Science, Fiction, Life

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Flash Fiction: Challenge #475 – Like a Dog

So, it turns out last weekend there weren’t enough entries in the flash challenge, so it continued to this week That means that one of the triggers was the one I submitted, but I decided to go ahead with the challenge and hope the other trigger worked for me. It wasn’t super-inspiring, but I still managed 1200 words, so not bad! Here’s my entry:


“Malcom! Get out here, man, we are ready to be off!” prince Vincent yelled. Behind him, the courtiers chuckled and joked with one another.

Malcom the kennelmaster took his time. It would do the young prince good to learn some patience, even if it Malcom would pay the price for the delay. He limped down the kennel, looking at each dog with an appraising eye, choosing those who would be best for today’s hunt. His leg hurt. It would be raining later today, then.

Derek, the page boy was as eager to go on the hunt as the dogs were. Malcom sent the boy out with several of the hounds, and followed clutching the leashes of several more.

The prince waited atop his white horse, bedecked in bright satin and a ludicrous hat.

“You ought to get a new kennel master, your grace,” one of the courtiers said to the prince. “This one can barely walk, let alone ride with us on the hunt!”

“Derek will ride for me, m’lord,” Malcom said. “He’s a strong boy and knows his way with the hounds.”

The prince, aware of his audience of lordlings, sneered. “Not much to know though, is there? They are stupid creatures, just point them in the right direction and let them loose! Much like footsoldiers!” Laughter all around.

Malcom bit his tongue. The old wound in his leg throbbed, a souvenir from his fighting days. He spoke to Derek, with a message meant for the prince. “Now Derek, be sure not to release the hounds until the deer is in sight or they will tire themselves out too quickly. And once you do release them, give them their space.”

“Yes sir, as you say,” Derek said.

The prince and his lords wheeled and rode off laughing, followed by Derek and the pack of eager hounds.

* * *

They returned that afternoon, soaking wet in the rain. One of the dogs was missing.

“Your grace, I recall that ten dogs left with you this morning, but I see only nine here now.”

The prince snarled. “Train the beasts better and next time they will all come back!” He rode off in the direction of the castle.

“I’m sorry sir,” Derek said, once the prince was out of earshot. “I tried, but he didn’t listen. He rode too close once the hounds were loosed and when one darted left, he trampled the poor thing. We had to put it down.”

Malcom nodded. “Not your fault, Derek. Get the rest of the dogs in out of this rain. Did they eat?”

“No, sir.”

The hunt had been a failure to boot, then.

“Feed them before you feed yourself.”

* * *

Weeks later, on a crisp clear morning, Malcom found himself face to face with prince Vincent, just outside the kennel. The brash, blustering boy was gone, replaced by a hesitant young man.

“A word please, goodman Malcom.”

“Of course, your grace.”

“As you may have heard, the princess Elizabeth of Artea is come to visit us. She has… expressed a desire to hunt today.”

Malcom knew that this princess was intended as a potential wife for Vincent, and was rumored to be beautiful too. Did the prince realize how lucky he was that his political marriage also happened to be a desirable one?

“Of course your grace, I will make ready.” Malcom almost turned to attend to the dogs, but realized that the prince seemed to have more to say.

“Malcom, may I… confide in you?”

“You may,” Malcom said, cautiously.

The prince seemed greatly relieved. “I worry that the princess does not like me. I mean, we are meant to be married, and she obviously desires the title that would go along with such a match, but I want the match to be more than that.”

Ah. So the boy did realize his luck, and hoped not to spoil it.

“Well, your grace, I am no expert in wooing women, but it seems to me that maybe she is feeling much the same. If you want her to see you as more than a title, then you need to make it clear that you see her as something more as well. Show an interest in her. Not her family, not her kingdom, her. The person.”

The prince seemed to consider that.

“Thank you Malcom,” the prince said.

Malcom saw them off later that morning. He kept Derek at the kennels this time, to give the lovebirds some privacy. They returned that evening, emptyhanded but with cheeks flushed and smiling.

* * *

Winter, and with the snows had come an illness that reached all the way to the royal family. The king was ill, and rumor had it he would not see the spring. Malcom stomped snow from his boots and opened the door to his humble cabin to find the fire inside already lit. In front of it sat the prince, staring into the flames.

“Your grace,” Malcom said, taking a seat next to the young man.

“My father is dying.” Prince Vincent spoke without turning his eyes from the fire. Malcom said nothing, waiting.

“He can’t die!” the prince said after a moment, as if arguing with himself.

“He can, sad to say it,” Malcom said. “He’s a good man, but old.”

“And when he is gone, I am expected to take his place. I can’t do it. I can never be as wise and just as him. How am I supposed to do it? You have given me good counsel before, Malcom, though I did nothing to deserve it. How do I take my father’s place?”

Malcom sighed. Outside the winter wind sighed back.

“You know, when your father took this castle, it was a night like this one. Midwinter. We were cold and hungry. Out of supplies. The attack had to succeed or we were finished. I sat with him in his tent before the attack, and he said almost the same thing to me: ‘What right do I have to take the throne from King Uther? How can I take his place?’

