Book review: Astounding!

Astounding!

Astounding! by Kim Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another short, breezy read. The elevator pitch might be “Road trip with my secret alien lover.”

Astounding! tells the story of Carter Evans, the editor of a high quality but money-losing speculative fiction magazine called Astounding! As he prepares the final issue, he drowns his sorrow in booze and meaningless sex with strangers. As opposed to meaningful sex with strangers, I suppose. While more than a little drunk, he writes a personal rejection letter to John Harper, a guy who sends terrible stories to the magazine every month, pleading that they be published. Carter doesn’t intend to send the letter, as it’s quite nasty, but being drunk and all that, off it goes.

He impulsively decides to apologize in person by driving from Seattle to Portland, where he finds John living in a small duplex. John looks like Tab Hunter, and all his furniture and belongings have a similarly vintage style. After the apology is accepted, John invites Carter to spend the night–on the couch–because the drive back to Seattle is long and it’s late. Carter agrees because he finds John super-hot. When they accidentally bump into each other in the narrow hallway as each prepares for bed the inevitable happens, then happens a few more times after that.

The story kicks into high gear when Carter’s friend, Freddie, an author of a Game of Thrones-style bestselling series, convinces Carter to join him and his partner on a RV trip to Yosemite. Carter impulsively gets them to stop in Portland, where they pick up John.

John is very polite and shy and charms everyone and is an alien in disguise. He wanted his stories published to serve as a beacon to his people-electrical beings without bodies–that he was ready to return home after a kind of fact-finding mission.

John and Carter (get it?) fall head over tentacles in love (kidding, there are no tentacles, though they get a mention), and this is complicated by John’s inevitable return home when that last issue of Astounding! hits the newsstands and his alien cohorts arrive to fetch him.

From here there are shenanigans, most of them occurring on the trip in the RV. The heart of the story feels almost like the travelogue of a good friend, recounting activities and meals, doing touristy things, braving the great outdoors where cellphones lose reception, all minus the boring slides (or posts to social media) you are forced to endure.

The arc of the story is predictable, but it’s presented so pleasantly and with such warmth that it feels like snuggling up with whatever favorite thing it is that comforts you. Most of the conflict is of the “breaking hearts” variety, Carter grows as a person, John grows as an alien-inside-a-fake-person and it’s all just kind of sweet.

I did find the ending a bit odd. Without going into spoilers, Carter recalls how he and Freddie define a “pancake part” in a story. It’s a scene that comes after the climax and denouement, being both unnecessary and making the story too long. And the final scene of Astounding! feels exactly like that. Still, it doesn’t detract much from what precedes it.

As expected in a story like this, the science is not exactly rigorous, bending to the needs of the plot, but there is a simple joy in watching a couple fall in love and remain smitten, affected only by external forces that seek to separate them. This is essentially light, romantic fluff with a science fiction twist, so if you’re up for that (with the requisite sex scenes, presented in semi-explicit detail), Astounding! may charm.

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Book review: Elevation

Elevation

Elevation by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

NOTE: This won Goodreads Best Book 2018 Award for Horror, which is flat-out absurd. This is not a horror story in any way.

This is a strange thing: a Stephen King novel (it says so right on the cover) that is legitimately short. This hearkens back to, well, literally forty years ago, when he wrote novels that told their stories in less than a thousand pages. (I’m being mean, of course. Some of his recent novels would not break a bookshelf in two, just most of them).

In telling a lean tale, King jettisons side plots, extraneous characters, back story and everything else to show how a seemingly unassuming man in Castle Rock helps smooth the way for a lesbian couple to be accepted–more or less-by the community, before facing up to his very unusual condition.

Without going into spoilers–I think the story works better if you don’t know more than I’ve just described–I found Elevation to be sweet, even lovely. It seems to have been written as an antidote to the rather depressing state of the world we currently live in, filled with compassion and decency, even if the face of naked prejudice, threats of violence and reckoning with one’s mortality.

It’s also rather funny, in all the right places.

