Time Warp: 1978

Best Science Fiction of the Year #8, edited by Terry CarrWelcome to 1978. In these Time Warp blog entries, I explore some of the best short fiction of yesteryear using key anthologies of the time (kind of like short fiction time capsules) to highlight what were perceived back then to be some of the best stories of the year. Our time capsules for this exploration will be Terry Carr’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year #8, and Stellar #4, edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey.

But first, what was 1978 like? Well, Jimmy Carter was the president of the United States. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall won the Best Picture Award at the Oscars. Ted Bundy, one of the most famous serial killers of all time, was captured in Pensacola, Florida. Charon, a satellite of Pluto, was discovered. Actor Ashton Kutcher was born. There were no personal computers yet, except for build-them-yourself kits for electronic enthusiasts. And you bought music on cassettes or 8-track tapes.

Here’s some of the finest science fiction available in 1978, compliments of The Best Science Fiction of the Year #8, Terry Carr’s annual anthology.

The Barbie Murders — by John Varley:  Lieutenant Anna-Louise Bach, a detective for the Lunar police force, has been handed a murder to solve. The murder was witnessed by dozens of people, and even recorded on video. It should be an easy case to solve … except for the fact that the victim, the murderer and the witnesses all look exactly the same. They’re all “barbies,” members of a religious community that eradicates physical differences between its members. It’s a fascinating story, at turns bizarre, perverse, relentlessly logical and eminently satisfying. An excellent story and, even better, it’s a member of that rare breed, the SF crime story.

A Hiss of Dragon — by Gregory Benford and Marc Laidlaw:  Drake is a flyer for a thistleberry harvesting outfit on the low-gravity, metal-poor planet of Lex. Harvesting involves surreptitiously stealing the valuable berries from the lairs of dragons, which are large predatory, gene-engineered, blimp-like creatures possessed of a generally bad attitude. Mix in a rivalry with another harvesting outfit, and you’ve got a unique and interesting adventure/crime drama set on an alien world. I liked it a lot. I’d love to see this expanded into a more comprehensive novel.

Black Glass — by Fritz Lieber:  A man walking the streets of New York City is drawn into a future era in which mysterious, cowled figures fight to tear down humanity’s last bastions of freedom, the few remaining skyscrapers of the city. In some respects, I thought this story was overlong, slow to get moving and tedious in some areas. But yet, it has some of the strangest and strongest imagery in the entire volume.

To Bring in the Steel — by Donald Kingsbury:  Meddrick Kell is the ultimate problem solver, but he’s cold and unforgiving when it comes to handling people. His technical skills make him invaluable to an asteroid mining conglomerate that is moving an asteroid to Earth, one that will possess vast amounts of refined steel by the time it eventually arrives. When his ex-wife dies on Earth, he decides to bring his young daughter out to live on the asteroid.

Feeling that he’ll make an inadequate father, his fellow miners refuse to allow this, unless he finds a woman to help take care of the child. So he imports a high-priced call girl that he once saw at a party on Earth to help him. We’re in romantic drama/comedy territory here, but with a hard SF background. The only jarring note is that it mentions “typewriters” at the beginning, which is amusing because this story was published just before the advent of the personal computer.

It’s a very satisfying story. I would have liked to have seen this story expanded into a novel. Likewise, I also think the story could form the kernel of an excellent movie.

The Very Slow Time Machine — by Ian Watson:  An impenetrable device with an old decrepit man inside appears within a university laboratory. Scientists feverishly study the device for years, while inside the old man gradually grows younger. The world comes to believe that revelations will ensue when the backwards-traveling time machine finally reaches its origin. I have only one thing to say: I didn’t get it.

Devil You Don’t Know — by Dean Ing:  Valerie Clarke was born looking like she was mentally handicapped, even though she’s not. She leverages her appearance to work undercover, entering mental institutions as a patient so that she can expose bad conditions, malpractice and other breaches of trust. She finds a lot more than she was expecting when she’s checked into the Gulfview Home. It’s a solid, engaging story with, of course, an SF twist.