He was only a little older than you are now.”

The prince stared at Malcom, wide-eyed. “You served with my father?”

“Aye, I did. From the very beginning, loyal fool that I am.” Malcom stretched his bad leg out toward the fire. “Earned myself this leg in that night’s attack. Took a spear meant for him.”

“And he punished you by making you the master of kennels?” the prince said, incredulous. “He should have knighted you!”

“Punished?” Malcom chuckled. “No, rewarded. I had nothing, and with a mangled leg I would’ve remained nothing. Your father gave me this position, this cabin. I had no desire for a knighthood, just a comfortable life.

Dogs have that bit right. A good life is not about power and glory. It’s about loyalty to your pack and working hard to earn a good meal and a comfortable place to lay your head.”

The prince was silent for a moment.

“Your father had the same worries that you do, Vincent,” Malcom said. “And he was a fine king, as you will be. Just keep in mind that bit of wisdom from the dogs. It’s not power and glory that make a good life or a good king. Be loyal to your men, make your loyal men comfortable, and you’ll do well.

Choosing Between Hillary and Bernie: My Thoughts on the Election (so far)


It’s election season in the United States, and as always, I am getting sucked in to what has become the best reality television show out there (can you believe the latest plot twist?). Things have gotten especially heated in the last couple of weeks as primary elections have started happening and we are starting to see votes to go along with all the polling and debates. Given everything that is going on, I thought it would be worthwhile to write down some of my thoughts in an effort to clarify them for myself.

We are told every election cycle that “this election may be the most important one of our time” but this year that really is the case for one reason: the Supreme Court. Even assuming that congress continues to be worthless at getting anything done, yesterday’s death of Justice Scalia has reminded everyone of how significant the next president is going to be in terms of nominating Justices. It’s looking quite likely that, come hell or high water, Republicans in Congress will fall on their swords rather than allow Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia to be confirmed before the election. Already they are making statements about how the voters should have a say in who will replace Scalia (apparently forgetting that Supreme Court justices are not supposed to be elected officials, and that their nomination already reflects the will of the people because the people chose the president who is making the nomination). And it’s not just Scalia who may need to be replaced. Anthony Kennedy is almost 80, the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 82, and Stephen Breyer is 77. What I’m saying is that, even if you stop reading right here, you should at least be clear that the next president is likely to have an influence on the Supreme Court that will be felt in the Court’s decisions for decades. For that reason alone, this election is a Big Deal and you should vote and encourage everyone you know to do the same.

That said, let’s talk about the primaries. You will not be surprised to learn that, as someone whose politics were shaped during the Iraq War, the beginning of the recession, and the Republican party’s headlong lurch away from reality (which has a “well-known liberal bias“), and who has spent nearly half my life in college towns surrounded by highly educated, mostly liberal people, my views are quite liberal as well. So I will primarily be talking about the Democratic primaries in what follows.

I think everyone can agree that the Republican candidates are a mess, so I’m not going to say much about them. Along with much of the rest of the country I find it morbidly fascinating that Trump is the frontrunner candidate, with Cruz not far behind, and the “establishment” candidates are in the back of the pack, sniping at each other instead of taking on the frontrunner(s). Here’s what I will say about the fight for the Republican nominee: I am torn between hoping that Trump wins because he is so clearly an awful choice for President that the Democrats would basically be guaranteed a win in November, and being terrified that Trump will win the nomination and then, when the Party closes ranks behind him, he will actually have a shot.

In any case, what has really been on my mind especially since the primaries started is the choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nominee. As I said, my peers tend to be young, highly educated, upper-middle class, and predominantly white. Which is to say that my facebook feed is basically a non-stop Bernie Sanders love fest (often verging into blatant propaganda). And I have to say I sympathize. I agree with a lot of what Bernie stands for and he is my clear favorite at the gut, emotional level. I don’t really like the idea of a President Clinton #2 for the simple reason that the idea of political dynasties doesn’t feel right to me. I really like that most of Sanders’ funding comes from small donors rather than wealthy people. I have been known on more than one occasion to speak wistfully about how I wish my country would adopt some of the demonstrably effective policies of certain “socialist” countries, where, yes taxes are quite high but there is universal health care, reasonable paid leave, minimal gun violence, minimal police violence, etc. I think Sanders’ message that income inequality is the biggest issue facing the country is basically correct, and I respect that he has been so consistent over his long career in fighting against it. Sanders also comes across as a genuinely good and honest person, something rare in politics.

But here’s the thing: while the types of changes that Sanders is fighting for would be wonderful and I think they would have significant benefits in the long run, I am (a) not convinced that he could win the general election, and (b) am not convinced that those changes would happen if he were elected. On the electability front, right now Sanders is enjoying a surge of interest after doing well in the first two primaries. If that momentum continues, and his viscerally appealing progressive message continues to connect with voters and drive them to the polls, then yes he might have a chance. But I think it is important to remember that so far he has only been facing other Democrats and despite his long career he is not well known by many voters. His prospects look rosy right now because he did better than expected in Iowa and won a blowout victory in the very friendly territory of New Hampshire, so he’s getting a lot of good press. And Republicans are happy to let him keep doing what he’s doing: they have their own issues to deal with right now, and the turmoil and divisiveness he is causing within the Democratic party suits them just fine. But if we end up with Sanders as the Democratic nominee, you can expect some brutal and highly effective attacks from the right. The guy is a self-described socialist who wants to raise taxes and thinks Obamacare doesn’t go nearly far enough. A Sanders nomination would do for Republican voter turnout in the general election what a Trump nomination would do for Democratic voter turnout.

