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STOP: Light on the History of Outlining

Jonathan Price

Journal of Computer Documentation
Special Issue on STOP Methodology, 
edited by R. J. Waite, 
Volume 23/3, August 1999

In 1965, three people at Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon) published a landmark report called Sequential Thematic Organization of Publications (STOP), How to Achieve Coherence in Proposals and Reports.  Their recommendations led the aerospace industry, and many others, to adopt a storyboarding approach to the development of large, complicated proposals such as those for new airplanes or satellite systems. Their report summarizes a practical collaborative method that is still useful, but I am interested in the light their report throws on the history of outlining.

One of the most innovative aspects of the STOP team’s work is the way in which they rethink the nature of outlining, reacting against an approach they scorn as violating the basic tenets of persuasive organization. They seem to view themselves as a conservative revolt against the sloppy, ambiguous, and chaotic outlining rising up around them in industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In many ways, they do return to the fundamentals of outlining, in a historical sense- emphasizing meaningful headings, distinct modules, paragraphs, or chunks, signaled by some kind of visual treatment, organizing an argument around the headings and then populating those with text, using individual sheets of paper to prepare and organize the material before creating an outline, and conceiving of the process of outlining as including research, drafting, and revision. Their model of outlining differs from two other lines of thinking- the scientific taxonomy, and the schoolroom theory that a writer must proceed by distinct stages.

The STOP team’s brilliant practical approach to outlining also looks forward to a number of activities that have become more convenient thanks to electronic outlining software- collaborative work on organization, visual display of a verbal structure, an iterative process of research, outlining, and drafting focused on the same document, and the large organization’s need for standard templates defining the structure of generic modules. In these ways, the STOP team are forerunners for practices that even today are avant garde.

STOP returns to the roots of outlining

No one knows who wrote the first outline, or when, but some developments from the classical period may have prefigured that moment. The Greek and Roman rhetoricians regularly recommend a series of sections for a speech, a template that may have served as a kind of all-purpose outline for beginners to sort their material into. Cicero (1949/46BC) even suggests adding a section called the partitio, in which the speaker should list the parts to come, as an overview or advanced organizer. But, of course, having a generic plan is quite different from thinking through the material and creating a detailed outline that reflects one’s understanding of a particular subject. Another invention that may have presaged the outline was the table of contents; for instance, when Pliny (1994, 1998) created a table of contents for his Natural History, he made a three-level hierarchy, arranging his content by book, section, and source. But the table of contents formed Book 37, an afterthought, not a tool for planning.

By the 4th century, many writers- particularly Christians- had begun switching from papyrus rolls to parchment and vellum sheets (rectangles of animal skin), fitting these together into collections called codexes, with binding and covers- prototypical books (Bolter, 1991, Innis, 1958; Microsoft, 1997; Ong, 1982). As papyrus supplies were choked off by Moslem domination of the production areas, Christian monks copying religious treatises and the Bible developed a design centered on the individual page, rather than the roll, yielding elements we now recognize as important contributions to the idea of an outline:

    • Headings (the title of the book of the Bible, the chapter number) rose to prominence.
    • Individual numbers appeared as a way of identifying discrete verses.
    • Ornate initial letters also indicated starting points, in somewhat the way alphabetical labels do in a schoolbook outline.
    • Individual paragraphs emerged from the flow of text, and became design elements within the page layout.

At the same time, verbo-visual diagrams showing hierarchical structures arose (Bolter, 1991, p. 74).

When paper spread from Italy in the 13th century, expanding throughout Europe in the 14th century, people adopted it as an inexpensive, discardable medium for temporary information- notes, letters, bills, and plans. Unlike erasable wax tablets, paper made a long plan possible, one that would last as long as needed, and did not need to be wiped out in order to add a heading. (Rouse and Rouse, 1989). Late Medieval and Renaissance writers seized on paper as a way to pursue the classical rhetoricians’ suggestions about invention and arrangement, by summarizing topics in headings, which themselves became branches in complex tree diagrams (Bolter, 1991, pp. 16-21, 74-76; Ong, 1958, pp. 74-83, 104-130, 199-202, 314-318). Erasmus (1990/1512), for instance, recommends that young writers make up a commonplace book with a list of subjects such as the main types and subdivisions of vice and virtue. Each subject appears as a heading, and all its subtopics appear as subheads, under which one can drop any anecdote, maxim, or story one encounters. Later, one can look up the text by using the hierarchy of headings. "Whatever the occasion demands, you will have the materials for a speech ready to hand, as you have all the pigeonholes duly arranged so that you can extract just what you want from them." (p. 551). Similarly, Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique (1990/1553) urges his students to create three levels of headings (for chapter, section, and paragraph), plus overview paragraphs providing a list of topics to be covered in the following subsections (essentially, listing the subheads to come, with a number in front of each).

