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Thursday August 21st 2014

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Recipe Road Test: Oatmeal Griddle Cakes

This was a case of how well my memory serves me. The recipe is from a book I co-authored with Sharon Kramis back in the 1980’s, a first peek at the cooking of the Pacific Northwest. I can’t say it has been 20 years since I last tried the oatmeal griddlecakes, but 10 years probably isn’t too far out.

We eat a lot of oatmeal in this house, and I had simply grown tired of the same old pot-stirred stuff. This isn’t to say my version of oatmeal isn’t exemplary. Au contraire. It is the oatmeal from which most others would rather not be measured. None the less, too much of a good thing gets tedious. So I figured I would switch up. Hence, the griddlecakes.

I have wicked good buttermilk pancakes in my history, but they should remain there, if only for the sake of my slight paunch. And I always feel like I have been poisoned afterward, moving from breakfast table to couch to snore it off. Not so with oatmeal griddlecakes — none of that leadenness you get with wheat only pancakes.oatmeal cakes

And the oatmeal somehow heightens the natural sourness of the buttermilk and sets up an extraordinary interplay with the oncoming collision of melting butter and maple syrup. Lace the edges with a little bacon and you are, my friend, looking right in the face of the Almighty Yum.

Oatmeal Griddlecakes from Northwest Bounty by Schuyler Ingle and Sharon Kramis

1 ½ C oatmeal

2 C buttermilk

½ C flour

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 eggs, beaten

Mix together the oatmeal and buttermilk and let sit for 15 minutes to soften the oatmeal. Then stir in the remaining ingredients. Bake on a hot griddle.

Yield: 12 cakes

Recipe Road Test: My only little tweak here —  and who knows if it is necessary or not — I sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt and then gently whisk that around to be sure it’s all mixed together.

This is a thick, gloppy batter and I find it works better when you make smaller cakes and cook them at a moderate temperature. It’s kind of a feng shui of griddlecake cooking that you are shooting for, getting the centers to cook through without overbrowning the surface. I find it takes a little experimenting and heat adjusting. Also, I use a two burner-long cast iron griddle I have had forever and a day and with which I intend to be buried. It has ridges on one side for meat, and the flat griddle on the other. I know I got by without it before I had it, but I forget how.

Road Test Result: My wife loves me even more than ever before.

Undercapitalized: Another word for stuck in first

I have the concept. Hell, I even have the products. I can pick them up, handle them, admire them, and imagine them sailing out the door, one order after another.

I have the company name, and I own the domain. I even have the beginnings of a functioning website.

What I don’t have is a website that functions the way I want, particularly the shopping opportunity. I call my store BHM Mercantile, and it is supposed to have various aisles down which a customer might wander. No shopping cart. This is all pretty much custom, made-to-order merchandise. So a facility for direct email contact, the means to begin a dialog, is much more important than a shopping cart. I’ll need a PayPal button for the moment the dialog ends and a down payment is forthcoming. These would be the basics. And I had hoped to have these basics up and running by October 1. I had hoped to get out ahead of the holiday season, such as it is in this economy, and begin the effort of driving traffic to the website.traybowel1e

But today is October 15 and I am not any nearer my objective. The fundamental, underlying issue – and one that is so incredibly common to any entrepreneurial effort – is capital, or the lack of it. I don’t have the capital to actually go out and hire someone to initiate the website design I have in mind, to take a WordPress theme and tweak it into shape. These are not skills I happen to have. I have other skills. So I can trade. I can barter. I just can’t pay. And that’s the rub.

When you end up in the trade/barter economy, you have no leverage. The guy who swore up and down he would help me out, that all I had to do was pick a theme, load up my digital imagery, and produce appropriate editorial copy, and he would take care of the rest – that guy has disappeared. Poof. Gone. After several attempts to connect by email, texting, and voice messaging I did get a voice message back telling me he was really busy. Which was a relief. This is a guy who hangs out with biker gangs and uses his pyro skills to blow up junker cars in the desert, for fun. So at least he wasn’t dead. Just useless.

I have contacted other people who have the skills and figure a trade is an ok idea. But they, too, are busy. The best they can do is put me in the queue. So my timing is shot, and I may as well look toward having everything running the way I want by the first of the year.

