Archives

Archives / 2005 / January
  • CoasterBuzz.com turns five-years-old

    On January 30, 2000, I launched CoasterBuzz.com, a news/portal site for roller coaster enthusiasts. It was kind of a hobby, but it was something I wanted to be a big deal in the long run.

    Back in those days, there were new coaster sites every day. It was hard to keep track of them, so I figured having a directory for them was a good idea. It was also hard to keep up on news from around the industry, so having a central place for that seemed like a good idea. We were doing similar things at Penton Media back in those days for the vertical markets we covered, so in terms of design and content, I didn't need to do anything radically different. The more interesting twist was that news would come from not just traditional news sites, but also from these niche enthusiast sites out there.

    Five years later, it hasn't changed much. It has been rewritten two and a half times since its launch (the half coming with changes to POP Forums). It still serves many thousands of visitors every day. It's also home base for an enthusiast club, CoasterBuzz Club.

    Keeping up with it has really been easy most of the time. The day-to-day time requirements of running the site aren't significant. I spend probably less than an hour a day looking for news, since most of it is user-contributed anyway. Moderating the forums isn't a big deal either, because for the most part the community is self-governing. I can't remember the last time I had to delete something inappropriate, aside from the occasional spamming incident.

    Hopefully the site is at a turning point. Back in the days when I spent a lot more time on it (because content management wasn't as easy at the time), I used to have to spend a lot of money as hosting costs went up and ad revenue went down. These days, there's a lot of money to pay back from that era, but expenses are relatively insignificant compared to what they were. If I could only pay off that business credit card, life would be grand.

    The highlight of running the site these days is probably the events we do. In particular, we have a great event at Paramount's Kings Island every year that is a total blast. Last year we had well over 200 attendees. I'm not the hardcore enthusiast I used to be, but I enjoy spending a full day in the park on that day.

    The site is more of a business than a hobby these days, and I'm happy to see it thrive. There is certainly a revision in the site's future, but it's more of a function of my writing projects than it is a deliberate need to update. The site doesn't really define me the way it used to, as my interests have diversified quite a bit over the years. I need to keep in mind though that the site has been the testing ground for so many other things I've done professionally, not the least of which is write a programming book. It deserves my ongoing attention since it and its community are bigger than my own needs at this point.

    So after five years, I hope that there will be five more. In terms of the Web, not many things have stuck around that long. It's weird to realize that there are things (other than my marriage) that I've really committed to long-term. :)

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  • Hooray! Someone pre-ordered my book!

    Someone followed the link to my book on Amazon and pre-ordered it. Now if only 10,000 more or so people order it, it will be considered a "reasonable success" according to those familiar with the publication of computer books.

    Remind me in October to thank everyone who ordered when I finally see some cash for it! :)

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  • Who is the crack monkey at The Weather Channel?

    The Weather Channel changed the layout and organization of their local pages again. Whoever is in charge of usability or approved the changes should be fired. What a mess.

    The old layout showed the current conditions, the radar and the 10-day forecast. It was very convenient and told you really everything you wanted to know, right there. Now, there's the local conditions, some pointless Flash below it, some totally irrelevant text ads that I don't even see, a 36-hour text forecast (with a link to a very poorly laid out 10-day with irrelevant graphs), more ads, then finally the radar.

    Can they show more advertising now? Yes. Is it effective? Hell no. With the old layout, there was a prominent 300x250 ad that was a great tool for branding. I could tell you, for example, that there was a Claritin ad there during allergy season. Now I can't tell you what's there, because I'm searching all over the damn page for the information I wanted (everything in the old layout).

    Like I said, someone should be fired.

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  • Copyright, community and common sense

    I noticed (via Scoble) that Microsoft is giving this guy a hard time regarding some screen shots for the next mobile OS. I hate to say it, but that's pretty lame.

    Microsoft has gone a very long way to open up their development process and get stuff out into the open early. Most of the program managers and leads that blog think this is an awesome practice, because they're getting real customer feedback much earlier in the release process than they ever used to before. It's good for Microsoft, and it's good for customers.

