\ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs\ Blogger, storyteller, flâneur. G.G. Davis, Jr's alter ego…

Hashing the En and Em Dash

N&M Dash (Doodle: virtualDavis)

If only en and em dash were melt-in-your-mouth candies…

While editing an article a couple of days ago I came across some en and em dash discrepancies that I wanted to iron out. I haven’t any cleverness to contribute to an already much hashed topic, but here’s a grab bag of grammatical (and computer) smartness to help sort out the whole dashing matter once and for all.

Dash Bashing

First let’s start with the detractors:

The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. ~ Noreen Malone (

Yes. But since banishing unpreferred punctuation to another kingdom is goofy at best, let’s quickly flow into a clarification of proper hyphen, en dash and em dash usage.

But first an almost philosophical en and em dash rumination to fuel your cluttered ruminations.

Perhaps, in some way, the recent rise of the dash… is a reaction to our attention-deficit-disordered culture, in which we toggle between tabs and ideas and conversations all day… Why not try for clarity in our writing—if not our lives? ~ Noreen Malone (

En Dash vs Em Dash

Lest the above suggest a dismissive bias toward Noreen’s concerns, I’ll admit sharing some of her frustration.

I will admit that at least some of my bile comes from, as a copy editor, endlessly changing other writers’ sloppy em-dash simulacra (the double dash, the single offset dash) to the real thing. ~ Noreen Malone (

My reaction is less bilious, but (full disclosure) this sentiment was at the root of my recent en and em dash research. So let’s hustle on to the real thing.

I’ll pass the baton to Mark Jaquith who’s done an admirable job of laying out the whole dashing kit and caboodle. Read. Reread. Bookmark. Deploy!

  • An em-dash (—) is a wide dash — the width of the letter “m” being its guiding length. Em-dashes signify a thought break, rather like parenthesis, but with a stronger implied break.
  • An en-dash (–) is slightly shorter — the width of the letter “n” being its guiding length… The en-dash is used for:
    • Ranges of number values: (2–4 teaspoons, from 1:00–2:30pm, ages 7–10)
    • Relationships and connections: (a JFK–Atlanta flight, Bose–Einstein condensate, the Jackson–Murray fight, the Macy–Jaquith wedding)
    • Attributive compounds: (pre–Vietnam War weapons, the ex–Vice President non–New York style pizza) (via Mark on WordPress)

Nice, Mark. Thanks.

And what about spaces before and after dashes. I’ve seen this as a matter of preference (at least in the digital age), and I’ve leaned toward a space before and after both en dash and em dash punctuation, but it turns out I’m dashing on the wrong side of grammar, if not history.

Remember, though, that when using the hyphen, the en dash, or the em dash, you should put no space either before or after them. The only exception is with a hanging hyphen (see, for example, the word “nineteenth” in the phrase “nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature”). By definition, a hanging hyphen will have a space after it but not before it. (

Ah-ha! The en and em dash demystified. Except for deployment. How do we create these dashing distinctions with our keyboards?

How to En and Em Dash

The good news is that most of the software we use is going to make this easy for us. Which is good because producing proper dashes on our own can be a bit cumbersome.

Microsoft seems to automatically replace a double hyphen with an em dash. But maybe that’s a quirk of the Mac OS. Three consecutive hyphens just remain as three hyphens. Anybody able to help sort this out?

WordPress is pretty clever. It replaces two hyphens with en dash and three hyphens with em dash. Simple. Intuitive. Every time. I like that.

That said, I don’t actually use either of these shortcuts. Call it habit. Or muscle memory. Back to Mark for a clear explanation for how to create the proper dashes without the teamwork of Microsoft or WordPress.

If you want more control, then I suggest you do as I do, and actually start typing the correct dashes (WordPress won’t mess with them). On OS X, en-dashes are typed with Opt-{hyphen}, and em-dashes are typed with Opt-Shift-{hyphen}. In Windows, en-dashes are typed with Alt + 0150, and em-dashes are typed with Alt + 0151. (Mark on WordPress)

I’m mostly on Macs these days, and it’s become pretty much second nature. But the windows alternative is a little less intuitive for me. Not sure I’d get my fingers wrapped around that.

