Zombie Dave

 
I was feeling a little under the weather last week. Apparently caught some sort of bug with flu-like tendencies. I swear, all week, I was so down that I felt like a zombie, just shambling around.

My brother, Steve, was fortunate enough to catch me on video.

Which was probably better for him than me catching him…

OK, just kidding. This is a video my brother generated from an app that takes a photo from your phone and animates it into a zombie video. The app was made as an advertisement for the TV show, Fear the Walking Dead.
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First Draft of The Good Book

First Draft of "The Good Book"Woohoo! I’ve finished the First Draft of my novelette, “The Good Book.” Many thanks to the Loudoun County Writers Group for helping me get through this difficult, emotionally charged story.

As a writer, sometimes you just have to go where the story takes you. In this case, the story took me deep into the realms of spirituality and magic realism, sometimes referred to as slipstream. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, this isn’t the usual neighborhood where I tend to ply my trade, but based on the reactions from my readers and critiquers, I believe I’ve crafted a compelling story.

Now, onto the second draft….

Synopsis:

Malcolm Jameson is planning to throw himself off a bridge when a passing bicyclist stops and hands him a magic book. Unsurprisingly, the book has a considerably different plan for Malcolm. And a bad attitude.

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Science Fiction Table Topics

David Keener, Table Topics MaestroToastmasters has a public speaking exercise called Table Topics. A person, designated as the Table Topics Master, gets up in front of an audience and chooses random people to answer questions. Each selected individual has to stand up and respond to the question. The goal is to deliver a one to two minute response (and the exercise IS timed).

It’s a great way to practice ad hoc speaking skills. Personally, I like responding to table topics. But I like being Table Topics Master even more…

Because I am diabolical.

You see, most questions and responses are oh so earnest. What I like to do as Table Topics Master is to force people to stretch themselves, to step outside their comfort zone and do things they might not ordinarily do in a speech.

As a case in point, I devised a set of science fiction scenarios for my turn as Table Topics Master this past Thursday. This is how I introduced the exercise:

“How many of you have experienced one of my Table Topics sessions before?” I asked

Only about a third of the hands in the audience went up.

“Excellent. As those of you who raised your hands already know, I am…diabolical. So, for tonight’s Table Topics, we’re going to do…something different. I need three victims…er…I meant respondents.”

Once I had my three respondents, I told the audience, “I’m going to present each of our volunteers with a written scenario.” Turning to the volunteers, I added, “Each of you is a reporter witnessing some fantastic event that’s unfolding right in front of you.

“But I don’t want you to tell us about the scenario. I want you to push your limits, go places you’ve never gone. Something momentous is happening, and I want you to make us feel it. Dig deep and give us the emotion.

For each volunteer, I gave them a printed copy of their scenario, which they had to quickly digest (which is why key words in the scenario are bolded). I presented the introduction to the audience, and then each respondent had to do their part. The responses were absolutely, hysterically funny.

Here are the scenarios that I handed out:

  1. The War of the Worlds

    Introduction: “You’re a reporter for a local newspaper. During the night, a fiery meteorite struck nearby. Tell us about it.”

    Scenario: During the night, a fiery meteorite landed in the sandpits of Horsell Commons, near the town of Woking in England.

    • It’s now morning.
    • You’re standing just beyond the rim of a deep crater in the sand.
    • There are townspeople standing all around you.
    • You can feel the scorching heat; there’s a smell like brimstone.
    • There’s a massive cylinder in the crater.
    • A grinding sound begins…and the end of the cylinder begins to rotate its way off.
  2. Star Wars

    Introduction: “You’re a reporter, embedded in the rebel headquarters during a major battle of a civil war. Tell us about it.”

    Scenario: You’re a reporter embedded in the headquarters of the Rebel Alliance on the jungle moon, Yavin, which orbits a gas giant planet.

