Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “December, 2010”

List That Matter – 50 Best Political Novels

I believe passionately that fiction writers can use their ability to help effect positive social change. My novels all reflect this and I was delighted when Kaitlyn Cole from Online Universities shared a list that their faculty had put together entitled: 50 Best Novels For Political Junkies.

Kaitlyn wrote: “True story: Some of the best political novels aren’t explicitly about politics. Yes, some of the books on this list deal directly with governments and politicians, with laws and the ways they’re made or abused, and with the peril and promise inherent in every governing body. But some of them use adventure, parable, or satire to subtly explore our political system with a depth that wouldn’t be possible any other way.”

Great point. So far, the four novels that I have written all carry a political message, as you can see on my website. But over the summer I had the amazing experience writing a fantasy novel together with my 11-year-old son. While I have read a few fantasy novels, I had no idea about the “rules” of the genre.

Writing with my son, however, compelled me to include moral issues such as racism, dictatorship and freedom, as well as the values of friendship and freedom. I was writing for my son and there is (I hope) plenty of swords, quests, elves, dwarves etc., but as I watched him read and listened to his feedback, I waited for his comments about such issues and derived huge satisfaction when he did.

When my wife and I discussed whether to allow him to watch Lord of the Rings which features a lot of violence, I suggested that the most important message from Tolkien’s trilogy was that of friendship.

My lack of knowledge regarding fantasy leads me to ask the question: Can fantasy offer a vehicle to discuss political and social injustice? I would love to hear your answers fantasy-fans.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Author’s Secret Santa

Just before Thanksgiving I wrote a post suggesting that the holidays were an opportunity to help a struggling author. I suggested giving their book as a gift and when small talk is required, promoting it (“Hey. Read any good books lately?”).

I was delighted to hear from a couple of authors who each said that they experienced sales thanks to friends either giving their books as gifts or through word-of-mouth. With all the sophisticated techniques available to market products, I find a certain smug satisfaction that experts acknowledge word-of-mouth to be such an effective tool.

So with the next set of holidays upon us, why not pitch the idea again? In addition, here are a couple of other simple ways to help your friend, the struggling author.

1. Write a brief review of the book. It doesn’t have to be more than 1-2 paragraphs. I’m certain the author would appreciate if it is posted on Amazon.com or the B&N.com website. There are other important sites such as Goodreads and Shelfari. If you know of other good sources, please leave a message in the comments below. Where do you look for information on books? Post it there.

2. Create a Wikipedia page for your friend. While authors can’t create their own Wikipedia page (without getting a “conflict of interest” badge of shame), other people can. You can.

Every author deserves a Wikipedia page, since a published book grants the author at least a modicum of fame. On the Wikipedia page, feature a short bio, a bibliography, a link to the author’s website. How encouraging for an author to discover a spike in his/her search engine traffic due to a link posted on Wikipedia. It’s kind of like having a secret Santa!

3. Recommend your friend’s website online. Link from your website, blog, Facebook page, etc. Tweet about it. When your friend writes a blog post that moves you, link to it. If your friend tweets something great, retweet it. Feature a quote from your friend’s book on your website. Or tweet the quote.

Remember when you throw a stone into a lake, it hits the water in only one place, but its waves can spread a considerable distance. I realize that many of you are living near frozen lakes right now, sorry. But maybe you can throw a stone online and give your friend, the struggling author, an extra present for the festive season.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

Fly Fishing and Philanthropy

Richard Goldman passed away on November 29, 2010. He was a great man who amassed considerable wealth and used that wealth to help enrich the lives of so many others. Richard had three passions when it came to philanthropy: San Francisco, Judaism and the State of Israel, and environmentalism.

I owe him a lot. He promoted green causes before it was fashionable to be an environmentalist, including in Israel, a country consumed with surviving today, and unable to look ahead to tomorrow. When helping to build the green framework on my Kibbutz, Kibbutz Lotan, his name topped the list of people to go to for support. When I became Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, he provided the resources to help us match the growing needs of the city’s Jewish students.

His memorial service was a fitting tribute. in the packed synagogue many leaders and dignitaries from our city and Jewish community paid eloquent and fitting tributes, But I was most impacted from the stories shared by his surviving children: John, Doug and Susan. I think that being a father, hearing how others pay tribute to their parents is profound. What will my sons say about me when my time comes?

