battis.net and I'm all out of bubble gum…

I wrote this originally in response to a question from [the assistant head at Jewish Day School] about how I think about web tools. After writing this, I chatted with him and [my opposite number in the middle school] about how folks that are using OTSW in the middle school that are more successful — largely because they’re using it as a “gateway drug” to a web presence, rather than trying to bring an existing web presence into one place.

Here my general thoughts on selecting tools for teaching and learning, and how OTSW measures up against them. This is in no way meant as a slam on OTSW, but rather an explanation of my thought process in selecting tools with which to teach and learn, while examining the OTSW system.

In general, when looking at a tool, my first concern is how well it does its intended job — whether intended by the developer or by the user. Education is strewn with unintended, but serendipitous uses of tools never intended for that purpose: consider the military’s use of game systems for training.

Assuming that a tool does what it is intended to do, and does it well, my next concern is how well this tool will connect not just to any existing tools, but specifically to the tools that I already use (although a little forward-thinking at this moment, considering tools I might want to use down the road, is not uncalled-for).

Having looked at these two considerations, the final — and really potentially gamestopping — concern is how well this tool will support a safe learning environment for my students and myself. What “safe” means can certainly be construed in different ways, depending on the purpose of the tool (a discussion tool would certainly have different safety concerns than a research tool).

With these three concerns in mind, let us turn our eye to OTSW and our current set of web tools:

What does it do? And does it do it well?

OTSW provides a Facebook-like environment for users of our FirstClass system. It allows users to post status updates, to maintain blogs and wikis, and to comment on each other’s postings.

User status updates are handled reasonably well — there are no major surprises. The status updates are limited in length (as is true of Twitter, Facebook, SMS messages, etc.) The system will display a somewhat shortened (truncated) version of the status message to users who “follow” that user. The users cannot type a longer status update than will fit into the field, but there is no warning when the status update is longer than can be displayed to one’s followers. Potential uses for these status updates are unknown, but a creative mind could certainly come up with something. Mostly, they’re just for fun.

Consider the blogging system: the word processing system for writing posts is comparable to the FirstClass document editor in the FirstClass client, although perhaps more limited. It is also comparable to the WordPress or MindTouch wiki document editors although, again, perhaps a touch more limited: fewer formatting options, no support of the style associated with structured documents built for the web, limited capabilities for facilitating linking to other documents on the same system.

The blog commenting system is apparently “un-threaded” — or, at least, controls for turning on threaded comments are not apparent. This means that a comment posted in response to another comment is shown in the overall list of comments by date, rather than by thread of conversation. This makes complex, truly interactive asynchronous conversations about a blog post difficult, if not impossible, to read. Additionally, already read comments automatically collapse upon the return to the page (with no preference otherwise), providing limited context for new comments.

The wiki document editing system is somewhat more advanced than the blogging system, allowing for the creation of links to other pages within the specific wiki on which you’re working, although not to other wikis on the OTSW system. Additionally, three styles of structured text (body, heading and subheading) are supported on wikis, as well as a few more rich formatting options.

The organization of the wiki pages within a specific wiki on the OTSW system is flat, rather than hierarchical. While this limits the confusion associated with the page hierarchies on the MindTouch wiki, the presentation of the pages for the wiki is now as a “page cloud” in the tool bar, organized apparently by date of creation or modification (making the placement of pages unpredictable between visits). There is no clear way to move or copy a page from one OTSW wiki to another.

As [one colleague] has correctly noted, another oddity of the OTSW wiki system is that, when commenting on a page, the actual content of the page is hidden (although the other comments on the page are displayed as on the blog, along with links to different versions of the page in its revision history). This is at best unhelpful, and certainly confusing to the novice (or experienced) user.

In both the blog and wiki systems on OTSW, the ability to tag posts and pages with keywords is provided. The tagging system in beta versions of OTSW was highly vulnerable to non-alphanumeric characters in tags (e.g. “Seth’s tag” — the apostrophe in one tag rendered an entire community inaccessible). In the current version of OTSW, non-alphanumeric characters are accepted in tags for display… but clicking the tag link to view all documents tagged with that keyword has unpredictable results (in the case of “Seth’s tag” the link takes the user to a page list all documents tagged “Seth” — which does not include the pages tagged “Seth’s Tag”).

