Category Archives: Events

Oscar Trivia Quiz

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Inaugural Style

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From Abbeville’s The White House: Its Historic Furnishings & First Families

A few of you may have noticed that Barack Obama was sworn in yesterday as the 44th president of the United States. We will leave political commentary in the capable hands of other blogs and instead provide an aesthetic appraisal of the ceremony in all its aspects.

The swearing-in: Charmingly awkward. Obama seemed to trip over his lines, with considerable help from Chief Justice John Roberts. Reminded us of a groom stumbling over the wedding vows—and in much the same way, actually pointed up the significance of the moment. Foiled the news networks’ desire for a nice, tidy sound bite.

The inaugural quartet: Shaker folk music by way of Aaron Copland by way of Hollywood composer John Williams: no mistaking which country we’re in here. The arrangement was dignified and the performance as lovely as you’d expect from all-star quartet Gabriela Montero, Anthony McGill, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma.

The inaugural poem: The less said about this, the better, although we realize it’s hard to write a good occasion poem on relatively short notice for an audience of several billion.

Aretha Franklin’s hat: Triumphant.

The speech: Quite successful, especially for the genre. Contained no instantly quotable rhetorical flourishes, but was well-delivered (obviously) and skillfully argued in the passage about rejecting false dichotomies (e.g. “we ask…not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works”). The subtlest touch was actually the Biblical quotation. Describing America as “a young nation” is a staple of almost all inaugural addresses, but Obama provided a highly original twist by citing Paul’s famous words in First Corinthians: “When I became a man, I put aside childish things.” Left unsaid, but surely meant to echo in the audience’s mind, was the rest of the passage, with its summons to faith, hope, and especially, charity. The poignancy of a fairly young president telling a nation in crisis to grow up may well be the best-remembered aspect of the speech.

And finally,

Bush’s exit: More hasty than graceful.

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Blagojevich Contest Winner!

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“Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things, I am
not of your element. You shall know more hereafter.”

And the winner of the Blagojevich Literary Comparison Contest is…Holloway McCandless, whose apt comparison of the governor to Twelfth Night‘s Malvolio came the closest to satisfying our nagging sense that Blago emerged fully-formed from a book somewhere. As justification, she cited “the preening and the poetic overreaching, the overestimating of one’s position at court”; we’d also mention Blago’s attitude of wounded dignity (more hypocritical in his case than in Malvolio’s). The analogy may not be perfect, but it’s close enough to earn Holloway our Stylish Reader of the Week Award. Huzzah! As a grand prize, we are recommending Holloway’s own site, the newly-launched Litagogo: A Guide to Literary Podcasts—and are happy to do so, because the writing on it so far has been first-rate. Bonus style points to Ms. McCandless for working the phrases “sub-Dickens,” “beribboned aperçu,” and “how-we-live-now signifiers” into a single post; it’s always nice to find a kindred spirit on the Web.

Also deserving of mention (especially as he was, effectively, the only other contest participant) is “Governor Blago Shakespeare,” a merry prankster whose site, called Illinois Poet Laureate, features supposedly Blago-penned verse in the style of Dylan Thomas, Robert Burns, and Lewis Carroll, among others. Well worth checking out before the governor tragically fades from the collective memory (at least until the publication of his groundbreaking oeuvre, that is).

And speaking of website recommendations, an announcement: we are hereby retiring the category head “Marginalia,” in deference to The Elegant Variation. We had been using the term for many months, congratulating ourselves on our cleverness, before finding TEV and realizing that Mark Sarvas was using it in essentially the same context—and had thought of it long before we did. Rather sheepishly, we’ve continued calling our recommendations “Marginalia” until now, but today we are proclaiming the birth of a replacement term: “See Also.” We will be titling new posts and emending old ones accordingly. We’ll miss “Marginalia” a bit, but we think the new term is, to coin a phrase, an elegant variation.

