Attack of The Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale

Game Review_Costantino

Not a 50 hour-long blockbuster, not a 30 second casual game: Attack of The Friday Monsters is an experiment with a new, middle-sized format. The game presents a day in the life of an 8 year old kid. The oneiric, nostalgic storyline is a masterfully paced intense adventure that feels just right.

Downloadable from the Nintendo 3DS eShop, the game is set in a ‘70s Japanese town, where our hero Sohta and his family just moved in. Told from the kid’s perspective, the events are open to interpretation: apparently, Godzilla-like monsters attack every Friday. On the same day, a TV show also packed with monsters is produced and aired in town. What is the secret behind these attacks? And is there a connection between fact and fiction?

Don’t expect to engage in massive monster fights in Attack of The Friday Monsters. The game focuses on talking with villagers, meeting new friends, and strolling in a beautiful countryside town. It really makes you feel like a kid again encouraging a relaxed kind of roleplay.

At €7.99, Attack of The Friday Monsters proves that digital downloads can be a great way to introduce audiences to new formats and concepts. It introduces a poetical take on games.

Will robots take over the world?

Unlikely, for the next 100 years. Academics and sci-fi writers take three rough approaches. We will become one with the bots by integrating computers into our body achieving the next stage of evolution. Or, robots will become so powerful so quickly that we’ll become their slaves, helpless to stop them — think the Matrix. Or, robots have certain technological hurdles that will take ages to overcome.

Let’s analyse those hurdles. Computing power: no problem. Manufacturing expense: no problem. Artificial intelligence: could take decades, but we are already mapping and replicating the human brain through computers. Energy: very difficult to power such energy-hungry devices in a mobile way; battery or portable energy generation has a long way to go. The desire to enslave humanity: would require Asmiov’s trick or a mad computer scientist to programme it into the bot’s code. Conclusion: unlikely, sleep easy tonight.


Book Review

David K. Randall woke up on his back, his leg bent at an awkward angle, in excruciating pain. To figure out why, he wrote a book about the science of sleep. Clever. Clever doubles as a nice summary of the book.

Another book summary: sleep rules your life. Get a good night’s sleep or else everything suffers: your creativity, memory, attitude, ability to think straight, control your emotions, react to emergencies, sex life, and work. Lack of sleep has cost lives; to sleep is to live.

An extreme statement but Randall holds a very good argument. Zlatko Glusica, an Air India pilot, woke up just before landing and tried to bring a plane down safely with a sluggish brain whose higher brain functions were down. In this state we might talk to lamps, Glusica instead killed himself and 157 others. Lack of sleep and truck drivers are another bad idea, while battles have been lost because of sleep. Sleep prevents disasters.

“Randall covers an immense range of research and topics. This is where the book’s problems start. He did a lot of research and wants us to know that.”

The book is well researched. Randall fires factoid after research study at the reader in a pleasant easy to read style. You’ll learn about the dangers of the first sleeping pill that is now a 30 billion dollar industry, how one in five sleepwalk, and how one in four middle aged men have sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea happens when the airway collapses in either obese people or those with a narrowed throat. A minute can pass before the sufferer briefly wakes up and desperately gulps down some oxygen. Most apnea patients are unaware of their condition. It leads to disrupted sleep and less productivity, memory loss, and heart attacks. Sufferers can use a simple device that gently pushes air into the lungs as an instant cure.

The book is filled with great advice like the above. It’s simple, without hocus pocus, and doesn’t need overly expensive equipment. Relax. Don’t try to sleep too hard. Your brain must disassociate itself from the rest of your body. Don’t drink alcohol or coffee. Expose yourself to light, but not late at night, at night dim lights, avoid screens. Don’t sleep too hot or too cold, the body is meant to cool after 10 pm — let it. Exercise. Simple.

Randall covers an immense range of research and topics. This is where the book’s problems start. He did a lot of research and wants us to know that. At other times, he rambles. A stricter editor would have helped the book.

The author only glosses over hardcore scientific studies. He mentions some science behind daily rhythms in Chapter 9. The book only has 13 chapters. He hardly even mentions the genes or molecular biology related to sleep. The scientist inside me died a little death. There are some amazing stories he missed out on by focusing on the lighter human studies.