The lesson here is simple. Trading and bartering isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. But it flies in the face of the basic laws of capitalization. If you want something and you want it now, you had better be able to pay for it. Money talks; nobody walks.

Otherwise, build in more time. Maybe twice as much time. Because the workflow won’t be mechanistic. There will be no schedules, no program managers. Instead, it will be an organic process, like the flow of a river. And you can’t leverage running water.

[For more writing by Blue Hat Man, click here]

Recipe Road Test: Shrimp with Tomatoes, Oregano, and Feta

Joyce Goldstein has a couple of dozen cookbooks under her wing. Literally. Taverna, from which this recipe comes, was early on, in 1996. It’s about the “best of casual Mediterranean cooking”, something about which Joyce knows a thing or two. That, and flavor. In her time, Joyce Goldstein has been chef at the Chez Panisse Café, has owned and presided over the ground breaking Square One restaurant in San Francisco that emphasized Mediterranean cuisine, and Café Quadro for pizza and sandwiches. She currently consults on all things culinaire and can be found at her own website. Her recipes in Taverna are brief, to the point, and accentuate distinct flavor.

I have a cat. When she runs out of canned food, I make a Costco run, usually picking up a few other odds and ends. This time I added a pound and half of big shrimp to the cart. With those on hand, and the last big ripening of tomatoes in the garden, I reached for Taverna, figuring it was time for a recipe road test.

Shrimp with Tomatoes, Oregano, and Feta from Taverna by Joyce Goldstein
1 ½ pounds large shrimp (prawns) peeled and deveined
Salt and freshly ground black peppershrimp
4 T olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped, or 6 green onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
Pinch of cayenne pepper, optional
1 ½ C tomato sauce, or 4 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
Pinch of sugar, if needed
½ pound feta cheese, crumbled
¼ C chopped fresh Italian parsley

Preheat oven to 450°, or preheat a broiler.
• Sprinkle the shrimp with salt and black pepper. In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, warm 2T of the olive oil. Add the shrimp and sauté, stirring briskly, until pink and beginning to curl, 2-3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to four flameproof ramekins or small gratin dishes, distributing them evenly.
• In the same pan over medium heat, warm the remaining 2T olive oil. Add the yellow onion or green onions and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic, the cayenne (if using), and oregano and sauté for 2 minutes longer. Add the tomato sauce or the tomatoes and simmer until thickened slightly, about 2 minutes longer. Add the sugar if the tomatoes are not sweet and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
• Pour the sauce over the shrimp, dividing it evenly. Then sprinkle the feta over the tops. Bake or broil until the cheese melts, 5-8 minutes if baking, 3-5 minutes if broiling.
• Sprinkle the shrimp with the parsley and serve hot.

Recipe Road Test: Ramekins? Really? I suppose any self-respecting kitchen has a butt-load of ramekins or small gratin dishes. But not this one. So my first choice was about cookware, and I chose the Pyrex pie plate. It worked, though the presentation wasn’t nearly as cool. So, fear not in the face of directions and remain forever flexible.

I cheated the timing on the shrimp when it got right down to the sauté. I figured they had already suffered the indignities of freezing and thawing, so the last thing they needed from me was overcooking. If they got a minute in the pan, in small batches, I’d be surprised. Pink happens fast, and they were already shaped like commas. As each batch came out of the pan (slotted spoon time) I arranged them in the glass dish.

As for the sauce, how can you have too many tomatoes? I used everything that looked like it was about to get mushy. I hate growing food only to throw it away. I didn’t peel or seed the tomatoes – these guys were on the small side and I didn’t want the hassle. But normally I would. Stringy tomato skin in a dish is unappealing, so I don’t recommend it. And then there’s the issue of bittering by skin and seed. I can’t say I noticed that effect. But when I devoured the dish, I did push the skins the side of the plate. Fussy, huh?

I chose to go with the cayenne and it’s a good call. Gives it a little kick. I used fresh, not dried oregano because I grow it.