Additionally, depending on what actions have recently been taken in the OTSW environment, the tagging tool will appear in unpredictable locations or may not even be accessible. (As is also the case for initial edits of wiki pages: once posted, the user has to leave the wiki and return in order to find an Edit link for that page.) Tagging wiki pages, at least in Safari, appears to be undo-able, as the tagging tool appears the bottom of the page, with scroll bars turned off, and no save button available.

Considering the apparent purposes of the OTSW system:

  • Status updates: nothing particularly unique or different or unusual, automatic truncation without warning.
  • Blogging: limited formatting options, lack of threaded discussions, lack of ability to link even to other posts in the blog.
  • Wikis: limited formatting options, confusing discussion format, no ability to organize pages.
  • Tagging: easily broken, predictably unpredictable.

Interoperability with Other Tools

When it comes to interoperability with the OTSW communities, the highest priority concern would be how well the tools work with our existing array of tools on campus, including our blog and wiki servers and, especially, FirstClass.

The communities are stored as a special type of conference on the FirstClass server. In current versions of the FirstClass client, clicking on these conferences will open the community in a web browser. When viewed by older clients, these conferences will open to reveal a list of documents (the pages, posts, comments, etc. within the community) with an array of specialized columns reflecting how these documents would be displayed in the web browser.

When a user is invited to a community, they receive an email invitation, with a link to click to accept the invitation. Users who have not already logged in to the web interface to the communities have found that these links often are not active: they do nothing. Ideally, the result of clicking this link is that an alias to that community’s conference will appear on the user’s FirstClass desktop, giving them access to the community. Moving these conference aliases off of the desktop (perhaps into a folder called “OTSW Communities”) renders the group memberships inoperable — the conference aliases must remain on the desktop, although each functions only as a bookmark to the web interface to the communities when accessed through the FirstClass client.

When a user creates a community of their own, a new community conference is created on their desktop, and all pages, posts and documents posted to that community will count against the creator’s FirstClass disk quota.

When a user posts a page, post or comment to an OTSW community, that content is displayed as an outgoing message to the users’s My Shared Documents conference in their mailbox. This is confusing.

In terms of interoperability with our blog and wiki tools, there are three standard ways to connect tools to each other on the web: links, RSS feeds of recent updates and embedding.

OTSW communities do not provide any RSS feeds. Links to OTSW communities, pages or posts, will fail if the user is not currently logged in to the OTSW communities in their browser. Following a link to an OTSW community while not logged in will drop a user into their OTSW desktop, rather than the target of the link. OTSW communities provide no options for embedding their content in other tools.

Looking at the flip side of this interoperability, bringing external tools into OTSW provides a somewhat better picture. OTSW supports regular web links in all posts, pages and comments. OTSW supports attaching any kind of document to a wiki page (e.g. a movie or audio file, or Word document).

OTSW does not provide any facility for subscribing to RSS feeds from other tools.

OTSW does provide some support for embedding external content in OTSW pages, posts and comments. These embeds are performed by pasting arbitrary HTML into the OTSW content embedding dialog. Unlike WordPress, which provides some filtering, OTSW will allow anything to be embedded — and, in fact, embeds most objects as IFRAMES (which allows the embedded site unlimited access to OTSW — not great for security).

One oddity of OTSW embedding is that embedded content is masked by the OTSW embed logo, which must be clicked upon to reveal the embedded content (perhaps as a security measure?). Once the logo is removed to reveal the embedded content (which must be done each time the page is loaded, for each embedded piece of content), the embedded content is presented in an IFRAME exactly the same size as the previously masking logo. The logo is smaller than the standard YouTube video, for size comparison. This means that all embedded content is viewed through what amounts to a porthole.

One possible way around the lack of ability to access an external site’s RSS feed (for example, a feed of recently updated instructional videos from YouTube), would be to use a third party tool such as WebRSS to generate a “badge” which could then be embedded in OTSW.

