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2/16/2010

Mistakenly Mao

Seeing as how we just kicked off the Winter Olympics, I thought this might be a fitting story even if it is a little off topic. There was an interesting piece in Canada’s National Post about Japanese figure skating star Asada Mao recently, describing how a local street vendor had named a hot dog after her.

There was only one problem. The figure skater in the picture is not Asada Mao, but rather fellow Japanese skater Akiko Suzuki. How embarrassing! According to FG, the Japanese press has picked up on the error, and I expect that they’re none too impressed.

Have a look at the image that ran in the Post. Would you mistake Suzuki for Mao? It might be worth the effort to pay more attention to names during our Japanese language study! Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by 3yen in Misc. | No Comments »

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12/31/2009

Top Japanese Words and Phrases of 2009

Pink Tentacle has another great year-end round up over on their site. Many are of these words and phrases are a good reflection of the big changes that happened not only in Japan, but on a global scale during the past year. Nevertheless, there are some interesting surprises on the list.

Here are the top ten: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by 3yen in Advanced | No Comments »

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5/16/2008

I’m moving to my own blog!

I’ve decided to start my own blog at: http://www.guidetojapanese.org/blog/.

The reasons why I’ve decided to stop writing on 3yen is because I wanted more flexibility in the subject area since I’m currently learning Chinese. I also have more flexibility over the site itself and you’ll see things like recent comments and static pages that I haven’t been able to add here. Unfortunately, now I’ll have to keep up with the security updates and deal with the spam, a big reason why I started on 3yen.

I’d like to thank Yves, the administrator of 3yen for hosting me for over three years (wow!) and for giving me all the post and comment data. I wish him luck and success. If you’re interested in continuing this blog, feel free to contact him! I never asked for money but who knows, you might actually be able to make some for your efforts!

I hope to see you guys at my new blog. Also to subscribers, please update your feeds to http://www.guidetojapanese.org/blog/feed/

これからもよろしくお願いします!

Posted by Tae Kim in About this site | 15 Comments »

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5/5/2008

Learning methods: does it matter?

Normally I hate blog posts that just links to another blog that links to another blog that links to the primary source, especially when I’m subscribed to both blogs. Just give me the source, I don’t need your one line comment and link!

Nevertheless, I read a blog post about language learning methods and felt an urge to add my two cents. Here’s an excerpt from the post.

The neat thing here – and I’ve counseled this before – is that language learning isn’t about following a method; it’s about getting in sync with and enjoying a language.

In this light, the debates about which method is best are silly. But if they keep people talking about new things that others might not have tried yet, they’re still useful. Ignore the bombast about who’s best, then, and keep reading the forums and blogs. You might just find what you are looking for now in spite of everyone’s best efforts to settle what’s best left unresolved.

Looking at the many comments on the merits and drawbacks of Heisig, I’d have to agree. I’ve learned that what works for some doesn’t work at all for others and most importantly, what didn’t work for me may work for others.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what study method you use as long as it helps you spend more time with the language. Still, I have to argue that you have to do my very simple method at some point for fluency, which as many of you already know, is to practice in a real-world context with real people and primary source materials not just artificial textbooks and dialogs. Ok, I guess it’s more common-sense than “a method” per se.

For completeness, here’s the blog post that is link to by the blog I just linked to (whew!). Amazingly, that blog doesn’t link to the primary source which is a thread in the how-to-learn-any-language.com’s forum. (゚_゚;)


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5/2/2008

The most useful word… EVAR

In every language, there’s a common pattern of the most useful words being the most complicated and confusing. This is a natural consequence from the fact that the word must cover many different types of usages and meanings in order to be so useful. Due to its usefulness, it will also often go through various types of abbreviations and shortcuts to facilitate speaking, further complicating the issue. This post will cover what could arguably be the most useful and hence the most intricate word in Japanese: 「いい」. We’ll see that this word is much more expansive in scope and usage than the English equivalent word “good”. Just learning the definition is barely scratching the surface of this useful word.