    • The Empire’s Death Star is on the other side of the gas giant from where you are right now.
    • If the Death Star rounds the planet, they’re going to destroy the moon you’re on (and you).
    Rebel fighter ships are desperately trying to destroy the Death Star.
    • All attempts against the Death Star so far have failed.
    • Someone named Luke Skywalker is now on a high-speed firing run trying to destroy the ship.
    • That Skywalker fellow just turned off his auto-pilot and everybody is really worried.
  3. Jurassic Park

    Introduction: “You’re a reporter preparing to cover the opening of a new theme park when everything goes very, very wrong. Tell us about it.”

    Scenario: You’re a reporter getting a behind-the-scenes view of Jurassic Park, which opens in a week. However, something has gone wrong…

    • You’re in the Jurassic Park Control Room by yourself.
    • The power went off for a while, but now it’s back on.
    • Everyone else has left on various rescue or repair missions.
    • There are dozens of screens that let you see what’s going on…the dinosaurs are loose.
    • You can see the big Tyrannosaurus Rex on a screen chasing a jeep.
    • You haven’t seen any of the raptors in a while.
    • There’s a scratching at the door…
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The Soul of a Story

The Soul of a StoryAs a writer, the most effective action I’ve taken in the last year has been to join not one, but two, writing groups in my local area. One meets on Saturday mornings and the other, which specializes in science fiction and fantasy, meets on Sunday mornings. Since I joined these groups this past March, I’ve sometimes felt like I’ve been in Writer’s Bootcamp, but it’s been worth it because I’ve seen my writing skills grow by leaps and bounds. But something happened at the last Saturday meeting that I thought was noteworthy, and worth blogging about.

I’m working on a short story that I estimate will come out at somewhere between 8K and 10K words. It’s a contemporary story with a single fantastical element. The storyline is about a man who’s lost his entire family in a terrible vehicle accident. Unable to move on with his life, he decides that he’s going to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. And then, just before he has a chance to jump, a passerby hands him a book. A magical book.

The way the writing group works is that up to five submissions are reviewed each week. Each submission can be up to 2K words. Submissions are uploaded by Wednesday evening and critiqued by the group at the Saturday session.

My submission, which was clearly part one of either four or five parts, took the story right up to just past the main character’s initial reaction to the odd, strangely informed content of the book. In essence, he parks his car and takes a trip down memory lane, walking past the places he and his departed wife went to when they were dating. Along the way, I drop tantalizing hits that something isn’t right, until the confirmation of his suicidal intent, and then the reversal represented by the unwanted receipt of the magical book.

When my turn to be critiqued arrived, I was surprised at the sheer amount of controversy and disagreement amongst the reviewers that my story caused. In fact, the group spent more than forty minutes, double the normally allotted time, discussing the story.

Some of the comments were:

  1. Start the story at the bridge. Get rid of the long walk because it adds nothing to the story.

  2. Too many coincidences. The plot hinges on a huge chance encounter.

  3. Get rid of the part at the very beginning where the guy in the white car gets angry because the main character slid into the parking space that he wanted.

  4. The walk is just a big infodump where we learn about the accident that took his family away. Communicate this information by showing him at the grave site instead.

  5. The story has no hook.

There were a lot of comments, and I agreed with many of them. On a more mechanical level, I also received some excellent suggestions on how to tighten up my language in places. But the list above represents the most significant comments that, after much consideration, I ultimately rejected. In fact, #1, #4 and #5 together represented the majority opinion of the group (seven out of nine reviewers).

The real question is: Why did I reject those comments?

So I’m going to go all anthropomorphic for a moment. Sometimes I envision a story as having a soul. Some souls are malleable, capable of being changed into strange new forms without messing up the central dynamic of the story. The transposition of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into the modern day in the TV show, Elementary, shows how malleable some stories can be.

But this story isn’t like that. It’s about a day that changes a man’s life by causing him to re-engage with the world. In an elliptical way, it may even be about the meaning of life.

Anything that doesn’t take place on that day can be referred to, but not shown. The story has to be about the man, his interactions with the book and the impact that they will have on people’s lives on this singular day. From a story dynamic, we need to know the man’s back-story by the time he receives the book, or their interactions will lack the necessary impact provided by a full understanding of the context.

I rejected the suggestions because they conflicted with the soul of the story.

I rejected #1 because we really need to know who our main character is before we place him in peril. You can’t sympathize overly much with someone you barely know.

