15 Wonderful Things You Might Not Know About L. Frank Baum

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In 1900, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book that has never been out of print and that has been produced as movies, theatrical plays and musicals, and led to further cultural phenomena like The Wiz and Wicked. In honor of his 162nd birthday, here are 15 facts about the actual man behind the curtain.

1. HIS HOMETOWN HOSTS AN OZ-FEST (BUT NOT THAT OZZFEST).

Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856 in Chittenango, New York, to a wealthy family and raised on an estate called Rose Lawn in Mattydale, New York, just outside Syracuse. In honor of Baum, Chittenango holds an annual festival of all things Oz called Oz-Stavaganza.

2. THE FIRST ANIMALS HE WROTE ABOUT WERE CHICKENS.

Baum was a sickly child and his father indulged his hobbies, including buying him a small printing press that he used to produce a newspaper. Another hobby was raising fancy chickens called Hamburgs. At 23, he started his own chicken trade journal, which he soon sold to a rival. He stayed on as a column writer, and contributed a long, serialized article on breeding and rearing Hamburgs. Later, when Baum was 30, the magazine (supposedly without Baum's knowledge) published that original article in full, making it Baum's first published book.

3. DOROTHY'S "YELLOW BRICK ROAD" MIGHT HAVE BEEN BASED ON A CHILDHOOD MEMORY.

When he was 12, Baum was sent to the Peekskill Military Academy in Peekskill, New York, for two years, where he was absolutely miserable. But it is also where he may have first seen a yellow brick road—at that time many of the streets of Peekskill were paved with yellow Dutch bricks. And for a young teen who just wanted to go home, the memory might have provided future inspiration. An alternative hypothesis is that when he was living in Syracuse, a plank road was installed made out of a yellow colored wood.

4. BAUM HAD A BRIEF CAREER AS AN ACTOR.


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Baum’s first ambition as a young man was to be an actor and playwright. He wrote several plays, including The Maid of Arran, which was successfully produced and in which he acted. The only time that Baum was known to have been in Kansas was when he toured in this play in 1882. However, his love of and involvement with the theater lasted throughout his life.

5. BAUM WAS A FEMINIST, AS WERE HIS WIFE AND IN-LAWS.

L. Frank and Maud Baum on a trip to Egypt
Wikimedia Commons

In 1882, Baum married Maud Gage, daughter of the noted feminist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. He had a warm relationship with his mother-in-law, who, along with his new wife, helped him become a lifelong suffragist and feminist. According to biographer Katharine M. Rogers, Baum was "a secure man who did not worry about asserting his masculine authority." In fact, most of his books had girls as the heroes. Matilda Gage was the person who convinced Baum to write for children, having listened to him tell his children the stories that he created.

6. MOST OF HIS CAREER PATHS, INCLUDING RUNNING A NEWSPAPER, FAILED.

After several financial reverses—Baum failed as an actor, as a salesman, and in other careers—he moved his family in 1888 to Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, in what is now South Dakota. He opened a store (which failed) and a newspaper (which failed, too). In his newspaper, he strongly supported women’s suffrage, but he is also thought to have written two racist editorials calling for extermination of Native Americans. (In 2006, two of Baum’s descendants apologized to the Sioux Nation for the editorials.) In 1891, Baum lost the newspaper and he and his family moved to Chicago.

7. HE STARTED WRITING CHILDREN'S BOOKS IN HIS FORTIES.


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In 1897, at the age of 41, Baum published his first book for children, Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish (his first big commission; Parrish went on to become a top illustrator for books and magazines). It was a success. Baum followed it up in 1899 with Father Goose: His Book, which also sold very well. He then wrote two alphabet books, and publishers began to consider him an important children’s author.

8. THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ IS CONSIDERED THE FIRST TRUE AMERICAN FAIRYTALE.

In 1900, Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with illustrations by William Wallace Denslow. It was an instant hit. Although there have been many theories on how the book is an allusion to the politics of the United States in the late 1800s, there is no conclusive proof that Baum intended any such connections. But Baum did create the Land of Oz as a distinctly American utopia, making it the first truly American fairytale.

