Craft and gardening and all that? It’s officially considered Work

Busily transcribing the interview I had this morning with a recently retired International Labour Organisation statistician. Amazing person. Her area was work that has not historically been considered “real” work, nor factored into GDPs, i.e., “invisible” economies of goods and services that the ILO as of last fall refers to as “own-use production,” and it has very openly declared own-use production to be considered work and called for its value (economic, cultural, social) to be respected and supported. With “own-use production,” we’re talking homesteading, housework, even, to use one of Sophie’s examples, hand-knitting a sweater. With this resolution the ILO is pushing for a redefinition of productive work in its very literal sense — as not just production that leads to growth on paper, but also growth in communities, growth in families.

If you’re so inclined you can read the ILO’s “Resolution concerning statistics of work, employment and labour underutilisation,” published in fall 2013, here. And I hope you’re inclined, because as for me, my mind was fairly well blown by it. It’s never occurred to me to double-check what the ILO considered knitting to be because, well, what else is it but a “hobby”? Hardcore crafters and craftivists, radical homemakers and farmwives, and urban homesteaders aside, the entire world thinks stuff like knitting is for leisure time and bored women, and therefore of no concern to the serious calculations involved in Real Economics. Naturally I assumed that’s what all the big, important international organizations thought, if they even thought about it.

The ILO publishes resolutions for best practices; they’re non-binding, so countries don’t have to ratify anything, though there is some international pressure involved in these things. And in general I don’t hold much faith in UN agencies, bloated and slow-moving as they often are. But the ILO calling for a redefinition of “real” work to include, among things, gardening, cooking, food preservation, home building projects, recycling, knitting, sewing, and caring for children and elderly parents? This is revolutionary. This makes me very happy. The world’s not going to change overnight, but I will very gladly embrace this development.

Our talk ended with a discussion on bread — Sophie’s an avid bread baker who grinds her own grains and experiments wildly with all things flour and yeast. For example: as we were wrapping up, she said, “Oh, I have to show you the bread I just made. Milena said you’re into bread.” (Milena’s her daughter, a friend and former co-worker of mine.) As she was flicking back through the photos on her phone, she told me about how her son had some friends over the other day to hang out and drink a few beers, and several half-empty cans were still in evidence the next day. “It drives me crazy,” she said. “I cannot stand wasting anything,” so she gathered up the cans and looked in her bread books to see how she might be able to repurpose flat beer. Finally settling on a recipe for rye bread that specifically called for flat beer, she mixed the lone soldiers with some buckwheat flour and let it ferment for four days, then mixed this starter with some whole wheat flour, baked it, and came out with two absolutely beautiful loaves. How many facets of awesome did you count in that story?

The rest of our discussion will be up here soon.

One of the best loaves of bread I’ve ever baked

This may look like a bread failure:


But I am going to tell you why it is anything but a bread failure.

You see, I think I’ve finally left the realm of the nervous beginner who obsesses about following dictates and worries about making mistakes, gets frustrated at the slightest imperfection in a final product, is impatient for the day when mastery will be reached. I don’t generally like making such bold declarations, but in this case I don’t think I’m overstating things. I really do think I’ve stopped worrying about my bread “failing.” (Maybe because it happens so often and so I’m used to it? Ha.) I’ve realized that even when a loaf comes out of the oven looking absolutely nothing like the pretty loaves of bread in all my cookbooks, it is almost always perfectly edible, and often tastes very good despite appearances. Like the loaf of bread pictured above, for example.

After my first experience baking with the clay cooker, I was excited to try again as soon as possible, figuring that I’d pinpointed three key things to change in order to improve my results (make a smaller loaf so it doesn’t stick to the sides of the cooker, bake at a much higher oven temperature, and take off the top of the cooker earlier on in the baking so the crust can harden more). It’s not often that we can so clearly identify areas of improvement like that, which in itself I think is a sign of progress. The first clay cooker loaf was eaten within three days, and part-way through day two I got another starter going. I didn’t realize I was running so low on flour until then, but the next day when it came time to make the dough I didn’t have time to run out and get more of my go-to flour so I just used what we had, which was about a 1/2 or 2/3 cup of white whole wheat and then enough buckwheat flour to make a dough. It was more buckwheat than wheat, which I knew would result in something weird because buckwheat (which is not actually wheat; it’s related to rhubarb) is gluten free, meaning it’s not going to rise much, and it also absorbs a hell of a lot more water than your typical wheat flour, meaning the dough was going to be sopping wet. However, that’s all I had on hand so I went with it — with glee and abandon no less. This was mad science at its finest.

