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This blog has moved to http://en.lucidfox.org. Previous posts and their comments can be found there.
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I'm really enthusiastic about Vala, and has been since its inception. I think it's just about the "sexiest" language Linux has to offer right now, supporting writing native applications with no VM overhead and almost all the expressive power of C#.

I'd still prefer Qt to GTK as a GUI toolkit, and in my opinion, it's a shame that there is currently no clear way to integrate Qt with Vala, other than through a C API bridge. I understand that GObject and QObject are two different OO systems and maintaining a bridge between them is a difficult and costly problem. However, while I absolutely adore the quality of Qt's tools and documentation, and the effort put in its design, I'd rather claw my eyeballs out than write in C++ again. (C is fine, but only for small, performance-critical code fragments.)

I've been particularly interested in non-GNOME Vala projects. Indeed, there seems to be a preconception that because of Vala's tight integration with the GNOME platform, it's of little interest to non-GNOME project. In fact, I think Vala could well become the native-compiled language of choice for Linux developers, given time. I'm interested in those little projects that pop up from time to time, like the Ambition web framework, or autovala for a CMake-based build system. (Autotools? No, thanks.)

And of course, once again I ended up reinventing the wheel and only realizing it in hindsight.

Recently I've been playing around with modern OpenGL, namely the 3.x shader-based pipeline. I previously only knew legacy OpenGL 1.x, and was enthusiastic about forgetting the fixed pipeline and doing things the new way. (Especially considering that it is the only way in GLES2 and WebGL.) I also wanted to write my toy applications in Vala, rather than C++ like most tutorials were advocating.

However, I found that my chosen path (Vala, SDL and GLEW) was surprisingly fraught with problems:

  1. For one, I found no decent OpenGL VAPI binding. The file gl.vapi in External Bindings on live.gnome.org turned out not to match the C source and gave me internal Vala compiler errors. (glGenBuffers wanted an out array -- ew!) I ended up forking the binding generator, fixing build problems that accumulated with time (it seems unmaintained), and patching it to output more sane and vapigen-friendly GIR bindings (for example, passing GLchar arrays as strings, and correctly handling array return values and arrays of arrays).
  2. By dropping the fixed pipeline, OpenGL 3.x also drops all default matrix handling and glRotatef/glTranslatef and friends. Since the only libraries I could find to replace this functionality were written in C++ (GSL is not quite what I needed), I ended up reimplementing matrix algebra and transformations in pure Vala.
  3. SDL 1.2 fullscreen windows are problematic and have been so for years. This problem, as it turns out, affects even some commercial games published on Steam (Aquaria, for example). SDL grabs all keyboard input, including standard system shortcuts like Alt-Tab and Alt-F4. I ended up reimplementing these specific two, but obviously the application won't pick up different key combinations from system settings if they are customized in the DE.

The net result:

  1. A fixed OpenGL GIR/VAPI binding generator, based on original work by Blaž Tomažič. The bindings are generated from the latest OpenGL specification wget'd from opengl.org at build time. My version actually pulls GLEW, because that's what I use in my sample application for GL 3.x API calls, but the resulting VAPI file can be simply edited by doing search-and-replace of GL/glew.h with GL/gl.h everywhere.
  2. Here is the OpenGL VAPI itself.
  3. A simple skeletal application using SDL, displaying a rotating cube. It is surprisingly big for a Hello World-level application, because it also includes...
  4. Reimplementation of GL-style matrix and vector algebra for 3 and 4 components, projections and model matrix transformations.

(For the matrix library, I was concerned about some warts of Vala code generation that cannot be disabled, such as automatic zero-initialization of everything in the generated C code, even when the entire contents of the vector or matrix are about to be overwritten in the constructor. Turned out GCC with -O2 is clever enough to optimize that away -- even memsets! -- but Clang isn't. Yet.)

And then, just as I was about to publish it... I learned of Cogl, which can do all that and more, is object-oriented, well-tested and supported in the GNOME ecosystem, and has nice Vala bindings of its own. (Though I wonder how Cogl plays with raw OpenGL calls; can they be mixed in the same context?)

Typical me reinventing the wheel.

I would recommend Vala and possibly even C developers to use Cogl for new projects. My little sample application is of little value, but at least it has Valadoc. And hey, maybe at least the OpenGL binding will be useful to someone. (By the way, can someone explain to me why Valadoc, a tool made by Linux developers for Linux developers, uses Microsoft fonts in its generated HTML? It looks horrible.)

I'll port it to SDL 2.0 whenever it gets an Ubuntu package. I also encourage game developers to do the same. SDL 2.0 is the future and has better integration with desktop systems -- including support for native system cursors and system keyboard shortcuts for fullscreen windows.

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OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE GREATEST GAME I'VE EVER PLAYED IN MY LIFE!!!

We must evolve, absorb and collect the SPOILERS!

There's this chick called Sarah Kerrigan.

And she has, like, real anger issues.

Seriously, she spends the whole game getting pissed at someone. I guess they fired all counselors in the future. Well, good riddance, I say!

And when she's angry, her eyes flash weird colors, like green or purple or red.

I had red eyes once!

(In hindsight, I shouldn't have stayed up all night playing WoW.)

Anyway, Kerrigan is madly in love with the cool hip rebel guy Jim Raynor.

And he's madly in love with her. So madly that between the last game and this one, he stripped her of all her powers and turned her over to Prince Varian Wrynn to experiment on her.

That must have been awkward.

"Oh, Jim, I love you so much! Even though I used to crush planets with an iron fist and now I'm stuck as a lab rat summoning a couple drones for that smug blonde guy. I feel so angry I could TRASH THE ENTIRE LAB WITH MY LOYAL ZERG MINIONS! KILL! KILL THE PUNY FILTHY HUMANS!!"

But it's okay, because that level of the lab was all automated and no humans got hurt.

So the Prince lets Kerrigan go, even though she just destroyed half the lab to make a point.

And Raynor is leaving with her, because he really digs emotionally crippled omnicidal maniacs with tendril hair.

Except the Dominion attacks and they get separated by a broken bridge! In space!

And Raynor is like, "Sarah, leave without me!"

"Hey, you realize I have a ship and I could just fly over the gap and pick you up?"

