Why Did Leonardo da Vinci Write Backwards? A Look Into the Ultimate Renaissance Man’s “Mirror Writing”

As the standout example of the "Renaissance Man" ideal, Leonardo da Vinci racked up no small number of accomplishments in his life. He also had his eccentricities, and tried his hand at a number of experiments that might look a bit odd even to his admirers today. In the case of one practice he eventually mastered and with which he stuck, he tried his hand in a more literal sense than usual: Leonardo, the evidence clearly shows, had a habit of writing backwards, starting at the right side of the page and moving to the left.

"Only when he was writing something intended for other people did he write in the normal direction," says the Museum of Science. Why did he write backwards? That remains one of the host of so far unanswerable questions about Leonardo's remarkable life, but "one idea is that it may have kept his hands clean. People who were contemporaries of Leonardo left records that they saw him write and paint left handed. He also made sketches showing his own left hand at work. As a lefty, this mirrored writing style would have prevented him from smudging his ink as he wrote."




Or Leonardo could have developed his "mirror writing" out of fear, a hypothesis acknowledged even by books for young readers: "Throughout his life, he was worried about the possibility of others stealing his ideas," writes Rachel A. Koestler-Grack in Leonardo Da Vinci: Artist, Inventor, and Renaissance Man"The observations in his notebooks were written in such a way that they could be read only by holding the books up to a mirror." The blog Walker's Chapters makes a representative counterargument: "Do you really think that a man as clever as Leonardo thought it was a good way to prevent people from reading his notes? This man, this genius, if he truly wanted to make his notes readable only to himself, he would’ve invented an entirely new language for this purpose. We’re talking about a dude who conceptualized parachutes even before helicopters were a thing."

Perhaps the most widely seen piece of Leonardo's mirror writing is his notes on Vitruvian Man (a piece of which appears at the top of the post), his enormously famous drawing that fits the proportions of the human body into the geometry of both a circle and a square (and whose elegant mathematics we featured last week). Many examples of mirror writing exist after Leonardo, from his countryman Matteo Zaccolini's 17th-century treatise on color to the 18th- and 19th-century calligraphy of the Ottoman Empire to the front of ambulances today. Each of those has its function, but one wonders whether as curious a mind as Leonardo's would want to write backwards simply for the joy of mastering and using a skill, any skill, however much it might baffle others — or indeed, because it might baffle them.

If you're interested in all things da Vinci, make sure you check out the new bestselling biography, Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Judy Blume to Teach an Online Course on Writing

A quick fyi: After announcing last Friday that Martin Scorsese will be teaching an online course on filmmaking, MasterClass made it known today that Judy Blume will be presenting on an online course on Writing. In 15 +lessons, the beloved author of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing will show you "how to develop vibrant characters and hook your readers." You can learn a little more from the trailer above. Though the course ($90) won't be ready until early 2018, you can pre-enroll now and eventually get early access to the class.

Other MasterClass courses worth exploring include:

Note: MasterClass is one of our partners. So if you sign up for a course, it benefits not just you and MasterClass. It benefits Open Culture too. So consider it win-win-win.

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Introducing the New PEN America Digital Archive: 1,500 Hours of Audio & Video Featuring 2,200 Eminent Writers

Image via Pen.Org

The recently launched PEN America Digital Archive is an Aladdin’s cave of literary treasures. An incredible amount of cultural programming has grown up around the organization’s commitment to championing writers’ civil liberties–over 1,500 hours worth of audio and visual files.

Delve into this free, searchable archive for previously inaccessible lectures, readings, and discussions featuring the leading writers, intellectuals, and artists of the last 50 years. Many of these New York City-based events were planned in response to the oppression and hardship suffered by fellow writers around the world.




Feeling overwhelmed by this all-you-can-eat buffet for the mind? The archivists have your back with featured collections–an assortment of raucous, political conversations from the 1986 PEN World Congress and a thirty year retrospective of Toni Morrison.

We are lucky that Nobel Prize-winner Morrison, a vigorous cultural observer and critic, still walks among us. Also, that the archive affords us a chance to spend quality time with so many great literary eminences who no longer do:

John Steinbeck reads excerpts of The Grapes of Wrath and his short stories, "The Snake," "Johnny Bear,"  and "We're Holding Our Own."

Jerzy Kosinski discusses teaching, and the autobiographical elements of his controversial 1965 novel, The Painted Bird.