Here’s the dough after rising overnight:


Thick, gray soup. Impossible to shape into anything remotely resembling a loaf of bread so I had to pour it into the clay cooker like cake batter.


I preheated the clay cooker in the oven at 425F/218C, which is quite a bit hotter than the temperature I normally use to bake bread.

Into the oven it went, for about 15-20 minutes of eager anticipation.



Tick tick tick… I was dying to see what was going on in there. In my dreams the super wet dough was going to create a soft, billowy mass dotted with perfectly placed pockets of air, and I was going to take a photo of it to post all over the internet saying Look At Me and my beautiful bread!!

Then the covered baking time was up and I lifted off the lid to discover this:


Oh dear.

I left it to bake for another half an hour or so and then removed it from the oven.


That, my friends, is a very, very flat loaf of bread. (But at least it didn’t stick to the pot.)

I let it cool while I was doing other things, and come lunch time I decided to cut into it lengthwise and try to make a sandwich out of it. This is when I discovered that the interior was actually really nice looking.


More importantly, it was delicious. And, most importantly, this loaf of bread that some might call a failure confirmed that I had been right to crank up the oven heat and take the lid off sooner in the baking. I’ve already got another starter going and will make a dough tomorrow (with my regular flour).

So, in the end, this bread is definitely not winning any ribbons at the state fair, but I’d say that out of all of the several hundred loaves of bread that I’ve baked, this is one of the loaves that has taught me the most. Experimentation and failure for the win.

Tree house update, August

Growth report:



A month ago:


image (82)


Day 1 in its current location:


Six or seven inches in a month, not bad. Before the next check-up I’m probably going to re-pot it again, and put it on the floor because it’s starting to get a bit big for its perch on my bookshelf.

Knitting fail + the research scarf



Right, so it’s been one of those days. I have a fairly ridiculous to-do list this week so of course all I’ve been thinking all day is knitknitknitknit. My day has gone: work a bit, knit a bit, work a bit, knit a bit, eat lunch, knit for an hour and a half while listening to This American Life, then work a bit, then pick the knitting back up because I’m so close to finishing this hat (!), then second-guess the pattern because it seems like it’s big enough now, so I start decreasing, and I finish, and I’m so pleased, and I rush to the mirror in the hallway to try it on (it’s for Alvaro, not me, but we both have big heads) and I discover with horror:



Am I right? I think we can objectively say that this hat is too short. A winter hat that doesn’t even reach the top of one’s ears is no winter hat. It’s a beanie. For a puppet. Or something… a learning experience, maybe.

The yarn’s been cut and woven in so there’s no going back. I’m frustrated. I shouldn’t have second-guessed the pattern. Now I have to go find someone with a very short head.

Luckily I didn’t spend weeks or months of my life on this. I only started last Wednesday so there wasn’t so much time investment “lost,” but in fact that’s one of the things I liked about this hat, that it was a quickie, and my still fairly impatient self was pleased to be capable of churning out a knitting project in under a week. With this project I also learned a couple of new skills: knitting in the round from the bottom up, and decreasing in the round. All was not lost, then, but still I’m disappointed that even a week’s worth of work went into something that I messed up at the end because I was impatient and too big for my britches.

As I don’t want the hat to go to waste and can’t think of anyone who could wear it instead, I’m going to figure out a way to hook it onto the research scarf I’m making for Mas. The research scarf came from a dream I had about a year and a half ago, in which I was in elementary school and had been invited to the birthday party of a girl in my class, Meghan. My dream self was my adult self trapped in an eight-year-old’s body, and so upon receiving the invitation to Meghan’s party dream me decided that I would not gift her some mass market crap, something that would do nothing more than offer a moment’s whimsical distraction and then get relegated to a hall closet as yet another throw-away toy. I was no mindless consumer, no buyer of objects programmed to become functionally or fashionably obsolete. No, I decided, instead of giving Meghan a toy, I would do research on a subject of my choosing and present her with the archive of this research. So I did research on humpback whales, which oddly enough is historically accurate, since I was obsessed with humpback whales at age eight. At the birthday party I proudly presented Meghan with a fat binder full of photos, notes, and printed articles, but she was confused, seemed entirely unimpressed by all my hard work, and quickly set aside the binder in order to open up yet another package from Toys R Us. I didn’t confront her in the dream (it was her birthday after all, and even in dreams I’m polite in social situations), but in my dream thoughts I said to myself: “This girl sucks. That’s the best present ever.”