I rejected #2 for several reasons. First, there’s a magical element to the story which trumps coincidence. In fact, it’s even possible, though deliberately left ambiguous in the full story, that the book may have religious significance.

Second, there’s a general principle that an author is allowed any prerequisite necessary for a story to work. Once the prerequisite has been established, however, everything must flow logically and consistently from that point. This is how you can have, for example, a story about a business traveller who gets mistaken for an international spy because they look alike. It might be implausible, but if it’s a necessary prerequisite, then it’s a given.

There is some logic to #3, but what the reviewers don’t know is that the angry man in the white car is a planted seed that will pay off later in the climax of the story.

#4 is a mantra that you hear all the time in critique groups: info dumps are bad. The problem here is that I don’t believe in ironclad rules. I would change the wording of this rule to: info dumps are bad if they interrupt the flow of your story.

It’s true that a lot of information is imparted during the main character’s walk to the bridge. But it’s broken up into digestible chunks and mixed in with a bunch of mini-scenes that define the emotional state of the main character. I also steadily increase the prominence of the clues that he’s planning to commit suicide. If the reader figures it out early, there’s suspense. If the reader doesn’t figure it out until the man is on the bridge, there’s surprise.

I might tighten up the walking sequence a bit, but it’s necessary for the soul of the story I’m trying to tell.

#5 says that the story has no hook. I disagree. To me, a hook is a story question that makes the reader want to continue reading. This is a subtle story and it needs a subtle hook. If I accomplish anything close to what I’m aiming for, then a good model for this narrative would be a Shirley Jackson story.

But see for yourself. Here’s how the story starts:

Malcolm Jameson rounded the corner in his silver Toyota Camry and instantly spotted that rarest of things, an open parking space on a weekday morning in downtown Sanavale. He’d only been looking for a space for thirty minutes. He pulled up slightly in front of the space and prepared to back in. A horn began honking insistently. He looked in his rearview mirror to see a battered white hatchback stopped a short distance behind him, the car’s driver, a forty-something man with gray-streaked hair and a goatee, pounding impatiently on the horn. He ignored the man and expertly slid into the space without any back-and-forth jockeying.

As he pulled his keys out of the ignition, the white car zoomed by. Malcolm thought the driver looked oddly like a mime, shouting unheard within the passenger compartment of his vehicle and flipping him the finger. He shook his head sadly. Probably just sour grapes because Malcolm had gotten the space instead of him.

Malcolm put the keys under the seat and got out of the car. He left the door unlocked and approached the parking meter. He waved his smartphone in front of the meter and it dutifully extracted a payment for two hours, the maximum allowed for street parking in this mostly residential neighborhood.

Well, the car was probably going to get towed at some point, but that wasn’t really going to be his problem.

It’s true that I could start the story with a line like, “It was a good day to die” or something like that (although I think that provides too much information too soon). Instead, I’ve provided a more subtle hook. There are three clues in the first four paragraphs that something is wrong (the keys under the seat, the unlocked door and the implication that the car will probably get towed but it won’t be his problem).

I think you can have a hook that’s subtle. I don’t think it has to be an MTV-like hook — “HEY, look at me! I’m a hook!”

If I can boil this all down to a single lesson, here it is. A critique group can provide input on your story and they can show you choices you may not have thought about, but they’ll never know your story the way you do. You need to understand the soul of your story. You need to feel the truth of your story and hold on to your convictions when it’s appropriate, even if that means disagreeing with others. If you can do that, then you’ll be able to make effective decisions about changes that may help or harm your story.

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Meeting Ryan Avery

Ryan Avery and David Keener in Washington DC

I recently had a chance to meet Ryan Avery, the Toastmasters 2012 World Champion of Public Speaking on Monday, September 30th, at the AARP building in downtown Washington DC. Toastmasters District 27 and 36 teamed up to host his two-hour workshop, “How to Make It a Great Speech.” The event drew such a big crowd during the online event registration period that they had to add a second edition of the workshop to handle the overflow.