My wife is sold on the feta; I am not. I know. I know. It’s Mediterranean. I just find that the cheese interrupts the way the onion, tomato, garlic, cayenne, and oregano work with the shrimp – which is sublime. And it introduces a secondary texture, kind of soft and squishy. So, if you feel inclined to leave out the feta go ahead and do so. If anything, I’d up the garlic, but that’s just me.

With what is perhaps the final blow to tradition, I served this dish on brown rice.

Bottom line: I’d follow Joyce Goldstein just about anywhere. This is a simple recipe to prepare, and the results are indeed tasty.

Customer Service: It’s meant for more than customers

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises.
He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him.
He is not an interruption in our work – he is the purpose of it.
We are not doing him a favor by serving him.
He is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to serve him.”

M. Gandhi

I have been sending resumes out for quite a while now, sometimes dropping them off, all in an attempt to hire on in a cabinet shop and start the process of working my way up. I don’t pretend where I stand. That’s at the bottom few rungs of the learning curve.

Any shop foreman I happen to engage face to face is generally pretty decent about the interruption, a little confused that they are looking at a guy in his 50s, and offers little hope, what with the housing crash. “We just laid a bunch of guys off,” is something I hear pretty regularly.The-Cabinet-shop

Of the resumes I email in, even when I have a specific name to email to, I rarely get any kind of response which, to tell you the truth, sucks. I mean, there’s a cold silence there that doesn’t speak well of the times or of human nature.

There is one company, however, and I might as well name it – Mueller Nicholls in Berkeley, CA – that automatically responds. Of cabinet shops and construction firms, this is a sizeable outfit that has been around close to 30 years.

So here I am, recent graduate of a cabinetry certificate program at a local community college, turning up with a resume. I not only sent a copy to the shop foreman, Eric Goetting, but another copy to the CEO and founder, Steve Nicholls. I figured, what’s the worst they can say, no? These are individuals, as you can well imagine, with plenty to do in their work days. Yet both of them took the time to respond. The answer was negative – they weren’t hiring; just laid a bunch of guys off – but encouraging. They both suggested I check back from time to time.

Wow. This is a company you want to work for. This is a company you want to give yourself over to, a company fully deserving of employee loyalty. I didn’t get the impression it was company policy that every piece of email had to be answered politely and personally. It’s simply the culture of the company, something that has grown through the years. It’s what is known as customer service, and this is a company that well knows the value in extending good customer service to everyone – customers, employees, managers, founders. Job seekers. Everyone.

My wife’s recent experience is a little different. She nailed a terrific interview two weeks ago with a delivery company that wants to build its brand in a tough market. They have a website that looks like 1995 and reads like broken English. At the close the director who interviewed her suggested my wife ping him if she hadn’t heard anything in two weeks, so she did. And the response? Nada. Zip. Well, maybe he’s way overworked. Maybe he found someone he likes better. Or maybe he’s just a lame-o, an inconsiderate jerk. Why would you ask someone to get back to you in two weeks? So you can tell them they didn’t get the job?

All this guy needed to do was attend to a little customer service. But, a job seeker isn’t a customer, right? Plenty of those out there. More where she comes from.
This is true. In this day and age this is so very, very true.

But what’s also true is that no one lives in isolation. This is a digital world. What’s to keep my wife from expressing her frustration and shabby treatment on Facebook and Twitter and Linked In and Yelp? And what if that expression of dismay finds a friend and gets passed on and on and on? Who in business needs that? Especially a company trying to build a brand.

So here’s the simple way out. It works in the small office as well as the large. It works for the one man business as well as the corporate giant. It works in your private life as well as your work life: Good customer service is meant for more than the customer.

• Start with yourself. When was the last time you added up the good things about you, your accomplishments, and patted your own back?

• If people – strangers – have a question, give them the best answer you can as soon as you can. If you don’t know the answer, tell them as much and find out when it’s convenient to get back to them.

• Don’t hang people up with promises you can’t or don’t intend to keep. It’s easy to slide out of a conversation with a promise you have no intention of keeping. Another way of looking at it, though, is that it is lazy. The little lie is lazy. So, don’t be lazy in your company, your life, your job. That’s with people you manage as well as with people you answer to.

There’s a human decency theme going on here. Have you noticed? Kind of a Golden Rule message. Is it any more time consuming to treat people decently – any people – than not?

