A Hankering for Noodles

ingredients for fried noodles
I am a lazy cook. No other way to say it. I have no patience for slowly stirred sauces, carefully watched pots, or preparations that need fifteen different components plated at the last minute. If it all sits together in a bowl and I can eat it with one utensil, then so much the better.

I am also a stubborn cook. Stir fries have often tantalised me, and every time I try my hand at one I learn a little more, make it a little better. I’m at the stage now where I can’t quite bang out a hundred plates of noodles that all look and taste the same, but the outcome is generally tasty, and even when my own pantry conspires to throw me a curveball, I can generally deal with it.

Today’s conundrum: the urge to eat fried noodles, with all the correct ingredients I like in fried noodles — except for noodles themselves. The closest thing I had was a packet of linguine — not the regular kind, which is a fine substitute for stir fries (spaghetti is too), but a dark green basil flavoured one.

Nevertheless, I soldiered on, and above is almost everything that went into it besides salt, pepper, oil and a last minute squirt of Sriracha, i.e.: an egg (fried as an omelet, cooled, cut into strips), noodles, celery, carrot, baby corn, garlic, asparagus, mushrooms — and mixed for the sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, and sesame oil.

plate of chinese fried noodles made with linguine
Put them all together and you get this. It didn’t taste half bad, though after a while the taste of basil completely disappeared, and that was a bit disappointing. Guess the noodles would benefit from a more delicate saucing than being tossed around in soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil until good old Maillard reactions do their magic.

close up of chinese fried noodles made with linguine

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Black & White in Bombay 2

A ball of twine
It’s been nearly six months since I last went to Bombay; a trip I have mixed feelings about, since I mostly went for my cousin’s wedding, and despite being there for a month weather and schedules and general fatigue conspired to keep me grounded most of the time.

I took a lot of pictures — thousands — but most of them are personal, of family and friends, and I don’t share those. Looking through my haul before committing them to DVD backups (remember, kids: back up frequently, often, and in multiple mediums), I found that in between the personal photographs I had snuck in an artistic one here and there.

A hand holding a small spider-man figure
As I mentioned in a previous post, I had got a lot of photographic toys that month. One invaluable purchase just before we left for India was a cheap manual flash and a wireless trigger. It helped out a lot in the finicky lighting of the wedding venue, and while I still have no idea how to use it effectively, a lot of fun was had experimenting with my equally photo-crazy cousins — such as in the shot above.

Photo of a shirt on a chair and a man taking a photograph
Sometimes you’re stuck at home with nothing to do, and when the urge to photograph strikes you’ll point a camera at anything just to scratch that itch. This isn’t a bad thing, as you can get plenty of interesting pictures around the average household.

Close up of leaves of a potted plant
And sometimes, all you need to do is look at things in isolation.

Photo of a man's hands
Speaking of isolation, a willing human subject is always a good thing to photograph, and if they aren’t made up and feeling pretty first thing on a Sunday morning, you can still get a good photo out of the rest of them.

picture of a taxi in dadar
At last! A chance to go out. Planting myself firmly in the front passenger’s seat, we set off for Navi Mumbai. The good thing about any Indian wedding is that there is always the possibility of traveling somewhere for it and various ancillary functions.

mile marker at vashi
I had just attached my 58mm manual zenit lens, this was my first time taking it out of the house — and it was stuck at F2 since I hadn’t modified the aperture pin yet.

scooter parked under a tree
Considering all these factors plus the moving car, and my general failure at taking to new things (or old things, for that matter), some of these pictures didn’t turn out half bad.

y-shaped column of flyover construction
The joy and excitement of doing something new and unfamiliar is sometimes just the thing required to make you stop over-thinking things. Sure, many of these pictures could be better, had I spent hours and hours getting to grips with the lens at home, learning its finer points on pictures of bottles or something — but a trial by fire (or a trial by moving car on insane Indian roads while manually-focusing at F2, as it were) is often the best way to do something new.

brickwork on a building
Put another way: you need raw brick to make a solid building, even if said raw brick is never seen by any of the occupants. Look, a cliche metaphor and an appropriate picture to go with it!

picture of a flowering plant
In the end, of course, thinking about things helps, and whenever you get a chance you should definitely stop to smell the flowers, and maybe take a photo or two.

macro shot of flowers
Keep Looking. The photos will find you.