Ramus’ (1543) advice in the Dialecticae partitiones urges authors to start with a summary, write down major ideas as headings, expand on each idea in running text, then add citations and examples at the end of the expatiation of the idea. This standard layout offered a way to think through a sermon in a systematic way, and became enormously popular with Puritan divines (Batschelet, 1988, pp. 288, 291). Ramus went further, making outlining a Faustian method for conquering the entire world of knowledge. As Ong (1958) says, Ramus’ outlines presented "a reorganization of the whole of knowledge and indeed of the whole human lifeworld" (p. viii). Pointing to Ramus as the popularizer of the paper outline, Heim (1993) says, "Ramus advocated knowledge outlines. The printing press could reproduce any number of pages displaying graphic trees that present summaries of a body of knowledge. Each page is a skeletal outline of a subject arranged systematically, with the branches on the tree showing how the parts of the subject matter connect." (p. 43) Batschelet (1988) shows 17th century scientists adopting Ramus’ technique to create outlines that became the frame for headings and text.

By the 18th century, the idea of the outline and the word itself were well known in English. Period citations in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the term carried overtones of sketchiness and art, like a rough charcoal drawing of a composition, made in preparation for a formal oil painting. Those aspects of outlining seem to have appealed to teachers of rhetoric in the 19th century. For instance, in 1828, Whately (1990) urges teachers to continue the tradition of outlining, as long as they "sedulously" correct the student’s efforts, so that the resulting outlines "exhibit clearly the several heads of the composition. … It is important that the whole of it be placed before the eye and the mind in a small compass, and be taken in as it were at a glance." (p. 842). The virtues he saw in outlining- coherence, proportion of the parts, and a clear arrangement- would then be reflected in the table of contents of formal or printed documents.

The 18th and 19th century scientists’ concern for creating taxonomies and other categorization schemes gave readers another proof of the usefulness of numbered, bulleted, and indented outlines, even when the hierarchy served to encompass a field of knowledge, not an argument, or sermon. Hence, from Erasmus and Ramus forward, we find outlining serving two purposes: discovering and creating the organization for a persuasive speech, and sorting out information into categories. A scientist like Darwin took advantage of both kinds of outlining, one to create taxonomies, and the other to create argumentative books. (1889, pp. 79-80).

By the 20th century an outline was well defined as a document on paper, arranging headings, subheads, and sometimes whole paragraphs in a hierarchy indicated visually by the design elements furnished by ink on the white space of a page- indentation, depth, and labeling. Each unit must be a distinct topic within the sequence. This paper-based model also dictated that the outline summarize research, and guide the course of writing a draft. The outline, as a document, was distinct from notes (which often appeared on individual cards) and from the draft (which appeared on separate sheets of paper).

Notecards had arisen in the 19th century as part of the new scientific emphasis on gathering data (Clear,1993). In the 1870s and 1880s, for instance, when James Murray was collecting citation slips for what would become the Oxford English Dictionary, he was paying his children a penny an hour to collate scraps of paper (Willinsky, 1994). The invention of library card catalogs like those of Dewey seem to have spawned a new form of paper- the index card (Jackson, 1974). Schools seem to have seized on the cards, so that from the 1940’s on, textbook authors assume students have access to them. For instance, Santmyers (1949) says, "You are urged to adopt, without hesitation, a loose-card method for planning and outlining reports…. With only one topic to a card you can shift the order of the cards in any manner you see fit." (p. 32) So shuffling cards became a preliminary to creating an outline, as well as a method for recording ongoing research (Smith, 1940, p. 272; Sypherd et al, 1957, p. 143; USGS, 1957, p. 9).

