How to Commute Like a Lady

lady_bicycling_cropI am in the early stages of planning a roundtable discussion with the working title “How to Bicycle to Work and Still Look Great – Tips & tricks from working women on how to look professional, stay safe, and have fun while traveling to work by bicycle.”  It will take place the evening of May 2nd at the Monroe County Public Library and I have recruited an excellent panel of ladies who are experienced at commuting by bicycle.

I hope to count myself among them by the time the roundtable happens.  Alas, I have a long way to go.  For the last six months, I have been driving to Columbus three days a week, racking up 300 miles a week on the odometer.  In February, I was also commuting twice a week to Indianapolis, bringing the grand total to about 500 miles a week.  Bleah.  Even with a Prius, it’s hard to justify that kind of carbon footprint. 

My contract position in Columbus expires at the end of March and I hope I can find long-term employment within bicycling distance of home, or at the very least a job within Monroe County.  The weather is becoming much more appealing as of late so I look forward to at least doing some recreational biking.  I’d love to become a bicycle commuter but if that doesn’t work out, my secondary goal is to be ready when the next “Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Bike Ride” comes around.  It’s organized by a couple of inspirational women cyclists who work for the City of Bloomington.  This year it was held on February 18th and promoted with the following description:

Rain nor sleet nor snow nor roving bands of zombies will keep us from the streets during Bloomington’s first annual Terrible  Horrible No Good Very Bad Bike Ride.  The 5-mile ride will traverse urban cycling routes around Bloomington to prove that it’s possible to bike in all kinds of weather.  Intended for both the fearful and the fearless.  If you can ride on this day, you can ride any day.

Alas, ever fickle Mother Nature ruined their carefully laid plans by providing a warm and sunny day but the 40+ folks who showed up all claimed to have a wonderful time anyway.  They talked about clothing options, bicycle fenders, and other techniques for minimizing the impact of icky weather.  Next year, I want to be a confident velocipedestrienne riding along with them, fearing neither cars nor rain nor roving bands of zombies.  My role models are the confident lady bicyclists who terrorized the streets in the 1860’s, as captured by the wonderful artist Kate Beaton.

Watch out, world.

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Standin’ On the Corner, Waitin’ For the Bus

So, I think I have complained before about the lack of transportation alternatives in Bloomington and how hard it is to get to other communities.  Part of my focus has been complaining about the lack of trains in the area but there also have not been good bus or car-share options.  Happily, there are a few new developments happening – plus a couple that seem to have escaped my notice when they arrived.  I haven’t tried them all out yet but here’s the breakdown of motorized transportation options in Bloomington that don’t involve owning your own car.  (Walking and biking are also important, of course – and don’t forget dog pulling!)

Getting Out of Town

1. Bloomington Shuttle Service – originally just provided service to and from the airport ($15) but now they also have weekend service to Chicagoland where you go Friday night and come back Sunday night ($82).  However, the stops are all in the Chicago suburbs so I’m not sure what transportation options there are to actually get into the city.  (A quick Google Transit search says there’s no super easy option since malls tend to be located on interstates rather than subway lines).

2. Star of America – also started here with a focus on transportation to and from the airport ($15) but now also offering service to Chicagoland that is similar to the Bloomington Shuttle Service but a little cheaper.  I think they also offered a few special summer trips last year, including one down to the “Splashing Safari” water park as a day trip.

3. Miller Trailways – a little closer to a Greyhound type service with a number of set routes around the state, mostly connecting Indianapolis with other big cities but stopping at smaller towns along the way.  We are on the “Indianapolis-Evansville” route which means we could catch a ride either headed north to Indy or headed south and west to places like Bedford, Paoli, Vincennes, and Evansville.  I would definitely consider paying $16 to ride the bus down to Paoli instead of driving and am glad that the Amish communities in that area do have a bus option when they need it.

4. ZipCar – Yay, we have a zipcar now!!  This is very new to Bloomington and Indiana University.  Anyone can become a member and then rent a car by the hour or day although there is a discount for IU students, faculty, and staff.  It’s not the cheapest option in the world but neither is owning a car and I’m very happy this option is available to us now.  (There are also other car rental places in town that tend to be a little cheaper for longer term rentals.)