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(NOTE: All the photos in this post, shot in colour, were post-processed by simple saturation, contrast and gamma alteration in IrfanView, hands down the most simple and invaluable image viewer and editor on the planet. I’ve been using it nearly every day for 14 years now. If you haven’t, then do give it a try.)

Cheap Robots & the Men Who Buy Them

Macro shot of a cheap transforming robot toy's head

I‘m very much an 80s kid. I grew up with Transformers and G.I. Joe, not Rugrats and Ed, Edd n Eddy. Though I did spend a good chunk of my childhood in the 90s, growing up in Muscat, away from the twin cultural juggernauts of India and the US, meant that some things arrived later, and stayed around more. And 80s cartoons, and a love of the toys that came with the subculture, is one of those things.

Now as an adult with a minor disposable income and questionable taste, I can indulge myself by getting some of the toys I just couldn’t as a kid. Alas, living in Dubai now means that toys are horrendously overpriced (seriously, one of those big Optimus Prime toys that cost $50 is over twice as much here), and I don’t really want to bother with shipping them in, because I have too much stuff anyway.

Still, once in a while I’ll pass through the supermarket’s toy section and come upon some cheap range of toys that are surprisingly good, if kitsch, and pick one up. The last time this happened I got the awesome Dark Warrior toy.

Today, I picked up this ‘Transbots’ action figure. It’s not particularly well painted, but the original mould (I’m guessing it was an official Transformer once***) is solid and for something that costs AED 24 it’s not bad at all. I literally haven’t played with it yet, but in robot mode it’s very poseable, with nicely jointed legs.

I have some Revell paints left over from when I bought a Star Wars jedi starfighter kit, and may repaint this guy at some point. And maybe I’ll even pick up another from this set to go with it.

So maybe I don’t have all the fancy toys I’d like to; honestly, I can’t say spending my money on a huge toy collection is a great idea. But I do have an increasing number of strange Chinese knock-offs, and they are for me what toys should be: fun.

Macro shot of a cheap transforming robot toy in its robot form

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***(UPDATE: Identified the original as a Starscream toy from the Transformers: Cybertron ‘Galaxy Force’ line. This knockoff has basically stripped a few of the more complex clear plastic parts)

Pad Kapraw Thai Rice Noodles

Photo of Pad Kapraw Thai Rice Noodles on a wide-rimmed white presentation plate with red chopsticks

Lunch today was some Pad Kapraw Thai Rice Noodles. The noodles came with a flavour packet which I used. Pad Kapraw is apparently a basil-flavoured sauce, but the overriding flavour when the powder hit the pan was of liquorice. Luckily the finished dish had a very mild flavour, sweet and hot; not having had much Thai food I’m not sure how sweet Thai basil really is, so I’m assuming the liquorice-like flavour is a bit like it.

The rest of the dish contains a stir-fry of vegetables: bean sprouts, mushrooms, several coloured peppers and carrot, all sliced thin so they’d cook quickly. The rice noodles have to be handled carefully, cooked al dente (about 4 minutes) and rinsed thoroughly in cold water. They seem insubstantial compared to wheat noodles, but don’t be fooled: as time goes by they soak up water and become plumper. Like rice itself, a little goes a long way.

Close-up photo of Pad Kapraw Thai Rice Noodles on a wide-rimmed white presentation plate with red chopsticks

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5 Basic Steps Towards Delicious Digital Food Photos

Photo of an empty white presentation plate with a green chilli placed on its wide textured rim
God bless the digital camera, that turned documenting everything you have for lunch into a viable option; the minutiae of everyday life into viable subjects. Face it, most of us take the food we eat for granted, not paying it much more attention than whether it arrives on our plates hot and on time and if it’s tasty. But to those among us who are happy to call ourselves gourmands and foodies, the food we eat is a thing of beauty, to be cherished, considered, and respected.

