WGN’s “Underground” Breaks 4th Wall & Get’s Cancelled

CAUTION: This post is filed under “Conspiracy Theories”. I formulate those from time to time and I am fully aware that their origins are firmly rooted in my imagination. While they’re not likely to be completely outside the realm of possibility, it is extremely unlikely that there’s any merit to them beyond a fun thought experiment. In other words, do not take the following seriously.

I’ve been binging the TV show “Underground” as part of my Hulu free trial and I just finished season 2, episode 6, titled “Minty”.  The entire series is an absolute must-see series that I wholeheartedly recommend.  There are episodes that are awkward, episodes that may wander a little slowly or even sometimes to quickly, but each and every episode offers something exceptional.

Anyway, the S2E6 (“Minty”) essentially consisted of a TED-Talk style monologue by Harriet Tubman, played by Aisha Hinds.  If you haven’t seen it,  I’m not going to spoil it here.  Go start at S1E1 and watch them all though!

Fun facts about timing:

Coincidence?  Probably.  You can read all the rationale behind the cancellation in the links I provided.  You can guess why Sinclair wanted Tribune and understand why they likely didn’t care about the value of “Underground” one bit .  However, going into the series knowing that it had already been cancelled, I felt something stir deep inside me the moment I saw Harriet Tubman break through the 4th wall and speak directly to me.   It might have been the cajun-crust pizza and chili dogs I had eaten for my last two meals…  But I can’t shake the feeling that “Underground” was making powerful people nervous.  Still wondering why it was cancelled so swiftly as part of a merger deal that never even happened?

P.S.  Don’t want to watch and just want to know what was in the episode?  Spoilers here.

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Amazon Fire TV with Recast [Part 5] – Final Review

* NOTE: This is the end of my cord cutting journey.  Go back and read The Backstory, The Planning, Fire Stick 1st Impressions, and Recast 1st Impressions if you’re curious about everything leading up to this review.

Well, I haven’t turned on a cable box in over a week, so I’ve decided to make the switch.  I know that the novelty of the new system still has me excited and I’m still finding plenty to watch between DVR’d live TV stored on the Recast and all the various apps from the networks, Netflix and Amazon Prime.  You may recall that I already had Netflix and Prime so, nothing new there for us, but having the ability to pause and record over-the-air network TV has worked out just fine. Do I miss a couple of shows that would require something like a $25 Sling TV subscription to access?  Maybe… I don’t know.  Not yet anyway, but if I wind up coughing up $25/month instead of hundreds, then it’s still a win.  Anyway, some thoughts:

The Bad

  • Live, over-the-air TV hasn’t changed all that much from when I was a kid.  There’s even a lot of the same shows still in re-runs which is pretty funny.  The frustrating thing is that when the signal is weak, you get interruption as opposed to the simple fuzzy picture we’d get in the olden days.  Obviously, your mileage may vary depending on distance from the stations, your antenna and where you put it.  My big networks are rock solid and it’s only the fringe stations that have some reliability issues.  So, it’s not enough to even cause me to try a new antenna location much less investing in an outdoor one.  But, those are options and I’d advise maybe buying your antenna first and connecting it to a TV just to see what you can expect before going all-in.
  • Words cannot express how much I hate the clutter on the Fire TV home screen.  I previously wrote about accessing the live TV guide by clicking → → ↓ ↓ ↓ [Select].  It was only after several days of using the system that I discovered the “On Now” section is also on the home screen and if you click ← on it, the guide is there too. Not actually quicker though because it takes nine (9) ↓ clicks, yes, NINE things you must skip over, just to  get to that row!  There are tabs and an app for Amazon Prime content.  I DO NOT NEED IT EMBEDDED INTO MY HOME SCREEN!  I also don’t need ads for Fire TV Recast because I already own one…. you’re Amazon, you mine my data, you should already know that!  Anyway, rant over.
  • The Recast, even the one with 4 tuners, can only stream to two devices simultaneously.  I knew that going in and that isn’t why I mention it in the “bad” column.  It’s here because I had streamed live TV to my Kindle and I didn’t “close” the application. I merely put the Kindle to sleep because that’s what people do.  Unfortunately, the next time I went to watch TV on my real TV, I got a warning that the Recast was already streaming to two devices.  Um… no it wasn’t, this was the only device in use.  Apparently, the Recast still thought it was streaming to the other Fire Stick as well as my Kindle.  Could I acknowledge that warning and terminate the streams to the other device(s) from there?  Of course not.  I had to go find my Kindle, wake it up and terminate the Fire TV app on it before the stream would return to my TV.  I consider that a bug because any device that is asleep should relinquish its hold on the Recast.
  • Please, please, please Amazon, make a remote for the Recast that includes Ch.+/- and a guide button (at the very least).  I want to be able to click [Guide] from anywhere and have it take me to live-TV with the guide up. Home, Right, Right, Down, Down, Down, Select is just way too much like a cheat code when 1 button could handle it.
  • There’s a weird issue caused when I pause live-TV for a while… The picture stream looks very low-res when I resume.  I first thought it was the recording, but I realized that if I clicked the ← button to jump back 10 seconds, everything looked amazing again.  So, it’s something with the pause/resume and I consider it a bug as well.  Hopefully it gets resolved because it’s an annoyance for sure.
  • I’ve also had a couple of recordings that wouldn’t play.  They’d have a thumbnail and look like they had recorded fine, but any attempt to play them would just result in a very long wait followed by an error.  Restarting the Recast didn’t seem to have any impact.  This is concerning because DVR capability is the main point of the device.  This could be signal related, but in my mind, even a show with less than stellar signal should have something recorded for playback.  So, I don’t know if it was file corruption or what that caused it.  I may need to hang on to a Hulu subscription as a backup to the DVR, but that almost defeats the purpose.