The characters are not particularly complex and given the brevity of the story, things may feel like they get resolved a little too quickly. This isn’t anything deep or profound, but you’d need to have your cynicism shined and buffed to not be at least a little moved by this.

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Book review: Contagious

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short book that feels a bit like a magazine article that got padded out, but it is accessible and both provides explanations for why things are popular, along with tips on how to make your own product/event/thing popular. It generally manages to not feel too much like a sales pitch.

While a lot of what Berger offers seems obvious when he explains it–people are more likely to remember something and share it (“go viral”) if the product is an inextricable part of the message you craft, rather than not being connected at all to an otherwise clever ad, for example–I was left feeling that you can do everything right and still not have your whatever-it-is catch on. Call it luck, karma, coincidence, or something else, it still seems that most products, stunts, messages and so on get put out to the public and die quiet deaths, no matter how carefully they have been created and nurtured to become successes.

Berger outlines the mnemonic STEPPS as the key to how things catch on: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories. Each makes sense. For example, we are by nature inclined to enjoy narratives, so a good story can be an effective way to transmit a message (one of the examples used is the story of the Trojan Horse and how it serves as a warning to be suspicious when an enemy turns friendly without cause). There is also some pop psychology fun in examining how easy it can be to manipulate people (line-ups = product good, no line-ups = product bad), but in a way it’s also a bit depressing to realize how much of everything we see and experience hasn’t just been made for us to enjoy, it’s been crafted in a calculated, even cynical way, to work on our emotions.

Although not especially revelatory, Contagious is a quick, easy read.

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My keyboard history and a short CTRL keyboard review

In one of those “down the rabbit hole” journeys that happens when I get caught up searching for something on the web and get inexorably drawn into finding and poring over a bunch of unrelated things, I came across the D2D YouTube channel.

Dave Lee seemed personable enough and I liked his low key style, so I kept watching for videos that would interest me and lo, he had one featuring one of my weirdly favorite computer topics: keyboards.

I used to collect computer mice like no one’s business and I still change up semi-regularly (my current mouse of a Logitech G703 wireless, which I’ll review separately. Super-short review right now: Great mouse except for battery life.) but the pace of collecting mice has dropped off over the last few years, perhaps because mice are generally improving enough that I don’t see the need to keep searching for something better.

Which brings me to keyboards.

For some years after I got my first PC (way back in 1994) I just used whatever cheap keyboard I could find, ones that would go for $10-15 today. They were all pretty much the same. The biggest change was when they started including a dedicated Windows key. It seemed weird at the time.

But after I’d upgraded my rig a few times I became more particular and started looking for keyboards that had backlighting or extra keys. I eventually decided the extra keys/macros were something I never used, but backlighting was nice to have, as my computer space was not brightly lit.

Fast-forward to around five years ago when mechanical keyboards became a big thing. I didn’t pay much attention at first because they seemed absurdly expensive. Well, they were absurdly expensive, really. I was intrigued, but not enough to buy.

As I spent more time working on laptops, I found myself starting to prefer the low-travel keys they featured and settle on a desktop keyboard that emulated the style. Although it was not backlit, my computer space was now brightly lit, so it was no longer a priority. The keyboard was wireless (nice, but inessential) and runs off solar power. This is nicer than expected because it meant that I literally never have to worry about batteries.

The worst aspect of the Logitech K750 is probably the glossy sheen the keys and surrounding surface have. Under bright light it can produce surprisingly annoying glare. Glossy is never good on keyboard.

Although happy enough with the keyboard, curiosity got the better of me and I got a Cooler Master Trigger mechanical keyboard. It has red backlighting, extra macro keys, and a weird setup that disables the Windows key by default. I never warmed to it at all and quickly set it aside, regretting the decision to buy.

But buyer’s regret never stopped me, so I next picked up a more business-oriented Das keyboard. It had blue switches and I learned to love the CLACK. However, like the K750, it had a glossy design I came to dislike and it was big and bulky. A tenkeyless design (without the numeric keypad) would be better ergonomically and take up less space. From here I experimented with some tenkeyless designs using red, brown and blue switches. They were all fine, but none really clicked (so to speak), though the blue switches remained my favorite.