    But then you get lawyers involved. A part of me always wanted to be a lawyer, because I love to argue, but it has become the profession of ill-repute. Here's a guy being given a hard time for something that is out there on a PowerPoint. As far as I'm concerned, the gloves are off at that point and it's a bona fide news event and the standards of fair-use in reporting should be applied. If that's not the case, then it shouldn't be put out there for public consumption.

    I realize there's a time and place. I'm on an NDA list for ASP.NET and tools stuff, so I could get the right information while writing my book. That's a lot different, certainly, and I of course would never reveal anything told to me that wasn't put out there for public consumption. But this guy was treated poorly, and it's a step backward in an era where code monkeys are finally respecting Microsoft and its products.

    In the amusement industry, which I cover for CoasterBuzz, there are two kinds of amusement parks you run into. The first kind want total control over everything, and won't allow you to post anything. The second kind will announce a new attraction, send you photos and video, invite you to construction tours, and basically do whatever they can to foster a fan community. While one could argue that these communities are a relatively small portion of your audience, are they really when the rate of information dissemination is so fast? That's a hard question to answer, but when you're Microsoft, pushing around the community is certainly not going to win the hearts and minds of anyone.

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  • AOL cutting off Usenet

    Yep, it's true... AOL is ditching its Usenet service. My feeling is so what, but then again I feel very different about Usenet.

    Usenet is nearly useless as far as I'm concerned. It wasn't always that way, but spam and trolls have destroyed it. There were a few groups I used to visit now and then, but I quit years ago. There are better Web-based forums out there.

    It comes down to moderation. On one hand, Usenet is mentioned in the same breath as being totally free of moderation or its authority, but just as anything else that grows in number of participants, those numbers inevitably bring in the poor element too.

    It's not the death of free speech. Any idiot can put up a Web site these days (I'd know!).

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  • Can you believe we get paid to play games?

    I just saw a TV spot for some "school" that teaches game development. This goofy girl and a typical diverse group of kids are all sitting around at computers playing games. It's hysterical. I love when the girl says, "Can you believe we get paid to play games?"

    And if you're lucky you'll get to work at EA and kiss your home life goodbye! :)

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  • Long beta periods yield better software

    There was a time where I would bang out a change to an application, see that it basically worked, and bust it live to production all in the same day. For the most part, this isn't a horrible practice when you're using test-driven development, but it's not a great practice either.

    For example, I've been sitting on a minor forum upgrade for about a month. After a week or it being in production on one of my sites (which I generally use as a live test), I saw one particularly odd problem that wasn't covered by my tests. Then last night I found an issue with a regular expression that was tagging the CPU big time.

    Would it have been a tragic failure to release it a month ago? Not by a long shot, but I am saving customers (not that they're paying me) the trouble of having to find the problems and then wait for an upgrade.

    In this respect, I don't think it's such a bad thing for Microsoft to have really long beta periods. I know they've caught some flack for that. I can't be the only person that remembers Windows ME. I'll concede that I wish .NET v2 was out yesterday, especially Visual Studio, but look at how horrible that designer in VS 2002/2003 was. That should have never been released.

    The definition of "on time" has to find some middle ground between adequate testing and getting to market in a timely fashion. Getting crap to market (like RollerCoaster Tycoon 3) by a deadline and having it suck is frustrating for customers.

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  • The CPU-eating RegEx

    The following Regex takes upwards of five seconds to get through a couple paragraphs of text:

    text = Regex.Replace(text, @"(.*)((?<!(\A|<blockquote>|</blockquote>|</p>))(<blockquote>|<p>))", "$1</p>$2", RegexOptions.IgnoreCase | RegexOptions.Compiled);

    I'm at a loss to explain why, because I've never had any expression choke like that. I theorize that it might have something to do with the "or" options in the groups, but I don't know for sure. Or perhaps something is causing it to recursively scan the entire text over and over, I'm just not sure what.

