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Ask HN: Can I help you be more awesome today? (No strings. Inquire within.)
36 points by mikegreenberg on Aug 12, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments
Hi again! I'm back for another "No Strings" session. I like this community a lot and want to see if there's anything I can do to make you a little more successful. There are no strings attached. (Hense, the name.) To give you an idea of what I might be able to help you with, let me tell you a few things I've done to help others...

- I've helped consult with non-developers about their idea to help them understand what it'll take to implement,

- I'm currently building the control panel (front and back-end) of an embedded (ARM-based) wifi access point,

- I'm planning educational workshops for our community to learn (cram) on different technologies and how they can be quickly used for different benefits,

- I read approximately 600+ different articles, blog entries, and stories each month about what the tech world is doing. (I'm pretty informed!)

- I understand good design from bad design. Aesthetics are not lost on me.

- I have a family (two kids) and juggle a hectic work-life balance (volunteering, full-time gig, forming a startup, social life?) that's gradually improving.

If you're interested, there's some more information about me at http://nobulb.com/personas/.

So if there's something I can help you with, just ask here or @mikegreenberg on Twitter. Be specific about what you're trying to fix/solve/accomplish. The more details you provide, the better I can help you out. Also, I should be able to do your request within 10-15 minutes (a soft time limit so I can spread the love a little quicker).

Last time, the response was overwhelming and I was still answering questions days later (because I wanted to). If you want to get your question answered sooner (rather than later) your request should be thoughtful, sincere, researched and considerate of other people who might want help, too.


PS: This is how it went last few times I did this:




PPS: I'm not asking for anything in return, however, there IS one way you could show your appreciation if you felt the need. I'm working on a project and currently doing some validation. If you would consider taking a short 2-minute survey, I would be quite appreciative.

Survey: http://idjump.wufoo.com/forms/online-identity-and-you/

So I used to have problems starting projects - I would plan/read/design etc and then never actually get around to doing anything concrete; I have overcome that issue. But now I find myself not being able to finish anything. I end up with little software projects that are half-done and abandoned because I lose motivation once I solve the 'interesting' challenges. When there is a clear path to the finish, I suddenly become disinterested.

I have been reading and listening to some podcasts related to productivity, motivation, etc etc and I am aware that "Tips and Tricks" style advice is not the best thing and that I should be trying to build better habits, but damn is that hard to do.

Any advice for how to Get Things Done now that I have gotten past the Just Do It hurdle?

Hi there, here's some unsolicited advice from someone who's not much unlike you -- I quit employment about a year and a half ago when I had a fair chunk of cash, and now I'm launching startups for myself.

I've built about 5 projects to "almost completed" status in the last year. And each project has been "re-built" at least twice. It sounds like I'm in a very sad state, no better off than you, but my friend, I have fantastic news! I'm running out of money! There's tons of pressure now! And because of the accumulated pressure I've been feeling in the last 2-3 months, I finally put up one of the projects I'm working on, and after a stint of work today, it should be ready to accept paying customers (even if it's not fully glossy and conversion-tuned yet).

My advice to you? Find ways to put yourself under pressure. If it's not financial strain (like I have no choice in), then make it peer pressure and social pressure; Put up a website for what you're working on, and start talking about it. Post it on your Facebook, to HN, and anywhere else you feel like talking about it. Pray to a god-you-may-not-believe-in that people give you negative feedback, because that's the best motivator. "You can't do it, you're gonna go broke, you're doomed to fail!" is what the little man in my mental coal-room is shouting as he whips the hamster that powers my typing fingers.

(Not Mike, but I can relate) - I suffered from a similar problem some time ago, that I have since overcome. I'm not sure if I can offer any words of advice, but I can give you a recount of my experience that helped me overcome it. Like you, I would often start projects, leaving them unfinished after the interesting part. After noticing this trend, I stopped and did a little introspection. I thought long and hard about what I want to do in an ideal world. Do I want to be a corporate citizen my entire life (no harm in that) or do I want to do my own thing? I determined that I eventually want to be my own boss and try to build things that people (and I) care about. Although apparent, I had to realize and implant in my head that nobody was going to do anything for me. If I want to be successful, I'm going to have to bust my ass and do it on my own. I was going to have to make sacrifices and modify my behavior. I had to exercise self-control and only focus on one project at a time (I would tend to bounce back and forth between ideas). I had to treat it like a job and set up expectations and deadlines. I had to set up tasks and goals and deadlines, because flying by the seat of my pants hadn't gotten me very far, and sure as hell hadn't allowed me to finish any projects. So, I guess, what it boils down to, is that I had to make a behavior modification and realize that I have to do it on my own, and that I can gripe and groan and read about other's success on Hacker News all I wanted, but if I wanted to be successful, it was all up to me.

