Briefly, pangrams again

This morning, snow flakes in a cold north wind. Bright bursts of sunshine followed by periods of grey gloom. Still, a trickle of pangrams continues to flow, with the ever present challenge of “x”.

Barbara Craig’s prompt is her memory of children’s parties, thrown or attended over the years:

Absolute bedlam, children demanding entry. Falling, gavotting, hopping, incessant jostling, keening, loud monkey noises. Open, party, quick, retreat, serve the usual victuals. Wonderful, Xylene young zingers.

Helen Corrigan, on the other hand, reverts to the meaning of pangram I mentioned in my last post, i.e. that a pangram should include at least one occurrence of each letter of the alphabet. She writes:

Pangrams in the sunshine! Wot: Rain, cold and cloudy tomorrow!
Bang goes jogging, leap frogging over bollards, quick zealous exercise for wot we were meant to have!!!!

Strictly speaking it should also be a single statement – e.g.the quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog or intoxicated Queen Elizabeth vows Mick Jagger is perfection

Pangram perfectionists would probably argue that Queen Elizabeth and Mick Jagger shouldn’t feature, because they have capital letters. For me, it doesn’t matter. Just have fun with words. After all, you probably have some time on your hands.



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Pangrams in the sunshine

The first week of May has arrived. Glorious weather on Deeside continues, as does lockdown. In the world beyond, politicians pontificate; experts argue; people suffer and die; health professionals and carers treat and care. And everywhere the vocabulary of pandemic repeats itself daily – “self-isolation”, “new normal”, “PPE”, “stay home”, “peaks”, “flattening the curve” ,”testing and tracing”.

Here, morning coffee is taken in the garden; daily exercise follows; pre-prandial drinks are enjoyed outside in the late afternoon; Bob Ross and The Joy of Painting offers light relief with post-prandial coffee, and may be followed by a classic film before bed. The weather won’t last – wintry showers are promised for the weekend.

Meanwhile, that title. Pangrams? “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is a well-known example of a pangram – i.e. a sentence using each letter of the alphabet at least once. This week, presumably in an effort to keep our brains sharp, the Times took the definition a little further by inviting readers to write a story (which they called a Pangram) containing 26 words in alphabetical order. Here are two examples from Wednesday’s edition

I decided to pass this idea in front of a couple of groups of creative writers – one local, the other on-line. Their incentive to get writing was publication on this blog, which is at least as prestigious an outcome as publication in the Times (in my view). The results have begun to come in today and so far we have:

From Natalie Austin:

Always believe, charlatans deceive
Everyday for greed
How? I just know
Let’s maybe now overhear
Prying questions
Relentless stamina
That useless virtue
With xeroxed youthful zeal

From Liz Marchant:

Anxious but calm, Diana elevated first gingerly holding in jitters. Kangaroo like, mindful, naked. Oh Pranayama! Quite rightly shattered through undertaking versatile, wickedly x-rated yoga….zzz.

From Alison Bruce:

A black cat drops effortlessly from green hanging ivy. Jaded killer, lithe, muscled, noiseless, old predator, quietly ravages squirrel’s territory. Ultimately, very wicked xenophobia yields zealot.

And from me, a pangram giving you a horrible insight into my mental state in the seventh week of lockdown:

“Arse”, bellowed Chris dropping eggs floorwards, giving his impish judgmental knowing lustful mistress (new open partnership) quality reasons simply to unleash very wanton x-rated yelled zingers

I will publish more when/if they come in – and yours, too, if you send them to me via the contact details on this blog.

“Hooray!” I hear you cry, as you head for the wine rack.

Stay well.


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Spring continues

Our glorious, but cool, Deeside spring continues to laugh in the face of lockdown, as shown by the amelanchiar close to our back door and the blossom beginning to appear on our two pear trees (below), Conference on the left and Bon Chretien on the right. With luck they will avoid late frosts and give us a good crop this year. Ironically, our big problem at the moment is drought – there hasn’t been any substantial rain for many days – look at the dry compost in our runner bean pot.


