Monday, November 23, 2009
Chocolate chocolate cookies
The festive season will soon be upon us. With this in mind, I'd like to share my recipe for chocolate cookies with chocolate.
A note: as it's a recipe I made up myself (to support a friend who was getting married in one week's time and had to work nights up until the big day, if I recall correctly), the quantities are approximate. The main point is this: you want a fairly stiff dough, otherwise they start to melt a bit in the oven. If you find them spreading into little lacy bits at the side, you need more flour.
Chocolate Cookies With Chocolate
-1 and a half cups butter
-1 and a half cups sugar (fine if you want a smooth texture, Demerara for a bit more crunch)
-200g good quality dark chocolate
-2 and a half cups plain flour
-Minstrels. Lots of Minstrels. Like, two large bags.
(For those of you who don't live in the UK, Minstrels are large chocolate buttons with a brown candy shell, like M&Ms but much bigger. You'll need to seek out your own equivalents, though I'd counsel against Smarties because they're produced by Nestle who are nasty people. Something big is best.)
Cream together the butter and sugar. Gently melt the chocolate and add, mixing in. When the mixture has cooled a little bit, add the Minstrels.
Gently fold in the flour; the less you stir, the less tough the cookies will be. You want a good stiff dough.
Wet your hands to prevent the dough sticking, then start making the cookies. Scoop out a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball, roll it into a sphere and then flatten it into a little patty. Lay on a baking tray lined with baking parchment (if you have to use greaseproof paper, prepare it first: brush with oil then shake sugar over it). The cookies spread a bit in the over, so leave some space between them.
The cookies are done when they've spread out to cookie size; some of them will have little cracks in them. Take them out and let them cool on the tray for a bit before trying to move them, or they'll fall apart.
This recipe makes really quite a lot of cookies.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Watching the same movie
The other day, I had a most intriguing experience.
My husband and I were hanging around the house discussing our musical tastes. He's a fan of movie music, a genre I've never been that keen on, but he was playing me some of his favourite clips and talking about how and why he liked them, and, as John Williams was on the program and Williams pastiches themes from a lot of classical composers, we had some fun for a while playing spot-the-influence. Well, I won a point for spotting Stravinsky, which made me feel very good about myself (and never mind it was a piece of Stravinsky I knew from Fantasia), and in my little flush of triumph I found my brain attuning itself more than usual to the themes and movements of music - probably in the hopes of spotting something else and getting another little ego-boost.
In this cheerful mood, my husband decided to show me one of his favourite sequences in a movie: the airport chase sequence in Casino Royale. Now, this is a movie that we both like, and I had assumed it was for similar reasons: the acting is good, the characterisation is decent, the timing is precise and expert. But, taking down the DVD, my husband explained that he really liked how the music sucks you in and builds over the course of the scene, and how everything cuts around it.
To me, this was something of a new thought: when I watch a movie, I barely notice the soundtrack unless someone's singing. I pick it up subliminally, but there have been plenty of occasions where my husband has said something along the lines of, 'See, there's that leitmotif again?' and I've responded, 'Huh? There was music?' But the conversation had done something to my consciousness, rearranging it along more musical lines, and I was interested in trying to see what my husband had been talking about all these years, so I settled down to watch the scene, saying to my brain: 'Okay. For the next quarter hour, you're Gareth.'
And you know what? It was a completely different movie. I was watching a movie I'd never seen before.
The music flexed and swelled and drove down its own path; the faces of the actors blurred into a general swirl of movement that accompanied the music like a conductor's baton. Things I'd never noticed took centre stage; things that had previously been the focus of my attention disappeared to make room for them. After ten minutes, I turned to my husband and said in astonishment, 'You watch movies like you're at a concert, don't you?'
And suddenly a lot of our differences in taste, which we'd been rubbing along with amiably for years, made perfect, absolute sense.
There are movies he loves that bore me - but they have good scores. There are movies I love that he can't be having with - they're all talk. We've sat through each others' favourites many a time, but I suddenly realised something: we weren't watching the same films at all.