5. ZimRide – This is another cool new program that is designed to encourage ridesharing.  It’s basically an internet-based rideshare board but you can also rate people as good or not-so-good ride options so it will hopefully help people find ways to build a network of safe ride options.  Alas, it does not appear to be up and running for IU just yet but I know the university signed a two-year contract only a couple weeks ago so hopefully it will be available within the next month.

Getting Around Town

1. Bloomington Transit – basic bus service within city limits, nice reliable service, fairly cheap ($1.00/ride), can be time consuming depending on where you’re trying to go, especially since almost all routes go to the bus station downtown.  I still want to launch my “bus fairy” concept where route information would be posted at every bus stop so when you’re wandering around town you can understand your city bus options.  I think this might help people start to consider the bus as an option (as in “Gee, it turns out I could hop on the bus right outside of my apartment and be downtown in ten minutes!”)

2. IU Campus Bus Service – basic bus service around campus, free for students and employees (and I don’t think they check IDs), I myself have never quite figured out the routes (see the “bus fairy” idea above).

3. Rural Transit – this is a great service that does not get enough press, possibly because it’s focused on areas outside of Bloomington and possibly because if too many people found out about it, they would be overwhelmed with requests.  Basically, the rural transit buses are designed to help folks in the county get into Bloomington, Elletsville, Spencer, and other nearby towns.  There are a few set routes (including one I used to ride to Ivy Tech when I worked there) and what they call “county sweeps” where they will pick people up at home out in the county in the early morning and deliver them to the Bloomington bus station in time to take a city bus to work.  There is also a special service where you can call 24 hours in advance and ask to be added to one of their routes.  They have specific routes each day of the week so if you live in Smithville,  Wednesday is your “route” day and you can call to be picked up and taken anywhere along that route – picnic at Fairfax Beach, be dropped off in downtown Bloomington, visit a friend in nearby Clear Creek, etc.  The price for a ride is $0.75.  Pretty amazing, right?

4. Fresh Air Taxis – Okay, this is not a motorized transportation option but I thought it was cool enough to include – we now have a bicycle rickshaw service in town.  As an interesting side note, the city ended up modifying city code to create some guidance for bicycle rickshaws when they were approached for a business license and the business did not fit into any of their regular slots.

So, I’m feeling a little better about the state of alternative transportation in Bloomington.  There are still many, many improvements that can be made and I hope to push them forward with my new position on the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability.  Let me know if you have specific suggestions.

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Canines for Alternative Transportation

saffron_pullingWe’ve been working with a trainer named Deb to help Saffron become a better behaved pooch and to find ways to channel her intelligence and energy.  Saffron truly seems to love learning new things and earning our attention (and treats).  She has made great strides in learning to sit, stay, heel, and drop it on command.  So we were very interested when Deb suggested that we train Saffron as a pulling dog to take advantage of her stubbornness, her athleticism, and, well, her inclination to pull hard whenever the opportunity arises.

We got her a harness from The Working Canine and tried it out during a training session with Deb last week when there were a few inches of snow on the ground.  She took to it quite well and seemed utterly unconcerned about dragging a crate of golf balls behind her as she trotted around the training ground.  Of course, she did manage to topple it and send the balls flying so we experimented with a sled and found that she was able to pull me around but had to be coaxed getting started.  (Perhaps it was our months of training her to stop pulling when we stopped moving on our walks.  Maybe.)

Itsaffron_maggie snowed another eight inches on Monday so we took her out yesterday at our house.  The snow was too deep for good sledding so she gave up when I sat in the sled.  However, she had no problem towing a sled with a 50-lb bag of sand.  Well, no problem except for getting the sled tangled up as she followed her nose in pursuit of squirrels, rabbits, and the groundhog that lives under our back shed.  (Need to motivate your dog to pull a heavy sled?  Simply arrange for a groundhog to be located at your final destination.)  We all had a good time playing in the snow until the shivering got intense.

