Category Archives: Writing

Writing for the broader public: why we write + how to do it

On Tuesday 16th May, the ‘Surgeons’ were lucky enough to be joined by Emily Brown from the editorial team of The Conversation, Fraser Macdonald from the University of Edinburgh, and our very own Oli Mould and Sasha Engelmann. The session focussed on the question of how to write for the broader public, and lead to lively conversations on why we might want to get published outside of conventional ‘academic’ outlets and how it can be done.

Fraser kicking off the session: “we often leave unexamined the emotional investments of writing”

I begin with a bullet point list of tips – because if you’re reading this Continue reading

‘A Smaller Audience than the Kardashians’: social media for academics with Prof Stuart Elden and Dr Mark Carrigan

both2 The Landscape Surgery group was pleased to welcome Professor Stuart Elden (Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, and founder of the Progressive Geographies blog) and Dr Mark Carrigan (digital Sociologist, social media consultant and author of the recently published book Social Media for Academics).

The aim of the session was to share knowledge about how to productively use social media platforms in an academic context – even though none of us will (probably) ever have a social media audience as big as the Kardashians, as our speakers pointed out.

Academic Blogging
Stuart shared some advice from his own personal experience of blogging…

1) Be Useful to Yourself
What is the blog for? How will it be helpful for you? The primary goal should always be that blogging is something that is useful to you as a researcher: whether this is a way of thinking things through, sharing ideas and thoughts, or a way to connect to a wider research community. For Stuart, Progressive Geographies started out as a kind of public notebook or digital archive – a way to keep track of the research process and thoughts. Some academics also say that it helps with writers block – the practice of just writing something can spark off new ideas and perspectives and get the creative juices flowing! Continue reading

Walking Heathrow: Exploring the fissures of infrastructure


As I’m sat in my car, parked in the Hatton Cross Station Car Park, I watch as the dark blue hue of the cold November morning sky slowly turns to a light grey, as the sun struggles to pierce the thick blanket of cloud above. Planes rumble up the runway, the end of which is about 100m in front of me separated by three rows of chain-link, razor-wired fence and a buttress of thick orange scaffolding supporting runway lights. These slender machines soar over my head, jetting off into the turning sky, roaring their ascent to the awakening population beneath them. In a few minutes, I was due to meet a traveller from New York. He had a 6-hour lay over and wanted to walk the perimeter fence of Heathrow, roughly 13 miles or so. The banality of such an undertaking bemused many when I told them I was doing it, particularly as it involved me battling the alarm clock a good 2 hours earlier than I normally do. But it is in the banality that the sublime can shine through; there is beauty in the everyday. Also, I was halfway through marking my third year cohort’s essays on psychogeography, and with their exciting adventures in the quotidian city teeming through my mind, how could I refuse such an invitation?

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Aids to navigating the interval of uncertainty

It was a pleasure to meet with PhD students recently to explore more of the issues I’ve been looking at during my residency; I’m grateful to them for taking time out of their research and writing to join me in the sometimes noisy space next to the Clore Ballroom in the Royal Festival Hall (coinciding with a throng of children on a break from a school outing on the South Bank).

Our discussion was productive in helping me revisit ideas from previous work and encounters and look to new opportunities. As some of you will recall, we looked at tentative ideas of an ‘anticipatory history’ approach to thinking about environmental change in a Landscape Surgery back in January. As I said in my blog post then, concepts such as anticipatory history are helpful to me because they offer an experimental tone and an exploratory approach. In particular, AH seems to suggest three angles of imaginative attack to the complex question of how people relate to the experience and prospects of environmental change as it touches us and our places:

  • possible tools, such as ‘reverse chronology’ that explores how change has been perceived in a place and how the future might have been imagined there in past times, help us examine plausible futures there now (a “looking back to look forward”);

  • a fresh look at the phrases and metaphors we use when we think about change, and how we often seem to talk past each other when using a common language;

  • opportunities for naming new or unfamiliar (and sometimes shocking) responses to environmental change as a means to provoke new perceptions of what could be possible, necessary or desirable.