For me, language is crucial. I watch for dialogue, and for the performances that make the dialogue real and imply further dialogue taking place in the characters' heads. I've been known to rewind so I can hear that sentence again and remember precisely how it balanced, to watch this scene against that one in random order so I can check the consonances of statement and speech between the two. Rhythm and harmony and echo and flow: these parts of my brain are filled up with words, and it leaves very little room for the music. Sometimes my husband's tried to show me a particular piece of music and the conversation has gone thus:
G: Okay, it's coming up now...
K: ... Sorry, I missed it. I was listening to the dialogue. Can we try again?
G: Sure. Here we go.
K: ... Sorry, I got distracted by the dialogue again. Another go?
G: Really? Okay... Get it that time?
K: Um - almost. One more time?
When there's speech, I almost literally can't hear music. Almost all the music on my iPod is songs of one kind or another: instrumental music is something I can very seldom sit still for as anything more than background. I need lyrics to anchor my attention in place. Once there are lyrics the accompaniment and harmonies snap into focus, but without them, my brain starts looking around for the words and stops paying attention to the notes.
It turns out that not everybody is like this. My husband's iPod is full of movie and classical music; with the exception of Melody Gardot - just about the only artist we love equally - almost the only music with lyrics he owns is hip-hop, a form where words have taken over to the point where music voluntarily takes a back seat.
So when we watch a form that combines words and music, my verbal brain and his musical one screen for totally different experiences. It's rather astonishing to discover we've been living in different worlds all along, but it explains an awful lot. I'd known in theory that different brains prioritise different things, of course, but this was the first time I'd come close to experiencing what it was like to have a different brain.
And it turns out everyone's like that. Just this weekend I was staying with friends, and one of them - my oldest friend, who I've known for over twenty years - mentioned the movie Stranger Than Fiction. I hadn't seen it, so she described her favourite scene, in which the hero enters a bathroom and we see things from his perspective. Being an orderly-minded man, he sees things in terms of grids: neat, straight lines along the tiles, little percentages indicating how full each of the soap dispensers was, a flashing light over the one broken tile. This, she said, rearranging her chopsticks to make them pleasingly parallel on the plate, was exactly how she saw the world: in terms of lines.
This, again, was a startling thought. This friend has long been dear to me and I'd say I know her pretty well by now, but I wouldn't have believed she saw the world that way; I wouldn't have believed anyone saw the world that way. It struck me forcibly that we have distinctive ways of looking at things. How did I see the world, I wondered? Two things came to the forefront: straight or crooked lines don't bother me, but aesthetically unpleasing proportions do - for instance, when we moved into our new house, I called in a builder the next morning to get rid of the built-in wardrobe in the bedroom because it completely ruined the proportions of an otherwise charming Edwardian space.
More than that, what I see can be best expressed by the phrase Could you grow a plant here? I clock natural light and start to stress out if I'm away from it for too long. I clock the colour green, I remarked, looking at the dinner table and noticing that I'd chosen the green glass rather than one of the blue ones - in fact, now I thought about it I'd actually picked a glass slightly further away from me because of its colour. In streets with no plants in sight, I start to stress out again; it was the main reason I felt I had to move out of Stratford at no small upheaval and expense. Almost every room in my house has plants in it; my front window is dominated by an enormous weeping fig two feet taller than me, and while it's not the most efficient use of space I'd be unhappy without it. My friend sees the world filtered through a grid; I seem to live in a perpetual forest that either is or isn't up to snuff. (You can see evidence of this in Bareback/Benighted: the designers for the US edition decorated the opening pages with tree silhouettes, and going through the proofs I had to agree they'd picked up on something. Trees loom from every corner of the book once you start looking.)
What do you see the world through? What movies are you watching?
Monday, November 16, 2009
The Mikalogues encounter mouse-kind again
Mouse: ...THROBBING AGONY THAT SUFFERS STILL AND NOS NOT WHY...
Kit: Oh bugger. Mika, is that you with a mouse again?
Mika: Look what Mika caught in garden!
Kit: Mika, I wish you'd stop bringing those poor little things in.
Mika: Mika the mighty!
Kit: Sigh. Okay, guess I'd better rescue the little polluter.
Mouse: ...she was mute fm transport, I from agony...
Mika: Ha ha, got you again!
Kit: Okay Mika, drop. Drop!
Mika: Fno. Gerroff, interferer in righteous conquest!
Kit: Drop it!
Mika: You drags Mika! Shame upon!
Mouse: ...anguish has no eye fr grace...