Ryan Avery and his wife Chelsea were both friendly and gracious. Moreover, the workshop itself was also excellent. The worksop was part of Ryan’s whirlwind public speaking tour to promote his new company, How To Be A Speaker. Since his championship win, he’s specialized in keynotes, inspirational training sessions, and workshops on speaking-related topics.

Ryan’s workshop, “How to Make It a Great Speech,” was introduced by the leadership from Districts 27 and 36. When Ryan subsequently came on stage, he started out by introducing himself, outlining what he was going to cover in the workshop, and generally engaging with the audience. Then he showed us two videos of 5 – 7 minute talks that he had done. One was, of course, his championship-winning talk for Toastmasters, entitled “Trust Is a Must,” which everyone was extremely interested in seeing. The other was an inspirational speech for a college.

Here are some public speaking tips that he gave that directly related to the videos we’d just watched:

  • Title: He emphasized that he believes titles are vital to the success of a speech. They help set the expectation of what a speech is going to be about. A memorable title may also linger in the minds of audience members, helping the audience to retain key points that were made in the speech. He used his title, “Trust Is a Must,” as an example of a memorable title.

  • A Strong Structure: Ryan pointed out afterwards that both speeches had the same structure, which he proceeded to describe to the audience. His basic outline was a brief introduction that established the theme of the talk, three short stories that matched the theme, and a conclusion that tied the stories together and echoed the message from the introduction. He added that it was essential for the conclusion to end in the same place as the introduction, which he summed up succinctly as: “Where you pick ’em up, you need to drop ’em off.”

    Bear in mind that this outline is perfect for a short, impactful speech, such as those required for speech contests. It may not be appropriate for all types of speeches, or may need to be adapted for other types of public speaking engagements.

  • Constant Object: Whenever possible. Ryan liked to have a “constant object” to help link the stories together. For his speech, “Trust Is a Must,” it was his mother’s slippers that featured in some way in each story.

  • Heroes: According to Ryan, “you can’t be the hero of your own story.” If you’re the hero, then it sounds like you’re bragging, which diminishes the experience for the audience. You can be in the story; you just shouldn’t be the hero.

  • The Five Senses: For more impact, try to engage the audience by appealing to the five senses. Highlight colors, emphasize a smell, or describe sounds. Paint a picture for the audience.

  • Drop the Prop: Ryan was not a fan of props. His view was that props interrupt your speech and, more importantly, disengage the audience’s imagination. He stated that in many cases, he considers PowerPoint slides to be an unnecessary prop, although he conceded that they can be appropriate for informational talks (his own workshop included a sparse set of slides, as an example).

  • Active Voice: Be active. Be assertive. Don’t let passive voice creep into your speech. When you say “was,” you’ve entered the Passive Voice Zone. Get away from there.

I thought those speaking tips were excellent. There was quite a bit more to the workshop, so it’s hard to sum it all up. There were some excellent messages sprinkled throughout the workshop, though, and I’ve captured some of them below:

  • Don’t look at the excuses, look at the opportunities.

  • Who is that one person you’d hike across the Grand Canyon for?

  • You should never “give a speech.” Speak from the heart and send a message.
              — Randy Harvey

  • You must impact yourself before you can impact an audience. To accomplish great things in your life, you should:

    • Put it out there. Go for your dream.
    • Delete negative people from your life.
    • Visualize your reality. Change the story in your own head to be what you want it to be.
    • Set up visualization stations, aids that help you imagine where you want to be, or what you want to become.

  • Never tell a joke. Share a failure instead.

  • Make you speeches Simple, Impactful and Relatable.

  • Remember the acronym, SMILE:

              SSimple stories.
              MMistakes; talk about mistakes, and lessons learned.
              IImitate, e.g. – imitate characters for effect.
              LLaugh; look like you’re enjoying yourself, and so will the audience.
              EEnthusiasm; add some energy to your speech.

  • Dress to relate to your audience.

  • PRACTICE. How you practice is how you will play. Get serious about practicing.

I had a great time attending Ryan Avery’s workshop, and I felt like I learned a lot from it. If you’re interested in public speaking, and the opportunity arises, attend one of his workshops. It will be worth it. Additionally, he’s got a book on public speaking coming out in early 2014, so keep a watch for it.