As much fun as it is just watching her pull stuff around, there are competition dog pulls out there where dogs compete to see how much weight they can pull a short distance.  Saffron is a lightweight (under 60 lbs) but some of the big dogs have been known to pull carts with wheels that weigh over 3000 lbs!!  Deb’s going to organize a pulling demonstration this spring and make Saffron the star, which will be a lot of fun and hopefully help her become even more socialized.

Saffron and her HarnessHowever, Will’s ultimate dream is to hook her up to a small cart or perhaps a scooter and have her pull us all around town.  I love the idea except I’m not what we’ll do with her when we reach our destination.  There was a time and place when every grocery store had a hitching post but even if that were still the case, I’m not sure Saffron would sit quietly with her feed bag like a horse might.  Still, we’re excited about the alternative transportation potential and are looking forward to being the talk of the neighborhood with our pully dog and her happy harness.

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Greasecar Questions from the Mail Room

I answered some greasecar questions recently over e-mail and thought other people might enjoy reading the answers…

How has it been working out for you?
Well, I ended up selling my greasecar last year so my husband and I could share one car.  He can’t drive a stickshift and my VW was expensive to maintain so we kept his Mazda.  Generally the car was good but I had trouble finding the time/motivation to collect and filter grease.  My car also had a lot of maintenance issues unrelated to the greasecar part that were expensive (brakes, shocks, etc.).  I also think greasecars really only make sense for long drives and I just don’t take very many long drives.  We decided it was cheapest to keep his car and since it has pretty good mileage and we don’t drive very much, the environmental impact seemed acceptable.

I’ve heard there is a fried food smell.  Does it just come out the tailpipe, or can you smell it inside the car?
The smell just comes out the tailpipe.  If you have the windows down and are stopping a lot you can smell it in the car but I actually kinda liked it.

Is it difficult to find all of the oil you need for free?
Depends a lot on where you are.  I think the tricky part is trying to find relatively high quality oil so if you have some connections in restaurants and can talk a staff member into collecting it for you, that’s the best.  You don’t really want to be getting it out of big greasetraps.  In Bloomington, there was a bit of competition for oil but it also meant I could bum oil from other greasecar folks who had a stockpile.  I also knew a couple people who put together drum systems that restaurants could have out back for collecting oil that made everyone happy – it was clean and easy and the system worked well.

About what percentage of diesel do you end up using?
I used a lot more diesel than oil because I was lazy about getting oil and I did a lot of short drives that weren’t good for oil.  However, I had a friend who biked for short distances and used her car with vegetable oil for long distances and she probably used only 5-10% diesel.

When you filter the used oil, does the remaining junk have to be properly disposed of?
Yes, although I would feel comfortable putting it out with my regular trash.  It’s very gross but not really dangerous beyond being slightly flammable.  I did learn that vegetable oil will eat through rubber and asphalt if left to sit there long enough.  And it also is attractive to raccoons but gives them terrible diarrhea.  Really, filtering was probably my biggest challenge and one I never quite mastered although I think if I had been willing to put either more time or more money into development, I could have had a nice system that was easy to use.

Did you loose trunkspace for the additional tank?
Yes, I basically gave up my trunk because my tank lid did not seal quite right at first and it sprayed the trunk with a fine coat of oil.  If that hadn’t been the case, I still would have lost about a third of the trunk to fit in the tank.  I’ve seen some different systems that used a lot less space and were a lot cleaner.

Would you do it again?

Yeah, I think I would.  Like I said, I think it makes the most sense for people who take long drives (more than 10 minutes) on a regular basis and who are committed to setting up a good oil filtration system.  I know in Louisville there’s a business that does greasecar installations and also that sells filtered used oil to folks; if I had that around, I’d be way more tempted to get back into the greasecar groove.  Right now I’m transitioning into a job where I can work from home or bike to the office and so I’m not that worried about what car I use on the few occasions when I drive.  But if I ever start driving regularly again, I’ll have to reconsider.

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Extreme Green: Travel By Cargo Ship

Cargo ShipMy friend Scott has been dreaming of taking a pilgrimage for several years so it was no surprise when he announced his intention to hike the Camino del Santiago in France and Spain this past summer.  He does not like to fly, largely because of its negative environmental impacts, so he spent some time trying to figure out alternatives.  We both had heard a presentation from a guy who took a cargo ship to Europe and then traveled the mainland by train and bicycle.  It sounded a little extreme but also kind of exciting.  We heard another friend tell her story of getting a deal on a cruise ship that was relocating from Florida to Europe and decided maybe the boat ideas isn’t totally crazy.