"The plot says we have to get separated! So that Emperor Meng the Merciless can pretend to kill me but I'll actually be still alive, in a totally obvious twist everyone is expecting!"

"Uh, okay."

So Kerrigan gets really mad at Prince Varian for not losing her preeecious Jim, even though it was none of his fault.

And instead of staying with the rebellion and the only people in the whole galaxy who wouldn't kill her on sight, she goes all Darth Vader on the Prince and leaves to build up a zerg army instead.

And she's met by a snake girl who likes to hang from the ceiling.

"Oh cool, I get a ship! And a whole crew of one-dimensional lackeys, once again!"

And she's also met by Mordin Solus! Genetics expert. Short sentences. Articles redundant. Prepositions inefficient.

Only this Mordin Solus is a big worm thingy who likes to fiddle with pools of green bile and is named Abaddon or something.

Ew! What does Kerrigan even eat among these icky zerg folks? And how does she avoid throwing up?

And the snake girl is like, "My queen! You must go kill some random protoss for three missions without advancing the plot at all!"

"HOORAY!"

So they spend three missions on some random ice planet not advancing the plot at all.

But at least it has bears and snowstorms.

I saw a bear in a snowstorm once!

(Well, actually I see that every week here in Siberia.)

Except by the second mission the snowstorms disappear, I guess global warming is catching up.

"My queen, we must go to Char, your former seat of power, to pick up a crew member who's even more one-dimensional than me!"

"Is that all?"

"Well, also to kill General Warfield."

"Who?"

"That guy from like one mission and two cutscenes in the last game."

"Prince Varian?"

"No, that other guy, the stereotypical cool old general."

"...Oh, HIM. I forgot about him, to be honest. Aren't we supposed to be avenging Jim?"

So they're done with this loose end and then Kerrigan runs into that guy they call when they nudge the plot into the right direction, or Zeratul as he's sometimes known.

"Kerrigan! Listen to me! There is a prophecy!"

"...So you aren't mad that I've just badly beaten you up without even letting you say a word?"

"Well, maybe that will help you with your anger issues for a while?"

"...And that I also beat you up back in Wings of Liberty?"

"Uh..."

"And that way back in Brood War, I corrupted your Matriarch and duped you into killing the second Overmind for me?"

"Look, just listen to the prophecy already, so I can get my Mr. Exposition paycheck!"

"If you mean I'm the Chosen One, I know that already."

"Kerrigan! I foresee that Chris Metzen will lose whatever shreds of respect he has left among the fandom. Also they will announce a Warcraft TCG game, and patch 5.4 will contain a raid. Also, you must go to Zerus, the zerg homeworld."

"Wait, I thought Char was the zerg homeworld? And... really... I was expecting more ash and less jungle."

So Kerrigan's crew is joined by a Dungeons and Dragons lizardman who only knows the words "collect" and "essence".

Also she awakens Cthulhu.

"FHTAGN! What would you sacrifice to avenge your poor pwecious Jim Waynow?"

"Everything!"

"Then go bathe in that pool."

"I have a bad feeling about this."

So she bathes in the pool and is back in zerg form, claws and wings and everything.

Wow, what an unexpected twist!

I mean, it's not like it's the cover art or anything.

But it's all right, because she's now a good Queen of Blades, not a bad Queen of Blades like in the last game. We know that because her skin is now purple.

I had purple skin once!

(Turned out it was a bad idea to go skinny-dipping in a snowstorm.)

So because her power is now over nine thousand, Cthulhu reveals he planned to betray her all along.

"FHTAGN! I must collect your essence!"

"Look, I already have a guy on my ship who does nothing but talk about collecting essences, and besides, you won't fit on my ship. Die!"

So Emperor Meng contacts Kerrigan and tells her Raynor is still alive. What a totally unexpected twist!

Turns out that Kerrigan turning zerg was all part of his plan.

...It was part of his plan to make her a royally pissed off demigoddess who can tear down his capital planet with a literal zerg rush?

Wow, and there I thought Dr. Evil's plans were foolproof, but he just can't compete with this guy.

So Kerrigan contacts Prince Varian and asks him to find out where Raynor is.

"Why should I work with you, considering you almost Force-choked me earlier and now look like you fell into a vat of chemicals?"

"I'm on the cover art, this means I'm the protagonist and everyone does my bidding!"

So Prince Varian and that other guy from the last game plan to hack Dominion records to find Raynor.

And it turns out it can only be done by that guy from that one mission whom they turned over to that purple-haired girl from that same one mission.

I remembered that by reading the wiki. They sure make their characters deep and memorable!

But the purple-haired girl doesn't want to give him away, so they challenge her to a game of Zero Wing.

"Now all your base are belong to us! Turn him over!"

"Fine, fine. I'd have done it right away if we didn't need padding in the already thin plot."

So Kerrigan storms the Dominion prison ship and frees her precious Jim.

And it turns out that he has a gun in his prison cell!

"Yuck, look what you've turned into! I won't kill you, but I only fell in love with your looks, so bye!"

Wow, that's awkward.

Was this what Lelouch felt when it turned out his sister was alive and working against him?

Except Sunrise, unlike Blizzard, actually shows us what characters feel.

So even though Emperor Meng didn't really kill Raynor, Kerrigan is still focused on her revenge.

So focused that she goes on a totally unrelated mission to investigate some research on hybrids.

And she meets Marshal Zhukov!

I met Marshal Zhukov once!

Well, actually I didn't, but my great-grandfather did. Just before Stalin exiled him to Siberia.

But he already lived in Siberia, so he didn't care.

So the guy we all thought died back in Brood War is somehow alive and speaks with the accent that Americans think is Russian. Silly Americans!

"Kierrigan, you mahst break intu zis facility ahnd kill Doktar Narud!"

"Why? Because Narud is an anagram of Duran? I KNEW IT!"

"Nou, ahktooally zere is nou mention off Duran in zis game aht oll! Not even khow khe killed me! Baht I know khe is ahn ahncient shapeshiftehr kho plahns tu resurrect ze dead god Amon!"

"And how do you know this?"

"Uh..."

So Kerrigan meets Narud and they have an epic fight with Force powers, like Yoda against Count Dooku!

In a cutscene.

So unfair! Why does all the interesting stuff happen in cutscenes? I wanted to punch him in that smug face myself!

