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Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong and identify as a Taoist. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. I eat gluten-free vegan meals. For the rest you'll have to read my blog.

How to Make MPD work with AirPlay

January 06, 2012

As I wrote last night, AirPlay rules! As I have written previously, iTunes does not. It has always seemed like a bloated program to me. I far prefer the Music Player Daemon (MPD), a program for Linux and Mac OS X to manage and play your music. The MPoD app seals the deal! Fortunately, if you have a Windows or Mac, you can easily stream MPD over AirPlay. Just follow these easy instructions.

First, install and configure MPD as normal. I will not cover that here, since the official site has plenty of documentation. Once you get it playing music locally, you can begin tweaking it. Edit mpd.conf and add the following block. If you use the default configuration file you can uncomment and edit the this block, otherwise just insert the following.

audio_output {

        type                ”httpd”

        name                ”My HTTP Stream”

        encoder                “lame”        port                ”8000″

        bitrate                “320”        format                ”44100:16:1″

bind_to_address “0.0.0.0”

}

This tells MPD to stream its audio over a high quality HTTP stream. You can make the port whatever you want, just remember it and make sure people cannot access it from outside of your network. Also, make sure your MPD machine has a static IP and that you know it. You can find this with the ifconfig utility. Advanced users who want a truly lossless connection could switch lame to vorbis, use quality 10, and get iTunes to play vorbis files with a plugin, but we’ll keep it simple for now. A 320 kbps stream sounds nice and sparkly. Now restart MPD and you should see your new HTTP stream. Just type “mpc outputs” at the command line, or go to MPoD’s settings and you should see it.

Now that you have it working, go to your Mac or WIndows machine and open up iTunes. Hit Command-U on a Mac, or go to the Advanced menu then choose Open Stream. Type in the URL of your MPD output, for example http://192.168.1.100:8000. If you did everything right it should open up and you should hear MPD in iTunes. Congratulations! Now just configure AirPlay as normal and there you go, MPD running over AirPlay for free! Enjoy!

AirPlay All the Way

January 05, 2012

The time has come to move! By the end of the month I will have moved from the suburbs into the city of Philadelphia. I feel excited about it, but I’ll save that for another post. While evaluating everything as one does before such a move, I realized I needed to find a new solution for streaming music throughout my living space. I have settled on Apple’s AirPlay. I had the answer all along.

Ever since I moved out on my own I have wanted music streaming everywhere. First I had a crappy apartment, and simply ran some cables under the door from one room to the other, and rigged up a quick analog solution. Things got more interesting when I moved into a big older house. Running wires seemed unfeasible. I tried a low power FM transmitter, but it just couldn’t hack it. Old houses have lots of RF-absorbing wood and metal. I got a slightly more powerful transmitter, and have radios throughout my house. This has worked well. It offers a universal solution. I can always add or change a radio. It also has some drawbacks. Some signal loss does occur, and the setup does introduce some background noise. It also introduces a small amount of RF energy into my system, which can become annoying when working with other sensitive equipment. Plus, more people probably live in this condo than on my whole block, and I certainly don’t want them tuning into my audio.

It became clear I needed to find a closed digital system. Such a system offers a way to transmit audio wirelessly without any loss of quality. I wanted something easy to deploy, something which I could integrate into my existing setup, and something that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I also wanted something simple. I started doing my research.

A lot of people love the Sonos music system. It offers a transmitter and receiver, as well as speakers. It has lots of services, such as Pandora and other radio directories. It also has support for zones, meaning people can listen to different music in different areas. I didn’t need that, a single guy in a single condo just needs a single stream. Plus, it costs a lot. Squeezebox offers some of the same functionality, another popular choice. Of course, accessibility remained a concern. I can’t use touch screens unless they have voice feedback. Sonos and Squeezebox do both offer iPhone apps which would do this, but not the main units. I learned a long time ago I can’t tolerate an inaccessible sound system.

My brain had begun to turn to mush. I tried calling around to some places to get some answers. I called Crutchfield. “Hi! This is Buzz! How can I help you?” He sounded stoned. I told him my problem and he transferred me to their A/V department, but I had to leave a message.