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Corona-spring on Deeside

The coming of spring on Deeside is a slow, ambling process where there is a pattern of a few days of biting winds and low temperatures followed by a single glorious day of warmth and blue skies.

Such was the case yesterday (Wednesday) when we had a full day of acceptable warmth and sunshine and the sudden balminess of the weather was such that we were able to enjoy a late afternoon pre-prandial lockdown drink outside, with Archie somnolent at our feet. There he is resting, oblivious to it all with his head protected from the crunchiness of the gravel by his outside bed – actually an old duvet permeated with a very satisfactory (from a dog perspective) aroma of canine mustiness. Being Archie, from time to time he adds an additional whiff of mustiness to this duvet, and the surrounding air.

Master and Mistress read their books, there is a clink of glasses, Archie sighs occasionally in windy contentment, the weather is balmy and so the third day of the fourth week of lockdown winds to a close. As I have said before, unlike many, we are fortunate to have a garden in which to break the indoor monotony of lockdown, even if the temperatures are on the low side.

There is much talk on the media of maintaining one’s mental health in these strange times. I am not sure if it is creeping old age or just general grumpiness, but I wonder about all the stories of very energetic people doing very energetic things during this period of stasis. People manicuring their gardens, redecorating the house, learning a new language, reading Shakespeare to their children – all of these things are fine but I certainly don’t want my mental health damaged by being made to feel guilty if I am not filling every moment of every day with some vigorous creative activity. Wasn’t over-filling our time one of the problems with the old life?

What I have really enjoyed in the last few weeks have been the leisurely phone calls. It has been great to have so many phone calls from and to people that we have not seen for a long time, in some cases not for years. And not just to have the call, but to have time to talk at length, to regurgitate old jokes and in the case of video calls to get a hint of the caller’s wider current life (and tastes) from the backdrop to the call.

During this period of down time, I’ll be doing my bit for others and doing my bit for my own physical and mental wellbeing. All of us who are not on the front line bravely caring for those suffering from this dreadful virus are managing our  isolation in the best ways that we can. If you are embarking on dozens of new projects and you want to tell the world about them on Facebook and Twitter, that’s great. Just don’t expect your way of dealing with this coronavirus stuff to be the same as mine, or the same as your family and friends. We all started this period from a different perspective and in wildly different situations. We will all deal with it in our own different ways, some of us successfully, others less so. None of us should feel guilty about that. Those differences are part of what makes us human.

If there is another warm spring day soon, I might even look out another smelly old duvet and join Archie on the gravel in a symphony of flatulent mindfulness, but I won’t be putting that on Facebook.



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Self-isolation – 4

How you cope with this lockdown probably depends very much on your starting point. The media are full of suggestions of how to use the time positively – everything from taking up a new hobby to learning another language are amongst the ideas I’ve seen. There have been images of talented families singing together and of lithe young men and women suggesting exercises to keep you fit while you are stuck at home. If, like me, you are lucky enough to live in a house with a garden there is at least the opportunity to get some fresh air and feel closer to nature. Downward dog in the middle of the lawn is optional.

What if your starting point is somewhat less positive? Illness? Bereavement? Loss of employment? Poverty? In such cases, lockdown must seem like the final crushing blow. If you can access them, you are likely to rage at the cheery Covid jokes being passed around the internet, or the plucky messages to pull together. Such things must appear like the equivalent of telling a depressive to snap out of it.

These are testing times for all of us, not least the health and social care professionals treating patients and tackling the consequences of the virus head on.

Yesterday some of us from the Deeside Stroke Group began the week with a Zoom exercise session led by our excellent physiotherapist. We are going to try and keep this going weekly until we are able to exercise again together in the flesh. We range in age and also range wildly in physical ability, but watching the six or seven images of us on screen, each in our square sterile digital box, it was impossible not to think of this as a bit of a fight back; one in the eye to coronavirus; half a dozen flickering images that promised a return to hope and a better future. At least those were the positive thoughts that circled in my mind during the session. Afterwards, stretching out against a wall, my muscles told a different story in which there was less hope and more pain.