More importantly, why can't I use all those awesome powers Kerrigan has in cutscenes?

So Narud is like, "Kiss me, and I'll turn into your true love!"

"What? Jim?"

"No, yourself! In my last incarnation, I was known as Shang Tsung!"

"So I get to pass out with a dying copy of human me lying next to me. Awkward!"

"AAAARGH! You may have killed me, but my master Amon has returned! And he will get you, my pretty, and your little zergling too!"

So she passes out because he stabbed her in the stomach.

I got stabbed in the stomach once!

I then spent a month in bed in a decrepit hospital with cracked walls and a leaky ceiling.

But Kerrigan just needs to lie in a pool for a minute and she's good as new. So unfair!

Then she goes to assault Emperor Meng's capital.

And suddenly in the middle of the battle, Raynor comes to assist her!

Wow, what a totally unexpected twist!

And Emperor Meng is like, "wtf hax"

And Kerrigan is like, "gg zerg rush kekeke"

So she walks into the palace, alone, to kill the Emperor herself.

I guess she didn't just want some random mutalisk to fly up and shoot him through the window.

I mean, that'd be anticlimactic!

But Meng reveals that he has that phallic thing that made her human at the end of the last game!

And she's like, "What's the worst you can do, turn me human a third time?"

"No, I'll slowly torture you with lightning instead of just shooting you, because that's what Emperors do, until someone saves you!"

So Raynor does just that.

Kind of anticlimactic.

I mean, Emperor Meng spent the whole game gloating about his secret trump card, and THAT'S the best he got?

So Kerrigan kills him with a witty one-liner, and then the two of them look at the ruins of the planet they wrecked to kill this one man out of petty revenge.

And they live happily ever after.

HOORAY!

So yes, "Heart of the Swarm" really touched my heart!

Even though Ariel Hanson wasn't in it and Nova was there for like ten seconds to kidnap Raynor offscreen.

This game needs more sights to look at than just Kerrigan's nude purple butt.

...For the lesbians, I mean!

I mean, we have just the same tastes as straight men, right? RIGHT?!



Seriously though... This is Wings of Liberty: More of the Same. With exactly the same narrative faults.

Except more icky. Back in SC1, when zerg were just low-resolution sprites, this wasn't a problem, but here, I definitely wouldn't recommend looking at things like Abathur and his Evolution Pit on a full stomach.

But that's a fundamental problem with a game centering on zerg as protagonists.

The main reason why, in my opinion, SC1 works and SC2 doesn't, is the question of narrative focus. SC1 - like WC3 after it - was about an epic galaxy-spanning conflict, fast-paced, with the pieces flung all across the chessboard every couple of missions. It relied more on a sense of scope and grandeur - something Blizzard has traditionally been good at - than on believable characterization. If anything, deep characterization could have been detrimental to the enjoyment of a game where all the characters were talking heads, plot devices to toss the nameless player from one mission to the next.

And SC2 kind of tries this, but it's the same it's more torn about what kind of story it wants to be. It doesn't give us the same feeling of a great war that SC1 did - instead it tries to be character-driven. And you can see that at least the CGI animators are trying - the new Kerrigan, despite her ghastly looks, feels surprisingly human, with vivid eyes and convincing facial expressions.

But all this effort is wasted because Metzen sucks at character-driven stories. Every time he tries to write one, be it Warcraft or Starcraft, the characters still end up being nothing more than one-dimensional plot devices, and spin-off writers invariably do better jobs at characterization than the games themselves do. Recycled cliche dialogues where every single character is Captain Obvious, which fit well into a fast-paced broad strokes plot like SC1, look out of place in a decompressed story where about the same amount of stuff happening is spread over three games.

A good writer would use the extra space to flesh out the characters, but Metzen, it seems, is too afraid to let the characters live their own lives and do anything at all other than deliver their bunch of pre-scripted lines in his lifeless bare-bones construct of a plot, hollow on the inside.

SC1, like the original Star Wars movie, succeeds because it relies on time-tested symbols and archetypes - while at the same time throwing in enough references to a larger setting to give the impression that there is more to the story and characters than meets the eye, and every player can fill this "more" with something that appeals to them. In contrast, SC2 draws too much attention to the wires holding the scenery together - and thus reveals that is is indeed just scenery, pretty but flat, with an emotionless void behind it.
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This Sunday, March 4, an Ubuntu Global Jam event was hosted in the Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University.

Lots of heavy images under the cut, beware!

Read more... )

I personally have to say that I was impressed by the event and the friendly atmosphere at it, and carried out a lot of positive emotions, and it delights me to see an ever-growing number of women in the LUG! Hopefully the next time, as promised to the coordinator, I'll finally be able to fit in that long-overdue speech about women and sexism in free software.
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(Reposted from the old blog, 2010)

I wasn’t born an atheist. Or at least, there is no recorded evidence of a pre-one-year-old me screaming “There is no God!!11” with a Timothy Dalton spit.

In my childhood, I was influenced by my great-grandmother, who was a fundamentalist to the point of absurdity. (My grandmother is more of a liberal Christian, and my parents are basically non-religious but not strong atheists like me—more like “meh, maybe God, maybe not”.) I was baptized in really early childhood, early enough that I have a very vague recollection of the event. I remember there being a church where we went by car, inscriptions on donation boxes in a Church Slavonic font, and a crowd of people crossing before a priest, including myself. I crossed with my left hand at first, being left-handed, before being told that it’s “wrong”—followed by my immediate question why.

I’ve been a questioner ever since my childhood, as long as I remember, to the point that my grandma affectionately nicknamed me “Why-er”. I guess it left an imprint on my early religious experience. I questioned what exactly made holy water different from regular water, and how exactly it was made “holy”. (Reading about the ritual involving River Jordan did little to clarify matters in regard to a backwater church on the outskirts of Novosibirsk.) I was given a cross to wear on my neck by my great-grandmother, and I was bought a prayer book. I used to read adaptations of the New Testament back then, more out of curiosity than anything.

And yes, I actually prayed as a child. Silently, though. The prayer book was preceded by short instructions, which began with, “Imagine yourself standing in front of the all-seeing God.” And that was just what I did, because my logic told me, “If God is all-seeing, surely he would notice my praying even without spoken words?” And so I began mentally reading from the book, In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen…—but it was all in my head, because I thought that praying aloud at home would be just weird.

