Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My moment in the spotlight is about to end

There's only one more day left in the month, so my moment in the Road Trip Journal spotlight is about to end. As you probably read at the beginning of the month, I'm a featured travel writer on Road Trip Journal this month and I'm up for a Reader's Choice Award.

There's only one more day left if you want to vote for my article on Blue Spring State Park. The winning blogger gets a $100 gas card. The best part - you could win a $100 gas card too! Once you vote and enter your email address, your name gets put into the monthly drawing for a $100 gas card. So, here is my shameless request… read the articles that are up for the April Reader's Choice Award and if you like my piece on Blue Spring State Park… vote for me!! And if you like one of the other pieces better, well go ahead and vote for one of them. Regardless you'll still be in the running for that gas card. Plus if you write any travel pieces for your blog, go ahead and submit them - you might get paid for your hard work too!


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Road Trip :: Sites from Sanibel Island

Just like snowbirds in the wintertime, my idea of blogging while on vacation has taken a serious dive south. The only place we have internet access here is by the pool and although it sounds quite romantic to work on your laptop next to a pool, you have to remember that I have two small boys who are drawn to water in a most insane way. So me staring at a laptop with a towel draped over me so that I can see the screen wouldn't win me any parenting awards as I wonder what those two large annoying splashing sounds were.

I realize there's nothing more painful than being forced to thumb through someone else's vacation pictures. You're interested at first, but then wonder how many more pictures there are as you nod politely and start mentally preparing your grocery list in your head as photo after photo of someone else's vacation flips by.

That being said, here are some photos from our trip so far. And as you're compiling your grocery list, remember to buy milk.

Brown pelicans - two adult, one juvenile.

Red hibiscus

Pink hibiscus

Marsh rabbit

The beach

Great Blue Heron



Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wildlife Weekend :: Salty Dog

We're here on sunny Sanibel Island and I'm doing my best not to call our house-sitters constantly for chicken and cat reports. I can't let them know the extent of my chicken neuroses, so I'm holding off on phone calls…for now. I will admit to waking up this morning to the sound of birds and I immediately thought it was the chickens. Then Jace wandered through and said "That sounds like our chickens!"

Instead we're having fun on the beautiful white, sandy beach overlooking the crystal clear aqua-colored waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It's funny how romantic it sounds, but when I grew up here I didn't think twice about it all. It was just the beach.

Since it's a wildlife weekend I thought you'd like to see a photo of Rommel catching some rays and watching the boys playing in the Gulf.

He's in dog nirvana - he's digging holes in the sand, watching birds skimming the water and coming home with salt in his fur and sand on his paws...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Road Trip

The family is headed south for a little vacation tonight. We're meeting family and friends for a wedding/family reunion and then relaxing with the relatives for a full week on a tropical island off Southwest Florida. So I'll be a bit M.I.A. on the blog until May when we return. I've got a couple of scheduled posts that might just pop up and I've been toying with the idea of mobile blogging, so you might see a thing or two from me over the next 10 days...or you might not. I'm playing it all by ear right now.

We have house-sitters who'll be taking care of the house, the cats and the chickens, so I haven't blogged much this week as I've been in a mad rush to get the house cleaned for them and pack up the family for our trip. We're taking the dog with us, but the cats and the chickens will be sadly left behind.

The chickens have been moved to the coop and will be living out there full-time while we're gone. I won't have our chicken-sitters worry about moving them out to the newly-built chicken tractor everyday like we do, so they'll be cooped up for a full week. I feel bad for them, but I know they're chickens and they'll adjust.

And it turns out that our chickens are afraid of the dark. When the sun sets, the chicks peep like mad and scramble around trying to get out of the coop. I read on the Backyard Chickens Forum that many young chicks are afraid of the dark, but will often adjust after a couple of days. Farmer B came up with a temporary fix, followed by a genius idea. The temporary fix was to hang a glo-stick sphere in the top of the coop to give off a faint light on the first night. It was like a chicken rave all night in the coop and it gave off enough light that the chickens finally calmed down.