Anyway, keeping your mind as well as your body active is important, so, following positive feedback from the quiz in my last post, here is another one to keep your neurons firing. Once again, if the mood takes you and you enjoy the quiz, any relevant health charity is likely to appreciate your donation. Go on. You know you want to.

Answers are available from me using the contact details on this blog.


                     BRITISH BIRDS CRYPTIC QUIZ                           
                                                (may include anagrams)


1. Rub down musician (9)________________________________________
2. God! Barrier (7) ______________________________________________
3. Sounds like lorry changing direction (6, 4)_________________________
4. Wheat waste, then measure (9)_________________________________
5. Out of breath (6)_____________________________________________
6. Chess piece (4)_______________________________________________
7. Drink up instrument of flight (7)_________________________________
8. Regale to lose queen for bird of prey (5)___________________________
9. Wash raw pork for this bird of prey (11)__________________________
10. Fencing her?(10) _____________________________________________
11. One pig found in city streets(6)__________________________________
12. No brawl for night time hunter(4,3) ______________________________
13. Valuable item beside top of hill (9)_______________________________
14. Illegal activity? (5) ____________________________________________
15. Female sibling? (6)____________________________________________
16. Mr Stoker with jewellery (9)____________________________________
17. Face card next to digital audio workstation (7)______________________
18. Attire for sentencing to death (8)________________________________
19. Tenth letter (3)_______________________________________________
20. You might need a dish for this jolly jape (7)________________________
21. Hit with head then break shell (8)________________________________
22. Heather after heavenly body? (8) ________________________________
23. Coloured tool (12)____________________________________________
24. Let in nasty, noxious Eric – tea for starters (6)______________________
25. Muir – with Scots lass (7)_______________________________________
26. Farm worker with house (8)____________________________________
27. Sounds like it should hold your kebab together (4)__________________
28. Wild party ends in north (5)____________________________________
29. Boulder talk (9)______________________________________________
30. Fast (5)________________________________________________
31. Famous grump (6)____________________________________________
32. Hot drink left (4) _____________________________________________
33. Child’s play on the donkey?(7)__________________________________
34. North Briton hesitation (6) _____________________________________
35. Nonsense, brassica. Untrue (12) _________________________________
36.Shake or shiver (5)____________________________________________
37.Something for your tank? (6) ___________________________________
38.Regal angler (10) _____________________________________________
39.Freshwater bird caused by a rare wilt (5,4)_________________________
40. Agricultural produce (9) _______________________________________

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Self-isolation – 3

For the last two years the Deeside stroke exercise group has produced a fund-raising quiz. Our current quiz is available until 31 March from members, from local shops or from me in return for a donation of £1 or more. Unfortunately, our group will not be able to meet for several weeks during the current lockdown. In these times of self-isolation when there is a renewed need for mental stimulus, I offer this additional quiz which is open to anyone who reads this blog – or comes across it accidentally. If you’re not used to cryptic clues, maybe now is a good time to learn the joy and frustration which they offer. Over to you:



(may include anagrams)

1. Accompanies gin (4)_________________________________________
2. Confused panel sounds unattractive (5) ____________________________
3. Diminutive Tell gives a cry of pain (6)_____________________________
4. Capable rap produces fruit {4, 5} ________________________________
5. Thrash me with this (5)_______________________________________
6. All right, includes article (3}____________________________________
7. A silly hussy initially left by a fag (3)______________________________
8. Sounds ill before Italian, love (8)_________________________________
9. Prickly girl (5)______________________________________________
10. Long for (4) _____________________________________________
11. To start, young Eric waits for this tree (3)__________________________
12. Neat – and tidy (6) _________________________________________
13. Beside the sea (5)__________________________________________
14. Killed Cleopatra – and in French! (5) _____________________________
15. First two of anchovies followed the dispute (5)_____________________
16. Church official (5)__________________________________________
17. Rest on a few when you’ve done well (6) __________________________
18. Lithium found beside a French lake (5)____________________________
19. Bed above a religious festival {11) _______________________________
20. A fortyish flowering shrub (9) ___________________________________
21. For tightening your sternum? (8) ________________________________
22. Hollywood city with most of Scots poet hesitating (8) ________________
23. One who interferes (6) ________________________________________
24. I can see this tree – the mist has left (5) ___________________________
25. Brass? Light? Both together! (8)________________________________