The dimensions of these cards (3"x5" or 4"x6" usually) suggested that each be devoted to a single topic, then grouped around larger subjects, and sequenced within each larger subject. Such organizing works well for a relatively short essay, with only 50 or 100 cards. Cards and their followup, storyboard paper (with three, six, or more frames each with an area for a picture, and an area for text) also serve a film-writer well, dividing an hour-and-a-half script into two or three dozen scenes; by the 1970s, ad agencies had adopted storyboard pads to create the half dozen scenes in a 60-second commercial (Price, 1978). But when a writer must work with 500 or 1,000 note cards, then organizing becomes more difficult, because the writer cannot easily see what is within a stack. One can organize a set of piles, but not so easily check the contents of a pile, or the sequence of cards within the pile. After a student has organized the cards as well as possible, textbook authors who recommend cards say the writer ought to turn to a formal outline (for example, Sypherd et al, 1957). Weidenbroner and Caruso (1990), for instance, say:

No one can tell how many subtopics you will end up with, but you can usually expect to find between ten and twenty groups of cards on the table… An outline of some sort is essential if you hope to control all the information that lies spread out on the table in front of you. ( P. 114, 117)

By the late 1950s, to judge from the textbooks, the standard school model of the outline went something like this:

    • An outline is a distinct document, written on paper, based on notes on cards, summarizing that research, offering a plan for a draft which itself would be written on other paper.
    • Each document occurs in a distinct stage: researching comes before outlining, which comes before drafting, which comes before revising. One never loops back, to do a little restructuring during the writing, and one never writes anything while doing research, and so on. (Ehrlich and Murphy, 1964, p. 28; Myers, 1955, p. 258; Perrin, 1955, p. 5; Santmyers, 1949, p. 24; Sherman, 1955, p. 9; Smart and Lang, 1943, p. 27; Sypherd et al., 1957, p. 148; Warriner and colleagues, 1950, 1958).
    • Headings within a topic must be written in parallel grammatical form, because they reflect subdivisions of that category (Elsbree and Bracher, 1967, p. 40; Jordan, 1965, p. 109; Leggett et al., 1960, p. 201; Sherman, 1955, p. 14; Sypherd et al., 1957, p. 144; Wicker and Albrecht, 1960, p. 58).
    • The outline starts with a thesis, and the headings divide the thesis or its proofs into parts, because the document as a whole should follow the form of an essay. (Harwell, 1960, p. 28; Leggett et al., 1991, p. 359; Myers, 1955, p. 259; Sherman, 1955, p. 13; Smart and Lang, 1943, p. 26; Thomas, 1949, p. 131; Weisman, 1962, pp. 261-268; Wicker and Albrecht, 1960, p. 56).

This model implied that once one begins writing, any new ideas should appear in the draft, but not in the outline (for instance, Thomas, 1949, p. 140). Revising a paper outline was just too hard (Daiute, 1985, pp. 36-7). At best, the writer might create a new outline after the draft, to understand the structure that had emerged during the process of writing (Martin, 1957, pp. 139-140). This approach to the outline emphasized a single product (one outline on paper), followed by drafting, in which writers could expect to discover new ideas, although they were supposed to follow the outline pretty carefully. The metaphors used by textbook authors compare the outline to an architectural plan or engineering blueprint (Hays, 1965, p. 100; Jordan, 1965, pp. 105-106; Perrin, 1950, p. 13; Thomas, 1949, p. 140; Wellborn and colleagues, 1961, p. 54). But evidently in many classes, students felt the outline was a dead hand, a straitjacket, a terrible constraint, because, I suppose, teachers expected a one-to-one match between their outlines and their papers. Hence, many students began to write the outline after the paper, so there would be a perfect match (Elsbree and Bracher, 1967, pp. 30-31; Thomas, 1949, p. 130).


The STOP team’s critique of outlining

Working in the early 1960s, the STOP team faced a number of challenges that had not been imagined by the authors of earlier textbooks in composition and technical writing. Instead of a 15-page essay by one person, with a week or a month or more to do research, outline, and write, these teams at Hughes and other large corporations had to collect manuscripts from multiple authors, without tight coordination, creating documents of enormous length and complexity, on very tight schedules, without much real editing, starting with a "categorical" outline, then writing without much idea of purpose, tossing figures in without much connection with the text. Readers complained that they could not understand the point of individual sections, or of the whole proposal; could not spot this organization’s competitive advantage; got lost; wondered whether the writer had really slid into a new subject or not; struggled to recall enormous detail throughout long chapters because the writer might return to the topic later; found it hard to compare one proposal to another, because they all had such long fuzzy sections; could not look topics up quickly; rarely knew where they were, in the structure; couldn’t find the relevant art, or, looking at art, couldn’t find any text about it (pp. 10, 11, 46).