Briefly on Conjugation

I’ll assume that most readers are already familiar with many of the discrepancies in the conjugation rules for 「いい」 and so I’ll just briefly mention that the discrepancies are all caused by the change from 「よい」 to 「いい」. This word is so useful and so often used that even the slight pursing of the lips to pronounce 「よ」 seemed to tax Japanese speakers and was eventually changed to 「いい」. The newer version has the added convenience of removing one pronunciation completely and replacing it with a single longer pronunciation of 「い」. The older version is now considered formal and old-fashioned. Unfortunately, many of the conjugated forms such as the negative (よくない) failed to transition over to the new pronunciation hence creating a number of discrepancies which annoy Japanese beginners to this day.

To get the full scope, check out my page on adjectives on my grammar guide. Now let’s look at the various ways this adjective can be used. You’ll also see how these patterns translate to very different things in English and yet is just a simple adjective with some grammar patterns in Japanese.

Using 「いい」 for permission

The usage of 「いい」 for asking and granting permission is just another example of the fundamental difference between Japanese and English, as well as, a great example of how vital it is to understand how 「いい」 is used in various grammatical patterns.

In English you use words like “can” or “may” to ask for permission, in Japanese the word 「できる」 is reserved only for the ability to do something, not on whether it’s permitted or not. (This is similar to the difference between 能/会 and 行 in Chinese.)

In Japanese, you ask for permission by asking literally, “Is it good even if I…”. I’m sure many of you in Japanese class learned the phrase: 「トイレに行ってもいいですか?」 This literally means, “Is it good even if I go to the bathroom?” Your teacher may respond by saying either 「いいです」 or 「だめです」 (or the very formal 「いけません」). There’s a logical discrepancy here in that the positive answer is 「いい」 but the negative answer is not simply the negative: 「よくない」. This is because the 「てはいけない/てはならない/てはだめ」 grammar pattern set for saying you can’t do something is separate from the one that says you can do something.

However, while saying “can” versus “can’t” is not as easy in Japanese as saying 「いい」 versus 「よくない」, there is one very useful way to use negatives with the 「V~てもいい」 pattern. You can negate the verb in front to have 「~なくてもいい」. Let’s see how this translates literally for the example: 「行ってもいい」.

1. 行ってもいい。
- It’s good even if [you] go.

2. 行かなくてもいい。
- It’s good even if [you] don’t go.

Can you guess what the examples translates to in English? The first means, “You can go” while the second means “You don’t have to go”. Once again, you have two completely different grammar patterns in one language while the other is just the negative and positive version of the same grammar pattern. Except this time, it’s the other way around. This is another example of why it’s best to work in the target language as opposed to trying to tie everything into English.

Let’s look at the following example short conversation at a training seminar.

Aさん) トイレに行ってもいいですか?
Bさん) いいですよ。これは授業じゃないから、聞かなくてもいいですよ。
Aさん) じゃ、戻らなくてもいいですか?
Bさん) だめです。

This next dialog shows how slang can hide these grammar patterns but still have the same meaning. In the dialog, Aさん is not asking if the pen is a little good.

Aさん) そのペン、ちょっといい
Bさん) だめ。俺、使っているよ?
Aさん) いいから早く貸して。

Using 「いい」 for good result

There are many variations to this usage but the basic idea is to show a good result as a result of something. The most basic example of this usage is to make a suggestion.

例) 病院に行った方がいい。
- The side of going to hospital is good. (You should go to the hospital.)

例) どこに行けばいいですか?
- If [I] go, where is good? (Where should I go?)

Notice the non-literal translation uses the same word “should” but as you can see, the word “should” has many meanings which are expressed differently in Japanese. The first is a general suggestion such as “you should see a doctor” or “you should get some more sleep” while the second is conditional on the situation such as “Which way should I go if I wanted to go to the mall?” or “Where should I write my name?”

You can also use the past tense to talk about what you did (relief) or should have done (wishful thinking).

例) 早く予約してよかった!
- [I] made reservation early and it was good! (Good thing I made the reservation earlier!)

例) 早く予約すればよかった!
- If [I] had made reservation early it would have been good! (I should have made the reservation earlier.)