At 09:52 the next morning, Ringo called me back. Buzz and Ringo? Do they live on the Yellow Submarine? I already had a bad feeling, and resolved to hold my tongue. I quickly munched some cacao nibs to wake up and told him my situation.

He pushed Sonos. Everyone loves Sonos, and it has so many streaming options. I don’t care about streaming options. I have the audio! I asked how much it would cost. He said the unit that acts as a transmitter or a receiver costs $300, and the speakers cost around $350. I did some quick math in my tired head and arrived at a figure I didn’t like.

Then, the kicker happened. I asked if a Sonos amplifier would plug into my stereo. Remember I hadn’t fully woken up yet. “No, that plugs into your speakers. This would take the place of your stereo.” “But I want to use my stereo, that’s kind of the point of this.” “Why? What would your stereo offer that this wouldn’t?” He sounded condescending and it pissed me off. “Dude, this is an analog system!” I realized he would never understand, so thanked him and lay back down for a few minutes to think. To quote Hunter Thompson: “It was time I felt for an agonizing reappraisal of the whole scene.”

I rolled the options around in my head. One possibility remained, Apple’s AirPlay. The more I thought about it the better it seemed. After all, I love Apple and their products. But could AirPlay stand up to the demands of an audiophile’s multi-room system? I ate breakfast and resolved to call Apple and have a little chat and see what turned up. It couldn’t go much worse than the chat I had just had.

I told their voice automation system that I wanted to know more about AirPlay, and it transferred me to sales. I spoke to a nice lady, but I forget her name. We started having a good discussion about networked audio and what I wanted to do. She assured me it would synchronize the audio between speakers. I asked if it transmitted the audio losslessly, and she said she had never heard that word before. I later found out that if using ethernet or wireless it does send it losslessly, but if using bluetooth it does not. I also wanted to make sure iTunes could play an arbitrary internet station, and we both learned that it can. Just hit Command-U and type in the URL.

The more we talked the more promising this sounded. I began to form a picture in my head. An Apple TV would cost $99 and go well in the living room. I had thought about buying one anyway just to try it out. Amazingly, an Airport Express would provide a $99 solution to bring AirPlay to any room! Though it primarily functions as a router, it can also passively join a network and use its 1/8 inch audio out jack to provide the audio. Various manufacturers also make AirPlay-compatible speakers. I could hardly believe my luck. Once again Apple had come to my rescue.

I figured an Apple TV and an Airport Express would get me started so placed the order. It arrived on my doorstep within twenty-four hours. I eagerly unboxed everything. I remembered to pay attention to every detail from reading the Steve Jobs biography. The box for the Airport Express smartly has it tucked away with the documentation in another little box. The router looks unlike any router I’ve ever seen. It just looks like the plug to a MacBook Air without the cord. Imagine a plastic rectangle with prongs that swing out, plus a few ports. I hooked it up via ethernet and the Airport Utility came up on my Mac. I told it I wanted the Airport Express to join my existing network, and it joined it effortlessly.

The test had come. I brought it into my bedroom, plugged it in to an electrical socket, and plugged a patch cord into it. I attached the other end to the RCA jacks of my trusty old boombox I got in 1986. I remember buying it, as much as a nine-year-old buys anything. My Dad said I should have a real stereo, so we went to Silo Electronics and picked it out, a JVC-W35. I don’t know how I remember that, but I do. It has served me well ever since. I’d put it up against any shitty shelf system from Best Buy any day! After connecting everything I went back to my iMac, turned on AirPlay in iTunes, started playing some music, and selected my bedroom speakers. Boom! It worked! I had brought wireless connectivity to a radio made twenty-five years ago. Plus, I could hear the same audio coming from my iMac hooked up to a pair of studio monitors. I felt amazed!

Once the shock passed I realized I had to hear this on my good stereo. The Apple TV would have to wait, so I brought the Airport Express downstairs and hooked it up. It didn’t start, so I toggled the speaker off and on, and that got it going. This works from iTunes and with the Remote app for the iPhone and iPad, by the way. This lets you control iTunes and AirPlay from anywhere.

Now I sit in my living room typing this article on my MacBook Air and listening to music with AirPlay. The audio sounds incredible, and has not lost sync in eight hours of continuous play. I think that answers the synchronization question! The crisp clean digital audio makes my FM transmitter sound like crap. Booming base! Crystalline highs! No background noise! No hum! No degradation of audio! I feel like i have missed out on so much good audio, but not really, since this technology became available comparatively recently. This definitely represents the next decade’s way of listening to audio. I have fallen in love all over again.