I told all of this to Mas and she thought it was hilarious. “It is the best present ever!” And so with that we decided that from here on out when we wanted to give a gift to each other, for a birthday or some other occasion, we would give each other research. This was the plan but it hasn’t entirely gotten off the ground because we’re already deep into other research projects, and also very forgiving of each other. She is the type of friend who, if we have a date to meet up and either one of us calls an hour before and says, “Listen, I hate humanity today and cannot bring myself to go out in public,” the one who has just been stood up understands entirely and is not annoyed.

I did actually do a lot of research on 18th century man-eating cryptids (see for example the Beast of Gévaudan) and wrote a pretty lengthy short story as my chosen mode of research presentation, and then my computer died a few weeks before Mas’s birthday last December, taking the story and all digital archive artifacts with it. It was an unspectacular death — it just froze, and so I turned it off, and when I turned it back on it got stuck on a pixelated start screen. I brought it into a computer repair shop and the guy just chuckled, tickled by the sight of such an antique. He said it was possible, maybe, to try to recuperate some of the data and put it on an external hard drive, so I said okay, and then, well, time flies, life gets the best of you, and here I am eight months later and I still haven’t gone back to see about saving my hard drive. My computer is Schrödinger’s cat in the many-worlds interpretation: so long as I don’t take it back to the repair shop, my files are both lost and not lost. I feel pretty pessimistic about this and am convinced they’re lost, and so I prefer to continue not knowing for now so they can stay half-not lost. Anyway, none of this really has anything to do with the subject at hand, which is the research scarf.

The research scarf is something I started developing when I first started knitting. I hadn’t picked up knitting needles in years, and had never been any good at it anyway, so I needed some practice first to get going on real projects. But I didn’t like the idea of having practice swatches that served no other purpose than being practice swatches. I decided then that in the process of learning to knit I would first try things out on the same practice “swatch,” which over time would become a long length of yarn of different colors, fibers, weights, and stitches, full of practice button holes and first-timer’s cables. In short, it would be a log of me learning how to knit, like a learner’s notebook written in yarn. Mas liked the idea, so eventually she’ll be receiving it, but not for a while. I’d first imagined working on it over the course of a year, but I quickly realized that this was a bit hasty on my part. It’s going to take a lot longer than a year for me to learn to knit — actually it’ll take a lifetime, because I don’t want to ever stop learning, and I don’t believe that in any skill we get to a point where we’ve learned everything there is to learn. Still, I have to cut myself off at some point and just give her the scarf as research in progress, so I told her the other day to expect it around her 40th birthday. (She’s turning 30 this year.) I’m a slow knitter.

Now, then, back to the short hat. There has to be some way to attach it to the scarf. It couldn’t really be used to make a hooded scarf, because thus far there’s only about a foot of scarf research, and I want to do things chronologically so I need to add the hat before I add anything else, which will make for a very asymmetrical design. Or do we care? I’m looking at it now and I’m not immediately seeing how to attach it in a non-awkward way. Will ponder this engineering puzzle and report back. In the meantime I need to go do some actual work.

New bread toy

Pretty much any sourdough bread baking guru or cookbook writer I can track down from at least the past five years or so talks about a Dutch oven as an essential piece of equipment for those of us stuck with electric home ovens. Even with the ventilator shut off, an electric oven will send steam out its vents so the humidity inside is way lower than what you’d get in a wood-fired one. And high humidity is part of the reason why loaves baked in a wood-fired oven will always, in my opinion, come out way better than electric oven-baked loaves. (“Better” is subjective of course, but I’m using it anyway here, in reference to the general qualities that bread geeks consider when sizing up a bread success or failure: towering oven spring, crisp crust, chewy interior, lots of air pockets. There are others, but those are the ones that I understand are affected by oven temps and humidity.)