I thought this was a REALLY great question. While I think all of the advice already given is important to consider, I have a slightly different perspective: http://nobulb.com/2011/08/just-do-it-and-actually-finish/

Thanks for taking the time to write that up Mike. It is a new perspective that I hadn't considered.

Reading it made me realize something: On most of my projects, I am more concerned with how others will view it. I see developers with several successful projects and think to myself 'I want that, I want to show people I can do that too'. That has enough force to get me to start ('Look at me, starting another cool project!') but not to see it through because I am only personally interested in a subset of the problem.

Maybe I need to re-order my process. `Start -> Finish -> Tell` instead of `Tell -> Start -> Finish`.

Best of luck with your online persona project and thanks again!

You're not finishing projects because your projects are too big. Choose smaller projects.

It's a lot faster to plan than it is to code. Before you start coding, plan. Try to figure out the Minimum Viable Product.

If you want your project to get used by others, try to verify that people actually need your project before coding.

You can plan and verify need much faster than you can code. After planning and verifying several projects, pick one that is very simple and do it. If you are unable to complete it in time, you messed up your planning.

+1 - I could use some advice in this area too ...

Not sure if this is the kind of question you cam here to answer, but I am going to ask anyway. I need some life advice.

I am a 22 year old senior at a fairly well respected college. I will be graduating within the year with a degree in electrical engineering, and I do not have the best grades. That is where I run out of ideas.

When I decided to major in electrical engineering I was in highschool. I didn't really think about it that much, and I guess I planned on graduating and getting a normal office job doing what I thought was electrical engineering stuff. Currently this is the thing I am most afraid of doing, but it seems like I am getting pushed in that direction. Soon, like some of my friends who graduated last year, I will get job offers at large companies with nice bonuses.

I made that decision before I realized how much I love problem solving (and programming is a great tool to solve problems) and creating things myself. I learned python at the beginning of this summer and am currently trying to learn django and javascript/coffeescript. I also plan on making some contributions to the IPython project. I've been teaching myself computer science concepts as well, but no matter how much I try to learn, I still feel like I know much less than the average startup founder/employee.

Now I know this is because I have only started studying and learning, but I still probably will not be with a knowledgebase I would feel comfortable with by the time I graduate. And once I graduate my student loan bills will start coming, so I can not afford to sit around self-studying.

I guess my question is this: Is there any viable way for me to enter the start-up game, or are my only options to get a entry level job at a large company or go to grad school? I really do not want the former, and I would not mind the latter, but it seems people on here often rail against grad school. I do think I could do without grad school as well.

So maybe I am asking an impossible to answer question, but you did say no strings attached. If you do want to answer and would rather contact me directly, you can reach me at jack#minardi,org

First, stop second guessing yourself. (You did it at least three times in your question.) Second, CARPE DIEM! (Seize the day.) You will NEVER have the same freedom tomorrow that you have today. (Figuratively speaking.) Time and responsibilities have a way of accumulating over time and now, when your time is your own and the world is at your feet, is when you should be experiencing life even if you're not certain of your direction.

It's said that "time is wasted on the young and wisdom is wasted on the old". I realize it's hard to know what the right direction is and making the right choices ultimately means a "leg-up" against the competition. But honestly, the competitive spectrum is WIDE and there's plenty of room for someone to rise to the top no matter how late in the game they make it. So don't worry to much about this.

As far as your personal situation, i almost did the Air Force thing and I've gone through their OTS summer programs. I'd argue that their office jobs are NOTHING like the private sector. If you're eager to try out the startup game, there are people hiring like crazy right now and I'm positive you could land any of them (even as an intern). Express your desire. Drop the uncertainty act. Try it out and see.