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  • MSN Search using ASP.NET v2 Profile? Nope.

    I was just reviewing the proofs for my book chapter on ASP.NET v2.0's anonymous Profile feature and wondered if perhaps MSN Search was using it for the storage of settings. Looking at the cookies stored, it would appear not because the cookie names have "SRCH" in them. Still, there are GUID's in there, so they are storing the settings on their end.

    Oh well, it just would've been super cool to see them using an off-the-shelf ASP.NET feature, a beta feature at that, for their killer search app. Certainly they'd be using their own Profile provider, but still, it would've been a neat thing to see!

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  • Nofollow seems a little silly to me

    So in the grand spirit of "we'll show them," the major search engines agree to treat hyperlinks in pages with rel="nofollow" differently as an effort to combat blog comment spam. I can't be the only person that finds this a bit silly.

    First off, the spamming is most obviously automated. At this point, it's still going to go on anyway. Second, at least on the .Text system, we can moderate or delete the comments anyway (which we know about instantly with the e-mail notification). The stuff doesn't stick around long enough to ever get indexed.

    People are acting like there has never been spamming on the Web in cases where anonymous posting can take place. Give me a break. It has been going on for as long as discussion boards have been around. The only reason anyone cares now is because everyone has a blog that they own, unlike the countless message boards they visit but don't own. I especially find it funny that some people go as far as to say, "My blog is important and visited by millions, and a single link can skew page rank!" Wow.

    The whole discussion misses the point: Free advertising is free advertising in the mind of spammers. It doesn't cost them a dime to send out thousands of e-mail messages, and it won't cost them a dime to spam thousands of blogs. I don't have the answer, but this certainly isn't it.

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  • Getting play from MSN Search

    The various Webmaster forums and search engine optimization gurus are all abuzz about MSN Search. It would appear that its results are starting to find their way into the mainstream MSN site.

    I couldn't figure out why CoasterBuzz had two 12,000+ visitor days in a row. That's normal for the summer season, but not January. A peak at the stats, and now I know why.

    I'm not married to Google, so I'll have to give the MSN Search a try and see what kind of results I get next time I'm looking for something. Plus I can feel good that something with .aspx in the URL got me there. :)

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  • Free MPEG to DVD burner?

    I've been looking for a simple, free download that will burn an MPEG file to DVD. I use BeyondTV as my DVR, which happens to make nice .mpg files that are easily burned to DVD using more advanced authoring software. I just want something that takes the .mpg and burns it sans chapters or anything like that.

    Any suggestions?

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  • The ugly process of dealing with headhunter and recruiting agencies

    I've got my resume out there. I'm open to short-term contract jobs if they're a good fit, even though I'm hell bent on being mostly self-sustaining. I don't even mind going through a third party to pick up the gig. However, it's getting too hard to find the good stuff in all of the noise.

    The problem is that so many agencies put the commission over the fit, and that drives me nuts. It's not good for the employee or the client. If you can't tell me specifics about the job over e-mail, I'm not interested. I have wasted so much time over the last year responding to agencies that have crap I don't want. Which part of "short-term local contract for ASP.NET or C# development" sounds like "contract-to-hire VB6 in Louisville?"

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  • The obligatory "what I'm up to, in case you're wondering" update

    Weird that I haven't posted anything in awhile. I guess it's because I think some of the "in the moment" thoughts I have would not generally be interesting to anyone, but then again this is probably the one thing on the Internet that I don't care about in terms of who is reading it.

    I'm making a little progress on my ad serving software. As I mentioned at some point previously, it works fabulously well on the serving side, it just had no admin UI. I need to figure out a way to really test the crap out of it. I probably will sell it, so to do so I need to make some statement about its scalability. I'm not going to pretend it's Doubleclick DART for your own use, but to date it has had no problem serving millions of impressions per month without breaking a sweat. I have to decide when it starts to sweat.

