The Balance of Accuracy and Accessibility

Silk fabric during the Tang Dynasty was, to the best of my knowledge, 24″ wide. 1 2 This is not a common width – I have only found it once, and it was a very expensive reproduction of a period fabric. Because of this, we, as a community, accept that most people are going to make garments out of fabric that is either 45 or 58-60″ wide – the standard commercial widths. It is what is accessible, even if it isn’t accurate. The same is true for printed motifs as opposed to woven – while it may be more accurate to use a woven (jin) silk for a particular garment, accurate motifs are difficult to source (locating them, price point, international shipping, etc.). Better to block print a design that you know is accurate on a fiber/weave you know is correct than settle for an inaccurate woven design with questionable fiber.

I don’t use period cosmetics – I apply modern cosmetics in a period style. I have done research on what materials were used in Tang Dynasty cosmetics, and I am aware of similar research by other SCAdians. I choose to use modern cosmetics to achieve a period style due to the broader accessibility of modern cosmetics – literally anyone can go into a drugstore or grocery store and buy what I use, as opposed to struggling to source various ingredients and going through the arduous process of making the cosmetics in their kitchen, then storing them. When you only go to one event every few months or so, period cosmetics – which have to be made in batches and have a much shorter shelf life – aren’t a reasonable investment of money or time for practical use. I’m also married to a Metallurgist with a background in Chemical Engineering and who used to do FDA compliance work who makes lots of faces when I start doing stovetop experiments – and has vetoed some as Household Safety Officer.

There are still some choices that can be made here – like drugstore brand cosmetics vs. bare mineral/organic/etc., but affordability comes into play again. Cosmetics are the sort of thing where I wouldn’t expect someone to buy a separate set of products for the SCA when what they might use for modern life will do the trick just fine. A comparison might be interesting, but again – cosmetics, even modern ones, are an investment of not only the product itself but also tools and time to learn how to apply them.

One of my goals with sharing what I learn about Tang Dynasty material culture is to make it as accessible as possible. It’s more fun when other people play with you, after all. And the more people that are learning about a thing, the more brains are engaged, the higher the chances get that you figure out The Thing that has been eluding someone’s understanding.

Should we strive for authenticity? Of COURSE WE SHOULD – within the balance of accessibility. When I was sourcing stones for Lady Mi’s necklace, I couldn’t find turquoise for a price that was in my budget – I have a household to help upkeep and two small kids to help provide for, because I am a Responsible Adult. So I used glass, which is a reasonable substitute, and a material that artisans would have had access to in period.

The research element here is key – as it is with anything Tang Dynasty related, in my book, because it is not a culture I hold any personal identifying claim to – finding an appropriate, accessible alternative can require just as much research as finding out what was used in period. But that research is worth it, because you’re building your case and helping others down the path who come behind you. It’s work worth doing, and it’s work worth doing well.

This is why there is a section on most guided documentation forms (and why when we counsel people on how to write their documentation) to specifically address substitutes. It’s 100% okay if you can’t use exactly what they would have used in period – just explain what you used instead and why you made that choice. If it’s reasonable – find-ability, affordability, safety, etc.

There is a difference between pushing for accuracy and gatekeeping, just as there is a difference between thoughtfully using accessible materials and being lazy with your research.

As it is with so, so many things – it is about finding the proper balance.

Further Information:

  1. Burnham, D. K. (1997). Cut my cote. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.
  2. Wilkinson, E. (Ed.). (2018). Chinese history: A new manual (5th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Yenching Institute.
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Sleeping Beauty

Every year on my birthday, I try to watch Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

I’m not sure exactly when I started doing this. I watched it a lot as a child, again, usually on or around my birthday. I was in love with the colors and images, the Foley art behind the hoofbeats, and pretty much everything about it. Aurora was secondary (though I did love her final dress – and yes, blue is best, and that’s not just because Merryweather is amazing, thank you). I adored Maleficent (haven’t seen the Jolie films and don’t really want to) and Samson (Prince Philip’s horse, who I contend is an ancestor of Maximus).