Kit: Okay, I need to put a glass down on you ... Man, I wish Gareth was here to do it ...
Mouse: ... now we see fru a glas darkly ...
Kit: Gotcha! Okay, Mika, I'm shutting you out of the kitchen while I deal with this.
Mika: No! No! Give baaaaack! Haaaates you!
Kit: Right, let's just slide this paper under the glass and see if I can pick you up. Hm. Are you in there?
Mouse: ...such eagerness of speed!
Kit: Bugger. Come back!
Mouse: ...perl-doored sanctuary...
Kit: Oh, not under the fridge! Mouse, come out, I'm trying to help you.
Mouse: ...com silence, thou sweet reesoner...
Kit: Mouse, I'm afraid you leave no option. I'm going to have to get Mika back in to chase you out and just hope she doesn't hurt you before I can get to you. Mika, in you come.
Mika: Meet your doom, mousie! Mousie? Mousieeee....?
Kit: Mika, the mouse isn't under the mat. It's gone under the fridge. See, under here, where I'm pointing?
Mika: Chase the pointer!
Kit: No, Mika, you're supposed to be looking for the mouse.
Mika: Fear the claws of doom, pointer!
Kit: Good grief. Okay, I'm just going to have to hope the mouse found a way to squeeze out through the wall. I despair. But I blame you for this, Mika. The idea is to reduce the number of mice in the house, not increase it.
Mika: Feed Mika.
Kit: Do you really think you deserve dinner?
Mika: Mika wants dinner. Wants dinner. WANTS dinner!
Kit: Justice compels me to admit it's dinner time. But this is one of those occasions where I'm holding to the idea that principle isn't principle unless you stick to when you don't feel like it, you little pest.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Well happy birthday puss! It is Mika's second birthday.
Rather than write a Mikalogue, I thought I'd write instead about the Mikalogues. They're an interesting writing exercise, because they are, in miniature, an experiment in character and voice.
The Mikalogues began as a one-off. I'd already put up a couple of posts to the effect that I was getting a cat, saying not very much about her except that she was new, plus a slightly joky post about her walking on my keyboard which was mostly an excuse to use a photograph I liked to talk about a writing issue, but in which I pretended she was trying to write my novel for me. Such posts were mostly filler, a blog being the literary equivalent of a baby bird's beak, plus an excuse to show off my cute little kitten.
The first Mikalogue, then, was along these lines. It was a newsy post written largely to fill in when I didn't have anything very deep to say about life or literature, in which I complained that the new cat, which we had acquired partly in the hopes she would catch mice, had not in fact caught any - yet was a lively chaser of anything that wasn't a mouse. This being a fairly interesting thing to observe but a dull thing to describe, I decided to liven it up by putting it in dialogue form. Mika at that time was a zany kitten, bounding with energy and highly distractible, so I wrote her voice to sound child-like. I had her refer to herself by name because I'd heard toddlers do the same thing, and gave her a simplified grammar partly to suggest her youth and partly because, well, she was an animal. The Mikalogue personality wasn't particularly worked out. You can see it in embryo form - the grandiosity is not so strong, but the self-absorption and basic friendliness are there; I was trying to express the ridiculousness of a human being expecting an animal to take their concerns at all seriously when the animal has interests of its own.
I didn't plan to follow it up; it was just a comedy rendering of a piece of news. But then Mika actually did catch a couple of mice, and I started feeling a bit guilty that I had represented my pet for the world to see as a hopeless mouser. Since the first post had been amusing to write, I decided to write my update in the same style. Again, it wasn't planned as more than a one-off.
You can see in these first two posts that Mika's voice still wasn't quite settled yet. In the first, she uses the word 'wuv', a rather cutesy contraction that I wouldn't use nowadays since I've established her as grandiose. In the second, crucially, she uses the word 'I', a word I have since excised from her lexicon. In trying to convey a cat's point of view, I came to the conclusion that an animal would have far less self-awareness than a human, and that using the first person would imply too much perspective, too much separation between herself and the world. The modern Mika uses neither 'I' nor 'she' when referring to herself; I find both too human-sounding. She either refers to herself by name or there's simply a blank where a pronoun would otherwise be; as her sentences are somewhat telegraphic anyway - despatches from the Mika-front or headlines on Mika Today - the missing pronouns don't cause a problem. Having her refer to herself constantly by name suggests that she sees herself as a category rather than one individual among many, which seemed to fit with the degree of socialisation a cat displays.