The Good

  • Simple, 1-remote solution to combining TV, DVR and streaming app content.  This has to be mentioned 1st because it’s the entire reason I chose the Amazon Fire TV ecosystem and it has proved to be exactly what I thought it could be.  No more fiddling with “input” buttons or [TV][Power][Cable][Power]… it’s just 1 power button and start browsing for what I want to watch.  The browsing part could be simpler, but I addressed that in the “bad” section above.  The concept is awesome and the devices have worked together seamlessly so far.
  • Picture quality is better than I expected.  I do not have a 4k TV.  I have read that things aren’t as nice on a 4k TV.  However, on my 1080 TVs, the apps look great and the lower resolution Recast stream looks good enough.  It’s weird because it’s almost more detailed but slightly softer than cable was if that makes any sense.  As if the resolution is lower, but the compression algorithms are better which makes it a more pleasing image to my eye.
  • Streaming live-TV and your DVR’d shows to anywhere.  That wasn’t a feature I was looking for, but when someone is playing Playstation or watching Greys Anatomy on Netflix and you want to watch live news, it’s kind of nice to just chill with your Kindle and watch live TV with some noise-cancelling earbuds in… just sayin’
  • Talking to the remote works better than I expected.  I was/am very resistant to interacting with the system this way.  However, the few times I have, the system figured out what I wanted, even inside of apps, and took me to that content.  Including turning on the TV.  That said, even though the remote seems to know what I’m doing, the humans in adjacent rooms still say, “What?” and I have to add the extra step of telling them that I was talking to the TV.
  • The steaming hasn’t made a noticeable impact on my household WiFi.  I do have the Recast hardwired to the router with CAT5, so it’s just the Fire TV Sticks that are using WiFi.  However, so far, people can still play games on other devices while the Recast is streaming live-TV.  I think that’s the genius of Amazon’s decision to go with 720 resolution.  I might feel differently if I had 4k TVs, but for what I have, it’s perfect.

So, that’s it.  I’ve given up on cable and, at this point, I actually feel like I’m saving money AND getting a better experience that’s more suited to my lifestyle.  Is it perfect?  Nope.  There’s plenty of reasons to consider carefully whether or not it will meet your needs.  Quality of over-the-air signal is an extremely important one along with your home network setup and size/resolution of your TVs.  It’s a solution that’s almost tailor-made for me though and hopefully it doesn’t all go to crap now that I’m committed to it.

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What’s the point of “gender”?

