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Price Tags of Life

Money to burn, the world’s most profitable non-retailer, worse than rehab, outmobying Moby, farting sheep, cashing in on karma, how Josh feels about the homeless, and absolutely nothing related to Halloween. Welcome to the Price Tags of Life issue.

CASH FLOW DAM

$Okay, so maybe money does make the world go ’round. But managing it also takes away from our time enjoying the world’s ’round-going. Especially when the average American juggles 13 total credit obligations (9 credit cards and 4 installment loans) for a staggering national consumer debt of $2.47 trillion. So anything that makes that whole money game easier is a welcome crutch in our crippled sprint away from bankruptcy.

Say hello to Mint.com, a totally free, totally secure service that’s out to refresh money management. An effortless way to pull all of your financial stuff in one place and stay on top of things, it takes less than 5 minutes to set up. You just go through a few authentication steps for each of the accounts you add (credit cards, banks, checking accounts, savings, etc.) and you’re good to go. (And just to reiterate for the paranoid types out there, Mint provides bank-level data security. That’s PayPal with a chastity belt.

The minty magic also gives you snapshot of your spending patterns, so you know where you’re blowing your budget, and offers helpful saving tips based on your financial activity. And it saves the average user $1,000 at the first login. Bonus points for the wonderfully Appleish, widgety feel and an interface that’s as hip as anything financial can get.

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It’s been a while since we endorsed something with such lack of reservation and snark, but this one’s a real Brain Pickings Seal of Approval winner. More importantly, it’s also the winner of this year’s TechCrunch 40 grant: that’s a $50,000 nod. Do check it out.

UNTHREADED WATERS

If you’re an aspiring designer, artist, art director or other artsy-crafty type, you’re familiar with Threadless: the Chicago-based website that lets people submit t-shirt designs to be voted on by others, then manufactures the top 7 designs each week and pays the artists $2,500 a piece. Last month, Threadless opened their first retail store in Chicago, taking the nontraditional to a whole new level. They’re even staying away from the “store” label and calling it a community center instead, a “project” rather than a “business”.

The two-story, 1,700 square-foot establishment carries a maximum of 20 t-shirt designs at a time, changing them up every Friday regardless of their popularity. And we’re talking about the first floor.

The second floor is actually merchandise-free, providing instead a space for group classes, random gatherings, or just a WiFi getaway. This kind of community-centric model fully reflects the founding philosophy of the 7-year-old company.

And it has become no small hub of creativity: with over 500,000 registered members and 1,000 weekly design submissions, Threadless spends over $1 million a year compensating artists for their designs. At $15 to $17 price tag for t-shirts, we guess it’s safe to say these folks must be on to something. In fact, their global annual sales have now topped $17 million — no small feat for the 35-employee getup whose primary contributors are starving artists.

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So whether you’re into entrepreneurism, art, or fashion, Threadless is worth taking a look at. Even if only for the not-so-remote possibility that it may embody the future of retail.

SELLOUT BOY

Frankly, it’s a bit dizzifying when everyone and their mother is throwing beat-up terms like “indie”, “commercialization”, “sell-out,” and “Bob Dylan is a soulless fucking hypocrite” at us. Sure, lines are blurring. And money is being made. But the whole marketplace of licensing tunes to advertising is leaving fans, and some Washington Post staffers, kinda bitter.

So one such indignant guy came up with The Moby Equation: a very, very precise mathematical formula using very, very subjective quotients to measure how much exactly an artist has “sold out.” (Not that you’re wondering, because it’s so blatantly obvious, but just in case: the name was inspired by the legendary licensing bonanza that landed just about every track on Moby’s 1999 Play album in a commercial.)

So we decided to see how “nonconformist” Regina Spektor fared with her “Music Box” stint for JC Penny (a.k.a. Saatchi’s attempt to infuse the bland retailer with some lovemark juice.) The formula spat out an impressive Moby Quotient of 312.56. But there seemed to be some kinda bug: although you can calculate the quotient, you can’t really submit a comment as clicking the “submit” button gets you to that oh-so-familiar standard error page.

So much for our snarky remark about Regina’s only chance in life to out-something The Clash.