Considering OTSW’s interoperability with other tools:

  • FirstClass: Rube Goldberg-like dependency on community conferences to remain on the desktop, no warning about disk quota use for conference creators, confusing display of posted content, flaky invitation system.
  • Web Links: outgoing links from OTSW work fine, incoming links are functionally useless.
  • RSS Feeds: non-existent.
  • Embedding: no options to embed OTSW content elsewhere, very limited ability to embed external content in OTSW, requires manifold click-throughs.

Safety

OTSW provides a very well-secured environment for users, in that it leverages our existing FirstClass userbase to automatically limit access to communities. While I have no clear understanding of the true security capabilities of FirstClass, I note that the FirstClass messaging system was, for many, may years, a de facto standard across education — quick and easy to setup, very reliable, very secure. Nine out of ten dentists use it themselves, etc. OTSW does not seem to waiver from the FirstClass security model. In terms of operational security, OTSW appears to be a seamless layer on top of our existing FirstClass system.

Another aspect of security that is well worth considering in a teaching and learning standpoint are the types of habits promoted by a particular tool. For example, blog servers promote, well, self-promotion and publication, hopefully also critical, analytical engagement with external information sources. Wiki servers tend to promote collaboration, with individual accountability, on large documentation and research projects.

As a Facebook-like communication system, OTSW should, then be viewed as a safe learning environment for social networks and media, where students can learn good habits and social graces. Much of the system works in this manner (as did FirstClass in relation to traditional email), providing the ability to track revisions, flag offensive content, engage in asynchronous discussion, etc.

The one oddball is the profile system (and this may be dependent on system settings). By default, the OTSW user profiles are set to demand more and more and more personal information from each user, reminding the users that their “profile is only X% complete… add your [fill in the blank personal information] to complete your profile.” To my mind, without deeper discussion in the classroom, this type of message promotes a culture of thoughtless exposure, rather than a carefully managed digital footprint.

September 26th, 2010

Posted In: Educational Technology, Social Media

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A few days ago (well, maybe a couple weeks ago), I was chatting with one of my colleagues about how I go about testing out new plugins and themes for WordPress µ before loading them on our school blog server. It seems like documenting my process might be generally helpful, so…

To start with, I decided (after ten years of mucking out Apache config files and PHP extensions and custom MySQL installs — thank you so, so much Marc Liyange for your timely and helpful installers!), that I was a grown-up and could spend $60 on a tool that makes my life easier: I run MAMP Pro on my MacBook. This means that I have a generic Apache/PHP/MySQL stack that supports commonly-used PHP extensions, Apache configurations, etc. I have redirected the document root of my install to my regular user’s Sites directory in OS X (~/Sites) so that I have ready access to the backend files of for my test installs. The net result: WordPress’ famous “Five Minute Install” is now true of almost any LAMP-based web application — I had a five-minute install of Drupal, Moodle, Joomla… you name it.

I’ve also settled into using Coda ($99) to edit HTML/PHP source code, since I particularly like the built-in terminal and publishing management features.

With WordPress µ installed (which, I guess, is now calling itself WPMU or WordPress MU or even WordPress 3 in betas), I now do the following:

  • I install create a new blog for each new theme or plugin that I want to test out. I follow a pretty intuitive naming scheme: the URL for the blog is the URL for the plugin or theme, and the name of the blog is the name of the plugin or theme (so WordPress Hashcash is at …/wp-hashcash and named WordPress Hashcash).
  • As I create each new blog, I create a new user to be that blog’s administrator. I almost never use this login, but it means that I have one user who is matched to each blog. In doing this, I make heavy use of Gmail’s + modifiers, so new user emails look like mygmailaddress+talyn+wpmu+blogurl@gmail.com — this lets me catch and filter relevant emails easily on the other end. (I developed this system when I was testing plugins that sent email notifications). For the curious, Talyn is the name of my laptop (so I know which server is sending me email) and WPMU is the keyword to distinguish these emails from, say, Drupal notifications.
  • I also have six generic users that I add to most (not all — I add them as needed) blogs, each with their own standard privileges:
    • Anna “Annie” Administrator
    • Edward “Eddie” Editor
    • Allison “Allie” Author
    • Christine “Chrissy” Contributor
    • Samuel “Sammy” Subscriber
    • Nathan “Nate” No Privileges

    I actually included nicknames so that I could control for how different themes displayed usernames (since I’m thinking about FERPA and how it may apply to our students on our school blogserver).