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Interview: Jen Dziura

dziura1 dziura2

Jen Dziura is a comedian, writer, and co-host of the popular Williamsburg Adult Spelling Bee, among other New York City verbal, math, and trivia contests (including the Chelsea Vocabulary Tournament, in which Arbiter of Style Austin has participated on several occasions). She has lent her coruscating wit to projects as various as articles for McSweeney’s magazine, a blog called Jen Is Famous, a one-woman show about philosophy, and a stand-up comedy tour for U.S. troops in the Middle East. Occasionally malapert but never jejune, she weaves her love of language into all her material and even claims, in stronger vocabulary than we are permitted on this site, to have experienced a sensual frisson induced by grammatical perfection. Recently she agreed to answer a few questions about words, humor, and the hazards of travel in Djibouti.

AMoS: How did you get your start in comedy, and how did that lead to your gig with the Williamsburg Spelling Bee?

JD: As a teenager, I wrote a humor column for the local newspaper. This got me a good deal of hate mail from the religious right, even in my adolescent years—some people would actually send physical letters to me in care of my high school, and my homeroom teacher would drop them on my desk. I would open them during class and laugh hysterically at the suggestion that Jesus would be dismayed at my burgeoning portfolio of hilarity on topics such as Jell-O, the SAT, gym class, and the Pledge of Allegiance. I think that’s where it all began.

I started performing standup in New York about six years ago. Since then, I’ve done comedy on three continents and at colleges and clubs from Boise to Raleigh-Durham to LA. I produce Ivy League comedy shows for private clubs and recently hosted the “Geeks and Freaks” show for the Hysterical Festival, New York’s first all-women comedy festival. I once did a horrible show at a casino where every time I’d get to a punch line, some old lady would win on the slots or the bartender would make a daiquiri.

The spelling bee was founded by my co-host, bobbyblue, who was inspired by the movie “Spellbound” to create a local adult bee. I competed in the first one as a contestant, and the bar asked me to come back and co-host. We’ve since held well over a hundred spelling bees, and are in our ninth bi-annual season.

It’s due to the spelling bee that I know “chionablepsia” (snow blindness), “strephosymbolia” (transposition of letters or numbers while reading), and “amygdaline” (like an almond or tonsil).

AMoS: Along with spelling and vocabulary tournaments, you co-host a geography bee, a math bee, and a general trivia contest. Which of these subjects are you, personally, best at?

JD: Good question! I like to think I’m the Michael Phelps of vocabulary, spelling, and math. But shorter, and less likely to eat more than one chicken parm hero at a time. I don’t actually know anything about geography; my co-host Meg handles all of that. As for trivia—well, you know the word itself means “trifles, unimportant things.” I like to think I am a master of the non-negligible.

AMoS: What word do you most frequently misspell?

JD: However would I know?

AMoS: Please use the following three words in a sentence: “uberous,” “polyphagia,” “soffit.” No fair using dictionary.com (we’re on the honor system here). We’ll award up to three bonus points for style.

JD: Austin, I’ve never given you words that hard at the Vocab Tournament! No one would come to an event that daunting. I looked up “soffit.” Turns out I don’t know anything about architecture (soffit = the underside of a structural component, such as a beam, arch, staircase, or cornice). I do know, however, that the underside of a structural component is usually the most sensitive part.

[Note: “soffit” does indeed mean the underside of a beam, arch, etc.; “uberous” means “fruitful, abundant” and “polyphagia” means “excessive desire to eat” or “omnivorousness.” Sadly, we can’t award any points on definitions, but we are giving the full three style points to Ms. Dziura for her double entendre. It’s true that we picked perversely obscure words, although we’re pretty sure we once saw Philip Roth use “uberous” in an equally salacious context. But we digress. – Ed.]

AMoS: You once served as a televised expert on “how to be witty.” We try, God knows, but it is so difficult. Can you give us some quick tips?

JD: Write your witticisms ahead of time. Alphabetize them, and memorize them in that order. Nod during whatever your date says, and whenever he or she pauses, recite the next witticism on the list. Warning: this method could cause you to fail the Turing Test.