BIG IN JAPAN

And on that note, those of us who’ve seen Lost In Translation know a thing or two about the Japanese commercial exploits of Western celebrities. One YouTube user took to bursting Hollywood’s sacredness bubble by compiling an extensive library of such Japanese commercials, spanning over 20 years and featuring dozens of A-listers.

The clips range from the laughable (please keep those towels on, Harrison Ford and Japanese sauna-mate) to the mildly offensive (who thought Jack Bauer was a calorie-conscious kinda man) to the grossly bizarre (hey there, naked Homer and Bart shilling C.C. Lemon).

https://youtube.com/watch?v=kRLF4G1eAng

Go ahead, indulge your makes-them-look-so-much-less-enviable craving with the complete collection.

UNTRIVIA

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We’re doing something a little different this week. This Untrivia edition is less about what people are doing, saying or thinking and more about what they should be doing, saying or thinking in light of some interesting facts, ranging from just plain odd to pretty damn disturbing. Consider them little tidbits of eye-opening stuff, stuff to inspire you to make simple changes, or just stuff to make you look smarter next time you’re trying to pick up an eco-hippie. Here we go:

  • Americans use 60,000 plastic bags every 5 seconds
  • It takes 25 bath tubs (1,250 gallons) of water to make a single half-pound beef patty (and 417 gallons for half a pound of tofu)
  • In the US alone, over 1 billion bottles of water get shipped on trains, trucks and boats, resulting in 37,800 18-wheelers guzzling the roads to deliver it
  • People chug over 30 billion throwaway bottles of water a year, enough to go around the world 150 times with an end-to-end chain of the used bottles
  • Cattle and sheep pass so much gas they account for a mind-blowing 18% of all methane, one of the greenhouse gases
  • Mining gold for a single ring creates 20 tons of waste rock, leaking cyanide (used to separate metal from ore) and other heavy metals into the environment

So what’s an average Joe to do? Cut back on the Sloppy Joes, get a Brita, start shopping with a canvas bag, get over that must-wear-gold ego and, for God’s sake, give those poor cows some Beano.

PROFITABLE KARMA

Say what you will of eBay, but we can’t deny the media empire started out with a very utilitarian, user-need-centric mentality. Skype and PayPal definitely fit this model. But the latest addition to the family is truly revolutionary in vision and functionality.

microplace1.pngMicroPlace is on a remarkable mission: to alleviate global poverty by letting everyday Americans invest in businesses run by the working poor. It’s called microinvesting and besides helping those in need take their small business ideas to market, it also gives investors a financial return on their humanitarianism. We see it as the ultimate giving back.

You choose the region you want to invest in (Africa, Eurasia, Latin America or Southeast Asia) or the specific country: to help you pick, MicroPlace gives you some (pretty scary) info on the country’s mortality rate, HIV prevalence, population, life expectancy, and percentage of population earning less than $1 a day. You can start with as little as $100, which may be just a Halloween outfit for you, but will help some woman (most traders, farmers and craftspeople in the developing world are female) earn a living wage with her own brain- and hand-child.

We’re all for smart symbiotic relationships and smart solutions to big global problems, so this one’s a real list-topper on our all-things-smart collection. Be your own judge.

AS SEEN IN PHILLY

First, some background so you can put this week’s sighting in context: on the ramp connecting the Chestunt and Market Street bridges to the Schuylkill trail, there’s a certain bench that, for the past couple of years, has been permanently occupied by a homeless man. Most of the time, by one particular, particularly smelly homeless man. (But with 3,000 homeless cramming Philly’s handful of shelters and another 300 roaming the streets on an average day, this poor guy isn’t even a blimp on the city’s homeless radar.)

Passing by it the other day, we were startled to find one upright citizen by the name of Josh had taken matters into his own too-much-time-on hands and erected the following radical homeless-deterrent over the bench:

not the answer

Of course it’s not the answer. And of course it’s not the humane thing to do. But what it is is part of the social conversation about a clearly hot-button issue. So while Josh may not have the solution, we firmly believe that real solutions are arrived at only through serious, intense and, yes, uncomfortable conversation. Because a society with no controversy and conversation is just a tad too Orwellian for our tastes.