It is, however, rather long and expensive when compared to flying.  Scott did some research and decided that the cheapest way to go is to take a tramp ship.  Most cargo ships have set routes (say between New York City and Lisbon, Portugal) and have a buyer who is responsible for filling the ship with goods on either end and selling it on the other end.  Tramp ships are wanderers who pick up cargo where there’s a surplus and deliver it where it’s needed, with much more flexibility.  It can be a bit riskier since these are HUGE ships that are ridiculously expensive to operate, but on the other hand they can take advantage of big market swings and buy up cheap commodities in one place and take them wherever they will sell well.

Scott booked himself passage on a cargo ship leaving Chicago via Lake Michigan and headed across the Atlantic Ocean.  All they could tell him in advance was that the ship would pick him up somewhere near Chicago, sometime in the second half of August and that it would drop him off somewhere in Europe or Northern Africa, with an estimated travel time of 20-30 days.  The ship that he ended boarding on August 17th was 200 meters long, 23 meters wide, carrying 20 crew, up to around 15,000 tons (yes, tons) of cargo, and one passenger – him.

The adventure began when the Polish chef could not be made to understand the request “vegetarian food” but it snowballed from there.  Normally, the ship would pick up either grain or steel from the Great Lakes region and then cruise through Lake Huron and Lake Erie, on up the Saint Lawrence River, and head across the Atlantic Ocean. However, things did not go as planned:

Because of the strange state of the U.S. economy, the ship was, for many days, paralyzed at sea without cargo.  At a cost of many thousands of dollars per day just to maintain the ship drifting, the pressure was on the owners to find some cargo to justify the two week trip across the Atlantic to Europe.  Nevertheless we found nothing viable in the Great Lakes.  The captain, who had been one for 39 years, nor any of the crew, had ever heard of a Polsteam ship NOT finding cargo in the Lakes – a tribute to the unsurpassed peculiarity of the U.S. and world economic crisis that we have now heard so much about and which few if any of us actually understand.  So it was that we had to travel all the way around the Eastern Seaboard to New Orleans (or ‘NOLA’ in shipspeak) to load corn.  What was more, once we motored down the east coast and rounded Florida, Hurricane Ike followed us into the Gulf of Mexico, and though thankfully its destructive center missed us, it still eventually slowed our access to NOLA ports.  Ike’s several days of unrelenting 25-50mph winds effectively dammed the water that ordinarily flowed down and out of the Mississippi, creating a gigantic temporary lake, above which peered houses, trees, cars, boats, etc.  Ports and roads were closed, some evacuations occured, a traffic jam on the Mississippi resulted.

Even more unfortunately for Scott, he was being charged by the day for his passage, even though he wasn’t getting any closer to his destination.  He was also getting further and further off his timeline of hiking the Camino and then catching a flight back to the U.S. to attend my wedding.  On September 25th, 38 and a half days after boarding, Scott disembarked in New Orleans and made his way back to his hometown of Austin, Texas, pilgrimage unfulfilled.

Well, he would say that in one way it was a really significant pilgrimage; just not the one he expected!  I haven’t asked him yet if he would ever try the boat trip again.  It sounds totally overwhelming to me although I do find the idea rather romantic – tucked away on a ship filled with tons of exotic cargo, hanging out with a crew who speaks no English, being totally cut off from the Internet and TV and radio, enjoying days of quiet contemplation in the middle of the ocean.  Of course, I also once fantasized about stowing away with truck drivers, traveling the country with my laptop writing the next great American novel and hanging out in tiny towns along the way, so I know the romantic in me can get a little crazy…

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Riding the bus

A busI have an almost pathological aversion to spending actual dollars. I don’t think I’m alone; one of the favorite tactics of financial bloggers for someone who has trouble controlling their spending is to tell them to spend cash for everything. For that reason, it’s usually not a bad thing. An aversion to spending leads naturally to frugality. Unfortunately, it also means that I haven’t been riding the bus much. I know intellectually that $1 isn’t much, but my hindbrain yells to me that it’ll be $2 for the round-trip, $3 if we stop at the grocery store. And $3 is real money. I could get a shirt for that at Goodwill!