They related how their father was a tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He lived by excellence and appreciated it in others. I think this might be why he fly-fished. Having fished for most of my life, I took lessons while on vacation this summer to learn how to fly fish. This was inspired a great novel, The Trout Whisperers by Pete Bodo, and perhaps from 20 years of studying martial arts. I feel that I can really appreciate the beauty in fly fishing’s elegance and style.

One son recalled how Richard loved to be out on the McKenzie river, rod in hand, and how he became a softer man as he gave himself up to the rhythm of the fly and the flow of the river.

I get it.

There is something humbling about being a part of nature, if only for a few hours. This summer I  met an elderly angler who rents a cabin for two weeks every year and his sons come from wherever they are to join him and fish. He spends 50 weeks a year waiting for that time of the year.

But the magic I heard at Richard’s memorial service came from it being recounted by his son. It was special to hear how a child, now a man, had found a special way to connect to his father on the river. Ernest Hemingway’s son, Jack, tells a similar story in his memoir Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman.

Mr. Goldman, thank you for all you did for me, our city, and the Jewish people. Through your generosity you gave many of us fish so that we could eat, and taught many to fish so that we could sustain ourselves. Someone once surprised me in a workshop by adding an additional line to the famous saying:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.

But teach a man how to teach others to fish, and you begin to feed the whole world.

This, Mr. Goldman, you did not achieve with your fly rod, but your philanthropy and your vision.


“May you find a seat waiting for you in heaven.”

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

E-books and the Gift Season

Just in time for the 2010 holiday season, Kindle launched a framework to buy books for other people. For details, please follow the link: (http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=hp_left_sib?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200555070). Kindle book gifting allows customers to buy Kindle book(s) as holiday gifts for their friends/family.

We, as authors, may also gift our own title(s) to our friends and loved ones.  For more details for authors on gifting, please see our publisher FAQ – http://forums.digitaltextplatform.com/dtpforums/entry!default.jspa?categoryID=25&externalID=552&fromSearchPage=true.

Finally, my offering for a rainy weekend when all you want to do is curl up on the sofa with a good boo–downloaded digital e-book.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Happy Birthday Pele

I love the summer. We take a family vacation, my work slows, there seems more time to exercise, fish, write, and have quality time with my family. Almost everything I listed (apart from the latter, I do by myself. I work out, fish (usually), and write alone. But the highlight of this past summer was a fusion of two of these pastimes, and it was a treasured experience.

I often wonder how my sons perceive me. I spend long hours away from them during the week, and as they grow up, I find myself competing with their natural desire to hang out with their friends. In fact, during the week we will spend no more than two hours a day together and that is usually reduced to a frenzy of preparing and eating the main meal of the day, pushing them to complete their homework, bathe and go to bed at a reasonable time. They must resent my drive to write and promote myself as an author – an act that necessitates me being absent from home 1-2 evenings a week or on weekends.

So I was thrilled when my eldest son suggested, on the first evening of our vacation, that we write a book together. He devours fantasy novels and this was always going to be our common ground. I am not apathetic to a good sword fight, or a ride on the back of a dragon, and I have only read or watched Lord of the Rings about a dozen times.

It was amazing to sit in a mesh tent, surrounded by majestic redwoods and tap out a story on my noble white steed (a mac book by any other name). We disagreed here, he corrected my word choice there, and though it was me driving the story on, it never ceased to be a collaborative effort.

My sons are aware of my drive for social justice. I tell them when I have volunteered at the food bank, and have heard from other parents and teachers when my eldest has told them about my annual trip with students to help rebuild the Gulf Coast. I refrain (or try to) from lecturing him on such values as I refrain from pushing him to write. I figure that the best I can offer as a parent is to be a role model.  The choice must always be his.

More experienced parents tell me that I will learn to accept his choices as he grows up. I guess it makes it  special when our paths do fuse together, and all the more so when he makes the choice. I have no idea if our fantasy novel is any good. I doubt that Tolkien, Paolini or Terry Brooks need lose any sleep over our creation. But however good it is, it will always be very special for this father. Often the journey overshadows the destination.