Don’t take the above too harshly. Dreamland is a great book to learn more about sleep, just avoid late night tablet reading. You have been warned.


Protecting the World’s largest experiment

The particle beams circulating in the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have enough energy to melt 500kg of copper. How can we protect the machine from itself?

My phone rang, waking me up in the middle of the night. It is 2 a.m., and I (Dr Gianluca Valentino) am driving from the sleepy French village where I live at the foot of the snow-capped Jura mountains to the CERN Control Centre. As groggy as I feel, I am trembling with excitement at finally putting months of my work to the test.

The operators on night shift greet me as I come in through the sliding door. These are the men and women who keep the €8 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) running smoothly. The LHC produces 600 million particle collisions per second to allow physicists to examine the fundamentals of the universe. Their most recent discovery is the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle. In 2012, this finding appears to have confirmed the Higgs field theory, which describes how other particles have mass. It helps explain the universe around us.

The empty bottles of champagne on the shelves of the CERN Control Centre are a testimony to the work of thousands of physicists, engineers, and computer scientists. The LHC has now busted record after record rising to stratospheric fame.

The LHC is an engineering marvel. A huge circular tunnel 100 m underground and 27 km in circumference. It straddles the Franco-Swiss border and is testimony to the benefit of 50 years of non-military research at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN is also the birthplace of the World Wide Web.

The LHC works by colliding particles together. In this way physicists can peer into the inner workings of atoms. Two counter-rotating hadron (proton or heavy-ion) beams are accelerated to approach the speed of light using a combination of magnetic and electric fields. A hadron is a particle smaller than atoms, and is made up of several types of quarks, which are fundamental particles (there is nothing smaller than them — for now). The beams circulate at an energy of 7 TeV, which is similar to a French TGV train travelling at 150 km per hour.

For the magnets to work at maximum strength, they need to operate in super-conducting mode. This mode needs the collider to be cooled to -271°C using liquid helium, making it the coldest place in the universe. It is also the hottest place in the universe. Collisions between lead ions have reached temperatures of over 5 trillion °C. Not even supernovae pack this punch.

The two separate beams are brought together and collided at four points where the physics detectors are located. A detector works by gathering all the information generated by the collisions which generate new sub-atomic particles. The detectors track their speed and measure the energy and charge. ‘Gluon fusion’ — when two gluons combine (a type of boson or particle that carries a force) — is the most likely mechanism for Higgs boson production at the LHC.


My role in this huge experiment is to calibrate the LHC’s brakes. Consider a simple analogy. A bike’s brakes need to be positioned at
the right distance from the circulating wheel, and are designed to halt a bike in its tracks from a speed of around 70 km/hr. Too far apart, and when the brakes are applied, the bike won’t stop. Too close together, and the bike won’t even move. In the LHC, the particles travel at nearly 300,000 km/s.

Equipment called collimators act as the LHC’s brakes. The LHC is equipped with 86 of them, 43 per beam. They passively intercept particles travelling at the speed of light, which over time drift from the centre outwards. The machine is unprotected if the collimators are placed too far away from the beam. The beam’s energy, equivalent of 80 kg of TNT, would eventually drill a hole needing months or years to repair. If the collimators are too close to the beam they sweep up too many particles, reducing the beam’s particle population and its lifetime.

Dr Ing. Nicholas Sammut
Dr Ing. Nicholas Sammut

The LHC has four different types of collimators, which clean the particles over multiple stages in the space of a few hundred metres. These collimators also protect the expensive physics detectors from damage if a beam were to hit them directly. If the detectors were hit the LHC would grind to a halt.

What does it take to calibrate these brakes? Each brake or collimator is made up of two metre-long blocks of carbon composite or tungsten, known as ‘jaws’. The jaws should be positioned symmetrically on either side of the beam, and opened to gaps as small as 3 mm to let the beam through. They can be moved in 5 µm increments— that is 20 times less than the width of a typical human hair. The precision is necessary but makes the procedure very tedious.

