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More Blender Animation for “The Barrier” – 2014 September 14

September 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Sept14Image2I continued to work on the revised opening scene for “The Barrier” this week. Progress has been slower than I hoped, but I enjoy most of the work, and I’ve learned quite a lot from what I’ve done so far.

In the opening scene, my hero, a young transportation planner drives down a road and is almost hit by a truck. In the scene in the current version of “The Barrier” this isn’t very clear. I hope to get a much more impressive opening scene with Blender.

It took me most of the week to create the car for the scene. I wasn’t happy with the first version I did, so I scraped it. I did learn a few tricks when I did it though that helped me when I did the new version. When I did the second version, I based it on a specific car. It didn’t look much like it when I was done, but it did look more realistic. I don’t want it to look too realistic though. After I got the initial version done, I added some seats. At first I made them a dark brown, but then decided a light tan would look better.

I gave the windows for the car a slight blue colour, a little reflectivity and a slight opaqueness. I thought that looked good, but then ran into a problem where the inside of the car was too dark to see anything. I made the windows more transparent and even deleted some of them. I lightened the colour of the seats, and moved the Sun so that it would better illuminate the interior. Finally I put a light inside the car. I was reluctant to do that because I was concerned that it would look wrong. However, it didn’t look too bad.

I did some more animation tests, mostly to see how the car looked when I travelled down the road. One of the issues I have to solve is that car can fly up above or drop below the road unless I get the key frames right. That is finicky work. The river beside the road is static, so I did a test to see if I could animate it as well.

At the end of the week I started to work out the animation plan in more detail. I need to know where to put the car, the truck and the cameras for each key frame. I have the car worked out, but ran into trouble with the truck. I’ll try again next week. I haven’t done anything about the cameras yet. The ones that move need to stay in the same relative position to the car throughout the scene. I hope that I can find a way to link the cameras to the car, so they move when the car moves. I find it difficult to work with the co-ordinate system in Blender. It seems like each object has its own system.

I wanted to add new objects to the animation, so I searched for a video demonstration on-line. I’ve found that videos about most everything I need to learn about Blender are available on-line.

I still have a lot of work to do before I’m done with this video. I need to finish the car: I want to add head lights and a steering wheel. A rear view mirror would be nice, but I think I can skip that. I also would like to add some detail to the interior of the car.

The one major piece of work I have to do is create the truck. In the script I have it as a semi, but I think that would be too difficult to animate, so I think I will do some sort of van. That will be a bit trickier than the car. I don’t think I will need the interior detail, which will help.

I’m not sure how much longer this scene will take me to complete. Every week I start with the thought that I’ll get it done this week. It turns out to be wishful thinking.

“The Barrier” Test Animation 2014 September 6

September 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

My goal is to create a new version of the opening scene for my movie, “The Barrier”. In the current version of the opening scene it isn’t clear what happens. I completed a short test animation this week.

So far I’ve concentrated on building the set, but also did a test animation. I used Blender to build the set and do the animation. At one point I got very frustrated with Blender. It seems like I get something the way I want it, and then it stops working after I made some more changes. Late in the week I seemed to find a way around that and got a test animation done. You can watch it here:

I’m a long way from completion. I plan to add more trees and some vehicles. I may also add a yellow stripe down the center of the road or more detailed trees. I don’t want the set to look too realistic because it would look odd when I combine it with the Xtranormal animation I used in the rest of the movie. I plan to shoot the scene from several different cameras and then cut them together in Premiere Pro.

“The Barrier” is the story about the struggles of a transportation planner when he tries to do what he thinks is right. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-LOUNSEKac

Sketchup, Blender and “The Barrier”

August 31, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

demoscene1aThis week I tried out both Sketchup and Blender for a revised version of scene 1 of “The Barrier”. Initially I thought Sketchup was the better choice, but then changed my mind.

I used Blender to do the backgrounds of the public meeting scene in “The Barrier” and had planned to use it to do a new version of scene 1. In the current version it is difficult to understand what happens, so I want to make it more obvious.