And for those who prefer to code directly in HTML (clever bastards!) you probably already know that the en dash is – and the em dash is —.

What did I miss?

[Special thanks to Katie for listening to me blather on ad nauseam about the en and em dash. And even make some mistakes along the way!]

Essaying Wanderlust

Essaying Wanderlust: "Let each man exercise the art he knows." ~ Aristophanes

Essaying wanderlust…

[It’s almost time for the] launch of Wanderlust, the first in a series of short format memoirs. I’ve been writing and revising these chronicles for four years during which time they’ve evolved from a single-but-sprawling Year in Provence style narrative into a more intimate collection of extended essays exploring the notion (and artifacts) of “home”.

Essaying vs. Wandering

At first glance wanderlust and essay seem to be odd bedfellows. One is carefree, omnivorous and easily distracted; the other is systematic, focused and (ideally) conclusive. One is a potentially undisciplined adventure outward propelled by curiosity. The other is a disciplined journey inward propelled by opinion, judgment and evidence.

Or so we’re lead to believe by parents and teachers.

To be sure, wanderlust and essays can be penned into polar continents, but they needn’t be. In fact, perhaps they’re not so dissimilar at all. A little etymology opens the possibility.

Middle French essai, ultimately from Late Latin exagium act of weighing (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Think of weighing in terms of exploring, considering, comparing,… Think of weighing an idea. Discovering possibilities. Brainstorming. Assessing. Think of endeavoring to understand something better.

essay \ˈe-ˌsā; also e-ˈsā\
verb: to try to do, perform, or deal with (something)
noun: a short piece of writing that tells a person’s thoughts or opinions about a subject
First Known Use: 14th century
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

An essay in the broadest, most ample sense is an attempt. An experiment. A foray into a subject endeavoring to explore and – hopefully – better understand the subject. An essay is a composition that tries to weigh something.

Redacting Rosslyn Redux

Rosslyn Redux was born out of renovation. It was an attempt to understand why converting a dilapidated house into a livable home mushroomed into a multi-year journey. It was an attempt to do something with the stories and artifacts and history that were discovered in the process. It was an attempt to honor the heritage of a place and the people who made it valuable. It was an attempt to “heal”, to expiate the excess, and to celebrate success once the dust settled. It was an attempt to understand the series of events that kidnapped much of our lives for several years. It was an attempt to move on.

I envisioned a tidy A Year in Provence or a sprawling Under the Tuscan Sun. What I didn’t envision was that the process of telling the story would turn out to be as challenging, confusing, and (ultimately) as rewarding as renovating Rosslyn had been in the first place. I also didn’t envision the story evolving from novel-esque chronicle into an experimental series of narratively structured essays that explore the following themes:

  • Wanderlust to Houselust Why does a diehard vangabond settle down?
  • Archeology of Home Digging into the weird and wacky artifacts of “home”.
  • Rehab Ad Infinitum Renovating. Never. Ends. Learned the hard way!
  • DIY: Design, Build, Share Parallels remodeling a house with writing a book…

The four mini-memoirs chronicle my adventure from wanderlust to writing a book. Or four! But they do so in an unconventional way. With more than a few broken rules along the way. Each is a tangle of interwoven stories comprising a thematically focused “essay” with a decidedly scrapbook feel. And in a strange way, the process of revising and preparing the manuscripts for the public marks a return to the wanderlust that I thought I’d abandoned when I plunged into home ownership in the summer of 2006.

A Return to Wanderlust

Wanderlust is opportunity. It is the yearning simply to go, to leave without an anticipated return date, or determined destination… It is an overwhelming need to escape, traverse, and rove… Wanderlust is raw desire… ~ Rachel Narozniak (Examiner)

If the first book is a prequel to the renovation story, the fourth book is a sequel. W2H explores the back story for why I abandoned the mortgage-free lifestyle of a footloose global nomad. The next two books plunge into the all-consuming  3-4 years of saving an historic home, a marriage, our sanity, etc. AofH focuses on all of the bizarre baggage that we load on top of a home, and RAI focuses on the endless process, and the ever retreating finish line. But DIY is about stepping away from the project and transforming it into a story. It focuses on the “do it yourself” approach we took to revitalizing Rosslyn and the “do it yourself” approach I’m taking with developing and sharing the story. It is a plunge into the rapidly transforming world of publishing in the 21st century in the same way that buying Rosslyn and swapping Manhattan for the Adirondacks was an adventure into uncharted but fascinating (and SUPER risky) waters.