Gender?In the olden days, it seems like sex, gender and orientation were all considered interconnected by societal opinion.  All of it was based on genitalia at birth.  In fact, sex and gender, at least colloquially in the United States, were treated as synonyms.  Both concepts were used as a division of species.  If you had a vagina, you were a female and it was assumed that you liked girl/woman things, would have an aptitude for things considered to be traditionally girl/woman things and that you’d be attracted to humans with penises.  Of course, having a penis came with a mirror set of expectations.  That was all considered to be “normal” and anyone that deviated from that was considered… well… “deviant”.

Now, in 2019 (at least in the United States), there’s a burgeoning acceptance of, or at least a willingness to acknowledge, that things are not so simple.  Sex and gender have separated and orientations have gotten more complicated.  The push is to define sex narrowly as the division of species, X vs. Y chromosomes, penises vs. vaginas, etc…  That is differentiated from gender which is used to describe predictable behaviors along with social and cultural roles. Currently, in the mainstream at least, orientation still remains largely connected to gender, even if less connected to sex.  People born with a penis may be sexually attracted to other people with penises. Those people may identify as either a man or a woman.  That identification is then used to determine hetero or homo sexuality.  Sure it’s complicated and not everyone is accepting of the statement that a person identifying as a woman is straight if they are attracted to people identifying as men, even if some of those men were born with a vagina.

Narrow-minded people have it pretty easy here.  They just continue to think in a binary way; humans are either male or female in both sex & gender and therefore are either hetero or homo sexual based on whom they’re attracted to.  The rest of us are mired down in a never-ending attempt to pile on more definitions, more descriptors, more pronouns in an attempt to apply language to what is in reality an infinite number of possibilities.  That’s because there is no such thing as being able to categorize people based on the things they like to do or will eventually develop an aptitude for.  Any attempt to create and apply gender-like roles is simply doomed from the start because there will always be someone that doesn’t fit an existing mold and will require a new category.

Humans currently multiply by sexual reproduction.  I say “currently” because you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think we’ll be able to reproduce humans in labs using completely fabricated DNA sequences and special “incubators” made of living tissue someday.  However, in the meantime, sex is still a thing because some people are driven to reproduce, likely a hard-coded instinct to ensure the survival of the species.  So, whatever, those people will likely seek a mate of the opposite sex because that’s how you facilitate reproduction.  You could give those people a term if you wanted to, although heterosexual probably works well enough.   Everyone else could be lumped together as non-reproducers or asexual for the binary-thinkers, but honestly, it’s not really relevant.  The point is that male, female and other sexes exist genetically and the reproductive organs vary, but there’s a finite number of combinations when it comes to sexes.  Honestly, you could probably break down sexual orientation to breeding-biased and non-biased.

I guess I’m saying that I think it would truly be easier if we were all just humans and though of each other that way.  Some of us may seek a mate with whom our genitalia can assist in reproduction.  Some may seek a mate with whom we share physical and/or emotional similarities regardless of genitalia.  People can like being dominant or submissive or equal… both emotionally as well as sexually.  There’s plenty of humans to go around and tying orientation to gender back to sex just seems so unnecessarily restrictive and burdensome.

So, I don’t see the point of trying to define genders.  Sure, a genderless society would require some changes.  Like it would mean the end of the urinal because all bathrooms would become genderless and just need stalls.  The bathroom in my home is genderless and it works pretty well except when the penis-people pee like they’re trying to contain a high-pressure fire hose (but that’s off topic).  Sports leagues would need to work like many youth sports where participants play in leagues based on average skill level rather than gender.  None of that is insurmountable though.  Marriage is already between two humans regardless of breeding status so there’s one down.

I know, discrimination would run rampant if it wasn’t able to be checked because the narrow-minded would continue to discriminate based on their visual interpretations and preconceived notions of gender.  It would take time.  I’m just wondering if the young folks that are so open and desperate to  avoid mis-gendering their peers might want to consider switching to genderless pronouns and eliminating the idea of stereotyping genders all together.  Because let’s be honest, what is gender if not a stereotype?  There’s no such thing as a “gender identity” without having at least one stereotype to identify with. If you remove 100% of all stereotypical roles, behaviors, aptitudes, genitalia and sexual orientation from a gender, then all you’re left with is a person that chose an arbitrary label just to be able to check boxes on forms and know which bathroom to use.