9. THE LAND OF OZ WAS NAMED FOR A FILING CABINET.

Baum’s original title for the book was “The Emerald City,” but publishers had a superstition that a jewel in a book title was bad luck and asked Baum to change it. Baum got the name for his fairy country off a drawer on a file cabinet that was marked “O-Z.” He named his plucky heroine Dorothy Gale after an infant niece named Dorothy Louise Gage who died while he was writing the book.

10. WICKED WAS NOT THE FIRST OZ ADAPTATION ON BROADWAY.

In 1902, Baum collaborated on a stage version called The Wizard of Oz that ran on Broadway for two years and toured until 1911. The plot was decidedly different from the book, with Toto being replaced by a cow and more people from Kansas traveling to Oz along with Dorothy. Because of the success of the play and subsequent Oscar-winning movie, the book has often been published without “wonderful” in the title.

11. THERE ARE 40 OFFICIAL 'OZ' BOOKS.

Baum continued writing Oz books—14 in total—until the end of his life, with a new book usually coming out in time for Christmas. In his later years, he answered children’s letters on letterhead that proclaimed him as the "Royal Historian of Oz." He often used suggestions from children when creating the Oz books. The series was continued after his death by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote an additional 19 Oz books, and several other authors who added seven more.

12. BAUM WROTE UNDER A VARIETY OF PSEUDONYMS.

In addition to the Oz series, Baum wrote other books for children and teenagers, including romances and science fiction, under an assortment of pen names. Under the name Edith Van Dyne, he wrote a successful series of books called Aunt Jane’s Nieces that were as popular as the Oz books. Other pseudonyms included Laura Bancroft, Floyd Akers, Schuyler Staunton, and Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald.

13. BAUM LOST THE RIGHTS TO HIS MOST FAMOUS BOOK BECAUSE OF FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES.

Baum created a stage show in 1908 called “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays” that combined a lecture by him with live actors, a movie, and projected slides. Critics and audiences loved it, but it cost more to produce than it brought in. Baum declared bankruptcy, which caused him to lose his royalty rights to his earlier books, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

14. BAUM WROTE AND DIRECTED A NUMBER OF OZ FILMS HIMSELF.

In 1914, Baum started a film company. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company lasted only for a few years, but it produced several Oz-related movies, including His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. For once, Baum didn’t lose any money on this business venture.

15. HIS FINAL WORDS WERE IN REFERENCE TO OZ.

Baum’s health began to fail in 1917, and he died two years later after suffering a stroke. Just before he passed, he had some interesting last words for his wife. In his books, the land of Oz is cut off from the rest of the world by impassable wastelands, including a desert called the Shifting Sands. As Baum lay dying, he supposedly referenced the work that made his legacy: “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.”

Additional sources: The Making of the Wizard of OzThe Oz Scrapbook.

The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images
Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images

From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. Hanging Stockings

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. Caroling

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. Using Evergreens as Christmas Trees

Rows of Christmas trees at tree farm on cold winter morning
arlutz73/iStock via Getty Images

Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British royal family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. The Colors Red and Green

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. Ugly Christmas Sweaters

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. Leaving Milk and Cookies for Santa

Closeup image of wish list and treats for Santa Claus on table next to burning fireplace
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. The A Christmas Story Marathon on TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. Yule Logs

Chocolate yule log cake with red currant on wooden background
etorres69/iStock via Getty Images

Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. Advent Calendars

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child that featured 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. Eggnog

Eggnog in two glass cups
GreenArtPhotography/iStock via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called posset, a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it for toasting.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that nog was short for noggin, which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. Christmas Cards

Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

13 Facts About Friday the 13th

Stockbyte/iStock via Getty Images
Stockbyte/iStock via Getty Images

There are plenty of superstitions out there, but none have woven themselves into the fabric of our culture quite like Friday the 13th. It's inspired books, songs, and one of the most successful horror movie franchises of all time. But despite giving us anxiety, the origins of this notorious date on the calendar remain largely unknown to most. Where did it start? Does it really stretch back to the 14th century? And how does Loki figure into all of it?

There are a lot of urban legends and half-truths out there, so we're diving a bit deeper into the history of this most terrifying of days with 13 facts about Friday the 13th.

1. The Bible helped inspire the phobia.

The Last Supper
iStock

Part of superstition surrounding Friday the 13th comes from the Christian Bible. During the Last Supper, there were 13 guests—Jesus and his 12 apostles, one of which, Judas, would eventually betray him. Since then, some have believed in a superstition regarding 13 guests at a dinner table. This slowly extended to be an overall feeling that the number itself was bad luck.