So, I'd written two posts without many plans to write more. Mika's grandiosity was starting to emerge in the second - her habit of referring to herself as 'Mika the mighty' was initially written as a passing mood, the satisfaction of a cat with a mouse in her claws, combined with a desire to apologise to her for what I said about the mice. But the idea of this vainglorious little consciousness rather entertained me. The actual Mika isn't especially vainglorious; she's a creature of impulse like all cats and capable of getting excited, but the giddy self-aggrandisement of her fictional alter ego is mostly projection, an expression of the adoration my husband and I lavish upon her.
Animal consciousness, though, is a subject I found interesting - I researched it a fair bit for In Great Waters - and it seemed to me that a consciousness wired to action rather than reflection was a consciousness with a lot of potential for drama. The idea of carrying on writing Mika tempted me. Especially as character creation is one of the big challenges of writing, but the joky opening posts already seemed to have established the basics of a personality for her.
So I carried on. Being still a kitten and full of antics, Mika was providing plenty of material, even as I was working out her voice. The next post still featured Mika using the first person - 'me' in this case - but I was already drifting away from it, and was only using it as onomatapoeia, as in 'Me out!'
Excited at the game, I ran off a number of posts - including some I never got around to actually posting, largely because I'd committed myself to accompanying each post with a picture and Mika didn't always do whatever it was I was blogging about when I had a camera handy. Some time I'll get around to posting them, probably, but there was enough to go on. The next post featured the first mention of the word 'Mikalogue', and remains one of my favourites: her slightly loopy assumption that rain is a sign the universe is throwing things at her felt like a pleasing expression of a cat's limited ability to form abstract opinions about her place in the scheme of things.
By this time, I was getting confident that people liked them, largely because they were kind enough to say so on the comments. I'd begun wondering whether it would test people's patience, like making them look at three hundred pictures of my baby, but I smoothed it over with comedy and popularity seemed to be coming Mika's way.
(For everyone's convenience, here is the archive before I say more:
The Mikalogues continue - the first to actually be called a Mikalogue, featuring rain
Mikalogue: a new business idea - the first point at which I started anthropomorphising Mika past the daily round of animal activities
An epic Mikalogue - of which more later
Mikalogue: the fighties (the first point at which she refers to herself as Ghenghis Cat, a term I've used since)
The biggest variation, of course, is when I bring in another character. Once, in Mikalogue at home, it was a guest - which is to say a human being - but the other occasions, which remain among my favourites, have involved animals.
All are based on actual events. Two feature a neighbour's cat who, because he has similar markings to Mika but is much sturdier in build, my husband dubbed 'The Tub', an uncharitable name that stuck. (These are they.) Writing another cat was an interesting challenge. I didn't want him to simply be another Mika because that would be dull; however, I didn't want his voice to sound human. The Tub in real life is a somewhat aggressive, alpha-male-ish cat who occasionally hassles Mika but seems less of an issue since she's grown to nearly his size, but as I only encountered him when he picked on my pet, it was difficult to get much of a sense of him. Mika's zooming distractibility is based on reality, but the reality was I didn't like this cat because he bullied my darling, but that it hardly seemed mature to take such resentments out on an innocent cat, never mind a fictional one. He needed a perspective of his own.
Looking at what I knew of him, I knew that he broke into our house to steal food. What kind of person would do that and still consider themselves virtuous - which most people do? I thought about old action movies, Thief-of-Baghdad type stuff, and decided that The Tub would consider himself a kind of swaggering, charming rogue - but a rogue still perfectly capable of getting frightened when approached by a strange human, because he remained, after all, a cat. Everyone is the hero of their own story, so I decided to exaggerate that in the case of The Tub. As Mika refers to herself in the third person, I thought The Tub should too - but I didn't know his name and anyway he wouldn't call himself The Tub. Hence was born a fictional cat who refers to himself as 'our hero' - 'You not gonna hurt our hero?' is still one of my favourite lines, mixing diction as it does - but who also uses complete sentences, as Mika's shorthand was ill-suited to his more mock-heroic style. The Tub will say 'he' where Mika won't say 'she', but like Mika, the word 'I' is too abstract for his vocabulary.
