Category Archives: Blog

When being an author is fun

Lots of people want to have written; they don’t want to write. In other words, they want to see their name on the front cover of a book and their grinning picture on the back. But this is what comes at the end of a job, not at the beginning.
—Elizabeth George

I’m one of those authors that enjoys the writing and that euphoric moment when you pull the author copy out of the package and hold the fruits of your labors in your hands. I don’t agree with the last part of Elizabeth George’s quote, though. For most writers, that isn’t the end of the job. There is still a great deal of work to be done promoting your book. It is, however, the transition from a solitary work shared only with your editor (when said editor can take a few minutes away from laughing maniacally and sharpening red pencils with a switchblade*) to something your cadres of adoring fans can enjoy.

Some of the real fun of being an author happens during the writing. That moment when you sit back and realize you’ve crafted the perfect sentence. When you figure out how to resolve that nagging inconsistency in the backstory. When you catch your botched pluperfect before the aforementioned editor sees it.

For us extroverts, though, most of the fun happens after the book hits the streets. We love standing in front a roomful of people to read our work, sitting at a book signing table with a line of fans in front of us, seeing our tweets shared far and wide.

Yesterday, I got to experience a joyful moment in the gloaming, that brief period between the arrival of the first books and the start of the hectic marketing campaign.

Dominique Woman PowerAlmost a year ago, while working on Who Pooped in Central Park, I realized that I needed the kids to encounter a bird expert in the park. I toyed with different ideas for the character until I was struck with an epiphany: I know the perfect person!

Dominique Paulus is an artist who paints, among other things, birds. We have one of her original paintings hanging on our living room wall (“Woman Power,” seen at right). She’s been my friend for years, and we’ve chatted quite a bit about birds when she’s in my bookstore shopping for bird books.

So I wrote Dominique into the book and had her spend several pages telling the children about the birds in Central Park. I sent my illustrator (the incomparable Robert Rath) a photo of Dominique and she became a part of the plot. I couldn’t resist hinting to her that I had a surprise coming, but I did somehow restrain myself and not tell her what I’d done. Yesterday, on the official release date of the book, I gave her a copy of the book and showed her the pages that featured her.

Dominique excerpt

Things that may seem minor to us, like a dedication or acknowledgement in the front of a book, mean a lot to people. Watching Dominique’s face when she saw herself in this book was a wonderful thing. As writers, we have many ways to change people’s lives. It’s up to us how we use them.

* To Will Harmon, my editor at Farcountry Press: I’m sure you don’t actually sharpen your red pencils with a switchblade. I’m guessing you use an axe.

The end of an era … and start of a new one

UPDATE, 2018
We are back in Red Lodge, but not with a bookstore. Phoenix Pearl Tea is our tea and game business on Broadway, right next door to where Red Lodge Books and Tea was located. Come see us, or order your favorite teas online!

End of an era header

The bookstore Kathy and I purchased in 2001 is closing. For the first time in thirty years, the town of Red Lodge will be without a bookstore. I feel sad and guilty about it, but I also feel giddy and excited about what’s coming. If ever there was a personification of “mixed emotions,” it’s me. Right now.

A group about an hour away in Billings has purchased all of the assets of Red Lodge Books & Tea and hired me to be the General Manager and create a new store for them.

When we bought our store from my friend Randy Tracy, it was a small store smack in the middle of downtown Red Lodge, Montana, right across the street from the iconic Red Lodge Café. It was called the Broadway Bookstore, although I changed the name when I discovered that (a) Broadway Books is trademarked by Random House, and (b) there was an “adult” bookstore called Broadway Books & Videos just an hour away.

When I took over the store, it was mostly used books, and the new books were predominantly local history and guidebooks. Over the next few years, we shifted the focus to be more about new books, finally eliminating the used books entirely when the library a few blocks away started doing monthly used book sales (it’s hard to compete with 25 cent books). We tried many experiments, some of which succeeded wildly (like our tea bar), and some of which flopped horribly (like greeting cards).

The store has been a family affair. I’ve been there full-time and Kathy’s been there part-time for as long as we’ve owned it. Both of our kids have worked at the store (one is still there, as the Tea Bar Manager). When we were publishing the Red Lodge Local Rag, the office was in the back of the bookstore. When the Local Rag book came out last winter, it launched at the bookstore. Our grandson is as comfortable in the store as he is at our house.