Looking back, Sleeping Beauty is what hooked me on medievalism and fantasy. The style (especially the backgrounds) of Sleeping Beauty were inspired by medieval tapestries, and there’s an element of illuminated manuscripts to them as well. My very first forays into the SCA were scribal, with plans to pen and illustrate period fairytales, which would ultimately be bound together. I’m still a fan of the weird and rare static bardic art of books and stories.

I’m thinking about all this again recently because my birthday is coming up was yesterday, and I‘ll once again curled up on my couch, maybe this year with my kids to watch Sleeping Beauty.

In 2011, Shoomla created a digital art series reimagining Disney Princesses in “historical” clothing. Buzzfeed followed up a few years later in 2015 with an article doing the same with models. Both are… questionable at best. And since all the best/most fun projects are fueled by spite, I decided to try and try and create Period Princesses.

The plan is to track down the earliest written (because oral would be super difficult to nail down) versions of various tales that later became Disney princesses – to start with, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Cinderella.

This is the kind of research project that bubbles in the back of my brain like a pot roast in a crock pot. I occasionally check on it, spend an hour or so digging for more resources which I skim and save to a file, then go on about my day. The most work I’ve done on it was recreating a pair of Han Dynasty shoes1 which were inspired by Ye Xian’s story – arguably the earliest known/written version of Cinderella.

A period Sleeping Beauty is a substantially messier, though [TW: SA, r*pe]. In the original stories, our heroine has even less agency than she does in the Disney film and is actively victimized. Still, it’s an opportunity to not only research 14th century clothing from the Low Countries (but maybe 15th century Burgundian because the origin is sketchy) but also to shed light on feminist issues in period stories.

Oh, and yeah, that dress is gonna be blue.

  1. I have a second version of this project which I will someday upload the documentation for – as soon as I find the digital copy of it on my laptop…
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In Defense of A&S Competitions

Every now and again in a discussion about A&S regarding how one can share their skills, be seen, passively teach, and get feedback, the subject of A&S Competitions arises. It always starts with something along the lines “oh, but I don’t like competitions,” followed by all the reasons why. The “competition” aspect of it. The “judging” aspect of it. In many cases, the person had a negative experience with a competition, and are now shy of every entering one again.

I’m not going to try and rebut all those things. Feelings are feelings. What I want to do here is share my own experience both as an entrant and a judge in A&S Competitions. I’ve entered in competitions in both Northshield and Meridies, and helped as a judge in the latter. I can’t speak to how A&S Competitions work in other kingdoms.

I’m writing this for people who aren’t sure if they should enter, but I’m also writing it for judges – because we need to always remember and keep in mind what it is like to sit on the other side of that table.

One more caveat regarding the “competition” aspect of things. Yes, some kingdoms (like Meridies) have “regional” and “kingdom” labels for their competitions, and rules about how often you can enter the same thing. Yes, there are competitions at big war-events (Gulf, Pennsic, etc.) which are used to determine War Points. In this context, an A&S Competition is a lot like a Science or County Fair. You enter your project in a lower level, then progress up until you get to State (Kingdom), then Nationals (War). But this is such a small sliver of what A&S Competitions are or can be, that I don’t really want to address it (nor do I have any real experience with it), so we’re going to acknowledge it (in this paragraph) and then set it to one side.

So, why do I like A&S Competitions?

My hand-sewn Banbi at Magna Faire (2019), image courtesy of Mistress Ellen DeLacey

For me, an A&S Competition is a framework in which I can get specific feedback about various aspects of a project – my research, execution, substitutions, and scope – without feeling like I am monopolizing someone’s time. It’s a way for me to get actionable comments on my work – things I can go and fix – as opposed to “oh, that’s neat!” Yes, there is a number associated with those categories, but personally, my reptile brain loves a number. If that’s not you, I still encourage you to put your work out as a display and try to arrange a time to meet with someone at the event to discuss it with you.

It’s also a way to passively teach. At Magna Faire (2019), I put my equipment for my Tang Dynasty Games class in for display, so that it wouldn’t just sit in a bag the rest of the event. Also, that way people got to learn about games even if they weren’t able to come to the class. Win-win!

