show-down, which is personal in a way that traditional ‘this time it’s personal’ show-downs cannot even begin to approach. The show-down allows the successes, but only apocalyptically. The successes and failures happen, and when the good guys win (as they must), they’re actually not all that happy about it. It’s kind of a downer of an ending. Well, no. AMC’s The Prisoner had a downer of an ending. TRON: Legacy has, if not a downer, exactly, then certainly not the kind of ending where the world is remade, rather it has an ending where some things change, because things have to change, it’s the way of things, and some things just keep on, man, cause the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“A thousand years ago they walked among the stars…”

…or some such mystical-sounding hoo-ha. They being the Vorlons, the Shadows, and the other Ancient Ones of the Babylon 5 tale. Most of these old, old races have “passed beyond the rim” or died off, or just… left. There are a few still around, like the Tiki-headed ones Ivanova mocked into committing themselves to fighting, if the need arises. Fighting the new Shadow War, that is.

Ten thousand years ago the Shadows were, if not defeated, exactly, then at least pushed back hard enough to be no threat to the younger races. It seems the Ancient Ones take an active interest in younger races. Then, one thousand years ago, there was a small Shadow war. A skirmish, maybe, but still a pretty big deal, according to the reports we have. The Shadows apparently weren’t quite ready for the level of resistance they met. They were pushed back again, and started getting all sneaky and stuff.

The ancient races, including the Vorlons, seemed pleased with the results. Though, really, they probably weren’t pleased, exactly. After all, the way the story comes down to Our Heroes, the Shadows were on the verge of success until the missing space station Babylon 4 popped up, captained by the Greatest Minbari Ever, Valen.

This isn’t the time to linger over the strange facts of that particular event: that Valen is the pen name of Jeffrey Sinclair, that Sinclair is a post-human turned into a Minbari by technology left unexplained, that Sinclair is from 1,000 years after the war he helped win, and that the records are surprisingly spotty for something that happened a mere 1,000 years ago to a space-faring race involved in what was, to that point, the greatest war in (their) history. This is also not the time to think too much about just how strange it is that the arrival of 1 person with 1 space station engineered by young races–one of whom has been space-faring for slightly less than 300 years (dating from the 1969 moon landing)–was able to turn the tide of an interstellar war. Particularly given that the war, from what we’ve been told, had 1 ancient billions-of-years old race winning against the combined might of more than 1 ancient billions-of-years old races, plus the Minbari.

No. It’s actually the time to linger over the question of the Minbari’s role in the Shadow War of 1,000 years ago. But before going on about that, let me go on about this: I expect that at least some of the questions raised in this post are answered in novels, comic books, and various JMS Speaks postings available on-line. I’m limiting myself to what I’ve seen on screen and can remember from previous geek-search. I don’t do research specifically for these posts since I’m basically lazy.

Who are the Minbari’s peer group? Currently, it looks like the Humans, the Centauri, the Narn (sort-of), and even the races of the League of Non-aligned Worlds, since the Minbari are pretty inclusive, even though the Minbari could kick all of their asses all at once if they chose to–all of them, the major and minor races. When the war 1,000 years ago took place, it’s less clear who their peer group was, since there doesn’t seem to be anyone else on par with the Minbari from that time still flying around. One thousand years ago, we know what the humans were up to–not much of interest to interstellar civilizations. Same with the Narn, though we know that the Narn homeworld was a base of operations for the Shadows. We don’t know about the Centauri. We also know that the Vorlons have visited most races, and fiddled with them so each race sees–literally sees–Vorlons as embodiments of supernatural goodness. Not gods, exactly, but more like angels.

Except the Minbari see Vorlons as Vorlons, an ancient race, and vastly powerful. The Minbari have been told the truth about things, though not, as we find out in season 4 of the show, the whole truth. The Shadow Wars are more complex than a good/evil, or even than a light/dark, dichotomy. It’s an order/chaos thing, and in the final analysis, the Vorlons are as ruthless as the Shadows. But… behind even that there lurks another facet to the question of who are the Minbari’s peer group?

The Shadows are one of the very oldest races in the galaxy. Old even by the standards of the Ancient Ones, and apparently older by far than even the Vorlons. (And there are even older beings in hyperspace and in thirdspace, but they need not delay us in this discussion.) But, when the other older races decide to move on from this universe, a few stick around for their own inscrutable purposes, and two–the Shadows and the Vorlons–stick around to bring up the new, younger races. Who are these younger races?

We get, after this Final Great Shadow War, some idea of the Minbari peer group. There are a few races in the Shadows’ Army of Darkness (if you will) who show up to cause trouble even after the Shadows and Vorlons skedaddle. It seems reasonable to make the assumption from this, and from some other details that emerge over the course of the series, that some of these races were Shadow allies 1,000 years ago, and maybe even 10,000 years ago.