Good customer service isn’t simply the front line in a successful company, it’s the bottom line. Some companies understand that. And those are the good jobs.

Dollmaking: It Starts with the Head

It has come to this. I woke up this morning with a dream fragment trailing away from consciousness, leaving me with more of a taste than a clear memory. I had been making dolls with a small group of people. We had been casting parts, then finishing them and assembling the pieces. It’s a harbinger, this dream. I’ve seen its like before.

I did not grow up playing with dolls. I was never envious of my sister’s Madame Alexander doll and the trousseau my mother sewed for her. I was more into coloring books. The dollmaking is recent, and just sort of grew on its own, first with carving, then with sculpting. How it took its grip, or when, I am not clear. But the hooks are in, deep. And that probably happened the first time a doll took its first breath.

It’s a startling, curious event, even when you expect it and wait for it. You spend hours and hours carving and shaping, watching a character emerge from a piece of wood. My talent isn’t so second nature I actually end up with the doll I set out to carve. I aim in the general direction. But at a certain point the doll who wants to emerge takes over and finds his or her way out of the wood. I say “who”, not “that”, on purpose.family

The breath comes when you paint the eyes, or when you paint the lips. This has been my experience. At one moment it’s just wood and paint. And then, with a brush stroke, the doll takes a breath. I swear. And from that moment on, it is alive in its own odd way. It has a life of its own, separate from the dollmaker.

And it all starts with the head. For a sizeable doll, I’ll start with a piece of four-by-four – bigger if I can find it. And if I can’t find what I want, I’ll glue something up to get the optimum dimensions. The dolls I carve have a solid head and torso. The arms and legs are articulated. So the four-by-four is the central core of the doll. And the head determines the size, of everything.

You figure seven-and-a-half to eight heads for the height of an adult doll. That’s measuring the head from the chin to the crown. A three-inch head is a 22 ½ to 24-inch doll. But there’s more. If you place the base of your hand against your chin, your middle finger will touch the middle of your forehead, or thereabouts. It’s the same with dolls. Once you have the head dimension, you know the size of the hands and the feet. You know how broad across the shoulders the doll should be. Where the navel should be. Where the wrist and the elbow should fall on the arm. All because of the head.

So I begin with a coarse sketch on graph paper sized to the wood. A front view, and a profile. And I transfer those views onto the wood with carbon paper. That gives me something to take to the bandsaw. I cut the front view first, then tape the falloff back in place. Then I cut the profile. All of this I leave slightly oversized, mind you. I need the extra material to cut away with hand tools, to find my way into the doll. You can’t put back what you cut away. I learn this over and over and over again.

As the head develops, takes shape, so too does the personality of the doll. And, at a certain point, the doll directs the process. You are left wondering if the doll was ever in your imagination to begin with, or simply waited for you in the wood. Waited for the brush stroke and the first breath.

Fabulous Food Alert: Fresh Dates

It’s that time of year, for anyone keeping track. Fresh dates have been showing up in farmers markets for a few weeks now. You wouldn’t recognize them for what they are if you think of their dried, wrinkled brethren. Fresh dates are more like plump golden nodes on a thin branch. The ones with spots that look like bruises – those are the best, the sweetest. At the Oakland farmers market the Chinese grandmothers line up three layers deep to fill their sacks.-1

As dates dry, the sugar content intensifies. Fresh dates, while sweet, don’t have that sugary impact. They are more of a light snack. Anissa Helou writes of fond memories of her father bringing baskets of fresh, golden dates back from his travels to Iraq. If you check out her blog you’ll also find the link to a piece on dates she wrote for the Financial Times.

I have a soft spot in my heart for dates because date agriculture in California’s Coachella Valley was my first ever magazine piece, for the long departed New West. Back then, developers couldn’t bulldoze the elegant date orchards fast enough, making way for golf courses and high end retirement homes. The first successful date palms to be planted in the Coachella Valley were smuggled out of North Africa and the Middle East. Date palms don’t grow from seed. And there were scores of mysteries to be solved before any plantings bore fruits, because no one I this country really understood how dates propagated, and no one in the Middle East who might have known was about to help set up the competition.

Obviously, a few orchards remain. And now’s the time to taste their fresh fruit.