Then, however, came kindergarten, and I started reading popular science books—and questioning. I saw contradictions between the Book of Genesis and the Big Bang, I couldn’t bring myself to literally believe in the miracles Jesus was described to perform, and was quick to seek plausible explanations for them as illusionist tricks or something. And with my habit to chew things back then, I chewed my cross regularly until first its paint came off, and then eventually I bit its strap off. My great-grandmother gave me another one, and I bit it too, but not quite so seriously. I just wore a partially-chewn cross on my neck. It wasn’t some kind of protest, I actually believed back then—but I was a five-to-six-year-old kid and felt the urge to engage my teeth…

Eventually I just abandoned faith altogether. I didn’t know it was called atheism, I just poked Christian beliefs with self-invented logical arguments (which I later discovered were common atheist arguments—among them were the cosmological argument and the argument from many religions) until I arrived to the conclusion that there would be no sense in there being a God, and ultimately this concept is not needed to describe the world around me, nor did I need an external source of morality, which I could just derive from common sense. My cross ended up hanging on my desk lamp for years, until I finally threw it away during a routine cleanup of my room.

So, when I look back at my early years, I can’t help but wonder: could I be called a Christian when I prayed and wore a cross? Probably not; I was always a closet atheist. True believers don’t question, they just believe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; it’s their path, I just chose a different one.
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To my shame, I've really got lazy in writing these blog posts. Partially because, perhaps, it's difficult for me to see the point and imagine my audience -- other than future me, of course.

Back in the day, moving to DW was a clean break from my past. My primary target audience, for any post I wrote in my old blog, was my future self. It gave me material for introspection and tracing changes in my personality over the years -- which are shocking to me, still. While most of my core beliefs are still intact, many of my former beliefs and actions make me uncomfortable.

Now, perhaps, it is time to give my past a rest. Not "burn the evidence" -- this is not my intent, especially not in this day and age, when caches remember everything. But close that chapter in my life.

The journey from Matvey to Maia, which started in late 2008 and continues to this day, has been slow and often rocky. 2009 was marked by apathy and depression, stemming from unemployment and the need to hide everything from everyone. After that, things have been consistently getting better. 2010 saw me getting my second and current job, 2011 a home of my own, away from my parents, though that year was scarred by two failed relationships; and 2012 may just have been the best year of my life so far.

Looking back, I can now, with certainty, name the event that dragged me out of my apartment and onto the streets: the sham "elections" of December 2011 and the political fallout that followed. The explosion of political activity from ordinary citizens that followed was unprecedented by Russian standards, and I, too, without prompting, got engaged in the rallies. I felt I had no moral right to stand aside anymore.

Inspired, I decided to get engaged in political activity relevant specifically to me -- and thus, I applied as a volunteer to the Russian LGBT Network, something that, in hindsight, I should have done at least a year before that. A reply followed soon; I was invited to the local LGBT social club, Pulsar, for a two-day brainstorming seminar on political activities in 2012. This was the turning point. It changed everything.

For the first visit, I didn't really have any women's clothes to wear to speak of, other than T-shirts, so I showed up in a women's T-shirt and men's jeans. It was a relief for me, nevertheless, to be able to call myself Maia in a company of like-minded people and feel accepted as a girl, even without passing. For the second visit, the following day, I bought a dress, which made me feel less awkward -- and more appropriate.

After that, weekly visits to the club every Sunday became a routine, although a highly welcome one; usually I spent the week waiting for Sunday, when I could go downtown and meet my LGBT friends in a safe space, that basement insulated from the homophobic streets. It was just a social club, where politics only occasionally intruded, usually in discussions of news about new stupid homophobic laws.

It felt good.

I made new friends -- replacing those I lost years ago. Some of the revelations were surprising: it turned out that two transwomen from the club lived very close to me on the outskirts of the city, far away from the club, and they were a couple! I did more for my new life in mere months than I did in three preceding years, assembling a wardrobe, skills, connections, advice -- though the others were puzzled by my habit of changing clothes when arriving and leaving. At that point, I thought, I couldn't risk being detected. What if someone who knew my parents would see me on the street? What would they think?

Even more than that, I was afraid of being recognized as trans by passers-by. It took me a while to overcome that worry.

There is a definite pattern here. For the first half of the year, I have been breaking myself -- deliberately moving myself outside my zone of comfort and adjusting to this new, unfamiliar life, and overcoming self-doubt. As a friend of mine said: "What really gives you away is your nervous search for things that give you away."

This turned out to be more right than I thought. The secret to passing was, banal as it sounds, that there was no secret.

Sure, fellow transpeople recognized me -- but that was because they knew where to look. Otherwise, once I started going en femme in public -- first cautiously and in a few select environments, then openly -- I learned that "normal", ordinary people have no reason to suspect anything in the first place. What surprised me were times when I was called "girl" by passers-by when not actively trying to pass -- for example, when I wasn't perfectly shaved, or wasn't wearing a padded bra to hide my flat chest. The most awkward experiences have been the looks on the faces of shopkeepers and security guards when I handed them my male identity documents. "Whose are these? What? Yours?!"

So much for those depressed "I'll never pass!" fears from three to four years ago.

I re-established my contacts with the local Linux User Group, which I previously avoided out of reluctance to come to them in male capacity. I discovered, together with my new friends, many interesting places in the city center, while I previously was reluctant to show myself in public. Gone were the days when I hadn't cared about my body, to the point of not washing for weeks.

Yet it has all come at the cost of having to lie to my family, and I still do. Even though we no longer live together, they live close by and are suspicious of my every step. During summer, it got especially unbearable. Every time I headed downtown, I had to wear men's clothes when walking out of home and bring a bag with women's clothes to change into once I arrived -- all out of fear of being recognized in my neighborhood.

The culmination to these efforts came in August, when, after several delays, I went on a trip to the country of my dreams -- the Netherlands. Both to see the country itself, and to see someone dear to me. It was the first time in my life when I traveled somewhere alone, without my family, and my first trip to Europe. It felt relieving and empowering. I took off male clothes immediately after checking into the hotel and almost never put them back on before arriving back in the airport for departure.