I found it difficult to learn how to use Blender, so I decided to see if I could find an easier alternative. I found some reviews on-line and they help me identify several other programs I could use. From what I read it looked like the best option was Sketchup. The reviews said it was easier to use, which was my primary goal. The reviews did note that the output quality isn’t as good as Blender and it doesn’t have the flexibility of Blender. I decided it sounded good enough.

After I installed Sketchup, I tried it out with some simple figures. I found it was easier to learn and I was able to get results quickly. I felt good about it and prepared to move on to work on the actual scene. Before I did, I checked the licence restrictions again. I had thought I could use the free version, but it turned out that I would have to buy the commercial licence. They cost about $600, so I decided to try Blender again.

I made good progress with Blender. I found that what I learned from Sketchup helped me work out how to get what I wanted from Blender. As a test, I created some terrain, a road, and some trees. I also made a short test animation where a vehicle drives down the road. It was actually just a block and not a car, but after all it was just a test.

I created the roadway for the scene 1 set, based on some calculations I’d done earlier. I found the roadway awkward to work with. I found it difficult to move around, and image. Sometimes, some of the roadway would vanish for no reason I could come up with.

The set is about a kilometre long. I think that I need to redesign the set somewhat, and maybe change the scale as well. I did some calculations and think I can cut the size down quite a bit.

At the end of the day, this exercise made me feel more confident about Blender.

Lessons From My Early Writing

August 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

smilingcorpse_300This week I reread some of my earliest writing attempts from 40 years ago. I hadn’t thought about them until the last few months. Although they were failures for the most part, they taught me some lessons.

In Stephen King’s book “On Writing”, he says he began to write when he was very young. It took him many years to become successful. I came away with the feeling that since I had not started that early, that it would be harder for me to get into writing.

Recently I found some stories and notes for stories that I had worked on when I was in junior and senior high school. While I did not start as early as Stephen King, I have certainly tried to write for many years.

While most of my writing at school was various types of essays, a couple teachers did give me opportunities to write short fiction. More importantly, I wrote stories outside of my school assignments. I also began to make short movies when I was in high school.

One story that I did finish was “The Sleeper in the Dark”, an attempt to emulate Lovecraft. I posted that on my website at: http://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/stories/the-sleeper-in-the-dark/

In high school I wanted to write a novel. I remembered that I tried twice, but when I looked at my old papers I found notes for several other attempts. None of these produced more than outlines or a few pages of text.

The first attempt I remember was to do something like “Lord of the Rings”. Needless to say, that was a poor choice for a first book. I began with a time line of events, from which I would later extract information for the story. I worked on the time line when I had free time at school.

The problem I ran into was that there was nothing that happened in the time line that lent itself to being  the core of a plot. I started without any idea where the story would go and just drifted. In essence the character just existed, didn’t change or develop and nothing important happened to him. I abandoned that project.

The other attempt I remember was a Doc Savage book. Since I had read a number of Doc Savage books, I felt I knew the characters and how the stories went.  I gave the story a title: “The Smiling Corpse”.

I found four typed pages, comprising Chapter 1 and part of Chapter 2. When I converted it to a text file, they ran about 2,200 words. I don’t remember if I had any kind of out line or notes. I didn’t find any kind of notes for the story. I found an outline I did for “The Lost Oasis”, although I’m not sure that I did that before or after I wrote “The Smiling Corpse”.

When I reread it, I couldn’t see where I was going with the story. I say that Doc was off in Hong Kong, but the story was set in New York. One thing that struck me was that the victim/smiling corpse was a poet, who was a friend of Doc’s. I wouldn’t think many people would associate Doc Savage with poetry.

I dropped this project because I didn’t think that the dialogue I wrote was very good. I felt I needed to have a much better understanding of the characters if I was to see any improvement.

I liked the title “The Smiling Corpse” and reused it for a short movie I made a few years later. It was silent, so didn’t have any dialogue.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on the title “The Smiling Corpse” and turned up several different books and a short movie with that title. One book was a detective story published in 1935 by Philip Wylie. Wylie co-wrote “When Worlds Collide”. The main characters in the book are well know writers, so I think it was something of a satire.