One of the things I never thought I’d ever be good at, let alone be asked for tips on, is food photography. But life takes us in unexpected directions, and over six years of having a digital camera, food photography has become and important and enjoyable part of my photo-taking. In the film days I was always curious about it, and would drool over beautifully-photographed cookbooks, but I don’t ever recall taking any food photos.

Now I take food photos nearly every day. It doesn’t seem like a special thing to me: I have no fancy light boxes or complex studio set-ups — like a lot of you out there I simply take pictures of the food I eat for lunch or dinner in the available light I have with either my compact camera or digital SLR, whichever suits my mood. So when people compliment me on my food photos and ask me, “How do you do it?” …well, I’m both amused and slightly baffled.

Just such a thing occurred on Twitter a few weeks ago. I was looking through an old folder of unwritten blog posts and tweeted offhand about coming across a food photography post I had planned and abandoned years ago. Soon people were asking me to post these tips, and I promised to, but it slowly slipped out of my mind. Then people started reminding me, saying they were looking forward to it, and I was even more intrigued.

So I gave it a long hard think, and came to the conclusion that I would need a whole book to talk about food photography. Maybe I will write one some day, but for now I needed to make a blog post!

So I asked myself, “What are the basic elements of good food photos? What are the essential factors people should look for, a mental checklist to tick off when they’re taking photos of their lunch?”

And so I came up with these:

1. Light

Photo of a bowl of pasta with vegetables in dappled sunlight

Photography is the art of light, so it stands to reason that one of the major factors to consider in food photography is what kind of photons are bouncing off your lunch.

As a good rule of thumb, using natural light is a good way to ensure better food photos. Think about it: when have you ever looked at a meal in a drab fast-food restaurant or food court lit by fluorescent lights and thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful!”? And candle-lit dinners may be romantic, but could you even see what the food looked like? No, your memories of great meals usually involve al fresco dining, or lunches in restaurants with big windows. And that’s because the sun is one of the photographer’s best friends.

Photo of a ripe red chilli in dappled sunlightAlmost every picture on this page was taken during the day, with available light. And while you can certainly take good food photos in artificial light (I might even do a post on it some time), for now make your life a lot easier (and your food photos better) and take them during the day.

This doesn’t mean you should just throw the plate into the path of the scorching afternoon sun, though — you’ll end up with harsh, flat pictures. Keep the plate just out of direct sunlight, or filter it through something, such as a curtain, or where you see trees casting shadows. Dappled sunlight creates lovely light displays in which to showcase your food.

Photo of a piece of fern placed on a fork in limited lightOn the other hand, don’t give up when you’re faced with limited light. This picture on the right of a piece of fern I found, was taken in a corner of a gloomy highway dhaba lit by (you guessed it) fluorescent tube lights. It was taken as we were waiting for our lunch, and instead of go out and place the fern in a better light, I went with what I had. You can’t tell it’s taken on a drab plastic table with chipped plates, can you?

When low light is an issue, make sure to steady your shot using a tripod, or resting the camera on a table, or using a bean-bag (a soft hand-bag or purse can sometimes substitute. Experiment with what you have around!)

And finally with regards to light, turn off that flash! Unless you’ve got a complex external flash set-up, chances are you’re using your camera’s built-in flash. It may be okay to take pictures of drunk people partying in clubs for your Facebook memories, but in-built flashes are notorious for making photos cold and flat. The light is harsh and doesn’t play with the inherent translucence of most food, making it seem dull, lifeless, and unappetising.

2. Colour

Photo of a bowl of colourful breakfast cereal with milk

We love colours. Black may always be the new black, and the man in the shiny striped tie may be the butt of office jokes, but admit it: it’s hard to ignore someone in a clown suit, is it?

And food is the same way. Bright, warm colours make food appetising (this is why we don’t have many blue foods), and a few strawberries can make dull grey oatmeal something to look forward to. Look for the colourful parts of your meal, and highlight them. Push that piece of tomato around to the front in your burger. Sure, you think you’re there for the meat, but the photo is about so much more than that. And sitting next to that tomato, it’s going to make the meat seem that much tastier.