Let me say that again because I don’t think a lot of liberals appreciate this. You know how you feel about Trump? How you hate everything he stands for? How you almost hope he is the nominee because he would be so easy for your party to run against? That’s how Republicans feel about Bernie. If he becomes the nominee, things are not going to be pretty. Now, I’m not saying Clinton would have a cake-walk in this regard. She has been hated by Republicans forever and will also likely inspire many of them to turn out and cast their “Not Clinton” vote. But I think the difference here is that Republican hatred for Hillary is a known quantity. They’ve already basically thrown everything they can at her. I highly doubt there is anything new that will come out if she becomes the nominee. Sanders on the other hand, is fresh meat.

The downside for Hillary’s electability is that she lacks the emotional appeal. I don’t think she will inspire Democrats to come out to vote in droves the way Obama did and the way Bernie might if he can ride the enthusiasm that has been building. She lacks the simple emotional narrative that Bernie has because she’s the pragmatic choice, and if you’re not going to blow up the status quo, then you have to work with it and it’s messy. Hillary is the choice for incremental progress, for working within the current system. Put another way, Bernie is the Hail Mary, Clinton is the slow, painful ground game. Bernie is the heroic cavalry charge with gleaming sabers, Clinton is trench warfare.

But that gets me to the second point: Suppose Sanders not only wins the nomination, but is elected president on his wave of populist support. How exactly will all the changes he is proposing make it through Congress? His response to this so far has basically been to say that we need a political revolution. People who don’t normally vote need to get swept up in this revolution and drive Republicans out of office across the land such that Democrats can pass the legislation that they really want. I don’t know how else to put this: that’s not going to happen. Yeah, maybe a wave of Sanders support would increase turnout enough to flip a few seats. It might even win back the Senate. But the odds of gaining enough ground to be filibuster proof? Or of taking over the House as well? I’m not holding my breath, and I find it hard to vote for a guy whose plan for getting things done is to count on a political revolution. Not that such a disruption of a broken system wouldn’t be thrilling. I’m just saying I don’t think we can count on it happening. When the other side is dug in for trench warfare, your cavalry charge is not likely to go well.

So okay, what’s a voter to do if they find themselves in the same boat as me, where they like Sanders’ policies but are skeptical of his chances of success? Well, I found it interesting that, when I took the very detailed I Side With quiz (If you take it, be sure to check each question for additional, more nuanced options), my results indicate that I agree with Bernie Sanders on 95% of issues, and that I agree with Hillary Clinton on 93% of issues. 2% is not a meaningful difference in this context. And apparently Clinton and Sanders voted the same 93% of the time in the Senate. That’s not to say that within the 7% of votes where they disagreed there aren’t some meaningful issues. There are. But it does indicate that in terms of policy, they have more in common than it might seem during a contentious primary where they are trying their hardest to seem different. Their bigger differences are more in terms of philosophy and how they plan to accomplish their goals, than in the goals themselves.

All that said, who am I going to vote for? For the primary, I think it will depend on how things look when it’s Arizona’s turn to vote. If the race is close or if Bernie is winning, I will vote for Clinton because I mostly agree with her on policy and I think she’s the most qualified and electable candidate out there for the office of President. If Clinton is already winning, I will vote for Bernie because I think the Democratic party needs to learn from his candidacy that what he stands for resonates with a large number of voters. (If nothing else, I hope his candidacy paves the way for a presidential run by Elizabeth Warren in 4 or 8 years.)

For the general election, I will vote for whoever is the Democratic nominee. John Scalzi summed up my feelings eloquently a few weeks ago with this statement:

But at the end of the day, what matters is that each of them, any of them, is so drastically preferable to any member of the howling sampler box of Dunning-Kruger that is the current GOP field that, to me, and for the purposes of my presidential vote in November, the policy and personality differences between Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley are immaterial. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will get my vote.

To all of my friends out there who are on the Bernie train: I get it. I even mostly agree with you! But remember that as contentious as the primary gets, we’re all on the same side in the long run. You need to vote in the general election no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

(Obligatory disclaimer: What I post here on my website represents my own personal views and not those of my employer or anyone else.)



My November Writing Plan (not NaNoWriMo)

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I had been working on a novel over the last few months but it kind of fizzled and I finally declared it dead last week. So now I’m in brainstorming mode for a new novel. I have what I think could be a cool idea, but part of why the previous novel fizzled was my lack of a full outline. I have done enough writing by now to know that I need to lay a lot of groundwork ahead of time or else I end up getting stuck and hopeless and don’t get anywhere.