But we can’t help pondering the moral implications of investing time and money in such a blatant Band-Aid when this same expenditure could’ve been used towards a (tiny) stab at a cure.

BP

Expectation Shmexpectation

Flanking Apple, acoustic adventures, fashion you can see from space, ditchmail, temporal liberation, what a stranger, a grocery store and art have in common, and why Conversationality really is where the money’s at. Welcome to the Expectation Shmexpectation issue.

WHILE THE GIANT’S SLEEPING

Say what you will about the iPhone, but the sleek little bastard is a technology driver in and of itself — and, most importantly, beyond. Various competitors were already playing catch-up before the iPhone even launched. (Hello, Verizon’s LG Prada.)

picture-3.pngBut while Apple is drunk on its own brilliance, one serious competitor is silently building its digital war-chest to take on iTunes, the iPhone, AT&T, MySpace and Google all at once. Nokia, the global headsets leader with 35% market share, is adding products and services to its portfolio like there’s no tomorrow: it only makes sense that the company whose tagline is “Connecting People” gets in the business of doing just that — and doing it better than anyone.

Let’s take a peek at what they’ve got and why it matters:

  • Nokia N95: multimedia phone featuring 2.8-inch display, 5 megapixel camera, WiFi, GPS, microSD, and more
  • S60 Touch UI: direct competitor to the iPhone; one-ups the Apple gadget by offering video recording and sharing straight from the device, a Flash-capable browser, and richer sensor use (like flipping the phone over to silence an alarm)
  • Ovi: mobile content and Internet service portal; Finnish for “door”
  • intros: digital music platform that allows for wireless download to headset and two-way synchronization to host computer; comes after last year’s acquisition of Loudeye, a digital music platform and distribution company, for $60 million
  • MOSH: social network that allows sharing of media online or from a phone
  • N-Gage: gaming platform
  • Enpocket: recently acquired Boston-based mobile marketing company
  • Navteq: recently acquired (for $8.1 million) digital map supplier
  • Video Center: deal with News Corp., Sony Pictures, CNN and others to distribute content straight to headsets

So while everyone’s gushing about the oh-so-wonderful iPhone, shortcomings properly blurred by those Apple juice goggles, Nokia is building a powerful army of tools to take on the digital business. And when the flanking does happen, just don’t say you never saw it coming.

TALENT KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES

Petty concerns like budget, production and media are no barrier for serious talent. Which is why we dig Fionn Regan‘s latest DIY video, “Be Good or Be Gone.”

And while the clamour of life drowns out the Irish singer-songwriter’s folksy vocals, it does so beautifully, enticing us into an extraordinary journey through the quiet charm of the ordinary.

As artists are starting to dump the record industry like week-old pizza leftovers, are video production studios next?

OH, THE POSSIBILITIES

We hate nothing more than pre-canned, standard voicemail greetings. (Okay, maybe there’s some stuff we hate more.) So we have to love YouMail, a nifty new service that lets you have custom voicemail greetings for each of your contacts. (Or however many you actually care enough about to custom-greet.) It also allows you to keep messages forever and have them sent as text to your email. Did we mention it’s all free?

You can choose ready-made greetings from a number of categories (business, humor, entertainment, sexy, politics, commercials, games, music, sports, even “ditchmail”) or record your very own.

For a sampling of the hilarious variety, listen to the “mental health hotline”, the postal service, God, or this casually homicidal caller repellent.

UNTRIVIA

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Volumes have been written about the people who drive the word-of-mouth machine. They’ve been called anything from “influencers” to “mavens” to “brand advocates” to “conversation catalysts.” The latest term: “Passionistas.” MediaVest and Yahoo help shed some light over who these folks are and what earns them those labels. They:

  • Spend 6 minutes online for every 1 minute the average Interneter does
  • Dig brands related to their interests and passions, and are more likely than typical consumers to try such brands
  • Are twice as likely as the average person to post on consumer-generated content sites, message boards and online content comment fields
  • Do 184% more than average Internet search on stuff they’re interested in
  • Are growing in numbers: 34.4 million such influentials are projected to populate the US Internet by 2011, up from 26.8 million in 2007