  • I have one blog on which I never activate themes or plugins, which I lyrically call “Is this blog in the blast radius?” This is based on my experience installing Digress.it on WordPress µ at the start of the year (it hosed every blog on the server, rather than just the one where it was activated). I check this before I deem any test complete.
  • One tricky thing that I did was that I set up MAMP to run Apache and MySQL as my local user account on my MacBook, and I have set permissions on my Sites directory so that my local user has all privileges, as does the www group, and other users have read/execute privileges (chown -R seth ~/Sites; chgrp -R www ~/Sites; chmod -R 775 ~/Sites). This means that I usually don’t run into problems with web apps that want to move or create files. This is also, of course, totally insecure. Que sera, sera.
  • I have an extra blog set up on my WordPress µ install that runs Feed WordPress, and it republishes the feeds for all of the other blogs on the server tagged Note. This means that I can post something tagged Note to any blog that I’m working on and then have all my notes together in one place. Adding the subscriptions to the Feed WordPress blog is a manual step, but not prohibitively difficult. And it really does mean that I have one place for all of my notes on how things went (or didn’t went) in my WordPress µ testing. I have the feeds categorized as Plugins, Themes, Configuration and Hacks, since those are generally what I’m testing (and mostly Plugins, at that).
  • One hitch in my system is that I have opted to keep my system entirely up-to-date (I’m running WordPress µ 2.9.2 with the most recent versions of all my plugins), while our school blog server is still at 2.8.4a. Generally speaking, this hasn’t been much of a problem, but when I’m particularly concerned, I will sometimes check things out on a lingering 2.8.4a install before loading it.

May 18th, 2010

Posted In: How To

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Since this is available nowhere else on the internet, I’m posting it here for safekeeping. I believe that this applies to at least FirstClass 10, perhaps also FirstClass 9 (but that’s just a W.A.G.). This is from FirstClass tech support:

An RSS feed can be generated for any FirstClass container object (folder, conference, etc.) which is visible to the Web by adding a template override parameter to the URL. In other words, if the URL to the news conference on your Web site was http://www.mysite.com/News , then the URL to the RSS feed for that conference would be http://www.mysite.com/News?Templates=RSS&items . If you have an RSS feed reader you can simply enter that URL, give it a name, and you’ll have a feed. Usually, sites that offer an RSS feed will put a little icon on their main Web page to show that they have one. If your main page is a FirstClass document all you need to do is:

  1. Paste in your preferred RSS image
  2. Highlight the image in the editor and right-click your mouse, choose “Make Link”
  3. Enter the RSS feed URL, in our example http://www.mysite.com/News?Templates=RSS&items or ?plugin=RSS&Items

Buyer beware: I have not seen this work yet in my own tinkering. But I am hopeful that somehow I’m doing something wrong.

May 18th, 2010

Posted In: How To

Tags: , ,

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

Even as the end-of-year to-do lists are approaching critical overload, I find that one of the joys of the spring is the contemplation of what I will be working on next year. Not so much in a “next year I’ll do this all differently” kind of snit, but with more of a “year in review” focus: spring and graduation makes me sentimental and reminiscent.

With that in mind, in the past week I have come across two interesting resources both for teaching in general and for thinking about our work as “knowledge workers” in the 21st century (to infinity and beyond!). First, Merlin Mann discusses how we do (or do not) allocate our time and attention to getting our projects done. Thoughtful, provocative and entertaining stuff. Second, Williams College’s Project for Effective Teaching has gone online with a truly exciting, provocative array of professorial reflections and questions around specific aspects of classrooms and teaching and learning. Enjoy!

How, you might ask, do videos like these fall into my hands? I follow-up on the sources of interesting articles that I see. And then on the sources of those sources: I like to find where the ideas are swimming around raw and unfettered. I do this by following a boat-load of interesting “edu-bloggers”, by following (and engaging with) other teachers on Twitter, and by doing a lot of skimming.