The beam’s position and size at each collimator are initially unknown. They are determined through a process called beam-based alignment. During alignment, each jaw is moved in steps towards the beam, until it just scrapes the edge. Equipment near the collimator registers the amount of particles they are mopping up. Then, the beam position is calculated as the average of the aligned jaw positions on either side, while the beam size is determined from the jaw gap.

The problem is that there are 86 collimators. Each one needs to be calibrated making the process painfully slow. To calibrate the jaws manually takes several days, totaling 30 hours of beam time. To top it all, the alignment has to be repeated at various stages of the machine cycle, as the beams shrink with increasing energy, and imperfections in the magnetic fields can lead to changes in the beam’s path. This wasted time costs millions and makes the LHC run slower.

Previously, one had to click using a software application for each jaw movement towards the beam. With a step size of 5 µm and a total potential distance of 10 mm, that is 2000 clicks per collimator jaw! Extreme precision is required when moving the collimator jaws. If the jaw moves too much into the beam, the particle loss rate will exceed a certain threshold, and the beam is automatically extracted from the LHC. A few hours are wasted until the operators get the machine back and the alignment procedure is restarted.

Dr Ralph Assman

Over the course of my Ph.D., I automated the alignment, speeding it up by developing several algorithms — computer programs that carry out a specific task. The LHC now runs on a feedback loop that automatically moves the jaws into the correct place without scraping away too much beam. The feedback loop enables many collimators to be moved simultaneously, instead of one at a time. A pattern recognition algorithm determines whether the characteristic signal observed when a jaw touches the beam is present or not. This automates what was previously a manual, visual check performed by the operator.

The sun’s rays begin to filter through the CERN Control Centre, and the Jura mountains are resplendent in their morning glory. The procedure is complete: all collimators are aligned in just under 4 hours, the fastest time ever achieved.

In early 2013, the LHC was shut down for a couple of years for important upgrades. Before then my algorithms helped save hundreds of hours; since the LHC costs €150,000 per hour to run, millions of euros were also saved. This software was part of the puzzle to provide more time for the LHC’s physics programme and is now here to stay.

The morning shift crew comes in. The change of guard is performed to keep the machine running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, while I head home to catch up on lost sleep.

What is a collimator?

How does a particle accelerator work?



Find Out More

Shipping’s Black Cloud

Over summer Dr Edward Duca visited the beautiful Island of Gozo, meeting Prof. Ray Ellul and his team based in Xewkija and the Giordan Lighthouse. Gozo is a tourist hotspot because of its beautiful landscapes, churches, and natural beauty. These same reasons attracted Ellul to obtain baseline readings of air pollutants; human effects should be minimal. Their equipment told them a different story.

They’re very big, anything from 10,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes,’ atmospheric physicist Prof. Ray Ellul is telling me about the 30,000 large ships his team observed passing between Malta and Sicily over a year. This shipping superhighway sees one third of the world’s traffic pass by carrying goods from Asia to Europe and back.

M/T "XANTHIA" - Yard no. 108  by: AKER AUKRA AS - AKER YARDS

The problem could be massive. ‘A typical 50,000 tonner will have an engine equivalent to 85 MW,’ Malta’s two electricity plants churn out nearly 600 MW. You only need a few of these to rival the Islands’ power stations.

Ellul continues, ‘this is far far worse. We are right in the middle of it and with winds from the northwest we get the benefit of everything.’ Northwest winds blow 70% of the time over Malta and Gozo, which means that around two thirds of the time the pollutants streaming out of these ships are travelling over Malta. Even in Gozo, where traffic is less intense, air quality is being affected.

“Ships currently use heavy fuel oil with 3.5% sulfur; this needs to go down to at least 0.5%. The problem is that it doubles cost”

Malta is dependent on shipping. Malta’s Flag has the largest registered tonnage of ships in Europe; shipping brings in millions for Malta. We cannot afford to divert 30,000 ships to another sea. Yet Malta is part of the EU and our politicians could ‘go to Brussels with the data and say we need to ensure that shipping switches to cleaner fuels when passing through the Mediterranean.’ Politicians would also need to go to the Arab League to strike a deal with North Africa. Ships currently use heavy fuel oil with 3.5% sulfur; this needs to go down to at least 0.5%. The problem is that it doubles the costs. Malta’s battle at home and abroad won’t be easy, but the Baltic Sea has already taken these measures.