For many of these faults, the STOP team blame "categorical" outlining, by which they mean the taxonomic dividing of categories into subcategories, as opposed to argumentative or persuasive outlining, which they call topical. Because the old categorical outlines contained vague or ambiguous headings, without specifying the purpose of each section, writers could make up their own interpretation of the topic, as they wrote, examining the familiar material at length, and skimping on hard or new material. "Outlines, as now built, can only be the sketchiest of predictions, and are not the specifications they should be to effect positive control over the elusive and heuristic process of writing." (p. 6).

Because a proposal ought to be an extremely persuasive document arguing for one company’s design over another’s, the STOP team aims to bring back the focus on a thesis. Hence, the STOP team favors a return to thesis sentences at the start of each unit. The team sees "the traditional but neglected Thesis Sentence" (p. 12) as the key to coherent outlining and writing, and lament that "The practice of writing out thesis sentences as part of outlining has become extinct in industry" (p. 8), perhaps because research and design took so long that the writer felt compelled to postpone specifics, and, with so many people on the team, the writer rarely understood the larger purpose of each element. Restoring thesis sentences is part of building a topic outline, then. "Because a topic outline makes a series of arguments for the organization’s design, at every level, such an outline works better in instructing and persuading a reader than an outline by categories, which presents a kind of mock-scientific breakdown of all the pieces of the design, like species and phyla, leaving analysis and comparison to the reader" (p. 8). They argue that the "true criteria" for subordinating a topic should involve "thematic dependence, not class membership" (p. 8).

From their analysis of topic boundaries in older proposals, the STOP team concluded that most previous proposals had given about the same amount of space to each subject, if one disallowed digressions, extraneous comments, and transitions. "It can be shown statistically that this natural topical structure exists and that the topics, once you recognize them, fit the 2-page spread in an overwhelming majority of the cases.""(p. 0). Hence, the brilliant design concept of using a two-page spread for each topic grew out of their analysis of "natural topic boundaries," 12. Like monks copying the books of the Bible onto parchment pages, the STOP team discovered many benefits in the constraints of the frame, including the ability to borrow the technique of storyboarding from the motion picture industry:

Since topical organizing means metering out the story in definite message modules, it becomes a problem of enumerating and quantizing the ideas of the subject matter dimensionally. Such an exercise elicits an immediate and salutary concern

    • for isolating the most important points,
    • for apportioning the number of points to best achieve relative emphasis,
    • for sequencing the points to get maximum inevitability of story build-up,
    • and for subordinating dependent considerations in the most coherent packaging. (p. 18)

So storyboarding meant returning to using the outline as a device for discovering meaning- identifying key ideas, deciding which points to emphasize, ordering ideas in an effective sequence, and promoting or demoting topics. Because the storyboards made the individual topics visible to everyone on the team, the technique encourage "mutual visualization of content"- a collaborative effort.

The visual approach also requires that each storyboard contain a sketch of an illustration, so that these individual sheets, spread out on a table, or taped to a wall, contain visible summaries for the team- rough mockups of the art that the readers would eventually see, but usable enough as shorthand for the team itself.

Making a collective outline, particularly one as public and visible as these storyboards, was a tremendous step forward. The STOP team had stumbled onto a technique that allows a group to think through a very long and complicated document together, using the evolving verbo-visual representation as an aide to memory, a temporary holder of evolving consensus, and a focal point for arguing. As a result, people on the teams were able to make each section respond better to the request for proposal, to discover and get rid of redundancies, and to clear up misunderstandings among themselves (p. 18). They received group-wide criticism: "Does it cover the ground, have the right slant, point up the significance of its approach to the company’s advantage? Is it internally coherent, or do the paragraph notations start to lead into other points not included in the Thesis Sentence?" (p. 26).