I circulated six entries from the AH book ahead of our discussions at the Festival Hall: each – Monitoring, Art, Palliative Curation, Story-radar, Futurology, and Acclimatisation – with a different author but all created as part of an interdisciplinary research process into landscape and wildlife change. Together, the fifty or so entries in the Anticipatory History book offer a sort of glossary of possible interpretations of phrases that cropped up in their discussions. I selected these particular entries because they seemed to offer different ways in which we relate to change or the prospects of change. Very broadly, the different tactics that I see on offer here are: measuring and monitoring change; imagining and representing it; marking and mourning it; making, reinforcing and internalising narratives about it; predicting and warning (or else comforting ourselves) about it; and accommodating it in the ways we cope with living in the world.

Other responses are possible, of course – both to the experience or anticipation of change, and to these and the other texts in the book. I am therefore always keen to hear what others think of the entries – and of the gaps between them. My hastily scribbled notes from our conversation that day offer a highly fragmented account of my discussants’ comments and – along with the original entries and my own writings – contribute to an aggregating and intersecting text which will continue to spark ideas and ways to re-approach the originals.

As I was drafting this short post, an email arrived from a writer alerting me to a new exhibition he has helped curate at Brighton’s ONCA gallery. The exhibition theme – which is also the name of the community organisation he has been working with, Rewilding Sussex – brought to mind (of course) another of the entries in the AH book. Rewilding, after all, is also a response to change, and it touches the human inside as well as the more-than-human outside. In her Rewilding entry, Caitlin DeSilvey speaks of some areas within an ex-military site being “restored and adapted for reuse” while others, left to their own devices, were rewilding themselves, “tended by benign neglect”; however, she also points out a tension, as cultural authorship of sites that are deemed to be better off ‘going back to nature’ (and taking us back there with it) can also be a form of historical erasure, where “naturalisation risks negation.” It was DeSilvey who also penned the entry on Palliative Curation, drawing on the form of end-of-life care that can help people in the movement between life and death as a metaphor for how we could also attend to the transformation of natural landscape and heritage features. She cites the possible example of the lighthouse at Orford Ness in Suffolk and the “interval of uncertainty” it faces as the sea continues to erode the shingle it stands upon. Since that article was printed, the lighthouse has been switched off and the dangerous mercury in its lamp removed before it risked contamination of the advancing sea. An official review had already declared that the lighthouse was “no longer required as an aid to navigation” – but the concept of palliative curation and anticipatory history itself suggests that perhaps the new language which such intervals of uncertainty suggest – here, between first the light disappearing and then the lighthouse – offer their own aid to our navigation of change and our place within it.

My residency has now drawn to a close, and I am grateful to Harriet and all those who took part in the discussions at Royal Festival Hall, the Landscape Surgery and elsewhere and for the papers I was able to read and draw further ideas from.

Mark Bicton, Entrepreneur in Residence

Pictures and Thoughts on Writing and Pictures

unnamed (1) unnamedBackwards Drawings: pages 18 and 19 and plate 13 from Russian Icons (by David Talbot Rice) ink and watercolour on paper

Text can be understood as image when it cannot be ‘read’ in the way that we understand letters to make words, and words to make sentences. Text becomes a series of lines and shapes when it cannot be processed by the reader in the way that the writer had intended. When looking at Arabic, Chinese or Greek text, I understand that there is meaning present in the form of the ‘words’, but I don’t have the key be able to process this meaning as language. Instead, I discover meaning elsewhere; I create in my mind an image-poem.

Backwards text from pages 18 and 19 of Russian Icons (by David Talbot Rice) shown above is an ink drawing of a piece of writing that considers how we read Eastern Iconography. If you were to look carefully enough and could read backwards, you would find the following sentence within the text:

‘….in (Russian) iconography, a distant and purely Eastern system of arrangement is followed, where scenes are built up from right to left, not from left to right. In the Annunciation, for instance, the angel approaches from the right side and not from the left, as it does in Western and in true Byzantine art. In the West, in fact, scenes move from left to right, like the writing; in East they move from right to left, as does the Arabic script…’

‘…In order to appreciate an Eastern painting to the full, we should therefore try to look at it from right to left, rather than from left to right, as we naturally tend to do even if we do not realise it’.