And influence they will. Turns out, 78% of people trust the opinions of other consumers more than any marketing and advertising messaging. (Hey, we’re on that boat, too: gotta love Amazon Askville.) Here’s how trust in other media compares, according to Nielsen:

  • Newspaper ads: 63%
  • Blogs: 61%
  • Brand websites: 60%
  • TV: 56%
  • Magazines: 56%
  • Radio: 54%
  • Brand sponsorships: 49%
  • Search engines: 34%
  • Banners: 26%

Mobile text messaging tanks at the very bottom. Which explains why so many mobile marketer hopefuls’ hearts were crushed at the CTIA conference when Neilsen announced the finding that over 80% of cell phone users don’t even look at the ads, let alone respond.

LONG IS IN

Fendi went to great lengths with their new luxe collection. Finally, after months of paperwork and jumping through bureaucracy hoops, the LMVH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton luxury arm has pulled off what seemed like quite a stretch: an elaborate Fall/Winter fashion show that used the Great Wall of China as the actual runway — a first for both Fendi and the Wall.

While the footage is kinda boring (that’s 1,500 miles worth of still-faced runway strutting), the show was nonetheless impressive, a majestic red-and-black affair masterminded by legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld.

As the fashion industry if finally starting to drool over China’s 1.3 billion consumers, it’s only fitting that such an enormous market would warrant such an enormous publicity stunt: $10-million-enormous, to be exact. (That’s 4 30-second Super Bowl spots.)

And on another note from the ridiculously unnecessary expenditures department, we sure hope all those light bulbs were CFL’s.

MINIMALISM FOR THE TIME-INSENSITIVE

Time. It’s all kinds of evil: it turns relatively fresh thinking into old news, it flies when we want it to limp, and it makes concepts like “late for work” exist in the first place. And for those of us who choose to take it more lightly, more loosely, or just outright ignore it, this week’s product pick is for you: the temporally liberated aesthetes.

The 900 ABACUS watch is a keeper. Not of time, necessarily, but of all kinds of cool. The ball, just like you, is completely free to do whatever it likes. But as soon as the watch gets in the horizontal position, magnets draw it to the actual time reading.

At just $153.47, it has all the makings of a watchy watch: made in Germany with premium quartz, sapphire glass face, luxury leather strap and stainless steel case. It’s also sweat- and water-resistant up to 30 meters (that’s 98 feet for the metrically challenged) — although, unlike Lance Armstrong, this one-ball wonder doesn’t seem quite like a winner in any athletic or aquatic pursuit.

AS SEEN IN PHILLY

Spotted in the lobby of The Fresh Grocer up on 40th & Walnut: a curious poster by the Slought Foundation urging people, just like we did last week, to look up: a gigantic portrait was plastered on the facade of the building’s 5-story parking lot. (It wasn’t there when we look, must’ve mistimed it.)

Slought Foundation Wild Poster

Turns out, it’s promoting the Slought Foundation’s October 11 eventConversations with Braco Dimitrijevic’s ‘The Casual Passer-By I Met…’

Artist Braco Dimitrijevic started a series of installations titled “Casual Passer-By” in 1971 and went global with it. He uses advertising media like billboards, banners and public transportation vehicles as a cultural gallery for his iconic portraits of random strangers he encounters and photographs in the street.

Interesting stuff.

BP

Things To Look At, Things To See

Snobby sorbet, bands in town, circus in Brooklyn, the looked-at unseen, global warming in aisle 9, an imaginary nail in the record industry’s coffin, and how Google is saving the world while, you know, taking over it. Welcome to the Things To Look At, Things To See issue.

BETA WAY TO GET AROUND

Okay, most of us geek types can already recite Google Labs’ project list in their sleep and madly worship the Labs graduates (say, Docs & Spreadsheets, GOOG-411, Scholar and, of course, Google Earth.) But we’re particularly goo-ga over the latest one.

logo_idea.jpgGoogle Transit, naturally in Beta (as, by the way, good ol’ Gmail still is), helps you get around town without using a car. Just plug in your starting point and your destination, and you’re on your way. (How does it feel to walk in those shrunken-carbon-footprint feet?) The neat service uses Google Maps to get bike/walk route ideas and directions using public transporation down to the specific bus route number, the cost of the trip and the estimated travel time.