It would be a frustrating waste for me to try to write 50,000 words without a good plan, so instead I’m going to try to spend some time every day this month on planning the next novel. I want to get everything figured out, down to the chapter level and possible even the scene-by-scene level. I want to have all my places and characters named so the book doesn’t end up so full of placeholders that I can’t keep track of what’s going on anymore. The idea is to remove all obstacles to the actual writing.

If all of that goes well and I have something I’m happy with before the end of the month, then I might actually start writing. But I want to really plan this one out carefully. I know first drafts always suck, but I think by doing this, I can (a) minimize the suckage, and (b) maximize the likelihood that I’ll actually be able to follow through once I do start writing.

Good luck to everyone tackling NaNoWriMo this year!


Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Movie Review: Mad Max:Fury Road


The science fiction and fantasy fandom on the internet has been gushing over the latest Mad Max movie since it came out last weekend. The movie has a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and more importantly, has managed to annoy a bunch of “Men’s Rights Activists” because of it’s feminist messages. With all this hype, I decided I had to go and see what all the fuss was about. The verdict?

Let me explain by way of an analogy: Say you like pepperoni pizza. If you search the world over and find the highest quality pepperoni out there and then make a pizza using several pounds of this premium pepperoni in a layer several inches thick, but only apply a thin layer of sauce and cheese, do you have a good pizza? No, you have a greasy mess.

Mad Max is without a doubt visually and stylistically impressive. It includes some of the best chase scenes, stunts, and effects of any movie I’ve seen. But it is not a good movie. It is oh so very dumb, and it is not nearly as progressive and feminist as the internet seems to think it is.


I wanted to like it, I really did. I tried hard to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, which I am pretty sure is the only way to enjoy the movie. But it has such glaring weaknesses that I couldn’t keep it up. Calling the characters one dimensional is an insult to cardboard cutouts everywhere. The plot is almost non-existent and completely predictable. I knew going in that there was going to be very little dialog, but what there was was poorly written. And the world doesn’t make any sense at all. Like I said, I get that you need to suspend disbelief, that the movie is supposed to be stylized and over-the-top, but I need my fiction to throw me at least a few bones that show that at least a little thought went into it.

If it’s supposed to be set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are wars over fuel, then does it make sense for the entire movie to be based on fleets of tricked-out tractor trailers and hot rods racing around the desert? Does it make sense for their primary weapons to be flame throwers and Molotov cocktail-tipped spears? If there’s a shortage of water, then why does the chase lead through a muddy swamp? At one point the characters say that they are going to take all the supplies they can carry on motorcycles and ride for 160 days across a salt flat. 160 days. That’s more than 5 months! Did anyone stop to think about how much food, water, and fuel it takes for 8 people to ride motorcycles across the desert for 160 days?

But ok, let’s not worry about all of that. Difficult though it can be, we should judge pop culture by whether it accomplished what it set out to do, not whether we personally liked it. Mad Max certainly achieved its goal of being a crazy over-the-top action movie. But a lot of the hype around Mad Max has focused on the fact that it’s not just a macho action movie: it has a hidden feminist message. Is it effective in conveying that message?

Well, it’s certainly not a hidden message, despite what misogynists on the internet would have you believe. The movie beats you over the head with it. The plot of the movie is that the bad guy keeps women for two purposes: milk and breeding. But his sexy wives escape and flee with the help of Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A long chase scene follows (aka the entire movie). Much is made over the statement that the women leave painted on the walls of their chambers when they escape: “We are not things”.

Now, I will grant that it is great to see a big loud action movie with a message like this, and Mad Max does some things right on the feminism front. The women in the movie are not completely helpless, and some of them (in particular, Charlize Theron’s character and the old-lady biker gang) are competent survivors capable of fighting back against the bad guys. But just because Mad Max is slightly better than completely awful on the feminism front doesn’t make it some sort of magnificent feminist manifesto. Better than terrible is not necessarily great. It’s just “less terrible”.

The movie’s supposed feminist message would be a lot stronger if it wasn’t constantly undermined by the movie itself. Women “are not things”, but isn’t it interesting that the sexy wives are the women that are rescued, and the less attractive women who are kept attached to milking machines are not worth being saved? Funny how the “breeder” wives are all stick-thin supermodels (i.e. not the ideal body type for giving birth without complications in a world with primitive medicine). And it’s a bit hard to take the “We are not things” motto very seriously when the escaped wives spend the entire movie in thin linen bikini-like outfits. At one point there’s even a break in the chase scenes to give the girls time to have what amounts to a wet t-shirt contest. Now, it has been pointed out that they are pretty matter-of-factly washing themselves off and not actively posing, and that the camera doesn’t linger on them like a creepy old lecher, which is a temptation that other directors might give in to. But at the same time, the decision to dress them all in thin linen and then hose them down was a conscious choice. A scene like that, even if it’s not shot with the “pervy camera”, does not suggest to me that “We are not things” is something that the movie really takes that seriously. Those costumes, and that scene, are the sort of thing that you put in a movie as fan service to your presumably male, presumably straight viewers.

Check out all that feminism.

Check out all that feminism.