Perhaps the greatest thing about the fifteen years we’ve spent running Red Lodge Books & Tea is the people we’ve gotten to meet. The book trade is simply filled with great people, and most of them are eager to share what they know. I’ve learned from other bookstores in Montana, like Chapter One, Fact & Fiction, Country Bookshelf, Montana Book & Toy Company, Thomas Books, Vargo’s Books & Jazz, and Barjon’s Books. I’ve met bookstore owners and booksellers at book conferences all over the West, and they’ve been helpful and friendly.

And then there are the authors.

We’ve had self-published local authors and New York Times bestselling authors, locals and authors from thousands of miles away. We’ve had events where nobody showed up, events so big we had to move them to the library, and events even bigger than that which we had to hold at the Elks. We’ve had events with police protection, parties with free beer & wine, cookbook signings with free food, and midnight Harry Potter parties with lines out the door and down the sidewalk. You want to know where I got a lot of the material for my new book about book signings? Right here!

The toughest part of this whole deal is my feelings that I’m abandoning Red Lodge. For almost fifteen years, Kathy & I have been active parts of the community. Between us, we’ve served on the boards of the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association, Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary, Red Lodge Festival of Nations, Convention & Visitors Bureau, Red Lodge Proud & Beautiful, and Beartooth Elks Lodge. We’ve worked on City committees, the Red Lodge Branding Initiative, and the Christmas Stroll. We’ve sponsored events all over town, and I’ve emceed events all over town. But most of all, we’ve given Red Lodge a place to buy books, hang out with other book lovers, meet authors, and have a great cup of tea. I’m going to miss that.

Kathy’s staying active in many of those downtown groups, but for the next year while I’m getting that co-op up and running in Billings, I won’t be able to. I’m not moving, but I’m not quite staying here, either.

Closing Red Lodge Books & Tea is, indeed, the end of an era. It’s been a good era. And I think the new era is going to be a good one, too. We’ll never be able to fill the gap that Susan Thomas left behind when she retired and closed up Thomas Books, but we’ll do our best to build a thriving bookstore and literary hub right in the middle of downtown Billings. It’s a big challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.

You might be a redneck court reporter

This article started out as something I posted on the CompuServe Court Reporters Forum (CRForum) a couple of decades ago, and was turned into an article for MS-Strokes (The magazine of the Mississippi Court Reporters Association) in 1997. Later, portions of this article also appeared in the Journal of Court Reporting. I came across the article while going through some old archives, and thought my friends in the legal and court reporting business might appreciate it.

The inspiration for this article, of course, came from Jeff Foxworthy. As a side note, at least eight of these came from real life — I’ll let you figure out which eight!

You might be a redneck court reporter…

…if you’ve ever missed the verdict because you were mooning the defendant.

…if you use the pencil holders on your steno machine for cigarettes.

…if you have to move at least three cats to get to your CAT.

…if you wear your fishing vest on depositions because the pockets hold four steno pads.

…if you use cinder blocks instead of a tripod.

…if you’ve ever bet your judge you could drink a six-pack and still report that FedEx guy.

…if you have six steno machines, and only one works.

…if you have “y’all” in your dictionary.

…if your living room bookshelves are boards stacked on boxes of last year’s steno notes.

…if you have a spittoon on the side of your steno machine.

…if your bailiff introduces the judge by saying, “Y’all git up, Bubba’s coming.”

…if your steno machine has ever spent the winter on your front lawn.

…if you’ve pre-scripted the jury charge, and you call it up by writing “yadda yadda yadda.”

…if you bought text enlarging software so you could edit with a hangover.

…if you painted your steno machine black with flames coming off the keyboard.

…if you have a brief for “(witness nodding and belching)”.

…if you have a bass lure on your paper tray.

…if your front porch is held up by a hi-boy tripod.

…if you had your wedding reported so you’d have the vows in writing.

…if you’ve ever taken your notebook computer to a service technician to get the cigarette ashes out of the keyboard.

…if the attorney called for a sidebar, and you said, “Good idea, Judge! I’ll have a mint julep.”

…if there are at least three pieces of duct tape on your tripod.

…if you found underwear in your steno case, and you don’t know whose it is.