Farmer B's genius idea has solved the nighttime lighting problem at the coop. We have some boxes of solar driveway lights that we keep in the garage as part of our emergency kit for hurricane season. When you lose power in a hurricane, you put the lights outside to charge all day, then bring them in the house at night and plant them in buckets filled with sand. You have free solar-powered lights all night that aren't a fire hazard - it's one of our most important hurricane kit items. Farmer B figured this would be perfect for the chicks so we've planted some driveway lights around the coop next and they'll charge all day and glow all night - problem solved. Safe solar chicken lighting.

So wish our chickens, our house, our garden, and our cats good luck while we're gone!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Great Water Debate

One of the biggest gardening mysteries that I have yet to solve is the elusive "gardening watering schedule." Oh it confuses me to no end. If you recall last year one of our biggest issues was water. I'd turn on the sprinkler at dinnertime with intentions of watering the garden for about an hour, then wake up the next morning and see the sprinkler still going and run out there in my PJs and slippers splodging out to the garden to turn it off. Then we had the flooding from Tropical Storm Faye that did not help our watering dilemma.

This time around I'm having better luck, but I'm still unsure of how to water the garden. Should it be daily? Weekly? For 15 minutes? For one hour? If you do it wrong, your plants will punish you severely. I know this because I got cracked tomatoes and blossom end rot last year. I also caught my carrots and radishes making an ark late one night, which was not a good sign.

So this time I decided to call our local extension office and ask them how to water a vegetable garden. I'm a doubter by nature so I decided to call the extension offices for both local counties and pretend on the phone I lived in whatever county I was calling and compare the advice of both extension offices. I live right on the border of two counties, so that is how I justified this web of lies.

When I called the first extension office and told them of my watering dilemma they told me that the master gardener was out, but that Abe could answer my questions. I wondered who Abe was - a gardener?... or the janitor?...but happily spoke to him because just by hanging out in the extension office he has to know more than I do about gardening. Abe told me to water my garden every other day for about 30 minutes. He said to water early in the morning and not late in the afternoon. He said that our sandy Florida soil does not hold in much water so you cannot go long between waterings like you can if you have real soil. Every other day for 30 minutes definitely surprised me.

I then called the next extension office in the neighboring county and spoke to Sophie. She answered the phone by saying "Master Gardener Extension Office," so I felt confident. Sophie said she wanted to confer with two master gardeners and call me back with the answer. I was even happier with that. I knew when she called back she'd have conflicting information from Abe and I'd be able to out him as the janitor giving illegal advice over the phone, causing scandal in the gardening world. When she called back she said that I should water three times a week for about 30 minutes a pop. She mentioned that Florida's sandy soil doesn't hold water well so that watering often is better than watering less. She also said I should test the soil by digging down a few inches and seeing if it's moist. If it's not, I need to water longer. Very similar to ole' Abe's advice, wouldn't you say?

I even found an online site that mentions watering twice a day in the summer when it doesn't rain. How crazy is that? So I think I can cross over-watering off my list of possible causes of garden failure. Since I've been watering the garden every other day for 15 minutes, I'm clearly watering less than what's suggested locally. I've had quite a few garden-blogging friends wonder if I was overwatering too, so realizing I'm not watering enough is quite a revelation for me!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Kid Craft :: Shadow Puppets

I know my regular gardening readers probably recoil at my kid craft posts, but I'm a full-time mom and part-time gardener, so most of my day is spent trying to occupy two little boys without relying solely on SpongeBob and Scooby Doo. Trying to come up with something creative every single day of the week isn't an easy task, but every now and then we find something that's a real hit. This activity was such a hit that I had to share it incase another mom needed something cheap and easy to do with her kids.

I've always like the idea of shadow puppets, but wasn't sure we could pull it off. It turns out you need no skills whatsoever and it doesn't cost anything so we gathered the essential equipment:

Wooden sticks (we used bamboo skewers from the kitchen)
Black construction paper
Freezer paper
(Optional: laminator)

To get the ball rolling I sat up one night scouring the web for photos of a house, a wolf and some pigs. I found the pictures and printed them out. Then I cut them out and traced around the shape onto black construction paper. Next I cut them out and laminated them. Finally I taped a bamboo skewer to the back of each one, after I cut off the pointy part of the skewer. The boys are very familiar with the Three Little Pigs story so I knew they'd jump at the chance to act it out.