Of course, when Jesus was crucified, it took place on a Friday, leading some to view the day with an anxious eye. Taken separately, both the number 13 and Friday have since made their way into modern superstitions.

2. So did Loki.

Guided by Loki, Höðr shoots the mistletoe at Baldr.
Guided by Loki, Höðr shoots the mistletoe at Baldr.
Wilhelm Wägner, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Last Supper is one view on the origins of our fear of 13. Another comes from Norse mythology—more specifically in the form of the trickster god Loki. In those stories, Loki tricked the blind god Höðr into killing his brother Baldr with a dart of mistletoe. Baldr's mother, Frigg, had previously ordered everything in existence to never harm her son, except the mistletoe, which she viewed as incapable of harm.

How does 13 figure into this? Some accounts say Baldr's death took place at a dinner held for 12 gods before it was interrupted by Loki—the 13th (and most unwanted) guest.

3. Some point to the Knights Templar as the source of why people fear the day (but it's probably not true).

Jacques de Molay, the 23rd and Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is lead to the stake to burn for heresy in 1314.
Jacques de Molay, the 23rd and Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is lead to the stake to burn for heresy in 1314.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Contrary to what The Da Vinci Code told you, the reason people fear Friday the 13th isn't because of the Knights Templar. On the very unlucky Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip IV of France had members of the Templar arrested—growing uneasy with their power and covetous of their riches. There were trials, torture, and many of the Knights were burned at the stake, eventually leading to the superstition of Friday the 13th as a cursed and evil day.

That's not quite true, though. This is a take that's been drummed up in recent years, most visibly in Dan Brown's best-selling novel, but in reality, the unlucky combination of Friday and 13 didn't appear until around the turn of the 20th century.

4. A 1907 novel played a big part in creating the superstition.

Panic on 'Black Friday' in the New York Gold Room, 1869.
Three Lions, Getty Images

We know a good deal about the history of our fear of 13 and of Fridays, but combined? Well, that's less clear. One popular thought, though, points to a 1907 book by a stockbroker named Thomas Lawson. Titled Friday, the Thirteenth, it tells the tale of a stockbroker who picks that particular day to manipulate the stock market and bring all of Wall Street down.

The book sold fairly well at the time, moving 28,000 copies in its first week. And it must have struck a chord with early 20th century society, as it's said to have caused a real-life superstition among stockbrokers regarding trading and buying stocks on the 13th. While not the first to combine the dates, Lawson's book is credited with popularizing the notion that Friday the 13th is bad news.

The fear among brokers was so real that in a 1923 New York Times article, it stated that people "would no more buy or sell a share of stock today than they would walk under a ladder or kick a black cat out of their path."

5. Stockbrokers have reason to be nervous on Friday the 13th.

The 1873 rush from the New York Stock Exchange as banks began to fail and close, leading to a 10-day closure of the Stock Exchange.
Three Lions, Getty Images

Lawson's book was pure fiction, but the history of the stock market on Friday the 13th can be either profitable or absolutely terrifying, depending on the month. On most Friday the 13ths, stocks have actually risen—according to Time, they go up about 57 percent of the time, compared to the 52 percent on any other given date. However, if it's a Friday the 13th in October … be warned.

There's an average S&P drop of about 0.5 percent on those unlucky Fridays in October. And on Friday, October 13, 1989, the S&P actually saw a drop of 6.1 percent—to this day, it's still referred to as a "mini crash."

6. Good things happen on Friday the 13th, too!

Hollywood sign on the hill
iStock

On Friday, July 13, 1923, the United States got a brand new landmark as the famed Hollywood sign was officially christened as a promotional tool for a new housing development. But before the sign took on its familiar image, it initially read "Hollywoodland"—the full name of the development that was being built on the hills above Los Angeles. The sign took on its current “Hollywood” look in 1949 when, after two decades of disrepair, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce decided to remove the last four letters and just maintain the first nine.