When I first learned about this Dutch oven thing I went immediately on the hunt for one, but it seems that Dutch ovens of the sort I was looking for — cast iron with a frying pan for a lid — are not a thing in France/Switzerland, where I live. All the ones I found had deep bottoms and lids with handles, which I knew would make removing loaves difficult, or else they were Le Creuset and I’m not paying 400 euros for a pot, thanks. So I just sort of gave up on the Dutch oven thing and tried other methods: altering oven temperatures, pouring water in a tray at the bottom of the oven, but my bread was still coming out looking fairly sketchy 50% of the time, at least. I was getting very little oven spring, also because I work almost exclusively with whole grain flour and I’ve been trying to move towards wetter doughs, all of which leads to loaves that spread out during the final rise and wind up looking like pancakes. They taste good but are absolutely useless for making sandwiches.

Then this past Saturday I did my usual farmer’s market run, and there was a couple there selling kitchen wares. Either I was blind to them before or else they’re new (I think it’s the latter), but anyway, they had what they called Roman casseroles (cocotte romaine), which are basically terra cotta Dutch ovens with a base and cover of equal size. Yes! So I bought one, came home and got a sourdough sponge started, later made into dough; all told it was a never-ending wait of 36 hours until I had a dough ready to put in my new toy.

I didn’t get to baking it until late last night, because first we made pizza for dinner. It would have made sense to warm up the casserole while the oven was warming up for the pizza — you apparently have to put this thing in a cold oven and then turn it on, so the clay heats up gradually along with the oven — and then bake the bread directly after the pizza. But I timed things poorly and so was still pre-soaking the casserole at the time the oven had to be turned on for the pizza, and we were very hungry so pizza got priority. This meant that after the pizza was done I had to turn off the oven and leave the door open to let it cool down entirely, and then once cool put the casserole back in and — whatever, suffice it to say the bread didn’t get in until very late, and I was feeling very guilty about all the electricity I was wasting.

Once everything was preheated I took the casserole out of the oven, slid in the bread dough, covered it, and put it back into the oven to bake. After about 30 minutes at 375 F (this was all guess work) I removed the top cover. In retrospect I really should have either bought the bigger casserole, or else divided the dough I was baking into two, because I’d overfilled the dish. It wasn’t overflowing or anything, but there was definitely not a whole lot of wiggle space and so I knew already by this point that the bread would be hell to get out of the dish. But I soldiered on, i.e., shrugged it off and went back to the couch to pass out till the entire cooking time was up.

The bread baked in total for about 50 minutes. It sprung a decent amount, but not as much as I’d hoped. Next time I’m going to try a higher oven temperature. Also the crust was disappointing. I prefer really crispy crusts, and this one was pretty soft. So next time I’m taking the lid off sooner.

I left it in the pan overnight because I was tired and it was late. This morning, as expected, it was hell to get out.



But I did. (After coffee.)


Ta da. Left some behind in the casserole but I scraped that out and had it for breakfast. Waste not.


Not bad at all really. I would say one of my better loaves, so I think I’m heading in the right direction. Next time, as I said, I’ll try a hotter oven and take the lid off sooner and see what comes out. But for now it’s perfectly good for sandwiches.

Time log of a highly productive day

On Wednesday Mas and I met up at Utopiana to catch up, which is an odd thing for me to say because normally we see each other all the time, but by fault of various circumstances we somehow managed to go an entire month without seeing each other, nor even really having much in the way of contact aside from a couple of brief emails. (She had also lost her cell phone and hasn’t yet gotten a new one.) At long last we were reunited then, and before we knew it we’d been talking for 10 hours straight. It was nearly 2 a.m. and we were both too exhausted to make our ways home, so we slept in the residency house. The next day was Thursday, which would prove to be a highly productive day.

0827 –  I woke up, much later than I normally wake up, but we’d been up late. I showered and dressed and was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee by 0900.

0910 – Mas and I are sitting at the table on the garden terrace, drinking our coffee and enjoying the still of the morning. I’m working on my latest knitting project. The still was interrupted when the birds arrived to feast on the grape arbor hanging over our heads. “I’ve had enough of their gluttony,” I said. “I’m fine with them eating some of the grapes but last year they ate everything. Let’s pick everything that’s ripe and make wine.” Mas said, “Right,” and got her laptop to start looking up how to go about such business, because neither of us had ever done it before. I got a pair of scissors from the kitchen and stood on a rickety wooden chair cutting down bunches of grapes and loading them into a plastic bag hooked on my elbow. I picked a huge pile, something like six or seven kilos I’d say, and then returned to my seat to continue knitting while Mas read aloud to me instructions she was finding online for how to make wine.