Happy Birthday, Pele.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Movies That Matter – Gandhi – When A Message Never Gets Old

Not long ago I talked about my admiration for Nelson Mandela who was portrayed in the movie Invictus. He spent so many years incarcerated in a violent prison and regime, and who still chose a path of reconciliation when he took power instead of wreaking brutal revenge.

The Mahatma Gandhi taught a similar message and the movie, which I first saw some 20 years ago, has a message that is as relevant today as ever. It is possible to bring down an evil regime without force. It is possible to solve complex, age-old political solutions through dialog and understanding.

The movie is a timeless beauty. It shares a lot of the human side of this great man and the people who helped him. Having traveled around India for 6 months, India holds a special place in my heart. It is a country that sharpens the senses in every place that you go to.  The movie somehow manages to share this with us.

But the real value of the movie is far beyond the artistic. There are too many places in the world, where helpless people are being killed, abused, and incarcerated. There are too many leaders who need to stop for a moment and see the movie. They cannot meet with Gandhi, not in this world at least. But they should find some face-to-face time with Nelson Mandela, while this great man still walks upon the earth. ——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

The Elephant in the Pharmacy

Elephant Pharmacy was an exciting discovery to a holistic immigrant to Berkeley. I bought my herbs in bulk and made up my own favorite (and affordable) herbal formulas. We often bought gifts there, able to find unique, cool, and environmentally friendly gifts.

Life moves on. Shattuck Avenue ain’t what it used to be and Gourmet Ghetto is a rare night out for many of us as we need to watch our wallets if we are to see out the month.

What is tough to accept is that the site of Elephant Pharmacy will be replaced by a Walgreens. Now let me confess that I shop at Walgreens and I understand why it is a more useful addition in these troubled economic times. I don’t even think that it is the fact that we have at least three Walgreens along Shattuck Avenue, and a couple of CVS’s to boot.

It is the fact that we have lost another local business and one that was so…Berkeley. It is the fact that you could have an introductory lesson in Tai Chi, yoga, or any other of a number of disciplines that help improve one’s health. It is the free lectures, the comfortable seating while you peruse their books, and the knowledgeable staff that were there to help. They also, by the way, sold allopathic medicines as well.

The US economy is reeling for a number of reasons. One is the $1 trillion+ sickness industry (please don’t call it health – no one who is healthy uses it). People are not just sick, they are bankrupting themselves when they get sick, and there is a direct correlation between sickness and economic production and innovation.

If this country is ever going to create a sustainable economy, it will need to get healthy. For this reason, we need more Elephant Pharmacies and less Walgreens.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Project Homeless Connect™

Volunteering at Project Homeless Connect™ is always challenging. Every two months, dozens of support agencies gather under one roof to provide a broad array of services and counseling to the homeless of San Francisco. I love the fact that the auditorium is next to the Civic Center, right within view of the city legislators. I also deeply appreciate the commitment of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was one of the initiators of the project. He has come every time that I’ve volunteered to thank the volunteers and talk to some of the homeless.

I once told him how much I appreciate his support and commitment. He didn’t bat an eyelid as he reached for my hand and said: “Oh no. I appreciate your commitment.” Yes I know he is a politician, but I really believe he meant it, that he is genuinely passionate about Project Homeless Connect.

For those volunteers who are not part of an agency, our jobs involve interviewing, data tracking and accompanying homeless people to the different agency areas. I usually do the latter where an important element is to just listen to their stories. I rarely leave at the end of the day without hearing something that is deeply moving. I return to my warm home, my loving wife and sons, knowing that tomorrow because I am healthy, I will hit the gym before heading to a job that I love. I am not rich or famous, have not realized my dream of becoming an author of social commentary, but the experience reminds me that I am a darn lucky man.


“The mission of Project Homeless Connect™ (PHC) is to connect San Francisco’s homeless with the system of care that will help them move off the streets and into housing.” (From the PNC website).

Just over five years ago, the mayor and about 300 volunteers surveyed the homeless in the Tenderloin, one of SF’s poorest neighborhoods. From their responses, Project Homeless Connect™ was born.