Photo of three dry red chillies on a brushed metal plateSpeaking of which, when discussing food contrast probably warrants its own point — heck, its own seperate post — but I’m putting it here, because I’m looking at it from a colour point-of-view. Using contrasting colours between your food and the things around it — and in different components of the dish itself — is one of the easiest ways to make nicer food photos. This is one reason you see a lot of food photos are taken on white plates, and rarely on heavily patterned and colourful ones. In this case, the lack of colour in the plate brings the colours in the food out more.

So put soft against sharp, warm against cold, red against blue and dark on light. It works wonders. Nobody’s going to notice your food if it’s lost in a bland setting of sameness, or hidden in a muddle of colours.

Photo of dry spiced and salted fishBut hang on, what about sameness? Just what do you do all those times you want a picture of something that kinda looks all the same, colour-wise? You can’t take everything and put it on a plate: it’s just going to look clinical & antiseptic. Well, embrace the sameness. Go in close. It may look all brown to you, but unless it came out of a factory chances are it has a lot more colour range than you think. Use the tips we discussed in the previous point, and let the light find every little piece of colour in your subject and bring it out. You may be very surprised by the results.

And one final tip: change your camera’s White Balance settings from Auto to Daylight for instantly warmer-looking pictures.

3. Texture

Photo of discarded stems of cilantro

We’ve talked about how things look, but how do they feel? Great food photographs instantly make your mouth water. You can’t help but imagine what they taste like, your mind flooded with thoughts on how that particular food will be to touch, to roll around your tongue.

That, my friends, is texture.

It’s a bit of an indirect element; after all, we can’t actually feel the picture (Touch-O-Vision™ hasn’t been invented — yet!), but a photo can make the viewer have exactly that kind of visceral reaction to the food, highlighting the more tactile elements.

Photo of a cross-sectioned bunch of stems of parsley When taking your food photos, take a moment to imagine what the food is like to touch with your fingers and tongue. Touch and taste it, if you want to. What are the feelings that stand out? Crunchy? Smooth? Soft? Then, look for those elements in the plate and make sure you include them. Texture is everywhere. These examples are just the more direct ones that I had taken. From the ridges on potato chips to the unctuous sheen of hot pasta tossed in olive oil, the patterns on fruit and even the clarity of plain water — every food tells you what it’s made of, and we all instinctively know what something will feel like when we look at it. That is what you should try to highlight.

Photo of a papercraft origami swan placed on a roll of sweetsOf course, you can convey texture without ever showing any food. The experience of eating food involves so many textures that aren’t of things we ingest: the ceramic of the plate, the smoothness of a fork, the wrapper on your favourite chocolate. One look at some of these elements, and you can lead your viewer to think about exactly the food you want them to. There are no sweets in the photo to the left. But we’ve all prized that roll of toffees when we were kids, clutched it in our hands, delicately unwrapped each piece from its wax-paper cover (here converted into an origami swan). Even without the brand-name, I’m pretty sure most of us would know what we are looking at. And hopefully, you’re now craving toffees.

Job done.

4. Focus

Photo of a metal bowl of dry red chilliesPhoto of sauteed mushrooms in a brown sauce poured over thick chunks of toast, garnished with parmesan cheese

The human brain is a fantastic information processing engine, filtering through millions of different stimuli so we can concentrate on what’s important. Scientists have realised that if we were consciously aware of everything in the world around us, we’d go crazy. A good food photo is a bit like the human brain, picking out elements that are important and shoving others to the side, still keeping the awareness that they’re there, but not letting it all overwhelm.

In order to focus on some parts of the dish more than others, you need to understand a little about Aperture & Depth of Field. Don’t worry, I won’t be going into a science lesson here: all you need to know is that if your camera has an ‘A’ or ‘ASM’ mode on its dial you can switch it to ‘Aperture Priority‘ mode.

In Aperture Priority mode you can affect a number denoted by F (F2.8, F3.5 etc). Higher numbers mean that more of the image will be focus, so in order to get a very shallow depth of field like in these photos here, set it to the lowest you can. If everything you want in focus isn’t, adjust the F number a step or two up. You’ll soon get the hang of it.