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Cutting the cord [Part 1] – The backstory

night television tv video

Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

Life has gotten more expensive as I get older and my cable bill is no exception.  I’ve been paying close to $200 per month for cable television… no movies, no internet, no phone… just the TV package with all the non-movie channels going to 3 TVs with two DVRs. I need internet for work which makes that a separate expense (billed independently) that will be available to me regardless of my TV situation.  So, obviously there’s a significant cost savings to be realized by ditching cable.

TV is my vice… it’s my escapist guilty pleasure and it has always been that way.  I probably watch as much as the average person in the U.S.  Meaning, more than I should but I don’t devote entire days or weekends to binge watching either.  Lately though, I have realized that I rarely watch anything during it’s actual time-slot.  I either stream Netflix shows or watch shows off the DVR.  I mostly read news and what I do watch, is local and just about the only “live” thing I watch.  Meaning, I could pretty much get by with an antenna, Netflix and maybe Hulu for streaming current-season shows.

I have previously experimented with streaming boxes over the years.  I once was “bleeding-edge” and built a media center PC that I convinced myself I was going to control with RF universal remotes and watch on any TV in the house over RF modulators.  Yeah… now might be a good time to mention that I’m not the only person that needs to consume TV in my household and let’s just say, bleeding edge tech is only worth the headaches if you derive joy from tinkering… like a hot-rod or a classic Ferrari… not for everyone.  So, that went bust and a few years went by before I tried again with Roku… and then an Apple TV… I know, I know, but I was thinking mainstream appliances would appeal to everyone in the house.  I looked into over-the-air DVRs which felt too much like the PC I built originally and there was something about paying for a guide service that just seemed like shifting money from one thing to another while increasing inconvenience.

That’s when I identified my goals:  Increase convenience (or at least keep it the same) while simultaneously reducing or eliminating recurring costs.  Oh yeah, with the caveat that I had to do that without piracy.  Not judging, you do you, but I’ve got my reasons for wanting to ensure those that create content get paid… or at least have the opportunity to negotiate getting paid.  So, I knew that meant a handful of subscriptions (like Netflix and Prime) and ad-supported content (over-the-air and streaming).

Enter Amazon Fire TV…  On paper it had it all.  The Fire TV Recast is an over-the-air DVR complete with a free guide service that streams live and recorded TV to devices all over and the Fire TV sticks are analogous to the other gizmos I had tried.  Sounds like the perfect blend of convenience and affordability wrapped into a single Amazon ecosystem right? Plus, everything I ordered would pay for itself in 2 months.  I had a plan.


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Cutting the cord [Part 2] – The Plan

NOTE: What follows is my understanding based on my research.
See Part 3 to read about how it all really went together.

So, if you read Part 1, you know that I’m getting away from cable in an effort to better match my TV viewing habits with my equipment (increase convenience) while simultaneously reducing monthly recurring costs. After years of experimenting, I may have settled on a workable solution.  I purchased the following:

Amazon Fire TV Recast
This device is an over-the-air DVR with a built-in free guide.  I purchased the 1TB model with 4 tuners in it so that I could record 2 shows while watching content on both TVs.  I doubt I’ll ever need to do that, but I’m a big believer in buying flexibility initially rather than limiting yourself just to save a small percentage in the short term.

The Recast is not connected to any TV.  That’s awesome because it means that you can locate it wherever you want in your home so that the antenna gets the absolute best signal and/or you can hard-wire it right to you router.

It will stream live, over-the-air TV along with stuff you DVR’d off the air to any of your Fire TV enabled devices.  That includes Fire Sticks, actual Fire Televisions (they have those now), Kindle Fires, etc…  You are limited to streaming to two devices at once, no matter how many tuners are in the Recast.  That wasn’t an issue for me, but it’s something to consider.

Two Amazon Fire TV Stick 4k
These are the streaming gizmos that plug straight into an HDMI port on your TVs.  They connect to your network via WiFi and have menus of content and streaming apps just like a Roku or Apple TV would.  One of the apps is the Recast one which streams live TV or DVR content over your in-home network from the Recast to the Fire TV Stick.