Again from the website: “Widespread foreclosures, the demands of returning veterans, and the reduction of federal funding for affordable housing create constant challenges in a declining economy. Dealing with the vexing problem requires intervention not only by government but also the community at large.

Today, over 1,000 community volunteers partner with government agencies, nonprofits, and the private sector every two months to provide a one-stop shop of health and human services for homeless San Franciscans. During PHC’s events, participants are able to accomplish in one day what might normally take eight months.

Hundreds of corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies provide PHC and its clients with services such as dental care, eyeglasses, family support, food, HIV testing, housing, hygiene products, medical care, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, SSI benefits, legal advice, California identification cards, voice mail, employment counseling and job placement, wheelchair repair, methadone, needle exchange, and more.
As of February 2010, 20,292 volunteers have provided services to more than 30,844 homeless and poor San Franciscans.”

Finally, the federal government’s Interagency Council has declared Project Homeless Connect™ a National Best Practice Model on Homelessness. If this isn’t validation enough, PHC is being replicated in over 200 cities across the United States, as well as in Canada and Australia.

I’m proud to be a San Francisco-ite.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Coffee Grounds, Mushrooms, and Student Initiative

Rewind: Spring 2009 and two seniors at Cal were sitting in a lecture for their business ethics course. Both had offers from Corporate America in investment banking and consulting. In this lecture they heard that 7 million tons of coffee are produced around the world. With only 1% ending up in the cup, the rest is destined for the landfill. What a waste.

Somewhere in that lecture Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez also learned that gourmet mushrooms can be grown on recycled coffee grounds. They mused over the possibility of diverting this waste stream into producing gourmet mushrooms, and started to learn how to actually grow mushrooms from coffee grounds. As business majors they wanted to explore if this idea could work as the basis of a full scale social venture.

Arora and Velez cruised the Berkeley coffee store and cafes collecting their used coffee grounds. Out of the first 10 buckets in which they planted, mushrooms only grew in one. They took that batch to the local Berkeley Whole Foods, and received enough positive feedback to create a plan. They submitted their business proposal to “Bears Breaking Boundaries,” an entrepreneurial competition sponsored by the UC Berkeley Chancellor and received $5,000 seed (or should I say plug) money.

The two grow gourmet pearl-oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds, and sell kits to consumers who are inspired to try for themselves.

After graduation, their business, Back to the Roots, was born and their mushrooms are found on the shelves of Whole Foods. But this is not just about business or the initiative of a couple of smart students (though this is pretty awesome) , their business is an example of sustainability and social responsibility. Best of all is their utilization of a large waste stream to produce something nutritional and valuable. Even the rich soil that is a by product of their production line is donated to community gardens, local nurseries and urban farms – a growing phenomenon in Berkeley.

Then they took the principle one step further. “Starting off as purely an urban mushroom farm, Back to the Roots has recently transformed into an organization dedicated to letting everyone grow their own fresh food right at home…as local as it gets! Our vision is to serve as a standard bearer for innovation and responsibility in our community and inspire others to work towards a more sustainable future. We’re doing this first through our Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Garden.

These mushroom-growing kits that we sell on our website are packaged in post-consumer cardboard and printed with soy ink, an environmentally better alternative. The kits arrive in the mail ready to grow: we wanted to create a sustainable product that is easy and simple, so everyone can enjoy growing and eating fresh mushrooms (including kids…who love watching them grow so fast!). The Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Gardens yield multiple crops, and you get up to one pound of delicious pearl-oyster mushrooms in as little as 10 days from your first crop. The soil inside is safe and sustainable too – 100% recycled coffee grounds! And while you may be worrying that the mushrooms taste like coffee, plenty of chefs, like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, can attest to their authentic nutty flavor.”

The box arrives through the post and the mushrooms are ready to grow … right out of the box. They even donate 5% of sales to breast cancer research and a further 5% of all sales to support local breast cancer awareness organizations – co-founder, Alex, fought through cancer in high school – and educating the community on the great health benefits of oyster mushrooms.”

Finally, this is really cool:

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

When Fiction and Reality Blur

I just finished John Grisham’s latest novel, The Confession – always a pleasure Mr. Grisham. The plot deals with a man wrongly accused as the police and courts conspire to put him away. As Grisham works his art, I find myself thinking about the characters even when I am not listening to the audio book.