Photo of a bowl of couscous with tuna in a tomato saucePhoto of a bowl of wholewheat spaghetti with vegetables

Many compact cameras unfortunately still do not come with an Aperture Priority mode, but this is getting rarer as people’s enthusiasm for more control over photos grows. Still, do consult you camera’s manual for specific instructions on how to set Aperture Priority.

While you’re at it, you may want to see if it can do ‘Manual Focus’ too. This way you can not only get the correct depth of field, but precisely get just what you need in focus.

A note about using these more manual features: as the aperture goes up, the shutter needs to be open longer, leading to more chances of a shaky shot. So use a tripod or bean-bag as mentioned before to get clear, crisp shots.

5. Background

Steel bowl of upma and kanda poha in Harihareshwar Maharashtra

To mangle a phrase: No plate is an island.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, so don’t assume your food does either. A lot of our memories to do with great food we’ve had has as much to do with where we had something as what we had. Try to include bits of background in your picture. It doesn’t need to be much: a few props on the table, or an angle that shows the surrounding. Give your food photos a sense of place.

The photo above was taken on vacation two years ago, and every time I see this picture I not only remember the excellent upma & kanda poha the hotel served, but also the view from our room of the hilly Maharashtrian coast, and a flood of other memories. Don’t just take photos for others: do them for yourself as well, to keep memories of places and events in your life alive. It’s odd to think that a plate of food and a little out-of-focus scenery does more to remind you of a place than other, more direct holiday snaps, but it does.

A little background can add a lot of personality and character to food photos.

Photo of two plates of bean salad with pecorino romano cheeseBut the background isn’t just useful for, well, background. As above, so below — or so they say. In food photography terms its means you can use the background to further convey information about the food itself. For example, this shot of some salad I made for lunch a couple of days ago. You can show a close-up of the food in the foreground and a similar whole plate in the background, thereby — in a single photo — conveying how the food looks at an individual component level, and how it all comes together on the plate. Two for the price of one, and other such things (my, isn’t this section getting massively punny?)

Photo of a half-dry orange skin against a backdrop of dark-leaved bushes Super-macro photo of an unknown seed placed on the thumb
Focus isn’t just something you should use within aspects of the plate, however. Placing food against an out-of-focus background does a good job of ‘framing’ the food in an interesting way, while still keeping the whole picture interesting. It also adds a tremendous amount of mood without overwhelming the picture with detail and clutter.

Keep your background in mind, but don’t let it overwhelm the important thing: the food!

Parting Shots

I hope this post has helped you idenitify the basic elements of good food photography. Certainly, on an unconscious level, I’m always keeping these five things in mind when I’m taking any food photo. Sometimes I want to emphasise one element over the other, and that’s fine — every food photo you take need not have equal parts of every facet.

And hey, if there’s one sixth element, it is: Experiment! Take more photos. In this digital age with multi-gigabyte memory cards and instant-reviews, there’s really no excuse to be stingy with your photos, especially when you’re learning. Do make mistakes, do try whatever comes in your head, because that can lead to some happy accidents — and great photos!

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Photo of a Kodak c875 compact camera in a white presentation plate

A Grand Day Out in the Natural Beauty of Dharavi

leaf growing out of the grille of an abandoned ambassador car
Quick: what is the first think you think of when I say the word ‘Dharavi‘?

Slums. Squalor. Crowds. That movie that everyone was talking about a while back…

Of all the answers you came up with, I doubt that Nature Sanctuary was one of them. But that is indeed what you will find in Dharavi, smack dab in the middle of Mumbai.

Mahim Nature Park (also called Maharashtra Nature Park) is confusingly not in Mahim as most people define it, but sits unassumingly opposite the Dharavi Bus Depot, a five minute rickshaw ride from Sion Circle. Most people have probably never heard of it because you can’t find a single swing-set, merry-go-round or snack stall inside. You will however find plenty of twisting pathways and dense foliage, countless species of plants, flowers, and bugs, all for a meagre Rs.5 entry fee.