AMoS: Given that you host the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, keep a popular blog, and contribute to McSweeney’s, do you find that you’ve become a hipster icon? When you walk down Bedford Avenue, do you get mobbed by people in skinny jeans and ill-considered headgear?

JD: If only! I’m not a hipster; I am a professional nerd. Not to make everyone uncomfortable by talking about class in America, but if you grow up lower-middle-class, I can’t imagine why you’d want to shop in a thrift store when you don’t have to. I love new things. Specifically, the exact new thing the mannequin at a national retail establishment is wearing right now. I want that. And I want to look just like the mannequin—tall, smooth, hard, no nipples.

While I spend every Monday evening in Williamsburg, I actually live in Manhattan, half a block from Starbucks, where the baristas know that I want an iced trippio, and I want it expeditiously. I am totally in bed with The Man. I may be wearing a “Here’s Looking at Euclid” T-shirt, but I love capitalism like a fat kid loves cake.

AMoS: Tell us about your experience entertaining U.S. troops in the Middle East. Did your set go over well? Would you do it again?

JD: For three weeks, I toured U.S. military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Djibouti with three other comics, doing shows for crowds of usually several hundred soldiers at a time (many of them armed!). Before leaving, Armed Forces Entertainment informed me that I was not permitted to tell any jokes about sex or politics. All fine and good. As soon as I arrived on base, however, a commanding officer would say something like “You’ve got some sex jokes, right? ‘Cause that’s all these guys want to hear.”

It was 120 degrees in the Middle East in August. I’ve never felt anything like it. The troops liked to say it was like “putting your head in an oven and throwing a bag of sand in your face.” I could feel the premature aging. I moisturized like a madwoman.

Every mode of transportation involved in the tour was extremely uncomfortable and extremely awesome. We were flown out to the middle of the Persian Gulf in a tiny plane, landed on the top of an aircraft carrier, did a show in the hangar, were flown in a helicopter to another ship where we did a show in the mess hall, were flown back by helicopter, then took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier in another tiny plane, in which you get strapped in the way you are strapped in to a roller coaster, and then the plane is shot off the end of the aircraft carrier with superheated steam. We also rode in a Learjet from Kuwait to Qatar, and were strapped in to the back of a (bathroomless) cargo plane from Qatar to Djibouti.

In Djibouti, even on base, you brush your teeth with bottled water to try to avoid malaria.

I didn’t tell my grammar jokes. I told a lot of new jokes about sand.

AMoS: According to your website, you are famous. Apart from this interview, how do you plan to become more famous in the future?

JD: Damn, do you mean that this interview isn’t going to do the trick?

Alas, interviews with The Abbeville Manual of Style won’t make you famous among the masses—just envied among the cognoscenti. Uberous thanks to Jen Dziura for her time, and remember to check out the 2009 Williamsburg Spelling Bee (starting Feb. 2 at Pete’s Candy Store), New York City Spelling Bee (starting Jan. 31), and Chelsea Mind Games tournaments (starting Jan. 7 with Team Trivia at Chelsea Market). Click the links for full details on each. See you there!

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Review: “Stacks” and “Bracko”

“Stacks” and “Bracko” may sound like a comedy about two dimwitted mob henchmen, but in fact it was the title of a two-part performance art piece that we caught last Thursday at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Centered around a reading by poet and classical scholar Anne Carson, and incorporating “immersive sculpture” by Peter Cole as well as interpretive dance choreography by Jonah Bokaer, Part One sought to explore “the nature of collapse as manifested in human anatomy, grammar, and everyday objects.” Part Two was based on selected works of Sappho (as translated by Carson) and featured choreography by Rashaun Mitchell. No margin for mediocrity here: a production like this is guaranteed to be either death by a thousand concepts or a daring integration into a unified whole. We are happy to report that it was the latter, thanks in large part to the artistic confidence—and surprising stage presence—of Ms. Carson herself.