Count the Clock That Tells the Time — by Harlan Ellison:  This is a fascinating and surreal story. A man who has wasted his life and who has managed to leave no impact on anybody, is drawn into some strange limbo, a gray plain sparsely populated only by other people like himself. This limbo is where the universe stores “unused time” until it’s needed. The man endeavors to escape, but tragically finds more than he expected. This is Ellison at the top of his form.

View from a Height — by Joan D. Vinge:  Emmylou Harris was born with a compromised immune system. Because of her condition, she volunteered to be a space explorer on a one-way mission to another star, so she could do something she felt useful with her life. Decades into her journey, she must deal with a personal crisis. This is a very effective story that deals brilliantly with Emmylou’s personal issues, yet remains undeniably an SF story.

The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck — by Hilbert Schenck:  Schenck gives us two stories in one. The first is about the Coskata Life Saving Crew, led by Walter Chase, and their 1892 attempt to rescue the sailors of the H.P. Kirkham, a ship that has run aground on a shoal during a bad storm. The second layers on an SF theme, namely that the probabilities of timeline events are being altered to make the rescue more likely. My problem is that I liked the first story, even though it wasn’t an SF story; the second layer seemed like an intrusion and interfered in my enjoyment of the story I wanted to read. My verdict: a mish-mash that doesn’t quite hold together for me.

Vermeer’s Window — by Gordon Eklund:  A young and exceedingly rich artist undergoes a technical process to transform his mind, as closely as possible, into the mind of the famous painter, Jan Vermeer. He eventually begins to produce the same works that Vermeer did in his long-ago lifetime. Some angst about the origin of the artistic instinct ensues.

Taking into account chaos theory, I failed to believe that any person could be so utterly and perfectly transformed into a long-dead painter, or that the modern artist’s life would so perfectly parallel the original painter. For me, the story didn’t really achieve the necessary suspension of belief that it needed.

The Man Who Had No Idea — by Thomas M. Disch:  Barry Riordan is trying to get his license to engage in free speech. When he only qualifies for a provisional license, he goes on a quest to achieve the three endorsements necessary to promote his provisional license to a full license. I was prepared to dislike this story because I’m not particularly a fan of satires. But Disch’s cleverly conceived story pulled me in. The scene where the hero, who supposedly has no ideas of his own, engages in a “high-stakes” wager with a poet is absolutely priceless.

Death Therapy — by James Patrick Kelly:  How do you “cure” a serial killer? One solution is to develop a state-mandated form of mental torture that is more severe in a negative sense than the positive high that a killer achieves from his violent acts, thus allowing the torture to function effectively as a deterrent. What could possibly go wrong? It’s a powerful and disturbing story. Interestingly, it was also Kelly’s first published story.

This was a very strong anthology from Terry Carr. Stand-outs for me were “The Barbie Murders” by John Varley; “A Hiss of Dragon” by Gregory Benford and Marc Laidlaw; “To Bring in the Steel” by Donald Kingsbury; and “Count the Clock That Tells the Time” by Harlan Ellison. Strong stories included “View From a Height” by Joan D. Vinge; “The Devil You Don’t Know” by Dean Ing; “The Man Who Had No Idea” by Thomas M. Disch; and the brutally effective “Death Therapy” by James Patrick Kelly.

Stellar #4, edited by by Judy Lynn del ReyOur next anthology, Stellar #4, edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey, is special to me. I read it when it first came out, and I remember really liking it. This volume contains only six stories, so they’re all what would typically be considered novelettes (except for Stephen R. Donaldson’s story, which is long enough to qualify as a novella). I think this was my first real exposure to novelettes and novellas, instead of novels. Because of this volume, I ended up collecting the entire Stellar series, all eight volumes.

Although I’ve had this volume for years, for some reason I’ve never re-read it until now. So, with some trepidation, let’s crack open this anthology and see how the stories hold up.

