Animal control: the despotic delights of Animal Crossing during lockdown

All, Arts

Originally published on Empoword Journalism.

We’d just received an email from the head of HR. “From Wednesday 18th of March,” it read, “the office will close, and all employees will be working from home indefinitely”. One colleague bit her lip. “Fuck,” she muttered. “Where am I going to get my loo roll from now?”

Debbie and I were on very different wavelengths, it turned out. Whilst she was one of the many ravenously stockpiling resources, I – inexplicably and falsely confident that everything would be fine – was more concerned with how I was going to pass the time without friends, and shops, and trees. So I made virtual ones.

Nintendo was to release Animal Crossing: New Horizons on its Switch console that Friday, so as Debbie wrestled to secure for herself the last jar of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference capers (you take what you can get), I managed to swipe the last available gaming device from the Curry’s across the road. My babe in arms, I ferried it home warily, guarded against the slew of half-masked strangers on the District line.

I set it up and pre-downloaded the game that night, and when Friday came, it was like Christmas morning. I was dropped into a world in which I could manipulate natural resources for my benefit, pay off a mortgage in a few days, and, crucially, in which I was an adorable little man – all of which remain somewhat farfetched IRL. For weeks I worked doggedly and tactically: recruiting unassuming animals to repatriate themselves to my island nation; attempting to sate my avaricious landlord; visiting friends (yes, real-life ones) to swap apples for pears, as it were (as it literally was).

Before long, Treloaria was a developed civilisation of its own, with a bustling high street; chock-a-block museum; outdoor amphitheatre; beachside gym; and Desperate Housewives-inspired residential suburbs. I had terraformed my virtual paradise to my heart’s content, completing all seasonally occurring tasks (including those set by the terrifying bunny from Donnie Darko), and had even made it to my poorly attended surprise birthday party, wherein my neighbours, Cube the penguin and Wendy the sheep, pranced gaily around a centrally situated piñata.

In Treloaria, anything was possible. I had unrelenting omnipotence. I was god. The turnip market – a system designed to teach children lessons in trade and stocks, no doubt, but upon closer inspection reveals itself to be a rather unrealistic simulation that would certainly cripple the most stable real-world economy – was putty in my hands, and I was earning upwards of 2 million bells a week simply by knowing where and when to buy and sell my shares. My bank account was brimming, my fountains were flowing, my islanders were smiling, and my world was at peace.

It’s when I set down my Switch that the bleakness came back into focus. I was sequestered to my house – my dad deemed ‘vulnerable’ by the NHS – with nothing to look forward to except, dishearteningly, the end of my temp contract. I was hemmed in, contained. Controlled. For a good reason of course – this wasn’t the product of the malicious manoeuvrings of an evil global corporation or alien invasion – yet it may have been something to do with the stark lack of a conscious, accountable enemy that removed any semblance of the personal agency I previously thought I had. It can come as a terrible shock to a narcissistic young woman recently spat out of the rear end of the education system: that you’re not really that important, and anyone who ever told you anything remotely resembling the opposite was lying. So when COVID put 19 more spanners in the works, I, like so many others, felt like I’d been frozen in carbonate and forced into freefall.

It’s not surprising then that New Horizons has garnered the cultural capital it has, smugly sat at the top of the Nintendo eShop chart since release. You could see it as a kink: turning submission to dominance. A fantasy defined by the notion that total command can bring happiness and stability in the face of ominous uncertainty. But it’s reasonably well hidden. Some things – the weather; which villager turns up on moving day; which fake artworks Redd tries to sell you – are still enough out of the player’s control for it to masquerade as a game rather than a responsibility.

The key to the booming success of Animal Crossing lies in its welding of this modified incarnation of the deific superiority cultivated by games like The Sims, with a more personalised quasi-RPG mentality whereby you progress through this idyllic social simulation not just as a character, but your own customisable self. Slathered, of course, with that charming layer of trademark Nintendo innocence, New Horizons has become a cultural signpost for all we fear and desire in this nightmarish global moment. Not as nightmarish as that fucking bunny, though.