Here's an intern gig in NY that I HIGHLY recommend: http://www.skillshare.com/careers/jobs

Here's a great intern site for a bunch of startups all over the country (still young and might not have stuff in your immediate area): http://www.internmatch.com/

And in the way of getting that first job, here's a post I wrote for someone who was in a slightly similar situation: http://nobulb.com/2011/05/wanted-an-entry-level-job-that-doe...

Thank you for all the links, I will certainly check them out.

It is hard for me to stop second guessing myself, as I always like to be certain of my decisions before I act. Maybe I just need to jump sometimes.

As someone who also over-analyses, I completely understand. Don't let analysis-paralysis get you!

My unsolicited 5 cents:

In order to become a founder on a startup it would help if you had confidence in your skill set, and it sounds like you're not at that point yet.

I would get an office job and continue to develop my skill set with self study- It's helpful to know what it's like working at a real office, so why not try it for a year or two?

If, within the next one or two years, you can avoid acquiring a mortgage/wife/child, AND can improve your skill set, you might be able to afford the risk that a startup entails.

Thanks for the advice. I have worked for the Air Force Research Lab for the last 4 summers, so I do have somewhat of a taste of office life. This is partly the reason why I do not want a standard office job.

I've known plenty of programmers at small and startup companies who were EE grads. I don't think you're at any significant disadvantage versus a recent CS grad.

You have quite the resume. Could we tap into your network connections in some way?

Our startup could use some help today with winning an opportunity to present on stage at Dreamforce in San Francisco this month. Our company has built an app for their platform and has made it into the final 8 of the contest. We're a little disadvantaged since the contest is based on votes and some contestants have thousands of employees.

We've setup a link to help spread the word on how to vote for us. http://iactionable.com/contest

You can imagine what this sort of visibility could do for a small company like us. We'll be presenting in front of 40k people. Thanks for your help!

(Contest details - http://developer.force.com/appquest11 - We're Engage by IActionable.)

First, I wish you the best of luck on your success. But, quite honestly, I loathe these popularity contests. These contests are thinly-veiled attempts at free marketing which are easy to game and indicate no real social proof for those who won. I feel badly for individuals who get caught up in these multi-round competitions because a lot of energy typically gets spent on spreading the word for this contest instead of spreading the word about their product's value.

Unfortunately, I'm not interested in doing promotions for Salesforce so I won't be sharing or subjecting my friends to the contest. Don't take it personally, please. But I'll at least throw my own vote in the pile for you. :)

I appreciate that. You have no idea how much productivity this competition has killed for our startup. It's most definitely a popularity contest and the tactics most companies are using make you feel like you're back in highschool voting for Prom Queen. Unfortunately it's out of our control. Within the next hour we'll find out if we make it into the top 4.

The best of luck. I really like the idea. Not sure if the gamification thing will catch on in the long term, but anything to improve productivity with fun is something I can buy into.

I make silly knick-knacks by swirling paint around in bottles and I've been thinking about selling them. Will you tell me if you find them attractive, if you would like one, what swirl and color patterns you think would be neat, and what you would consider paying for one?

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_R1dPFGJyk5w/TVBJndoh53I/AAAAAAAAAB... http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_R1dPFGJyk5w/TVBKOp0ly4I/AAAAAAAAAB... (The green one has a really cool wood grain pattern.)

Search through auction houses, antique shops and old warehouse for unique looking bottles. Make sure your paints are high quality and won't scrape off when putting flowers or other things inside. Sell them for $15-20 depending on their uniqueness.

If you found a nice bottle for holding flowers, I'd totally buy one for Mother's Day or an anniversary. This is a great niche to be selling to and you could probably come up with some other interesting things to add that would "add value" to your knick-knacks. :D

(I personally like blues, greens, purples (cool colors) and really go for bottle designs that are more striking than utilitarian.)

Hey! Just want to say thanks for the advice last round: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2649787 (http://hubski.com is my site)

I took your words to heart, cut out some functional fluff, simplified terminology, and focused on hubski's UX. It seems to be having a positive effect. We now have what I like to call a decentralized social aggregator: A vote shares a story with your followers. Popular posts propagate across the community, rather than rise up a shared page. It makes sense.

Still work to be done, but your feedback was valuable. It really pushed me to rethink and focus. Thanks!


I'd recommend that you don't rely on only color for the post and following telltales. Use color plus something else.