We Who Stole the Dream — by James Tiptree, Jr.:  A group of Joilani, a humanoid alien species, have been enslaved on a human colony world. They plan and execute an audacious scheme to escape their oppressors by stealing a starship and finding their own kind. But they don’t find what they expected to find. A solid story by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon, a fact that was discovered in 1977).

Animal Lover — by Stephen R. Donaldson:  Special Agent Sam Browne, a cyborg investigative officer, goes undercover as a hunter to discover why a Hunting Preserve seems to be more effective at producing dead hunters than dead animals. It’s an enjoyable action story, but nothing overly special.

Snake Eyes — by Alan Dean Foster:  This adventure story ties into Foster’s long-running Flinx and Pip series. Flinx, of course, is an orphan raised on the planet Moth, who was adopted by an Alaspin minidrag, Pip, at an early age. Pip is a flying, venomous, empathically sensitive, and moderately intelligent flying snake (the kind of pet every young kid wants to have). They end up helping a prospector defend his mine against some would-be claim jumpers. It’s a pleasant and moderately entertaining story.

The Last Decision — by Ben Bova:  The Emperor of the Hundred Worlds must make a decision about the fate of Earth. Studies have shown that in about 500 years the Sun will undergo a bout of turbulence that will devastate the Earth, turning it into a charred, lifeless rock. A woman from one of the frontier worlds has a plan that could save the world, but at an almost incalculable cost. Ben Bova has crafted an excellent tale about the pressures of leadership.

The Deimos Plague — by Charles Sheffield:  A former lawyer, now on the run from bad elements, poses as a shaven-headed member of a made-up religious sect to evade those who are after him. He wrangles a working berth on a high-priority, Mars-bound cargo ship, but gets far more than he bargained for. Slight, but amusing.

Assassin — by James P. Hogan:  Mars and the outer system colonies are at odds with Earth, but the technological edge goes to the Martian Federation. An assassin is dispatched to kill a prominent Martian scientist who has defected to Earth. Needless to say, the operation doesn’t go as planned. The story is an interesting exploration of the potential ramifications of some future technologies. Not ground-breaking, but fun and thought-provoking.

So Stellar #4 has held up reasonably well. I probably liked it better as a young teen than I do now, but my tastes have gotten more sophisticated since then. The Bova and Tiptree stories are the best of the batch. The other stories are engaging but not exceptional. This time around, I think the edge goes to Terry Carr’s anthology for quality.

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Full Green Screen for Battlestar Galactica

My friend Don Anderson, graphic artist at large, pointed out this article about the special effects for Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. This is a TV pilot for a new series on Syfy, set between the timeframes of Caprica and Battlestar Galactica during the first Cylon war.

One of the most interesting things about this new pilot is that it was shot almost entirely on green screen. This allowed all of the backgrounds to be added later. This was supposedly cheaper than alternative ways of filming a heavy-duty SF epic, and may become a trend in the future.

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War, Redux – Part 2

War of the Worlds, by H. G. WellsAs a challenge, I’ve resolved to write a short story that conforms to the rules established for the 1997 anthology, War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, edited by Kevin Anderson. See Part 1 for a description of my self-imposed rules.

This anthology purported to provide additional perspectives on the Martian invasion, as witnessed around the world by celebrities of the day. While H. G. Wells’ original story is in the public domain, the anthology is not, so I decided that the viewpoint characters and specific locations described in the anthology should be off-limits for my story.

Accordingly, the following characters and locations are off-limits, except potentially for very general references:

Edgar Rice Burroughs Virginia; Mars
Winston Churchill South Africa
Joseph Conrad Africa – Kongo Free State
Emily Dickinson England
Albert Einstein Switzerland
H. Rider Haggard South Africa
Henry James England – London, Woking
Rudyard Kipling India
Jack London Alaska
H. P. Lovecraft Rhode Island – Providence
Percival Lowell Arizona; Egypt – the Sahara Desert
Pablo Picasso France – Paris
Joseph Pulitzer Missouri – St. Louis
Theodore Roosevelt Cuba
Leo Tolstoy Russia
Mark Twain Louisiana – New Orleans
Jules Verne France – Paris
H. G. Wells England


The Dowager Empress of China China – Peking and environs
The Texas Rangers Texas


The next question is: Who should I write about?