German Dreams

The research station in Gozo is a full-fledged Global Atmospheric Watch station with a team of five behind it. Now it can monitor a whole swathe of pollutants but its beginning was much more humble, built on the efforts of Ellul, who was drawn into studying the atmosphere in the 80s when he shifted his career from chemistry to physics.

In the early 90s the late rector, Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott, wanted the University to start building some form of research projects. ‘At that time, we knew absolutely nothing about what was wrong with Maltese air and Mediterranean pollution,’ explained Ellul. Building a fully fledged monitoring station seemed to be the key, so Ellul sent ‘handwritten letters with postage stamps’ to the Max Planck Institute in Mainz. Nobel prize winner Paul J. Crutzen wrote back inviting him to spend a year’s sabbatical in Germany, but their help didn’t stop there. ‘He helped us set-up the first measuring station, [to analyse the pollutants] ozone, then sulphur dioxide, then carbon monoxide. That’s the system we had in 1996 — […] 2 or 3 instruments.’

They lived off German generosity until 2008 when Malta started tapping into EU money. After some ERDF money and an Italy-Malta project on Etna called VAMOS SEGURO (see Etna, THINK issue 06, pg. 40), Ellul now manages a team of five. In homage to his early German supporters he has structured the research team around a Max Planck model — ‘one of the best systems in the World for science’.

Paradise Lost?


Getting data about ships is not easy. ‘It is very sensitive information and there is a lot of secrecy behind it,’ explains Ing. Francelle Azzopardi, a Ph.D. student in Ellul’s team. It is also very expensive. Lloyd’s is the World’s ship registry that tracks all ships, knowing their size, location, engine type, fuel used — basically a researcher’s dream. However, they charge tens of thousands. Ellul took the decision that they gather all the data themselves.

After 2004, all international ships above 300 gross tons need to have a tracking device. Automatically, these ships are traced around the world and anyone can have a peek on (just check the traffic around Malta). Every half hour the team’s administrator Miriam Azzopardi saves the data then integrates it into the Gozitan database. This answers the questions: where was this ship? which ship was it? how big is it? Easy.

“Ship emission expert James Corbett calculates that worldwide around around 60,000 people die every year due to ship emissions”


If only! The problem is that the researchers also need to know fuel type, engine size, pollution reduction measures, and so on. Then they would know which ship is where, how many pollutants are being emitted, and how many are reaching Malta and Gozo. To get over this hurdle, they contacted Transport Malta (more than once) to ask for the information they needed. ‘About 50% of the ships passing there [by us or Suez are] Malta registered,’ explained Ellul. With this information in hand they could put two and two together. They could create a model for ship emissions close to the Islands and use the model to get the bigger picture.

Enter their final problem: how do you model it? Enter the Finns. Ing. Francelle Azzopardi travelled to the Finnish Meterological Institute. They had already modeled the Baltic Sea, now they wanted access to the Maltese data, in return the Maltese team wanted access to their model called STEAM.

STEAM is a very advanced model. It gathers all the ships’ properties like engine power, fuel type, and ship size. This is combined with its operating environment including speed, friction, wave action, and so on. STEAM then spits out where the team should be seeing the highest pollution indicators. Malta was surrounded.

Apart from the model, the team have seen a clear link between ships and pollution. At the Giordan lighthouse they can measure a whole host of pollutants sulphur dioxide, various nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, black and brown carbon levels, ozone, radioactivity levels, heavy metals, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and more. When the wind blows from the Northwest, they regularly show peaks of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons which are all indicative of fossil fuel burning either from ships or Sicilian industry. They also picked up relatively high levels of heavy metals especially Vanadium, a heavy metal pollutant. Such metals are more common in heavy fuel oil used by ships.


Alexander Smyth is the team’s research officer who spends three months in Paris every year analysing filters that capture pollutants from the atmosphere. Two different filter types are placed in the Giordan Lighthouse. One filter for particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers and another filter for particles around 2 to 10 microns. ‘With the 2.5 filter we can see anthropogenic emissions or ship emissions because they tend to be the smaller particles. The filters are exposed for three to four days, and then they need to be stored in the fridge. Afterwards, I take them to Paris and conduct an array of analyses,’ continued Alexander. The most worrying pollutant he saw was Vanadium.