Madeleine L'Engle considers myth, science, faith, and the connection between art and fear.

Saul Bellow tackles how intellectuals influence and use technology, a particularly interesting topic in light of the dystopian fiction’s current popularity.

Nadine Gordimer relives the publication, banning and swift unbanning of her political historical novel, Burger's Daughter.

Susan Sontag uses a PEN International Congress press conference to draw attention to ways in which the host country, Korea, was falling short in regard to freedom of expression.

Gwendolyn Brooks reveals the backstory on her poems, including "The Lovers of the Poor," and "We Real Cool."

Begin your adventures in the PEN America Digital Archive here.

via Electric Literature

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Historical Plaque Memorializes the Time Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs Came to Blows Over the Oxford Comma (Or Not)

Maybe it doesn’t take much to get a grammar nerd in a state of agitation, or even, perhaps, violent rage. While I generally avoid the term “grammar nazi,” it does bluntly convey the severe intolerance of certain grammarians. One of the most popular recent books on grammar, Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, announces itself in its subtitle as a “Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” And sure enough, the main title of the entertaining guide comes from a violent joke, in which a panda enters a bar, eats a sandwich, then shoots up the joint. Asked why, he tells the bartender to look up “panda” in the dictionary: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Truss’s example illustrates not a grammatical point of contention, but a mistake, a misplaced comma that completely changes the meaning of a sentence. But we might refer to many technically correct examples involving the absence of the Oxford comma, the final comma in a series that sets off the last item.




Many people have argued, with particular vehemence, that the “and” at the end of a series satisfies the comma’s function. No, say other strict grammarians, who point to the confusing ambiguity between, say, “I went to dinner with my sister, my wife, and my friend” and “I went to dinner with my sister, my wife and my friend.” We could adduce many more potentially embarrassing examples.

The Oxford comma is so contentious a grammatical issue that it supposedly provoked a drunken fistfight between Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. At least, that is, according to a plaque at Mill No. 5 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a historic textile mill built in 1873 and since revitalized into a performance space with shops and a farmer’s market. “On this site on August 15, 1968,” the plaque reads, Kerouac and Burroughs “came to blows over a disagreement regarding the Oxford comma. The event is memorialized in Kerouac’s 'Doctor Sax' and in the incident report filed by the Lowell Police Department.” The next line should give us a clue as to how seriously we should take this historical tidbit: “According to eyewitnesses, Burroughs corrected the spelling and grammar of the police report.”

The plaque is a hoax, the fight never happened. (And it is one of many such joke historical markers at the mill.) Doctor Sax was written nine years earlier, in 1959, and Kerouac and Burroughs hadn’t even met at the time of that novel’s events. But it’s a great story. “We imagine Burroughs grabbing the policemen’s pen,” writes Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, “lucid as a shaman, and then plopping onto the grass, out cold.” (The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums calls the spurious plaque “an act of historic vandalism.”) We like the story not only because it’s a juicy bit of lore involving two legendary writers, but also because the Oxford comma, for whatever reason, is such a weirdly inflammatory issue. The TED-Ed video above calls it “Grammar’s great divide.” (The comma acquired its name, points out Mental Floss, “because the Oxford University Press style guidelines require it.”)

If it isn’t already evident, I seriously favor the Oxford comma, perhaps enough to defend it in pitched battle. But if you need convincing by gentler means, you might heed the wisdom of The New Yorker’s resident “comma queen,” who, in the video above, serves up another humorous instance of a serial comma faux pas involving strippers, JFK, and Stalin (or “the strippers, JFK and Stalin”). For a much more serious Oxford comma kerfuffle, we might refer to a class action lawsuit involving overtime pay for truckers, a case that “hinged entirely" on the serial comma, "a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes,” writes Daniel Victor at The New York Times, in a sentence that puckishly, or contrarily, leaves out the last comma, and sets the grammar intolerant among us grinding our teeth. But the Oxford comma is no joke. Its lack may cost Maine company Oakhurst millions of dollars, or their employees millions in pay. “The debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one,” writes Victor. Until it isn’t, and someone gets sued, shot, or punched in the face. So snub the Oxford comma, I say, at your peril.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

John Steinbeck Has a Crisis in Confidence While Writing The Grapes of Wrath: “I am Not a Writer. I’ve Been Fooling Myself and Other People”

In a 1904 letter, Franz Kafka famously wrote, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” a line immortalized in pop culture by David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” Where Bowie referred to the frozen emotions of addiction, the arctic waste inside Kafka may have had much more to do with the agony of writing itself. In the year that he composed his best-known work, The Metamorphosis, Kafka kept a tortured journal in which he confessed to feeling “virtually useless” and suffering “unending torments.” Not only did he need to break the ice, but “you have to dive down,” he wrote on January 30th, “and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.”