Nellie Bly, a notable female journalistOne celebrity that struck my mind was Nellie Bly, the “pen name” for Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. She was one of the first notable female journalists. She led an interesting life, but is probably best known for two major stories:

  1. Her 1887 world-record trip around the world emulating the journey of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
  2. Her 1888 undercover assignment as an inmate of a women’s insane asylum.

She was born in 1864 and died in 1922 at the age of 57. She’d be 36 at the time of the invasion, which would be just perfect.

In 1900, she was living in Catskill, New York, having married Robert Seaman, a wealthy industrialist who was 40 years her senior in 1895. Of course, she retired from journalism when she got married, but the Martian War would be a dandy way to pry her out of retirement.

She’d also make a nice counterpoint to all of the male witnesses in the anthology. There were only two other women who served as witnesses (and one of them doesn’t really count): Emily Dickinson, who featured in Connie Willis’ tongue-in-cheek story, “The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective” (note also that Emily Dickinson actually died prior to 1900, and you’ll understand what a nifty trick Connie Willis pulled off). The other was the Dowager Empress of China in Walter Jon William’s story, “Foreign Devils.” Another female viewpoint would have worked nicely in the anthology.

At this point, I know the constraints for my story and I’ve identified a worthy viewpoint character. My choice of witness also defines my location for me — Catskill, New York (or, at least, somewhere within a reasonable distance from there). Progress is being made.

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Relaxing After the 2012 District 29 Fall Conference

Whew! Today, I can relax at last. I had agreed to be the Conference Chair for the Toastmasters District 29 Fall Conference, which was held on Friday evening, November 9th, and all day on Saturday, November 10th. For the past nine weeks, I’ve been working with Juliette Brown and Mo Hamilton, our District 29 Governor, to make this conference a reality.

It was especially important for two reasons:

  1. District 29 is only two years old, having split off, like an amoeba, from District 27 when it got too large and cumbersome. So we have something to prove.

  2. District 29 was just graced with a visit by Mohammed Murad, the First Vice President of Toastmasters International, and he attended our conference as part of his tour. He’s expected to head Toastmasters International within the next few years. Nobody wants to put on anything less than their best in front of Toastmasters’ top officials.

I’m happy to say that the conference was very successful. For those who aren’t familiar with a Toastmasters conferences, this one featured the following attractions:

  • Table Topics Contest — A demonstration of extemporaneous speaking.
  • Toastmasters Got Talent Contest — Singing, dramatic speaking, music, poetry, etc.
  • Leadership Luncheon — A great meal, plus some inspirational talks.
  • Humorous Speech Contest — Well-organized speeches that emphasize humor.
  • Educational Sessions — Opportunities to learn from experts.
  • Hall of Fame — A celebration of Toastmasters members’ achievements.

It was a wonderful experience, but also a ton of work. I met a lot of great folks. I pushed my boundaries and learned a tremendous amount about running a complicated event. I helped organize the numerous volunteers that were required to pull this event off. In short, I enjoyed organizing and running the event. But now…I’m glad it’s over.

In about a week, though, it will be time to start thinking about organizing the 2013 District 29 Spring Conference. This time around, though, Christine Hobbs will be the Conference Chair. Another two weeks after that, I’m pushing for a Retrospective, where the event planners all get together and critique the conference to determine what worked well, what could be improved, and to brainstorm new ideas for making the next conference even better.

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Party Dresses and Hamster Cages

You can’t have a blog without getting a lot of spam comments. Usually it’s some generic message expressing love for your most wonderful and truly awesome site, often using bad English, followed by one or more totally unrelated product links. This is, of course, why I’ve set up comments so they’re moderated.

But the nature of the spam comments I’ve been getting lately, up to 40 per day, is very strange. Apparently, this site has attracted spammers advertising either party dresses or hamster cages.

Go figure. Need I say that you won’t find either here?