We tend to translate images instinctively, understanding them visually rather than verbally, generating meaning in a way that makes sense to us. It is interesting to consider text in the same way: ingesting it visually, not literarily. Through the ‘translation’ of a section of printed text into a reverse-drawing, it is presented as image and therefore ‘read’ in a very different way. However, the viewer will recognise that the drawing is written text, and, with the time or inclination (and a mirror?), it could be read as the author had intended.

Plate 13 from Russian Icons (by David Talbot Rice) (the image accompanying the reverse-drawing) has also been copied from the book and painted in reverse. Unlike with the written text, the audience is unlikely to realise this. As with an abstract painting that is hung upside down, it might feel wrong, but is it possible to know that is not the right way up? And what might this mean for understanding and knowledge that is gained through the visual?

By Alice Ladenburg

NB: This work was recently selected for HOAX – an independent, artist-led project providing a space in print and online to show all forms of creative work incorporating text alongside each other without prejudice or predefined “rules” about the look, format, content or execution of the work’. See their website for more information.


Measuring the value of monographs


Last year, in the lead-up to the publication of the 2014 REF results, I posted some reflections about the effects of the audit culture on the authorship of research monographs. Some of the concerns I outlined are echoed in the recently published Overview Report from the REF’s Main Panel C.

The findings of Sub-Panel 17 (Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology) are worth noting here. Of the 6,021 outputs submitted to Sub-Panel 17, more than 80% were journal articles. The Sub-Panel’s report notes (in a delightfully subversive piece of self-criticism) that

the number [of monographs] submitted by geographers declined relative to 2008. This justifies concerns expressed after RAE 2008 about the impact of research assessment on the continuing health of monograph publication in the discipline (p. 32).

That said, the Sub-Panel’s data show that research monographs have, in both 2008 and 2014, accounted for a disproportionate percentage of 4* grades. In 2008, monographs accounted for 4.7% of outputs and 15.1% of 4* grades (in Sub-Panel H-32); in 2014, they accounted for 7.8% of outputs and 14.4% of 4* grades (in Sub-Panel 17).

What are we to make of this? Perhaps, simply, that the authorship of monographs (within certain sub-fields of geographical research) remains a risk worth taking notwithstanding the strictures of audit. Something of the continuing significance of monograph publishing had recently been underlined by Geoffrey Crossick in his 2015 report to HEFCE, Monographs and Open Access:

Academics across a wide range of arts, humanities and social science disciplines see monographs as central to the advancement and communication of knowledge, and they have done so for many generations. Across arts and humanities disciplines as well as law, good monographs are the equal of good journal articles in terms of the importance that is attached by academics to publishing in each category…. When we think about the monograph it is therefore important to avoid the danger of seeing it as an awkward outlier in relation to a mainstream framework of research communication defined by the journals and refereed conference proceedings that dominate the sciences. For a significant part of the UK research community, by some calculations a majority of that community, the monograph and the research book more generally are central to their discipline (p.13).

Long live the research monograph!

Innes M. Keighren

The quick death of slow scholarship?

"Travels into Print". First manuscript draft (February, 2013).

Travels into Print. First manuscript draft (February, 2013).

Since joining Landscape Surgery in 2010, I have had a seemingly every-present item of business on which to offer updates during our fortnightly “newsrounds”: the progress made (or, more often, not made) in the production of a co-authored research monograph, Travels into Print: Exploration, Writing, and Publishing with John Murray, 1773–1859. With its origins lying in an 2008 AHRC-funded project, the book has (in one form of another) occupied me and my co-authors (the historical geographer Charles W. J. Withers and book historian Bill Bell) for much of the last six years—a literal and figurative example of what Eric Sheppard has called “slow geography”. Having completed the book’s index last month, Travels into Print is (at least as far as its writing is concerned) now finished. All that remains are the relatively fun tasks—approving the cover design, soliciting back-cover endorsements, offering suggestions over marketing and publicity, and so on—before Charlie, Bill, and I sit back and wait patiently for readers’ praise or criticism.