Yes, anytime you put your stuff out there for someone else to view and comment on, it can be scary. But I promise you – the only person you are in competition with is yourself. And while that perfect score is something my reptile/completionist brain loves (and received at Menhir 2020! Eek!), it’s still just a number given by people on a day, subject to all sorts of variables.

When it comes to judging, as both a judge and an entrant, I 100% recommend sitting down with your judges during your time slot. You get the chance to talk to people about your entry, answer any questions, and offer clarification for confusing points. And take notes on this! Yes, the judges will write down comments for you on their form, but taking your own notes on things that come up (maybe that need a bit more clarification or fleshing out) can be very useful later once you’re out of the post-event haze.

Judges want to learn. We want to geek out with you about your project. We want to help you grab the next rung in the proverbial project ladder to make your Thing even cooler than it already is. We’re cheering you on! Are there scary, mean, or intimidating judges? Sure, because we’re people. But that’s also why I suggest face-to-face. And if that’s still scary, ask someone (your Laurel, if you have one, or a friend) to sit with you during judging to be some emotional support. If someone asks why they’re there, be honest. Sometimes someone who has a sharp edge doesn’t realize it is sharp until someone says “OW” loud enough for them to hear.

It’s also important to have a network of support for your A&S – people you know well and who know you well, who can give you honest feedback without being mean. People who want to see you do well, so they will let you know what you can do to improve. Sometimes this is a single person (your Laurel, perhaps) or a group of people standing in your corner and cheering you on while also helping you get better. These are the people who you can check in with before and after a judging session so that you’re not left gutted and raw.

That being said – JUDGES. Read documentation – and ask for it ahead of time if you want more time with it. Talk to the entrant – encourage face-to-face judging in your kingdom if you don’t do it already. Understand that even negative feedback can be given in such a way that it encourages and builds up the entrant rather than tearing them down and making them regret entering at all.

I encourage you to take the leap and enter a competition. It’s a great way not only to improve your work but to share it. Sure, they’re not for everyone, but neither do they deserve the bad wrap they often get.

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Knowing vs. Being Skilled – Go

As I have been making notes and brain maps and other such things on Chivalric/Christian virtues, Admonitions of Peerage, Judaic ethical concepts, and the Five Constants of Confucianism, I’ve been thinking a bit about peerages in general.

Remember this bit of Corpora?

They shall have made every effort to learn and practice those skills desirable at and worthy of a civilized court. To this end they should have some knowledge of a wide range of period forms, including but not limited to literature, dancing, music, heraldry, and chess, and they should have some familiarity with combat as practiced in the Society.

SCA Governing Documents, VIII.A.1.g. [Source]

See that! CHESS!

Nobody said you had to be good at chess. Just knowledgeable and, well, practiced. I’ve never been a good chess player. I’m bad at that sort of spatial reasoning, and I have a hard time thinking several moves ahead. I enjoy chess, but as a casual player.

But as someone who has spent the last four-ish years eye-deep in the Tang Dynasty, playing chess doesn’t really fit. But playing Go does! And Go is pretty much chess. It’s about territory control and capturing enemy pieces to score points.

And I’m not good at it.

There are some excellent videos out there that walk you through the basics of a Go game and can help you wrap your head around the concepts. But understanding how a game is played and being a “good player” are two very different things.

We played Go in the Extra-European Salon at the Meridian Grand Tournament in September, and I was so very thankful that someone who was much more knowledgeable about the game helped me think through moves and played a few games with us. He recommended using puzzles to help hone your skill. I feel like I’d have to do a lot of puzzles to hammer the trickier concepts into my head, but hey – that’s Go.

There is also a free app that I have played now and again, but I’m still heavily reliant on the hint button. [Here is a list of iOS apps.]

This is one of those things that I’ll get better with in time, which means making an effort to play a bit on my phone every day, or carting around my 9×9/13×13 board and bags of stones. Maybe I’ll make a small 9×9 board on a piece of fabric and bug people at events to play with me. Maybe.

Throwing arrows at a pot is a different kind of fun, and totally a worthy and desirable skill in the upper echelons of the Tang Dynasty. (Psst. You can see a pot with its arrows in the back of a scene of scholars playing Go with Li Wei painted on a screen. But it’s a game of skill, not strategy. And involves more wine.