Carson has for some years been one of the finest living poets in the English language, though her experimentation within any given piece or even any given book will never be to everyone’s taste. Best known for her “verse novel” The Autobiography of Red (1998) and her book-length poem The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2002), she is no stranger to bizarre, high-concept forms, and indeed seems to delight in them. Her style is scholarly—albeit with a deadpan wit behind the dry mask—and highly allusive, so much so that the problem of allusion as a form of expression is often central to her meaning. In this she follows in the tradition of T. S. Eliot and, especially, Marianne Moore, a poet who also loved to craft verse “essays” out of wild flights of quotation and meditation.

Throughout Stacks,” Carson’s flair for the deadpan emerged both in her words and her delivery; she read in the aloof near-monotone of a lecturer, but with many tongue-in-cheek inflections to match the verbal winks and nudges of the poem. The poem itself defied any easy summary as to subject; it moved from a catalogue of the moon’s mari, or “seas” (both real and imagined: the famous “sea of tranquility,” the less-famous “sea of sleeping naked”), into a retelling of the biblical story of Jezebel and a capsule history of the environmental decay of Detroit. Among other things. As promised, the unifying theme was “collapse,” but also creative rebuilding and rearrangement: as Carson spoke, the dancers around her folded, contorted, and crumpled their bodies while playing intricately with Peter Cole’s stacks of cardboard boxes—kicking them over, shifting them, building them up again into new patterns. Carson herself shifted (or was shifted) onstage as her stanzas (dubbed “stacks”) reshuffled their lines to produce surprising effects. The culminating moment saw Carson surrounded by a towering sculpture of newly-positioned, delicately-balanced boxes, which like her poetry asserted a Stevensian “rage for order” against the chaos of physical, environmental, and societal collapse.

Part Two, “Bracko,” was slightly less dramatic but still quite effective. The title, a portmanteau of “Bracket” and “Sappho,” refers to the many textual holes in Sappho’s surviving work, which editors and translators like Carson are forced to indicate with brackets. The piece consisted of a quartet of readers, Carson among them, rendering Sappho’s verses in a blend of different voices, including one voice that simply verbalized the brackets themselves. Thus “Bracket…bracket” became a calm, eerie counterpoint to the passionate text. At the same time, two dancers enacted an intricate choreography involving long, silver ropes, which first bound them, then divided them, then finally enclosed them within a pair of “brackets” laid out on the stage. As a metaphor for the phases of love, we found this simple yet graceful; and of course, as editors ourselves, we are always impressed by any piece that makes ballet out of punctuation.

In the end we judged “Stacks” and “Bracko” to be an unqualified, if unlikely, success. Sadly, our review will be of no direct use to anyone, as the performance was one-time-only. On the other hand, the show did pique our interest in Cole’s sculpture and Bokaer and Mitchell’s choreography, as well as renew our appreciation for Carson’s poetry, so we are glad to be able to encourage our readers to seek out these pleasures for themselves. Perhaps some will be less impressive when experienced individually, but at least in combination they were, as Sappho would say, [   ]ing great.

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Review: "Stacks" and "Bracko"

“Stacks” and “Bracko” may sound like a comedy about two dimwitted mob henchmen, but in fact it was the title of a two-part performance art piece that we caught last Thursday at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Centered around a reading by poet and classical scholar Anne Carson, and incorporating “immersive sculpture” by Peter Cole as well as interpretive dance choreography by Jonah Bokaer, Part One sought to explore “the nature of collapse as manifested in human anatomy, grammar, and everyday objects.” Part Two was based on selected works of Sappho (as translated by Carson) and featured choreography by Rashaun Mitchell. No margin for mediocrity here: a production like this is guaranteed to be either death by a thousand concepts or a daring integration into a unified whole. We are happy to report that it was the latter, thanks in large part to the artistic confidence—and surprising stage presence—of Ms. Carson herself.