May 13th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

Tags: , , , ,

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

As we head down the homestretch of May and June, more and more students (and teachers) are experiencing siyyum for their coursework, either as final papers or presentations or projects. Projects and papers are delightfully straight-forward and easy to facilitate and grade… at least, when compared to presentations, which have the added benefit of being a potential exercise in goodwill and patience to sit through.

The first hurdle our students have to get over is the technology itself — bringing together all the disparate elements of their presentation into one place and time. A few years ago, I wrote up a cheat sheet of tips that help to avoid the most common student pitfalls. I have not run into technical problems with student PowerPoints since I started giving them this handout (I kid you not).

In general, a good presentation has to nail not just the content and technology, but also visuals and public speaking. And this is the hardest thing to do right. For adults, even. Experts have started to decry PowerPoint as not just problematic, but actively destructive when it comes to communicating information and especially nuance clearly.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

New York Times, April 26, 2010

Shifting the focus from a PowerPoint document to the holistic presentation will further the student’s ability to communicate complex ideas — a key skill in today’s (or any day’s) world. Some further reading that is both informative and motivational on that front:

May 6th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

Tags: , , , , , , ,

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

Making Things Run Smoothly

  • Make sure that you always insert pictures into your presentation using the Insert Picture command from the Insert menu. Do not copy and paste pictures into your presentation. For arcane reasons, copy and pasting pictures can make your PowerPoint fail to display your pictures on other computers.
  • Keep a folder of all of the pictures and video that you add to your PowerPoint. Just in case you need to re-insert it (for example, if you messed up on following the tip above).
  • Video is not embedded in PowerPoint, pictures are – share Zip files. That is, you can insert pictures into a PowerPoint presentation and send the presentation to someone else and they can see the pictures but you cannot insert video, send the presentation to someone else, and expect them to see the video. PowerPoint creates a link to the video instead. To get around this, if you are going to use video, put your presentation and your video files in a folder together, then insert the video. When you are ready to share your presentation, right-click on the folder and Send To > Compress or Zip Archive and send out the Zip file instead. Your recipient can unzip the archive and will have the presentation and the video.

Making Things Look Pretty

  • Black text on a white background is not traditional by accident. It’s easy to read. Think carefully before trying a novel color combination.
  • One picture per slide lets you show the picture big, in all its glory. Multiple pictures per slide lets you compare pictures. Think about which it is you want to be doing (and remember that postage stamps are hard to see!).
  • Don’t stretch your pictures. You can scale your pictures proportionately by holding down the Shift key when you drag the grab boxes on the corners of the picture. This will make sure that the picture doesn’t get distorted.
  • Use text judiciously. This one is complicated: you don’t want to have too much text on a slide because it will get small and hard to read. You don’t want to put your script on the slide, because then you’ll be reading from the slide, which is deathly dull (unless, maybe, you’re Morgan Freeman). But you do want to present text that will support your arguments and highlight important ideas. And you do want to present quotations that are illuminating. One rule of thumb is the “six by six” rule: no more than six words per bullet point, no more than six bullet points per slide. This is totally artificial and you should violate it as needed… but remember it and what it is really urging: don’t overwhelm your audience with text!
  • Less is more. This is true of almost everything involved in PowerPoint, but particularly when it comes to animation and sound effects. They have a campy appeal, and can sometimes underscore a point you’re trying to make. But you ain’t Spielberg and PowerPoint ain’t ILM, so don’t go trying to put in gratuitous special effects just to make your PowerPoint more appealing. Your research and ideas should be the focus, not your ability to make car crash sound effects.

May 6th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

Tags: , , ,

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to post a monthly column on the goings-on in our media studies department (and in education technology in general) to our online parent bulletin. This is one such column.

In today’s world, where “there is an app for that” — no matter what that may be — it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in fact, when we are dealing with real problems that involve real people and real situations and real information, there often isn’t an app for that. Nor is there a systematic, rational approach for tackling the unknown. It’s easy to find an app that tracks the balance of your checking account… but very, very hard to find an app that can tell you why your portfolio is going up (or down).