Then Dave Lee posted a video for what he declared the best keyboard ever, the CTRL keyboard, featured on Massdrop. I was intrigued and liked the clean look. Thee drop ended before I could buy, but eventually came back and I placed an order.

It took a few weeks to show up and I had to pay an additional fee to actually collect it, so it came out to be very expensive in the end–over $200 Canadian. Although it has a few flaws, it has become my favorite mechanical keyboard and the reason has nothing to do with anything Dave mentions in his video, but rather in the choice of switches.

I was intrigued by the description of Halo Clear switches as having the clickiness of cherry switches, but with a smoother, more “velvety” feel, so I took a chance and ordered the keyboard with them, trusting they would live up to the description.

And they did. And they are the key (ho ho) reason why I really like the keyboard and have finally ended my great keyboard quest.

For now.

The good points:

  • Halo Clear switches are clicky, but smoother than blues and a bit quieter, too
  • Backlighting offers a good set of options
  • USB Type-C connections on opposite ends of keyboard allow for easy cable management
  • Switches are actually hot swappable if you’re into that
  • Aluminum chassis is very solid
  • Works great with both Windows and Mac

The not-so-good points:

  • With the backlight off, the lettering on the keys is very difficult to see. Not a big deal if you’re a touch typist, but something to be aware of.
  • The removable feet will almost always pop off if you try moving the keyboard by sliding it around the desk. Folding legs would have worked better.
  • The default backlight mode is a strobing rainbow effect, which you will see every time you connect the keyboard. It is pretty, but entirely impractical, so you have to go through a series of FN-key shortcuts to get back to something “normal.”
  • I found all but the white backlight color to be too garish, even after adjusting the brightness down.
  • Sometimes the backlight controls will stop responding, forcing you to unplug the keyboard and start from the strobing rainbow again.
  • The keyboard configurator is clumsy

Really, I think any reasonably well-made keyboard with Halo switches would win me over, but even apart from them, the CTRL is a sold offering. Overall, I’m happy with the purchase and typing is once again a satisfyingly clicky experience, though now with a pleasingly softer touch.


Book review: Stretching to Stay Young

Stretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, and Pain FreeStretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, and Pain Free by Jessica Matthews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was a kid I was nearly double-jointed. I could bend my thumbs back to touch my arms with ease. Today I could do the same if I surgically removed the thumbs first. I am, in a word, inflexible.

As this can have negative effects for both runners and those getting older, two groups I am a member of, I picked up Stretching to Stay Young to see if I could return to at least a little flexibility in my body vs. the immovable board it is now.

I can’t say how effective the book is as I haven’t applied its exercises yet, but I will say that the presentation is thorough, accessible and clear. Jessica Matthews starts with explanations and background on stretching, its benefits, the various muscle groups and so on. She moves on to instructions for a multitude of stretching exercises, each accompanied by a clear color illustration of how to do it. They look simple, even fun.

The bulk of the book then covers sets of stretches tied to recovering from or preparing for specific activities, everything from walking, running and cycling, to sitting for hours in an office chair, talking on a phone and more. She further includes sets for conditions like sore shoulders, necks and more, ending with tips on customizing your workouts.

After reading, I unrolled my exercise mat, recently found buried behind some junk I got rid of, and tried a few simple exercises. Imagine taking a log and laying it down on its side, then asking it to stretch. I am that log. But Matthews addresses this, regularly advising the reader throughout the book to never push to the point of pain, to take it slow, and to allow time for results to appear (she has a chapter devoted to debunking myths, including the old “no pain, no gain.”)

For anyone looking to incorporate stretching into their daily or weekly routine, this guide provides everything you need in a stylish, straightforward format. Recommended.