It was a medium-sized hotel in the center of The Hague, right next to the Centraal Station. The Hague was, in many ways, the opposite of the stereotypes about Amsterdam (and the real Amsterdam, as I found out after visiting it): quiet, clean, almost idyllic with its parks and forests, often right next to busy city streets. The more time I spent there, the more fond I grew of this small, yet proud country.

The last two days of my vacation were spent in Cologne, around Gamescom in the city center, staying in a hotel in a suburb. In comparison to the Netherlands, Germany didn't have such an effect, though it may be because I visited it second. It felt too ordinary, too familiar -- like Russia, but better; what Russia should have been.

My companion went to Gamescom -- the very reason of our arrival there -- while I quickly realized that I had nothing to do there. Not really being a gamer, and unable to socialize there, I wandered aimlessly for about an hour, depressed, before walking out. I settled for seeing the city itself instead before it was my time to leave the next morning, specifically the Cathedral and a boat trip along the Rhine.

I didn't want to go back to Russia.

I really didn't.

My stay in Europe was the high point of the whole year. I would have stayed there forever, if I could. The trip only confirmed the preconceptions I heard before leaving: that I had more in common with the European mindset than Russian, that Russia did everything backwards, mindlessly borrowing pieces of European culture in letter only, without understanding the spirit, the history and reason behind them.

I don't really hate Russia, but I don't consider myself Russian anymore. And after coming back, I sank back into apathy, even submerging myself in WoW and isolating myself from the life outside. Only in the last month I recovered somewhat, partially thanks to my friends from the club.

I enter 2013 with mixed thoughts.

On one hand, I feel more alive and confident in myself than I ever was in my whole life.

On the other hand, I'm full of doubt in everything else. Doubt in my ability to successfully complete my transition, to fully embrace my new identity, legally. Doubt in my ability to completely break away from my parents. To find a new life outside Russia, as it is falling down its pit of insanity, before life here gets completely unbearable for everyone with a shred of rational thought.

Can I do that? I don't know. These things ahead of me lie so far outside my comfort zone I don't even know where to begin, or in what order to approach them. And this is how I enter the new year: with fear, uncertainty and doubt... but also hope. If not for the country (I almost don't care about it anymore), then at least for myself...

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"Dat u de Moslims krenken, o edel Neerland zoet..."
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Just watched the intro cinematic... and while it's entertaining to see Definitely Not Bastila, Definitely Not Bao-Dur, Definitely Not Han Solo (now with an Indiana Jones hat!), Definitely Not Revan, Definitely Not T3-M4, Definitely Not the Millennium Falcon and Definitely Not Imperial Star Destroyers, the sheer sense of deja vu overwhelms me...

Maybe I'm just too old to take Star Wars seriously anymore.
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So, yesterday on the way back from the club, I had to take a taxi. It was almost 22:00 and the only public transport remaining that went from downtown to my outskirts did so in a very roundabout way. And I was hurrying home.

I had no cash with me, only my Visa card, and the trade center with the nearest and apparently only ATM around was closed. So I promised the taxi driver that I would hand him the money when I get home, or from an ATM on the way.

So he drove me off the main road, onto a dark, bumpy path to a gloomy factory, saying there was an ATM there. I was scared, of course. It was late evening, it was dark, and there I am sitting in a taxi, being driven who knows where. I mentioned my fears to the driver, and he realized the implications and apologized for making me uncomfortable. There was indeed an ATM near an entrance there, with ISO standard grumpy Soviet-style clerks around. I got some money off my card, paid the driver, and we drove back, with me recovering from my initial fear.

He was a forty-something guy, and really seemed humble and well-meaning. I felt mostly comfortable there, but there were just a few things that raised my eyebrow.

When we were about to enter the main road again, he laid his hand on mine, saying I emanated some kind of positive aura that made him warm. Then after a few minutes of random small talk (which taxi drivers are often prone to), he asked for my name.

Wait, what? Why is he asking this? I noticed he's never used any gendered language so far. Is he confused about me? Is that his roundabout way of finding out? Which name should I tell him? Does he see what my makeup is hiding? Crap, how does he read me by default, anyway? My coat and trousers probably register as masculine, but it's dark and we're driving without lighting... Gah... I wish I knew...

.
.
.
"Maia."

"Name or pseudonym? You... took a long time answering that..."

"Well, it's because no taxi driver has ever asked me my name before, so I was wondering why you did..."

Our random small talk continued, about just about anything really - he said he didn't like driving in silence. From that point on he used feminine language when referring to me. And when we were close to my home, suddenly he asked, out of the blue:

"Maia, perhaps we could stop here for five or ten minutes to talk?"

What?! What's on his mind, anyway?

"Well, we've talked for the whole road, haven't we?"

"But..."

"I'd rather just go home. I'm in a bit of a hurry."

He didn't insist, nor did he seem angry or upset, so he just fetched me to my house. "Come again!" he said as I exited the taxi. I dropped a glove, and he called my attention to it, calling me Nastya.

"I'm not Nastya."

"Oh, sorry... Maia."

Seriously...

What. The. Heck. If someone else told me such a story, I'd think they made it up...

One

11 Mar 2012 04:08
lucidfox: (Default)
”I wasn't expecting Ammon to clap us on the back and say "Great job kid, now let's go home," but it'd be better than what we got. As it is, all our work, all our effort invested into NWN2 as a game is undone in seconds because Obsidian wanted a 'tragic' ending. It is tragic, mind, but only for the player.”

~ Let’s Play Neverwinter Nights 2, by Lt. Danger


How do you end a game? Especially one as ambitious as Mass Effect 3?

BioWare had a tremendous task ahead of it. It had to tie up the loose ends from the first two games, resolve its own Reaper invasion plot, and account for a multitude of variables, including providing alternate plot branches for main characters who could be alive or dead based on your past choices. The writers even admitted that they shot themselves in the foot with some ideas, like the idea of a suicide mission in part 2 of a trilogy.

Overall, I’d say they did... adequately. It’s linear, railroaded, the writing is uneven - some of it brilliant, some of it corny, and some of it plain tired and uninspired, as if they gathered every idea they had and threw them all into a blender - and most of your past choices amount to little more than some numbers and tweaked lines here and there, but your decisions do matter overall and you get the power to shape the fate of the galaxy.