Just BETWEENS You and Me: Xujiahui’s Cheesy New Addition

All, Food & Drink, travel

This article was originally published in Shanghai WOW! in October 2019.

We get that Betweens is a clever name for a burger joint: it’s all about what’s ‘between’ the buns. But we found that on visiting the place, Betweens isn’t simply squished up ‘between’ the other restaurants in the mall – it’s its own wild extreme. 

Up on the 5thfloor of the Buy Now mall in Xujiahui, Betweens immediately stands out for its funky décor alone. A huge B marks the threshold between the mundanities of the outside world and the burger joint’s inner culinary wonders.

Inside hangs a bizarre bicycle wheel lighting rig suspended over chunky wooden tables. Amidst the brown brick walls, primary colours and are splashed everywhere to add to its ‘children’s playtime in Brooklyn’ theme. Of course, you have to be a bit of a feisty kid at heart anyway to dare order from Betweens’s insane menu.

But we weren’t afraid to dive in the deep end, starting with their Mud Slider. At first it was just a huge two-hander with patty, salad and bacon inside: standard fare. Until our waiter whipped out a steaming jug of melted cheese and proceeded to douse the burger in it! Jaws swinging, mouths watering, we watched it dribble down into a pool on the plate. Before we could even ask how on earth we would be able to eat something so slippery, we received disposable gloves to pull on. An absolute necessity if we were to tackle this monster. 

As if that weren’t enough, next we tried Betweens’ signature dish: the Tower Burger. And wow, they should really call this the Shanghai Tower burger because it just keeps going! For 108 RMB, you get a base of nachos and sweet potato fries topped with a whopping three sliders – two beef, one chicken – and of course coated with that exquisite cheesy finish. It’s almost a joke that they give you extra cheese in a little bowl on the side, as if they’re saying, ‘oh, you didn’t get enough cheese? Here, have some more’. 

Betweens also have an unusual selection of desserts. We went for the fried ice-cream, which was as delicious as it was strange. Pro tip: let the ice-cream melt a little bit inside before you crack open the fried shell so you can watch it ooze out and mix with the chocolate sauce. Mmm. 

Like many of its items, the menu is endless. Want a steak? Sure, as long as you want a layer of cheese on it. Kebab? Ditto. A cocktail? Have a Sex On The Beach! (Without the cheese, don’t worry, we tried it.) There are of course non-alcoholic mocktails for those who want to take it easy as well.

This is some of the most fun we’ve had eating anywhere. If you’re hungry and up for a challenge, Betweens is the right place to go. But whatever you do, don’t ask for extra cheese!

Address: F5, Buy Now Mall, 339 Caoxi Bei Lu, near Nandandong Lu, Xujiahui

Goodreads Review: Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Arts, books, Goodreads Reviews

In the introduction, Ephron humorously points out that Heartburn is often referred to as a thinly-disguised novel about the breakdown of her second marriage, in which she thinly disguised herself by making herself ‘considerably more composed’ than she was at the time, or thinly disguised her husband ‘by giving him a beard that belonged to one of my friends’. She also mentions she, as a lot of writers do, nicked some situations from other people’s real accounts of them.

I know this is all rather straightforward and said in jest somewhat – but the way she talks about it does explain the cobbled, patchwork welter we end up with. It has moments of pure perception, strung along to try and create a semi-cohesive narrative, or at least a thematic train of thought. But her voice, hoarse from laughing through so much pain and self-deprecation, loses its wit and fervour sometimes, leaving a sad trail of words we have no choice but to pick up piece by piece, lest we miss those wise and lucid crumbs.