1030 – After we found instructions that we felt capable of following, we turned to other important subjects and discussed those: gardening and Plantopic projects. I continued to knit. After a while Mas got up to go read in the sun, and I continued to knit and write a story in my head.

1130 – I decided to see what I could do as far as lunch preparation. There was very little in the house, but I knew there was at least one egg, half a bag of flour, and a bottle of olive oil, plus we have a garden, so I decided to make fresh pasta with pesto. Hunting around a little further in the kitchen, I found the tail end of a bag of frozen broccoli in the freezer and also a small piece of hard cheese, two cloves of garlic, and approximately 17 pine nuts. In the garden I picked two big handfuls of basil and managed to uncover some green beans that I’d missed harvesting the day before. (I love picking green beans. I love how you go to pick them, thinking there are only a few because the beans and the stems blend together at first glance, but the more you look the more you find.) Without a food processor or mortar and pestle, I just chopped the ingredients for the pesto as finely as I could and mixed them all together with olive oil. While that marinated I got to work on the pasta, pouring a small hill of flour on the table and making a well in it, into which went the lone egg, a few pinches of salt, and a tiny pour each of water and olive oil. Mixed together, then kneaded, then left to rest while I cleaned up a little.

1200 – I roll out the pasta, fold it, flour it, and start to cut it into strips. I pause for a second to post a photo of it to Instagram. I tag Valerio. Meanwhile Mas puts some water on to boil, sautes the broccoli and green beans, and goes to pick a handful of edible flowers for a garnish.


1230 – We sit down to eat, and it’s very good. “I have a confession to make,” I told Mas. “This is the first time I’ve ever made pasta. Well, noodle-type pasta like this. I tried making ravioli once and it was an utter failure. It took me I think three hours, I was starving by the time it was done, and I hadn’t managed to roll it out thinly enough so it was too thick. And afterwards I looked up hand-rolled pasta tutorials on YouTube and memorized it for the next time I would make pasta, which, it turns out, was six years later.” She laughed. “You know, I think all this DIY stuff you’re doing, you’re not just making things, but also having as a side effect the loss of fear of trying new things and possibly failing,” she said. I agreed. It would have been entirely possible for our lunch to fail and for us to have to go across the road to buy sandwiches, but I had just sort of nonchalantly decided to take on this pasta-making endeavor as though hand-rolling and cutting fresh pasta is something I do on a regular basis, like making sourdough bread (which, it must be recalled, was once something I had never done).

I think another side effect of my DIY adventures is the fact that I even confessed at all to Mas that I’d never before made fresh linguine. I felt no need to pretend to be an expert — which is something I very definitely did when I was younger and thought I had something to prove to the world. I remember when I was in college and did a brief stint as a volunteer at the local Ronald McDonald House (a house where parents of hospitalized children can stay for free while their kids are receiving treatment) and I decided one day I would bake bread. I had, at that point, baked possibly four loaves of bread in my entire life, with varying success, but I did not tell this to my fellow volunteers. I memorized a recipe for Irish soda bread before going in for the day and set to work on it as though making Irish soda bread were my daily ritual. My fellow volunteers were impressed; and I, for my part, was relieved that the bread came out well and my fraud was not revealed. I’m embarrassed to tell this story, but I think it’s something that most people have probably done — pretend to be old hacks at something they’re really just doing for the first or second time. It’s not quite lying — I’d call it posturing, and I think we do it because beginners are not valued as much as someone who has been doing something for a very long time and has mastered it. Why is that? Being a beginner takes an enormous amount of courage and risk tolerance. Shouldn’t that be held in high esteem as much as the patience and perseverance it takes to become really good at something?

1315 – We’re done eating. I pick up my knitting again and we start to discuss agenda items for the Plantopic meeting scheduled for 1400. I’m really moving along on this hat.

1400 – Anna and Lucas arrive. Mas and I, in the course of talking, had begun pulling the grapes off their stems and putting them in a large, nonreactive metal pot. Anna joins in and Lucas picks more grapes. We discuss future workshops and to-dos while doing this.