…if you’ve ever spilled a beer in your CAT system.

…if you’ve ever wrapped a fish in steno paper.

…if you’ve modified your steno case to hold the machine, tripod, three steno pads, and a six-pack.

…if you have a tripod rack in the back of your pickup truck.

…if you’ve decided to get into captioning so you can work in your underwear without the judge getting all upset.

…if you’ve ever had to call a scopist because you were too drunk to edit a daily.

…if you’re related to the judge, both attorneys, and the defendant, and don’t see anything wrong with that.

…if you check your purse on a date and find two kinds of steno machine oil, but no lipstick.

…if you watch Deliverance, and find yourself thinking, “How would you SPELL that?”

…if you’ve ever had a depo interrupted by a husband saying, “I did NOT sleep with your cousin Sally. She’s my SISTER, for chrissake!”

Steno by the Numbers

This article first appeared in the March 2005 issue of the Journal of Court Reporting. Despite being over ten years old, it might be something fun for any court reporters out there who are also math geeks. I know of at least one…

Do you have an analytical mind? Has it ever caused you to look down at your steno machine and wonder how many different strokes there are? How you could measure writing speed? Or how many different ways there were to misstroke “gubernatorial”? Then read on. In addition to having some fun with statistics, we’ll look at a few numbers that just might change the way you think about court reporting.

The Steno Keyboard

If you had a steno keyboard with two keys—call them A and B—you could write four different strokes: A, B, AB, and nothing at all. Since not pressing any keys isn’t really a stroke, we’ll subtract one and call it three possibilities. Add a third key—called C, perhaps—and the number of possible strokes jumps to eight (A, B, C, AB, AC, BC, ABC, and no keys), minus one for that “no keys” possibility. Each key you add doubles the number of strokes. A mathematician would say that a keyboard with K keys could generate 2K-1 different strokes.

A steno keyboard has seven keys on the left and ten on the right, plus an asterisk and four vowels, for a total of 22. Following our pattern from above, your steno machine has 222-1 possible strokes, a total of 4,194,303. If you use the number bar, your possibilities almost double again. I say “almost” because pressing the number bar by itself doesn’t count as a stroke on most machines, so you end up with 223-2 possible different strokes, or 8,388,606.

Obviously, there are certain strokes you can’t physically hit. Do you use both banks (STKPWHR-FRPBLGTS) as a speaker ID, perhaps for “The Court”? Try to hit that stroke with a number bar in it. There may be someone out there with a stroke in their dictionary ending in -TZ (without a -D or -S). If so, they’ll probably email me, but until then, I’ll call that one an impossible stroke, too. I tried to work out all of these impossible (or at least highly improbable) strokes, and I came up with fewer than 10,000 of them. Even if we stretch the definition to include strokes that are possible, but very difficult to hit cleanly (-FBLS, for example), eight million possible different strokes looks like a pretty good estimate.

Misstrokes and Your Dictionary

If there’s a word you frequently misstroke, what’s the easiest way to deal with it? Put the misstroke in your dictionary! In the early days of CAT, you had to watch your dictionary size carefully. Many systems had upper limits on dictionary size, and a large dictionary could dramatically slow down your translation. With today’s computers, massive dictionaries can easily be held in memory, and dictionaries with over 100,000 entries have become routine.

When I taught CAT back in the 1980s, I encouraged my students to keep their dictionaries lean and mean for fast translation and easy editing. Today, a few extra entries won’t hurt anything, and I even recommend adding misstrokes preemptively. When you’re adding a word or phrase to your dictionary, think how you might misstroke it, and put those misstrokes in during your prep. That way, your realtime translation just might come out cleaner. It’s not feasible, however, to add all of the possible ways you might misstroke something.

jcr-numbers1How many ways are there to misstroke something? Let’s take a simple stroke like KATS. You need three fingers for that stroke: left ring finger for the K-, left thumb for the A, and right little finger for the -TS. In figure 1, the green circle (position 5) shows where your right little finger should press for this stroke, and the eight red circles show what happens as that finger goes off-center. If you press at circle 4, for example, you’ll get -LGTS instead of -TS. The nine possible finger positions generate nine possible steno combinations, eight of which are incorrect. It is also possible that your finger doesn’t go down far enough to register at all. That brings us up to ten combinations, nine of which are errors.