We got two barstools and stretched out a piece of freezer paper in between the stools and taped it in place. We put a halogen desk lamp behind the stools and turned off the lights in the room. We started with me telling the story of the Three Little Pigs and the boys watching, but I wasn’t able to finish the story without the boys begging to tell their own version. They had such a great time acting it out and changing up the story.

Then they decided that making their own shadow puppets would lead to much better stories. The boys got black construction paper and a white crayon and drew their own puppets. With some creative cutting out by me, we ended up with a dinosaur, two monsters, a boy and a boat.

These puppets along with the Three Little Pig puppets led to some hilarious stories. The boys were literally crying they were laughing so hard at their own insane stories. We had monsters knocking on the houses, dinosaurs eating pigs, a boy riding on the wolf's back… and the boys just couldn't get enough. They actually played with these puppets for almost two hours. They are 3 and 5 years old and I said close to TWO hours.

I didn't laminate the boys puppets because they wanted to use them right away and had no patience for the laminator. Even though they were just construction paper taped to a bamboo skewer, they held up just fine without any rips, so clearly a laminator isn't necessary.

This was one of the best activities we've ever done together. Their imaginations were in overdrive and it didn't cost a penny. If you wanted to make it gardening related, you could always cut out Jack and the Beanstalk for your kids to act out in their shadow puppet theatre.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Where is Smokey the Bear when you need him?

On Saturday Farmer B and I noticed that we smelled smoke outside and were immediately irritated. Although we live in a subdivision it is pretty rural and people think nothing of piling up a bunch of yard debris in their backyard and setting it on fire. This polutes every single yard downwind with overpowering smoke and sets Farmer B onto an angry rampage where he wonders what sort of idiot starts a massive yard fire in a residential neighborhood.

But Saturday's smoke was different. It was really, really strong and there was a lot of it. At one point the entire backyard was filled with a whiteish haze and it got too difficult to breathe outside. Then we looked toward the treeline at the end of our street and saw this.

We went on the news and discovered that a 125-acre wildfire was burning in the woods not too far from our neighborhood.

Then on Sunday morning the news reported on a 150-acre wildfire burning. Interesting... it was definitely growing. The wind was blowing in the opposite direction on Sunday so were were able to spend most of the day outside with only a light smoke smell. We spent the day listening to the drone of fire helicopters flying overhead carrying large buckets of water underneath. Then the wind shifted Sunday afternoon and it started raining hot ash and got really smokey again so we had to come inside.

Now I know that the photo isn't very impressive, but you can't pick up ash that falls on the ground. Obviously, it disintegrates. So these are the pieces that floated into my hand when I was outside taking pictures.

The smoke got so thick that the sun was obscured all afternoon and looked really strange through the clouds.

Then late last night we were taking out the garbage and noticed that the sky was glowing orange in the direction of the fire. We watched the 11 o'clock news and the lead story was the 400-acre wildfire and how amazing it was that it grew so fast in 24 hours. They aren't overly concerned because they're saying that it's not a threat to houses.

Let's hope so.

Update: Apparently there are two similar large fires burning in our neck of the woods. One has now forced 200 people from their homes into shelters and the other one (our one) still isn't threatening homes.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wildlife Weekend: Stalking Sandhill Cranes - Part 2

Remember my Wildlife Weekend about the Sandhill Crane family I've been stalking? I first photographed them on February 27th when the little hatchlings were knee-high to a grasshopper. I photographed them again on March 21 when the hatchlings were really starting to grow, but were still fluffy little things.

And now look at them today. The colts are obviously fully-feathered and must be flying to some extent because in the picture one of the colts is on the other side of the cattle fencing.

It's interesting to me how the parents seem to divide the duties of keeping an eye on the colts...just like we do with our own kids.

The young ones never wander far from the parents and when I saw them the other day the mother was watching one colt and the father was watching the other. They were about 100 feet apart in a field in those photos above and I could see the parents constantly keeping an eye on each other and their colt.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Chicken Run - Building a chicken tractor!

I knew when we got chickens that we wanted to free range them and not keep them cooped up in…well… a coop all day. But then Farmer B reminded me about Jack and free ranging them went out the window.