To receive an answer sheet, email your answers to me (use the contact details on this blog)
or DM me with your answers on Twitter (@ericsinclair8)

Optionally, if you enjoyed completing this quiz, you may care to make a donation to a charity which you feel is particularly relevant in these difficult times.

Good luck, and stay well.


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Self-isolation – 2

If there is any advantage to self-isolating on Deeside, it is that there is plenty of beauty around us. Our garden is beginning to come to life, although when we see pictures from other parts of the UK we realise how far behind our trees and shrubs are here. No matter, to brighten your day, here are some photos of the colour in our garden today.






The pink flowers above are quince. These produce yellow/orange fruit in the autumn which can be made into quince jelly. I wonder how the world will look when this year’s fruit is ripe.

Finally, the answers to the cryptic clues in my last post

10 Across: Useful note that is received by religious community (10)

Convenient (Convent + i.e.)

15 Across: Candid work in French (4)

Open (op. + en)

You now have an insight into my wife’s mind. She finds this stuff easy.

Stay well

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What to do?

I suppose the last time I chose to self-isolate (healthy, young, foolish) was back in the 1970s when a combination of endless rainy season storms, an unreliable little motor cycle and flood-damaged, horribly dangerous forest tracks kept me confined alone in my modest little house on the remote campus of St Paul’s College, Bonjongo, Cameroon for all of three days. All students and most staff had left for the long rainy season vacation. On that occasion I spent those days listening to the endless tropical rain beating on my tin roof, before I finally gave in, risked the floods and set off on my little motor cycle to a nearby town, just to see if the outside world continued to exist.

To deepen the gloom, I spent those three days reading Crime and Punishment to a background of thunder, lightning and cascading water, punctuated by the constant trilling of insects and the distant shrieks of forest birds and animals. It was oppressively hot and humid. From time to time, I would cook myself some rice and vegetables, drink tea or beer and take in the view through my one door which was always open and led directly outside on to a track flowing with mud and water. It was only three days but to me it seemed endless and the doings of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov only served to make it even more depressing and other-worldly.

So, what to do this time?

Older, less healthy, certainly more patient, marginally wiser (perhaps), I am self-isolating on Deeside (we live here), in a considerably more comfortable, but still modest home, accompanied by my wife and dog. We – all of us – have already agreed that we will be forgiving if we become narky, angry or upset with one another during our period of confinement. Archie, our whippet, doesn’t realise this yet, of course, but he will, he will.

Archie, in fact, is our link to sanity and the old life because he requires regular walks and is driven by routine, as I have mentioned before. We walk with him to stay sane, though I sometimes opt for the chill of the little treadmill in our garage. We were considerably cheered up by the arrival of our third grandchild in distant Nottinghamshire earlier this month. We have already viewed his cherubic face and spoken to his joyful parents via the wonders of skype. When we will meet them all in the flesh is one of today’s many unanswered questions.

We are fortunate in that the village shops are friendly and helpful. The paper shop, for example, is offering to deliver essential items to local people if need be. The front-line staff in the local supermarket have had to deal with a steady influx of people from Aberdeen who are seeking life’s necessities because, ironically, they think they are more likely to be available here in the sticks. I take my hat off to the staff for their patience. Also, it is spring – a chilly one, but surely a season of hope, despite the daily onslaught of disturbing health news.