Your finger could, of course, be even farther off than the eight “error positions” shown in figure 1, but that’s unlikely and uncommon enough that we don’t need to consider it. What if your finger is halfway between the correct position and one of the positions I’ve shown as an error? Well, either the key will register on the computer, or it won’t. You can’t get half of an error, and since we’re just counting possible errors here, we don’t have to consider that possibility.

jcr-numbers2But what of the K- in KATS? Since the two S- keys are effectively one key, does this reduce the possibilities? No, because each position still generates a different stroke. Position 1 produces ST-, position 4 produces STK-, and position 7 produces SK-. There are still ten possible positions (the nine circles plus “no stroke”).

With your thumb, there are only two keys, and nothing else close enough for a likely error, so instead of ten possible combinations, there are only four (A, O, AO, and no vowel at all).

The grand total, then, for the stroke KATS, is 10 x 10 x 4 = 400 possible ways you could write it. One of those is correct, and one (none of the fingers registering at all) can’t be entered in a dictionary, so there are 398 possible misstrokes. And this doesn’t even factor in the possibility of shadowing with another finger!

Should you enter all 398 of these into your dictionary as misstrokes for cats? Definitely not! Many of those are unlikely (pats, for example), and many others are valid words, such as cat, scat, scats, cot, cots, and cogs. Even with dictionaries of unlimited size, entering all of the possible misstrokes for a word just doesn’t make sense. Instead, enter only the ones that actually happen to you, and don’t conflict with other words.

[Author Note 2015: Most of today’s CAT software includes algorithms for identifying and correcting errors like this automatically. These algorithms are often incorrectly called “artificial intelligence,” but we’ll save that argument for another article!]

Communicating With the Computer

I’ve heard people pondering why it took steno keyboard manufacturers so long to move from the old, slow, serial interface to the new, high-speed, interfaces like USB. The answer? They didn’t need the speed. The only reason for adding USB to a steno keyboard is that so many new computers don’t have serial ports any more.

When computers communicate, they break data into chunks. The basic chunk is called a “bit,” and it’s equal to a binary digit. A bit can represent either one or zero. The next bigger chunk is the “byte,” which has eight bits. It can hold a number from 0 to 255. A steno stroke requires 23 bits—one for each key on the steno keyboard—which means it will fit in three bytes. Many interfaces have extra information such as stenomarks, so four bytes is more typical.

Communication speed for computers is measured in bits per second. For some rather complex reasons involving “start bits” and other obscure telecommunications protocols, it usually takes ten bits rather than eight to transmit a byte over a serial port. If a stroke takes four bytes, then it will take 40 bits to send it over a typical serial line.

If you can sustain a speed of five strokes per second, then you’re really moving. If each stroke takes 40 bits to send, then a steno machine would have to communicate with the computer at 5×40=200 bits per second to handle that blazing five stroke per second speed.

Does your computer have a modem? If so, it’s probably a 56K modem, which can transmit approximately 56,000 bits of information each second over a standard serial line to your computer (I’m oversimplifying here, but that’s close enough for our purposes). That’s over 250 times faster than your steno machine needs to communicate, and your serial port is capable of operating much faster than that. Even today, captioners routinely use old slow modems, because they simply don’t need the speed.

USB is a much better way to download huge picture files from your camera, but it is overkill for your steno machine by at least four orders of magnitude.

How Fast is Fast?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a speedometer on your steno machine to show you how fast you were writing? You wouldn’t want it to face the attorneys, of course, because they’d take it as a matter of pride if they could “red line” your steno machine! The problem here is figuring out exactly how to measure your writing speed.


On a standard typewriter or computer keyboard, which is called a QWERTY keyboard because of the keys at the top left, people use a very simple measurement for words per minute (wpm). If you assume an average English word is five letters plus a space or punctuation mark, then you can just count how many keys you press in a minute, divide by six, and you have your typing speed in wpm.

It’s a bit more difficult in steno. What do you really want to measure? If it’s the speed of your hands, count strokes. If it’s your final output, count letters or actual words. Schools and speed tests tend to count syllables, figuring that it’s a more consistent (and less theory-dependent) measure of what you’re doing.