Alas, this transportation genius is only available in 19 US cities — and Japan (?!) But we know how fast the Google folks can churn out their magic (yep, if you haven’t gathered by now, we’ve been drinking the Goolaid), so no doubt Philly will make the cut at some point. (Especially given our very own Septa already has a similar but much more low-tech service on their website that can only benefit from being picked up by high-traffic, high-buzz Google.)

We only have one question — given the brilliance of the serivce itself, how come no one in Mountain View had the same “d’oh” moment we did and thought of the oh-so-obvious bike-tires-over-two-O’s logo? Do we have to come up with everything? Come on now.

OFF-ISLAND FASHION

Trailing behind the buzzing publicity beehive that was New York Fashion Week, Brooklyn Fashion Weekend kicks off today at Empire-Fulton State Ferry Park. It’s a showcase for emerging design talent (including unforgettable character Malan Breton from Project Runway 3) and a chance for fashionistas to get the goods before they get hit the way-out-of-95-percent-of-the-population’s-budget price range.

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This year’s event, themed Circus Couture, is part theatrical magic, part runway (and part major Target sponsorship).

Behind the show is the BK Style Foundation, a non-profit inspired by the recognition that Brooklyn is brimming with artists and underexposed talent. The org aims to assist young desingers in building and bettering their lines, while also providing a professional backdrop for business. And because they’re a non-profit, proceeds from the show end up in various charity causes.

That should make you feel a little better about shelling out a year’s lunch money on one of Malan’s creations.

FRASIER’S FAVORITE DESSERT

Although it may not feel like it around here these days (yes, it is always sunny — and warm — in Philadelphia and Al Gore was probably right that we’re on our way to bathing in a soup of melted glaciers and our own sweat), summer’s winding down. Time to trade in the sherbet for that alluring glass of oh-so-autumny cabernet sauvignon.

Wait, wait. Now you can do both, thanks to Wine Cellar Sorbets: “The adult desert for sophisticated palates.”

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The concept is the brainchild of wine-head-meets-culinary-artist David Zablocki and scientist-with-an-MBA Bret Birnbaum, a couple of childhood friends from Queens. Today, the two vinopreneurs have various stores in New York, New Jersey and Florida already carrying their creation, their sorbets are served in a bunch of upscale restaurants, they’ve been covered by a number of top-tier magazines, and they cater private A-list events.

All sorbets are seasonal and come from vintages, varietals and viticulture regions from where the wines were produced. On top of all the flavors already available, the sorbet sommelier is planning to make Tuscan Sangiovese and Port Wine Sorbet paired with a dark chocolate top hat.

Mouth watering, drool may drip on keyboard. Must step away.

UNTRIVIA

You may remember last year when a non-profit called RenewUS set out to mobilize people to get their energy from alternative sources and pressure their utilities providers to make those available. A pretty hefty task, you may say. RenewUS made quite a bit of buzz in the eco-blogging community with their envirol video.

And then they disappeared.

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Well, turns out, they didn’t. They just rebranded as ClimateCounts, “a collaborative effort to bring consumers and companies together in the fight against global climate change,” and set out to fight global warming from the bottom up. Maybe they realized people need easy, actionable everyday changes to start making a difference, and the whole face-off with utilities companies may have been just a bit much.

So ClimateCounts started simple: they measured the carbon footprints of common household brands so consumers can start making a difference right at the store. So far, they’ve got 56 companies — they started with the most popular ones — but the list is growing. They ranked them using a 22-criteria scoring system, assessing 4 key benchmakrs: how the company measures its carbon footprint (22 posible points), how much they do to reduce it (56 points), how they support (or whether they try to block) progressive climate legislation (10 points), and how publicly transparent they are about all that (12 points). As a result, brands scored red (“Stuck”), yellow (“Starting”), or green (“Striding”) based on their overall score out of the possible 100 points. Here’s a topline of the scorecard‘s best and worst performers:

Top Striders: Cannon (77/100), Nike (73/100), Unilever (71/100), IBM (70), Toshiba (66), Stonyfield Farms (63)

Top Stuckers: Wendy’s, Jones Apparel Group, Darden Restaurants, CBS, Burger King, Amazon (all zilch)

On each company’s profile, there’s even an easy-email button to let the company CEO climate efforts are important. And just so you’re in the know when you’re in the store, you can download the ranking pocketpiece or the full-blown scorecard.