ME3 is a decent game, better than I expected based on marketing material and previews. I’m sure Yahtzee will do a better job at picking it apart than I can, and mainstream critics are already gushing out compliments left and right, like they tend to do with games of such calibre, focusing on its good sides, which I have trouble describing - despite their abundance - because I usually focus on the negative. But the part of almost any game that interests me most is the story, so let me say some words about that, in particular.

Is ME3’s story good? Yes. It’s a competently written three-act story, with a clear beginning, middle, and climax. You could even say it has an end. With some reservations that I’ll stop on later.

But even discounting the ending, ME1 still had overall better writing. Even despite all the cheese, being essentially a rehash of Knights of the Old Republic, despite everyone living in a world of boring copy-pasted grey boxes, it had a sense of “realness”, verisimilitude, relevance, an extrapolation of our own world into the future, that the other two games failed to replicate.

* * *


Mass Effect has been, at its worst, a somewhat more verisimilar Star Wars clone. At its best, it has been a solid SF setting with a well-thought-out, interesting background and plenty of untapped potential. Each game had its share of good writing and bad writing, as it is common with BioWare games. But in the chain of ME1 -> ME2 -> ME3, we can see the proportion of plausible elements gradually diminish and the outrageous elements, inserted only for the Rule of Cool (and for the sake of flashy trailers), take over.

Perhaps it is inevitable that given enough time, any game franchise that sells itself on visuals is going to pile on more and more ridiculous over-the-top stuff, simply because publishers need copies to sell - and for that, they need engaging, action-packed trailers, logic be damned.

I can forgive such elements as a Cerberus cyber-ninja, curvaceous robot girl squadmate or Shepard lines ripped out of your average generic war movie, because mainstream games need a mandatory amount of cheese to sell themselves to their target audience. And I went into ME3 with low expectations to begin with, so I was pleasantly surprised a few times. Which, if anything, makes the ending even more bitter to swallow.

There was a time when BioWare endings had a simple dichotomy about them. As Yahtzee puts it: "In the good ending, you're a virtuous flower child with love and a smile for all the shiny-coated beasts of God's kingdom, and in the bad ending you're some kind of hybrid of Hitler and Skeletor whose very piss is pure liquid malevolence." I would be deluded to think that those were good times. Rose-colored nostalgia glasses are not in my arsenal, and have never been. The studio has matured, and so did their endgame choices. I welcome that.

You could have a “light side” ending, a “dark side” ending, and a middle ground ending. This is ME1.

You could have several morally ambiguous choices, some more repugnant and some almost happy - almost. Black, grey and light grey, if you will. This is Dragon Age: Origins.

You could make a scale based on your success, with one shining, golden ending you have to work for, and some less satisfying endings. This is ME2, and previously, Obsidian Entertainment used it in Mask of the Betrayer, the (much superior) expansion pack to Neverwinter Nights 2.

And finally, you can do the kind of ending that renders the entire buildup to it pointless and moot.

[continued...]
lucidfox: (Default)
Looked at the leaked endings.

Roland, I guess this is the part where I say "I told you so".

Edit: The truth is, I'm bitter. It even taints ME1 and ME2 in hindsight and makes the whole trilogy feel like a shaggy dog story.
lucidfox: (Default)
I played these games more than once, but these particular playthroughs I regard as "my personal canon". The way the events "really" happened in my imagination.


KOTOR

Light side Soldier/Jedi Sentinel
No romance
Spared Juhani
Spared the Progenitor
Killed Uthar, spared Yuthura
Redeemed Bastila
Destroyed the Star Forge

KOTOR II

Light side Jedi Guardian/Jedi Watchman
Sided with Ithorians
Defended Khoonda from Azkul
Sided with Talia, Vaklu in prison
Left Tobin behind to set off charges
Malachor V destroyed

Abigail Shepard (Mass Effect)

Earthborn Sole Survivor Vanguard
Saved the Feros colonists and Shiala
Left Anoleis in charge
Saved Ashley on Virmire
Spared Wrex
Romanced Liara
Saved the old Council, put Anderson as human councilor

Mass Effect 2:

Reignited romance with Liara
Spared Harkin and Sidonis
Killed Morinth
Got Miranda to talk to Oriana
Turned Jacob's father over to the Alliance
Proved Tali's innocence, her father not implicated
Saved Joram Talid
Spared Maelon, downloaded genophage cure research
Spared Aresh
Rewrote the geth heretics
Destroyed the Collector Base, entire squad survived

Lyna Mahariel (Dragon Age)

Dalish Warrior
Cured the mabari dog
Recruited Leliana, Sten, Oghren and Zevran
Romanced Leliana
Left Flemeth alive, lied to Morrigan
Lifted the werewolf curse, left Lanaya as Keeper
Saved the Circle
Cured Connor
Recovered the Urn, cured Eamon, Jowan executed
Killed Branka, destroyed the Anvil, made Bhelen king
Made Alistair king, Anora imprisoned
Convinced Alistair to do the ritual

Awakening:

Spared Nathaniel
Recruited Anders, Oghren, Velanna, Sigrun, and Justice
Sided with the Amaranthine guards
Defended Amaranthine personally; Vigil's Keep saved
Sided with the Architect


Liscara Hawke (Dragon Age II)

Sword and Shield Warrior
Made Aveline captain
Romanced Merrill
Recruited Fenris but ignored his questline
Lost Bethany to the Circle, later reunited with her
Isabela ran away with the relic
Killed the Arishok
Sided with Orsino
Spared Anders
Supported by the whole party against Meredith



Edit 14.02: Just realized KOTOR II isn't actually a BioWare game. %) Epic facepalm.

Phone

9 Feb 2012 02:04
lucidfox: (Default)
Rooted my HTC Wildfire S, installed CyanogenMod 7.

It's neat. I don't think I'll go to the stock HTC ROM again. It's so bloated in comparison.

Screenshot Screenshot
lucidfox: (Default)
If a gay woman lives on Lesbos, does it make her a Lesbian lesbian?
lucidfox: (Default)
Dear taxi driver: just because you're older than me doesn't automatically make you an expert on every subject in the world except for computers.

And not everything you hear in a crowd is absolute truth. In fact, most people don't know what they're talking about when they just repeat rumors, often mangling them even more, and if I, 25, have to explain such things to you, old enough to be my father, then something is wrong with the world.