It is the story of how the vision for the Rosslyn Redux memoir became four separate story/essay/scrapbooks. It is the story pulling up the anchor and heading off on a new adventure!

No Cure for Curiosity

No Cure for Curiosity: Banish boredom with curiosity!

No Cure for Curiosity: Banish boredom with curiosity!

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.”
~ Dorothy Parker

I’m not a Dorothy Parker buff, but I became intrigued with her when my brother-in-law purchased a sprawling house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania that she had owned with Alan Campbell in the late 1930s and 1940s. Listen to Helen Beer (daugher of Dorothy Parker’s Bucks County caretakers in the 1930s) recollecting Dorothy Parker swimming in the buff.

Dorothy Parker skinny dipping? Hmmm… Curiosity trumps boredom every time. And – albeit a somewhat insidious elixir – there’s absolutely no cure for curiosity.

A good thing too!

A Certain Lady, by Dorothy Parker

Here’s a poem by Dorothy Parker that reminds the reader that there’s no cure for curiosity. Except, perhaps, the absence of curiosity altogether.

A Certain Lady, by Dorothy Parker

Oh, I can smile for you, and tilt my head,
And drink your rushing words with eager lips,
And paint my mouth for you a fragrant red,
And trace your brows with tutored finger-tips.
When you rehearse your list of loves to me,
Oh, I can laugh and marvel, rapturous-eyed.
And you laugh back, nor can you ever see
The thousand little deaths my heart has died.
And you believe, so well I know my part,
That I am gay as morning, light as snow,
And all the straining things within my heart
You’ll never know.

Oh, I can laugh and listen, when we meet,
And you bring tales of fresh adventurings, —
Of ladies delicately indiscreet,
Of lingering hands, and gently whispered things.
And you are pleased with me, and strive anew
To sing me sagas of your late delights.
Thus do you want me — marveling, gay, and true,
Nor do you see my staring eyes of nights.
And when, in search of novelty, you stray,
Oh, I can kiss you blithely as you go ….
And what goes on, my love, while you’re away,
You’ll never know.

The Bobcat Blues

Feeling blue one morning, naturalist Ed Kanze heads into the woods and finds his thoughts full of bobcats. Listen here to what the cats had to teach him… Theme music written and composed by Josh Clement. (Mountain Lake PBS)

Kanze’s “Bobcat Blues” is a clever essay on how he and the bobcat are similar (as well as how they differ). It opens with a parallel that will appeal to freelance writers.

Bobcats and I have much in common. They are freelance creatures, solitary for the most part. They spend most of their lives out on limbs just as freelance writers do, hoping to sink their teeth into prospects that more often than not fail to materialize. ~ Ed Kanze (Mountain Lake PBS)

Kanze’s poignant closing thought and my friend Josh Clement‘s (@josh_clement) stealthy blues transformed this melancholic reflection into a poignant, infectious and semi-philosophical soundtrack for my days’ work. Hope you enjoy the “Bobcat Blues”!


A Better Letter Manifesto v1.0

Write a better letter. Today we text and tweet and update and email and vmail and blog and vlog, but we don’t write enough letters. Or even notes. With paper and ink and stamps.

James Willis Westlake on how to write a better letter

James Willis Westlake on how to write a better letter

Digital communications are proliferating. Children can type before they can handwrite, thumb-text before they can thumb-hike. (Remember hitch hiking? It’s sort of similar to bell bottoms and vinyl albums. All three will be cool again, mark my words.)