[For more writing by Blue Hat Man, click here]

Tackling Heavy Clay Garden Soil: Dig Up, Not Down

This experience comes to you free, from Oakland, California, where the basic soil is so far over on the clay side of the scale you could add water, haul out the potter’s wheel, and throw some plates. I swear. Ever try digging in heavy, compacted clay soil? You would have to have a finely tuned sense of self-loathing to continue much past the first few pokes with a heavy garden fork. It’s like poking at the sidewalk.

I am all for digging. Double digging if you can. Bastard trenching if you are lazy. But not in Oakland. Not in this soil. The first summer I lived in this house, the front yard remained fallow. By fall I knew where I wanted to put the beds, how to arrange them, where the rock paths would go. All along I had been stockpiling cardboard. All the packaging from Ikea bookshelves and bureaus. Anything that came my way. You will find that if you set your mind to saving cardboard and newspaper you will soon be buried in the stuff.

With paths in place and beds staked out, what’d I do? I went up rather than digging down. I watered heavily. Then I laid down thick layers of cardboard, and watered heavily again. Then I topped that with newspaper which I watered heavily. The final layer? Topsoil and compost, all nicely raked to shape and watered in.DSCN1564

This set me up for a modest winter garden, and the winter rains. I used a piece of rebar for any of the bigger plantings, mature herbs and the like, simply jabbing the rebar down through the layers of paper and cardboard into the clay layer, then planting.

The newspaper and the cardboard begin to deteriorate beneath the topsoil. And as they break down they attract earthworms that have been in dried out hibernation deep in the clay. The water wakes them up, and they sense food. All winter long (in this climate) the worms churn the subsoil, eat the cardboard and paper, and churn the topsoil. By spring I could push the tines of my garden fork deep into the garden bed. It had been like concrete before. No muss, no fuss.

The trick is, once you have established your beds, try not to walk on them. And when you work on them, stand on a wide piece of plywood to distribute your weight. Don’t crush all the aerating the worms have done for you. As you continue to dig in compost — the ultimate solution — the soil becomes more and more friable at greater depth. A few seasons like that and the clay you confronted at first will truly be subsoil.

[To read more by Blue Hat Man, click here]

About Julia Child

I met and interviewed Julia Child back in the mid-1980s in Seattle. I wrote about food from time to time back then. She was in town for some kind of banquet. All the food bigwigs of the day were present and accounted for. And I am guessing here, but I think she was in the process of releasing a series of how to cook videos — everything stripped down to core basics. They were never popular because they weren’t entertaining and, I believe, the series tanked. But it was what Julia wanted to talk about. And it’s how I came to realize over an hour or two in an afternoon in a hotel suite, drinking tea with Julia and Paul, that she was never much interested in food entertainment, but was dead serious about education. She had reassembled her original TV production crew to make those videos, and had then gone to the MIT Media Lab for the latest advice.

Meryl Streep gives us a delightful Julia in Julie and Julia, but a gigglepuss version. No gravitas. A silly, delightful, charming version. But not the serious, laser-focused Julia I met. The brief look she gave a silly, tiresome question brooked no followup. She was formidable and humble at once. A huge woman able to make anyone feel comfortable. When she gave her attention it was complete and it was genuine. For the time we spoke together she was as interested in me as I was in her, or so it felt. She was not multi-tasking inside her head; she was completely present.

Except, of course, for the way she kept Paul in her peripheral attention. He was not speaking much, if at all, by then. Whether this was from a stroke or a descent into Alzheimers I didn’t know then, nor do I know now. He was dressed in a well-tailored three piece suit and sat with us like a quiet, julia5old man of a child, sipping his tea and watching Julia. And she watched him. She watched after him. For as long as she could, she took him everywhere with her. There are glimmers of this deep affection in the movie, and it cuts both ways between the two partners.

