Do you still need a blog?

John Scalzi has spotted a change in the way we react to viral blog posts: The discussions that used to take place on our blogs are now taking place on Facebook and Twitter. What does this mean?

Over the weekend John Scalzi analyzed the discussion generated by his post on the presidential candidates, comparing it to discussions of past posts that went viral. What he found revealed a definite shift in the online channels people are using to react to online news and opinion.

Among his findings: Much less of the discussion took place on blogs, and much more occurred via Facebook and Twitter.

What does this mean for those of us who blog? John’s thoughts on that topic are worth reading.

Presentation tips: Slides are free!

Photo of presenter with slidesI’ve been to three conferences in as many weeks, and all three of them included presentations that crammed way too much information, in teeny tiny type, onto a series of unreadable slides. I was fascinated — in a watching-the-car-go-off-the-bridge kind of way. These presenters were not newbies. They were people who give dozens of talks a year.

Ironically, some of the most riveting presentations at the conferences had just a few slides. A couple had no slides whatsoever. You could feel the room perk up as the presenter, instead of fumbling with the remote control device or peering at the screen, looked directly at the audience and spoke passionately about their topic.

This sent me back to my own slide decks to see where I fall in this continuum.

How much is too much?

How do we know when our slides have fallen prey to clutter? Alarms should go off when:

  • You shrunk bullet points to a type size smaller than 24 points.
  • You stuffed more than 6 bullet points on a slide.
  • You squished two or more charts onto a slide. (Need to contrast trends? Combine them in one chart.)
  • You’re using a slide presentation format to create text-heavy handouts for people who are not attending your talk. (Handouts are a separate, and very different, document; see Resource #4, below.)

These criteria are pretty generous. Most designers and readability experts would advise even fewer sentences, fewer bullet points, fewer words, and larger typefaces.

2 ways to make your slides better, fast

Most of us want to use at least a few slides in our presentations. How can we make them informative rather than painful? Here are some bare bones strategies for taking cluttered, wordy slides and turning them into clear, concise images that support your talk:

  1. Cut to the chase. Put the most important point — a key question, or a conclusion  — on the slide. Move everything else to your speaking notes. If the takeaway is that when more sharks swim in the pool, more people get bitten, put a simple graph showing that trend on the slide. Caption it “More sharks = more bites.” With that slide on the screen, you can talk about the supporting details (the size of the pool, how they chose the swimmers, and how this leads into your next point/slide).
  2. One thing at a time. There is no economic advantage to squeezing several points or multiple charts onto one slide. Slides are free, and you can click through them at any rate you want. Instead of spending six minutes talking while people in the audience try to decipher the fine print on your crowded slide, split the information into two or three readable slides and spend two or three minutes talking about each.

More information about presentation design

At this point, you’re either arguing with me and insisting that you absolutely need to put 100 words on each slide or you’re ready to give your next audience a break. If you’d like to aim for more readable slides (and enjoyable presentations), I’ll close with some great resources from people who know far more about this that I do:

  1. Ten Secrets for Using PowerPoint More Effectively – a professional presentation designer’s tips
  2. Talks: Fewer Words, More Understanding — an explanation of how slides can distract rather than inform an audience
  3. How Many Words Should Your PowerPoint Slides Contain? — some interesting observations about making slides for certain types of material and audiences.
  4. Slide Design Tips: Presentation Vs. Handout Slides — valuable information for producing handouts for both print and electronic distribution.


A shout-out to LinkedIn — and my colleagues

Free, organic marketing — that takes time. But it has at least one advantage: if you build and nurture a good LinkedIn network, the leads that come from it are very well qualified.

social networks unite the world

Last week I completely forgot the 10th anniversary of my business.

But LinkedIn remembered. They noted it in my colleagues’ newsfeed.

So throughout the week I was pinged with a few a dozen “Congratulations!” messages from friends from around the world. Many of these folks I’ve talked with in recent months, but some — well, one was a madly creative, rather intimidating woman I knew 10 years ago at Apple. We both left at the same time and went off to make our ways in the world. She remembered me? Wow.

I answered each of the messages, using the opportunity to catch up, and came away from the experience pretty impressed with LinkedIn.