Regular walks apart, we are confined to home, where there is now a daily routine of sudoku and crossword completion over morning coffee. During that process I frequently swear, while my much more patient and composed wife quietly gets on with it. To my mind she is a cryptic genius whom I would never like to try to deceive. She works out the answer to arcane clues that are beyond me. Here are two of today’s examples which defeated simple me:

10 Across: Useful note that is received by religious community (10)

15 Across: Candid work in French (4)

In my next post I will give you the answers, but if you are self-isolating and have time to work them out please send me your answers via the contact details or comment section on this blog. There are no prizes, but contact from followers of this blog and details of where you think we can obtain toilet paper would be appreciated – along with any tips for keeping happy a restless, routine-driven whippet.

Stay well!

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Are the Thought Police on their way?

I was fortunate when at school to have an inspirational English teacher who tried to get us all thinking. At least, he was inspirational to me – I know that some of my contemporaries did not find him so, but then that is the reality of life in the classroom for both students and teachers. As for whether his attempts to get me thinking worked, I’ve never been too sure of that, though he certainly opened my mind to the world of literature..

Because of his teaching, I read at that time everything I could by George Orwell, starting with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and carrying on from there to read all of Orwell’s fiction and essays. As a young reader new to serious writing, I remember being struck by two things: firstly, the clarity of his prose and secondly, Orwell’s oft repeated message that language is a key part of our freedom in a civilised society to say what we think, and that any reduction in the subtlety and nuance of language leads to a concomitant reduction in our ability to express subtle and nuanced thoughts.

I suppose the prime example of this is Orwell’s creation of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four which illustrates how a ruthless state could, in the nightmare world of that novel, reduce the English language to prearranged, staccato-like strips of words, and hence, in the long-term, remove the ability of its citizens to think certain thoughts, or at least to allow them to think only the “correct” ones.

A Newspeak word and an image that has always stuck in my mind from that novel is “duckspeak”, which referred to the utterance by those in power of unthinking strips of words. It is worth quoting Orwell’s own words from the novel:

Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning “to quack like a duck”. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.

Without labouring the point, I am sure you can immediately see parallels in the year 2020 – politicians and opinionated tweeters on the word-limiting platform of Twitter, or political speeches by some of our leaders (not all, fortunately). Then again, as I wrote in this blog last year, there is the general tone of debate on-line and in such settings as First Minister’s Questions in Scotland or in Prime Minister’s questions at Westminster, where thoughtless clapping seals (Scotland) and mindless supportive or angry braying (Westminster) are standard responses to the contemporary linguistic equivalent of duckspeak from our leaders. Surely the same principle applies to aspects of so-called political correctness, as well as the dog-whistle politics of some of the Brexit debate, or some of the “respectful debate” we endured here during the Scottish independence campaign of 2014. Even as I write this, are the thought police (thinkpol) heading my way to weed out such mutinous statements from this blog?

Am I being too negative? Too humourless?

Maybe, but perhaps we need to be vigilant about such things. Some of these thoughts were prompted by discovering recently that an organisation has been established called the Free Speech Union. It is worth following the link to their website to listen to what its founder, Toby Young, has to say. You may find yourself agreeing with him or not about the need for such an organisation. In a sign of our times, Toby Young himself has immediately been described as a “right-wing snowflake” by one publication – a fact which may indicate that free speech is alive and well, after all.

For myself, I am always concerned that organisations which broadcast their principles so loudly in their title, may in fact end up doing in practice the opposite of what they say. For example, I am instantly suspicious of countries whose Sunday name includes “The People’s Republic of…” or “The Democratic Republic of…”, or from Nineteen Eighty-Four again – the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) enforced loyalty to Big Brother through fear, while the Ministry of Truth {Minitrue) spread propaganda and lies. The title “The Free Speech Union” may perhaps sound to you to be dangerously close to such models.

What about humour? Is that allowed? Whose humour? And who to believe?

As my English teacher years ago might have said to my addled adolescent brain, “At least you’re free to choose, for now. Go home and think about it.”

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Collective Wellbeing

What is a successful nation?