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Book review: The Oracle Years

The Oracle YearThe Oracle Year by Charles Soule
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again Goodreads 5-star system fails me, as this is a solid 3.5 star effort for me. But if I have to choose between 3 or 4 stars, I’ll go with 3, because while I enjoyed the ride, there are some flaws in The Oracle Year that bring down the overall experience.

First, I love the premise. An unremarkable bassist in New York named Will Dando has a dream in which 108 predictions over the next year are revealed to him and he uses these predictions to create the persona of The Oracle. He enlists his business and security-savvy friend full-time to create a website that allows people to see a subset of the predictions, along with providing an email address for people to inundate The Oracle with requests for winning lottery numbers and such.

Will Dando’s friend, Hamza, starts orchestrating selling certain predictions by offering 10-minute chunks of time to corporate interests looking to get a leg up on the competition. Soon the pair of friends has amassed literally billions of dollars. But Hamza presses on, saying they need more before they can reach a point where they will be completely secure.

This didn’t strike me as particularly believable, but even if it is, the morality of what Will and Mamza are doing is only treated in a weird, offhand manner. Will is unhappy, but doesn’t stop the pointless accumulation of more money than he could ever use. His friend, Hamza, seems to have no reason to be best friends with an ordinary, struggling musician, but at least has a convincingly obsessive, detail-oriented personality.

This also touches on another issue–Will Dando is not a very interesting person. He is a loner (apart from Hamza and Miko, his wife) and spends most of the story trying to avoid people and relationships. He has no real arc, no growth. He starts out bland and unremarkable, and ends the same, albeit richer and happier. He does create an elaborate system to track and correlate the 108 predictions, to try to see the big picture that binds them all together, but there is nothing to suggest how he has this ability. Most of the novel shows him making bad decisions and treating others poorly, because he can’t keep his inner voice from being an outer one.

The opening of the book also suggests a lighter tone and it bubbles up occasionally, but overall the story is dark, world-ending stuff, and I can’t help but wonder if the cipher-like quality of Will would have been better-served with a more deliberately humorous approach similar to what David Wong uses in John Dies at the End (and related novels).

Also, almost all of the supporting characters are unlikable. The subplot featuring the evangelist Hosiah Branson doesn’t really pay off, except as a late punchline, and could have been cut entirely. The liberal use of fictional countries also undercuts some of the drama, because it starts to feel manufactured for the plot.

And, though this is not something author Charles Soules has any control over, it’s hard to imagine a president acting in a mature manner (the fictional President Green and various staff and associates play key roles as the story unfolds), given the destruction of the office by its present occupant.

On the positive side, I was invested enough to keep going and the effects on the world of predictions destined to come true is played out in interesting, if ultimately bleak, ways. For me, this is an almost irresistible premise, story-wise, a kind of ultimate “What if?” scenario. Overall, then, The Oracle Year is recommended, with some reservations.

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(Don’t) Go Solo

I watched Solo tonight on Netflix so you don’t have to.

Haha, no. It wasn’t that bad. But it really wasn’t very good, either. Here are my thoughts in list form:

  • I’m glad I didn’t pay full price to see this in a theater
  • Aiden Ehrenreich was okay, but really didn’t have much to work with, and didn’t feel at all like the same character Harrison Ford played
  • Not enough Lando
  • Lando’s emotional attachment to L3 (a droid) was kind of weird
  • Never have a character talk about how predictable everyone is in a movie that is predictable
  • Competent special effects but few that had any real “wow” factor
  • The fan service bits weren’t as overbearing as in the prequels, but they were still bad
  • We get it, any band in a Star Wars movie needs to be really weird and alien
  • The movie started out slow, almost dull
  • Han is supposed to be a great pilot, but we are literally never shown this until he is suddenly forced to fly the Falcon
  • The tone was way too dark for a character who is a lovable rogue
  • We don’t need a backstory on the name Solo
  • Bring back the opening title crawl
  • If they still go ahead and make a Boba Fett movie, I will be very cross
  • It ends hinting at a sequel. Ha, fat chance.