Amazon Fire TV Stick Network Adapter
This is an adapter that allows the Fire TV Stick to connect via CAT5 cable instead of WiFi.  I read mixed reviews and it seems like people that can use WiFi say it’s faster over WiFi and people that cannot use WiFi say it allows it to work when it didn’t before.  I wasn’t about to let $15 delay my setup if I wound up having to order one later.  So, I just ordered it to have it if I need it.  It’s Amazon… free shipping now and I can return it later if I don’t need it.

That’s it!  In theory, I’ll be able to hook up the indoor digital TV antenna I already own to the Recast, connect the Recast to my network and plug a Fire TV Stick into each TV.  That should give me the ability to watch and record (and pause) live TV over-the-air and also keep my access to Netflix and Prime.  All without needing to switch inputs on the TV and all from one simple Amazon remote!  Sounds great right?  Why am I nervous?

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Cutting the cord [Part 3] – Fire TV Stick 1st Impressions

Well, the hardware is here and I’ve started playing around.  Parts 1 & 2 can get you up to speed on the why and what… this post is about how it’s going.

The first things to arrive were the Fire TV Sticks. I got the 4k model because I read that they were faster and had more memory than the older ones.  For 10-bucks more, it seemed like a no-brainier to go that route and not need an upgrade anytime soon.  The packaging was what packaging is nowadays.  All nice and tidy, with each piece and part nestled in it’s little pocket and wrapped in plastic film.  Initial setup is ridiculously simple.  Plug it in, follow a couple of prompts and you’re up and running.  Seriously, it took me longer to remember my Netflix password than it did to set up the Fire Stick.

I’m not one to leave well enough alone though, so I did go through the settings and preferences and such.  Here’s the thing, flexibility adds complexity and with ease comes restriction.  Fire TV Stick is super easy to use.

What I liked:

  • Connecting and configuring the system could not be easier.  A very simple wizard walks through a couple of questions and you’re up and running.
  • The remote configuration was ridiculously simple too.  It was seriously like magic the way the system figured out the power and volume settings for my TV.  (See the note below about the stereo though)
  • The Fire TV Stick changes the HDMI input on the TV (you can disable that option if you want).  So, if the PS4 or something was the last thing in use, hitting the power or home button on the Fire remote wakes it up and switches the TV to it.  1-button simplicity = increased convenience.
  • Netflix app has the “Skip Intro” option which was missing on the Apple TV.  I know, its a little thing, but I like it.
  • Streaming from Netflix and Prime is as good or better looking than the other devices I’ve tried.

What I didn’t like:

  • I’d love to be able to customize the home screen more than you really can.  The other gizmos in this class don’t really allow that either, but what I’d love is to be able to lay it out like you can the icons on a phone.  My biggest pet peeve is what I call the Prime ads that you need to jump over to get from the top menu to the apps.  I would also love to disable the “Recent” apps section and just have 1-click to jump to the section of apps that I organized the way I want.  I like to rely on familiarity and muscle memory to navigate instead of having to ignore the randomness and clutter.  But whatever… it is what it is and I’ll get used to it quick enough.
  • I had to log into my Amazon account on a PC to rename the Fire Stick.  I found that odd.  Shouldn’t I be able to rename it right on the device itself?
  • The remote can absolutely be made to control my stereo receiver volume.  It wasn’t even hard to add.  However, it’s kind of an all-or-nothing scenario.  If you want to use your TV for normal viewing and just mute the TV and use the stereo for “movie night”, it looks like the easiest way to do that is by using the stereo’s remote and leaving the Fire TV remote setup to control the TV.  The minimalist remote is cute, but it’s not going to be a “universal” remote.
  • Typing the letter “s” in the Fire TV remote app on both my phone and my Kindle wouldn’t register.  Mouse movements were jumpy too.  Apple and Roku’s remote apps for their devices are significantly better.
  • Streaming from some of the news apps was a little jumpy and pixelated.  These are the same apps I used on the same TV in the same location on an Apple TV without issue, so I don’t know if there’s something about the buffering in the Amazon version of the apps or what.  Remember, Netflix was as good or better, so it’s not the hardware.  Hopefully it’s something that’ll get smoothed out (pun intended) in an update.