I have a special soft spot for the lost art of letter-writing — an art robbed of romance and even basic courtesy in the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-thumb-on-a-tiny-keyboard communication. ~ Maria Popova (Brain Pickings)

How to Write Letters, by James Willis Westlake

How to Write Letters, by James
Willis Westlake (

While I’m no Luddite and I’m not proposing a ban on day-in, day-out digital communications, I am challenging you to write a better letter. A better love letter, cover letter, resignation letter, condolence letter, congratulations letter,…

I’m not talking about the glut of letter writing tips available online or even this refreshing tutorial: “to write a better letter, go fly a kite“. Sure there’s still room for James Willis Westlake’s How to Write Letters: A Manual of Correspondence, Showing the Correct Structure which I discovered via the perennially plugged-in and chronically contemplative Maria Popova’s post. (Check out her post, “How To Write Letters: A Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette circa 1896“.) There is still room, ample room, in fact. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about how to compose better personal, handwritten notes and letters. You dig? (That’s a bell bottom, vinyl album, hitch hiking way of asking if you understand me so far.) Here’s how to write a better letter.

Write with a Pen

Handwriting, even when it’s smudgy or loopy or crossed out or misspelled is real. And we crave real, now more than ever. Use a pen to write a better letter. It will look and feel and smell and maybe even taste like you. Well, probably it won’t taste like you, but who’s checking? Your ink-written letter will become slightly unintelligible when the recipient is so moved that s/he sheds a tear. Splash. A blurred word or two. Forever. This is good. It permits the recipient to imagine whatever words they want to imagine in your letter. This is subversive. But it is good. Very, very good!

Write with a Pencil

Scared $#!%less of the pen’s permanence. I know, it takes bravery. Or abandon. But don’t worry. You can still write a better letter even if you’re daunted by indelible pen and ink. Use a pencil to write a better letter. Yes, you can erase and rewrite and waffle, but it’s still pretty darned real. Intimate even.

Cross Out & Correct

A Better Letter?

A Better Letter?

Leave evidence that you are fallible, that you changed your mind, that your emotions and memories are forever evolving. Don’t hide your edits. Include them. They are part of the story. Part of you. Especially if they embarrass you. Digital communications are like airbrushed posters. Slightly fake. Only, its hard to be certain which part is fake and which part is real. That’s not cool. Real is cool. Marginalia is cool. Open up and share!


Don’t take yourself so seriously. Especially if it is a serious letter. Levity is the best therapy. And it’s enjoyable. Doodle even if you are totally self conscious about your artistic abilities (or lack thereof). Actually, doodle especially if you are self conscious about your artistic disabilities. It’s humble. It’s trusting. It’s generous. And it gets easier each time you try. You might even find that you are a natural doodler. I think we all are!

Write Often

Practice makes perfect. Familiar? What about this? Practice gets monotonous. We extol the virtues of practice, practice, practice, and in the process I’m afraid we sometimes stifle enthusiasm and teach risk aversion. Writing (and actually mailing) a letter is still practice. But it’s also exciting. And a wee bit risky. Did we make a mistake? Did we go too far? Did we not go far enough? And it will inspire you to fire off another letter. Write often. Practice will absolutely make you a better letter writer, but remember to send out the letters you write. Write often. Send often. Become a better letter writer!

If you’re not quite ready to practice on your near and dear (I’m thinking of the pencil letter writers) you might want to check out Mike O’Mary‘s note project which would be the perfect way to practice by sending letters to perfect strangers!

The Note Project is an ongoing campaign to make the world a million times better by inspiring people to share notes of appreciation. (The Note Project)

Go. Write. Now!

Commit. Begin. Now.

What will you do? (Image by virtualDavis)

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

~ W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalaya Expedition, 1951

Murray’s passage has occasionally been maligned because he erroneously attributed the following couplet to Goethe.

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!

Okay, let's do this!

It strikes me as a bit petty to toil in criticism in the face of useful motivation and beauty. Besides, boldness does pack plenty of power under the hood. And — whoever we credit with the seed that grew into this passage — the most important message is shoehorned into the last three words underpinning all commitment. Begin it now. What will you do?

Faust: Begin it Now

And, by the way, if you’re feeling persnickety (or just curious) here’s Goethe on the matter of dallying, boldness, commitment and action.