I was even more impressed a few days later when the CEO of a small software company contacted me to do a project, mentioning that a friend (one of the folks who’d congratulated me on LinkedIn) had recommended my work. Today I’m starting on a fascinating new web-writing project. I’m pretty sure that the LinkedIn anniversary message reminded that colleague about my work, and led him to recommend me.

Clients often ask me what social media activities will get them business immediately. The answer? Buy Google ads. Free, organic marketing — that takes time. But it has at least one advantage: if you build and nurture a good LinkedIn network, the leads that come from it are very well qualified.





What’s wrong with Twitter?

The news this week is bad numbers for Twitter. Really bad. The number of users has gone flat. Financials are trending steadily downward.

Norwegian blue
John Cleese attempts to revive the Norwegian Blue

I have now identified the Twitter icon as a Norwegian Blue and I suspect he’s not “just resting.”

I sure hope the financial analysts aren’t spending too much time with their spreadsheets and databases on this one. They’ll know immediately what’s wrong with Twitter if they just try to use it.

Its user interface is, and has always been, one huge hot mess.

While Facebook encourages you to friend just friends, Twitter culture encourages you to follow just about everyone, short of people engaged in human trafficking. Friends of friends of friends of celebrities. They all follow you back. But is anyone listening?

Once you’re in with this crowd, it’s chaos. Loud, ugly, nasty, and even, somehow, smelly. (Don’t ask me how an online experience can be smelly, but Twitter somehow manages to stink.)

In order to gain any control whatsoever over the chaos on your page, you have to assign your followers to lists and then view the smaller, supposedly more focused, lists. This makes perfect sense — right up until you try to do it. Then you encounter Twitter’s abysmally designed list-assignment process. It’s first obscure and then, once understood, it’s prohibitively cumbersome.

The simple fix of assigning the 80 or so people you actually want to hear from to a “hot list” turns out to be anything but simple. Twitter won’t let you alphabetize or otherwise sort your full list. (You’d have to use one of those third-party Twitter management apps from companies you’ve never heard of. Oh, yeah, let’s give one of them access to my Twitter account and reputation.) Even if you do fight your way, individual by individual, through the underbrush of their list-assignment process, you can’t set Twitter to open to your “hot list”— you still have start at your gigantic list of lists and select the list you want…bored yet?

I sure am.

Talk is cheap, and Twitter is the evidence of it.

Back in 2006 when Twitter emerged, I compared using it to the experience of walking past the watercooler in your office, hearing some interesting gossip, and throwing in your own clever comments.

Today the experience is more like shoving your way through a crowded subway station at rush hour, hearing snippets of small-group conversations about obscure topics, interspersed with blaring ads from vendors. As of a few weeks ago, we’ve got billboards (pictures) too.

How did it get this way? I can only conclude that none of the leaders at Twitter actually use their own service. (Their personal assistants probably email them a daily list of Tweets that mention their names.)

So, Twitter, let me know when you fix your lame UI. But don’t send me a Tweet. You’ll have to find me over at Facebook. Maybe LinkedIn. Perhaps Google+.

I’m not pining for the fjords.




Social Media for PR (2016 edition)

Social Media 2016It was my pleasure tonight to speak to Lee Schoentrup’s University of Washington PR Certificate class about social media. This is the sixth or seventh [correction: ninth] year I’ve given the social media briefing, and it’s a presentation that has to be rewritten top to bottom each time.

Last year I talked about interactive social media — “Dancing with Your Audience” was the title. This year I didn’t feel as optimistic about the field. I titled the latest version of the presentation “How to Stand Out in a Busy World.” My feeling is that social media has maxed out audience bandwidth; people are experiencing more than enough social media interaction. Now social media professionals face a battle for attention, a battle that will be won by people and organizations delivering the best (most valuable or most entertaining) content and the best user experiences.

Here, for Lee’s class and anyone else interested, is the presentation SME – UW – 2016 in PDF form.

I challenged the class to invest in training that will enable them to produce podcasts, webinars, and video content for social media. I realize that I need to take my own challenge, so I’m committing to learn how record that Keynote presentation with an audio voiceover!

Thank you, 2015 (with cat pictures)

Thank you, Jane Hawkins, for giving a home to our foster feline, Mr. Cat (now Merkle) who needed to live in a one-cat household.

picture of Kaylee the cat
Kaylee (2004-2015)

Thank you, Kaylee, for 12 years of being such a cute kitten — and a challenging cat. Your sister Zoe misses you, though the new cats (more on them shortly) keep her company.