In reality, it probably costs just about as much to drive the same places, what with gas prices, maintenance, and parking. But apart from parking, I don’t have to pay that immediately and in cash. They’re disconnected from my travel experience.

The big exception to my penny pinching is travel to campus. As a student, I always hated coming in to campus because it was such a hassle. The metered spots, when they were open, had a 1 hour limit, which isn’t enough for a whole class, let along several classes. To park anywhere else, you had to have a parking pass ranging from $80 to $300 a semester. Even then, those passes didn’t guarantee you a spot. It just meant that you wouldn’t be towed if you found one. The expensive passes let you park anywhere, but the cheaper passes gave you fewer options. Many times during a semester, I had to drive around for fifteen minutes or halg an hour until someone in the right type of space drove off and I could park.

And it was stressful. If I didn’t find a parking spot in time, I’d be late for class. That’s bad enough as a student, but I lived in fear of it as a teaching assistant. My only real accident happened while I was desperately trying to find a spot on a snowy, icy day. For a while, Maggie lived in a place about twenty minutes’ walk from my building, so I’d park there and walk in when I needed to get to campus. The twenty minute walk was so much nicer than twenty minutes of circling in my car, hoping to find a place.

At the time, I tried taking the bus occasionally, but we were slightly further south than the furthest south route, so the bus only ran once an hour and took 30-45 minutes to get to campus. Depending on class times, that meant I’d often have to take a bus an hour and half early. The bus also stopped running relatively early, so I could be trapped downtown if I had other errands to run.

This semester, I’m back on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, I’m also on a different bus line. This bus comes every half an hour and only takes 15 minutes to get downtown. We’re also situated right along a loop, so I have two chances to catch the bus, which makes me much more comfortable about getting to campus on time. Given all this, any my memories of car stress before, I planned to get a six-month pass. It’s a little cheaper if you use the bus quite a bit but, more importantly, I’d no longer have to pull cash out of my wallet to ride the bus. My pacified hindbrain could imagine that the whole thing was free.

The icing on the cake is that with my new ID, I actually can ride for free! The new route also uses hybrid buses, so my environmental impact is even smaller. What a great win-win scenario!

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City Bus Lessons

I rode the bus today for the first time from our new house.  It’s funny how something as simple as riding the bus can feel like an adventure.  The bus stop is about half a block from our house and as usual I was running late so I stood there anxiously, convinced I had missed it.  Of course, as it turns out the bus was also running a little late so I got on with no trouble, handed over my crisp $1 bill, and rode the 15-minute trip into town.

The best part about riding the bus is the change in perspective.  I was able to stare out the window at the scenery without worrying about trying to drive or give directions.  Walking to the bus stop gave me a chance to check out my neighbor’s houses in detail and wave to the ones who were out working on their lawns or cars or gardens.  I was able to listen to cicadas and feel the light afternoon breeze.

Riding the bus also renewed my appreciation for all the good things in my life.  Most of my fellow bus passengers appeared to be dealing with many challenges, ranging from poor health to limited education to drug and alcohol addictions.  I felt a little out of place but also very humble.  My money worries suddenly seemed very insignificant; I don’t have to worry about where I’ll be sleeping tonight or how I will feed my family.

I’m looking forward to becoming a regular rider although I also hope to do more bicycling.  There’s something about getting out of my car that immediately makes me feel more connected with the world, more involved in the community, and more alive.  Thank you, city bus.

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The Real Cost of Owning a Car

I feel like we’ve posted a lot about transportation the last few weeks but that’s where my mind has been. There were some great comments in response to my post last week about visiting a friend who lives car-free in D.C. and it got me thinking about alternative transportation. It also got me thinking about how much money I spend on my car.