It’s a no-frills slice of nature, and a photographer’s dream. Fantastic for a shutterbug’s Sunday out, and a great roadtest for a new camera or lens. I took my Pentax K200D out with me on its first real shakedown, and once again I am reminded that isn’t the camera that needs improvement, it’s my photography skills!

Still, out of the nearly 400 pictures I took on Sunday, quite a few didn’t suck. And here they are:

brick pathway through shallow ditch
young peepal leaves growing out of the bark of a large tree
macro of a caterpillar on a mostly-eaten leaf
large leaves catch the sun and a few raindrops
twisting brick pathway through the foliage, strewn with moss and leaves
a sprig of dry leaves resting on fresh ones
more young leaves of a creeper
old rubber slipper
parijat flower on ground
several parijat flowers
closed flowerbud of a gourd plant
dragonfly
spider versus camera lens
bees feed on the nectar of flowers
sunlight pokes through the thick canopy and hits two young leaves
another mossy, twisting pathway
blue flowers

I had a blast that day despite the heat and humidity, and highly recommend it to any nature lovers & photographers in Mumbai.

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Dark Warrior Toy

Action Figure of Dark Armoured Warrior with axe and shield
Holiday shopping is one of the few times I actually end up browsing through a store for more than just the essentials like groceries. Other than bookstores, I have a very low threshold for shopping, so this is one of the few times spend more than ten minutes there.

And the strange thing about shopping for relatives in India, is that I always end up finding something or the other I want myself! Take this little action figure, for instance. It was only AED 15 (a little over $4), and for the price it was quite well made. It’s a cheap and cheerful toy, surprisingly detailed, and one in a whole glut of products that covered everything from zombie pirate playsets to dinosaurs and giant gun-wielding policemen. On the other shelf were Transformers toys that cost over $100, and they weren’t actually any good.

But while it’s a nice little figure on its own, I was sold on it when I noticed a hole in the pack for a finger, and a well-camouflaged purple button on the figure’s belt. I had to press it…
Action Figure of Dark Armoured Warrior with axe and shield, with eyes and helmet lit up
How cool is that?

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See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Small clay statues of monkeys
Picked these up at the Japanese dollar store. I succumbed to their cuteness and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

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Open Sandwiches


More home-made sandwiches for lunch! I left them open for the sake of the photograph.

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Sandwiches for Lunch



I made sandwiches for lunch today. One of them’s a simple tomato, cucumber & edam cheese with red lettuce and chutney. The second is a sauteed mushroom with smoked turkey job. I haven’t eaten them yet. Off to do that now.

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Playing Around With The Pentax K200D

Macro shot of the Pentax K200D dslr camera taken with a Kodak C875 compact
A couple of weeks ago did my bit to help ease the credit crunch by put a good deal of cash into retail spending. I bought myself a Pentax K200D digital SLR camera. It’s the first professional camera I’ve ever owned, and while everybody and their mother told me to get a frakking Canon or Nikon, this one — quirks, warts and all — is the one I wanted (also there was a rumour going around that the model was discontinued, and indeed it took me a week to track it down in a store).

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks testing it out. With no real SLR experience behind me I haven’t half a clue as to what I’m doing. The days have also been brown and grey, which doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm to take pictures. Here’s a bunch of decent ones I’ve taken so far (out of hundreds of lousy ones, heh).

The ceiling of the airport tunnel in Dubai
The Burj Dubai, tallest building in the world, and an earth scooper in the foreground
a piece of a camel's jaw I found washed up on a beach once
My glasses and my cavernous nostril
The end of a burnt incense stick
A Sony Ericsson K500 phone.
A macro shot of an oil lamp in the dark
The legs of an artist's mannequin
A mynah on the windowsill obscured by a kahwa pot
Pedestrian signage in Deira
The Radisson Dubai Creek, formerly the Intercontinental
A fancy mobile phone cradle
The mountains near Dibba
Dust stains after a drizzly morning on the wing mirror of a Ssangyong Rexton

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Idolatry



Two mannequins in the store display of a Burberry shop

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