I gave up on writing a novel for a few years. Then in the early 1980s I tried a story I called “Conan the Accountant”. In some ways it was a repeat of my experience with “The Smiling Corpse”. I didn’t develop an outline, or plan, for the story and it drifted away from the original idea. I found 11 typed pages, with close to 5,700 words in total. I can’t remember why I dropped that one, but when I reread it, I cringed at some of what I wrote.

In the 1990s I dropped the idea of writing to focus on film making. For some reason I film easier to do. Partly that was because the films I did were shorter, but I think that I am just more comfortable with film as a way to express myself.

In the last few years I have started to make more use of outlines and story plans in my writing. I feel that has helped me move beyond some of the problems that stopped me years ago. I really feel it is important to have a very strong idea how the story ends before you start to write. Too many of my ideas have failed because I had no idea how to end them.

I haven’t come up with an approach I can use to create better dialogue and characters, but I think that my skills have improved. It is easy to get over confident, and I know that when I do, my writing suffers.

 

Cynical Idealism and “The Barrier”

August 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

ArthurTornIn many of the scenes in “The Barrier”, my hero, Arthur Macdonald comes across as a cynic, while in others he acts quite idealistic. I’ve come to think of his attitude as Cynical Idealism. I believe this must be a part of my own world view.

Initially, when he works on the development review project, Arthur talks as if he feels that the politicians and developers have self serving motives. For example, he seems to believe that the developer, Vincent Campbell, is interested only in his own good. Arthur accepts that Campbell has great influence over the politicians. He appears to accept that situation and even characterizes the work as playing a game.

With the traffic barrier project however, Arthur is more clearly idealistic in his approach. Repeated warnings from his boss do not cause him to give up on the project. He actively approaches other to recruit their support. He continues to look for ways to convince his boss to support the project.

One explanation for the contrast between the two projects may be the potential results of the two projects. The worst that can happen as a result of the development review project is that it will cost tax payers money. The worst that can happen with the traffic barrier is that people will die. This could be seen as a cognitive bias Arthur’s part.

Later in the movie, Arthur acts more idealistically on the development review project. As the project unfolds, he tries harder to defeat Campbell’s ambitions. Although, this could be seen as an emotional reaction to the abuse he gets from Campbell.

My initial interpretation is that Arthur has an internal conflict between cynicism and idealism. While he has become a cynic at the intellectual level, he still remains an idealist at the emotional level. In this view, Arthur began as an idealist, but his experience has convinced him to adopt a cynical attitude. This transition is not complete, and in the end may never be fully realized.

My final interpretation is that, while Arthur has accepted a cynical view of people and their motives, he still thinks of them in idealistic terms. That means that he still believes that he can accomplish his idealistic goals despite the base motives of others. He feels that he can even count on those base motives in order to reach his goals. A clear example comes near the end when he hopes that self interest on the part of the mayor will help him defeat Campbell. This is what I call Cynical Idealism.

Arthur’s mentor Ling Pang has an attitude similar to his Cynical Idealism. In her case though, she has allowed cynicism to play a larger role. That said, she still has a core sense of idealism that, at times, drives her forward.

Arthur’s colleague Denis Kennedy is more purely an idealist. He becomes very angry when he sees Campbell act in a self serving way. In fact, Denis’ idealism could be what pushes Arthur to become more idealistic later in the movie.

Arthur’s boss Brandon Baker is more purely a cynic. He tires to discourage Arthur’s idealism. Brandon is not a total cynic though, like when he back Arthur against Campbell  over the need for a traffic impact study. On the other hand, Brandon might just be going through the motions.

I can see the three other characters as representatives of Arthur’s internal struggle. Brandon as the cynical side, Denis as the idealistic side and Ling as the attempt to integrate the two. This insight may help me add more depth to the characters and story when I prepare the final version of the movie.

You can watch the preliminary version of “The Barrier” here: http://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/the-barrier/. When the final version becomes available, it will be found on the same page.

When Evaluation Misleads

August 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

marks

I don’t agree that people can only succeed if they have an inborn talent. I believe that it is possible for anyone to be more successful. A recent article prompted me to give this idea more thought.