Several years ago we owned ducks and Jack was our big white Pekin duck. Very early one morning I heard insane panicked quacking and I knew something bad had happened. When we went outside it was clear that Jack was gone. Farmer B found him in the vacant lot next door - what was left of him. There were deep scratches on our 6-foot privacy fence so we assumed it all ended in the clutches of a bobcat.

We don't want anything to happen to our chickens, so we realized that free-ranging wasn't going to happen this time around. Then there's our stupid dog who still chases anything that runs or flies and tries to flatten it, so he is the icing on the no-free-range cake.

We had to figure out the best way for the chickens to live out happy chicken lives and get a taste of free-ranging without the risk that comes with it. Although we live in a subdivision, it's pretty rural and we have a lot of airborne predators who would love a big fat juicy chicken for a snack. I did entirely too much online reading and came up with the idea of building a chicken tractor.

Although the name implies it, chicken tractors aren't John Deeres driven by hens. They're mobile chicken runs with wheels on one side and handles on the other for easy mobility. Each day you can move the tractor to a new spot in your yard for your chickens to explore. This was perfect, but then I noticed the cost. Not so perfect.

I saw a great set-up that a fellow chicken owner had built on the Backyard Chickens forum and asked him about the plans. Next thing I know I had an email from Froggi VanRiper in my Inbox with a complete set of plans just waiting for me to get cracking on them - chicken people are just good people. Farmer B is a very busy guy and building things with wood is at the bottom of his list of fun things to do. I waited a couple of weeks, but when I could tell that he'd rather lose a leg than build this chicken run, I decided to go to Home Depot myself and buy the supplies to get started. I got some wrong parts, but figured it'd work out in the end. I braved the lumber and plumbing sections of Home Depot with two little boys in tow so the fact that I came home with anything is an accomplishment in itself.

Then my butter-shaking mom came to visit and told me she'd stay up here an extra day to help me build the chicken run. "Can we really do this without Farmer B?" I asked her. She scoffed at me - "Of course we can! We won't know if we don't try, right?" That's my mom. She'll try anything, no matter how absurd, just because you should give it a go and see if you can do it. She's also a firm believer that women can do anything men can do. My dad was one of those guys who could build anything and we felt convinced that some sort of carpentry osmosis had occurred with us at some point in his life, so we felt qualified to build the run.

So we gathered the wood, PVC pipe, screws and chicken wire that I bought and looked through the plans. Jace absconded with half of the plans, so we started at a disadvantage. We did find one important page under his hat, oddly enough, so things did look up.

Like good carpenters, we measured twice and cut once. Mom took a turn sawing and then when her hands got tired, she held the wood and I used the saw. I know Farmer B would have used the handheld circular saw, but a handsaw seemed less ER-inducing to us.

The first thing we did was build the base. Did you know that if you use a power drill to screw in some really big screws and they don't go in right and you strip the screw and then immediately grab said stripped screw, it's hot enough to leave a huge burning welt on your hand? Yes, this is true. And do you know that if you watch your mom get the stripped-screw-burn-welt and then 2 minutes later you grab a hot stripped screw and get a matching burn mark on your hand you feel really stupid? I'm just saying…food for thought.

Then we put some supports on the edges of the base and started drilling holes in the PVC pipe. Pre-drilling the holes apparently makes it easier to put the final screws in. Then we attached the PVC pipe to a center piece of wood that will go at the top of the arch.

Then we unrolled the 10-foot sections of chicken wire and used zip ties to attach it to the PVC pipe. If you forget to buy zip ties you can always rummage through your husband's box of important computer paraphernalia and use up the entire bag of multi-colored zip ties and no one will ever know.

Then mom used some of the left-over wire that was wrapped around the chicken wire rolls to sew the two pieces of chicken wire together at the join. My mom is a natural sewer so she did this so well that you can barely even see the join.

Finally we attached the PVC pipes to the frame and attempted to go viola!...when one of the damn pipes snapped in half. If you strip a screw in a pipe by screwing it in too tight, then you have to cut the screw in half and use pliers to wriggle it out, leaving a whopping great hole in the PVC and then bend it into an arch, it'll break. Live and learn. Sadly it was too late in the day to finish and we didn't have an extra pipe so we had to call it a day at this point.