Again, you really can’t directly translate English phrases like “Good thing I…” or “I should have…”, you have to use a grammar pattern and 「いい」 to express a similar thing.

Here’s another example conversation.

Aさん) 頭が痛い。
Bさん) コンビにで薬を買った方がいいよ。
Aさん) どこのコンビニに行けばいいの?
Bさん) 駅の近くにあると思う。
Aさん) 今日仕事休めばよかった

Conclusion

In writing this article, I surprised even myself on all the various hidden but essential ways 「いい」 is used in the Japanese language. It can be expressed to indicated things you should do, things that are allowed, things you don’t have to do, and much more. I hope this article helped you realize the importance mastering the many uses of 「いい」 and why it’s better to approach it from Japanese instead of from English.

Am I missing any important usages here? Let me know in the comments!


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4/18/2008

Things that lose “coolness” when translated

Some things in Japanese just seem to lose their cool when translated into English.
I’m sure there are examples where the reverse is true but it’s much easier for me to come up with these examples.

Fighting words
「ぶっ倒してやる!」 (Cool) -> “I’m going to beat you!” (Not cool)

Technique/Spell/Summon Names
「螺旋丸!」 (Maybe Cool) -> “Spiraling Round [Thing]!” (Definitely not cool)

語尾 (technically 終助詞)
「くるぞ!」 (Brave) -> “They’re coming!” (Scared)

Expressions and Cultural Phrases
「がんばれ!」 (Uplifting) -> “Do your best!” (Dork)

Heavily Girly Style of Speech
「嫌だもん!」 (Pouty Cute) -> “I don’t like it!” (Complainy)

Finally, basically all of Death Note in English is just awkward.


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2/27/2008

What, you forgot it? Good!

When I wrote that current spaced repetition software all suck, I wasn’t saying that you shouldn’t use them or that the idea of spaced repetition itself sucks. To make an analogy, Linus Torvalds said subversion sucks in a talk about git and while I found his talk interesting I still continue to use subversion. It’s because his philosophy and needs for source control are different from mine. Just like Linus, I think that the current SRS can be so much better based on my needs and philosophy (the difference being he actually built the software while I’m just all talk).

I have a basic and simple philosophy that learning languages should be simple and enjoyable. Current SRS are all based on the idea of study and review. I don’t like “studying” because it sounds like work and flipping through cards is work to me (and boring work at that), especially when I have to make them myself. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I could never stick with it. But hey, I’m just talking about me personally, so don’t let me discourage you from finding the techniques that work for you. In fact, I encourage you to try out various different methods of study to find what works best for you. I went through the same experience to learn enough about myself to know what works for me.

Personally, I think spaced repetition works naturally if you have reading material with words that are spaced out. I’m talking about graded readers that naturally introduce new words while reusing old ones. You can even throw all the vocab in an SRS as a bonus but the most important part that’s missing in current SRS is the material; you have to find it yourself. The simple reason is because software is made by programmers not writers. That’s why my idea of a great spaced repetition program is not one that flips through words but one that allows use to share and find material that interests us in the language and at the right level of difficulty. Flipping through words based on the material is simply a nice bonus.

I love the concept of spaced repetition and enjoy the effects every time I learn a new word without even realizing it. This may sound counterintuitive but forgetting a word really is the best way to learn it. If you forget a word it means that you’ve already learned it and spaced enough time to forget it again. It’s hard to explain without experiencing it yourself but the more times you think, “Oh I can’t believe I forgot this word again!” the faster you end up memorizing it. So you shouldn’t feel discouraged when you forget a word, you should be thinking, “Yes! I forgot it! This is really helping me to remember it for good.”


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2/16/2008

Lingq, a cool and promising flash card website

I just wanted to write a quick post about Lingq, a website I just found about today. It’s so cool that I just had to write something about it right away. It’s a real world implementation of some of my ideas for a better flash card program. Instead of having to create your own index cards, the website has a thing called a store which is a library of content for the language you want to learn. You can create and share your own content by adding text and upload images/audio.

Flash cards are created by selecting text and clicking a little widget at the bottom of the screen. The flash cards show you a phrase with the word instead of just having the reading and definition like most flash card programs/websites. You can add them if you want, however, as a hint.