I read a book about going car-free awhile back that claimed people could save $10,000+ per year by going car-free and my immediate thought was “Sure, if you have a new car and are making payments.” Of course, in the back of my mind was a little voice saying “Geez, I don’t want to know how much I spend on my car!” So I put off the calculations for awhile but I finally sat down this week and cranked through it. The numbers are a little rough because I didn’t track down all my expenses for the last two years. I also sincerely hope that I won’t spend as much money on car repairs as I did last year ($1,800) even though I am probably just deluding myself.

I paid cash for my car but lets spread that cost over 5 years and assume that I’ll get about $1,000 for it when I finally give up and sell it. I spent about $4,000 on the car in 2005 which included the grease conversion and a new set of tires. So that would be $3,000 over 5 years or $600/year.

car purchase = $600/year
insurance = $350/year
plates = $80/year ($35 for “environmental” plates)
oil changes = $200/year
maintenance = $800/year

So the grand total is $2,030 per year in base costs. Since I bought the car 3.5 years ago, I have driven 46,646 miles which is about 13,327 miles per year. That’s probably a little high considering I drove the car to Oregon and back in 2005 so lets say with my new lifestyle I drive more like 10,000 miles per year. (Yes, I like nice round numbers).

More rounding gives us $2,000 divided by 10,000 miles or 20 cents per mile in base costs. Ouch!

I figure a tank of diesel costs me about $50 and takes me about 500 miles, which gives me a nice round figure of 10 cents/mile.

So driving my car on (free) veggie oil costs about 20 cents per mile while driving my car on diesel costs about 30 cents per mile. On an annual basis, if I drive 80% of the time on diesel, I’m spending a total amount of roughly $3,600 on transportation, or $300/month$2,800 or $233/month (sorry, had a bad math moment there). This makes the bus ($1.25/trip) and carshare programs ($15/hour) seem much more affordable. If I were to sell my car and set aside $150/month for transportation costs, I could use that money for five hours of carshare time ($15×5= $75) plus 28 bus trips ($1.25×28 = $35) and still have $40 left to buy fancy accessories for my bicycle or save up for a plane ticket.

Alas, with my current job situation I need access to a car pretty continuously during field trip season so I probably can’t go totally car-free just yet. We also don’t have a carshare program here so that’s not an option. I’m thinking perhaps the solution is for Will and I to share one car but the next question is – which one? Tune in next week for another stimulating session of applied mathematics!

Your weekend homework: How much does YOUR car cost?

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Help! I’m a Driving Junkie!

drivingHi. My name is Maggie and I’m addicted to driving. I knew I was driving a lot just by looking at my budget and seeing how much money I spend on fuel but during our Eco-Challenge month I thought I’d track my daily mileage and find out specifically how it all adds up. Well, it’s not pretty. Today is May 13th so in just under two weeks I have driven a total of 392 miles, or an average of 30 miles a day.

That’s pretty startling when you realize that Bloomington is about 10 miles wide at its widest point. Some of the mileage is unusual – 86 miles down to Paoli and back to work on Brambleberry Farm , 45 miles out to Beanblossom Bottoms to see the eagles nesting. However, that still leaves 261 miles.

Of those, 78 miles were trips I had to take for my Sycamore Land Trust job. I love the fact that I get paid for mileage but it’s frustrating that I have to travel to a lot of places that aren’t accessible by public transportation (schools outside city limits, nature preserves, etc.). On the other hand, at least for now I think the job (environmental education) is important enough to justify some extra travel time.

The remaining 183 miles were used driving around town and that’s the part I’d like to improve on. A lot of it comes down to a question of routines and habits. It’s really easy to think “Oh, while I’m out, I’ll just swing by the bank” when the bank isn’t actually anywhere on my route. I’ve also gotten into the habit of coming home for lunch, which is very relaxing and I tend to eat more nutritious, cheaper food but it packs on the miles. And there’s also the cold hard fact that I *could* take the bus more places if I were willing to make the extra effort. It’s slower and less convenient and makes it harder to haul my junk around. But I’m ready to give the bus another chance and to plan my day around its schedule. Hopefully I can cut back dramatically on those in-town mileage.

Alas, the last week of this month I’m taking a trip by car to Raleigh, N.C. and then up to Washington, D.C. so I’m pretty sure this is not the month for kicking my addiction completely. Maybe in June…

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