Carson has for some years been one of the finest living poets in the English language, though her experimentation within any given piece or even any given book will never be to everyone’s taste. Best known for her “verse novel” The Autobiography of Red (1998) and her book-length poem The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2002), she is no stranger to bizarre, high-concept forms, and indeed seems to delight in them. Her style is scholarly—albeit with a deadpan wit behind the dry mask—and highly allusive, so much so that the problem of allusion as a form of expression is often central to her meaning. In this she follows in the tradition of T. S. Eliot and, especially, Marianne Moore, a poet who also loved to craft verse “essays” out of wild flights of quotation and meditation.

Throughout Stacks,” Carson’s flair for the deadpan emerged both in her words and her delivery; she read in the aloof near-monotone of a lecturer, but with many tongue-in-cheek inflections to match the verbal winks and nudges of the poem. The poem itself defied any easy summary as to subject; it moved from a catalogue of the moon’s mari, or “seas” (both real and imagined: the famous “sea of tranquility,” the less-famous “sea of sleeping naked”), into a retelling of the biblical story of Jezebel and a capsule history of the environmental decay of Detroit. Among other things. As promised, the unifying theme was “collapse,” but also creative rebuilding and rearrangement: as Carson spoke, the dancers around her folded, contorted, and crumpled their bodies while playing intricately with Peter Cole’s stacks of cardboard boxes—kicking them over, shifting them, building them up again into new patterns. Carson herself shifted (or was shifted) onstage as her stanzas (dubbed “stacks”) reshuffled their lines to produce surprising effects. The culminating moment saw Carson surrounded by a towering sculpture of newly-positioned, delicately-balanced boxes, which like her poetry asserted a Stevensian “rage for order” against the chaos of physical, environmental, and societal collapse.

Part Two, “Bracko,” was slightly less dramatic but still quite effective. The title, a portmanteau of “Bracket” and “Sappho,” refers to the many textual holes in Sappho’s surviving work, which editors and translators like Carson are forced to indicate with brackets. The piece consisted of a quartet of readers, Carson among them, rendering Sappho’s verses in a blend of different voices, including one voice that simply verbalized the brackets themselves. Thus “Bracket…bracket” became a calm, eerie counterpoint to the passionate text. At the same time, two dancers enacted an intricate choreography involving long, silver ropes, which first bound them, then divided them, then finally enclosed them within a pair of “brackets” laid out on the stage. As a metaphor for the phases of love, we found this simple yet graceful; and of course, as editors ourselves, we are always impressed by any piece that makes ballet out of punctuation.

In the end we judged “Stacks” and “Bracko” to be an unqualified, if unlikely, success. Sadly, our review will be of no direct use to anyone, as the performance was one-time-only. On the other hand, the show did pique our interest in Cole’s sculpture and Bokaer and Mitchell’s choreography, as well as renew our appreciation for Carson’s poetry, so we are glad to be able to encourage our readers to seek out these pleasures for themselves. Perhaps some will be less impressive when experienced individually, but at least in combination they were, as Sappho would say, [   ]ing great.

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Wine and Song on Varick St.

citywinery

When we moved to our current offices about five years ago, the immediate neighborhood was pretty sedate: a kind of netherland sandwiched between SoHo and the Holland Tunnel. The traffic could be noisy, and the Halloween parade started around here each year, but otherwise things were uneventful. Then for a while, things got too interesting: Trump SoHo shot up across the street and protesters flocked to protest it and, for no apparent reason, a motorcycle exploded outside our building…but relative calm had returned until recently, when a different kind of excitement descended upon Varick Street. First a new venture called City Winery moved in next door; then a mysterious, eco-themed nightclub sprang up down the block; and now a major performing arts space is slated to open a few doors down from the nightclub in 2009. Maybe the exploding motorcycle was a kind of baptism by fire, because our little neighborhood has officially arrived. Abbeville has always been at the metaphorical epicenter of style, but we now find ourselves literally surrounded by it.