The latest character to enter Mika's fictional life is the wee mouse she dragged in alive, always a grim spectacle. Cats are established in the Mikalogues as grandiose one way or another, but how to write a mouse? The poor little beastie was so utterly dwarfed by every other player in the scene that it seemed wrong to use the same kind of visuals for it; I tried putting its words in a smaller font but Blogger refused to oblige, but I was able to keep the other elements: the absence of capital letters and the sentences that neither begin nor end but drift itallically in and out of the little brain's cloudy consciousness. It seemed to me that, given a brain so small a human could dry-swallow it, mice cannot live in a world of coherent thought; the experience of a mouse must be instead a series of impressions. For this reason, I decided that poetry would be the best way to convey a mouse. I'd already established quotations - in Proofing Mikalogue, Mika quoted 'Burning is no argument', which I'd thought was Rousseau but the Internet suggests is John Reuchlin, so it was already an option. But more than that, poetry is as close as people come to impressionistic writing, and the fact that the mouse thinks in quotations creates a kind of disconnect between its experience, bounded by quotations, and ours, referring more directly to what's happening.
It also seemed appropriate in the light of Mika's established solipsism. The limits of Mika's consciousness made it feel wrong to have her use the self-aware 'I', but in the even more limited scope of the mouse, any identification of self or other felt wrong. Hence, again, the references back to poetry. Because it thinks in poems, the mouse in a sense thinks in abstractions - but abstractions which are always a direct expression of its experience. Fitting the quotations to the event, the mouse experiences every moment as if it were a universal principle: when your brain is too small to sustain more than one idea at a time, I thought perhaps everything seemed equally universal. The mis-spellings and mispronounciations were added to make the mouse suitably small and grubby, and it remains, I think, one of my best Mikalogues.
Writing from the perspective of my cat has been an interesting lesson. One of the commonest things people tend to say is, 'Oh, you must need a lot of discipline to be a writer!', and it's one of the most disheartening as well. Some writing flows easier than others, but the writing that's always flowed best has been from the characters I've enjoyed.
Creating the fictional Mika was in some ways easier than creating a character from scratch; I had the antics of a real cat to provide me with plot and my task was close enough to biography that writing her personality is as much embroidery as invention. But the real reason why she flows, I think, is that she's simply a joy to write. Her giddy self-glorification, her confused mixture of affection and threats, her unshakeable confidence in her own importance, are all tremendous fun - and writing a fun character is easy. Writing is hard to do well when it's a discipline, but easy to do well when it's a game.
It's always easiest to write a character when I feel I've got a handle on how they'd behave in unlikely situations; it means I've got the feel for them, and Mika's one of those. But as well, my husband recently pointed out to me that she's actually not untypical of my writing as a whole, surprising though this may be.
My novels tend towards the melancholic; often my characters inhabit traps of one kind or another, and they tend to struggle with their own identities in a dangerous world. Sunny, impulsive little Mika isn't one of those. But what all my writing seems to be interested in is alternative states of mind. Lola lives in a world where other people go into an unknowable state every month, and her own state of mind is so bent under circumstances that she edges into unreliable narrator territory; from the distance of a few years, I'd say you could argue that she's a character struggling with undiagnosed depression, though this wasn't a conscious character note. Henry, another of my favourites, inhabits a semi-animal consciousness; Anne struggles to balance a sense of kinship with such animality against her intense spiritual longing. The third book, which I'm still locked in a death-match with, starts to look more interesting the more I introduce alternative states. I like writing about characters who see things off-kilter. Mika, gloriously solipsistic and imperviously bossy, is another such; she's just a comic rendering rather than a serious one.
So, writing the Mikalogues - which I fully intend to keep doing, don't panic - has turned out to be a surprisingly interesting set of lessons. They've taught me that writing the fun stuff can produce work that people like, that off-kilter perspectives interest me in any form, that considering animal consciousness is fascinating even if the results look improvised, and that MIKA IS BEST AND KIT SHOULD NOT PRESUME TO ANALYSE. GIVE KIBBLE AT ONCE OR BITES.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
If you live in Maine, my condolences
Because once again, a state has voted against allowing same-sex marriages.
This is sad and discouraging and frustrating as all get-out.