Nora Ephron is insightful and pithy and glimmering – but her style does not lend itself to the novelistic form. Her films – When Harry Met Sally in particular – remain staunch testaments to the back-and-forth, witter-warring dialogue that she cultivated, and which went on to clearly influence the work of acclaimed show-runners like Amy Sherman-Palladino. I cannot speak for her essays (they’re next on my list) but in a shorter, more direct space, I imagine the wood and the wool will fade off, leaving her largely unencumbered by device and free to rattle on without pretence.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Goodreads Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Arts, books, Goodreads Reviews

A beautifully executed graphic memoir, which isn’t scared to embrace the humour in growing up amidst grand political structures and rules one doesn’t initially understand. At once brutally and readily honest, it manages to tenderly traverse the inextricable relationship between home and identity as we follow the author’s own pictorial bildungsroman.

On top of all this, Persepolis is genuinely educational. I knew next to nothing about the Iran-Iraq War before picking this up, but Satrapi’s coming-of-age in such hostile surroundings – but where, with her family, there thrives such love – reveals as much the similarities between our childhoods (or rather any childhood where such affection exists) as the stark differences in their backdrops.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Bathos in current cinema, or, ‘why I hate the Marvel Cinematic Universe’

Arts, film

Picture that famous image: Tobey Maguire hurtling through the air; webbing slipping through his crimson fingers; the menacing reflection of Doc Ock through an amber lens. Cheesy, yes – but Spider-Man 2 nevertheless became an instant classic, and remains to this day one of the best of its genre. It was, dare I say it, somewhat sincere

Enter 2018. A dystopia has gripped our world, and certain ‘cinematic universes’ have overtaken the box office. ‘It’s just a piece of entertainment,’ they all say, ‘a bit of fun.’ But I can’t help it – these movies make me sad. I feel sad that what they’re putting on our screens is just a continual advertisement for the next one. I feel sad that I need to be ‘educated’ about the comics, or have watched every single other superhero movie in order to ‘understand the nuances’ of these 120 minute senseless messes. I feel sad that these movies make 650 million dollars each. But mainly I’m sad because it’s not an anonymous mass which funds this industry – it’s the people who surround me: intelligent and educated people, who I call my friends. This machine is taking their money – my friends’ money – putting it into more terrible films, making more money, and starting the cycle again. And I hate them for it.

OK, rant over. 

I was very much of this opinion about pretty much every single post-2008 blockbuster superhero film until fairly recently, when I was coerced into watching Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. It, unlike specifically alternative superhero films such as Logan, superficially fits this generic ‘type’ of superhero movie I’ve just described. Big-budget, action-packed: standard comic book movie fare. But when the credits began to roll, for once my eyes didn’t. I actually enjoyed it.

Why I liked Wonder Woman was a question which I asked myself for a while. And even after countless rewatches, it was a hard feeling to pin down. Eventually though I came to the conclusion that, unlike others, Wonder Woman was good because it was superhero movie. Remember those? When superheroes were heroes? Saviours of ordinary people, instead of narcissistic assholes fighting aliens? When they were role models instead of just models? Perfection is not a prerequisite (in fact, it explicitly shouldn’t be), but heroes should at least be serious about their job. And it is this – this lack of seriousness – which destroys any real surges of drama or emotion. Of course comedy has a place, but this overuse and misplacement of goof is what I believe makes these films samey, repetitive and boring. 

In his video essay on ‘What Writers Should Learn From Wonder Woman’, Sage Hyden pinpoints what this is – bathos. Essentially, it’s a literary term that describes when a climactic moment is undercut by triviality – something the Marvel Universe is especially ripe with. The example he uses is a comparison of a similar scene from Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, showing the heroes preparing for the ‘final showdown’. Whereas in Spider-Man Peter Parker forges ahead, accompanied by warming brass and rising tension, in Doctor Strange the music builds up similarly, only to be thwarted by Strange’s mischievous magic cape. Ha. Ha.

I believe the MCU is so concerned with avoiding cheesiness that it plays the ‘safe’ option of undermining its own drama. But continually abusing mediocre comedy in order to keep it ‘light’ isn’t clever. Writing a good film is clever. Unhappy with your plot? With your script? Fix it. Make a movie about a hero, not a comedian with superpowers. Though Diana’s naiveté is often made the butt of a lot of jokes in Wonder Woman, it is never at the expense of a dramatic climax. 