Using the chart in Mark Kislingbury’s article, Rev Up Your Writing, in the July/August 2004 edition of the JCR, writing at 200 wpm could mean anywhere from three strokes per second (if you use an incredibly brief-heavy theory like Mark’s) on up to five strokes per second (if you write everything out and come back for all of your inflected endings). For comparison, writing 200 wpm on a QWERTY keyboard would require typing 1,200 keystrokes per minute, or 20 keystrokes per second, a virtually impossible feat.

With the advanced displays available on the latest crop of steno machines, a speedometer showing strokes per second (or strokes per minute) would be easy to add. A words-per-minute speedometer is slightly more complex. It would require a steno machine that translates that could simultaneously count actual words generated per minute. Either type of speedometer could easily be added to a CAT program, as some have already done.

Your Poor, Abused Steno Keyboard

When my brother and I were working on the design of a steno keyboard, we went to see a parts manufacturer about some custom key stem designs. One of the first questions he asked was, “How many times will this key get pressed?” Wow! What a question!

We approached it by looking at worst-case numbers. A court reporter with a busy schedule that reports five days a week writes a whole lot of strokes. A quick survey of reporters showed that the number of strokes written in a full day varies all over the map, but we settled on 75,000 strokes as being a pretty big number. Assuming a couple of weeks of vacation time, that reporter will work 50 weeks in a year, at 5 days per week, for a total of 250 days in a year. Multiply that by our 75,000 stroke day, and we’ve got 18,750,000 strokes per year. Do your wrists hurt yet?

How long does a steno machine last? While we know reporters using machines that are 20+ years old, CAT reporters have a tendency to upgrade more often than that. Even so, you wouldn’t want to buy a machine that wouldn’t last 20 years, would you? Doing the math, that means your steno machine could easily take over a third of a billion (375,000,000) strokes over the course of a 20-year career!

A Career on a Disk

In the early days of CAT, dictionary size limitations often came from what could fit on a floppy diskette. PC-based CAT systems started out with hard drives holding 20 megabytes or so. Backing up was important not only to be safe, but because you just couldn’t fit that much information on a hard drive.

Today, instead of backing up dictionaries on floppies, we can just write them to a blank CD, along with everything else we need to save. Hard drives typically hold over 1,000 times what those early drives held. I was computer game shopping with my son-in-law the other day, and he showed me the newest game in his favorite series. On the box, it said that it requires over 11 gigabytes of free space on your hard drive just to install it!

That, of course, got me thinking. With today’s storage capacities, what would it take to back up a reporter’s entire career? We calculated earlier that a stroke of steno takes four bytes. That means our 375 million strokes would require 1.5 billion bytes. As a side note, a billion bytes is not the same as a gigabyte. The metric prefixes mean something a little different in the computer world, as they go up by factors of 1,024 (two to the tenth power) rather than factors of 1,000 (ten to the third power). This gives us:

1 kilobyte (1Kb) = 1,024 bytes
1 megabyte (1Mb) = 1,024 Kb = 1,048,576 bytes
1 gigabyte (1Gb) = 1,024 Mb = 1,073,741,824 bytes
1 terabyte (1Tb) = 1,024 Gb = 1,099,511,627,776 bytes

[Author Note 2015: For more about large & small numbers, see my article “Billions and Billions: A math lesson for NBC.”]

What about the final transcripts? That depends largely on the format you store them in. In the simplest ASCII format, a 250-page job with typical formatting takes about 375,000 bytes to store (your mileage may vary). Going back to our 250 work days per year over a 20 year span, that’s 1,875,000,000 bytes of ASCII transcript. Add that to our 1.5 billion bytes of steno, and we get 3,375,000,000 bytes, or about 3.14 gigabytes.

The latest computers these days have the option of writable DVD drives, which have a capacity of about 4.7 gigabytes. This means that one single disk is capable of holding every single steno stroke and every final transcript from an entire 20-year reporting career, with extra space to spare for dictionary backups and digital photos of your favorite attorney clients (just joking on that last one).

What about audio linkage? Assuming 8-hour days, that 20-year career would involve a mind-numbing 40,000 hours of listening to people argue. A typical computer audio recording using the .WAV file format takes up almost 40Mb per hour, even for low-quality mono recording. Saving all of that audio would require over 1.5 terabytes, which is vastly more information than a DVD can hold. Of course, Web servers with over a terabyte of disk space aren’t uncommon any more, and compressed audio formats like MP3 can shrink that 40Mb per hour down dramatically while simultaneously increasing the quality of the recording.