This is pretty much exactly what I was talking about. Sharing content and creating flash cards that have meaningful content. Though it doesn’t work for Chinese, Japanese lookups work amazingly well. Now, all they have to add is user ratings to help filter out the most interesting content.

There are also additional features involving tutors and Skype that I haven’t tried out.

I encourage everybody reading this to try it out.

My only minor complaints are that the navigation is hard to get at first and the site seems a bit slow.

Also, my original idea had linking and giving proper credit to the original content. I guess these guys are not too worried about the ethical implications of uploading other peoples’ content directly to their website without providing any kind of credit. Especially since it looks like they are trying to make a buck.


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1/31/2008

Final thoughts on remembering the kanji

In my first post about Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (RTK), I invited people to convince me that the book can teach you to “write kanji like a native” as claimed in the book’s introduction. As it turns out, it all depends on how you define, “write kanji like a native” and the introduction needed some reading between the lines. (Only being able to write the kanji without knowing the reading or any words that use the kanji doesn’t count as “writing like a native” to me.) But in the end, my challenge was a bit unfair because no single book can really teach you how to write kanji like a native without turning into a dictionary, and in this age of computers, it’s debatable whether even many natives can write kanji like natives.

Though it’s obvious that the book alone is not enough to truly master kanji, many of you gave excellent comments on how it helped you retain the kanji that you’ve learned and at least got you on the path to mastery. Reading through the comments I think I have a better idea of who the book is for and I’d like to share my thoughts in this last post about RTK.

I stress that my opinion is only one of many and if you are considering buying this book, I recommend reading through the comments to form your own impressions of whether this method will work for you. You can find them here and here and maybe even on this post later on. Thanks to everybody’s comments, I think those posts have become a great source of discussion and information for those considering the Heisig method. Also, there’s no harm in trying out the first half of the book which is available for free.

How I learned Kanji

Before I talk about the book, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss how I learned kanji in order to have an alternative method to compare against. I may have mentioned this before but I never studied kanji; I studied the words that are made from kanji. For instance, I learned 「力」 as 「ちから」 but never as 「リョク」 or 「リキ」. I only learned the other on-yomi when I learned words like 「努力」 and 「怪力」. The key to learning these words is, of course, reading. Therefore, it’s very important to find reading material that is interesting and appropriate for your level, something that is a lot harder than it should be.

The advantage of this method is that you end up creating many associations with real words without having to waste time on individual kanji. The first association is, of course, the context of the text from which the word came from. The second comes gradually as you build up a library of words that share the same kanji. Once you get the hang of kun vs on reading and how the voicing changes based on the sounds preceding it, the readings become really easy to memorize as they are shared across different words.

For example, when I see 「試」, I think of words like 「試験」、「試作品」、「試す」 and even other similar kanji like 「式」 and 「武」. As I learn new kanji, I also reflect back and review not only words that share the same kanji but also other kanji that look similar. In this manner, I noticed that 「剣」、「険」、「験」、and 「検」 all have the same reading. It took a while but I finally remembered that the one with “horse” means “testing” based on words like 「試験」 and 「経験」 while the one with “tree” means to “examine” based on words like 「検査」 or 「検索」. Learning radicals, which are simpler kanji such as 「馬」 and 「木」 is also very important because they form parts of many other kanji. By learning radicals you can start to see little mnemonic patterns such as realizing that 「忘」 consists of a dying heart (心 and 亡).

There are mainly two ways to strengthen your memory, either by strengthening the path to a memory with repetition or by creating many paths with different associations to the same memory. With the method above, you can create associations with words that share the same kanji or radicals that form the kanji. You can also reinforce the memory with repetition by reviewing them every time you run into a new word that share the same kanji. Also, the benefit of reading is that by seeing the same words used in different contexts, you get both repetition and new associations. Basically, reading does make you smarter just like they always said! (Or at least teach you more vocabulary.)

Why you might need RTK

Now let’s get into problems with my method and how RTK might help.