Mom had to drive home the next morning and I ran down to Home Depot to get one more PVC pipe after she left. Farmer B helped me finish screwing in the PVC pipes to the base and we attached some extra chicken wire to the ends to seal in the run.

When Farmer B gets inspired we're going to remove the chicken wire on one end and build a plywood door that will hook on to the top center piece of wood and have hinges at the bottom. I think we'll cut out the middle of the door and line it with chicken wire to make it lighter. Right now it's kind of a pain to lift the entire run up to get the chicks inside and take them out, but we didn't have any plywood on hand, so this is working for now.

Once the door is done, we're going to add handles to one end and wheels to the other. Farmer B's rollerblades from back when he was young and single fell apart in the heat of the shed and I saved the wheels. I think I'll try to rig the wheels onto the run so I don't have to buy anything.

But there you have it. We built a chicken run!!! Granted Farmer B helped me finish it, but if my mom didn't have to go back home, I know we could have finished it together. The chicks love racing around in there all day long. When I wake up in the mornings they're peeping like mad in their brooder because they want to go out in the run. I have been using old sheets safety-pinned on to the chicken wire to give them some shade from the hot afternoon sun, and although it looks a bit trashtastic, it does the job.

Thanks Froggi for the inspiration and the plans! And thanks to my mom for building it with me!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Gardening S.O.S. - Part 2 - the autopsy

I decided to go out to the garden today and uproot the dead zucchini and watermelon plants to see if anything looked suspicious. Knowing nothing about plants, everything looks suspicious to me, so I'm not sure what I hoped to gain from this. I will take the photos and spend this afternoon with my Organic Gardening Book with the hopes that something will jump out at me.

I thought I'd post the pictures here in case any of you gardening pro's see anything that looks obvious. You can click on any of the photos to see them larger.

I managed to dig up three dead plants - the fourth one was barely visible so there was really nothing to dig up. They all looked exactly the same.

They all had a severely bent and sort of cut/split stem right at the soil level. I'm not sure if this happened before or after they died.

Then they had some very limp gross brown leaves around the bottom with a couple of yellowy-green limp leaves too. I didn't see any evidence of insects on them.

So anyone want to play Dr. G, Plant Examiner with me? Does this look like anything to you?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New Feathers, Old Fluff

Since I've transformed my garden into a killing zone again, I thought I'd make myself happy today by posting pictures of the chicks now that their feathers have started to come in. Apparently this is the awkward teenage time for chicks. They're getting taller and their chick fluff is falling out in clumps while their adult feathers try to come in.

Maggie - our Barred Plymouth Rock - She is really a plucky little chicken. Her feathers are getting some nice barring on them, which is chicken talk for white spots on her black feathers. Her comb is starting to develop, which makes me hope she's not a rooster. It's too early to determine yet, of course, but it's never too early for me to worry. She's very curious and competes with Sookie constantly. When you open up their brooder box she's always the first one to fly out at your face causing you to fall over backward and wonder why you forget she does that every single time. She just wants to perch on you, but that's easy to forget.

Clementine - our Buff Orpington - She is the roughest-looking chick right now. Her feathers aren't coming in as fast as her chick down is falling out. But, she seems happy enough and as long as we don't give her a mirror I doubt she'll develop any chick self-esteem issues. She is definitely the most docile one in the bunch and appears to be the lowest on the pecking order right now. She is very calm and peaceful, but can fight for a chopped up grape piece like her life depends on it when she's in the right mood.

Finally we have Sookie - our Easter Egger. She has some very pretty feathers coming in and a wicked little mane of old chick fluff around her heck. She is very friendly, quick to jump in my hands, and usually sits on the highest thing she can find. I'm thinking that she's at the top of the pecking order right now. She is such a curious little thing and a really fun chick. She layed in my hand recently and fell asleep so deep that her head was hanging off my hand and swaying in the breeze. Her legs are turning a very pretty green color too, which will hopefully indicate a nice egg color when she starts laying!

The chicks are spending their days outside in a chicken run that my mom and I built them and their nights on the patio in a brooder box under a heat lamp. By the middle of next week they'll be on their own living in their chicken coop and I'll have a serious case of empty nest syndrome. I am not above setting an alarm and going to check on them in the middle of the night - if I think Farmer B will ever let me live that one down.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Gardening S.O.S. - Is there a master gardener in the house?