Likewise, later on, our heroes come across a naked woman high up on an old power line tower, and we learn that she is being used as “bait” by the old-lady biker gang to lure in bad guys and kill them. Is it consistent with “we are not things” for the good guys to be using a naked woman as bait? Was that scene necessary for the plot, or was it there to titillate the (presumably straight, male) viewer? That same blog post that I linked to praised this scene for resisting the temptation to go full-frontal, saying that the nudity was not necessary to the story, but that’s exactly my point. There was no narrative need to have a naked lady up on a tower at all. I don’t think the movie deserves praise for including some questionable scenes, but then making them slightly less misogynistic than they could have been. If this were a feminist movie, those scenes wouldn’t be there at all.

Don’t get me wrong, Mad Max takes a step in the right direction. There are female characters with agency. The sexy wives, although still mostly passive, do stand up for themselves a little bit. Furiosa and the old lady biker gang are pretty awesome. But I worry that people see Mad Max getting all of this positive press about being feminist, and then go watch it and praise if for taking these tiny baby steps while not acknowledging that (a) it’s not a good movie, and (b) it is not really all that feminist. It would not be difficult at all for the movie to fix the problems that I’ve brought up. Give the girls sensible clothing and maybe skip the wet t-shirt party and the naked lady on the tower. Make the sexy wives a little less passive, and rescue the less attractive women too. The fact that these problems were not fixed, and are generally not even being acknowledged, is troubling.

It’s an awfully sad statement about the state of feminism in popular culture that people think that Mad Max is what feminism looks like.



Rapid Fire Reviews: Interstellar, Catching Fire, The Postman, Dangerous Women,The Book Thief

I’ve been super busy so I have fallen behind on reviewing things here, but I have still been consuming lots of media, so here are some rapid fire reviews.

The Book Thief


This is a well-written story about a girl living in World War 2 era Germany. The plot builds a little too slowly for my taste, but the characters are great, and the writing is excellent, with lots of vivid, often surreal imagery. I listened to the audiobook and the reader was very good. Note: this is a book set during WWII, narrated by Death. So yeah, it’s gonna be sad.

Dangerous Women


This is a collection of short stories and novellas edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardener Dozois, with contributions from tons of big names in the fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and noir/mystery genres. I actually haven’t finished it, but I’m about 3/4 of the way through and I can comment on what I’ve listened to so far. As with all anthologies, the stories are a bit hit or miss. In theory, the uniting theme is the title of the anthology “Dangerous Women”, but the various stories interpret this differently. Be warned, these are not all feminist stories about strong female characters, though there are plenty of those. A few standouts so far are: Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb)’s story “Neighbors”, about an older woman grappling with alzheimers was powerful and sad. The genre elements of the story gave it a satisfying ending, but in a way it felt like cheating because in real life someone in the protagonist’s situation doesn’t have that option. Brandon Sanderson’s “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” was a very nice story, and in this shorter form, his signature worldbuilding skills are even more impressive than in his novels, in my opinion. The story is set in a pretty traditional medieval fantasy setting, but the way Sanderson builds that setting so deftly, while weaving in the uniqueness that drives the story, is just really impressive. “Bombshells” was my first taste of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. Despite having a massive spoiler in it, this story was a good, fun introduction to some characters in the series, and very strongly reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As for the bad, I didn’t much like “My Heart is Either Broken” by  Megan Abbott, and I found “I know how to pick ’em” by Lawrence Block to be downright awful. Not the writing, mind you: it was well-written, but the story itself is just disturbing and gross and I wish I had not read it.

The Postman


This is a classic post-apocalyptic book, and I am glad I finally got around to reading it. I’m in the midst of playing Wastelend 2, a post-apocalyptic computer game, and the long-awaited sequel to Wasteland, which came out in 1988. Wasteland inspired the Fallout series of games, and it is pretty clear that The Postman was one of the inspirations for Wasteland. Anyway, The Postman was a rare example of a post-apocalyptic novel that is somewhat optimistic. The premise is that the main character finds an old mail-carrier’s uniform, and survives by telling people he has come from the Restored United States. Except his lie starts to have a life of its own. Much like The Stand, another classic post-apocalyptic novel, this one is at its best in the beginning and then starts to lose its magic toward the end. In particular (spoilers coming up) I found it annoying that, after spending the book showing that people working together and helping each other is far better than the “survival of the fittest” mentality of the bad guys, the climax of the novel involved the good guys recruiting someone who was big and strong enough to fight the evil general. It would have been more fitting with the theme of the novel if, say, they had outsmarted the survivalists, or incited a revolt, or something. Also, this book seems to think that it is feminist, but it never quite gets there. There are women who do courageous things at the end, but even as the main character praises them, he can’t help but call them crazy. Also, the man character is constantly sleeping with naive young women 10 years or more younger than him. But criticisms aside, this was still an enjoyable post-apocalyptic novel with a rare positive spin on things.