The first problem I’ve learned from reading your comments is that the method completely fails if your brain isn’t wired to see these connections as you go. For instance, if you learned 「試験」 and later ran into 「経験」 in your studies, the assumption is that you’ll be able to recall 「試験」 and make the connection that they both use 「験」. If this does not happen, you don’t get the association which means you’ll have a really difficult time learning the kanji or the words that use them.

Now, I’ve had times when I couldn’t remember exactly which word I learned used the same kanji, I just knew that it looked awfully familiar. One trick I would do is look up just the kanji in WWWJDIC and scroll through all the words that use the kanji until I recognize the old word I learned before. Even with this trick, if all or most of these associations don’t come naturally to you, RTK might be just the thing to help you.

By systematically going through each kanji and assigning a story (basically a mnemonic), RTK can provide you with the glue to jumpstart your associations. For example, let’s say you’ve gone through the whole book and memorized every story for each kanji. Now suppose you see the word 「省略」. Now you’ll recognize 「省」 as “focus” from story 124 (page 61) as, “…picking up a few things and holding them before one’s eye in order to focus on them better”. So when you learn another word such as 「省電力」, even if you couldn’t make the association with 「省略」, you have the story to serve as the glue to link the kanji together.

Now I would argue that it’s better to think of 「省」 as a combination of 「少ない」 and 「目」 instead. In addition, I think memorizing 「省く」, which means “omit” is a better use of your time than memorizing “focus”. However, all that assumes that you can make those connection on the fly as you are learning these words. RTK creates the associations systematically for you and provides the glue to help you link kanji together by having the single story to link them.

Of course, no one could claim that this “bootstraping” could magically teach you how to write all the vocabulary that contains kanji, which is why I was so critical of the book and it’s claim to teach you to “write kanji like a native”. Nevertheless, my personal dislike for the wording in the introduction has no bearing on the value of this resource. If you need it, RTK can help you start creating associations and get you started in seeing the patterns that are not obvious when you’re just starting out.

Finally, based on your comments, there seems to be a great deal of psychological benefit to tackling a text full of kanji that you at least recognize instead of a page full of crazy Chinese symbols. But that issue stems from a larger problem of the difficulty in finding adequate reading materials.

The root problem

The main problem with my method is that you can’t just start reading a novel to learn kanji without becoming frustrated at every other word containing a completely new kanji. A big part of my method is actually enjoy yourself while comprehending what you’re reading, something you can’t do if you need to look up every kanji for every word. Plus, there’s no way you’re going to be able to create associations when every kanji you see is completely new. It’s like telling a beginner skier to start on an expert slope. The slope will look really scary, you’ll fall every second, you won’t have any fun, and you might even hurt yourself in the process.

Fortunately, one of the first books that I got my hands on was one of those anime/manga based books geared for younger readers. But it was still insanely hard, painful, and frustrating to go through all the unfamiliar kanji. It took about a week to read a single page. Not an enjoyable experience.

The problem with today’s Japanese language education is that most classes never go beyond the textbook and textbook reading material is both boring and laughable in terms of depth and scope. What we need is a guided reading curriculum that can gently get us started in learning vocabulary and kanji without killing ourselves. Remember reading “Hardy Boys”, “Nancy Drew”, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “Where the red fern grows”, etc. for English class or for fun as a kid? We need the Japanese equivalents to be part of our Japanese language education. You’d think some Association or Committee of Japanese teachers would draw up a recommended reading list of books of different levels adapted for adults. If there is such a list, please send it to me. But in the meantime, RTK might be just the book to help ease you into the exciting world of kanji.

Conclusion

I don’t think RTK is for everybody but I’ve learned that it can be really helpful for certain types of learners. I think it depends greatly on your learning style and personality. For those of us who are comfortable taking shortcuts by jumping straight into the Japanese and creating associations as we go, I would suggest continue what you’re doing. Why take the time to memorize key words and stories in English when you are learning the kanji with real Japanese words? Though I wouldn’t suggest it for beginners, some people on my forum even switched to a Japanese-only dictionary to immerse themselves even further.