Vanadium is a toxic metal. When inhaled, ‘it can penetrate to the alveoli of the lungs and cause cancer, a worst case scenario,’ outlined Alexander. It can also cause respiratory and developmental problems — none are good news. The only good news is that ‘they are in very small amounts’. Quantity is very important for toxicity, and they are seeing nanograms per cubic metre, a couple of orders of magnitude more are needed to cause serious problems. No huge alarm bells need to be raised, although Vanadium does stick around in bones and these effects still need more studies.

Vanadium seems to be coming from both Malta and shipping traffic. ‘The highest peaks of vanadium are from the south [of Malta, but the largest number of times I detected came] from the northwest, [from ships],’ said Smyth. ‘There is a larger influence from ships compared to local pollution at the Giordan lighthouse.’


Vanadium is not the only pollutant that could be affecting the health of Maltese citizens. Smyth also saw lots of different Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). At low concentrations these compounds can affect immunity leading to more disease, at higher concentrations they can lead to cancer. The local researchers still need to figure out their effect on Malta’s health. Francelle Azzopardi also saw peaks of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. No surprise here as shipping is thought to cause up to a third of the World’s nitrogen oxides and a tenth of the sulfur dioxide pollution.

Inhaling high levels of sulfur dioxide leads to many problems. It is associated with respiratory disease, preterm births, and at very high levels, death. It can affect plants and other animals. Nitrogen oxides also cause respiratory disease, but can also cause headaches, reduce appetite, and worsen heart disease leading to death. These are pollutants that we want to keep as low as possible.

Ship emission expert James Corbett (University of Delaware) calculates that worldwide around 60,000 people die every year due to ship emissions. Most deaths come from the coastlines of Europe, East Asia, and South Asia. Shipping causes around 4% of climate change emissions. This is set to double by 2050. In major ports, shipping can be the main cause of air pollution on land.

Another unexpected pollutant was ozone, normally formed when oxygen reacts with light. Yet the Giordan lighthouse was not the first to start measuring this gas. It all started with the Jesuits, scholarly catholic monks.

Monks at work

A lot of time is needed to see changes in our atmosphere. Researchers need to gather data over years. To speed up the process, Ellul was hunting around Malta and Gozo for ancient meteorological data about the Islands’ past atmosphere.

He was tipped off that there were still some records at a seminary in Gozo. ‘We expected to find just meteorological data and instead we also found ozone data as well. It was a complete surprise and a stroke of very good luck. We were able to find out what happened to ozone levels in the Mediterranean over the last hundred years.’

Jesuit monks meticulously measured ozone levels from 1884 to 1900. They analysed them seeing that the concentration of ozone was a mere 8 to 12 parts per billion by volume, ppbv. Ellul compared these to a 10-year study he conducted from 1997 to 2006. ‘We measure around 50ppb on average throughout the year,’ which is nearly 5 times more over a mere 100 years.

The situation is quite bad for Malta. In the past, the minimum was in summer and the maximum in winter and spring. Now, this has reversed with spring and summer having the highest ozone levels because of the reactions between hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. These come from cars, industry, and ships.

Over the Eastern Mediterranean ozone levels have gradually decreased. Over Malta, in the Central Mediterranean, they remained the same. Ellul thinks this could be because of an anticyclone over the central Mediterranean bringing pollutants from Europe over Malta and Gozo. The levels of ozone in Malta and Gozo are the highest in Europe, and it could be mostly Europe’s fault. Our excessive traffic doesn’t help.

Ozone can be quite a mean pollutant. While stratospheric ozone blocks out harmful UV rays, low-level ozone can directly damage our health or react with other pollutants to create toxic smog. It’s been known to start harming humans at levels greater than 50 ppbv. It inflames airways causing difficulty breathing, coughing and great discomfort. Some research has linked it to heart attacks — a pollutant not to be taken lightly.

Over those 10 years Ellul and his team saw 20 episodes in summer where ozone levels exceeded 90 ppbv. Some were during the night, unlikely to be of local origin but due to transport phenomena in the central Mediterranean and shipping. Ellul does nod towards the possibility of air recirculation from Malta. The atmosphere is a complicated creature.