Enough words have been exchanged;
Now at last let me see some deeds!
While you turn compliments,
Something useful should transpire.
What use is it to speak of inspiration?
To the hesitant it never appears.
If you would be a poet,
Then take command of poetry.
You know what we require,
We want to down strong brew;
So get on with it!
What does not happen today, will not be done tomorrow,
And you should not let a day slip by,
Let resolution grasp what’s possible
and seize it boldly by the hair;
it will not get away
and it labors on, because it must.

~ Goethe, Faust I, Zeilen 214-230 (Goethe, Faust and Tricky Translations)

Now are you ready to begin? Begin it now!

Mashup Manifesto: Steal Like an Artist

Austin Kleon practices “creative thievery”. Perhaps we all do! (Meandering Margaux)

Get caught stealing like an artist! Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) did… And it seems to be serving him rather well.

Austin Kleon, Newspaper Blackout

Newspaper Blackout will take you down the blackout poetry path, demonstrating the visual and literary appeal of Kleon’s quirky poems. Kleon derives poetry by crossing out most of the words in a given publication, discovering meaning in the remnants, and he’d like to show you how to do the same. (I can’t help thinking about refrigerator leftovers for some reason, but most leftover success stories involve adding/combining rather than subtracting…)

In Steal Like an Artist Kleon deploys his full quiver of mashup, remixing and doodling tricks to offer some practical wisdom about the creative process to his 19 year old self. We’ve all wished our way back in time, yearned for a redo knowing what we now know. Kleon skips the wish and gets it done.

Adirondack Memoir Retreat

Mary Beth Coudal is hosting a 3-day memoir writing retreat from October 25 to 28 at Skenewood, an historic Georgian manor house in Westport, New York. Participants in Coudal’s Adirondack Memoir Retreat will complete a publishable story from their lives, discover the next steps in their memoir process, and connect with a community of memoir writers to share and support their journey. (Essex on Lake Champlain)

Hats off (and a deep, balance-testing bow) to Mary Beth Coudal for organizing and hosting an inspirational long-weekend on Lake Champlain for a group of inspiring memoirists. I was fortunate to lead a pair of workshops with Coudal and to present on the importance of storytelling in the digital age. But my favorite part of the weekend was connecting with great storytellers forging new paths in this wild and wooly world of publishing. Readers, you are in for a treat once these stories are ready for you!

Coudal’s Adirondack Memoir Retreat took place in an amazing location, but I’ll let the video images speak for themselves. If you’d like a first hand experience, you can rent or buy this childhood homestead of playwright Robert Sherwood, or—with a little luck—Coudal will host another writers’ retreat before the property is sold. Stay tuned…

Although I was only able to participate in the first day and a half due to conflicts, I spoke with many of the writers on their last night and they offered glowing reviews. I wish I’d been able to attend the final reading!

Rainy Verse

Griffin wonders why HE can't have Oreos and coffee for breakfast...

I awaken to sheets of rain. And a brief power outage while fixing breakfast for Griffin, my rain-averse, pro-breakfast Labrador Retriever.

“What?” I can see the puzzled thought balloon in the dark above his cocked head. “Breakfast blackout?”

And then the lights come back on. Or the generator. Briefly. And then “the mains” as our linguistically amusing royal forbears would say.

Breakfast. For beast and man. But first, a rainy verse.

Reading a poem written in a rain puddle.
A pickup truck speeds through, soaking me.
I wear the poem home to read again later.

Not this morning’s verse. Pulled instead from the recycling bin of orphan poems slowly composting…

Abiquiu: Naked, Iridescent and Wrinkled

After three days back at home in the Adirondacks I’m ready to wrap up my Abiquiu series about my month apart in a remote New Mexico desert canyon. A month of writing, revising and listening. This post is a freestyle retrospective in images, sounds and words. A digital scrapbook of sorts. If you’re interested, here are the previous posts:

The video/slide show above was shot on my iPhone. Excuse the blurry images and the bumpy footage. The audio was not recorded among the Benedictines, though Gregorian chants were a part of my days at the abbey. All credit for this beautiful music goes to Medwyn Goodall, a musician and producer from Yorkshire, England.