I’m working on some class notes for Tang Dynasty Games, which I’ll be teaching at Magna Faire – hope to see you there!

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Camp Kit Coverings – Part 3/7: Coolers

This is the third post in a series on improving your camping/dayshade kit. The first was about chairs, and the second was about tables.

Whether you’re just hanging out field-side for the day or camping for the weekend, coolers are necessary if you want to keep/serve cold beverages or food. But a standard blue/red Igloo/Coleman cooler can be unsightly in an SCA encampment.

Sure, you can make a box cushion/cover for it, but then every time you go to open the cooler, you have to take the cover off. You could paint it, but it’s still going to look like a cooler (though there are some really neat ones out there!)

I’ve seen boxes build around coolers, or boxes built and lined with polystyrene to act like coolers, but that takes a level of woodworking/crafting skill that, as I’ve said throughout this series of posts, might be outside the scope/skillset/resources of folk.

As I’ve readied for Meridian Grand Tournament this year, I stumbled on this idea – hiding your cooler inside a basket.

chest with styrofoam coolers
(Source)

That’s a BYHOLMA chest from Ikea, with two standard styrofoam coolers tucked inside. I didn’t want to use styrofoam, because styrofoam, and found that Igloo is now making a biodegradable cooler, and it’s gotten decent reviews (I got mine at Target for $8).

I already have a chest-type basket that I thought would be big enough, but it is too shallow by an inch or so. (The BYHOLMA measures 72 x 50 x 50 centimeters.) I’m not sure if I want to try and find a big enough chest (do I need another basket chest?), or if the cooler will be fine tucked under the table as is. I think eventually I’ll upgrade my basket, but given that the BYHOLMA (which is no longer available from IKEA) sold for $70, I think I might wait until baskets go on sale at Michaels or Home Goods.

I might go by Home Goods before this weekend to see what they have. Baskets are one of those things.

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Camp Kit Coverings – Part 2/7: Tables

This is the second post in a series on improving your camping/dayshade kit. The first was about chairs.

Second to chairs, tables are essential to your camping/dayshade presence. Just as you need a place to put your body, you need a place to put your stuff – like a cup, or lunch, or a project.

The Luttrell Family at Dinner, from the Luttrell Psalter (Brit. Lib. Add. 42130, fol. 208r), c. 1325-1340

There are all sorts of plans out there for trestle tables, but making one of these when you first get started might be a little outside your wheelhouse for various reasons – access to tools, skills to work with those tools/wood, etc.

But I bet you have a card table, or a folding table, or even one of those folding tray tables. Like a folding camp chair, these are easy to find to purchase, easy to transport, but also glaringly modern.

To fix this, we just need a tablecloth. And yes, you can just get a regular, run-of-the-mill tablecloth to slap on the table and call it good, but if you’re table is a weird shape (like the little folding tray tables) you might prefer a more tailored option than just a swath of fabric.

Enter the box corner.

Tablecloths with box corners won’t slip and slide off your table. You can still give them enough on the sides to cover the legs of your table (and create hidden storage space), or even make a slit for easier access.

Due to the width of my fabric, I had to add the side pieces like a skirt, but it assembles the same. This also allowed me to put a pleat in the middle of each long side, which allows me some give in the fabric if I need to get under the table – hey, storage!

Follow the instructions for a box cushion, but make the sides big enough to accomodate the height of your table, and instead of attaching a bottom piece and a zipper, hem the bottom edge of the sides. I’d suggest watching a few different tutorials, but the concept is the same across them all. Cut out a square from each corner equal to the depth of the side + seam allowance, then sew the 2 new sides together – basically a dart to make the corner.

My newly finished mattress and “skirt” cover for my cot, both constructed using box corners, turning it into a couch. Not ironed and probably still sporting a few errant dog hairs.

I used the same concept, with an envelope back, to cover the mattress for my cot, and again for what is essentially a bedskirt – all using a cotton sheet set (yes, just one Twin XL fitted sheet that I took the elastic out of and the corresponding flat sheet). That’s three very modern things in my day-camp that are now covered in fabric and look way less modern.