The Shadows have been around for billions of years. The Vorlons, too. Billions of years. In all that time, the first set of younger races to reach a level of intellectual and technological mastery are just coming around in the last few thousand years? And that, of all of them, up until recently, only the Minbari took up with the Vorlons?

Anyway. The galaxy is a huge place, with so many space-faring races close enough to Babylon 5 (and each other) to make an interesting mix of races for the story, I wonder how many other races there are, and how many other Great Shadow Wars have taken place in the galaxy before? Where are they? Why aren’t there earlier younger races running around? Where are the other races even on a par with the Minbari? Did the Vorlons and Shadows take the last few billion years and fight their proxy war around the galaxy, and in each pie slice essentially destroy the space-faring races before moving on to the next iteration of their order vs. chaos pissing match, and it wasn’t until meeting up with Our Heroes that they finally met their match and slunk off to greener pastures?


Viewer’s Response–Sherlock: “A Study in Pink”

This was entertaining–a fun, high-energy modernizing of Holmes and Watson. Almost a romp, if you can leave aside the mayhem and murder. Others more capable than I can make the inevitable comparisons with Doctor Who, though some are obvious (the characterization of Holmes, particularly) and others are probably more subtle (production style, maybe, Cardiff for London perhaps?).

A plot summary is in order, not because I’m a great fan of them, but because my actual comments rely on the end of the story, so watch out. There is a wave of suicides in London. Four of them, anyway. But they’re connected somehow, which we know because they all used the same fast-acting poison and died in obscure locations. Then there’s a lot of running around, a lot of fast talking, some special effects to help the viewer feel like they share Holmes’s abilities, and then the big reveal where the killer shows up on Holmes’s front stoop, offering to give him a ride in a cab.

Here’s where things began to fall apart for me. I was cool with the part of the story where Holmes gets in the cab and goes to the obscure location with the killer. He doesn’t just want to know who the killer is, but also wants to know what the killer’s motivation is. Fine. Cool. Then they’re there, staring at each other across a table, and Holmes deconstructs the scenario. Then the killer tries to make Holmes play a round of ‘pick your poison.’ And Holmes plays the game! Of course there’s a gun involved, so that’s understandable. But wait! There’s not a gun involved! It’s a cigarette lighter in the shape of a gun! Holmes called the killer’s bluff! But wait some more! Holmes knew it was a lighter the whole time!

But then he plays the game. I mean, he actually plays the game. The game where the crazy person sits across the table from you and says, “here’s some poison, and here’s some nearly identical other stuff–stuff you can’t tell from the first stuff visually or by smell–and this other stuff is not poison. We’ll both take one dose, and you get to choose which one you take. Then one of us dies and the other one walks away. It’s a mental challenge, you see? Is it a bluff? A double bluff? Triple? More? You’ve been making judgments about me from the beginning, now’s the time to put your money, if you will, where your mouth is. Heh, heh. That’s a pun.” Then the crazy person puts one dose in front of you and the other one in front of himself.

Has Holmes never heard of The Princess Bride?

The guy’s a killer, Holmes! Even if his time is running out because of an aneurysm that, three years on, leaves him capable and spry, but liable to die at any moment, he’s still a crazy man who kills people with a stupid game. And you, you sucker, got baited into choosing a pill and taking it. You were saved from being a dead sucker only by the action of Watson at the last second. I know you knew Watson was there, in the next building, but you still got suckered. Even if the killer hadn’t spent the last three years building up a tolerance against the poison (no evidence that he had, of course), and he really had survived four instances of 50/50 odds against death, you still were going to eat a potentially deadly pill because you were teased into it by a loon.

Sure, Moriarty was behind the crazy person, his “sponsor” as Holmes put it. Or, more likely, Moriarty was giving the crazy person a couple of course corrections to bring him to a confrontation with Holmes. But we don’t need Moriarty in this story to see that Holmes let himself get suckered.

Also. Watson’s killing of the crazy person by shooting him through two windows and across a courtyard? Great shot. But, after a couple of days have passed since seeing the episode, I have to think: what? It only makes sense to kill the old man sitting in a chair if Watson could see the lighter gun resting on the table, was unaware that the lighter gun was a lighter, and believed that the old guy in the chair was going to use the gun. If Watson’s objective was to stop Holmes from taking the pill, why kill the guy? If the objective was to make sure the guy didn’t use the gun, wellll… OK, I suppose.