On informing colleagues of the book’s completion, more than one replied (with tongue more-or-less-firmly in cheek) that this was “one in the bag for REF2020”. With the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework evaluation not yet published, it is telling that we, as academics, are already looking ahead to the next point at which the merit of our research will be assessed through an appraisal of four (or so) examples of our published work. Eric Sheppard has written interestingly on how “contemporary merit evaluation culture” (such as the REF) has important implications for “geography’s cultures of publication”.  As Sheppard has argued, a process such as the REF “incentivizes short-termism: ‘fast’ scholarship (more frequent, shorter publications, in journals with high citation counts) rather than the ‘slow geography’ of major monographs”. Indeed, given the length of time needed to research and write a scholarly monograph—and to navigate it successfully through the rigorous processes of review demanded, rightly, by university presses particularly—it would seem illogical at best (and foolhardy at worst) for academics to invest time in writing monographs when the time-scales of evaluation imposed upon them emphasise the strategic value of publication in journals alone.

Writing along similar lines, the historical geographer Robert Mayhew (2014, 277) has recently argued that “the audit culture of U.K. academic life increasingly positions the writing of a monograph as outré, an indulgence, or both”. It is not, of course, just in geography where such pressures are felt. The historian of science Aileen Fyfe (2012, ix) has identified a similar problem in the humanities:

writing a historical monograph is entirely contingent on having the time and money needed to visit archives and rare book collections, and, later, having time to write. These necessary conditions of historical research are coming under increasing pressure in our modern universities.

In those disciplines where research monographs are considered important, and are regarded as the venue in which a scholar’s most detailed, useful, or important work will be communicated, there is a perception that, ironically, the evaluation of scholarship creates the mechanisms by which its value is diminished—that the REF (and similar instruments) encourage the quick death of slow scholarship.

In my role as Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of Historical Geography, I have yet to notice any decline in the rate at which scholarly monographs are published (although I have only my perception, rather than a statistical baseline, on which to go). Clearly, however, there is now greater experimentation on the part of publishers with respect to form and format (Palgrave’s Pivot series, for example, promises to publish titles of between 25,000 and 50,000 words within twelve weeks of the completion of the peer-review process). The solution to the “problem” of slow scholarship does not, of course, lie simply with faster publication. Rather, it requires that systems of audit and evaluation do not unfairly disadvantage those disciplines and academics for whom “slow” scholarship is a fundamental intellectual activity. The particular periodicity of the REF introduces a clear element of risk for those academics who wish to pursue work whose periods of research and writing are measured not in months or years but in half-decades at least.

Fyfe, Aileen. Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820–1860.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Mayhew, Robert J. Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

Innes M. Keighren

At the Roots of an Hegemony?

An Alternative Perspective for International Human Geography


On Tuesday 28 October 2014, Dr Caterina Martinelli shared with us her current research on what we might call the ‘geographies of human geography’, or more specifically, the debate centred on the cultural imperialism that characterises Anglophonic cultural geography. Caterina is a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Verona and we are fortunate to have her in our department as a visiting scholar this term. Caterina is not new to Royal Holloway. She participated in our MA Cultural Geography (Research) in 2011 and spent a research period in the department last year. She is currently working with RHUL to build a partnership with Verona’s Department of Time, Space, Image, Society which, among other things, will involve PhD students and staff exchanges. We see this as an important opportunity to develop a space for dialogue between two different academic traditions—the British and the Italian—that have not always been effectively communicating with each other.

Caterina’s contribution to LS focussed precisely on this lack of communication (or inability to communicate), which has resulted in what she calls ‘an epistemological gap’ between these two realities.

“When I first arrived at RHUL and tried to engage in the intellectual life of the Department, as an Italian human geographer, I experienced a deep sense of disorientation. The cultural geography I was suddenly faced with was very different from what I had studied in Italy for so many years and from what I had experienced cultural geography to be about”. This initial sense of disorientation led Caterina to interrogate herself on the divide between the Italian and Anglophone traditions and on the reasons behind it.

Where does this gap originate from? Can we trace it back to a precise moment in time? Is it something we can overcome? And if so, how?

Caterina’s research started from her will to identify the characteristics and causes of the distance between the two traditions and contemporary disciplinary practices, as well as from her aspiration to facilitate a more pluralistic and inclusive international debate.

The lack of attunement between Anglo-American geographical debates and those belonging to other national contexts has already been acknowledged (see, for example, Social and Cultural Geography’s country reports, or the various contributions related to the debate on Anglo-American hegemony in human geography, such as Fuller and Minca 2013 and Minca 2013, just to mention two among the most recent). However, the causes and some relevant characteristics of this lack of attunement have not been properly tackled yet.