“Secrets of amazing teachers: What both sides of the education reform debate get wrong about autonomy and accountability” was posted on the Slate website. http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/secrets_of_amazing_teachers_what_both_sides_of_the_education_reform_debate_get_wrong_about_autonomy_and_accountability/

While it is about teaching, I think many of the ideas in this article apply more broadly; for example: in my own field of transportation planning. In particular my interest was the use of tests and measurements to rate teachers.

Testing and Rating

Tests are often used to rate people on their abilities. Unfortunately, many people use a poor rating as an excuse to do nothing, or worse, to punish the person for their failure. I think our focus should be on how to improve people’s performance. Tests should be used to identify opportunities for improvement. While someone may be poor at something now, there are ways that they can improve.

This seems very obvious to me, and I find it hard to understand why others would reject that view.

I suspect that when someone looks narrowly at their own immediate self interest, then an improvement in someone else’s chances for success, is a threat to their own chances for success. People who have succeeded through luck or a privileged position are more likely to feel this way.

In contrast, when someone looks at the situation with a broader, societal, point of view, then they see how other people success can make society better. A world full of successful people is a better place than a world full of failures.

The 10,000 Rule

The 10,000 rule, which says that people need 10,000 hours of practice before they become top performers. This is often attributed to Malcolm Gladwell, although in his book he makes it clear he is just reporting what others have found.

What is often lost in the discussion is that 10,000 hours is an average; for particular individuals it can vary widely from the average. It can be as few as 4,000 hours for some people. While the length of time can vary, the important point is that it is not zero. If talent was all there was, then it would be unnecessary to put in any time. All who succeed do so because of the time they spend on learning and practicing. Some people may start with an advantage, due to genetics and life circumstance, but they still need that time to reach their potential.

Although I don’t recall that Gladwell said so explicitly, but the 10,000 hours is not just any kind of practice. It is mentored practice. Their practice is directed by more experienced people who also encourage them,  point out areas where they can improve, and give them advice. It is the feedback they get that helps them learn and develop their skills.

There is a danger that people will assume that people’s failure is a result of their unwillingness to “put in their 10,000 hours.” I think this would be a mistake. In many of the stories in Gladwell book, what makes the difference is whether or not people have the opportunity to get mentored practice. Without a capable mentor to show the way, extra practice helps little.

As an aside, if you want to evaluate teachers to separate the “good” from the “bad”, you need to be aware that it can take a decade, or longer, for a teacher to gain 10,000 hours of experience. It could well take a decade before you can identify “bad” teachers with any confidence. Many teachers don’t even stay that long in the profession.

More to Come?

I looked at this issue before, in my blog post “Transportation Planning and “Bad” Teachers”. (See:  http://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/transportation-planning-and-bad-teachers/ )

I feel strongly about these issues and want to find ways to share my views more effectively. So far, I haven’t come up with a way to do that in a story.

I am not finished with these thoughts and I want to dig deeper. Maybe that will bring some inspiration.

“Felix” and “The Barrier”

August 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Magpie_and_FriendI worked on both “Felix” and “The Barrier” this week. The “Felix” rewrite progressed well, but with “The Barrier” it just seemed like I spun my wheels. I still would call it a productive week though.

“Felix” Rewrite

I tried my new approach with “Felix” this week. I printed off the most recent version, then sat out in the back yard, went through the printout and made my revisions. I got about a quarter of the way through. I thought this approach worked and I felt positive about the revisions I made.

Later in the story I have some sections that I will likely have to completely replace. I may even need to add totally new material. That will take a bit longer. I think that I will need to go through the whole story at least one more time before I’m done this revision. It should be ready to share with other people then.

One of the problems I have noticed is some of the technology the astronauts use on Mars seems outdated. I can’t mix 2020’s technology with 1960’s technology. For example, I gave the rover a considerable level of autonomy, but the astronaut’s have to drive their own vehicle. I can fix much of that fairly easily, since the technology is mostly in the background. Unfortunately, some of it is tied to major plot points.

I thought it would be enjoyable to sit outside and listen to the birds as I worked. Unfortunately, we only seem to have crows and magpies around here, so not much in the way of  beautiful songs. The chattering of the squirrels sounded better, but after what they did to our garden, it’s hard to feel too kindly toward them. I did find it more restful to be outside though.