Now of course there may be some of you who actually find bathos funny. And that’s fine – humour is subjective. But this depends on what one wants from a superhero movie. 

Unless handled darkly like Christopher Nolan or Logan, superheroes will always be ridiculous, from their figure-hugging, brightly coloured costumes to their ‘misfit’ novelty in collaborative teams such as The Avengers or Justice League. In this situation, all a writer can do is either embrace or attack superhero heritage. 

Marvel and Joss Whedon have cultivated and popularised the ‘attack’ method. It’s cheeky, subversive, self-deprecating, and can be funny. To some extent it works in a film which is advertised as a comedy, like Guardians of the Galaxy, but its main problem is the fact it is a one-trick pony. It worked for Iron Man precisely because it was a new and different way of presenting a superhero movie, so on a first watch, I enjoyed it. But with nearly 20 films under its belt with no sign of slowing down, the MCU has flooded cinema with identical content. And it’s not just the humour, it’s also everything that goes with it – the plot structures, the character arcs, the action sequences. Making films that are so unashamedly similar to each other is not an exercise in good writing or storytelling, because it’s all been done before. 

On the other hand, Wonder Woman ‘embraces’ the history of superhero films. It’s a refreshing break from the regurgitated bathos we’ve grown so used to. Some, however, would call it cheesy. But why is this term so pejorative? It reflects, I think, a deep societal fear of sincerity and honest self-expression, resulting in sarcasm and self-deprecating wit. It’s a very British humour which is moving stateside with an abundance of media exports. When done well it can be the pinnacle of comedy, but when applied too frequently and too lazily, it becomes dull.   

So why should superhero films choose to ‘embrace’ their past? A writer who embraces the historical ‘cheesiness’ of the superhero, in my opinion, actually shows confidence in what she’s written. Sincerity is worth risking a few eyerolls. For without a sincere, emotional grounding, a story – especially one surrounding the character development of a hero – doesn’t really mean anything at all. 

Sadly, this tradition does not look set to change. In fact, it’s making an impression upon other movies – look at Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has been famously criticised for its Marvel-esque handling of humour. Things however could be on the up with Marvel’s new release, Black Panther, so it seems that, though bathos has made a large mark on current cinema, whether that mark will last remains to be seen.

This article was originally published in Owl Eyes Magazine in April 2018.

Goodreads Review: Abroad by Katie Crouch

Arts, books, Goodreads Reviews

The trajectory this novel was taking (well, the one I thought it was taking) felt dark and delicious and drew me to believe that it was going somewhere secretly thrilling. In the end, that promise was a hollow one – the actual murder reveal was disappointing to say the least. What’s more, the ‘beyond the grave’ narration got a little hammy and many characters suffered from underdevelopment (in a bizarre but timely turn of events it’s the men who lack dimensionality here).

But it’s the disparate nature of the relationships Taz forges first with the B4 and then the bracingly intense Claire that I am inclined to remember. It’s the social cues and interactions between women, and particularly the differences between these friendships, that I relished. And I realise now it’s the deft unease with which these are portrayed that originally chilled me.

I admittedly have a very basic understanding of the Amanda Knox case, and by all accounts Crouch’s book is only very loosely inspired by it. But without the need the ground herself to a pre-existing scenario, I have no doubt Crouch’s storytelling would improve. I would be keen to read something else she’s written.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Excavating Transylvania

All, personal, travel

‘What are you doing over summer?’ people asked me.
‘Oh, just digging up human remains in Transylvania, fabled home of Vlad the Impaler,’ I replied. 
‘Right, well, I must be going now.’ 

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Cluj-Napoca

So went far too many of my conversations before I set off from Luton (which, I have to admit, was a very foreign land to me in itself) in mid-July. Stuffed on a ‘WizzAir’ flight amongst the strangers I would spend the next five weeks with, I began to seriously question my decision. Who are these people? Where am I even going? Does this airline have an in-flight food bar?