All in all it’s a productive meeting. We address a lot of issues and come up with plans to deal with them. The repetitive manual work is meditative and we find focus in our conversations. Mas, whose hands are for the most part clean, sends off a few necessary emails.

1445 – When the grapes are all picked off the stems we begin crushing them with our hands, while continuing to talk business. This was extreme fun.



1515 – We cover the pot of crushed grapes with a clean towel, tied with a piece of string.


We continued with the meeting, and Lucas and I begin removing black radish seeds from their pods. Mas and I had left a black radish to flower and go to seed, and this week I saw that the seed pods were ready to be picked. It was tedious work but we finished pretty quickly.



1530 – Meeting’s over. Anna and Lucas leave; Mas goes to read some more. I’m feeling pretty wiped out, having not slept my usual number of hours the night before, so I decide to go take a short nap. I fall asleep astonishingly quickly and am asleep for a half an hour when my alarm goes off. Mas is on her way out and says goodbye, and I hit the snooze button once. When I wake up the second time I’m a little bit groggy but feel my energy is coming back. I don’t understand why naptime is not common practice in this world. We get so much more done if we’re just allowed to rest a little when we need to.

1627 – I get on my bike and head home. Perhaps emboldened by the earlier pasta success, I decide to take another risk and attempt to find a new route home. When I have children someday I will tell them that when I was their age I had to ride my bike uphill both ways to and from my Walter Benjamin reading group, and they will think I’m being grouchy or lying, but I will in fact be telling the truth. The normal route I take between my apartment and Utopiana brings me up, over, and down a very big hill, which I find hugely annoying because my apartment and Utopiana are at about the same altitude so in theory I should be able to get to and from both places without finishing drenched in sweat. To make it worse, I have to cross this small mountain on a busy road with no bike lane, and people are always in such a damn hurry. I’ve had no near-death experiences but I feel that it’s only a matter of time. I’ve tried to find another route several times but with no luck; I always wind up in industrial zones with even worse traffic, or else the experimental route takes twice as long as my usual one.

Never mind. I decided I would try again, and by some miracle I stumbled upon the alternative route that I knew existed but had just never found. There was no annoying hill to cross, I was on either a protected bike lane or else an entirely separate bike path for almost the entire way, and plus a good portion of it was through pretty neighborhoods. And it took me more or less as much time as my old route.

1705 – I support the local economy by stopping off at the grocery store to pick up a bag of peaches and one very large tomato.

1715 – Alvaro is home, as is our roommate. I ask them if they want pasta for dinner, because I’ve decided that I liked making the pasta at lunch and wanted to try it again as soon as possible. They both said yes, so I got to work making a ratatouille and then made and began rolling out pasta dough. Alvaro jumped up to help so we were very efficient in getting it done.



1900 – We eat. The pasta is okay but definitely not as good as the lunch pasta, and I overcooked it so it was a bit soggy. I will have to research this to figure out what went wrong. (I sense a new obsession forming.) The pasta I made at lunch was made with commercial white flour, and our dinner pasta was a combo of whole wheat/semi-whole wheat flours, so I’m guessing therein lies the difference.

2000 – I pick up my book of the moment, A Guide for the Perplexed, which I read part of a few years ago. I decided recently that I wanted to read the whole thing, so I picked it up again. I’m finding it pretty frustrating and I’m disagreeing with a lot of things that only a couple of years ago I apparently glided over without much of a reaction. But it’s a nice change from my habitual reading choices. I often agree with the books I read, and there’s no challenge in a life led like that.

Between 2000 and when I started nodding off around 2300 I alternated reading, knitting, and occasionally watching the movie that the boys were watching. I don’t know the title of the movie but it was something period and involved the British.

So to recap: On Thursday I began learning a new skill (making pasta), advanced quite a bit in the production of a knitted garment, began a project that I’ve been wanting to try for years but had never gotten to (making wine, which also qualifies as new-skill learning), had meaningful discussions and made progress in planning projects and activities with Plantopic, saved for the future (black radish seeds), took a risk that will pay out both immediate and long-term dividends (found a new bike route), and challenged my comfort zone by reading something that I kind of agree with but also disagree with in many ways. I find that all in all this day was an extremely successful one.

The guerrilla architect


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