For the not shared, shared, and yours icons, in addition to color you could:

    Not shared: only the center circle, no surrounding dots.
    Shared: center circle plus surrounding dots.
    Yours: center circle, surrounding dots and a line circle around that.
Extra fancy if Yours icons only get dots (inside the line circle) if they're shared posts.

EDIT: Formatting.

Thanks sixtofour. I'll test how that looks. Do you think the colors confuse? Or are too close?

Honestly I don't pay attention to specific colors. A designer (I'm not) could answer the "too close?" question better. A great book for choosing colors is Color Harmony Compendium.

Although I don't pay attention to specific colors, I like having colors, they break up the tedium. I just think they're a poor choice for a sole differentiator. For example, I always like colors while programming in a text editor, but I never use color as an indicator for what I'm looking at; the code does that. :) Colors in a text editor just break up one thing from another a little earlier than my brain would anyway, but they never tell me what I'm looking at.

That's awesome to hear. Thanks for mentioning your progress! Most importantly, I'm happy to know you're collecting metrics that affirm for you that your changes are getting a positive outcome. (Better than intuition any day!)

Fo sho. I'm building out more metrics, and that's basically the road map from here. I.e. Does it work? Thanks again.

What a great idea. Something like Hacker News, without "How is this Hacker News?" posts. :)


This is great public service. Filled your survey and left my email address for more.

I need some advice. I am 21 and I'm studying IT Engineering at university at the moment, my second year is starting. Though before university I completed Information Technology 3 years vocational school and even before that I had been learning about technology and programming since I have been a kid. I went through the vocational school even though I knew most of the stuff before hand. Now the same thing is happening in the university. Though the laboratories are nice. I have three years left to study there for my bachelors degree.

What I really want to do is start earning money from my programming abilities, but I don't have the money to start limited company and I don't want to start the personal business thing, because liability things. I've been trying to look for programming work locally here in Finland and there does not seem to be any close to me and I don't want to stop my university to move ~200 kilometers for work. I've been trying to look remote jobs, but can't find them.

So what should I do? Try still to get some work and while not finding any work, work on my portfolio. Another option is to focus fully on the school and live with 20 euros a week for my pack of cigarettes and food.

#define job on_bed

#define my(job) sit(job)

Thanks already and sorry if this is late for your session. :P

Any quick tips for improving the look of my blog(s): http://www.justanotherphotoblog.com/ ? (My other blogs are pretty similar too..)

I don't have a bad eye for web design, but actually creating a good design seems to be beyond me.

I do like the very simple, basic, minimalistic look, but black courier new on a white background isn't exactly beautiful.

Or if you know of any good, free templates along the same vein that would help.


I like photoblogs in general... I also like to see photos in portrait orientation all at once instead of having to scroll to see it all. Consider limiting the height of photos to your target resolution. (Or use javascript to dynamically resize them to the current window height.)

I'm not a big fan of the blue color for links. But personal preferences aside, this is more than sufficient. With photoblogs, I prefer as little distraction as possible from the subject. So your minimalistic approach is wise.

I'll see if I can find some good resources for themes/templates.

Limiting the height is a good idea. Though it seems like it might look a bit barren with so much white to the left and right of the picture.

What are your thoughts on sites that scroll horizontally? I find that they sometimes look nice, but are often awkward.

This probably isn't the opinion that you're looking for, but I like the look of it. Make the space between posts larger. Your CamelCase clashes with the 90's vibe. A well placed tacky gif wouldn't hurt.

I've posted this on Twitter already, but the 140 character limit wasn't enough to fully describe my question.

A few days ago, I thought about how I couldn't purchase many of my favorite computer and gaming magazines without forking out at least $10/issue (I'm fairly certain this isn't the price in the US).

Since I'm already aiming to build a startup, I thought why not start an online service to fix this very problem: one that would allow you to subscribe to many tech magazines for the lowest prices possible, and across all of your devices.

What concerns me the most right now is whether or not it is possible to get major magazine publishers on board (think Gamepro), and what kind of fee would they charge me (per issue? per year?) to be able to allow subscribers to read their magazines online.


I think this is going to be a steep uphill battle, but if you're willing to band your head against a wall a few times then definitely go for it. I just personally think that publishers are going to be very hesitant unless you come to them with a VERY compelling product (which I have no idea what that would have to be).