Ironically, one benefit of this collaborative visualization was that each writer came away understanding the purpose, boundaries, and illustrations required for each section. The team says that the storyboards acted as a "writing supervisor" (p. 20), a phrase that echoes the idea that "the outline" is an architectural plan or blueprint a writer must follow. But in this case, the writers had used the storyboarding process to go through the discovery process that traditionally got postponed until the actual drafting process, at which point it was too late to bring coherence to the many contributions.

Thus, the STOP team came up with a collaborative process that uses the evolving verbal and visual outline as its continuous agenda and record of agreements.


STOP anticipates activities made easier by software

Even though STOP was a paper-based activity, the collaborative process presages a use of outlining that has become more common and more convenient since electronic outlining appeared in the early 1980s. Word processing has long been recognized as providing a method by which writers can swap drafts, critique each other’s work at a distance, or together, and even develop new documents together (Costanzo, 1994; Daiute, 1986; Duin and Hansen, 1994; Ede and Lunsford, 1990; Eldred, 1989; Hawisher, 1987, 1994; Humphrey, 1987; Rodrigues and Rodrigues, 1986). But electronic outlining software, whether it is a module within a larger package such as Word, or a standalone application such as MORE, makes possible an even more active collaboration on structure, with many writers participating, live, in person, in real time (Price, 1999, pp. 41-59). The developing outline is projected on a screen, so that as changes are made, they are immediately visible to everyone in the group. (Compare that with a review meeting in which all suggestions end up as scribbled notes in the writer’s copy of the draft, where the group cannot see them, and therefore cannot debate them, or improve them). DeKoven (1995, 1998a, 1998b) advocates the use of outlining software to facilitate business meetings devoted to creating a document, because each person can see his or her contribution right away, and the group can reach a depth and detail of agreement unknown before, as they record and revise the structure onscreen. As the STOP team points out, such discussions help ensure that everyone thrashes out their disagreements, clears up misunderstandings, and agrees on purpose- before sitting down to write, individually. My own experience using this collaborative approach on five manuals, six help systems, and 12 trade books, confirms what the STOP team discovered- that by beating the structure into shape ahead of time, the team itself aligns its ideas with an agreed-upon purpose, making a plan that everyone can carry out in concert, resulting in a multiple-author document that is coherent, consistent, and easy to understand (Price, 1999, pp. 10-11).

The STOP team’s emphasis on the visual nature of the storyboards and resulting modules looks forward to the more elaborate visual formatting that electronic outlining makes possible. The software can automatically apply a format to a topic whenever one drags it to a new level, so that each level has its own font, size, color, indentation, and labeling style. Art can be dropped in, as well, at any level. As a result, the writing team can quickly tell the difference between topics at different levels. The software also allows one to hide everything below a certain level, to see how those headings work together as a potential menu for a help system or Web site, then reveal the subtopics under one heading in order to rewrite that the heading so it reflects the contents more accurately. Because the material is electronic, one can make continuous changes without recopying the parts of the outline that have not changed, and always have text and art that are easy to read (unlike the scribbles on STOP storyboards, or the arrows and cross-hatching on a paper outline undergoing revision).

