The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

curious delvings

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Slowing it down at the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last Sunday night, after waiting through an interminably hot afternoon for the light to get right, a humble narrator packed up “the bag” and headed over to my happy place in industrial Maspeth. Given the ridiculous heat and humidity, I took a cab rather than walk from Astoria, and the Maspeth Plank Road was a fairly novel spot to be dropped off according to the driver. The look on his face when I headed into the bushes towards the waters of Newtown Creek… I tell ya.

This was a fairly demanding bit of shooting due to the “hot” and sun exposure. The “Maspeth Heat Island Effect” was in effect, and whereas the rest of NYC was in the low ninety degree range, it was closer to one hundred where I was. Nevertheless, the tripod was set up, camera arranged, and busy I got.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These are long exposure shots, if you’re wondering about the dreamy “look and feel” of them. I had a ten stop ND filter attached to my lens, which was set to a ridiculously narrow f22 aperture. The burning thermonuclear eye of God itself was heading down towards the horizon, but it looked (and felt) as if it was located literally in Greenpoint just across the water.

The Maspeth Avenue Plank Road site has been mentioned time and again at this – your Newtown Pentacle. It’s a former crossing of the Newtown Creek, which was opened in 1836, and last spanned the water during the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in 1875. It connected Furman’s Island with the Greenpoint Bushwick industrial borderlands. Notable industrial facilities once found on the Brooklyn side include Martin Kalbfleisch’s Chemical Works, Conrad Wissell’s Dead Animal and Night Soil Wharf, and Peter Cooper’s “pestilential” glue factory. The Queens side included fertilizer mills and other lovely 19th century industries like bone blackers, acid factories, and fat renderers.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The shoreline surrounding the Maspeth Avenue Plank Road site on the Queens side is fairly feral. There’s all manner of critters I’ve spotted ambling along the self seeded vegetation here; rodents and cats, raccoon and opossum, birds of all stripes. My colleagues at Newtown Creek Alliance have expended no small amount of effort in making the Plank Road publicly accessible, and we’ve even erected some signage there. Saying that, the NYC DEP has a bit of sewer infrastructure here which has seen recent maintenance and construction activity, and they’ve really torn the ground up something fierce. 

If you make a mess, isn’t it incumbent upon you to clean up after yourself? Manners maketh man, and all that?


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 8, 2018 at 11:00 am

euclidian anomalies 

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Just another day in Paradise.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has been using the current air conditioned hermitage in pursuit of learning a few things completely unrelated to anything relevant to my life or the modern world, specifically the emergence and early history of modern humans. I haven’t been deep diving into this, mind you, it’s been watching a few BBC and PBS documentaries which have led me to some do some reading on the subject. My interest in this boils down, ultimately, to folkloric inheritances. Every culture on the planet tells their children stories about wild men who live in the woods, mountains, deserts – the “Bogie” or “Boogie” man who will kidnap a petulant or disobedient child and carry them off. These boogie men are usually large, muscular, possessed of ape like dentition, and hairy. I’ve often wondered if these boogie monsters are apocryphal remembrances of the days when our specie had competition from other hominids – Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, etc. Both of these other hominid specie, in a straight up fist fight, would clean even an MMA champion’s clock. They were stronger and faster than Homo Sapiens, on an anatomical level, based on observation of skeletal muscle attachment sites. Home Erectus, for instance, was a long distance runner with an incredible olfactory system.

The general scientific consensus states that since our specie had the capacity for language and long memory, we were able to plan into the future better than our competition. This allowed our ancestors to organize, pass the organization down from one generation to the next, and this eventually out competed the other hominids in the quest to hunt game and eventually led to the sort of agriculture that modern day “indigineous” people’s practice in jungle and forest settings. Neanderthal anatomy, in terms of their ability to conceptualize and then throw a spear or some other projectile, seems to have been similar to our own. Erectus, alternatively, was anatomically unable to throw a spear but would have been able to rip a modern human to shreds in close quarters combat with their bare hands.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Analogizing historical equivalencies is often required when discussing human history. As I often say – if you were a space alien who arrived in orbit at one point in history or another, and were asked to bet which culture which end up dominating the rest of the human hive, you’d almost certainly lose your wager. If it was during “biblical times” 5,000 years ago you’d have bet on the African cultures centered around the Nile Valley, or the Asian ones centered around either the Yangtze or Ganges rivers. A thousand years ago, you’d have probably placed your bets around the middle eastern cultures centered around the Tigris or Jordan River valleys. 500 years ago, it would have been the industrializing Rhine or Seine. For the last century, it’s the Missisippi and Hudson River valley cultures that seem to be the dominar, but it certainly looks like the Yangtze culture is making a comeback. Oddly enough, anatomically primitive hominids like Erectus seem to have persisted in Asia longer and later than originally thought, as late at 30,000 years ago.