Whether as writers we find the evidence of Kafka’s crippling self-doubt to be a comfort I cannot say. For many people, no matter how successful, or prolific, some degree of pain inevitably attends every act of writing. And many, like Kafka, have left personal accounts of their most productive periods. John Steinbeck struggled mightily during the composition of his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. His journal entries from the period tell the story of a frayed and anxious man overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of his task. But his example is instructive as well: despite his fragile mental state and lack of confidence, he continued to write, telling himself on June 11th, 1938, “this must be a good book. It simply must.” (See some of Steinbeck's handwritten entries in the image above, courtesy of Austin Kleon.)




In setting the bar so high—“For the first time I am working on a real book,” he wrote—Steinbeck often felt crushed at the end of a day. “My whole nervous system in battered,” he wrote on June 5th. “I hope I’m not headed for a nervous breakdown.” He finds himself a few days later “assailed with my own ignorance and inability.” He continues in this vein. “Where has my discipline gone?” he asks in August, “Have I lost control?” By September he’s seeking perspective: “If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So to hell with it.” The weight of expectation comes and goes, but he keeps writing.

The “private fruit” of Steinbeck’s diary entries, writes Maria Popova, "is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive” as the novel itself. At least that may be so for writers who are also beset by devastating neuroses. For Steinbeck, the diary (published here) was “a tool of discipline” and “hedge against self-doubt.” This may sound counterintuitive, but keeping a diary, even when the novel stalls, is itself a discipline, and an acknowledgement of the importance of being honest with oneself, allowing turbulence and doldrums to be a conscious part of the experience.

Steinbeck “feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him,” writes Popova, “and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.” His confrontations with negative capability can sound like “Buddhist scripture,” anticipating Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. We needn’t attribute any religious significance to Steinbeck’s journals, but they do begin to sound like confessions of the kind many mystics have recorded over the centuries, including the imposter syndrome many a saint and bodhisattva has admitted to feeling. “I’m not a writer,” he laments in one entry. “I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” Nonetheless, no matter how excruciating, lonely, and confusing the effort, he resolved to develop a “quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established.” A ritual act, of a sort, which “must be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration.”

In the audio above, hear actor Paul Hecht read excerpts from Steinbeck's diaries in an episode of the Morgan Library's Diary Podcast. You can read Steinbeck's diaries in the published volume, Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941.

via Austin Kleon 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Sedaris Breaks Down His Writing Process: Keep a Diary, Carry a Notebook, Read Out Loud, Abandon Hope

When did you first hear David Sedaris? Normally in the case of a writer, let alone one of the most famous and successful writers alive, the question would be when you first read him, but Sedaris' writing voice has never really existed apart from his actual voice. He first became famous in 1992 when National Public Radio aired his reading of the "Santaland Diaries," a piece literally constructed from diaries kept while he worked in Santaland, the Christmas village at Macy's, as an elf. Though that break illustrates the importance of what we might call two pillars of Sedaris' writing process, nobody in his enormous fanbase-to-be gave it much thought at the time — they just wanted to hear more of his hilarious storytelling.

A quarter-century later, Sedaris has released more diaries — many more diaries — to his adoring public in the form of Theft by Finding, a hefty volume of selected entries written between 1977 and 2002. They give additional insight into not just the events and characters involved in the personal essays compiled in bestselling books like NakedMe Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but also into his writing process itself. "A woman on All Things Considered wrote a book of advice called If You Want to Write and mentioned the importance of keeping a diary," a 26-year-old Sedaris writes in an entry from 1983. "After a while you'd stop being forced and pretentious and become honest and unafraid of your thoughts."




Obviously he didn't need that advice at the time, since even then keeping a diary had already become the first pillar of the David Sedaris writing process. "I started writing one afternoon when I was twenty, and ever since then I have written every day," he once told the New Yorker, also a publisher of his stories. "At first I had to force myself. Then it became part of my identity, and I did it without thinking." Most of what he writes in his diary each and every morning he describes as "just whining," but "every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote."