I sat among the food bigwigs during the banquet. James Beard had recently passed and Julia challenged those gathered to preserve his Greenwich Village townhouse as a foundation site dedicated to fine dining. It may all have been in the works anyway, but the James Beard Foundation is a result. When the last dessert had been served the ballroom waitstaff, the busboys, and cooks and chefs from the kitchen all lined up against the far wall to watch and listen to the food mighty. When all the speeches ended and the last of the applause had died out, everyone trundled out, save for Paul and Julia Child. She took her Paul by the hand and he followed along like a young boy. They crossed the room, started at one end of the line, and shook the hands of and personally thanked each person who had helped serve, bus, and cook their meal. I know for fact that each one of those people, in the moment Julia held their attention, felt like she was completely present for and interested in them. Because such was the case. Such was the woman.

I hardly knew her. I dearly miss her .

[For more writing by Blue Hat Man, click here]

Mulching with Junk Mail, the Perfect Revenge

I pity the poor mailman. Probably 90% of what he and she brings to my front door six days a week is utter crap. Stuff I don’t open. Stuff I have been diligently sending off to the either the landfill or the recycler. There’s something profoundly unsatisfying about dumping junk mail into the recycle bin. It just perpetuates the obscenity.

But now I have a new strategy, courtesy of Jan Gross, one of the great landscape designers in Northern California (check out Heritage Landscapes).

Don’t throw it away, Jan says.  Bury it! It’s the perfect revenge.Telephone Book 1

“Old phone books are particularly valuable,” Jan told me. “You roll them up, dig a hole and bury them so they’re upright in the hole. Cover with dirt. What happens is they soak up water and expand out, so they both loosen soil and retain moisture, which is no small thing in drought-stricken Northern California.” And, over time, they break down, attract earthworms, and return organic matter to the soil.

Bastard trenching is an old garden strategy that involves digging a shallow trench alongside plantings in a garden bed, adding kitchen waste and the like, and covering with dirt. The nutrients in the waste leach right out into the plants, and the organic matter slowly breaks down and builds the soil. The same can be done with your junk mail. Just save it for a week. You’ll be astonished how much you have. Then go out and bury it. I’m all for giving it a good soaking before covering with dirt. If you have powdered seaweed or kelp, and powdered molasses, toss some of that in, too. It really pulls in the earthworms.

What’s so nice about this system – or so bad, depending on how you look at the situation – there’s no end to the organic inputs, the junk mail. It just keeps coming, and coming and coming.

[For more writing by Blue Hat Man, click here]

Turbo Charge the Natural Runner in You

I didn’t start running as an adult until I was 58, five years after a triple bypass. Crazy, huh? But I got started, and now I can’t stop. It was a gradual build, and when I started I trained with a group to run a marathon. Lots of cities have the program, usually tied in to a charity of some kind. The posters pop up like mushrooms six months ahead of race day. If, like me, you have never run, it’s a great way to begin.stopwatch

I don’t run fast, mind you. If I can maintain a fifteen-minute mile for a half marathon I have no complaints. But it isn’t about speed. What am I going to do, win a marathon? No. But I am going to finish. And that right there is incredible. I began at three miles. They said, “Go run this three mile course and let’s see how fast you are.” This was no easy thing. I’d run until I was completely winded, then walk, then run some more. That time put me in the slowest training group, the one where you run for a minute and then you walk for three minutes. We all had sports watches. You set the interval timer to beep at one minute and at three minutes, and you put yourself on auto-pilot. Within a few weeks I was running 8 and 10 miles, and feeling really, really good.

The whole marathon thing was successful, but so physically taxing and grueling I really don’t get the point. Or, having done it once, I see no reason to repeat. Half marathons are another story, so I continue training, mixing long runs with short runs. I changed my interval to 2:2 — run two minutes, walk two minutes — and picked up a little speed. But I never really felt comfortable.

Then one sunny morning my wife and I ran, literally, into a woman we had trained with the year before and she was running 1:1’s. “Give it a try,” she suggested. And we did, and I have never gone back. I have managed to turbo charge my own natural runner. My distances are longer; my times are faster.

When I run the minute I hold nothing back. And when I walk the minute, I power into it. I get to a sustainable pace with a stable, elevated pulse and steady breathing. No more pushing up against breathlessness. No more spiking, then recovering, then spiking again. The sum total of the effect is liberation. Whoever that runner is who showed up late in my life, he is running free. Then walking. Then running free.

Get yourself an interval timer and tell me I am wrong.

[For more writing by Blue Hat Man, click here]

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