Mockingjay Part 1: Catching Fire

I am annoyed at the trend in Hollywood of splitting up movies into multiple parts to make more money. But unlike in some cases (like the travesty that are the Hobbit movies) the Hunger Games movies are consistently really good and Catching Fire was no exception. It doesn’t feel bloated at all (unlike the Hobbit movies), the acting is good, and as far as I can tell it is pretty faithful to the book (though it’s been a while since I read the series). I suspect that Part 2 may actually be better than the book, since my main memory of the book is a series of increasingly crazy action scenes that I suspect will be better on screen than on the page. Anyway, This series of movies continues to be surprisingly good, even despite the obvious money grab of splitting the third book into two movies. Also? Actual competent and strong female characters! Plural! Not even dressed in implausible “sexy” costumes!



This movie was great, and emotionally draining. Without giving too much away, I would describe Interstellar as basically a combination of 2001, Contact, and Moon, which if you know me, you know is high praise. For a movie about interstellar travel, the science is surprisingly good, though not so fanatically obsessed with staying realistic as to hurt the story. Great demonstrations of the effects of general relativity and simulating gravity in a rotating spacecraft. Not so great understanding of tidal forces or planetary remote sensing. There are a few times when the characters give somewhat ham-handed speeches but mostly the writing and acting are very good. I can definitely see this being excellent at an IMAX theater.



There are many benefits of investing in your newborn and adolescent’s education. For example, many adolescents are unable to pay for their education and, without any assistance, they are unlikely to get an education. If an adolescent who is supported by their parents invests in their education, it would likely lead to a higher salary, higher employment, higher earnings, and more freedom for their future. This would have a significant impact on their family’s economic circumstances and their own opportunity to buy or rent a home.

To learn more about investing in the future, visit websites like

Evaluate Risk

Are you buying an asset that has volatility? Are you taking a risk that the market is going to go up 10% in one day? Do you plan to have the student live on your property until the end of high school? These are all examples of taking a risk. A risk is a lack of certainty in your investment decision. The more uncertainty you have, the more you want to minimize risk.

The more you minimize risk, the more value your asset adds to your portfolio.

Don’t Overpay

Now that you know how to assess the riskiness of your investment, you need to pay attention to the risks of each investment you make. Your question is, “What is the right price for the price of the asset?”

Many investments have a fixed asset price. If the fixed asset price increases, the value of the asset also increases. If the fixed asset price decreases, the value of the asset decreases. For example, you are investing in a house that you are hoping to sell at the end of the house’s useful life. You need to pay close attention to the fixed asset price, since the higher the value, the higher the monthly payments to you and the greater the risk you are taking in buying the asset.

Generally speaking, you will want to pay attention to inflation because the interest on an asset, like a house, tends to increase more quickly than the inflation rate. It is important to assess how likely it is that you will have to pay interest on the property during the asset’s useful life. For example, if you are buying an asset that costs $400,000, are you more likely to have to pay interest to the bank when it is worth $650,000? If the asset is worth $650,000, the rate of interest that you will have to pay is more than 10% for the first six years of the asset’s useful life.

When buying an asset, try to find out if the inflation rate is higher or lower than the growth rate of your inflation-adjusted income. If the asset’s inflation-adjusted price is higher, you should pay closer attention to the costs and benefits of buying the asset.

Ten Book Challenge

Ok, I can’t help myself. When I see a book meme, I have to do it. I saw this on Facebook, courtesy of Karen, and I thought it would be fun to do, mostly because I really enjoy recommending books!

Rules for the Ten Book Challenge: In your status blog, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. They don’t have to be the “right” books or great works of literature. Then tag ten friends and me so I can see your list.

Choosing just ten was really difficult, and I cheated by doing some lumping and listing multiple books by one author for a few of the items. I also should note that I’m trying to stick with the way the challenge was worded and choosing books that “stayed with me”. There are plenty of others that I enjoyed as much or more than some of these, but all of these got their hooks in my brain and really stayed there:

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – I knew I liked fantasy before this, but the vast majority of fantasy is either imitating or responding to Lord of the Rings, so when I first read this in middle school it knocked my socks off. Middle Earth sucked me in and no other book series has managed such complete and perfect immersion: the result of Tolkien’s unparalleled worldbuilding, plus reading it at an age when I was still pretty uncritical and so I could get drawn in deep.
  2. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – This book is a collection of short stories about the Vietnam war, written by an author who lived through the war. It was assigned in my AP English class and is an extremely powerful book. I can still remember some of the vivid images in this book very clearly. It somehow manages to be incredibly sad but beautiful at the same time. Great writing. I need to read this again.
  3. Cosmos, Contact, Pale Blue Dot, Demon Haunted World other books by Carl Sagan – These books came along just at the right time. Late in high school when I was interested in science, but before I was old enough to be cynical about Sagan’s purple prose, and before I had heard everything in these books. Sagan’s writing, his passion for knowledge, and importantly his ability to tie science in with history and philosophy and everything else about the human experience, made me want to become an astronomer. Nowadays I don’t read books like this because I don’t learn much from them, but at the time they were exactly what I needed. I learned a lot of science from these books but they also put into words what I had always felt about religion. Having someone so eloquently express why it’s possible to be a good person without a higher power had a huge influence on me. Sagan’s books inspired a whole generation of scientists and humanists, and much of what I see these days in non-fiction writing just paraphrases him.
  4. Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – I read these books at around the same time as the Sagan books. The whole summer after my senior year of high school was basically spent reading, and what I read that summer really set the course for my life. This trilogy is still the best sci-fi story about the colonization of Mars that I am aware of. It is amazingly well-researched, and stands up pretty well even decades later. The wonderful descriptions of what it would be like to be on the surface of Mars are a great part of this series, but even more interesting was the way that Robinson also examines the politics and social issues among the colonists and between the colonists and Earth. This is a truly epic series with fascinating (if sometimes melodramatic) characters, set on a Mars that felt very very real.
  5. The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury -Where the Red Mars trilogy tries very hard to be realistic, Bradbury has no interest at all in being realistic and somehow that makes his stories even better. His writing style is unique and wonderful, and there’s a lot of wisdom mixed in among the beautiful prose. I read the Martian Chronicles once when I was way too young to understand it, but when I came back to it when I was old enough it was great. The bittersweet sadness that Bradbury evokes as humans come to live on a Mars among the crumbling crystalline cities of the long-gone Martians is really powerful.
  6. The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Birthday of the World, etc. by Ursula K. LeGuin – I came across LeGuin’s books toward the end of high school and in early college, and they were a great contrast with the other stuff I was reading. Whereas a lot of golden-age sci-fi is about white men doing amazing things with physics and engineering, LeGuin did something new (to me, at least) with science fiction, speculating in the realm of social science and anthropology and using characters of color and women instead of Generic White Physicist. I guess some Generic White Physics types don’t like the idea of reading from the point of view of someone like them, but to me it made her books more interesting, and the focus on social sciences really opened my eyes to what was missing from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Given the choice nowadays, I’d much rather read something from LeGuin than anything from the “hard” sci-fi genre. When the gee-whiz factor wears off, you realize that a lot of hard sci-fi doesn’t have much else going for it, while LeGuin’s writing recognizes that there is much more to life than physics and engineering, an important lesson for someone like me!
  7. Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin – If Lord of the Rings was just right for me when I read them in middle school, Game of Thrones was the right series at the right time in grad school. Reading these books was an eye-opening experience because they are a direct response to Lord of the Rings. The Dark Lord and flawless heroes in white are gone and replaced by a bunch of flawed characters trying to survive in a brutal world. Protagonists die, villains win, and magic is a distant memory when the series begins. Like Lord of the Rings, the worldbuilding for Game of Thrones is great and it sucked me in, but unlike Lord of the Rings, it’s the characters that keep me fascinated by Game of Thrones. This series has basically spawned a new genre of fantasy fiction, and rightly so.
  8. Shogun by James Clavell – This book was the first time I really deliberately set out to read historical fiction, and then realized how much it has in common with the fantasy fiction that I already loved. It’s a thick tome that’s easy to get sucked into, with vivid worldbuilding and lots and lots of courtly intrigue: not all that different from Game of Thrones! But the great thing about historical fiction is that it is also based on real history! Shogun made me realize first that I was interested in historical fiction, and second, that I was interested in history. Not the boring kind taught in school, but the kind that is just the fascinating stories of people who lived long ago.
  9. The Scar by China Mieville – A lot of the books on this list are here because they showed me something new, but none so much as The Scar. This book is also a response to classic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, but where Game of Thrones responded by focusing on morally gray characters but within an England-analog fantasy setting, Mieville’s response was basically “Fantasy can be so much more than medieval Europe. Here, let me show you what happens when you actually use your imagination.” And so he wrote Perdido Street Station, followed by The Scar. I much prefer The Scar, and it is delightfully weird. It’s set on a floating pirate city built from the lashed-together hulks of old ships. There are cactus people and criminals whose bodies have been mangled and merged with mechanical limbs powered by coal-burning engines. There is an island where the sand is made of corroded gears and mechanisms and the inhabitants are mosquito-people. There are people whose blood clots into stone, so before battle they cut themselves and bleed to form an armored carapace. And on top of all of that, Mieville’s writing is thick with obscure words that most people have never heard of or only learn so they can pass the SAT. His writing style does get to be a bit much in large doses, but I really enjoyed it.
  10. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon – I listened to this one on audiobook while I was in Pasadena for MSL operations. This is a collection of essays by the author about his life, and many of them really hit home for me. He uses his impressive writing talent to put into words a lot of feelings that were very familiar to me. Now, as the list above shows, I love reading books that take me to new places and make me think or experience new things, but sometimes the best writing shows you something very familiar and just describes it perfectly, or shines a new light on it, making connections that you didn’t know were there. That’s what this book did for me. Some of the essays were better than others, but overall this one definitely stuck with me and I want to read it again.

Write to done. Ok, so what’s “done”?

I’ve read a lot of writing advice in my time. After all, it’s way easier to read advice about writing than to actually sit down and put words on the page. The advice ranges from vague generalities that help nobody, to pieces of advice that are so specific that again, they help nobody. But in between there is actually a lot of good advice out there. If I had to boil it down to a few short sentences, the good advice says:

Read a lot.

Write a lot.

Finish what you start.

I’ve got a good handle on the first one. I read every night before bed, and listen to audiobooks while doing brainless chores and working out. Plenty of people read more than me but I’m happy with the number of books I get through in a year.