The entries later cohere, along with other ideas and experiences, into his widely read stories. One such piece began, Sedaris told Fast Company's Kristin Hohenadel, as "a diary entry from a trip to Amsterdam. He met a college kid who told him he’d learned that the first person to reach the age of 200 had already been born." Then, Sedaris said, "I speculated that the first person to reach the age of 200 would be my father. And then I attached it to something else that had been in my diary, that all my dad talks about is me getting a colonoscopy. So I connected the 200-year-old man to my father wanting me to get a colonoscopy, and that became the story.”

Only connect, as E.M. Forster said, but you do need material to connect in the first place. Hence the second pillar of the process: carrying a notebook. To the Missouri Review Sedaris described himself as less funny than observant, adding that "everybody’s got an eye for something. The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall things," especially for later inclusion in his diary. When he publicly opened his notebook at the request of a redditor while doing an AMA a few years ago, he found the words, "Illegal metal sharks... white skin classy... driver's name is free Time... rats eat coconuts... beautiful place city, not beautiful..."

These cryptic lines, he explained, were "notes I wrote in the Mekong delta a few weeks ago. A Vietnamese woman was giving me a little tour, and this is what I jotted down in my notebook." For instance, "I was asking about all the women whom I saw on motor scooters wearing opera gloves, and masks that covered everything but their eyes. And the driver told me they were trying to keep their skin white, because it's just classier. Tan skin means you're a farmer. So that's something I remembered from our conversation, so when I transcribe my notebook into my diary, I added all of that." And one day his readers may well see this fragment of life that caught his attention appear again, but as part of a coherent, polished narrative whole.

The better part of that polishing happens through the practice of reading, and revising, in front of an audience. "During his biannual multicity lecture tours, Sedaris says he routinely notices imperfections in the text simply through the act of reading aloud to other people," writes Hohenadel. "He circles accidental rhymes or closely repeated words, or words that sound alike — like night and nightlife — in the same sentence, rewriting after each reading and trying out revisions during the next stop on his tour." When a passage gets laughs from the audience, he pencils in a check mark beside it; when one gets coughs (which he likens to "a hammer driving a nail into your coffin"), he draws a skull. "On the page it seems like I’m trying too hard, and that’s one of the things I can usually catch when I’m reading out loud,” he says, whether his writing "sounds a little too obvious" or "like somebody who’s just straining for a laugh."

And the presence of live human beings can't but improve your storytelling skills. It helps to be able to fill Carnegie Hall like Sedaris can, but all of us can find, and learn from, some kind of audience somewhere, no matter how modest. He told Junkee that he began reading out loud back in his art-school days: "I was in a painting class and we had a critique, and you put your work up and talk about it, and most people would talk as if they were alone with a psychiatrist." He realized that "they don’t have any sense of an audience. For some reason, maybe it’s because I have so many brothers and sisters, I was always very acutely aware of an audience," and so for his critiques he prepared in-character monologues from the point of view of invented artists. "People laughed, and it felt amazing to me," which brought about an even bigger realization: "This is what I’m supposed to do. Write my own stuff and read it out loud."

Whatever fears so many of us have about speaking in public, the fourth pillar of the Sedaris process may prove the most difficult to incorporate into your own work methods: abandoning hope. "If I sit at my computer, determined to write a New Yorker story I won’t get beyond the first sentence," he told the New Yorker. "It’s better to put no pressure on it. What would happen if I followed the previous sentence with this one, I’ll think. If the eighth draft is torture, the first should be fun." And anybody who gets stuck can use the writer's-block-breaking strategy he revealed on Reddit: "There are a lot of college writing textbooks that will include essays and short stories, and after reading the story or essay, there will be questions such as 'Have YOU Had any experience with a pedophile in YOUR family?' or 'When was the last time you saw YOUR mother drunk?' and they're just really good at prompting stories."

And though it might seem obvious, the activity that constitutes Sedaris' fifth pillar gets all too much neglect from aspiring writers: constant reading, the active pursuit of which he considers "one of those things that changes your life." At the same time he began writing his diary, he told the Missouri Review, "I started reading voraciously. They go hand in hand, especially for a young person who’s trying to write." Today, when people ask him to have a look at what they've written, "I often want to say to them, 'This doesn’t look like how things in books look.' Reading is important when you’re trying to write because then you can look at what’s in a book and remind yourself, 'Hey, I’m young; I just started, and it’s gonna take me a long time, but boy, look at the difference between this and that.'"