Book review: You’re Saying It Wrong

You're Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words--And Their Tangled Histories of Misuse

You’re Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words–And Their Tangled Histories of Misuse by Ross Petras

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is good fun for word and language nerds. The title is a bit misleading as the authors dig up some fairly obscure stuff to hit that 150 total, but there are plenty of expected words, too.

(I was expecting to see “halcyon” on the list, but apparently I’m one of the few that gets tongue-tied over it.)

The authors also cheat a little by including a few phrases or misunderstood words, but a little cheating is fine when it’s in service of showing how “would of” is wrong and stop writing it!

As you read through the entries it becomes clear that most of the pronunciation trouble arises from a word’s origin in another language, most often French, at least as far as this list is concerned, though Latin and other languages come get called out, too.

And then there are the recurring nautical words that make no sense at all because of drunk sailors slurring everything they say. None of these words come close to being pronounced the way they look–gunwale, boatswain and so on.

I will also happily own up to mispronouncing more than a few words covered here. In my defense, as is the case for most people, I never hear the words spoken, so I am always making a best guess and my guesses seem to line up with everyone else’s, as no one ever corrects me. Or maybe everyone is just too polite to say something.

The book ends abruptly after “zydeco”–there are some endnotes, but it would have been nice to have a brief wrap-up. I also think less-is-more would have worked here, by culling out some of the more obscure words and perhaps expanding on the number of phrases. Overall, though, a neat little book that will make you feel a bit smarter–or dumber.

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Book review: Kiss My Asterisk

Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar

Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar by Jenny Baranick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, sassy and innuendo-filled collection of tips on grammar and spelling that stays PG despite references to Richard Gere and gerbils. The book is derived from the blog Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares, a title that pretty clearly sets the tone for the book.

I think my favorite thing in Kiss My Asterisk were the examples of the creative spelling used by some of Baranick’s students:

whorable (“I am having a whorable day.”)
thoughs (“I love old black and white comedies. Thoughs are the best.”)
celeberde (“Have you ever met a famous celeberde?”)

While the book on the whole covered familiar territory for me, it did help me to better understand my abuse and misuse of commas, so I consider the purchase as money well-spent. If there are any misplaced commas in this review, don’t blame the author. I am not always a fast learner.

My only serious complaint is how abruptly the book ends. I mean, it just stops and you’re looking at an answer key for the exercises. It was a bit disappointing. The tone, though consistently cheeky, sometimes misses the mark, but I did find myself chuckling more than a few times. There aren’t a lot of books on punctuation out there that can do that.

Overall, recommended, though you might want to read a sample before committing, because if the tone doesn’t work for you, the whole book will be fingers-on-a-chalkboard annoying.

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Book review: BFF

BFFBFF by K.C. Wells
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

(Note: For some reason I missed reviewing this book, so here is my review, six months late.)

I bought this the way I’ve bought most books the past year–it was cheap and I found the description interesting enough to give it a chance.

BFF is a story about two guys who become best friends at an early age, then pal around and hang out together as they edge ever-closer to adulthood. Neither is especially unhappy and their friendship is so adorable it’s enough to make you think there might be more there–which is the hook of the story. David (the narrator who tells the story) comes to realize he might have romantic feelings for Matt, and grows afraid of confessing them, fearing it could destroy their friendship.

It’s a romance novel, so you can probably guess what happens.

And although it’s a fixture of romance novels, the sex scenes near the end felt weirdly out of place, given how utterly sweet and cute the story is up to that point. I ain’t no prude, but in terms of tone, I think the story would have been more consistent if the sex had not been so explicitly depicted.

The bigger issue is the framing device used. The story is told as a long series of flashbacks, with it already established in the present that David and Matt are a happy couple. I mean, not that there is any doubt that would be the outcome, but it would be nice to at least pretend there might be a different ending. As it is, the story is robbed of any tension or suspense. The flashbacks also usually end with David offering this odd, blog-style commentary on what he’s just written about. It pulled me out of the story every time. I’m not sure what the intent was.