Electronic outlining, these days, is just one view among many. In Word, for instance, the Outline View provides the special functionality of hiding and revealing, and formatting by level, but one can quickly switch to the Page Layout view to look at the pages as they would appear on paper, or the Online view to see headings as a kind of table of contents on the side, or, if one uses Hypertext Markup Language tags, view the document as source code. These views all show different perspectives on the same document. Hence, contemporary software makes it easy to write a little, organize for a while, take a few notes, switching back and forth among the activities known as researching, outlining, and drafting, all without leaving the document. Unlike paper outlines, the electronic versions can be used right up until one prints. As Heim (1993) says, "Outlining becomes a creative environment in which thinking, writing, and planning coexist in an outlined structure. Unlike modern outlines, outliners do not merely schematize a passively received volume of knowledge. Rather, the postmodern outliner is a working environment in which you strive constantly to think in order to produce" (p. 50). This postmodern understanding of writing as continuously cycling through research, planning, and writing runs stark counter to the idea that writers must work through discrete stages, each with its own resulting paper document- a model of outlining that has persisted in textbooks right up to the present (Alvarez, 1980, p. 157; Brusaw, Alred, and Oliu, 1993, p. 485; Damerst, 1982, p. 59; Dietrich and Brooks, 1958, pp. 109-111; Elsbree and Bracher, 1967, p. 39; Fowler, Aaron and Limburg, 1992, p. 39; Hacker, 1994, p. 46; Hacker and Renshaw, 1979, p. 107; Harwell, 1960, pp. 122-123; Hays, 1965, p. 104; Johnson, 1992, p. 141; Jordan, 1965, pp. 108-111; Leggett et al, 1960, pp. 196-197; Lester, 1990, p. 114; Marckwardt and Cassidy, 1960, p. 408; Markel, 1984, p. 70; Mills and Walter, 1962, p. 45; Rubens, 1992, p. 15; Shelton, 1995, p. 42; Sherman, 1955, p. 12, and 1966, p. 34; Smart and Lang, 1943, pp. 19-26; Thomas, 1949, pp. 130-142; Weiss, 1982, p. 52; Wellborn, Green, and Nall, 1961, p. 55; Wicker and Albrecht, 1960, p. 54; Wilcox, 1977, pp. 83-86). In contrast to the idea of pure and distinct stages held by these textbook authors, the STOP team’s openness to storyboarding as a way to plan, write, develop ideas, and make notes, all at once, seems like a precursor of the multiple, overlapping activities our contemporary software makes possible.

Similarly, by conceiving of individual modules, each with its necessary components (title, thesis sentence, content, illustration), fixed limits, and routine designs, the team laid the basis for an approach to manuals like that of Clement Mok (1996)when he designed the first Macintosh manuals for Apple, with each group of procedures contained within several columns on one or two-page spreads. The structural patterns that teams have tried to dictate to writers of documents such as procedure manuals, via organizational or departmental styleguides often reflect carefully worked-out book designs and templates, all of which specify what elements must go into the standard module, in what order, number, and format. Imposing this kind of structural consistency on multiple authors of hundreds of books, help systems, CD-ROMs, and Web pages has led to a devotion to preset structural forms as models the writers should use when creating anything new. One could consider these models as a technically complex extension of the generic plans offered to young speech-makers by classical rhetoricians. To enforce absolute consistency of structure on each type of document created by an organization, and to get the benefits of more successful searching, lookup, and maintenance, some groups have paid the enormous price of converting their documents to the Standard General Markup Language, using the incredibly detailed set of rules for structure known as a Document Type Descriptor (DTD). Comparing the STOP team’s simple model of the elements required for a storyboard cel to a contemporary DTD is like comparing a bottle rocket to the Challenger, but we can certainly look back to the STOP team as struggling in the same direction.

The next step beyond tagging languages like SGML and XML is to reconsider existing documents from the point of view of object-oriented rhetoric (Price, 1997a, 1997b, 1997c, 1998, 1999). Adopting ideas from object-oriented programming, we can view each component of a standard document as an object belonging to a class. Each instance of the class follows the same structure as others in its class. For example, in one organization, a procedure object might be defined as containing component objects such as a title, introduction, steps, and explanations. The group might further decide that one of their procedures could contain anywhere from one to a dozen steps, but not more, and introductions would be optional, whereas at least one step would be required, or else the object couldn't qualify as a procedure. The reasoning is familiar to technical writers, but defining the rules in the way a programmer might carries the process farther than many writers are comfortable with, because these rules enforce consistency in areas where writers have, in the past, gotten away with secretive little violations of the standards, without anyone but the readers noticing. Now that we need to recycle the components, though, repurposing them as elements on different web pages, CD-ROMs, and, perhaps, paper documents, writers need to be able to locate all objects of a certain type (steps, say), for revision and reuse; users want to be able to search using these objects as critera ("Give me all the procedures that have propeller as a subject attribute") (Mazumdar et al., 1998). And as we make these objects "live," so they can send messages to each other, we enter the realm of hypertext, where one object links to another. Although the STOP team could probably have lived comfortably with some of the rigidity required by object orientation, they would probably have been surprised to think of their modules as containing "hot" links to other modules, or popup definitions. Still, their loose but necessary structuring of the modules does, in hindsight, presage self-contained objects with predefined structures containing other objects as components.

In a way, the stop team took outlining as far as they could, on paper. The next giant step would be electronic.



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