Now I know what some of my long-time readers will say at this point. “Now wait a minute Austin. In your famous article about the iPhone, you called iTunes the worm in the apple. Now you have begun using it as your source for media. What gives?” I have considered this, and in fact it kept me fro jumping right into AirPlay right away. For now it works, since I mainly play internet radio streams. However, alternatives do exist, and I intend to research them for hack value if nothing else. I think one could use the Music Player Daemon and the MPoD app to provide a very nice experience that would rival or surpass using stupid iTunes.

In fact, iTunes has already caused some problems. I felt very annoyed to learn that it does not allow setting the audio output, a very basic feature found in other media players. I called Apple to confirm this. The guy apologized and told me to send them feedback about this lameness. Consider this my letter. Other than that, I have loved my AirPlay experience. It just works!

I will have more to write. After all, I still have the Apple TV to unpack. That will require getting rid of my old TV and setting up the brand new TV my Mom gave me for Christmas to aide in the move. Now I won’t have to get someone to lug the big old TV I purchased in 2002 when I bought this house. I also won’t need to store tons of CD’s as readily, which means I can buy a new lighter entertainment center, which the movers will also appreciate. This fits into my plans perfectly, for now I can just install the Apple TV and get everything tested and ready, then move into my awesome new condo and hit the ground running with AirPlay.

At first I felt nervous about moving into the city, but now I know it will mirror my experience with audio. I thought I had a great solution with my transmitter. It has brought me and my friends countless hours of enjoyment. Now I have something that blows it away. And now you will have to excuse me as I go back to listening to my beautiful analog stereo with its perfect digital sound. AirPlay rules!

My New Cane

December 13, 2011

I have begun a dialog with World Access for the Blind. They teach a skill called echolocation, where a blind person can train their brain to synthesize images through reflected sound instead of reflected light. This opens up a lot of doors and I will have more to say about that in future entries. As soon as I read about it I contacted them. A trainer named Justin wrote me back and we met on Skype. Along with giving me some basic exercises to practice this incredible skill, he also told me to use a longer cane. I figured these people have cutting edge information, so gave it a try.

I became blind at birth, so began learning mobility at a young age. This included getting my first cane which happened in first or second grade. I learned the standard way to hold a cane. This involves bending your elbow down and in front, placing your forearm parallel to your abdomen. This feels rather uncomfortable and a lot of kids naturally resisted, preferring to keep their elbow at their side. They probably got yelled at for their defiance, but it turns out most of my blind friends prefer this as adults. I stuck with the traditional program and shorter cane.

Justin at World Access corrected me on the issue. For kids, a shorter length works fine, but an adult has a longer stride. This means one of two things can happen. You can walk faster than your cane can cover, causing you to miss things and contributing to a general sense of disorientation. The cane could hit a bump, causing the elbow to painfully jab you right in the gut. Ouch! Using a slightly longer cane and keeping the elbow by the hip fixes both of these problems.

His argument made sense, so I headed over to Ambutech and proceeded through their delightful form to make a custom cane. My mobility teachers always taught me that the cane should come to the breastbone, which comes to 52 inches for me. Justin said to give it abut six extra inches, putting it at the height of the chin. I ordered a 58 inch rigid cane and it fit perfectly. Rigid? Yes rigid. I have always used folding canes and made fun of rigid cane users for carrying such an unwieldy instrument, but they do give better tactile feedback. He also recommended a ceramic tip. I hadn’t heard of them before and neither had my friends. “Oh, they’re like the best things ever! You can land a helicopter on one.” Justin enthused. I used a marshmallow tip before, but this sounded cool. We did agree on one thing: we both like graphite for the material of the cane. I also ordered an extra one made of heavier illumine for karate. I bent my cane during the last demo.

It felt weird to place an order for a cane which had pretty much the exact opposite configuration from the one I had used forever. My old one measured 52 inches, folded, and had a marshmallow roller tip. This new one measures 58 inches, does not fold, and has a ceramic tip. I thought I knew the best thing to do, and according to common advice I did, but now I found myself totally revising my views on an issue. Sometimes that happens in life. Unfortunately, since Ambutech resides in Canada, the package had to go through a long process of import scanning. I waited and wondered and practiced echolocation.