A lot of rectangular things can be covered this way – tables, cots, bins – but I’d not including coolers in this. Why? You need easy and convenient access to a cooler througout the day, and a fabric cover doesn’t allow for that.

Instead, my plan for my cooler at an event where I need it only during the day (fieldside at a tournament) is to use a recyclable cooler and hide it inside my large hinge-top basket. But I’ll talk more about that in another post in this series.

Until then, have fun with box corners!

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Camp Kit Coverings – Part 1/7: Chairs

It never fails. I go to an event that has either camping or daytime field-side pavilions where folks are lounging, or both, and I start to obsess about my own kit. And by “kit” I mean the various bits, bobs, and not-worn trappings that make an SCA experience magical.

Carpets. Chairs. Cups. Canvas. Candlesticks. Chests. Banners.

(I couldn’t think of a C-word for banners.)

I’ve bitten the bullet this fall and commissioned a friend to make some silk banners for me, and I have plans to make a canvas day-shade. My husband is making me a chair. I dipped my toes into research on glass in 8th century China to figure out what kind of pitcher to buy to decant Yuan Dynasty lemon bochet into. (Psst. I totally found one and I can’t wait until it gets here.)

Last year at Meridian Grand Tournament, I focused on getting the furnishing inside my pop-up canopy decent. I bought an outdoor rug with a passable pattern when it went on End-Of-Season clearance at Lowes, as well as some patio furniture cushions – both red. The cushions were big enough to work as floor cushions – and while most Tang Dynasty seating was, to the best of my knowledge, stools and other low-to-the-ground platforms, cushions were a quick and cheaper way to make my space inviting for others to come and sit with me. I also cut a high density foam mattress topper down to size to fit my army cot and swathed the whole thing in red sheets so that I could have a couch – not dissimilar to the platforms we see in various paintings throughout Chinese history. My husband made me a table. All in all, it was a decent set-up – and I’m still tweaking it.

One of the simplest, easiest things to do to make your surroundings feel more period is to cover the modern elements. Small stuff is easier than big stuff, like pouring your drink into a more period appropriate cup. But making/buying tables, chairs, or even those incredibly amazing wooden chest coolers takes a level of time, skill, or money that is scarce for a lot of SCAdians. But believe me – the people who have them didn’t go and get/make them all at once. Everyone is always tweaking their camp/day shade/indoor presence to be more comfortable – both in terms of use and in terms of aesthetic.

Do small things. You will gain confidence with these accomplishments, and be able to take on bigger and bigger tasks. It’s not quite “fake it ’til you make it” but it is in that same garden – only with a better root.

So what small things can you do? More importantly, how do you do them?

Continue reading “Camp Kit Coverings – Part 1/7: Chairs”
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A Call for Contributors

Greetings –

This is an open invitation to SCAdians who have Non-Christian personas to aid me in an on-going project.

I hope to feature a series of articles here on my website – Ouyang’s Desk – regarding the portrayal of religion in SCA personas/research. This includes garments, accessories, names, bardic, and other outward active portrayals, as well as research that might be presented for display.

I am interested in showcasing what are modernly minority religions, whether or not they were minorities in period or in a person’s region of interest. The fact that they are minorities now means that the majority of people do not have a good working knowledge of that religion and its symbols and other indicators. I see this primarily with Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but it could also be applied religions considered “pagan” by period, Christian authorities.

For example – while interfaith marriage in Judaism was historically frowned upon (as it was in many religions), the concept of being “ethnically Jewish” is a Nazi concept, stemming from historic antisemitism (see the Nuremberg Race Laws). To assume that all Jews everywhere in period were the same is erroneous and problematic – Judaism in period, in terms of foods, dress, and culture, was not a monolith. Middle Eastern Jews, Spanish Jews, English Jews, even Jews in northwestern China had the same religion, but differed in terms of dress, music, food, and other aspects of culture that were informed by their ethnicity and region.