Thank you, Susan Powter, for helping me start 2015 off with personal yoga training via Skype. I hope you’ll offer Skype training again.

Thank you, Kat Richardson — not just for your Greywalker series and its brilliant conclusion,  Revenant — but for giving back to the Seattle writing community so generously through the Waywords at the Wayward writing sessions. Carving out Tuesday nights for writing made all the difference to my writing this year.

Thank you, neighbors Jerry and Gayle, for exchanging cat-sitting services with us — and for forgiving Sheba our deaf white cat when she bit Jerry!

Thank you, Danielle, for coming reliably twice a month to help us dig out from under the cat hair and clutter!

Thank you, John Simmons Chappell, for taming my hair every few weeks and sharing home remodeling tips.

Sheba the cat
Sheba, seconds before she swept the bowl of berries off the table.

Thank you, Sheba, for being such a fascinating cat for 18 years. A deaf white cat, you learned sign language, loved to cuddle, and kept our countertops clear by throwing anything we left on them onto the floor. I sold my house in Wallingford and moved to a dead-end street in Ballard in 2001 just so you could safely go outdoors once a day.

Thank you, Patrick Swenson, for organizing the Rainforest Writers Village retreat while teaching, publishing, and writing fiction (like the The Ultra Thin Man).

Thank you, Joe HageJosh FreedmanPeter Krause, and Pete Frickland, for sending great writing and editing projects my way.

Thank you, Charlie Hamilton and Barb Rowan, for your brilliant web design and project management work. It is a joy to collaborate with you.

Thank you, Arlin Robins, for rescuing Tinkerbelle, Mr. Tippy, and Perdita in Northern California and sending them to us in Seattle. Especially after Mr. Tippy bit you.

Mr. Tippy on Facebook
Mr. Tippy on Facebook

Thank you, John Hedtke and Marilyn Maurer, for driving down to Cottage Grove from Eugene with cash for the mobile mechanic who took apart the dashboard of my car to get Mr. Tippy out after the cat wrapped himself around the steering mechanism.

Thank you, Rossoe Oil and Gas Systems, for taking apart the cold air system of our heater so we could hunt for Mr. Tippy when he disappeared in the ceiling of our basement.

Thank you, John Hutchison and Hank Graham, for helping us tear apart the walls and ceiling looking for Mr. Tippy — especially Hank, who finally discovered Mr. Tippy three-and-a-half weeks after the cat vanished.

Thank you, Seattle Animal Control, for rushing over to help us try to get Mr. Tippy out of the ceiling after we found him. Sorry he was utterly uncooperative.

Thank you, Kier Salmon, for finding Mr. Tippy and for helping us finally get him out of the ceiling. And for being so understanding when he bit you.

Thank you, Animal Medical Center of Seattle, our 24-hour vet, for rehydrating Mr. Tippy and assuring us that he’d be perfectly fine (he was).

Thank you, Aurora Veterinary Hospital, for helping us get Tinkerbelle, Mr. Tippy, and Perdita caught up on their shots, and for being very flexible about scheduling when it took us 6 months to capture Perdita and bring her in.

Thank you, King County Metro, for selecting my poem “Letter of Conjugation” for the Poetry on the Bus “Writing Home” series.

Thank you, Bundoran Press, for publishing my story “Grief” in the anthology Second Contacts. It was my first (of three) semi-pro fiction sales this year.

Thank you, Viable Paradise friends, for beta reading, critiques, Google writing hangouts, meet-ups at conventions, and sharing you own writing triumphs and woes in 2015.

Thank you, Northwest Folklife, for four wonderful days of music, dance, and volunteering. We loved getting to close the festival Monday night!

Thank you, Liz Vogel, for organizing the writers workshop with me at Fourth Street. And for all the cookies!

Thank you, Clarion West, for the summer public readings. And the parties…

Thank you, Bruce Durocher II, for being such a class act. You, and your film criticism, are sorely missed.

Karen and Tom at Bag End, Hobbiton (Sasquan)
Karen and Tom at Bag End, Hobbiton (Sasquan)

Thank you, Sasquan Con Com, for running a superb convention under difficult circumstances that ranged from Sad Puppies to forest fires and smoke hazards.