    I'm reviewing the PDF's of my book. It's seriously weird. It's finally starting to feel real. Bummer that it won't feel like I really get paid until later this year! Publishing is a very weird business in terms of schedules. The good news is that it appears it will be more pages than I expected. Not that size matters, or something.

    Self-employment taxes suck. I think I'm going to need to sell a few of my FUN units to pay taxes. Seriously, the only thing that keeps me from feeling really comfortable in working for myself is that damn check I have to write once a quarter.

    I need to write an app to do event registration for CoasterBuzz Club. To date I've posted PDF forms and had attendees send them in with checks or credit card info, and that's a bit labor intensive. It should be easy enough, but the biggest issue is that events essentially have four prices depending on whether or not the attendee is a club member and whether or not they have a season pass to the park where we're having the event.

    I hoped to be really pressing forward on POP Forums right now, but that's not moving along as fast as I hoped. I haven't fully documented the requirements, so I haven't done much else. One of my more experienced coding friends said I should take comfort in knowing that the fact that I'm endeavoring in requirements at all shows I'm a "grown up" developer. I think that's good, right?

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  • Real book pages, good will, and a career crossroads

    Yesterday I got an e-mail message out of the blue from one of the people that did some of the editorial reviewing for my book. It was a very kind message in which he congratulated me on writing the book and said he thought it was going to be a big deal. It was really nice, and unexpected.

    Then today I got my first proofs back of the laid-out book. I can't even begin to explain how weird that feels. A year ago I wasn't sure there was even the slightest chance that I'd ever write a book, but here it is. In another two months or so it'll be a pile of dead trees in my hands that I can show to my friends. That's really, really weird. I hope it doesn't suck.

    This week also marks the first anniversary of the week I started the last day job I had. It was a contract job at Progressive. It was a really big deal for a really big deal company. I ended up leaving that job after five months for a number of reasons. The biggest reason was the book. It was just too impossible to research, write and go to a job that was an hour each way. The other reason was that I was stuck in an area that really wasn't right for me. They have a really outstanding IT organization, and they have absolutely brilliant people there. The problem was that, working through a contract agency, I couldn't just get to the right position the way I could as an employee (the HR folks there don't like to lose anyone, they will get you to a place where you're satisfied with your job).

    So I've been "self employed" since last spring, and it has allowed me to really enjoy life in ways that I didn't think were possible. Generally speaking, I've been more relaxed, notice more of the subtle things in the world (like bug noises outside, for example), and I'm getting better, more focused results than ever out of my volleyball coaching. I'm writing better code too!

    The only real sticking point is that I'm not making quite enough money. I'm spending more than I'm making. When I finally see some royalties from my book (assuming it sells well), then things will be a little easier, but until then I need to find something else to generate a little revenue. My ad serving software is almost done, so a few licenses a month would help there. One of my frequent clients is trying to throw a little work my way. I've got an ad sales campaign underway for one of my sites, and I've got a few sold campaigns in the pipe (that won't see money for a bit). Surprisingly enough, short-term and part-time contractor jobs aren't as easy to come by as I thought. Everyone wants you in on a year or more, and I can't commit to that if I sell my next book.

    So this is it. This is the year, or half-year, where I figure out whether or not I can make it on my own. Will I continue to do things my way, or have to go back to The Man? Stay tuned...

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  • Sumi Das on CNN

    You may recall that Erica Hill made her way from TechTV to CNN Headline News as an anchor. Well, the absolutely lovely and very smart Sumi Das, once the host of Fresh Gear on TechTV, has made it to CNN as a reporter. I saw her today reporting from the presidential inauguration grounds.

    I hate to talk about her as a pretty face, but I totally had a crush on her when I first got TechTV at home. I loved when she had the little bob, but she's still quite striking with long hair.

    Thank God another former TechTV personality has moved on to much better things.