So you can imagine my surprise to read this headline on the New York Times daily digest: “Framed for Murder?” What? Then the next line: Californians may be about to execute the wrong man.

No,no,you’re wrong. It’s Texas. John Grisham said so!

But it is not out in Texas. It is here in our backyard. This is a great account of the case by NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF and was published 12/08/2010.

Framed For Murder

That’s the view of five federal judges in a case involving Kevin Cooper, a black man in California who faces lethal injection next year for supposedly murdering a white family. The judges argue compellingly that he was framed by police.

Mr. Cooper’s impending execution is so outrageous that it has produced a mutiny among these federal circuit court judges, distinguished jurists just one notch below the United States Supreme Court. But the judicial process has run out for Mr. Cooper. Now it’s up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to decide whether to commute Mr. Cooper’s sentence before leaving office.

Kevin Cooper

This case, an illuminating window into the pitfalls of capital punishment, dates to a horrific quadruple-murder in June 1983. Doug and Peggy Ryen were stabbed to death in their house, along with their 10-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old houseguest. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Josh, was left for dead but survived. They were all white.

Josh initially told investigators that the crime had been committed by three people, all white, although by the trial he suggested that he had seen just one person with an Afro. The first version made sense because the weapons included a hatchet, an ice pick and one or two knives. Could one intruder juggling several weapons overpower five victims, including a 200-pound former Marine like Doug Ryen, who also had a loaded rifle nearby?

But the police learned that Mr. Cooper had walked away from the minimum security prison where he was serving a burglary sentence and had hidden in an empty home 125 yards away from the crime scene. The police decided that he had committed the crime alone.

William A. Fletcher, a federal circuit judge, explained his view of what happens in such cases in a law school lecture at Gonzaga University, in which he added that Mr. Cooper is “probably” innocent: “The police are under heavy pressure to solve a high-profile crime. They know, or think they know, who did the crime. And they plant evidence to help their case along.”

Judge Fletcher wrote an extraordinary judicial opinion — more than 100 pages when it was released — dissenting from the refusal of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case. The opinion is a 21st-century version of Émile Zola’s famous “J’Accuse.”

Mr. Fletcher, a well-respected judge and former law professor, was joined in his “J’Accuse” by four other circuit judges. Six more wrote their own dissents calling for the full Ninth Circuit to rehear the case. But they fell just short of the votes needed for rehearing.

Judge Fletcher laid out countless anomalies in the case. Mr. Cooper’s blood showed up on a beige T-shirt apparently left by a murderer near the scene, but that blood turned out to have a preservative in it — the kind of preservative used by police when they keep blood in test tubes.

Then a forensic scientist found that a sample from the test tube of Mr. Cooper’s blood held by police actually contained blood from more than one person. That leads Mr. Cooper’s defense team and Judge Fletcher to believe that someone removed blood and then filled the tube back to the top with someone else’s blood.

The police also ignored other suspects. A woman and her sister told police that a housemate, a convicted murderer who had completed his sentence, had shown up with several other people late on the night of the murders, wearing blood-spattered overalls and driving a station wagon similar to the one stolen from the murdered family.

They said that the man was no longer wearing the beige T-shirt he had on earlier in the evening — the same kind as the one found near the scene. And his hatchet, which resembled the one found near the bodies, was missing from his tool area. The account was supported by a prison confession and by witnesses who said they saw a similar group in blood-spattered clothes in a nearby bar that night. The women gave the bloody overalls to the police for testing, but the police, by now focused on Mr. Cooper, threw the overalls in the trash.

This case is a travesty. It underscores the central pitfall of capital punishment: no system is fail-safe. How can we be about to execute a man when even some of America’s leading judges believe he has been framed?

Lanny Davis, who was the White House counsel for President Bill Clinton, is representing Mr. Cooper pro bono. He laments: “The media and the bar have gone deaf and silent on Kevin Cooper. My simple theory: heinous brutal murder of white family and black convict. Simple as that.”

That’s a disgrace that threatens not only the life of one man, but the honor of our judicial system.

Governor Schwarzenegger, are you listening?
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

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