And I don't think you're in any position to accuse women of being gossipy when you spent a few dozen times you've driven me to work saying nothing but hearsay, and I've always been the one calling you on lack of facts and critical detail. You know what it's called? Hypocrisy.
lucidfox: (Default)
Mostly writing this to coherently sum up my thoughts.

For better or for worse, I was born in the Soviet Union. It's an unfortunate reality that people don't get to choose where they're born. Maybe someone out there is working on fixing that. :)

In particular, Soviet fiction has influenced my own writing. My pet project in progress, a time travel thingy called Insight (it sucks, so I wouldn't dare call it a novel), has throwbacks to Soviet science fiction of all timeframes, from We to Alice, Girl from the Future. Soviet SF from about the 1960s onwards, especially aimed at children, has an air of optimism about it; it has this spirit of benevolent exploration, broadening the horizons of knowledge, eternal moral values.

One of the unconscious influences -- ones I didn't realize until I rewatched a bit of it -- was an old children's movie dilogy that rubbed into my own childhood: Moscow — Cassiopeia. Of course, back then I was too young to realize its main fault: that it was a work of socialist realism, which was less about showing reality as it was and more about how it "should be", from the perspective of Soviet ideology. Everyone, both child and adult, acts "too perfect". The positive characters are ideological embodiments of qualities, not reading like real people, and the negative are likewise symbolic embodiments of flaws. The end result is that it ends up feeling wooden, unrealistic (and I don't mean unrealistic in the sense that it has an FTL starship and an alien planet).

And the plot itself? Well, it's nothing surprising to anyone who has seen any Star Trek series ever. Again, I only know that now. You don't particularly expect a 1973 movie to be original by modern standards, so it follows the usual route: robot creations blah blah turned against their masters blah blah emotional suppression blah blah mind control rays blah blah blah. The resolution was narmy even by STTOS standards: the deus ex machina came in the form of an iron nail stuck in a power socket! Ah well, it's for kids, you don't expect them to appreciate clever writing, right?

Still, it has the kind of innocent charm in it that I like in Soviet movies in general, so it would be watchable for me now if not for one factor that utterly kills my enjoyment.

It's this guy.

IOO

I hate him so much. He's basically the antithesis of everything emphasized in Soviet SF.

He has no name, he is referred to by the unwieldy acronym "IOO" (in Russian, "one assigned to special responsibilities") and he never directly interacts with any of the adults, only with the children. And with the audience, who are, again, assumed to be children.

The movie starts with him directly addressing the audience and claiming that the events of the movie really happened "next spring". He speaks in a somewhat playful, pointedly polite, almost patronizing manner. And he fulfills the role of a deus ex machina, nudging the events to get the story going. He's apparently omnipotent -- he can teleport, even across planets, contact an FTL starship from an ordinary rotary phone, etc.

Who is he? An interdimensional bureaucrat?

G-Man

Nah, that would be too generous an interpretation. (Incidentally, although I don't exclude the possibility that Valve was influenced by the IOO, the chances of this are slim.) Although he drops hints that he works for some kind of superiors, he is human and benevolent in his emotions, very much unlike the G-Man, despite fulfilling a similar handy deus ex machina role. The IOO is Gandalf assembling the company together on an adventure -- in this case, the space expedition.

Ahem! This movie is otherwise very serious. Imagine the most straight-faced moments in Star Trek without all the character-based humor, where every character is Picard and can do no wrong. Perhaps the IOO was an attempt at injecting humor? But I'm sorry, it's supposed to be SF as in "science fiction", not "space fantasy". It's not about space princesses, space emperors and space dashing swordsmen. A Gandalf figure, or even an Obi-Wan figure, is utterly out of place in a movie that spends about a fourth of its run spitting out relatively realistic scientific jargon.

Another version is that he's an author stand-in. Based, of course, on the assumption that children are such morons that they can't tell reality from fiction unless they're constantly pointed out that it's fiction (in this case by drawing attention to the IOO's outlandish antics). Is it the same kind of logic that has prompted Soviet writers to constantly put fantastic elements in framing stories, for example, by making Ivan Vasilievich revealed to be a dream in the end? (Just in case, you know, the audience thinks time machines are actually possible?)

There is, however, a certain point at which the character appears too often, turning from a "necessary plot device" into an "author's pet character". The IOO not just gets the plot going, but he also appears several times later, randomly teleporting around, acting as a mysterious advisor living outside time, showing knowledge of the future, switching between acting playful and patronizing...

River Song

Why, hello, sweetie.

Like River Song, the IOO ultimately suffers from overexposure, to the point that he stops being that interesting quirky enigma and simply steals too much of the spotlight for himself. But the absolute nadir is the finale, in which, after the kids resolve the conflict on an alien planet, he simply teleports them back home. Just like that. Leaving the expensive starship behind.

Even if it's not an "all just a dream" cop-out, it has the effect of saying: "Hah! You thought you were watching a space exploration story! But what you were actually watching was an imaginary fairy tale about space exploration! None of this was real!" And it cheapens the moral and emotional impact of the story.

In an interview to a Soviet newspaper back in those days, director Richard Viktorov had this to say about the concept of the IOO: "To make it easier for kids to understand the film, we have added a familiar archetype of the kind wizard."

In other words, the director's stance was that kids are morons and won't understand a plot without an archetype that is completely inappropriate for the genre.

Goshdang it to heck.
lucidfox: (Default)
From an LGBT event a week ago (I'll get to writing about it when I stop procrastinating...):

Everyone is standing in a circle...

Host: [holding a pen] This is a magic pen. Whoever you point it at, when you make a wish, it will rub on that person!
Me: I'd like to stay out of this game. Its setup conflicts with my rationalist worldview.
Guy standing opposite to me: Can we still target wishes at you, though?
Me: Sure, I guess.
Guy: [points the pen at me] Maia, I wish you to broaden your worldview!
lucidfox: (Default)
Since I can't find your email address anywhere, I'll use the comments to post a summary impression of your Mass Effect posts so far.

I found your blog in a Google search for "ME3 will suck", and I found myself agreeing with most of your five-part series of caution about ME3. I've been following the development of ME3 for the past year, and the more I learn, the more it seems they're steering development in a direction that goes away from what got me hooked on ME1 in the first place.