According to Caterina, there is a fundamental misalignment between the epistemological premises that move mainstream geographical inquiry in the Anglo-American context and those inspiring a consistent part of geographical research in many other countries. Caterina traces the origins of this misalignment back to the renewed conception of culture, space and their interactions introduced by the so-called ‘new cultural geography’ in the 1980s, and in its different reception (or lack of reception) in the Anglo-American context and outside of it. British new cultural geography absorbed the new lexicon developed by the French spatial thinkers in order to make sense of the post-modern world with its time-space compression and its many contradictions. From the French thinkers new cultural geographers also absorbed the idea that theory is political (not a meta-discourse) and performative (it produces the reality it describes, thus it can change the world rather then simply describe it). Drawing on these ideas, British geographers started to construct the theoretical apparatus and vocabulary of a ‘new’ cultural and human geography for the third millennium, which continues to inform mainstream debates and to define the international standards of the discipline. Generally speaking, non-Anglo-American geographers did not participate in this process, and for this reason, they developed geographical debates generally based on more traditional conceptualizations of space, culture and their interactions.

Besides this ‘epistemological gap’, there is also an institutional and cultural gap. For example, until the early 2000s the then-existing Italian policies for research funding, academic recruitment and careers made the participation in national discussions and contexts more relevant than participation in the international arena. Furthermore, while the UK and North America boast large research-led geography departments, in Italy the panorama is much more fragmented. Most Italian geographers are scattered among different departments and research is not always a priority (or at least, not to the same extent it is in the UK and North America).

The result is that nowadays ‘internationalization’ in our field has become largely synonymous with ‘Anglophonization’. With the globalisation of academia and neo-liberalization of many national academic systems, geographers from non-Anglophone countries (such as Italy) are progressively called to publish in ‘high-impact’ journals and to attend conferences and other events taking place in spaces internationally acknowledged as ‘spaces of excellence’. These venues and publishing spaces are produced, governed and occupied mainly by Anglo-American human geography/ers, and these processes therefore foster an Anglo-American hegemony within the discipline at an international level.


While this might also be the case with other disciplines, (cultural) geography certainly stands out. On the one hand we have a mainstream Anglophone cultural geography almost obsessed with novelty (new fashions, new paradigms, cutting-edge theories), often trapped within its own networks, and creating spaces and cultural economies that accommodate and foster change (AAG meetings, journal special issues, etc.); on the other, we have an incredibly fragmented Italian panorama governed, as it is, by different intellectual agendas that move at different speeds and often in very different directions. The ‘power geometries’, to use Doreen Massey’s phrase, that govern these spaces are complex and varied. Some Italian geographers are keen (or pushed) to publish in mainstream international journals; others are not. Some are often not aware of the theoretical stances which support the approaches of mainstream Anglophone geography; others appropriate names and concepts from Anglophone geography in a rather shallow fashion, without critical depth. At the same time, exciting interdisciplinary collaborations between Italian scholars are opening up new horizons and possibilities. Is this the key for a future dialogue? Is interdisciplinarity a precondition for internationalization?

Caterina’s presentation generated a very rich discussion, which highlighted the need for further critical reflection and research. It also showed the importance of engaging geographers ‘from both sides of the Channel’ in a common discussion about the different ways of conceiving geography in different places and about the possibility and desirability to create spaces for dialogue.

I believe that focusing our attention on the ‘misalignment’ between Anglophone and Italian human geography, and creating occasions for inclusive debates on space, culture and their relationships can place Anglophone and non-Anglophone geographers at the roots of the current divide and mark a step forward towards true plural participation”.



Fuller J.J. and Minca C. (2013), Not a geography of what doesn’t exist but a counter-geography of what does: Rereading Giuseppe Dematteis’ Le Metafore della Terra. Progress in Human Geography, 37, 542-563.

Minca C. (2013), (Im)mobile Geographies. Geographica Helvetica, 68, 7-16.