Thank you, Gustavo, for getting me back on the track with Zumba classes. You are an inspiration.

Thank you, Jeff Lemkin, for all of the great conversations and meals. You are at once dauntingly intellectual and refreshingly down-to-earth.

Thank you, Mom (and Dad), for underwriting the systems work on the drainage, heating, and natural gas systems at the house this year. Not glamorous, but those improvements are really making a difference.

Thank you, Quality Plumbing, for coming to our rescue when other plumbing companies wimped out. You quickly replaced our somewhat arcane (high recovery) hot water heater.

Thank you, Diabolical Plots, for the Submission Grinder — the online system many of us use to track our fiction submissions to magazines and anthologies. And thank you, Cynthia Ward, for the excellent Market Maven newsletter about speculative fiction markets.

Thank you, Home Owners Club, for posting my humor columns on line this year.

And thank you, Tom Whitmore, for being there with me for all of this.





The Headless Donor of Sleepy Hollow

Jack was the third executive director the Sleepy Hollow Nonprofit had hired in as many years. No one was sure what fate befell them each year on All Hallow’s Eve. Louise liked to think that they’d simply left town and changed careers.

A Halloween short story dedicated to my friends and clients who serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations (or work for them).

Halloween dark scenery with naked trees, full moon and clouds“I’ve never much liked Halloween,” confessed Louise Van-Tassel, board chair of the Sleepy Hollow Nonprofit. “It’s not like Christmas and New Year’s, when people are filled with the spirit of giving or excited about making a new start. It’s more about stumbling around in the dark and having things frighten you.”

“And eating candy,” said Jack Crane, Sleepy Hollow’s new executive director. He pushed a bowl of candy corn across his cluttered desk to Louise. “Have some. It’ll help when you read our latest profit-and-loss statement.”

Louise sighed and picked a kernel of candy corn from the bowl, rationalizing that she had, after all, skipped the dressing on her salad at dinner. Now she wished she hadn’t. She needed some energy. Despite her best efforts, Sleepy Hollow’s board meetings tended to drag on into the night. She’d be lucky to be lugging her L.L. Bean tote bag full of files out to the dark parking lot by midnight.

“Which reminds me,” she said to Jack, who looked up from his laptop, “is there any way we could afford to install some more lighting in the parking lot?”

“Not if we’re going to stick with this new budget!”

“But over there by that big oak tree? It’s so dark and…creepy,” Louise protested. “Isn’t it a liability issue?”

“We’re insured.” Jack gave a dry laugh. “Are you another one of those board members who’s afraid you’ll run into the old Headless Donor in the parking lot? Board members have been trying to scare me with stories about him ever since I came to Sleepy Hollow. Louise, this organization will never get anywhere if it makes decisions based on the whims of some Headless Donor instead of on the actual needs of the people we’re chartered to serve.”

Louise shifted nervously in her chair and cleared her throat.

“Some of us have seen him, Jack.” She leaned over the desk and whispered. “He’s awfully big. And he carries that enormous…checkbook.”

Jack regarded her sternly over his dorky glasses. “Louise, you aren’t going to tell me about that old legend about the fundraising event he threw during Woodrow Wilson’s administration? When a board member he disagreed with was found on the front lawn, bludgeoned to death with copy of the proposed bylaws revisions the Headless Donor had opposed? For heavens sake, if this guy threw a party in 1914, he’d be…well, he’d be a ghost by now!”

Louise nodded unhappily and muttered, “Exactly.”

She could hear the voices of the board members out in the hall. People were arriving for the evening meeting. Jack had closed his laptop and picked up his papers. Louise followed him out of his office and into the boardroom, forcing a smile onto her face. She had a bad feeling about this Halloween meeting.

In fact, things got off to a bad start. Toni Brunt and another board member interrupted the agenda to enthuse about ideas for expanding Sleepy Hollow’s existing programs and starting new ones — including a program Toni dreamed up while she was talking.

“These are great ideas,” she said. “The board needs to act on them immediately!”