My new cane finally arrived in a long box after ten days, and I tried it immediately. What a difference! Indeed, the longer length gave me more time to react to things around me. It felt more liberating to have an expanded sphere of awareness. This enabled me to travel more smoothly and quickly. The rigid length does give more feedback, though it does still get stuck in cracks sometimes. At least it doesn’t get stuck in my gut. Ouch! The light material and tip also make it easier to skip over cracks and get back on track. I made two street crossings perfectly. Even if I missed a little, the longer length again came in handy, helping me reorient more quickly. I felt very impressed.

I haven’t gotten a chance to use my karate cane yet. I brought it to class, but I think Sensei Chris felt scared of it. I don’t blame him. The rigidity should give it a nice whipping motion, and that tip at the end will hurt!

In conclusion, World Access for the Blind has cutting edge information about mobility which the blind establishment ignores to their disadvantage. Even something as simple as having a longer cane makes a big difference. If someone blind since birth needs more mobility training, say after a move, they won’t really learn anything new as far as techniques go. They will learn new routes, but they will not learn new ways to navigate and orient themselves to their environment. What they learned at age twelve will still hold true. It therefore feels very refreshing to hear a new voice with new knowledge and techniques. Just wait until I master echolocation!

My First Karate Demo

November 15, 2011

On Sunday I participated in a demonstration of karate put on by Empty Hands Karate and the West Chester YMCA. It went well. I feel proud to announce that for the first time, we have video! My Mom shot it on my iPhone 4S. Forty-five minutes took up eight gigabytes. Unfortunately I forgot to unlock the iPhone’s orientation. Fortunately my friend, the lovely a.minor knows how to edit video. Thanks everyone for pulling together and making a great presentation.

It began with Sensei Ken giving an introduction. He introduced Sensei Chris, and asked that we give him a round of applause now, because he will get beaten up later. I joined in the applause, since I had a good idea of at least part of what he meant. The world has become less safe, and martial arts help a disabled person defend themselves should the need arise. Additionally, martial arts have a therapeutic value. They help someone become more aware of their particular apparatus, a cane in my case. Chris spoke a little about his involvement with a camp for disabled children, and the benefits to all.

After the introduction, Ken had us stand in a line. THis included me, a student in a wheelchair named Gina, and Chris at the end. He had us all take a training stance, and showed the difference between a fully able-bodied individual, someone in a wheelchair, and someone with no ambulatory issues but who can’t see anyone. Gina and another teacher named Stephanie demonstrated some blocks she had learned. I know she did a fine job, but I knew I would come next, and felt so focused that I don’t even fully know what exactly she did. And sure enough my turn came next.

He called me up, and asked Loretta to join us. She acted as my ski instructor, and hosted the expo where I met Ken and Chris for the first time. “Be nice to me.” she said half jokingly. “Nice to see you.” I said. Ken said that I have the challenge of knowing my location and the location of my attacker, since I can’t see. He demonstrated an exercise we have begun doing where he and Loretta move around me in a circle, he in his wheelchair and her on foot. They would not say a word. Chris would say “Stop” and I would point to Ken and Loretta, and estimate their distance from me. Loretta said she should have worn her clicky shoes, but Ken dismissed that, pointing out that she would not in the real world. This builds something called passive echolocation, and I will have much more to say about echolocation very shortly. Even though I find this somewhat difficult, Ken assured me beforehand that this would really draw some wows, and it did. If I hear someone close to me, it means that I should increase my awareness should something happen. Cultivating this skill not only helps survive an attack, it also helps in day to day mobility. This perfectly shows how martial arts skills transfer to real life, a reoccurring theme. I welcomed the applause and we moved onto the stances and blocks.