If you are expecting a story about how two seemingly straight friends evolve their relationship into a romantic one, you will be disappointed, as there is only a small bit of this near the end, as the flashbacks get closer to the present. If you like the idea of seeing a pair of best friends go through the travails of growing up together, then having their bond eventually turn into love, this might be your thing.

Overall, I found BFF to be a light read hampered by tonally weird sex scenes and framed in a way that makes it read more like a diary than a narrative. Thumbs sideways.

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Book review: A Bridge of Years

A Bridge of YearsA Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(I would actually rate this a strong 3.5 stars if possible.)

Wilson loves to play around with time travel and time paradoxes and A Bridge of Years is one of his earliest efforts, originally published in 1991.

In a few superficial ways it is reminiscent in structure to King’s 11/22/63 (though it’s important to note King’s novel came out 20 years later) in that a young man travels back to the early 60s and then pretty much falls in love with the era (and a woman) and wants to stay there. The specifics of Wilson’s story have a much stronger science fiction flavor than King’s, though Wilson doesn’t go into great detail on how the time travel and other future tech works.

Because it’s time travel there are complications.

I found the protagonist Tom Winter, a 30 year old man coming out of a failed relationship and lost job as rather curious–there is a setup for the inevitable character arc of him finding himself, but that never exactly happens. He learns things about himself, but by the end he has only a vague plan for moving forward (without spoilers–I won’t say where he is at story’s end). In a way it’s anticlimactic, but at the same time I rather liked that it bucked convention, even if it is less viscerally satisfying overall.

The realtor character of Doug “I want to believe in weird shit but have never really seen anything” Archer is entertaining, and serves as a reliable foil to the more conservative Tom.

The purported villain of the piece is another young man named Billy, a soldier thrust from the future into the past and equipped with golden armor that makes him virtually indestructible and fills him with an insatiable appetite to kill. This is easily the most chilling aspect of the story, taking the common concept of fusing a person to machinery not just to augment and enhance their abilities, but to chemically change them to absolutely need to kill. I have no difficulty imagining future governments creating these kinds of soldiers if the technology existed.

Less impressive is how quickly everyone jumps into bed together. I guess causal sex is timeless. :P

Also, unlike King’s million-page behemoth, A Bridge of Years feels a bit too short, leaving the whole 1962 part of the story feeling a bit underdeveloped. We are shown (and told) how Tom comes to want to stay in the past, but it never feels overly convincing. His erstwhile 1962 girlfriend Joyce offers a more nuanced take on the era (obviously having a better feel for living in it), but even she never gets more than sketches.

Still, the sketches are effective and while the ride is short, I did enjoy it. Wilson doesn’t bog down the story with a lot of explanations about how the time travel works, and this is for the best. He lays down a few rules early on, then uses them to buttress the rest of the story.

If you like a good time travel yarn and don’t want to get bogged down in an epic-length adventure, A Bridge of Years is a solid entry in the crowded field of time travel novels.

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Book review: The Hike

The HikeThe Hike by Drew Magary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a delightfully nutty story.

A man goes to a seedy hotel to conduct a business meeting and gets there early. He decides to go on a short hike before the meeting and follows a nearby path into the surrounding woods. Then things get terrifying and weird and weirder still.

The Hike is probably better without knowing too many details before going in–even the illustrations on its cover (well, the busier version of the cover) are a series of mini-spoilers. Without going in too deeply, The Hike finds the protagonist Ben on a path that he is warned to stay on, under penalty of death. From there, he begins a long journey that tests his sanity, mental and physical strength, and resolve to keep pushing forward in the hope of seeing his wife and three children again.

The overall tone is light and at times quite amusing, despite the horrors sometimes visited upon Ben, and while you might be able to poke holes in the logic of this strange universe if you look closely enough, doing so is going entirely against the spirit of the book.

The Hike is silly and weird and I was entertained throughout. If you’re looking for a surreal take on the hero’s journey that never takes itself too seriously, The Hike is an easy recommendation.

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