Worth mentioning: the entire non-profit is funded by Stonyfield Farms and Clean Air – Cool Planet. But despite the company affiliation, this sounds like the real thing: Stonyfield Farms has been donating 10% of their profits to, well, non-profits since their very inception, and they were also the ones who produced, quietly and publicitly-stunt-free, the aforementioned RenewUS A Crisis Averted film last year. (Not to mention the objectivity oozing from the fact they were ranked number 6, not 1.) We can help but get a bit warm and fuzzy when we see such a rare, genuine just-get-out-and-do-it approach.

IMAGINE

With the record industry ashambles these days, bands , artists and musicologists alike are looking for new ways to publish and relate to talent. There’s podcasting, free-market album sales, open-source remixing for legal sharing, and more.

imagine.pngBut one music dream machine is taking things to a whole new level. Imaginary Albums is an “imaginary place dedicated to the imaginary dissemination of excellent music: full albums encoded at high quality, and available for free download.

And by “excellent” they mean really, really what-are-the-major-labels-thinking-not-signing-this-band good. Like The Harvey Girls, whose eponymous album is a deep dive into melodic melancholy with a tint of snarky liveliness, all brilliantly harmonized. Or Laura Palmer‘s curious instrumental interpretation of still life. (Who knew acoustic guitar and an alarm clock could make sweet inanimate love together.) Or Tiny Creatures‘ bizarre-yet-brilliant foray into sonic electro-lounge.

As you’ll notice, a lot of this music is very experimental. And a lot of it you may hate. But here’s the thing with mainstream record labels (and perhaps the reason they’re no longer king in music culture): a long, long time ago they’ve stopped caring about the progressive, left-of-center players and have instead eaten themselves into blobs of Top-40-sales fat, sitting idly in a comfort zone of mainstream taste and lowest-common- denominator demand.

Sure, it’s the mainstream’s taste that drives a lot of music culture, but if “the mainstream” never gets exposed to novelty, controversy and a level of discomfort, that taste never gets the chance to grow. It’s a vicious cycle. An open-exchange market free of corporate constraints may just be the only way to put compelling conversation back into music culture.

Imagine that.

GIGS TO GO

While we’re on the music note, every once in a while we come across an underrated but super-utilitarian new service. Like Bands In Town — a social media outlet for the music-obsessed. Despite the leaves-something-to-be-desired interface, the actual service is pretty nifty (and rather similar to iConcertCal, which you may recall from way back in the Brain Pickings 1.0 days) and simple: just fill in a bunch of your favorite bands and artists (the little wiz already knows your location from the IP address) and you’re good to go. (Or, if you have Last.fm — which you may also remember from the extensive praises we sang it back in the day — BandsInTown lets you automatically synch with your existing music profile.)

bands.pngYou get a tag cloud of upcoming shows near you, then you can narrow it down by when you wanna see a concert (tonight only or not), distance from the city, max price range, and label type (unsigned, indie or major). You can also filter results by genre or tag. Needless to say, all the goodness is free. (Sign of the times, no? Social connectivity services could never live on a paid-subscription model now, great news for advertisers, especially the behavioral-targeting-smart ones.)

Okay, we just found out Madeleine Peyroux (oh, only the best neo-French jazz vocal to come by in decades) is coming to South Orange, NJ next month, so we’re off to plotting that getaway. Who’s in?

AS SEEN IN PHILLY

It’s frightening how, buried in our daily grind, we hardly ever look up and really see things. Just this week, we biked by something we’d passed a thousands times before but never noticed.

An unexpected gem tucked between Chinatown and crack row, this building stands proud right on high-traffic Callowhill as a delightful hallmark of the looked-at unseen.

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Tomorrow, look up.

BP

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