Story is the main reason I play video games at all, and I often set the game to an easier difficulty if the frustrating save-load cycles distract me from story presentation. I look for themes, messages, clashes of ideas, and I like to ask myself, "What was the author thinking when they wrote this scene?" In your analysis of the ME games, I saw a kindred spirit.

ME1, if you ignore the fact that it was basically KOTOR without the Force and lightsabers - in other words, it had the same kind of basic story as every other BioWare game - it was indeed about humanity proving itself to the rest of the galaxy. We are, for all intents and purposes, aliens to them. Alien immigrants who've been taking their jobs and demanding privileges. My Shepard's goal was to prove to the galaxy that we could all live in peace, and that we could be trusted with responsibility - and to prove to the Alliance that they were right in advocating her for Spectre status. And although the side missions were mind-numbingly repetitive, I took them too, because I actually felt like an officer on duty - an officer responsible for the lives of her crew, and for making hard decisions.

And when I was scanning unexplored planets, it felt like I was really treading into the unknown, like Columbus sailing to the west, ready to do a service for the Alliance - and for the benefit of the entire Citadel space.

Then in the first minutes of ME2, the hand of the cosmic Author cuts that entire Gordian knot of relationships surrounding Shepard, estranged from the Council, the Alliance, and the ME1 crew, and puts us back at square one. And it feels jarring. It almost feels like Shepard's story was supposed to go in a different direction, like ME2 is an altered timeline that went off the rails. It's like seeing your protege ascending a lavishly decorated stairway, only for a trapdoor to open at the worst moment and kick her down into the garbage dump.

At first, I was prepared to hate ME2. I was skeptical about the "streamlined" direction they took, as well as the superficial "darker and edgier" elements. I hated Cerberus, I hated being railroaded into working for Cerberus, and I still do. I chose the most "in your face" options when talking to the Illusive Man, I avoided talking to Miranda and Jacob or taking them on missions at first. In the end I'm glad I did, because there were layers to them that I wasn't aware of, judging them based on initial impressions.

The story took a very different turn than I expected based on ME1 alone, but now I think you are wrong about ME2 not having a theme. I agree it has a weaker main story than ME1. Much weaker. But in my eyes, ME2 isn't really about the Collector arc. I don't even see the Collector Base mission as the sole ending of its arc. The Collector Base, LOTSB and Arrival each provide some kind of closure for parts of Shepard's personal arc. But none of them provide the definite end to anything. This game has no end. Shepard is restless. The mission is accomplished, but the adventure continues.

Here's a comparison I saw somewhere: if ME1 is a novel, ME2 is an antology of short stories. The Collector plot only serves as a premise to bring the characters together, while they themselves are the real meat of the story.

As I see it, the main theme of ME2 - at least the Paragon story, since I haven't played Renegade - is healing broken minds. Shepard assembles a team of ten (Kasumi and Zaeed, as DLC characters, don't count) dysfunctional, messed-up individuals, and gives each of them a renewed sense of purpose and hope of recovery - as well as helps with one of the causes of their grief. It's not enough to fix them completely, but it's a start. And then there's Liara, the not-quite-companion, for whom LOTSB serves a purpose similar to the one loyalty missions serve for your regular companions.

And my Shepard, in my personal internal view of the story, was also healing herself as well. She didn't ask to be revived - she was forcibly pulled out of the grave, kicking and screaming. She came back broken, if not physically, then at least mentally, seeing everyone she knew and cared for bite the dust or go their own separate ways. Dumped to the bottom of society, working with the trash and scum, so she could find herself again.

I wouldn't say that the theme is executed particularly well, mind. With two exceptions, the companions feel like they ignore each other's presence, and the choices made on loyalty missions don't affect the finale, either. DA2 did better with its "Questioning Beliefs" series, when your actions towards your companions meant a lot in determining who would stay at your side in the end, and for what reason. And in the end, I think both ME2 and DA2 were damaged by being marketed as sequels, while they were really side stories.

Just like DA2 was better off being something like "Hawke: A Dragon Age story", so was ME2 not really a sequel, and ME3 would probably work better being called ME2. It's not about the Reaper menace, and I'm fine with that. Screw Reapers. They've served their purpose in the story. We've gone from Sovereign, whom I found the one BioWare villain that actually scared me by creating a sense of unstoppable approaching doom, to Harbinger - a total joke after you kill its avatar the first five or so times. I actually applaud Dragon Age for having the guts to shift from a bland and arbitrary external threat to exploring conflicts inherent in the system. Alas, ME is set up as a trilogy about the Reapers, so it will have to bite that bullet, even when I think there's inherently no satisfactory resolution that won't feel like a deus ex machina.

Regarding the treatment of Ashley and Kaidan in ME2... I'm obviously biased, being pro-Liara, but I think the main problem is not the shifted characterization per se: it lies deeper. It lies in the merging of two very different Alliance officers into one combined "Ashdan Willenko" hybrid that doesn't do justice to either of the original characters. Their lines in ME2 are exactly the same, from what I can tell. It seems that ME3 is bound for the same treatment. It saves the writers the bother of writing different situations for them, sure, but it also takes away everything that made them unique and memorable. And don't get me started on the redesign of Ashley's looks in ME3. EA's "streamlining" and "wider audience" in action. Ugh.

I actually read through the leaked ME3 script you avoided. Without spoiling anything, I think that it's bad, that it doesn't do the setting justice, and that there are some ideas in it that should have never ever entered the brain of any halfway competent ME writer. Between that, and everything else you said - the excessive marketing focus on the wrong elements, shooterization, EA influence, having a story too crammed with characters to do each of them justice - we have a recipe for failure. With the exception of SWTOR sales, since SWTOR has already launched and is apparently doing well, I expect your worst-case scenario to kick in.

Strong clever writing can still be that game's saving grace even with everything else ruined, but I already know this is not the ME3 I want. Whether or not it's good or bad, it most likely won't be a part of "my personal canon" and I'll end up plotting a different conclusion to Shepard's story in my mind.

And weeping over what could have been.
lucidfox: (Default)
Plucked my own eyebrows for the first time.

Good golly is it time-consuming. But worth the experience.
lucidfox: (Default)
Well, technically second. But this is the first day where I actually managed to see something, not clouded by night.

It goes... quite against the stereotypes, to say the least.
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