Jack’s plans for program cuts, staff cuts, and general fiscal austerity (which Toni and the other board member didn’t know about because they hadn’t read their pre-meeting materials) infuriated them. They were even angrier when they discovered that the majority of the board members, including the whole Finance Committee, enthusiastically supported Jack’s plans.

As the meeting progressed, the philosophical chasm between the two groups grew wider and deeper.  Louise wished she could just throw herself into it. The room heated up, and someone opened a window, letting in cold air along with the shrieks and screams of children making their Halloween rounds. Fueled by bowls of candy corn and the sugary supermarket cupcakes Toni had brought, the discussion raged into the night.

The board meeting ended just before midnight. Jack and the members of board majority shook hands and congratulated each other. Toni and the other dissatisfied board member gathered their papers and swept out.

As usual, Louise and Jack were the last to leave the building. To their surprise, Toni Brunt leaped out at them from behind a shrub. She struck a pose, her gray hair wild in the moonlight and her heavy black cloak flapping in the wind.

“You’ll be sorry,” Toni threatened. “Wait until the Headless Donor hears about this! I’ll tell him you’re ruining Sleepy Hollow!”

With a cackle, she swooped off into the night.

Jack just shook his head, and escorted Louise to her car at the far end of the parking lot. He assured her that the board minority would soon see reason about the finances.

“It’s simply a matter of standing our ground,” he told her. “Really, I can’t imagine why all of your previous executive directors couldn’t get a grip on this.”

As Louise drove off, she looked back and saw Jack, standing beneath the oak tree, waving. She also saw behind him a large, dark, headless figure, silhouetted by the moonlight. It was lumbering down the hill toward the parking lot.

“Oh, no, not again!” she wailed. Jack was the third executive director Sleepy Hollow had hired in as many years. No one was sure what fate befell them each year on All Hallow’s Eve. Louise liked to think that they’d simply left town and changed careers.

But she made a mental note of something to add to the next Executive Director’s job description:

“Must believe in ghosts.”

Mobile-friendly web design: Look before you leap into the future

Your new mobile-friendly website may unexpectedly shut out your customers or employees who use older desktop or laptop computers. Here’s why.

computer problemI do a lot of work updating the content of business websites. In the past year, much of that work has been driven by the shift to mobile-friendly web designs — designs that offer interactive content for touchscreen phones and tablets, along with content for traditional desktop machines or laptops that use mice or trackpads. To serve up content in this manner, the website is coded in two different versions. Small-screen devices get the mobile version of the site and large-screen computers get the desktop/laptop version (which often appears as a long scrollable page).

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

This recent post from the agency Extractable talks about an unexpected disconnect one of their clients experienced when the client rolled out a new mobile-friendly web design. It worked well for the company’s users, but not for the company’s own employees. Some investigation revealed why. The users had new phones and tablets but the company’s own desktop computers were so outdated (with low-resolution screens) that those computers were perceived by the website code as small-screen devices and were thus shown the wrong version of the website.

The company’s employees were unable to see or access the main menu required to log in to user accounts and assist customers.

This is an unexpected illustration of science fiction novelist William Gibson’s observation that “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

In this case, it was the company that had out-of-date computers. But I suspect this will also be a significant issue for business-to-business companies whose commercial customers are using  outdated computer systems. If customers can’t access the log-in menus, they won’t be able to access their accounts to place orders.

Bottom line: Before installing a major update to make your website trendy and mobile friendly, it might be worth checking first with two or three of your major customers to find out what technologies they are using to access your website for ordering, customer service, etc. Or, test the new system with those major customers so any necessary changes can be made in the code at your end. When it comes to business websites, there’s little point in leaping into the future until your customers and employees can go there with you.

Dramatic changes for SEO are only just beginning

I have a client who’s starting a comprehensive website update. Talking with him last night, I realized that he’s still back in the old days when you could win at the search rankings game by conducting SEO analyses of keywords and then stuffing your site with lots of pages with all the right words.

Of course, things have changed. Google continues to tweak its algorithms to give top rankings to sites with rich, organic content that is frequently updated. New products. Blog posts. Links to and from other highly regarded websites. Length of visits to the site. Video. Mobile-friendliness.

You can’t fool Google any longer.

And now there is another search system to take into consideration — this one’s for the proliferation of app content.

photo of Emily Grossman
Emily Grossman, with MobileMoxie, is an applications marketing expert.