Ken had me get into a training horse stance, with knees slightly bent, feet comfortably apart, arms parallel to the ground at the level of my heart, fists with palms turned upward, ready to throw a punch or launch into a sequence. He had me do an inward block with my left hand, bringing my fist up to the level of my ear then forcefully moving my upper arm out past my center line and ending farther out and to the right, my arm at an angle. He then had me do an inward block with my right hand, in which I held my cane. I made the same motion, but with a cane this becomes far more potent, with blocks becoming strikes. He had me do some more inward blocks. “Power, speed, quickness, accuracy, outstanding.” We then switched to outward blocks. This involves bringing the fist or cane to the center line, but instead of continuing out on that diagonal, shifting back out and ending on the other corner. Again, a cane made this more potent, but I have to learn to do it with and without a cane. Ken pointed out how the cane allows for greater protection of the center line, a key point.

“Remember I told you that we’d better give Sensei Chris his applause now? You’re about to see why. Chris lay out a mat. I think Loretta may have started getting a little nervous. We began with Delayed Sword. This technique has two applications: defending against a grab or a punch. Sensei Chris faced me and grabbed me with his right hand. I stepped back with my left foot and did an inward block with my cane, hitting his arm. Next, I did a kick to his groin, and while he bent over I landed and chopped at the back of his neck, again with the cane. I used this to hold his neck down while I gave him two knees to the head. I ended the technique with an elbow, and with the cane this becomes a cool forward strike. Then I stepped to my left and struck him with the cane going across. Finally I turned to the left while arching my cane and striking him across the back of the legs, causing him to fall. “Oh Jesus!” someone gasped. The crowd applauded. This felt awesome!

Next, we did a similar technique called Sword of Destruction. In this case, destruction actually means that it attacks the left side of the body. Sensei Chris grabbed me with his left hand. Instead of doing an inward block, I did an outward block. I then did exactly what I have just described for Delayed Sword, with the same result. I walked away whistling Singing in the Rain, a reference to A Clockwork Orange, a movie which should convince anyone to learn martial arts!

Ken set up the scenario for the final technique. “And See, Sensei Chris doesn’t have the good sense to stay away from Austin. This time he figures I’ve got both, I’m gonna really control him. This is called Aggressive Twins. Go!” Sensei Chris grabbed me with both hands. I stepped back with my left foot and did an inward block, followed by a kick to the groin, just like Delayed Sword. However now I did another kick with my back leg. I then spun around and did a backward kick with my right leg. Or at least I tried. I missed and tried again and missed. I tried a third time and connected, though had lost some balance and power. “Finish!” commanded Ken, so I did. I spun to the left while swinging my cane down and behind me to the right, the counter-rotation giving the strike power. “I hate to do this to you Sensei Chris, but I’d like to see that done again.” So did I. I wanted to do it right. Sensei Ken let me do it on my command and I pulled it off! I tried whistling my song again, but couldn’t. Everyone laughed. “You’re running out of breath for the whistling.” joked Loretta. I said: “That’s all right. That’s good.”

Since Loretta had seen me at the first expo, Ken asked her how I had done. “Unbelievable.” she said. “Again, I’d like everyone here to challenge what their belief is about what people with disabilities can do, what the reality is. Understanding that Austin and Gina both took the self-defense course in the summer, and Gina just rejoined us for the belt ranking course, but Austin has been here the whole time through the belt ranking course. In that period he has learned three techniques. I would not be surprised if we tested him within the next few months for a full yellow. He’s showing incredible understanding.” This felt great to hear from my Sensei, and I look forward to getting my yellow belt. Ken then let me say a few words.

I told the story of how I went from attending a demo to participating in one. I took karate as a kid. Two Christmases ago, my brother got me an adaptive skiing lesson as a gift. I didn’t know if I’d like it, and neither did he, but we figured why not. I enjoyed it and knew we would go back the next year. While skiing for the second time, I had Loretta as one of my instructors. She told me I should come to her adaptive sports expo. I did and met Ken and Chris. I then took the self-defense course, and wanted more. After a break, I began taking the belt ranking course. And now I write this article. Compare it with past articles and note the clearer descriptions of the moves. Things have begun systematizing.

I repeated the point that skills learned in martial arts transfer to real life. For example, when I strike someone with my cane it also conveys information, in exactly the same way a cane conveys information while walking. The increased sense of spacial awareness has a similar benefit. These just represent examples from a blind person, the people at Empty hands Karate really adapt the art to your unique disability. It also makes a great way to get in shape, something more than a monotonous exercise routine. Now I work out for an hour a day. I’ve heard rumors that girls like that sort of thing. Taking martial arts will benefit you no matter what, and with the reduced prices offered by the YMCA you really can’t lose.