What if I approach publishers and offer to pay them to allow me to use their magazines? I could at least do that for launch, and then once the service gains traction, magazines would approach me.

Or am I missing something?

Maybe not. Start calling them and see if they'll budge. You'll never know until you try! :D

I'm always looking for feedback on http://www.unscatter.com you can email me at my gmail account bowman.joseph

I'm currently redesigning the javascript implementation, moving it towards YUI3 widgets to make it more maintainable, and am aware I need to eventually optimize delivery altogether (sprites, css/js files, etc etc) so no need to dive into that.

I'm a father of 2 (1 and 3) with a time consuming job myself so pretty impressed you're taking the time to do this for people. My hat off to you :)

Email en route. :)

PS: And congrats on the recent DDG integration!!

Thanks for the feedback. btw after thinking about your email some more, I've got another idea to try and make it a bit less busy and possibly a bit more functional for my needs as well. Now to find time to redesign the interface again. :)

I was wondering if you had any connections in the media. I helped start a political satire website (http://thewashingtonfancy.com/) and have been spending a lot of time on our marketing. We already have a fairly robust facebook and twitter and I feel like the next big step for us would be to get some media attention. If you have any means of doing so, or any other marketing tips, it would be greatly appreciated. Also I filled out the WuFoo form. Thanks!

Thanks so much for helping. Unfortunately, I'm still a little meager on the media end of the network. I know some local technology writers, but I don't know if there's an angle there for them with what you're doing. From the looks of it, you've got some decent content to get running with.

Fortunately, your site is ripe for catching the coattails of big news stories. If your satire is edgy enough while not crossing the line, you might bring to light some interesting points of view (through the absurdity of the story). Sometimes this could get you mentioned in editorials, or other writers who are covering an incident/event from all sides. (And probably a lot of SEM traffic, as well.)

Another suggestion is to write specific pieces in direct response to easily criticized pieces on other beats. Audiences love counter-point (especially when the topic is juicy at the time) and will flock to your content more easily.

Hey! Thanks so much for giving back! I've mostly just lurked in the HN community for the past 5 years, but this week, I launched my alpha-beta-pre-launch phase of my startup, http://www.srvr.dj -- I've already filled out your WuFoo form, would you mind giving me a few sentences of candid commentary?

I think what you have here is a good idea. Clearly the PaaS and IaaS markets as heating up and it would nice to have a one-stop-shop to spin up the servers you need. However, I don't know that your prices are framed properly. Your marketplace makes it seem as though I'm paying $12/mo for running MySQL (which is free to use is most circumstances). This might come across wrong. Instead, consider developing a "configuration" panel for the type of server the person wants and point them to a provider who can supply it. Then allow them to add "free" packages to those instances. In other words, make it clear that they are paying for server time, not for the packages you're deploying.

State clearly the problem that you are solving. As it is, you're assuming I already know.

I spent the last month working furiously in my free time to build and launch http://typed.it/, but I'm having trouble getting substantial feedback, even from the people who inspired the idea for the site. Would you be willing to give your first impression of it?

I think the value that you're bringing to the table is being eclipsed by other major players (most notably, Google). If you want to continue this project, you need to really differentiate yourself in a clear and specific way that would give your potential users a reason to buy in.

When I look at your homepage, I see you selling me features of your product. I'm not interested in what your product does. I'm interested in what it does for me. Read this post from Dave McClure: http://500hats.typepad.com/500blogs/2009/08/your-solution-is...

Your headline "What are people typing?" is probably not the question they are asking themselves. I'd suspect it's more along the lines of "Are visitors mistyping my URL?" It's a subtle difference, but you're facing the user with the question and making it relevant to them. Your headline is very unspecific and ambiguous.

Your demo let's me compare specific popular domain names, but I'm not sure what I'm suppose to be learning from this demonstration. Your value proposition gets lost and I don't know how this demo provides useful information to me.

I hope my feedback was constructive.

Great feedback, definitely constructive; thanks for taking the time.

I suppose I'm not 100% decided on which market I'm trying to serve:

1. Site owners interested in users going to the wrong URL.

2. Domain speculators wanting to get data on how many people are typing in a given URL.

3. The common man, wanting some stats on traffic to different domains, whether its for curiosity, reporting, or some academic reason.