A series of articles by Emily Grossman at Search Engine Land (which I found via takes a look at a whole new way of organizing web content — via app. It follows that if the content that people are trying to find online is organized differently (within apps rather than on pages) people are going to need different tools to search for that content.

That’s why Apple (lots of apps) has jumped into search (Google’s game) by creating a search API (application-programming interface) to organize app content for search. Google is hot on the trail with its own API.

Apple’s system is call Apple Search. Users will recognize the front end as Spotlight and Siri. Google, Apple’s system gathers online content using a web crawler (called “Applebot”) that finds and indexes information.

Grossman’s articles are aimed at programmers who are going to write app screens (the corollary of web pages) to be indexed by the Applebot. Thus, these articles are highly technical.

But if you are a content owner who employs programmers to create app screens (as well as web pages) you’ll want to:

  • Know this is out there, and picking up speed
  • Start considering your strategies for creating screens that are highly searchable

Have any of you started down this path? I’d love to hear about it.

Pay in advance for speculative fiction

Build a foundation for the next wave of speculative fiction by supporting the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Find out what 200 writers are doing this summer to raise money for the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

woman reading a book with colors emerging

Summer is early in Seattle, and I’m getting a head start on my annual summer project.

No, not gardening! The Clarion West Write-a-thon. What’s that, you ask?

Clarion West, along with its sister program, Clarion in San Diego, is renowned as the world’s pre-eminent workshop for emerging writers of speculative fiction. (“Spec fic” covers everything from the magic realism that Junot Diaz writes for The New Yorker to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones to classic science fiction novels like Starship Troopers and fantasy like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Quite a range.)

This year Clarion West accepted 18 students from across the world, most of them recent college graduates. They were chosen based on the quality of their writing. If they follow in the footsteps of previous Clarion West graduates, more than a third of the Class of 2015 will go on to publish professionally. Many of them will be nominated for — and win — major awards in the field of speculative fiction.

For the students, the six-week Clarion West residential workshop is a full-immersion, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Many of the students have left their jobs to attend, borrowed money from family and friends to pay for travel, and several of them are receiving support from Clarion West’s scholarship program.

How You Can Get Involved

If you are a speculative fiction reader, I encourage you to underwrite the next wave of speculative fiction by supporting Clarion West, its scholarships, and its operations (run by a part-time staff and a cadre of volunteers).

The Clarion West Write-a-thon seeks donations at all levels, from $5 to $1000. (Many donors divide their donations, giving $5 or $10 through each of a dozen or more writers’ pages.)

Meet the Writers

The Write-a-thon harnesses the power of some 200 writers, people at all stages of their careers, who form a “shadow workshop.” While the six-week workshop for the Class of 2015 is underway, the Write-a-thon participants work to meet their own goals. Each of these writers has created a Write-a-thon page where you can read an excerpt of their work and see the goals they’ve set for writing and for raising money for Clarion West.

Many of the writers are offering incentives to sponsors who donate through their pages. You can browse the writers, or search for your writer friends, here:

You’ll find folks including Aliette de Bodard, Helena Bell, Steve Miller, Henry Lien, Kelly Sandoval, Usman Malik, Eileen Gunn, J.M. Sidorova, Randy Henderson, E. Lily Yu, Pat Cadigan, Mark Teppo, Nisi Shawl, Paul Park, Neile Graham, Julie McGalliard, Caroline M. Yoachim, Helen Marshall, Curtis Chen, Rachel Swirsky, Kris Millering, and this year’s Worldcon Guest of Honor, Vonda N. McInytre. You’ll find Viable Paradise workshop graduates, include Beth Morris Tanner, Spencer German Ellsworth — and me.

TIP: Be sure to read Eileen Gunn’s writing sample, a flash-fiction piece about a time-traveling necktie collector.

Become a Sponsor — and My Muse

What am I’m doing for this year’s Write-a-thon? After spending the past six months submitting stories to magazines and anthologies (I’ve sold three stories, which will be published this fall), I’m going to spend the Write-a-thon focusing solely on new writing. I’ll be writing six stories for the Write-a-thon — and my plan includes opportunities for the people who sponsor me to act as “muses” for those works.

Please visit my Clarion West Write-a-thon page to find out more. And, of course, to donate!

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