The Media Studies department is offering a new course in computer application design and computer science in the coming academic year, to complement our existing offerings in video, photography, web and game design and new media. Seth Battis, who joined the department this year, will be teaching the course, which is designed to complement the robotics learning led by [a colleague] and [Jewish Day School’s Academy of Science and Technology].

Computer science is the study of computation, using computers to process vast mountains of data into that nugget of usable, useful, valuable information. And, in the past decade, it has become the domain not just of computer geeks, but of professionals, scientists and researchers seeking to better understand the information they have and the challenges they are trying to tackle. Computational biology, statistical modeling of markets, physical simulations of wind energy are all being done by people with a foot in two worlds: the world of their chosen, beloved studies and the world of computation facilitates their studies.

Computer science has gone in and out of vogue many times over the last several decades — and with good reason. It can provide a unique perspective on creative problem-solving and ways for humans (us!) to understand vast and complicated data. But it can also be the drudgery of “pixel-stained technopeasants” sweating over line after line of arcane code.

The purpose of the Computer Application Design and Programming course is to, at the high school level, make these same skills and this same practice available to [Jewish Day School] students. Students will have the opportunity to practice their analytic and reasoning skills, while developing new practices in problem solving, using modern tools further their learning. The course will be taught using object-oriented programming practices, applicable in a broad array of modern computational environments — from the iPhone to the web to stand-alone computers to computing clusters.

Students and families interested in the Computer Application Design and Programming course are encouraged to contact their advisor or Mr. Battis or [my department chair] for more information.

May 3rd, 2010

Posted In: Parent Communication

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to post a monthly column on the goings-on in our media studies department (and in education technology in general) to our online parent bulletin. This is one such column.

In today’s world, where “there is an app for that” — no matter what that may be — it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in fact, when we are dealing with real problems that involve real people and real situations and real information, there often isn’t an app for that. Nor is there a systematic, rational approach for tackling the unknown. It’s easy to find an app that tracks the balance of your checking account… but very, very hard to find an app that can tell you why your portfolio is going up (or down).

The Media Studies department is offering a new course in computer application design and computer science in the coming academic year, to complement our existing offerings in video, photography, web and game design and new media. Seth Battis, who joined the department this year, will be teaching the course, which is designed to complement the robotics learning led by [colleague] and [Jewish Day School Academy of Science and Technology].

Computer science is the study of computation, using computers to process vast mountains of data into that nugget of usable, useful, valuable information. And, in the past decade, it has become the domain not just of computer geeks, but of professionals, scientists and researchers seeking to better understand the information they have and the challenges they are trying to tackle. Computational biology, statistical modeling of markets, physical simulations of wind energy are all being done by people with a foot in two worlds: the world of their chosen, beloved studies and the world of computation facilitates their studies.

Computer science has gone in and out of vogue many times over the last several decades — and with good reason. It can provide a unique perspective on creative problem-solving and ways for humans (us!) to understand vast and complicated data. But it can also be the drudgery of “pixel-stained technopeasants” sweating over line after line of arcane code.

The purpose of the Computer Application Design and Programming course is to, at the high school level, make these same skills and this same practice available to [Jewish Day School] students. Students will have the opportunity to practice their analytic and reasoning skills, while developing new practices in problem solving, using modern tools further their learning. The course will be taught using object-oriented programming practices, applicable in a broad array of modern computational environments — from the iPhone to the web to stand-alone computers to computing clusters.

Students and families interested in the Computer Application Design and Programming course are encouraged to contact their advisor or Mr. Battis or [my department chair] for more information.

May 3rd, 2010

Posted In: Computer Science, Parent Communication

Tags: , , ,

I just slapped together a very quick plugin for a teacher’s blog that adds a [category] shortcode to WordPress. Basically, it just passes through all of the attributes of the shortcode as parameters to wp_list_categories(), allowing the user to embed a list of blog categories in any page, post or widget. This feels like something that should already exist (but I couldn’t find it).

category_shortcode.php

April 23rd, 2010

Posted In: Blogs, How To

Tags: , , , , ,

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