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  • Old code can be scary

    In replacing the payment gateway I was using, one of the things I did was replace an ASP.old script. Ugh... how did we get anything done in those days? Looking back now, I can see why someone with an object-oriented background would want to use COM objects as much as possible. Sure, installing them was a pain, but not any worse than dealing with that awful script.

    Slightly more pleasant, but not entirely unscary, I decided this week to actually finish the ad serving software I half-wrote back in 2002. Basically the scenario was that I needed to write something quick to serve a campaign I sold at the time. I wrote the serving part, but didn't write a single line of UI code, so I had to do everything by manually plugging stuff into the database.

    The code wasn't horrible, but there was a lot of room for improvement and a better approach. I was able to refactor it pretty quickly into something I was comfortable with, and some initial testing shows it'll perform a little better.

    I have a new found appreciation for reporting the statistics though. Millions of impressions create a lot of data. Data warehousing is not something I have a lot of experience with, but creating aggregate data on a regular interval seems pretty straight forward. The biggest decision is figuring out how much detail is really necessary. I'm guessing hourly stats are fine.

    I know I've mentioned this before, but I wonder if revisiting old code ever becomes less scary.

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  • PayQuake and Authorize.net versus my prior processor

    After nearly five years, I finally dropped GoEmerchant.com and Nova as my credit card gateway and merchant account bank. For reasons I couldn't understand, the gateway went unchanged for the entire time I was a customer, never improved. I think it was physically even the same server. I signed up a client through them and it was a totally different interface. Never got the referral credit for it either. They were too expensive for the volume I do, and they were incapable of actually responding to support e-mail.

    So I dropped them like a bad habit and signed up with PayQuake, which does its own merchant account and uses Authorize.net for a gateway. The transaction-related costs are a little higher, but without monthly fees and "statement fees" and other such nonsense, they cost about half of what I was being charged before.

    Authorize.net has a nice admin interface and good tools. I like that you can require certain AVS conditions in order to accept the transaction. I haven't had a lot of chargebacks (two or three when I used to sell POP Forums), but being able to require a total match for street and zip is nice. Of the chargebacks I had, none of them made that match.

    I haven't had to call PayQuake for support, but they seem to have a pretty good reputation in various Webmaster forums. Hopefully I can keep using them without a swtich for many years to come.

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  • MVP drama

    The post has since been removed, but I know a bunch of people linked to someone's blog where the owner indicated he was "pissed" about not being an MVP.

    What's the big deal? Seriously... I'm asking. I don't entirely understand what the benefit of said recognition is other than to say that you have it. For me at least, knowing that I can help out a client (and get paid for it) or that someone will buy my book is good enough for me in terms of professional accomplishment.

    People aren't defined by the external recognition they receive.

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  • Using WebRequest... what the heck is wrong?

    I'm changing credit card gateways, using Authorize.net. I whipped up a class that I can use on all my sites, the key method being this one:

    public void Submit()
    {
        string postElements = "?x_login=" + _login
            + etc...;
        WebRequest request =
     WebRequest.Create("https://secure.authorize.net/gateway/transact.dll"
     + postElements);
        request.Method = "POST";
        request.Timeout = 60000;
        WebResponse response = request.GetResponse();
        StreamReader sr = new StreamReader(response.GetResponseStream());
        string result = sr.ReadToEnd();
        sr.Close();
        response.Close();
        _rawResult = result;
        string[] results = result.Split(new char[] {'|'});
        if (results[0] == "1") _approved = true;
        _errorText = results[3];
        _avs = results[5];
        _transactionID = results[6];
    }


    This works great from a unit test that calls it something like this:
    Transaction t = new Transaction();
    t.Address = "3412 Beaumont Dr.";
    etc...
    t.Submit();


    But when I try to use the exact same code in my Web app, it ALWAYS times out on the request.GetResponse() call. What gives? How is that possible? It times out both on my own box (the one that runs the unit test fine) and on my production server.

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  • LiveJournal acquisition and blogging as a business

    I can't take credit for seeing this first, but someone else posted a link to this blog that says Six Apart is buying Live Journal. The question becomes, what the hell for?