He should know, given the viciousness with which he criticizes his own work. Even now his stories require more than twenty drafts to get right, as he mentions in the PBS NewsHour clip at the top of the post, but when he re-read his first diaries, "it was really painful. Really painful." These early entries revealed that "no one was a worse writer than me. No one was more false. No one was more pretentious. It was just absolute garbage." But some of them hint at things to come. "I stayed up all night and worked on my new story," a 28-year-old Sedaris writes in 1985. "Unfortunately, I write like I paint: one corner at a time. I can never step back and see the full picture. Instead, I concentrate on a little square and realize later that it looks nothing like the real live object. Maybe it's my strength, and I'm the only one who can't see it."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Charles Darwin & Charles Dickens’ Four-Hour Work Day: The Case for Why Less Work Can Mean More Productivity

We all operate at different levels of ambition: some just want to get by and enjoy themselves, while others strive to make achievements with as long-lasting an impact on humanity as possible. If we think of candidates for the latter category, Charles Darwin may well come to mind, at least in the sense that the work he did as a naturalist, and more so the theory of evolution that came out of it, has ensured that we remember his name well over a century after his death and will surely continue to do so centuries hence. But research into Darwin's working life suggests something less than workaholism — and indeed, that he put in a fraction of the number of hours we associate with serious ambition.

"After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half," writes Nautilus' Alex Soojung-kim Pang. "At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, 'I’ve done a good day’s work,' and set out on a long walk." After this walk he would answer letters, take a nap, take another walk, go back to his study, and then have dinner with the family. Darwin typically got to bed, according to a daily schedule drawn from his son Francis' reminiscences of his father, by 10:30.




"On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including technical volumes on climbing plants, barnacles, and other subjects," writes Pang, and of course not failing to mention "The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and ourselves." Another textually prolific Victorian Englishman named Charles, adhering to a similarly non-life-consuming work routine, managed to produce — in addition to tireless letter-writing and campaigning for social reform — hundreds of short stories and articles, five novellas, and fifteen novels including Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations

"After an early life burning the midnight oil," writes Pang, Charles Dickens "settled into a schedule as 'methodical or orderly' as a 'city clerk,' his son Charley said. Dickens shut himself in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his novels were serialized in magazines, and Dickens was rarely more than a chapter or two ahead of the illustrators and printer. Nonetheless, after five hours, Dickens was done for the day." Pang finds that may other successful writers have kept similarly restrained work schedules, from Anthony Trollope to Alice Munro, Somerset Maugham to Gabriel García Márquez, Saul Bellow to Stephen King. He notes similar habits in science and mathematics as well, including Henri Poincaré and G.H. Hardy.

Research by Pang and others into work habits and productivity have recently drawn a great deal of attention, pointing as it does to the question of whether we might all consider working less in order to work better. "Even if you enjoy your job and work long hours voluntarily, you’re simply more likely to make mistakes when you’re tired," writes the Harvard Business Review's Sarah Green Carmichael. What's more, "work too hard and you also lose sight of the bigger picture. Research has suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to get lost in the weeds." This discovery actually dates back to Darwin and Dickens' 19th century: "When organized labor first compelled factory owners to limit workdays to 10 (and then eight) hours, management was surprised to discover that output actually increased – and that expensive mistakes and accidents decreased."

This goes just as much for academics, whose workweeks, "as long as they are, are not nearly as lengthy as those on Wall Street (yet)," writes Times Higher Education's David Matthews in a piece on the research of University of Pennsylvania professor (and ex-Goldman Sachs banker) Alexandra Michel. "Four hours a day is probably the limit for those looking to do genuinely original research, she says. In her experience, the only people who have avoided burnout and achieved some sort of balance in their lives are those sticking to this kind of schedule." Michel finds that "because academics do not have their hours strictly defined and regulated (as manual workers do), 'other controls take over. These controls are peer pressure.'" So at least we know the first step on the journey toward viable work habits: regarding the likes of Darwin and Dickens as your peers.

via Nautilus

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Thomas Edison’s Hugely Ambitious “To-Do” List from 1888

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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