I imagine #2 has the most potential for paying customers, #1 the most under-served market, and #3 the largest potential market but probably a low potential for profit.

You say 'discover what mistakes [users] are making' but explaining why would be really helpful. Perhaps to allow me to identify typo-domain names that I should consider purchasing. Or maybe I could use your product to research ad keywords to purchase.

It looks like you have a really polished product, but I'm not entirely sure on how and why I should use it. I'd expect that information to be the most prominent thing.

Thanks - I'm finding that the consensus is "Tell me why I should use it rather than just saying what you can use it for."

Seems like you have duplicated some functionality of Google Keyword Tool.

What a generous offer! I'm looking for feedback on my site http://freeblogging.me if you have time. It's early days but I'd like an honest opinion on whether you think it's a good concept.

I used your app to type this:

While i think the idea of free writing has it's merits, i'm unconvinced that the information should immediately published to the internet. Braindumping has a very private and personal process to it and to expose it without any sort of recourse will probably prevent new users from trying it out. There might be a place for something like this as a Wordpress plugin or similar. A tool that users could rely upon to quickly generate ideas for themselves in the comfort of their own blog and not have to worry about the impending reprocussions of not typing for a few seconds.

Overall, I think the idea is neat. Some questions come to mind. How will you make money? How will people find out about this? This is about all I can think of off the top of my head.

The look is great! I like the simple design which keep distractions away from the typing. You should checkout the recent version of Wordpress. Their "full screen" mode is actually a good example to follow here. Completely blocks EVERYTHING.

Great work, over all! :)

--- publish

Fantastic. So it IS private. It doesn't look like there's any way to view it when you're not logged in. Unsure if other users could see it, however. Either way, Great work!

---- publish

Do you have some more information on the control panel (front and back-end) that you are building? What languages, technologies are you using? I didn't notice anything on your personas website about this.

We're developing on Gumstix (an Openembedded platform). The platform compiles everything for us into the native ARM architecture. I'm building it using lighttpd, sqlite, and PHP. I've built my own lightweight template/framework based on the work started at (www.sitepoint.com/beyond-template-engine/). It needs to handle pretty much everything your typical wifi AP control panel would normally handle. :)

What do you think will be the top 5 trends in the next 5-10 years in the internet and mobile space?

5-10 years is a long ways to be projecting, especially online. I don't think I could even go 2-3 years out the way things are currently going. But I'll give it a go.

Within 5 years:

- Infrastructure will improve significantly. If the economy doesn't tank so badly, we will see rapid expansion of bandwidth "to the curb". We're already seeing the beginning of this in unlicensed spectrum being leveraged to provide rural "high speed" wireless. And Google is lighting up dead-fiber like it's money is burning a hole in it's pocket.

- The cloud will be more federated. Instead of having two or three main incumbents in the IaaS arena, tools will gradually be released to allow individuals more authority to maintain their own part of the Internet.

- Data will be personal again. Projects like diaspora, The Locker Project, and others will force the API paradigm to shift toward individual users. Instead of a centralized API, a P2P network of individually managed APIs will allow web apps to get data where it (authoritatively) lives without users worrying about 3rd parties doing the right thing with their data.

Within 10 years:

- Traditional government will fragment. The existing government as we know it will change rapidly. Today's government paradigms worked for getting things done for the last century. I think it's clear that there are more efficient ways of how government could work given today's technology. I think many people will try to bring their own ideas of government forward. This will happen in a way that allows people to subscribe to the parts of government ideology that they agree with and opt-out of the parts that don't benefit them. Fragmented governments will not exist in the real world, but will be logical groups of people who self-organize online with the objective of specific benefits for their group. Traditional government will be forced to accept these "2.0" governments or will be shuttled gradually into obscurity.

- The singularity will be a lot more real and a LOT more pervasive than ever. While it will likely not happen in the next decade, we will start seeing nano-tech that we will use to improve parts of our biology. Within 20 years, bio-tech will be in the up-swing of a huge market growth that will easily be in the multi-billions. Mobile will no longer mean "cell phones", Mobile will mean "you".

- Pharma as we know it will die. (This is my own personal wish and completely unrelated to Internet/Mobile.)


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