In the last 20 years, we’ve gone from floppy diskettes holding 360 Kb to DVD+RWs holding 4.7Gb. That’s over 10,000 times the storage capacity. If the pattern holds, then in another 20 years, we shouldn’t have any problem holding the steno, finished transcripts, and audio of a reporters entire career on a single disk-or perhaps it will look more like a key fob, a wristwatch, or a credit card.

Perhaps all this recreational number crunching has started your mind racing. Perhaps your eyes have glazed over and the only crunching you’re thinking of is Ben & Jerry’s Heath Bar Crunch Ice Cream. Either way, you just may look at your steno keyboard a little differently tomorrow morning.

SIDEBAR: About the Numbers

In Stephen Hawking’s wonderful book, A Brief History of Time, he says that he was told every equation he used would halve his sales. He managed to cover everything from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to string theory using only one equation (e=mc2). If he could pull that off, I figured I could do no less with this article. Unfortunately, either steno is more complex than I thought, or Professor Hawking is just a better writer, because I really needed to slip in a few formulas. I trust they won’t slow you down.

To write this article, I had to make some assumptions. One of them is that you’re using a traditional steno keyboard, with one initial S key, one asterisk, and one number bar. If you start adding function keys, splitting the initial S, and breaking up the number bar, everything changes. Users of steno keyboards like the Gemini and the various Digitext machines have far more potential strokes, assuming their CAT software supports all of the capabilities of their writer.

Do you need an editor?


That was a short article, wasn’t it?

At the MPIBA conference last weekend, just about everybody had stories to share of authors who don’t think they need an editor, or copyeditor, or proofreader. Most of them, in fact, don’t know the difference between those three (more on that in a moment). Well, if Stephen King needs an editor and a proofreader, so do you.

Let’s say you’ve just banged out an absolutely amazing 100,000-word novel. You have created unique and believable characters. Your have brought each scene to life, so that readers feel, see, smell, hear, and even taste the places in your book. And with the average word being about five letters long, you have pressed a half-million keys (not counting spaces and punctuation marks). The odds of doing that without a mistake are infinitesimal.

I’m sure you proofread your own work. If you’re like me, you’ve probably proofread your book many times. But there’s a problem with proofing your own work: you see what you think you wrote instead of what you actually wrote. You know the book inside out. You will often read right past a typo or continuity error. That’s why there are three people you really need to enlist (sometimes one person may fill more than one of these roles):

An Editor

Your editor is the one who reviews the book for continuity and flow. It’s the editor that might say, “spend more time explaining what’s going on in Chapter 3” or “I think Chapter 14 is completely superfluous.” Editors look at your plot structure if you’re a novelist and clarity if you write nonfiction. If you write YA or children’s books, it’s the editor that can tell you if you’ve hit your target age group. Good editors are experts in their genres. You may choose not to take their advice, but you should always listen to what they have to say.

A Copyeditor

Your copyeditor is the one that goes deeper than plot elements and structure. Copyediting involves checking your book for formatting problems, factual errors, style consistency, and other mechanical issues. If you say “see page 142” and the thing you’re referencing is really on page 144, it’s the copyeditor that will catch it — although in this era of ebooks, you really shouldn’t reference page numbers!

A Proofreader

Your proofreader puts your work under a microscope, looking at spelling, punctuation, grammar, and the minutia of language. Treat your proofreaders well, because they’re the ones that catch the really embarrassing typos!

An Example

There’s a book we’ve been selling for years in my bookstore. It’s called Scats & Tracks of the Rocky Mountains. Here’s what the cover of the 2nd edition looks like:

Scats and Tracks 2nd ed cover

The publisher has a new look for their Falcon Guide series, so they decided to redesign the cover. In general, it’s a good look. Everything went well until someone told the cover designer, “add an animal footprint on the front.” The designer added one, and they sent the book off to the printer. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the placement of the track:

Scats and Tracks 3rd ed

Yep. It covered the first letter of the title, changing the book from Scats and Tracks to Cats and Tracks. Even the big publishers need to use proofreaders more often!

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