    Between Google buying Blogger and the start of MSN Spaces, I keep scratching my head wondering how it is anyone expects to make a buck with a blog site. Sure, I have CampusFish, and it's not free, but I built that largely for myself and as a coding experiment (it's based entirely on POP Forums). I basically made enough this year from that to cover the SSL and domain name registration.

    So what is the business plan for blogs? I keep seeing little hints of companies getting back into the "we have eyeballs" frame of mind. I learned circa 2001 that I could care less how many "eyeballs" I have. I would sooner have a thousand paid customers than a million people who visit a site and pay nothing.

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  • Half-Life 2 demo and Steam: Crap

    Since the only thing that really showed off my 6800GT video card was Doom 3, I thought I'd give the Half-Life 2 demo a shot. After all, GameSpot says it's super pretty.

    It starts by installing this stupid Steam crap. Why do developers think that everyone should be OK with loading crap upon crap every time you start Windows? Why the hell does anyone need a program to run at startup to play a freaking game? Sorry, but if it's not anti-virus software, it doesn't need to run.

    Then I get to the game, and as soon as it starts with me on the train, it starts to choke and the audio gets choppy until it eventually freezes. This is after one of the most ridiculous load times I've ever seen. Made Doom 3 loads look like a cartridge-based console game. Since the Steam crap was running, I could tab-out, and kill the process, which took a few minutes.

    Thanks, but no thanks. I'm not going to drop $50 on a game that you require me to register for, load a startup program and then crash. Nice going, Valve!

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  • Inside view from G4-TechTV

    I've made a lot of posts regarding my disdain for the merger between G4 and TechTV. I swear it was the most ass-backwards thing to happen in television. TechTV had finally been making great strides in the ratings for shows like Call For Help and The Screen Savers, and regular viewers really enjoyed seeing the people on the show.

    Two former on-air personalities have shared their experiences online. The first is Dan "Foo" Huard, who started as an intern for The Screen Savers back in the days that Megan Morrone, Leo Laporte and Patrick Norton. He worked his way up to producing even through the move to LA, before they let him go. He gives his account of his entire time before and after the merge.

     I didn't know this, but Wil Wheaton (yeah, the Star Trek kid) was apparently hosting G4's "Arena" show. Things went to shit with him too and he left on his own terms.

    Both of these stories have a common theme: Executives and producers that had no idea what the hell they were after. The Comcast morons see the video game industry as this giant multi-billion dollar industry and they want a piece. TechTV, while apparnetly never making mad profit, saw a bigger market in technology in general, both in terms of helping and educating viewers and keeping them informed of what was going on in the world. If you ask me, that was the right direction considering you had people like BMW and IBM on your advertiser list.

    But no, gaming entertainment seemed like a better idea for the Comcast folks, and they somehow think that expanding the subscriber base ten-fold would magically cause the cash to roll in. Instead, they've managed to alienate the huge audience that TechTV cultured, and killed any credibility they had with the G4 gamer audience. Both audiences are smart enough that they can smell bullshit like a fart in a car, and boy does it stink in there.

    I guess the worst part, as someone that used to work in various broadcast jobs, is that the people that really make the "magic" are the ones that suffer the most at the hand of executives and a company that has no clear leadership or vision. TechTV had a lot of brilliant people on and off camera, and it came through in their programming. People like Leo Laporte, who had a wide appeal but was apparently not hip enough for G4, will always have work, but the young people like Foo, Yoshi, Sarah Lane, Kevin Rose and others may not be able to bounce back in a broadcast job if things go down the tubes. This is not to say that life would be over (look at Megan Morrone, who has a beautiful daughter and is now carrying twins!), but you hate to see talented people get underservingly screwed.

    In business, it's rare that good people leave a bad situation to form a new company and do great things, and it's especially hard to do when starting a TV network, but wouldn't it be amazing if just such a thing could happen?

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