“The Barrier”

I did some more research on one of the programs I want to use to do “The Barrier”. I used up a lot of time, but I can’t say I have much to show for it. I can say I did learn more about what it can do. I can’t really get too far along with the new version until Xtranormal is rereleased.

I’ve given some thought to what I’ll do with the movie when I get it done. My current plan is to use a site like http://distrify.com/ to distribute the movie. There are several sites that look similar, so I should do some more investigation before I sign up for one.

I believe that this is the first movie ever made specifically about transportation planning, so I need to promote it transportation planners. There might not be much of an audience beyond people who work in the field.

I’ve done some posts on a few LinkedIn transportation planning groups, but I think I need to look at other options. There are a number of transportation planning magazines, newsletters and journals. I don’t think they would have movie reviewers, but I still think I should approach them.

I could use some contacts at these outlets. If you can help me I would appreciate it.

 

Mid-Year Review of My Goals for 2014

July 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

rewritepageAt the start of this year I laid out my goals for 2014. With the year more than half gone now, I thought it was time to review and revise my goals. This year hasn’t been as productive as last year.

“Felix”

I set the rewrite of “Felix” as my top priority for the year. I thought that would take me a couple of months. While I have done some work on it, I am nowhere near a completed rewrite.

I must admit that it isn’t a very original idea. It began as a rewrite of a H. P. Lovecraft story. Although, as I worked on it, it did drift away from the original story. I don’t want to do a bad imitation of Lovecraft.

I have been very erratic in my work habits, which I think is the main reason I make so little progress. I need to get into a writing routine. That is a mater of will power.

Sometimes I find it easier to write in long hand rather than on the computer. I’m not sure why, but it feels more creative.

“The Barrier” / Replace Xtranormal

The primary barrier to my work on “The Barrier” was the discontinuation of Xtranormal, the program I used to create it. Xtranormal does seem about to return, but hasn’t been rereleased yet (see http://xtranormal.com/). I don’t want to put much effort into the project until I know for sure that I can continue to use Xtranormal, or a compatible program.

I have done some work with Blender (see: http://www.blender.org/) to animate some scenes that I can’t do very well in Xtranormal. There are a couple of scenes that I can do that way with out Xtranormal that I think would improve the movie and it may be worthwhile to do that to give me more of a final version of “The Barrier”.

A movie about transportation planners does have a small audience, so I can’t expect to redo it as a even a low budget movie. Best to stick with Xtranormal, if I can.

I will hold off on this project for now and see what develops.

“My Most Difficult Case”

I think I have left this project too long for any serious chance of getting a sale. Even when I contacted a distributor five years ago, they thought it was almost too old to get a sale. I’m inclined to do a quick fix up and post it on-line.

I’d like to try out one of those pay-per-view sites. I want to do that with the final version of “The Barrier”, so I want to get my feet wet. “My Most Difficult Case” might be the film to try. Hopefully, I can avoid some missteps later with “The Barrier”.

“Bright Freedom”

I have thought about this project from time to time, but I don’t see that I’ll do anything on it any time soon. It is hard to write a story where the protagonist is a woman and you’ve never been one.

“Pete’s Plan”

I submitted this story to several Science Fiction magazines in 2013. I thought it was good enough to get published, but no one was interested. One person that read said that it seemed to be more of a treatment than a story. It is short, about 1,000 words, but it says all I want to say. I planned to submit it to other magazines, but held off on that.

As I’ve thought about it, I think it would be better to rewrite it as a first person narrative. It would force me to focus more on the hero and how he feels as he executes his plan. What I have now may be too detached from the character.

Other Projects

Over the year a number of other ideas have popped up in my head. I usually write up the idea for later. Sometimes I forget the idea before I get that done. I think some of these ideas have a lot of potential, but I don’t want to delve into them until I get a few of my current projects put to bed.

One idea I’ve toyed with is another “transportation planning adventure” story. I’ve come up with some ideas and would like to move on with it. I plan to write it as a story, and if things work out, I would develop it into another movie like “The Barrier”.

My Priorities

My first priority is to get back into a writing routine. Even an hour a day will help me accomplish something, if I keep it up consistently.

My second priority will be to finish off the rewrite of “Felix” and get some feedback.