I’m working on the second point. I have trouble letting the words just flow onto the page, which is why I do things like NaNoWriMo or bribe myself with rewards to get myself to spend the time writing. So, I’m making progress on this point.

The really tricky part is the last one: finish what you start. Also known as “Write to done.” a.k.a. “Finish your shit.” I’m struggling right now with this one. Specifically, I’m struggling with when to call a project “done” and move on to the next one. I’ve finished NaNoWriMo twice. But surely 50,000 words of verbal vomit don’t count as “done,” right? I’ve been slowly working my way through my last NaNoNovel, editing, patching up missing chapters, missing character and place names, and the like. The problem is, I’m only a third of the way through the dang novel, and I know once I finish this pass, I’ll need to go back and do another pass to flesh out descriptions and character development (my first drafts tend to be very dialog and plot heavy and weak on description and character’s thoughts). Meanwhile, the idea for another novel has come along and is nagging at the back of my mind to be written.

So the question I’m struggling with is: at what point do I decide that I’ve learned what I am going to learn from working on my current work in progress, and it’s time to take those lessons and apply them to a new project? Am I failing to “finish my shit” if I stop working on my current work in progress? Or is it “finished” if I’m starting to lose interest and doubt that it’s worth spending months continuing to edit it?

I don’t know. I think I need to step back and actually read the darn thing as it is, not stopping here and there to fix it, but sit and read it as if it were a book. I suspect that might rekindle some of my interest in it. Editing is so slow that it’s hard to keep the whole thing in mind and stay interested. I am also thinking it might be time to let a few people read at least some of it, so I can get outside opinions on whether it’s worth pursuing or not. I just finished editing Part 1 (approximately the first third), which was the part I wrote before NaNoWriMo. It also was the part that needed the most work. Oddly, now that I am in the NaNoWriMo chapters, the writing is actually better and there is less to fix. I think a lot of this is because (a) the beginning had to do a lot of setting up so that the rest of the story could progress, and (b) I planned out quite a bit of the NaNoWriting ahead of time, so I could write knowing what I was aiming at, and (c) writing so much for NaNo actually helped to counteract my tendency to skip over descriptions and monologue because, hey, those are easy ways to up the daily word count!

So here’s my plan: pause my editing for a while and just read the whole manuscript and see how I like it as a whole. Then, if I’m still unsure about continuing, let a few people read it and give me honest opinions about whether it’s time to start something new or if I have something worth polishing.



Checking In

A month or so ago, I posted about my new plan to leverage my enjoyment of video games to encourage myself to exercise and write more often, and I said that I would check in here to assess how the plan has been working. I’m happy to report that it works pretty well! It does a good job of moderating my gaming habit and encouraging me to do the more productive things that I want to do. I have joined the local YMCA with Erin, so I have more exercise options than before, which is helping to motivate me to exercise. Also, there’s the fact that I can listen to an audiobook while doing cardio, which is good motivation. I have found that I more often do the exercise than the writing, so as of today I have decided to tweak the formula slightly. Before, I would earn 2/3rds credit for fiction writing if I did not exercise that day, and full credit if I also exercised. This basically implies that doing exercise AND writing is the expected level of effort, and realistically I often don’t have time for both. So from today onward, I have changed it so that I now earn full credit for fiction writing without any exercise on the same day. If I do also exercise, then I earn 4/3rds credit for the writing time, plus the 15 minute exercise bonus. So, doing both on the same day earns extra credit because it is above and beyond the expected level of effort.

I have also decided that there needs to be some motivation for consistency. For fiction writing in particular, it is easier to do, and the resulting writing seems to be better, if I build and keep some momentum. So, I have added a reward that works as follows:

Consistency reward = 5 minutes *(# of days with more than 15 minutes of fiction writing in the last 4 days – # of days without fiction writing in the last 4 days)

This should motivate me to do at least 15 minutes every day in order to build up the consistency reward. I may need to tune how generous this reward is, or up the minimum from 15 to 30 minutes but I’ll give it a try and see how it goes.

I have also found that I needed to set some other rules. First, instead of cutting myself off if I run out of minutes during a gaming session, I have been allowing myself to go into gaming debt. So If I have 45 minutes of gaming saved up, I’m allowed to game for longer than 45 minutes that day. The catch is, I am then not allowed to game again until I have a positive balance. So, a couple weeks ago I had a rare evening at home by myself and ended up going into massive gaming debt. I played a game for several hours and it was great. But then the flip side of that was that it took me the better part of two weeks to recover from that.

The other tweak that I made was that I gave myself a couple days off last weekend because we were travelling to a friend’s wedding out east and there was no time to exercise or write. So, I reserve the right to waive the “didn’t do anything” penalty for extenuating circumstances. I was actually not going to cut myself any slack, but Erin convinced me to do so. I will generally try to avoid this, but it’s an option for when things get really crazy. To formalize this rule, I’ve decided to allow two free days per month. These will carry over from month to month if I don’t use them.

So, all in all, the system seems to be working! I’ll see how the tweaks described above work out and may make some more adjustments in another month.

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