Plants also suffer from ozone. Above 40 ppbv yield from fields decreases. Gozo is definitely being affected; we could be producing more.

The devil is in the details

Ellul and his team have found a potentially big contributor to the Islands’ pollution. This would be over and above our obvious traffic problem. Yet Ellul admits that ‘there is no particular trend, it’s too short a time span. What it tells us is that what we think is a clean atmosphere is not really a clean atmosphere at all. The levels are significant.’ Azzopardi honestly says ‘I can [only] give you an idea of what is happening’.

The team needs to study the problem for longer. It needs some statistics. Clearly they see a link between ships passing by Malta and peaks in pollution levels, but the Islands need to know if shipping pollution levels beat industry, traffic, or Saharan dust. What is ships’ contribution to Malta’s health problems?

When the team knows the extent of pollution, they can see whether they go above European standards. Ozone already does, and likely to be due to pollution from the European continent. If they can extend it to a whole host of other pollutants that skyrocket above European standards due to ship traffic, then ‘our politicians,’ says Ellul, can go to Brussels to enforce new legislation. That could control Mediterranean shipping traffic to clean up our air. At least it would solve one significant problem that Malta cannot solve on its own.

The main problem is economic. A ship can be made greener by reducing its sulfur fuel content. Low sulfur fuels are double the price of the bunker fuel they currently use. New legislation would need enforcement, which is costly. Ships could also be upgraded, again at a price. Passing these laws is not going to be easy.

Ships have been a pollution black hole for a while. The fuels ships burn contains 3,000 times more sulfur than cars are allowed to burn. Quite unfair. Going back to Corbett’s figures estimating European deaths at 27,000, the current rise in shipping pollution could end up killing hundreds of thousands if not millions before new legislation is enforced. Now that would be truly unfair.


Cosmetic research?

Carnival revellers (male and female) recently plastered their faces with lipstick, mascara, facepaint, nail polish, and dozens of other cosmetic products. Few of these wondered about the extensive research needed to overcome the packaging challenges behind these beauty-enhancing devices.

Challenges are numerous and diverse: how can a make-up cosmetic case minimize the chances of the customer opening a dry and flaked product? How can a lipstick container be designed in an elegant and smooth way that opens silently? What functions can make a cosmetic case more useful, secure, and light in a handbag? How can a cosmetic case’s button be improved to prevent broken nails?

A company like Toly Ltd (based in Malta) needs these questions answered to provide a world-class product. To remain competitive and innovative, research and development need support. Chairman and CEO, Andy Gatesy strove to meet these challenges head on by working with the University of Malta (UoM). Toly has forged a long-term joint research collaboration with UoM, in particular the Department of Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering (DIME). Through this collaboration, many undergraduate students had the possibility of applying their theoretical background to real world problems, which results in win-win-win scenarios, for Toly, the student, and DIME. Lippenstifte

Toly also partnered with DIME and other University Departments in nationally funded research initiatives such as the MCST R&I Automate project. This concerned industrial automation and two ERDF projects — one of them intended to amplify innovation in the manufacturing industry and another one on improving energy efficiency in manufacturing.

Toly’s belief in the research potential of the UoM is reflected in regularly sponsored projects. It recruits UoM graduates to help it remain innovative and competitive. It also allows an Associate Professor to spend time from his sabbatical period to follow product development. “We cannot predict the future but we can create it”, said Mr Gatesy. Experience has shown that joint research with UoM is essential for Toly to develop its future growth towards a global market. 

How to become a cosmetic engineer?


Relationships have changed hand in hand with society. More couples are living far apart from each other. Marc Buhagiar speaks to Mary Ann Borg Cunen to explore how technology can lend a hand. Illustrations by Sonya Hallett.

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Kelma Kelma


With a massive following of 25,000 people, Kelma Kelma is the Facebook page that has taken Malta by storm. From a simple collection of linguistic curiosities borne from one man’s love of the Maltese language, it has developed to become an unconventional but highly effective teaching tool. This is the journey of Kelma Kelma from the man behind the computer screen, Dr Michael Spagnol.

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