My third priority will be to finish off “My Most Difficult Case”, post it and promote it.

After that, it will depend on what happens with Xtranormal. If it is available, I would like to do a new version of “The Barrier”. Otherwise I would work on the rewrites of “Bright Freedom” or “Pete’s Plan”.

I will also allow myself to go with the flow when the spirit moves me on other projects.

Writing Formulas and Artistic Expression

July 20, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

I am interested in writing formulas, but I know others look down on them. I believe that formulas can help writers be more creative.

A while back I read an article on-line, no idea where now, about formulas. The author was very anti-formula. He talked about Michael Moorcock’s ” how to write a novel in three days”, which also mentions Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula.

This link has a description of both of these: http://www.wetasphalt.com/?q=content/how-write-book-three-days-lessons-michael-moorcock.

The writer disparaged the whole “pulp fiction” approach to writing. He said that good writers don’t do “pulp writing”. What caught my eye was his examples of good writers: H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ray Bradbury. I wondered if he had his tongue in cheek because all these writers started writing for pulp magazines.

What this illustrates for me is that use of a writing formula is not a barrier to artistic expression. I found formulas helpful in my writing, although I wouldn’t claim to be a successful writer artistically or financially.

The comparison I think of is poetry, and specifically the sonnet. Sonnets follow a very strict format. The number of lines, the lengths of the lines and the rhyming scheme are set out. This has not stopped many poets from creating many great sonnets over the years.

Formulas do place constraints on a story, but writers, like poets, can see these as opportunities for creativity. A formula can allow a writer to focus on the deeper parts of the story and not the superficial plot.

I haven’t really used a formula to help my creativity to any great extent. In my transportation stories, “The Gladstone Barrier” and “The Glencoe Development”, I did extend the formula by substitution verbal arguments for physical violence. When I converted these stories into my movie “The Barrier” I didn’t stick to the formula.

I suspect that all stories use a formula, but that the more sophisticated writers develop a formula for the one story and never use it again. Since it never gets reused, nobody thinks of it as a formula.

“The Journal of Transportation Fiction”

July 13, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The Journal of Transportation Fiction

A friend who watched my movie “The Barrier” commented that established genres, like mysteries, have well established stock characters and situations that people are familiar with. Few people have that kind of familiarity with transportation planning. That makes it harder to connect with the audience.

With “The Barrier” (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-LOUNSEKac) I have tried to create a new story genre. That does create a challenge for me when I try to communicate to the potential audience.

In any genre there are stock characters and situations that people are familiar with. For example, in a mystery story there is the detective, the victim, the client and the villain. The role of the detective is clear, they catch the bad guy. The detective follows is a set procedure to achieve that goal.

In a transportation fiction story, the audience would not know who is the hero and who is the villain. Is the transportation engineer a good guy or a bad guy? What is he or she supposed to accomplish? Writers want some ambiguity and depth to their characters to intrigue the reader. However, if there is too much, the audience will just be confused.

I have thought of a number of ways to over come the communication challenge. I believe that I need to build an audience who are attuned to the genre. Unless I reach beyond the transportation planning community, the potential audience is too small to support a project like “The Barrier”.

One idea that continues to come up in my thoughts is to create an on-line “zine” to publish and promote transportation planning fiction. It doesn’t look like it would be a hard thing to do technically. The difficult part is to attract people who want to read, and write, transportation planning fiction.

I have had a few people contact me in connection with “The Barrier” about their experiences that would make for good stories. At the time I didn’t want to follow up on those suggestions because of potential copyright and liability problems. If I created a “zine”, I would need to work those out. While my main interest is to promote my movies and stories, I need to see that other contributors get what they want out of the venture as well.

I can see problems with paying contributors, especially when there is no certainty of adequate revenue. I would likely need to do quite a bit of editing of submissions; and I’m not the greatest writer in the history of the world by any stretch of the imagination.

The one aspect I have worked out to my satisfaction is the title: “The Journal of Transportation Fiction”. It is a play on the titles of typical technical journals. On the other hand, Bent Flyvbjerg might say there is already too much transportation fiction.

If you, or someone you know, would like to pursue this idea, please get in touch with me. If there is enough interest, we might just make a go of it.

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