Alba Iulia


Though the latter query was sadly and swiftly denied, my mind began to whirl. A completely fully-funded experience had to have a catch. You see, Erasmus+ and Grampus Heritage were literally banking on an unskilled amateur – all the other participants were archaeology students – to somehow assist in the excavation of really ancient artefacts. I didn’t even know what the city we were landing in was called.

On site


All the more joy for me when I discovered that it was called Cluj. Childish sniggering aside, its Bohemian pop pastels and gaping squares provided some much-needed respite from the communist-era apartment blocks standing sentinel on the way in. The delicious ice-cream I manged on didn’t hurt either. 

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Bran Castle

A two-hour journey and an oh-my-god-I’ve-lost-every-single-earthly-possession-I-own-including-my-passport scare later, we arrived in Alba Iulia, a city with a small-town vibe radiating out from its imposing Habsburgian star fortress. Recent renovations, we were told, had really glammed the place up – warm reds and yellows pay homage to its ancient Roman roots – and we ambled our way through various ‘must-do’s, such as the cathedral, Catholic church, and absolutely labyrinthine museum. Eventually, we arrived at ‘Universitatea “1 Decembrie 1918”’, somewhere I would no doubt be very well acquainted with by the end of August. Ah, the happy memories cleaning endless sherds of broken pottery.

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Sibiu

Apart from our early-starting, labour-intensive work days, on weekends we were left largely to our own devices. Saturday excursions involved a jolly to the medieval festival at the hillside old town of Sighișoara, exploring Bran Castle (known as ‘the Dracula castle’ to some, with whom I choose not to associate on the basis that they are not aware Dracula is a fictional character), taking in the criminally underrated sights of Sibiu, and, I kid you not, rowing a boat and riding a Ferris wheel underground in Turda salt mine. Pics or it didn’t happen? Here ya go. 

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Turda salt mine

Though trundling up and down Transylvania was delightful, it was through the everyday trials and tribulations of my Romanian career that I began to really appreciate my time there. Dancing until 4am at an open-air club outside the fortress walls; finding a 4500-year-old Neolithic stone-carved face; growing to love the local stray dog, Alba, who found her home with us on the dig; I even began to see the humour in being kept up by the dins and ditties of the neighbouring Romani community. 

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Mira nightclub

Mira nightclub

I started to realise that was not despite, but because of Alba Iulia’s strange charm – the kind that makes you smile at the delirious comments of heat stroked archaeologists and chuckle at the sight of wild pigs eating out of bins – that the experience I was having was so unique and unforgettable. Multumesc, Romania, and god bless. 

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*oink oink*

This article was originally published in Owl Eyes Magazine in October 2018.

Goodreads Review: Educated by Tara Westover

Arts, books, Goodreads Reviews

I like to think that I myself experienced an education while listening to Tara Westover’s blistering memoir, Educated. What began as mild academic interest in the bizarre Mormon upbringing of a successful Cambridge-educated historian gradually metamorphosed into fervent empathy for a woman whose life has been dictated by the nature of memory. Of its selectivities, of its biases, and of its role in the development of selfhood.

Westover meditates in the final chapter on how it is through learning of different points of view, of different ‘histories’, that one can truly construct oneself. Her father’s crazed religious lectures, which denied medicine, public education, and all reliance on a government which had been infiltrated by the Illuminati, had for so long guided her way of thinking that she took them as gospel (literally). That she would become a student and then doctor of history, and now a best-selling memoirist, is just as unlikely as it is likely.

I remember (now I’m becoming the memoirist) reading a text for an art history module on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. It discussed the Freudian concept of the ‘screen memory’, or a distorted visual memory – an event that someone remembers incorrectly, or even completely made-up, but has itself been remembered so often that it becomes fact in our eyes, becomes history. One such ‘memory’ of Westover’s returns to me. She remembers gunshots: a raid by the ‘evil’ feds on her parents’ house for home-schooling their children. Apart from the fact this did not happen, another clear indicator of this is that, in the memory, Westover’s mother is holding a baby, even though the author was the youngest child in her family.