There is also thought and discussion to be had regarding the portrayal of a culture wherein which the dominant religion is not one that the individual personally practices or adheres to. Religious practice also changes over time – so someone who identifies with the same religion as their persona is going to observe differently than their persona would have.

Lastly, in terms of oppression and other issues, how do we balance respect for history with recreating “only the best” of the middle ages, when events and issues like pogroms, inquisitions, and the Crusades, mean something entirely different for non-Christian personas?

Please consider this an open invitation for you to share your thoughts on this subject with a wider audience. I’d ask that you include information about your persona (SCA name with any titles, time period, region, etc.). Ideally, articles would be 500-2,000 words in length, and include citations if necessary. If you’re interested, I encourage you to reach out so we can start working together to make the SCA a more informed and inclusive experience for everyone.

If you have any questions or would like to contribute, I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours in Service,

The Honorable Ouyang Yingzhao
OVO, BF
Meridies


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Posts in your inbox?! The future!

It was requested, so I have added a way to subscribe to new posts via email. Emails will only send when there is new content, and you know me – I don’t post every day. Three posts in March (including this one) is rare! My personal goal is once a month.

Anyway, check out the form over there in the sidebar and enjoy!

Best,

Ouyang

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What Not To Say To Volunteers

Master Thomas Paumer, current Meridies Parchment, and myself, a Former Meridies Parchment

Congratulations! You have just been entrusted with an office/official role related to the logistical workings of the SCA. Whether it is chatelaine, seneschal, signet, class coordinator, event steward, or any of the other sundry jobs or responsibilities, thanks! Good for you! 

But I want to warn you.

Someone is going to come up to you during your tenure, probably toward the beginning of it, and you’re going to have a conversation along these lines:

Them: “So you’re the new Person Who Does This Job?”
You: “That’s right!”
Them: “I’m sorry.”
You: “…”

I wish I knew what to tell you to say to people who do this, but I have no idea. Instead, I want to talk to the people who say this to people who volunteer to help make the SCA, you know, work.

HEY.

YEAH, YOU.

Guess what? Volunteering for an organization is hard enough to manage when one has employment, family, and non-SCA obligations to fulfill. But when your reaction to volunteering is to pity a person for taking on a task or role, or to belittle volunteering and volunteers, you’re NOT HELPING.

We are an organization that, without volunteers, would not exist. Stuff would not get accomplished. Events would not happen. Even local get-togethers would not happen.

So please, please, please, stop being condescending, or trying to find dark humor in volunteering. I realize that some of this might come from you having had a negative experience when you held a similar role or responsibility, and I get that. And if that’s the case, by all means, share the wisdom of your experience without belittling the choice someone has made to volunteer. But that’s another issue we have – Information Transfer. Offer to help make the experience better for the people who do the job after you. There is no reason why a new officer/person with a responsibility should feel like they have to reinvent the wheel.

Instead of giving a volunteer your “pity,” try saying “Thank you for taking on this difficult job. I did this job a while ago, so if you need any help or advice, feel free to reach out.”

Or maybe, “I appreciate your service to our local group/kingdom/society. Thanks.”

I would say “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” but NO. Sorry. That’s not going to fly. Because volunteers need support. I’m not talking about cookies from the Crown, I’m talking about grassroots, local support. These people are your friends. A simple thank you from all your friends gives someone the edification and endorphins that they need to be able to keep going.

When you say “I’m sorry” and yet still want to have events to go to, feasts to eat, pretty scrolls for awards, tourneys to fight in, classes to take, or any number of the other things that we do in the SCA, you’re just being entitled and, frankly, whiny.

You can either do the work or support the people doing the work. You can’t not do the work and also disparage the people who are doing it.

Oh, you want some references and stuff? Here. Here’s some documentation.

Managing Volunteers: A Good Practice Guide, by Citizens Information Board (2008) -PDF

Tipping the scale – Unconscious Barriers to Community Engagement, by Brett Powell at TEDxChemungRiver – YouTube

The Third-party Model: Enhancing Volunteering through Governments, Corporations and Educational Institutes, by Debbie Haski-Leventhal, Lucas C. P. M. Meijs, and Lesley Hustinx, (2009) – Journal article

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