On the same subject, a while ago I wrote to my MP asking her to support changing civil unions to same-sex marriage. Courteously enough, she replied to me, passing on a letter from the office of Jack Straw. For everyone's interest, here is what it said (typoes and punctuation reproduced verbatim, because I'm not feeling charitable):
Civil Partnership was especially designed to meet the needs of same sex
Well. Despite the defensive pride of authorship that rings through the letter - 'We thought about this before we did it, so it's impossible that there might be anything wrong with it' - if the put as much thought into the Civil Partnership Act as they did into this letter, that might explain a lot.
This was my reply:
Thank you very much for your letter of October 12 which I have just
My MP offered to pass this on to Jack Straw, an offer I've accepted; I wait with limited hope to see what will happen next.
Two things really bleak me out about the letter I received. The first is the apparent pride the Government feels in ending abominations like the denial of survivor pension rights, a pride more or less analagous to to Volkswagen being proud their engines don't detonate after five miles.
The second is the apparent blindness to what marriage means. When my husband proposed to me, he didn't ask me to 'Enter into a range of rights and responsibilities of a legal contract, my darling.' He asked me to marry him. And I didn't say yes because I wanted rights and responsibilities. I wasn't particularly interested in his pension scheme or in the ability to register his death; when you're of marrying age, those things are, you hope, a long way off. I wasn't anticipating visiting him in hospital being a regular part of our relationship, and if I considered gym discounts worth the expense of a wedding I would have needed some serious lessons in remedial economy.
I got married for one very simple reason. I got married so I could call myself married. Not for tax breaks, not for access to records, not for legal rights and responsibilities. I got married so I could be that man's wife and so he could be my husband. I got married for a word. We went through the ceremony and said the words, and as the guests filed out we turned and said to each other, 'We're married!' No question over the word, no need to say, 'Well, we're married in the eyes of sensible people at least.' We could just delight in the word. Six months later, it's a word that still gives me a warm, happy glow every time I say it. If the Government had declared that, say, marriage was only for the religious and all secular people were allowed was civil partnerships, saying 'We're civilly partnered' would not feel nearly as nice.
And on the working assumption that I'm a fairly normal person and that most gay people are likewise fairly normal people, I find it hard to believe that it would be different for anybody just because they happen to be attracted to their own sex.
This, I think, is the main reason people oppose same-sex marriage: the word has tremendous symbolic meaning. That's why we all want it, and why some people think it'll be contaminated if those dirty gay people with their not-really-real relationships get their lavender hands on it. But wanting to deny it to other people so you can keep them all to yourself is unbelievably mean-spirited, and it saddens me terribly that so many people still think this way.
So, if you live in England, this is Jack Straw's current position, and I'd encourage everyone who can to send him an e-mail telling him why this is no good. We have a limited window here: distressingly, the Tories are probably going to win the next election, and the chances of them extending marriage to same-sex couples are even worse than Labour's. Let's keep reminding Jack Straw that he's supposed to represent the people, and that includes the people who happen to be gay.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Ooh, ooh, look! There's been a new Peter Morgan script filmed! It's called The Special Relationship and it's about Tony Blair and Bill Clinton!
Peter Morgan, for those unfamiliar with the work of the man I'd consider the best scriptwriter in England, specialises in biopics, looking at big personalities during turning-points of history. The Last King of Scotland, which deservedly won many awards, is a portrait of Idi Amin; Frost/Nixon follows David Frost's extraordinary achievement in getting Richard Nixon to confess on television; The Damned United follows legendary football manager Brian Clough's short and disastrous stint at Leeds United; Longford is about the idealistic Lord Longford's controversial attempts to get murderer Myra Hindley paroled. He's also the author of the 'Blair trilogy', beginning with The Deal, about how leadership of Labour went to Blair instead of Brown, then The Queen, a sympathetic look at Elizabeth II in the week following Diana's death and Blair's attempts to get her to address the public. The Special Relationship is going to be the third in this.
I can't wait.
I like biopics, or at least I like good ones, and Peter Morgan's scripts vary from excellent to superb. He fictionalises to varying degrees, but he has an amazing ability to capture the feel of a whole moment in history as well as a distinct and fascinating psyche. If you haven't seen his work, you really owe it to yourself to check it out.
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