But what the Blade Runner article continued to say was that, at the heart of the dichotomatic distinction between the human and the replicant – the real and unreal, authentic and fake – was memory. It argued that memories are the building blocks of consciousness, so if replicants had memories – if they remembered – didn’t that make them human too? And if memories are what make us human, then different memories are surely what makes us who we are as individuals. Our mere ability to remember mean our minds are defined and separated by the memories we form.

In Educated’s entirety, Westover has created a memoir on the nature of memoir, an autobiographical history of conflicting histories. What it means to remember, to forget, to challenge our memories and to investigate those of others (she often writes that she asks for the recollections of others when retelling particular incidents) take centre stage in her story of the creation of a self. Of attaining an education.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Goodreads Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Arts, books, Goodreads Reviews

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’s pick-up power rests squarely on its outlandish hypotheticals – what if you completely lost your memory? What if you had to solve a murder by repeating the day of the event over and over? What if you had to spend each repeated day in a different body? What if you only had a week to uncover the culprit – and people were out to get you at the same time?

The precedent this sets, unfortunately, does not reel in its audience by interesting them in a story, but more by challenging their normal parameters of logic. Rather than expecting to follow a well-crafted narrative, or discover beautiful prose, or be dazzled by high-octane thrills, the one expectation that this book seemingly promises to meet is that it satisfyingly answers one question: ‘how can this possibly be done?’ That the reader is encouraged to be skeptical from the offset demands a rare level of perfection, lest the answer to this question becomes that ‘it can’t’. High-concept premises alone do not a good book make.

And, well, it can’t. I could almost see the beads of sweat staining the pages from Turton’s wrestle with his own creation. Countless revisions until every character is in the right place at the right time, without much justification as for why they’re there. A complex timeloop system which is never fully explained, with a Black Mirror-esque sci-fi reveal which stumbles headlong in its lack of thematic connection to earlier chapters. Seven Deaths suffers from a kind of ‘helicopter author’ syndrome – wherein Turton labours over specifics so exclusively that the spirit of the big picture is lost in the process.

Because, though the skeleton of the murder mystery itself was as gratifying as any I’ve read, it is forced into this huge, lumbering body that it can’t hold up, haphazardly Frankensteined onto lofty ideas it doesn’t gel with, only for the whole book to slightly sag as a result. It almost makes it more frustrating that Turton is clearly very capable of writing a decent mystery, but then chooses to attach it to this unrefined hunk of flesh. But as that concept is what makes Seven Deaths fresh and marketable, removing its hooks is out of the question.

Despite all this, Seven Deaths is still a fairly captivating read – if maybe overly long and overwrought – and however carelessly it is handled, the premise is no doubt original. But I think it says a lot about a book when I’m haunted less by its contents and more by the potential it wastes.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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Goodreads Review: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Arts, books, Goodreads Reviews

At this stage I feel like Sally Rooney is teaching me what love feels like in a language I can really understand. Normal People was slightly more conventional in this regard, in its focus on one endgame couple who frustratingly grow and change, both together and apart.

But here, we engage in a four-way battle fought on the complications of connection, all from the perspective of a supposedly cold and unemotional person (which we of course discover is not the case). It’s chaotic and anarchic but also has a kind of honest clarity, despite (or maybe even because of?) its beautifully knotted and garbled way of getting there.

I also found that Rooney’s now trademark stylistic choice of omitting speech marks works a lot better here in comparison to Normal People. It makes seamless the transitions from Frances’ train of thought, to dialogue, to her IMs with Nick, Melissa and Bobbi. A novel about the blurring of lines in relationships, of them lacking any definition to begin and to end and middle with, is the perfect one to introduce and de-gimmick-ize her gimmick before it becomes one. This is how Frances feels and thinks and talks, all in one, and though there are a lot of things about her that are not objectively relatable to me, she has become one of the most relatable characters I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’ve ever known someone more intimately. Here’s one of my favourite conversations:

me: I’m anti-love as such

Bobbi: that’s vapid Frances

Bobbi: you have to do more than just say you’re anti things

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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