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War of the Worlds, Redux

War of the Worlds: Global DispatchesI recently read an excellent SF anthology called War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, edited by Kevin Anderson. Sadly, I’d owned it for years, but it had languished, unread, in my voluminous stack of Books to Be Read Soon When I Have Time since I purchased it in 1998. In the anthology, a group of writers imagined H. G. Wells’ invasion as it might have been experienced in other parts of the world.

Another interesting aspect was that each writer used the viewpoint of a character, generally a recognizable celebrity, who was alive during the summer of 1900, at the time of the purported war. Thus, we had stories about Jules Verne, Theodore Roosevelt, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pablo Picasso and others, all encountering the aliens in diverse areas of the world.

The impetus for the whole anthology, I suspect, was Howard Waldrop’s excellent story, Night of the Cooters, first published in 1987, which described what happened when the invaders ran afoul of the Texas Rangers. This was the only reprint in the anthology; the remaining stories were all originals.

First, I thought it was great anthology. Second, I thought it was rather like a contest between the authors. You see, each author effectively had the same ground rules:

  1. Write a story consistent with the background and events established by H.G. Wells.
  2. Choose a recognizable viewpoint character who was alive during the timeframe of the novel.

Everybody started from the same point, with the same background and with the same constraints. A few authors simply re-hashed the original story from a different viewpoint, but most tried to do interesting things with the premise. Theodore Roosevelt went hunting a new kind of game. The Emperor of China leveraged the war to eliminate his rivals and make potentially far-reaching political changes. Pablo Picasso found a new inspiration. Mark Twain found a whole new kind of river ride to write about. The end result was a truly interesting and diverse set of stories that augmented the original story quite nicely.

My thought was: Hmmmmm. What a great writing exercise. I wish I could have written a story for the anthology.

I thought about that for a while. It’s obviously way too late to contribute to an anthology that was originally published in 1997. Besides, my time machine is on the blink right now. But War of the Worlds is in the public domain. Nobody can stop me from writing a story that follows the original premise of the anthology.

However, War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, is not in the public domain. So I added a few more constraints for my own story.

  1. I cannot use any viewpoint character from the anthology, except in the most general terms, e.g. — it’s not unreasonable for me to mention H.G. Wells or Jules Verne since they were the leading speculative writers of their day.
  2. I cannot reference any of the events that happened in the anthology, e.g. — how some of the Martians may have taken refuge in the Arctic north where the climate was more suitable for them, etc.
  3. The Texas Rangers were the only outright winners against the Martians in the original anthology, taking out several entire landings. That will be the “high-water” mark — others can be successful in their endeavors, but not more so than the Texas Rangers.
  4. The events and developments of the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches should not be contradicted by my story.

This is my challenge to myself. Let’s see where I end up in another month or so.

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Cloud Atlas: A Must-See Film

I really liked Cloud Atlas, the new film from directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (hereafter referred to as the Wachowski Siblings) and Tom Tykwer. It turns out that the producers also created seven different banners to help advertise the movie. Since they’re freely distributable, I’ve decided to show all seven of them here, along with a helpful summary of the six intertwined stories that make up the movie.

Story 1: In 1849, Adam Ewing travels across the Pacific Ocean to secure a contract for his father-in-law. He becomes deathly ill during the journey, but is saved by Atua, an escaped slave, leading him to consider the merits of the Abolitionist movement and bringing him into conflict with his father-in-law.

Note: For some reason, there’s no banner for this story.

Cloud Atlas, the 2nd story, about the doomed composer

Story 2: Robert Frobisher (seen in the foreground) is a brilliant composer in the 1930’s who has been disowned by his family and is now penniless. He leaves his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (visible in the background), in Cambridge and goes to Belgium to become the amaneunsis (assistant/understudy) to a famous composer, Vyvyan Ayrs. Complications ensue, but Frobisher still manages to eventually produce a brilliant symphony called “The Cloud Atlas Sextette.” During his time with Ayrs, he ends up reading and drawing inspiration from an old journal belonging to Adam Ewing, the protagonist of the first story.