I concluded my little speech with a demonstration of the universe’s sense of humor, what I would call Goddess at work. When I learned Aggressive Twins, they asked me if I knew what the aggressive twins meant. They actually refer to the two hands of the attacker, but I had another idea. “Yeah, I do, my twin sisters. If one uses the other’s hairbrush or something then you will have your aggressive twins.” And as it happened, they celebrated their birthday on the day I performed this technique in front of a crowd for the first time. Happy birthday, Girls!

After that, Ken demonstrated some kicks, and Chris demonstrated a kata. Unfortunately I cannot comment on them, since they far exceed my level of understanding, but I will understand and comment one day. They then opened it up to questions, and in the course of them Ken had me do Delayed Sword to show what an inward block would become. I asked if I should do it with empty hands or with the cane. “It did seem slightly ironic that I didn’t do any techniques with empty hands while demonstrating for Open Hands Karate. Good point.” said Ken and took my cane. Chris thanked me. Later, while answering a question, I interjected the phrase natural moves. I knew Ken would love this, and of course he elaborated. “There is a limited number of ways in which the human body can move. The big deal is what is your intent with those moves.”

And that ended it. I hope anyone who attended enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed participating. I hope it encourages others to take martial arts. I hope to participate in many more of these demos and write about them. Remember to check out the high definition video. See you next time. For more information, visit Empty Hands karate or call 215-884-0699.

Karate Demo

November 07, 2011

In late June, I completed an adaptive eight-week self defense course. I concluded the piece with the sentences: So even though I didn’t get a belt, I did get a cool t-shirt. The belt will follow. It has. Now I have a white belt, and to my amazement I will participate in a demonstration this Sunday at the West Chester YMCA.

From the web site: November 13, 3:00 – 5:00 pm Martial Arts Demo 605 Airport Road, West Chester Sponsored by the CerebralPalsy Association and Empty Hands Karate, an afternoon of fun and entertainment has been planned. A demonstration of martial arts will kick off the afternoon and light refreshments will follow. Come learn to use your disability to your advantage and find out more about the YMCA’s Adapted Sports Initiative. This event is FREE. RSVP for this event with Jess Honig at 610-524-5850 or jhonig@ccdisability.org.

When the self-defense course ended, a number of us wanted it to continue as a belt ranking course. That began around the autumnal equinox, and I’ve gone every sunday. Last week I formally received my white belt. It may not seem like much to some, since you get it for participating, but to me it means a lot.

The belt ranking course has a more rigorous feel, including a physical fitness portion. In class this often consists of lifting heavy exercise balls and doing push-ups. At home it now consists of lifting weights for an hour and doing push-ups. I can hardly believe that I’ve started working out for an hour every day, but since I try to spend comparable amount of time in meditation it feels like a good balance. The intense effort and change in lifestyle gives me the right to wear this belt.

After the workout, we get down to the martial arts portion. We have concentrated on three techniques which I will demonstrate. I will wait until the event to go over the juicy details, but suffice to say that all three defend against grabs, and one of them has a bunch of cool kicks. You will also love the ending, a real capper! These techniques will also demonstrate the use of a cane as a weapon, which feels very empowering since I always have one while in public.

Learning karate doesn’t just show you how to beat someone up. Learning karate teaches you a new kind of spacial and muscular awareness. I’ve taken an eight week course, plus this course has lasted for six or so weeks. In this time I have gained a finer sense of where people reside in relation to me in space. My muscles have started growing bigger and with it a better sense of their positions and functions. It continually amazes me how skills taught in class apply to normal life. Blind people will have learned the upper and lower protective positions, which translate over to blocks. A cane conveys all types of information. Women like guys who work out. I have already learned a lot in this class.

I feel honored to demonstrate these skills to the public. I’ve never done this before, but anticipate a smooth showing. Practice takes away pressure, as Sensei Ken reminded me. I even have a few jokes ready. If you live in the area I hope you can come and say hi. If not, I will have full coverage on my blog. This will include commentary, audio from my POV, and if someone can figure out how to hold my iPhone properly, video. See you on Sunday!

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