Again, speaking from a folkloric point of view, every culture has legends of hulking brutes lurking in the woods ready to carry off disobedient children. There are certain commonalities in all of the legends and religious traditions – the omniscient sky father, the earth mother, the untamable horned adversary, and the wild men of the woods.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An interesting point of view offered in a BBC documentary of the history of Wales which I encountered offered an intriguing bit of logic. As westerners, our thought patterns are decidedly non metaphorical and quite literal. If you’re discussing the legends of King Arthur “pulling the sword from the stone” it’s literally interpreted as “there’s a forged sword stuck in a stone.” The historians who wrote this particular documentary instead pointed out that Druidic cultures were quite poetic in their speech patterns, and spoke in metaphor. Their supposition was that in pre modern Britain, early Iron Age cultures got their raw material out of the bogs – bog iron as it was called. That limited supply, and the iron found in bogs wasn’t forged, instead it was merely shaped. The “pull the sword from the stone” legend emerged shortly after the Romans vacated Britain, and the theory is that the legend referred to harvesting iron from ore and forging it into swords, rather than the more familiar imagery of a young Arthur removing Uther Pendragon’s fully formed magick sword from a boulder. Literally “pulling” the “sword” from the “stone.”

One wonders about the folkloric inheritances and associations of the “other” which are encoded in modern cultures, and the predilection towards “racism” that culture displays. Racists often use language describing the subjects of their ire as “monkeys, savages, primitives, or apes,” intoning a subhuman character to those they dislike. Such childish preoccupation with the primeval Boogie Man, Sky Father, Earth Mother, or fear of the Horned God is fascinating to me and I often wonder how much of it is and unspoken inheritance from the days when there were actual “others.”


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 7, 2018 at 1:00 pm

curling tighter

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You won’t need a sweater today, as today is a sweater.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Uncharacteristically, one doesn’t have too much to say today. It was a fairly busy weekend, which included doing a well attended tour for Newtown Creek Alliance on Friday night (this one is called Infrastructure Creek), drinking about thirty gallons of water on Saturday and then hanging out with my friends and neighbors in Astoria on Saturday night, and then waiting for the burning thermonuclear eye of God itself to attain the right position in the sky about six o’clock for a photo expedition to industrial Maspeth and Newtown Creek on Sunday.

You’ll see those Sunday night shots later on this week, incidentally.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As a note, with all of the rain during the last couple of weeks, Newtown Creek is positively boiling with bacteria. Additionally, it’s boiling from the heat wave. This kind of heat reduces the amount of oxygen in the water, allowing anaerobic bacterial specie their season. The rainy weather means that the combined sewer system is carrying a lot of the fecund foodstuff that these anaerobic bacteria feed on into the tepid water. Their digestive exhalations are rich in hydrogen sulfide compounds, which means that “Eau de Creek” is staining the air column for blocks and blocks around the waterway.

There’s also a lot of floatables (plastics, garbage etc.) and sheens of various oils and greases visible in the waters of Newtown Creek. I hate you all, accordingly, but it makes for good photos.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has been contracted to conduct a boat tour at the end of the month commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal, which will involve the Gowanus area in South Brooklyn. I’ll post ticketing links next week, but August 30th is the date for the thing, which will leave from Lower Manhattan. Most of what I’m going to be narrating about is already in my quiver, but I’m going to be heading over to South Brooklyn a few times this month to “get granular” about the grain terminals and former NYS Barge Canal properties around Erie Basin and Gowanus Bay which will be part of the “speechifying.” 

Additionally, I’m looking forward to the opening of the new NYC Ferry route to Sound View in the Bronx. Of all five theme parks in NYC, the Bronx (or Frontierland) is the one I’m least acquainted with.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

August 6, 2018 at 11:00 am

imaginary conversation

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A public service announcement from the Newtown Pentacle.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The City of Greater New York, like many of the other older North American East Coast cities, uses a combined sewer system. What that means is that sanitary waste water pipes, leading from the sort of domestic tackle pictured above, enters into an underground sewer pipe which also handles storm water. When the weather is dry, the municipal agency tasked by NYC with handling the flow (the Department of Environmental Protection or DEP) does a fairly passable job. When the weather is wet, however, things start getting ugly. A quarter inch of rain, citywide, translates into a billion gallons of storm water entering the network of pipes, junctions, and weirs hidden below the streets. This additional volume of storm water surges into the shared pipes, and the mixed up storm and sanitary water ends up having to be purged out into area waterways via open pipes. There are about 400 of these “Combined Sewer Outfalls” in NYC.