7. Appropriately, heavy metal music was born on Friday the 13th.

Cover of Black Sabbath album
vinylmeister, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

This one isn't exactly scientific, but don't tell that to a metalhead. According to heavy metal lore, the genre was born Friday, February 13, 1970, with the UK release of Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album. Bands like Steppenwolf had laid the foundation in the years before (Steppenwolf is also credited with coining the term "heavy metal" in their lyrics for 1968's "Born to Be Wild"), but those first dissonant "Devil's Tritone" chords of "Black Sabbath"—yes, the opening track of the album Black Sabbath by the band Black Sabbath was the song "Black Sabbath"—were the true birth of the dark, brooding, rocking subculture. Horns up.

8. There are scientific terms for the phobia.

Friday the 13th on a calendar
iStock

Afraid of Friday the 13th? Well now you can put a name to your phobia. You likely already know the term triskaidekaphobia, which only applies to the fear of the number 13. But for specific fears of Friday the 13th, you can choose between paraskevidekatriaphobia (Paraskevi meaning Friday in Greek) or friggatriskaidekaphobia, based on the word Frigg, the Norse goddess that Friday was named after in English. (Remember, it was her son who Loki had killed …)

9. One Indiana town puts bells on every black cat to ward off bad luck.

Black cat wearing a bell.
Danilo Urbina, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND 2.0

The folks of French Lick, Indiana (Larry Bird's hometown) are apparently a superstitious lot. In the 1930s and extending into the '40s, the town board decreed all black cats in the town were to wear a bell around their neck every Friday the 13th. Apparently, the confluence of two popular phobias was a bit too much for the small Indiana town to handle.

10. Five presidents were part of a club to improve the number's reputation.

old-fashioned formal dinner
iStock

Some people aren't just unaffected by the stigma of 13, they're downright defiant of it. In order to prove that there was no curse on the number, Captain William Fowler—who had fought in 13 Civil War battles—started a club in 1882 that spat in the face of superstition.

Members would meet on the 13th of the month, at 13 past the hour, and sit 13 at a dining table. For some, this behavior was just begging for a hex, but these men didn't care. They sought to disprove the myth and others along with it—open umbrellas lined the dining hall and members would willingly break glass, waiting for a so-called curse to befall them.

This wasn't just a club for eccentrics, either. Five presidents would become honorary members of The Thirteen Club: Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, Cleveland would take part while he was in office. In all, it's said that no man was struck down by any particularly curious fate (except perhaps McKinley, who was assassinated), despite having so blatantly tempted it.

11. In Italy, people fear Friday the 17th.

number 17 on a wooden background
iStock

Italy's got the right idea, but they're a few days off. Traditionally, their fear coincides with the number 17, which can be arranged as the sum of the Roman numerals VIXI, which can then, in turn, be translated as the Latin phrase "I have lived." The overall superstition around Friday remains the same—it all has to do with Jesus's crucifixion.

This is no niche phobia, though. As ThoughtCo. points out, there are people who refuse to leave the house or go to work on Friday the 17th out of fear of the ominous date. And the Italian airline Alitalia doesn't even put a row 17 (or a 13) on its planes, as seen on this seat map [PDF].

12. There can't be more than three Friday the 13ths in a given year.

Calendar of 2015 with three Friday the 13ths
Calendar: iStock. Coloring: Mental Floss.

There's some good news if you're one of those people who are genuinely afraid of Friday the 13th: There can't be more than three in any given year, and it's possible to go as many as 14 months without one. There's an easy way to figure out if a month will have a Friday the 13th, too—if the month starts on a Sunday, you're guaranteed one. For 2018, 2019, and 2020, we get a bit of a break, as each year will only have two. This year, only April and July are affected.

13. An asteroid will come relatively close to us on a Friday the 13th in 2029.

asteroid projection image
iStock

Let's just get this out of the way: We'll be fine. An asteroid will not collide with the Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029. We will, however, get a pretty spectacular look at asteroid 99942 Apophis (also known as 2004 MN4), which is about 320 meters wide and would be devastating if it did hit. When the asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers gave it a haunting 1-in-60 chance of colliding with Earth, but extra data has proved that it'll miss us entirely.

"We weren't too worried," Paul Chodas, of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, said, "but the odds were disturbing."

That's not to say the asteroid still won't be a sight to behold: Apophis will cruise past Earth 18,600 miles above ground. "For comparison," NASA wrote on its site, "geosynchronous satellites orbit at 22,300 miles." The asteroid will be mostly visible in parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and another event of this nature may not be seen for another 1000 or so years.

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