I ask, because this was the question the First Minister of Scotland attempted to answer last month. According to Ms Sturgeon, Scotland is “redefining what it means to be a successful nation”. She went on to say that people’s quality of life – “collective wellbeing” she calls it – should be as important as economic growth. Despite the political fog in her statements, I think I am just about with her on this. What is the point of producing and selling more and more widgets and doing so more efficiently and profitably, if the whole process leaves us miserable and unhealthy as a nation? The trouble, of course, is that “collective wellbeing” can be difficult to measure. Some people have tried. According to the Scottish Trends Index of Social and Economic Wellbeing, Scotland is in the bottom half of OECD countries.

The quality of wellbeing also depends on where you are standing when you attempt the measurement. I suspect that if the First Minister asked some of her fellow Scots living with mental health problems, drug addiction, long-term health conditions, or those caring for them, she might receive some uncomfortable answers. At least, that is, if she is serious about putting collective wellbeing out there as a measure of our success as a nation.

I have a dog in this fight. I live with a long-term condition: chronic stroke. Just over a year ago, I wrote an article for the Scottish Review in which I deplored the apparent decline of stroke care in Scotland compared to other parts of the world. I pointed out at the time that this was no fault of the clinicians and therapists who work in the system. In fact, many felt frustrated by it. They work within tight resource constraints and are combatting a serious health problem which, UK-wide, affects approximately 150,000 people of all ages each year for the first time. In Scotland it is a major cause of disability.

So, where are we one year on? Research into stroke in the UK still accounts for a mere fraction of the amount invested into the causes and treatments of other serious conditions such as cancer or dementia. While there are immediate treatments available for some of the strokes caused by blood clots to the brain – thrombolysis, in which clots are dissolved, and thrombectomy in which clots are removed mechanically – both procedures require skilled stroke clinicians and a strong workforce of qualified radiologists. These are currently in short supply. Both treatments are also time critical, which presents its own challenges.

In Scotland there is underway a grindingly slow process to establish a nationwide thrombectomy service which would allow several hundred patients a year to avoid the long-term effects of stroke. Charities estimate this service could save between 600 and 800 Scots a year suffering physical disability and psychological impairment. Other parts of the UK and other advanced economies have forged ahead with developing thrombectomy services in recent years, while in Scotland not a single patient can at present benefit from this procedure. By this measure, then, the lives of several hundred Scots a year are being unnecessarily blighted by disability. Collective wellbeing?

More cheerful news, perhaps. In the draft budget presented to the Scottish parliament on 6 February, £1 million (out of a £15 billion budget) was set aside for the development of a stroke thrombectomy service. It has been estimated that this represents approximately 10% of the cost of establishing such a service nationwide, yet the potential long-term savings to health and social care services run into hundreds of millions, to say nothing of the possible improvements to “collective wellbeing”.

Where are the real priorities of the Scottish government? The same draft budget included an increase of £2 million for international affairs to a total of £26 million. International affairs are reserved to the UK government, so are not technically a responsibility of the Scottish government at all (although they allow Ms Sturgeon to grandstand all over the place). Imagine what could be achieved if a slice of that budget was to be invested in acute stroke care or other long-term conditions. Collective wellbeing?

Hospital treatment, however good, will still mean that most survivors of a major stroke will require long-term support, from family and friends and from state provided social care. Many stroke survivors leaving hospital – especially those of working age – describe the feeling of being discharged from hospital as akin to falling off a cliff. This is despite the worthy intentions of the new health and social care integration structures, which, though eminently desirable, are proving patchily successful at best. In the absence of long-term therapy, a large proportion of stroke survivors succumb to depression. Those who can afford to do so frequently end up paying for the physical or psychological therapies they require, further exacerbating the health inequalities that plague Scotland. Collective wellbeing?

I have concentrated on stroke, because it is an area I know only too painfully well. I know that the challenges I have described for staff and patients are mirrored in other long-term conditions, but I believe they are challenges that a successful nation should be striving more robustly to overcome – if, that is, it is serious about “collective wellbeing”.

A version of this post appeared in the Scottish Review on 12 February 2020. In the same issue I recommend the article by Josh Bain, about attitudes to disability.


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