I'm saving the expletives for when I'm alone. I'll keep this post polite and professional. But it's happening again. The same thing that happened last time I planted in the garden. Widespread death and destruction.

Last time I had hurricanes, a microburst, flooding and Florida summer temperatures to use as my gardening death stool pigeons. This time? Nothing. Just my pure lack of skill. To say I'm disheartened is an understatement.

Remember the zucchini and watermelon that I grew in small pots and transplanted to the garden a week or so ago? Yup. Already dead or dying. Last year I bought seedlings from the Gardening Center - zucchini, yellow squash, cucumber, watermelon - and within 2 weeks every single one of them was dead.

And here we go again. Exactly the same scenario as last year. These photos could have been taken last year, but they were taken this morning.

Here is how they looked on April 2nd - the day they were transplanted.

Granted we had that super-windy day last week and a few flopped over.

But look at them on April 13, only 11 days after transplant!! Out of 6 transplants, 4 are dead and 2 are a bit yellower than they should be.

It's so flipping frustrating that I don't know why these plants die in my garden! If I didn't learn anything from their deaths with my last planting and the same thing is happening again, then now what? If I don't figure out what I'm doing wrong, I'm doomed to repeat the same mistakes each time.

Here is the one that is clinging to life, but yellowing and I know it'll be a gonner within the next day or two.

And here is the only green one left. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this plant has tricked the reaper. He's a-knockin' and my little green buddy, you're next.

I have a handful of seedlings on the patio that are ready to be planted. But obviously, I'm hesitant to toss their bodies into the garden of death as sacrificial lambs to appease the angry gardening gods who have set up shop in my backyard. My leeks are doing okay - my tomatoes are all right - the corn and radishes seem to be okay, but I can't get zucchini, yellow squash, cucumber or watermelon to last two weeks in my garden. WHY?!?!?

The PH has been tested and is within normal range. The garden is watered a bit every other day. The soil seems okay...Anyone have advice for me? I'm putting out an official Gardening S.O.S. HELP!!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Basketcase

Basketful of chicks for Easter...Peep! Peep! Peep!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Strawberry Sacks Forever

I came home the other day to find this box sitting on our doorstep.

Open Immediately. Perishable. Live plants. Huh.

I took it to the patio and opened it up only to discover it's an Easter present from my mother who figured I'd enjoy this more than chocolate. She's right, but I think chocolate has a better chance of surviving in our house than a box of live plants. This is saying a lot since I love chocolate and my husband has a gargantuan sweet tooth, which he passed on to one of our children.

Nevertheless I unpacked the box to find a bag of dormant strawberry plants, two hanging bags, a sack of soil-less planting mix and some very basic instructions.

After reading the instructions about 20 times I decided to go to their website for help. It had step-by-step photos to show you how to set up your bags. It actually seemed possible to assemble this contraption.

Jace came out to help and as you can imagine, he was a HUGE help. A three-year-old and an inquisitive dog are really great assistants when you're assembling dormant strawberry plants.

I separated the strawberry plants and realized that it was hard to tell the roots from the plant at first. After picking through a couple I figured it out. Yes, I'm just that skilled.

I know I didn't follow directions perfectly because it involved spreading the roots out, which I had a very hard time with and watering the bag after each plant went in, which seemed entirely too messy. I managed to get all of the plants stuck in the odd little holes in the bag and then I watered the whole thing.

Then I spent the next 20 minutes holding the dripping wet sacks o' berries while walking in circles around the back of the house realizing that we don't have any hooks to hang the things from. Eventually I looked over at the pool and found two hooks that hold up our pool net so I hung them from there. This is by far the most difficult place on our entire property to water anything since it's on the other side of the pool fence, so obviously they'll have to be moved at some point.

I have zero confidence that these things will actually grow into strawberries, but we're going to give it a shot. I had no clue that strawberries went dormant and could spring back to life. I had no clue they could be grown in hanging plastic sacks. And I had no clue that anything could be grown in a soil-less mix. Guess we'll see what happens. Chocolate isn't this complicated.

Sidenote: Check back this weekend for some super-cute Easter pics of the chicks!
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