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Star Wars, Episode 7

My friend, Don Anderson, is a graphic artist with extensive expertise in Adobe Photoshop. I’ve had the privilege of working with him on numerous creative projects for the last six years. He’s also a Lego enthusiast and a Star Wars fan — the rite of passage for his two boys was the building of the Millennium Falcon out of Legos (an expensive Legos kit with all kinds of awesome extras).

His oldest son, Jake, is about to turn 7, so Don and his wife decided to host a birthday party at the local Rebounderz — kids, trampolines, pizza, etc. Naturally, Don had to create an invitation for the birthday party…

Star Wars Birthday Invitation

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Norton’s Footsteps

Andre NortonI’m a science fiction fan. I’ve been one for almost as long as I can remember. I think I became a fan in one of the classic ways — I was infected by my father.

You see, he had all of these great books by Andre Norton. Back in the 70’s, apparently, women weren’t supposed to be writers, so Alice Mary Norton wrote under the pseudonym of Andre Norton. She was YA before YA even existed. And so many of her books had awesome covers. You couldn’t help but pick them up…

Her stories were science fiction adventures, with young heroes encountering danger on exotic worlds. She wrote four of these squeaky clean adventure stories every year for years and years. And my Dad and I would snap them up as soon as we saw a new one on the bookstore’s shelves (with his money, of course).

At age 11, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Then life got in the way. High school, college, my first real job. With a B.S. degree in Computer Science, I was soon making too much money to consider taking the pay-cut necessary to be a full-time writer. Plus, I had bills, mortgages and other things to worry about. Thirty passed, and then forty.

Start Born, by Andre NortonI still wanted to be a writer, but every time I looked at what it would take to start a writing career, I balked. It just didn’t seem feasible to be a writer. I can think of no other field in which an accomplished practitioner, like your average mid-list writer, can’t make a livable wage.

There was clearly money to be made. Big international corporations wouldn’t have gotten involved in publishing if there wasn’t money in it. It’s just that very little of that money seemed to flow towards the writers. On a typical paperback book, priced at $8.99, the author only made about sixty cents. And if a book didn’t make it big, it was out of bookstores in less than six weeks.

It seemed like a rigged game to me. There were too many middle-men, each taking a share of the money. And too many gatekeepers deciding what was publishable according to their own personal tastes (without once consulting their actual audience).

So I diverted my creative urges into other pursuits. I crafted elaborate and detailed worlds for role-playing games, and ran game sessions for my friends that were like intricate novels. Some game sessions were fantasies, fantasy mysteries, or fantasy horror thrillers. There were science fiction stories, too. For all of them, I kept detailed notes on characters, events, background details, technologies…figuring it all might be useful someday.

Time Traders, by Andre NortonEverything changed in 2007, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

Amazon released the Kindle in 2007. For the first time, ebooks were a viable proposition for authors. It was possible for authors to connect with readers in a fair marketplace, and for the readers to decide which books (and authors) would be successful.

By contrast, bookstores weren’t fair marketplaces, you see, because publishers were allowed to “cheat.” Publishers dictated the choices that would be available to readers by virtue of what they published, and even anointed what they thought should be bestsellers via their promotional activities. They could pay extra for special promotions like displaying books on tables near the front of the store, or displaying books on the shelf face-out instead of spine-out. Additionally, there was no “long tail”…newly published books were out of bookstores in a month to six weeks unless there was a dramatic demand for them.

With the Kindle, Amazon created a level playing field. The disruption of publishing was hardly noticeable at first, but it kept accelerating.

I really noticed the disruption in 2012. I was already aware of the increasing impact of ebooks on publishing. After all, I’d seen Borders go under. But I hadn’t really embraced ebooks myself. At WorldCon 70 in Chicago, though, I encountered the raging debate between traditionally published writers and self-published writers, and I started to really realize the potential of self-publishing. I also ended up having dinner with Hugh Howey and some of his fans. Hugh is one of the most successful self-published writers, known for his international best-seller, Wool. After talking to Hugh, it became clear that publishing really had changed dramatically.