All three of our new neighbors intrigue us, but we are particularly looking forward to the opening of City Winery, which bills itself as a “custom crush facility” tailored to “urban wine enthusiasts who desire the experience of making their own wine, but who are not going to leave their comfortable Manhattan lifestyle to decamp to a vineyard.” Amen to that. Oenology has been a frequent subject of Abbeville books, from our German Wine Guide to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, and our philosophy is, why go to wine when wine can come to you? Not only will City Winery offer the opportunity to crush the grapes and bottle the vintage, it also promises a top-flight restaurant and wine bar, wine tastings and winemaking classes, an ongoing slate of music and performance events, and much more. It promises to be, in short, precisely the sort of place where Arbiters of Style might congregate after work to sip Cabernet and listen to jazz fusion while discussing the subtleties of Dürer’s Melencolia. And luckily for us, we don’t even have to decamp to the other side of the street.

City Winery officially opens on New Year’s Eve, so we will probably stop by sometime next month for a taste of Provençal summer during the New York winter. We will report faithfully back on our wining experience then (and will also, in future posts, report further on that new Greenhouse nightclub and the performance center), but already we expect great things. The winery is a bold concept that shows every indication—on its website, and through the windows we’ve peeked in—of being superbly executed. In fact, if the finished establishment is half as fun as the ad pictured above, we will be very happy neighbors.

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Daughters of India Event

india21

We always enjoy Abbeville author events that take place here in the city, so we were pleased to help host Daughters of India: Art and Identity author Stephen P. Huyler at the Rubin Museum of Art this past Wednesday night. Every seat in the house was filled and crews from both India TV and Sahara TV were on hand to film the night. Also on hand was our Arbiter of Style and publicity wunderkind Michaelann, setting up, making introductions, and generally being everywhere and charming everyone all at once. During his talk about the book—a lavish and, as the cover suggests, colorful celebration of women aspiring to creative success in modern-day India—Mr. Huyler presented a slideshow of images before being joined onstage for a conversation with Indian writer Meera Nair. Tim McHenry, the museum’s director, specially thanked Abbeville in his closing remarks—a sentiment we hereby return, with many thanks also to the South Asian Journalists Association, which co-sponsored the event.

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If you missed out on the fun, don’t despair: you can see a slideshow of images from the evening here, as well as a schedule of the author’s upcoming appearances here. Copious information about the author and his book can also be found at http://www.daughtersofindia.com, a site as handsomely designed as the book itself.

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Coming up next week: a not-to-be missed interview with a Secret Someone; another guest entry from master yachtsman Gary Jobson, this time in the form of a podcast; and much holding forth in ornate prose as always. See you Monday.

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New York Times Grammar Quiz

Here on this site we like to do epic battle with The Chicago Manual of Style, but sometimes it’s fun to spar with another opponent instead. That’s why we were happy to see this recent quiz in the New York Times, which challenged smart-aleck readers to spot mistakes overlooked by the harried Times editors:

http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/03/red-pencils-ready/

We passed with flying colors, naturally, though we have to admit we didn’t catch the spelling lapse in #8. We also noticed that along with the word usage error they copped to in #6, their use of “peripatetically” in that sentence is equally weak. It’s hard for an art exhibit to be peripatetic, since that word usually retains some of its literal sense of journeying on foot. “Discursively” would have been a better choice.

How well did you do? Let us know in the Comments section. 50 bonus points if you can name an error of grammar, usage, or style that we’ve ever made. We double-dog dare you.

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VOTE! On Abbeville Architects

Today is Election Day, and since you’ve already voted…wait, you have voted, haven’t you? If not, stop reading this and go to your local polling place now. Shoo. Git.

You’re back? Terrific. Now, since you’ve already voted but haven’t gotten all that democratic participation out of your system just yet, we are pleased to announce a new Abbeville Manual of Style Poll. Today’s poll lets you step into the role of Arbiter of Style by passing incontrovertible aesthetic judgement with blinding speed and stirring conviction. The issue? Five modern architects who have been the subject of Abbeville books: Antonio Gaudí, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan, and Philip Johnson.

Once you are finished casting your ballot, we encourage you to head over to abbeville.com to vote, on the same subject, with a book order. And then go take a nap: you’ve earned it, citizen.

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