Cloud Atlas, the 3rd story, Luisa Ray

Story 3: Luisa Ray is an investigative reporter in the 1970’s. An old man, Rufus Sixsmith, reveals information about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant, but is soon murdered as part of the cover-up. She comes into possession of some of his letters, becoming aware of Robert Frobisher and his great but obscure work, “The Cloud Atlas Sextette.” Much nastiness ensues as she pursues her investigation.

Cloud Atlas, the 4th story, about the publisher on the run

Story 4: Timothy Cavendish is a aging publisher who ends up on the run because of a monetary dispute with a gangster who happens to be one of his published authors. He goes to his estranged brother for help, but gets tricked into hiding out in a hotel, which actually turns out to be a nursing home from which he cannot initially escape. Naturally, he works with some other feisty inmates to concoct a plan for escape. As a side note, one book that crossed his desk before he went on the run was a fictionalized account of Luisa Rey’s investigation from the 1970’s.

Cloud Atlas, the 5th story

Cloud Atlas, the 5th story

Cloud Atlas, the 5th story

Story 5: Sonmi~451 is a fabricant (clone) in a dystopian society in Korea in the future, working at a restaurant called Papa Songs. Fabricants are used as slave labor in this society. She experiences an awakening when she is recruited by rebels, and ultimately becomes a symbol of their rebellion. One of the first things she ever saw that was different from her regimented daily life was a video recording of the “Ghastly Affair of Timothy Cavendish” — the story of Cavendish’s exploits in the previous story became a film that provides some comfort to Sonmi~451.

Cloud Atlas, the 6th story

Story 6: Next we go to a more distant future, after the Fall, a war that devastated the world. Zachry, a primitive living in Hawaii, belongs to a society that worships a female deity named Sonmi. His world is turned upside-down when Meronym, a representative of a more-advanced culture, recruits him to help with an important mission.

Cloud Atlas consists of these six stories, interleaved together in a dazzling mosaic. It requires some work to follow the six stories, particularly at the beginning, but the effort will pay off in the long run. The premise of the film is that everything is connected, and that acts of kindness or evil echo into the future. The characters are entangled souls, reincarnated again and again to interact with each other in all of the stories. In the film, this is represented by the actors playing multiple roles in all of the stories, often assisted by make-up and special effects.

It’s a brilliant film that doesn’t quite achieve everything that the producers wanted, but succeeds well enough to give us a mesmerizing, powerful tapestry of interconnected stories. Go see it. Despite its flaws, the film deserves an audience.

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The Duel at Blood Creek

This short film is just absolutely hysterical. The cinematography is excellent, the swordplay is exceedingly well done and the plot, such as it is, is howlingly funny. Many thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal who brought this to my attention. Check it out.

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A Lifetime

This appeared in my Facebook Newsfeed. I have no idea of the original source. I really like it’s stark simplicity — a lifetime love affair captured in only six simple, black-and-white frames.

A Lifetime Love Affair

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Disney Adds the Force to Its Portfolio

Star Wars Episode VII is Coming!Yesterday, Disney bought Lucasfilm for 4 billion dollars. What they really bought was the Star Wars franchise, with its built-in global audience, and the right to continue the series in the future. Disney then immediately announced that they were going to do a new trilogy, set after the original three films, with the first one targeted for a 2015 release date.

I think this is a good thing. Although I like George Lucas, I think the franchise suffered badly when his co-writer, veteran SF writer and Hollywood screenwriter Leigh Brackett, died after completing her draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. I believe that Brackett brought a fun, pulp-era, good guys vs. bad guys, sensibility to the franchise.

In the second, prequel trilogy, Lucas proved that he could manage a media empire, and do some nifty plotting, but he fell short on picking the right talent for the film (he never did find a good actor to play Anakin Skywalker), on dialogue, and, in places, characterization (need I mention the Jar Jar Binks fiasco?). While I admire what he’s accomplished, it’s time for some new blood.

Disney, I’m looking forward to 2015, but don’t you dare disappoint me….

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