All in all, the Fire TV Stick 4k seems pretty much like any other streaming gizmo.  It’s tiny and plugs directly into the TV (NOTE: it does have an external power cord).  The interface is fine, although I’d like a more control to reduce the clutter on my home screen down to the handful of apps that I’ll use most often.  I won’t use enough apps to need an ever shuffling “recent apps” section as the 1st section and movies and TV have their own headings up top, so I should be able to toggle off those categories on the home screen.  That’s just my tastes though.  Less is more and clutter is frustrating because everything becomes a game of Where’s Waldo trying to find the one icon you’re looking for.  I also recognize that some people have icons for every program they’ve ever used on their computer desktop too.  I’ll get used to it.  In the end, I had all this functionality before on a smart TV, Apple TV and Roku.  The cohesive remote control experience with Fire TV Stick is very nice but the real test of my experiment will be connecting the Recast and watching/recording live TV!

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Cutting the cord [Part 4] – Fire TV Recast 1st Impressions

Parts 1, 2 & 3 have all led up to this.  Is it possible to simplify my live TV viewing, TV episode DVR’ing and Netflix streaming into a single ecosystem without ever needing to shuffle through a drawer full of remotes or cycle the TV inputs?  Even more, can I have all that and have it be cohesive across multiple devices?

Well, it’s a definite possibility.  I’ll post a [Part 5] in a few weeks to describe how it works out and whether or not I actually cancel cable or return everything.  In the meantime, it looks like the plan works as intended.

Setup of the Recast was not quite as seamless as the Fire Sticks.  It wasn’t hard, but it involved connecting a mobile device with the Fire TV app to a WiFi signal being generated by the Recast in order to perform the initial setup.  That was fine.  It also involved re-scanning the TV channels, repositioning the antenna, re-scanning again, and being disappointed in the  channels and the stability of those channels.  Then I remembered the genius of the Recast… it doesn’t need to be located anywhere near a TV!  It streams the over-the-air and DVR content, so all it needs is power, antenna and network (CAT5 or WiFi).  So, I moved the Recast to another room where I could put the antenna on a window that faced a better direction for the broadcast stations and re-scanned one more time.  I got 57 channels!  All of them rock-solid and crystal clear!

I scheduled a few things to record on the DVR and I haven’t watched them yet, but I did spot check them using my Kindle and they looked good.  I can now watch live TV and DVR content on both TVs with the Fire Sticks as well as phones and Kindles using the Fire TV app.  It all seems to work as intended.  The settings on the Recast are virtually non-existent like the rest of the Fire TV ecosystem.  You can’t manually add channels and try moving the antenna around for example… just reposition and re-scan until you win.  You can tweak the default recording settings for the DVR though which is a nice touch.  The guide is fine and you can select favorites which it will stick to the top of the guide.  However, it takes multiple actions to get to the guide.  [Options]+[Select] if you’re watching something or [Power]+[Right]+[Right]+[Down]+[Down]+[Down]+[Select] if you’re just turning it on.  Seriously?!?  With cable it’s just turn it on and press [Guide]. It’s like the people that designed this interface don’t actually watch TV.  You can also hit [Down] and scroll through the thumbnails of what’s live once you’re watching a channel, so that’s kinda neat.  I guess that’s the drawback to a remote that prides itself on having so few buttons.  I mean, would it have killed them to add Ch.+/-  buttons so you could channel surf and maybe [Rec] and [Guide] buttons to make those things easier?  I get it, not everyone with Fire TV has a Recast.  I’m pretty sure they just want you to talk to your remote because it’s Alexa enabled.  The thing is, every time I talk to my remote, someone in a nearby room asks, “What?” because they think I’m talking to them.  I’d pay extra for a more universal remote that works with the entire Fire TV ecosystem and would also control my stereo (without having to add more gizmos from another brand like smarthome hubs and whatnot).

All things considered, I’m optimistic.  Now it’s time to spend a week exclusively using the Fire TV gear to work out the kinks before training the family.  Then we’ll see whether they love it, hate it, or are indifferent enough to live without the high cost of cable.   We’ll also see if I still find the minimalist remotes annoying and still hate having to skip over clutter on the home screen to get to the apps I’ve configured and organized.  Stay tuned…

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