Star Guard, by Andre NortonWith the middle-men and gatekeepers out of the way, writers are now making real money. For a book selling between $2.99 and $9.99, a writer takes 70% of the sale price on Amazon. Writers can find their own audience, because they don’t need publishers anymore. Oh, it’s still work, but writers have upside potential that they never used to have.

I decided that it was time for me to go for it, to really take a hard run at writing professionally. Previously, whenever I looked at writing professionally, the business model just didn’t make sense. There were too many variables that were out of my control. But now, it feels like modern self-publishing was made for someone like me.

And besides, if not now, then when? There’s never going to be a better time for me to become a professional writer.

I believe I have the writing skills. I’ve certainly written many successful things in my life, including technical articles, proposals, dynamic speeches, well-received presentations, and hundreds of blog entries. I have the speaking skills for interviews, panels, presentations, classes and speeches — all that work in Toastmasters has paid off. I have the social media skills from my technical background, and have maintained the web presence for numerous organizations over the years.

Daybreak 2250 A.D., by Andre NortonIt might be a little later in my life than I had originally hoped for, but the dream that Andre Norton inspired in me at age 11, the dream of being a professional writer, is realistically within my reach for the first time. Many of the variables that were once completely outside of my control are now well within the grasp of a hard-working writer with extensive social media experience and a “can-do” attitude.

This is my time. Why don’t you come along for the ride?

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Two More Projects…

"Winter Roses" - a short story by David KeenerIn the past week, I’ve had the chance to unveil two of my latest creative projects to various audiences. The first is a short story called “Winter Roses.” The second is a new PowerPoint presentation called “Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers.” In both cases, I used the source material as the basis for a speech in front of a live audience, which is, quite frankly, an awesome way to test out your material.

With some judicious compression, “Winter Roses” became a dramatic, almost Shakespearean, 9-minute speech that I performed at the Ashburn Toastmasters Open House and Speech-a-thon on July 31st. Set in a fantasy world, it tells a twisted, but romantic, crime story. It also provides some background and depth to a fantasy world in which I plan to set future stories.

The PowerPoint presentation, “Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers,” was inspired by last year’s 100-year remembrances of the 1912 Titanic disaster. I was fascinated with some news stories I read online about the pets, mostly dogs, that were on board for the Titanic‘s fateful maiden voyage. I did a considerable amount of additional research, including hunting down rare photographs, and created an 11-slide presentation. I then organized a 12-minute speech to go with the presentation, which I introduced to Brambleton Toastmasters on August 6th.

"Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers" - A presentation by David KeenerI was very pleased with the reaction to both projects. “Winter Roses” is currently in the hands of my beta readers — once it gets past them, I’m going to try to get it professionally published. Accordingly, it won’t be going up on this site for a good, long time.

“Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers” is going to go up on Slideshare sometime in August. I want to punch up the graphics and layout a notch to see if I can get it selected as a Featured Presentation (this happened previously for my “Killer Business Models” presentation from the more technical, KeenerTech side of the house). I also have some ideas on how to monetize it, but more on that at a later date.

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Make Good Art

This is Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address, “Make Good Art,” for the University of the Arts. It’s a very good speech. It’s inspirational, but really speaks to the joys of living a creative life making art. Check it out!

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Web Site Update

On MarsIt’s been a little longer than usual since my last blog entry. This was primarily due to the fact that I was busily upgrading this web site. I’m now using WordPress 3.5.1, the latest version (with all of the latest security updates). I’ve updated the Akismet plugin, which prevents this site from being inundated with spam comments, and I’ve updated to the latest version of the Magomra theme (plus I fixed a bug in their theme, and then added my own customizations).

Behind the scenes, the site is now under source code control, which means that I can track all changes to the site’s underlying code, and back out changes if necessary. Equally important, it’s now possible for me to easily install the site elsewhere, where I can experiment with new features without compromising the “production” site that everybody sees on the Web. So, expect more new features in the future.

Meanwhile, the new background shows a couple of people in environment suits walking on the surface of Mars. I like the way that the background is immobile — you may have to expand your browser window a bit to see our hapless wanderers.

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