But, now that Watson has killed that guy, he has at least three problems he didn’t have before. Four, actually. And they’re all the same problem. He’s beholden to the good graces of four power centers not to to turn him in to stand trial for murder. Holmes knows Watson shot the crazy guy. Holmes told the cops all they need to know to suspect Watson, and once they pull the bullet from the crazy guy, they’ll have all they need to actually arrest him. Mycroft can plausibly intercept the police case, divert the investigation, and hide the whole thing away for his own ends–and there are least two layers there: to make sure someone who’s willing to kill is around to keep his brother safe, and to advance whatever his government job is. Finally, Moriarty can be expected to intercept the case from the police, though not necessarily to keep it buried, and then use the information for his own nefarious purposes.

Of course this problem adds to the narrative possibilities, so it’s a good problem. Nevertheless, I’m still pretty irritated that Holmes got suckered into almost killing himself by a crazy guy whose shtick, which Holmes knew, was to sucker people into killing themselves. So, except for the title character falling for a trick straight out of children’s literature, I’m quite impressed, and will be looking forward to how it all plays out.

“There was this one day when I was the Doctor…”

Yep, that one day is the movie, Doctor Who, sometimes called other things, but really just called Doctor Who, the only on-screen appearance of the eighth Doctor (at the time this was written–SM, Jan. 7, 2018). It’s somewhat better than I’d been led to believe. It starts quite strong, ends OK, and spends kind of a lot of time wobbling along a tightrope stretched over ‘American-style mid-1990’s action movie’ without a net. It actually falls off the tightrope a couple of time, but manages to climb back onto it and get to the end scarred but unbroken. Unbroken, that is, if you decide that even though a couple of events must have happened because you saw them happen, but you don’t accept the explanations given for why they happened since the Master is a psychopathic monster who will say anything to get to his goal and the Doctor sometimes just says stuff to distract people.

It’s been pointed out, fairly, that this blog, particularly in the Doctor Who posts, is pretty light on details. “Spoiler-free,” it’s been called. This is by design, though not out of any particular concern about spoilers. I just haven’t been interested in plot re-hashes, since there are lots of places to get them. But this time, a bunch of plot stuff is worth going over.

The story starts with a voice-over, describing the essentials of the Doctor Who background, and doing it both succinctly and in a way that gets the story rolling. We get to see the seventh Doctor. This wasn’t necessary, but it does touch the heart of this fan-boy, even if the seventh Doctor isn’t my favorite Doctor. It had been close to ten years since we’d seen the seventh Doctor, so there was no franchise reason to introduce him into the movie. Indeed, there was a powerful reason not to. He was on-screen for about half-an-hour, then he died! Then this new guy showed up, as the same character. Potentially confusing for the broadcast TV viewer. It worked well for the story, but was hardly necessary for an American adaptation, at least from a production point of view.

The characterizations of the two versions of the Doctor were well defined. All the major characters were good, actually. The eighth Doctor was quite good, as he came into himself, not knowing, choosing clothes, developing a personality. The Master was quite evil. The kid was a good evil henchman, and the lady doctor was a good companion.

The plot was… “oh, dear…” even for Doctor Who. It’s enough, really, that the Master escaped death, took over the TARDIS, and died at the end. It’s enough, really, that the Doctor figured things out at the last second, and then didn’t have time to implement the decision, so that he got tied up in a metal bondage gear Iron Maiden. It’s enough, really, that the threat was a high-stakes possibility that the end of the world was at hand, and that the Doctor was going to loose his future regenerations.

On the other side of the scales are a bunch of, “what/how” questions. How did the Master go from a small bucket of Dalek-imposed ashes to a nearly-transparent snake-like tube of goo? Why did it take a human to open the Eye of Harmony? Actually, those are about the only real questions from the story. There were some production choices I question. Glib dialogue, such as “I finally meet the perfect man and he’s from another planet!” while on a motorcycle ride through the rail yards of a San Francisco night. Not merely a strange line, but delivered apropos of nothing, you see.

There was a bunch of action-adventure stuff. Scenes of running around, shooting guns, ambulance-motorcycle chases. Except for the running around. Except not even that, so much. Not really Doctor Who-ey. But I’m glad to have seen it.

All that said, it’s not really necessary to see it now in the way it felt necessary to see when it was released. After all, in 1996, we hadn’t had new on-screen Doctor Who since 1989. Now we’ve have five seasons of really good stuff. This TV movie is good enough, but not the really good stuff. It’s an hour and forty-five minutes or so of good enough, and you can safely skip much of the second half, from, say the point where the Doctor walks through a window without breaking the glass, until, say, the female companion gets POSSESSED BY EVIL, which you can tell because her eyeballs turn black.

I’m glad it got made, however, I’m also glad there wasn’t a Fox-based TV series from it, especially given how the post-2005 series have worked out.

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