Introducing Mark Bicton – ‘Creative Entrepreneur in Residence’

When I came to the first Landscape Surgery of the year, it was energising to meet so many members of the group and hear brief accounts of such great, wide-ranging research. I’ll be with the group (very part-time!) until next Summer, as Creative Entrepreneur in Residence. Working with Harriet Hawkins, my residency will help to devise and test participatory creative writing as a way to engage local experiences and responses to environmental change.

Funded by a Creativeworks London grant, my aim for this time at Royal Holloway is to develop a series of writing workshops on a ‘water environment’ theme, engaging local people’s individual and collaborative creativity on the experiences or prospects of impacts such as flooding. But I also hope to learn about your research and interests: what you’re reading, what you’re writing, the connections you’re making between your work and the world. Geographical ideas have a strong pull on my imagination and help push my own writing. I’m not sure I’d have applied the word ‘entrepreneur’ about myself until I went freelance a couple of years ago, I’m certainly drawn to the word’s origins in early 19th century French – entreprendre: to undertake. According to the OED, it originally denoted the director of a musical institution. While that certainly isn’t me, a creative undertaking to bring together research and fiction and to impact people’s imaginations sums up part of what I’m trying to do in bridging my own experience with future possibilities.

After an interesting but overly optimistic foray into physics and astronomy, I’ve worked around environmental change for over twenty years. Starting with programmes to engage small businesses with resource efficiency and reduce our impacts on the environment, I moved into the challenges of adapting to the impacts of environmental change on us. I worked with regional climate change partnerships and national programmes to build adaptive capacities in the face of uncertain but unavoidable climate change. But I also became aware that I was missing out on some ‘critical mass’ in our ability to respond meaningfully to risks that seem far away, in the distant future, or abstract – in other words, that generally lack the bite of the ‘here and now’.

I’d already taken a career break to think about this gap when, by good fortune and a lack of planning on my part, I ended up on a short contract with Exeter University, where I entered into the world of cultural geography for the first time! Something must have worked its way under my skin, because a couple of years later I took their MA Climate Change, a multi-lensed perspective that helped me to locate some of that ‘missing mass’ in creativity and collaboration. I worked with a local novelist on short story workshops she was running to help people create and share their imagination of what the future could be; with researchers on local perceptions of coastal change and memories of river flooding; and with a load of residents and managers on the tension between lay and expert knowledge on change.

As a result of my time on the MA, I began to develop my own creative writing again: something I’d abandoned when I first went to university and embarked on what I thought would be a straight science career. I’m now half way through an MFA Creative Writing at Kingston University, which I’m using to develop my approach to writing about change. One strand of my work is building a collection of fragmentary fictions to explore ideas in Anticipatory History, a research publication that has had a strong influence on me since my time at Exeter. And I’m interested in the ideas of Jane Bennett and others on the liveliness of matter, of Susan Leigh Starr and others on the possibilities for boundary objects that help enable divergent voices to collaborate on critical issues, and of Mike Hulme and others on why we disagree about climate change. I’m actively involved in the work of TippingPoint, a charity working to promote cultural responses to climate change; this Summer, I organised two events with them, bringing together writers and other artists with experts in policy, science and social science.

So I’m excited about this residency with Royal Holloway, which will enrich my own work, develop useful creative practices that we can take forward and, I hope, contribute something to the work of the group.


A Public Conversation about Public Geographies: Introducing the Series

A brief introduction to a series of posts I am writing over at my blog about public geographies, reflecting on a twitter conversation that occurred back in October. Future posts will take a focus on a different theme emanating from the conversation and other thoughts regarding doing public geographies and the impact agenda.


Recently (well it was recently when I started writing this post – it has been in the draft stages for quite a while now) I was involved in a twitter conversation about the idea and practice of public geographies. Whilst geographers have long been interested in geography-in-public there is currently a reinvigorated and lively debate about the topic. The full conversation has been storifyed and is available here.

This ongoing discussion, that began with Duncan Fuller’s and Kye Askins’ 2007 paper, is interrogating what public geographies means, what challenges and opportunities does it present, what geography-in-public should be and what responsibilities do researchers have to make geography public. A good chunk of this dialogue has revolved around digital scholarship and the enhanced opportunities that social media platforms offer academics to make their work public.

Public geographies was the subject matter of a seminar I attended for my MA Cultural Geography

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