Daily Scrape (listen to audio)

I’m shaving and all of the sudden a bearded fellow in black robes and hood is at my bathroom window. It’s Brother Hidalgo (name changed) from Monterey, Mexico. I’d met him on my second day at the abbey when he explained that he would pass by my hermitage a couple of times each week to pick up the garbage.

So I knock on the glass and wave. He recognizes me and waves back, then flushes crimson and turns away. He returns to the trash and recycling. I look into the mirror and continue shaving. I realize that – despite the towel around my waist – I must have looked naked to Brother Hidalgo. No wonder he was embarrassed.

Magpies (listen to audio)

When the weather is warm I sit outside and watch magpies, so many magpies gathering twigs and bits of fiber hanging in the sagebrush, gathering the ingredients for a cozy nest, I surmise, though I haven’t a clue if I’m right or wrong.

According to the 1961 edition of Roger Tory Peterson‘s A Field Guide to Western Birds, Magpies, Pica pica, are “the only large black and white land birds in N. America with long wedge-shaped tails. In flight, the iridescent greenish-black tail streams behind; large white patches flash in the wings.” Long iridescent tails that vibrate in the unfiltered sunlight that intoxicated Georgia O’Keefe once upon a time. The black billed magpies natural habitat includes this high desert canyon along the shores of the Chama River in Northern New Mexico, especially the foothills, Peterson says, and “ranches, sagebrush, river thickets,…”

Story Threads and Knots (listen to audio)

I’m in bed, almost asleep despite concerns on the first day when I arrived and saw the futon on a raised tatami mat floor.

That will be my bed for the month of March? Will my finicky back let me sleep on that? For almost four weeks?

But, like camping on an even thinner mat in the wilderness after a hike, I sleep restfully. Briefly, but restfully, though I usually awaken after four hours and think, How will I ever make it through the day with so little rest?

And then I do. Without yawning. Untangling then braiding my stories. Or twisting them into a rope. With knots. That I try to cut out when they become too tight to unknot. I discard the knots outside the hermitage door where they collect in a pile next to a cow patty the size of a Thanksgiving turkey which was still shiny, moist and brown-black on my first day but each day grows flatter, drier, paler and more wrinkled.

When I first arrived there were cattle wandering around the abbey grounds, especially between the Chama and the dirt road from the hermitage to the church. Sleepy eyed cows ruminating and nursing new calves among the sagebrush.

On the second or third day – when the winds were starting but before it snowed – a rancher on horseback passed through with a skinny black dog. I haven’t seen the cattle or the rancher since, but the dog comes back to visit every few days and I give him a piece of dried salmon jerky. He likes the jerky and he begs for more, but settles for a scratch behind the ears.

The pile of knots grows bigger each day. Twice buried in snow that melted within a few hours of sun-up, the knots that were too tight to unknot have been loosed by the wind, not all of them, not yet, but threads blow around the yard and hang in the sagebrush like desert tinsel. Sometimes I see one that I like, and I bring it back inside to braid or splice or just to wrap around my finger as a reminder.

Coyotes (listen to audio)

A lone coyote yips then wails then barks at the base of the canyon across the Chama, a river too lazy to reflect the moon which is full and high overhead. Soon others join in. The coyotes are all around the canyon, surrounding the hermitage, yipping and wailing outside my windows, perhaps hoping for salmon jerky handouts.

Coyote. Canis latrans mearnsi.

In Southwestern tribal legends the coyote is often portrayed as a clever trickster. According to a Native American twist on the Prometheus myth, coyote stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, a welcome gift that made winters more tolerable and raw food more enjoyable. Perhaps the coyotes outside my window are singing about fire. Or outwitting the gods. Or salmon jerky. Perhaps they’re untangling and braiding stories. I hope they can find something salvageable in my pile of knots or among the threads fluttering in the sagebrush.

At this liminal frontier of waking and sleeping my own story – naked, iridescent and wrinkled – emerges among the moonlit thickets. At last!


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