However, if you are the type who prefers a more systematic method or if you find yourself having difficulty remembering the kanji and coming up with your own patterns and mnemonics, certainly give RTK a try. It could be the “glue” you need to piece together the kanji to make sense of all this craziness.

Or you could even try a mixture of both: jumping into Japanese and using the stories to help you remember how to write the more difficult kanji. Whatever method you choose, I hope this post and the various comments gave you a good idea on how you want to learn kanji and what approach to take.


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1/8/2008

Ruby tags considered harmful

For those of you unfamiliar with the ruby tag, it is an html tag that adds tiny readings over kanji. 「ルビ」 traditionally is used in print for archaic kanji or when the author wants to indicate a non-standard reading for the kanji. However, on the net, ruby tags are being abused everywhere I see them. Here’s a simple benchmark (with a neat acronym to make it “official”) for determining whether you’re abusing the ruby tag.

Ruby Abuse Benchmark (RAB)

1. Do you use ruby tags for every kanji?

2. Do you use ruby tags for any kanji that most Japanese people can read?

3. Do you use ruby tags?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the questions above, you are abusing the ruby tag.

This abuse happens most often on sites that are intended for people learning Japanese. For example, this site about the JLPT or Japanese language blogs like the one you’re reading now. I don’t use ruby tags though. Even sites for kids stay away from ruby and just use Hiragana instead. Here’s why you should stay away from them too.

The Technical Reason

Ruby is only included in the XHTML 1.1 specification, which has been around forever and still hasn’t gained much traction. The HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0 Transitional DTDs are still being used in the majority of website that care about standards. This means that if you want to use a schema that the majority of the web is using, <ruby> won’t validate.

Plus, the markup is terribly hard to read and write. Take a look at these markup examples. Imagine doing that for every kanji. Your Japanese text will be indecipherable and an incredible pain to edit.

The Practical Reason

Because XHTML 1.1 hasn’t gained much traction, a majority of browsers don’t support ruby. The only one I’m aware of that does is IE and in today’s world where up to 30% of your visitors might not be using IE, IE-only is not practical.

People without Ruby support will see this.

田中(たなか): はい、元気(げんき)です。早坂(はやさか)さんは?

Terrible, just terrible. It’s totally unreadable. Plus, even if you DID have Ruby support, the text is far too small. It’s a lose-lose situation. The correct use of ruby is to show the readings of a few archaic words that the author assumes will not readable by his audience or when he wants to expand on the word. It is NOT intended to be used for every kanji. The print is too small for people who need them and distracting for the people who don’t need them. Also, it can become a crutch allowing people to never actually read and learn the kanji.

So, even if you can install something such as an extension to make ruby tags work, it’s just not a good idea.

Alternatives

1. CSS mouse-over popups: It’s one simple span tag and it works in all major browsers. It’s also more versatile because you can add more information such as English definitions, etc.

Html: <span title=”たべる – to eat” class=”popup”>食べる</span>
Appears as: 食べる

I suggest adding a visual highlight so that the reader can easily see which part of the text applies for the popup or whether there is a popup at all (not supported by some older browsers). You can easily do this by adding some CSS like the following to your stylesheet.

span.popup:hover {
text-decoration:none;
color: rgb(159,20,26);
}

Plus, you can easily see the readings for only the words you need, removing the distracting ruby text and preventing the furigana from becoming a crutch.

Here’s a recent convert and look at all the positive comments he’s gotten.

2. Make a list of the vocabulary at the beginning or end of the page so that the reader has something to refer to.

3. Suggest additional tools such as WWWJDIC, 理解.com, moji, and rikaichan so that people can learn to teach themselves. (You know, the whole teach a man to fish thing.)

Conclusion

I think the first method is good for static resources like my guide to Japanese grammar but when you don’t have the time to add readings and definitions manually all the time (like this blog), you can’t beat the third method. Plus, it helps your readers read any online Japanese text instead of just your own. In the end, whatever method you use, it certainly beats the hell out of writing this for every word that uses kanji.

<ruby>日本語<rp>(</rp><rt>にほんご</rt><rp>)</rp></ruby>

Ah!!! My eyes!!


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