As you’d imagine, the DEP is fairly careful about handling this, and to their credit – working diligently to correct this situation. Not always willingly, of course, but they are in fact “doing something.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Massive “gray infrastructure” investments like the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment plant in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section are part of the story. Designed to handle in excess of 800 million gallons a day of what the DEP staff refers to as “honey,” this particular plant is the newest and largest of the 14 sewer plants the agency maintains. If you flush a toilet anywhere in Manhattan below 79th street (and in small sections of Brooklyn and Queens), your “honey” is headed here via a pump house found on the corner of East 13th street and Avenue D on the Lower East Side. A technolological marvel, the NCWWTP is unfortunately unique in DEP’s property portfolio. The Bowery Bay plant in Astoria opened during the Great Depression in 1939 for instance, and the oldest operating plant in DEP’s system is in Jamaica, Queens which opened in 1903 (and last received an upgrade in 1943).

The stratospheric costs of upgrading their plants has caused DEP to embrace a bit of lateral thinking in recent years, which is where conservation and “green infrastructure” come in.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Green infrastructure takes several forms. There’s what the DEP used to call “bio swales” which a clever Deputy Commissioner has recently rebranded as “rain gardens.” This program will, when you put together all of the rain gardens citywide, have opened up a fairly large acreage of open soil for storm water to enter the ground via, rather than dancing along the concrete until finding a storm drain. The emerging technology and policy that they’re still figuring out are “green roofs.” The problem with retrofitting old structures for green roofs is that more often than not, the roof is structurally the weakest section of a building. The other problem is convincing building owners that there’s a benefit in spending time and treasure on them. 

A humble narrator is a back room conversation kind of fellow, and the ears I’ve been whispering in for the last few years have been filled with this crazy idea of creating a municipal code requirement – in the same way NYC requires fire stairs and suppression systems, lights on the front of your house, sidewalks of a certain size and specification and so on – for storm water neutrality in new construction. I’ve been told it’s up to DEP to request codifying it, as it’s not up to City Planning or anybody on that side of City Hall. The Real Estate Industrial Complex people I’ve mentioned this to are generally into it, as a green roof would be a saleable amenity which would enhance their offerings and wouldn’t increase their construction costs noticeably.


Upcoming Tours and Events

Friday, August 3rd, 6:30 p.m. – Infrastructure Creek – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

If you want infrastructure, then meet NCA historian Mitch Waxman at the corner of Greenpoint Avenue and Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn, and in just one a half miles he’ll show you the largest and newest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants, six bridges, a Superfund site, three rail yards with trains moving at street grade, a highway that carries 32 million vehicle trips a year 106 feet over water. The highway feeds into the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and we’ll end it all at the LIC ferry landing where folks are welcome to grab a drink and enjoy watching the sunset at the East River, as it lowers behind the midtown Manhattan skyline.

Tix and more details here.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 3, 2018 at 11:00 am

was sane

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Odds and ends from LIC, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The other day, a photographer friend of mine came out to LIC, and I introduced her to a few interesting points of view along Skillman Avenue and the Degnon Terminal section of Long Island City. Whereas I’m nowhere near as jaded as those who grew up in the area are, it was still fun hearing her gasp in wonder at the marvel of it all. I see this when I do tours as well, when ordinary people find themselves in this extraordinary place found along the loathsome Newtown Creek. Often, I analogize it to the time that I visited a friend who was working as an animator for Disney in Florida. He instructed, as we were moving through one of the parks, to step over towards what appeared to be a solid white wall. When you were within a couple of feet of the structure, a hidden aperture appeared, and with a side step or two you suddenly found yourself backstage where the guy who plays Goofy had his head off and was smoking a cigarette.

Is the rest of NYC actually the customer facing part of Disneyworld, with industrial LIC the back lot where they store the compressed gas cylinders for the soda machines? Maybe.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Welcome to the Magic Kingdom? We do have rides and attractions hereabouts. There’s a lot of rules, you’re almost always on camera, and there’s lots of people either pretending to be or acting like fictional characters they saw in some old movie. There’s underground networks of tunnels used by a secretive workforce, long suffering municipal employees involved in an elaborate kabuki show put on for the tourists and real estate customers… the only thing that really distinguishes modern day NYC from one of the Disney parks would be the lack of political “cosplayers.”

Hi kids, I’m Progressive Pigeon, meet Diversity Doggo and Equity Eagle. Watch out for that nasty old Conservative Kitty Cat and Counter Revolutionary Rat, they’re on the wrong side of that protected bike lane over there.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned hundreds of times at this point, I really need a vacation. Literal “recreation” as in re-create. Unfortunately, I’ve arrived at that stage of life in which it is impossible to enjoy anything, and even going to sleep is a pain in the ass. Anhedonia is the medical term for this, a total physical and emotional numbness which I fear even a visit to the Magic Kingdom cannot cure. Nothing’s easy, and even if I cured Cancer, the result would be everybody telling me I’m an asshole for doing so. I have become an assassin of joy in my old age.

At least I can bring others to the back stage at NYC’s 5 theme parks, and talk about things which are – in fact – amazing. It seemed to make my photographer friend happy the other day, so at least there’s that. Bah.


Upcoming Tours and Events

Friday, August 3rd, 6:30 p.m. – Infrastructure Creek – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

If you want infrastructure, then meet NCA historian Mitch Waxman at the corner of Greenpoint Avenue and Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn, and in just one a half miles he’ll show you the largest and newest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants, six bridges, a Superfund site, three rail yards with trains moving at street grade, a highway that carries 32 million vehicle trips a year 106 feet over water. The highway feeds into the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and we’ll end it all at the LIC ferry landing where folks are welcome to grab a drink and enjoy watching the sunset at the East River, as it lowers behind the midtown Manhattan skyline.

Tix and more deatils here.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 2, 2018 at 11:00 am

another report

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Dinner and a show!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On Friday nights, my neighborhood friends and I regularly gather for a “pub night,” at a bar which is found at the Times Square of Astoria – 42nd and Broadway. Now, since I’m all knowing, I can tell you a few things about this particular corner but for the purposes of this post – the NYC DEP has a storm sewer under the street here which leads directly to Newtown Creek’s Dutch Kills tributary. That’s important in terms of the totality of things, but what’s also important is that several of the local sanitary water sewer pipes conjoin into a junction at this corner as well.

Apparently, there was a “priority one” repair order sent out to DEP’s maintenance crews, regarding something involving the storm sewer having developed a leak.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Our little pub night gatherings involve sitting outside at the sidewalk cafe tables, and as always I have the camera ready and in my hands even when socializing. As the DEP crew got to work, so did I. Here they are noticing me.

Everyone at my table started waving and I started a chant of “DEP, DEP.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Unsung, these municipal heroes seemed to enjoy the respect they were being paid as they got busy. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The notoriously impatient drivers of Astoria, who seem to believe that their cars do not have a gear which allows them to reverse, turned the sidewalk into a vehicle lane for a short while. This stopped after a few minutes and presumptively the DEP crew set out cones at the northern corner of the block of 42nd street that they were working on.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Being the gregarious fellow I’m known for being, I walked across the street and introduced myself. This fellow was busy digging a hole. The head of the operation told me the circumstance of their tasks, which would involve exposing a broken pipe and replacing a section of it.

I congratulated him on the Friday night overtime, wished him luck, and headed back to my gathering across the street as it started raining.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

NYPD was called in, and towed a car which was perilously close to the job. The tow truck reparked this car around the corner on Broadway, and my friends and I were anxious to see the confused driver find their car somewhere else than where they had parked it, but alas…

At this point, everyone at my table started chanting “NYPD, NYPD.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Heavier equipment began to show up and set up shop.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the fellow who was digging the hole, and who was now guiding the operator of the excavator.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

More and more DEP crews kept appearing, carrying supplies and esoteric equipment. From what I could discern, one of them was a mobile welding unit.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It turned into quite a party, happening across the street from my regularly scheduled Friday night party. Deciding that I couldn’t miss a minute of this, I ordered food and another drink.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The rain really set up in earnest at one point, but I was sitting in a carefully chosen spot under one of the pub’s awnings.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

You really have to hand it to these folks. As much shade as I throw at DEP’s management during Newtown Creek oriented posts and in person at meetings, I have nothing but respect for the folks that do this essential, difficult, and dirty job on behalf of the rest of us.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A section of pipe was removed, another one welded in, and then the street was closed back up. Sated with food, drink, and a free bit of municipal dinner theater – a humble narrator then headed home to my little dog Zuzu.

You just have to love it. I do.


Upcoming Tours and Events

Friday, August 3rd, 6:30 p.m. – Infrastructure Creek – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

If you want infrastructure, then meet NCA historian Mitch Waxman at the corner of Greenpoint Avenue and Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn, and in just one a half miles he’ll show you the largest and newest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants, six bridges, a Superfund site, three rail yards with trains moving at street grade, a highway that carries 32 million vehicle trips a year 106 feet over water. The highway feeds into the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and we’ll end it all at the LIC ferry landing where folks are welcome to grab a drink and enjoy watching the sunset at the East River, as it lowers behind the midtown Manhattan skyline.

Tix and more deatils here.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 1, 2018 at 11:02 am

Posted in Astoria, Broadway, NY 11103, NYC DEP

Tagged with , ,

last cleaning

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Utopia, along the East River?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One had an interesting but short chat last night, with the always interesting and sometimes chatty Robert Singleton of Greater Astoria Historic Society, about a piece he had recently written for a magazine about colonial era Maspeth and how he framed his tale around the desires of those long ago and far away colonists seeking “utopia” in the so called “new world.” I haven’t read Bob’s piece yet, but I’m sure it matches up with his normal high standards (Bob is who I publicly call “the acknowledged expert” on the subject of colonial era history in Western Queens). It did spark a few thoughts in my mind though, on the utopian eidolon which drew so many of our ancestors to what would become the United States. For native born 21st century citizens of the United States and Canada, “freedom” is a fairly abstract idea, but to our predecessors who undertook the dangerous journey from Europe to North America it was crystal clear what they were trying to leave behind.

It’s hard to imagine in modernity – the iron grip of the Hapsburgs, the Tsars, the Ottomans, the Popes, even the relatively “liberal” enlightened despots and parliaments of Western Europe – maintained a choke hold on thought, science, business, religion, and dissent in their lands. Especially after the French Revolution, and the appearance of Napoleon the antichrist, these governments maintained networks of domestic spies and employed forces of “Secret Police” to maintain their franchised version of “order and stability” at all costs.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Utopia is what Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, have been chasing since the first Dutchman cut down a few trees in what was once a forest that stretched from coast to coast, to began clearing a spot to build a house. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and prosperity? That’s the American Dream, right? The pursuit and concept of “utopia” in the years leading up to the Civil War of the 1860’s eventually morphed into “progress” in the late 19th and entire 20th centuries, and is currently being conceptually framed as the quest for “equity” and “fairness.” Translating that for those of you who aren’t wise to these DEP currents: ‘Murica.

Chasing the utopian ideal in the United States has actually resulted in and spawned a modern day dystopia, with a government that maintains the status quo with a domestic spying network and literal armies of police – both public and secret – who are tasked with maintaining order and stability at all cost. Ironic, isn’t it?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Over the years, I’ve had friends who espouse all sorts of solutions and often radical visions of how to “fix” America. Socialist and Communist leaning folks want to institute a one size fits all approach with a super powerful central authority that dictates behavioral and social norms via the redistribution of private wealth through the “state,” not realizing that at no time in history has this not resulted in the appearance of an “elite” group of administrators and politicians that resemble nothing other than “born to the manor” nobility. Business and militaristic focused people want a system of lassez faire government whose only role is “ensuring the general welfare” and national defense, which historical precedent suggests as resulting in the subjugation of individual liberty and fostering military adventurism and leads to the formation of an elite group as well. Both are extremes, neither results in “utopia.”

What’s the way forward then? What can we do to answer the dreams of our forebears? Do we launch colony rockets into space, hoping some future version of the Pilgrims or Waloons can figure it out? What is Utopia?

As mentioned, a chat with Bob Singleton is often interesting and thought provoking.


Upcoming Tours and Events

Friday, August 3rd, 6:30 p.m. – Infrastructure Creek – with Newtown Creek Alliance.

If you want infrastructure, then meet NCA historian Mitch Waxman at the corner of Greenpoint Avenue and Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn, and in just one a half miles he’ll show you the largest and newest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants, six bridges, a Superfund site, three rail yards with trains moving at street grade, a highway that carries 32 million vehicle trips a year 106 feet over water. The highway feeds into the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and we’ll end it all at the LIC ferry landing where folks are welcome to grab a drink and enjoy watching the sunset at the East River, as it lowers behind the midtown Manhattan skyline.

Tix and more deatils here.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 31, 2018 at 1:00 pm

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