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Let's say I have a question such as the following:

I want my race of fantasy avians to have a crest of beautiful, long, iridescent feathers. If I don't care how they came to be in the first place (perhaps they were created by magic long ago), are they plausible? IOW, can such things exist based on what we know of biology?

In my experience, responses to such questions have a strong tendency to come in two varieties:

  • Ignoring the question: "Magic was involved, so anything is possible."
  • Ignoring the stipulations: "Such a feature couldn't possibly evolve."

Both are usually accompanied by heavy down-voting. Both are also actively unhelpful; strict adherence to science tends to make for boring stories, and ignoring science tends to make for bad stories. "Like reality unless otherwise noted" is widely recognized as a good strategy, yet recently we seem to have developed an aversion to helping achieve this.

Once upon a time, we seemed to understand this. What went wrong? How can someone ask a question like this without it being attacked?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you actually have an actual example of such a poorly received question which we can discuss? Accusing unspecified people of doing unspecified bad things is not conducive to reasoned discussion... (And yes, there are many birds with long beautiful shimmering feathers. There are many birds with feathery crests. There very well may exist birds with crests of long beautiful shimmering feathers.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 7 '20 at 4:18
  • $\begingroup$ To answer the matter of history, there's an entirely new generation of users since then, with a different approach to many things. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Dec 7 '20 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, yes, I deliberately chose an example that had an "obvious" answer. I'm not particularly anxious to draw attention to the primary of my questions of relevance, as there was a lot of very poor behavior and at least one actual CoC violation (in a comment since deleted). I can't recall others offhand but I definitely feel like I've seen the same thing in others' questions. Maybe I'll try to find one. That said, L.Dutch's answer here is an example. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 7 '20 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ can such things exist based on what we know of biology? - that's science based, and with that tag the words plausible and magic don't belong in the same sentence. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 12 '20 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura, why not? Unless I'm writing in the Hell's Gate universe, I fail to see why science and magic are not allowed to coexist. (In fact, in the story I am writing, they do coexist.) Doubly so if "magic" is Clarketech. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 12 '20 at 3:50
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    $\begingroup$ They're not allowed to co-exist in a SE question tagged with science-based : "For questions that require answers based on hard science, not magic or pseudo-science, but do not require scientific citations." $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 12 '20 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ The mention of magic in any such question may well be a red herring if the question is about the plausibility of something existing in nature (ignoring the evolutionary probability, like you say in your example). Isn't it more about parsing the actual question from whatever confused melange of red herrings and substance in the question as written. $\endgroup$ – Rottweiler on market-day. Dec 16 '20 at 4:48
  • $\begingroup$ Can X exist IF why it exists does not matter and none of the rules about what is possible (science) applies. of course it got closed. If nothing applies then there is no way to assess possibility. If undefined magic is a cause then anything is possible. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 18 '20 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ @John, you clearly misunderstood the question. Only the origination is hand-waved."X magically sprang into being and then the magic went away; can X continue to exist?" is (IMNSHO) a perfectly valid question. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 19 '20 at 0:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew That would be part of your problem. that is not even implied in you posting. nowhere do you mention the magic going away. Your question cannot be judged on information you leave out of it. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 19 '20 at 1:46
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There is an increasing tend on the Stack to measure "possible, plausible, and probable" by Real Life

I've noted over the last six months that more and more people are judging questions by real life and not by the rules of the world of the OP. It's not overwhelming, but it is, IMO, a growing problem. However, the Stack has always had to push back on the science-lovers (and there's nothing wrong with science-lovers!) to remind them that worldbuilding is, somewhat by definition, fiction.

However, I've also noticed an increasing trend for people to ask questions like this:

  • Is it possible to...
  • Is it probable that...
  • Etc.

This is a problem on this site, especially if you didn't go out of your way to specifically and in great detail identify the rules of your world. The knee-jerk reaction of the average reader (even I do it), is to compare the question to real life.

After all (and this is the important point), when you ask if something's possible, kinda by definition you're asking if it can really happen in real life.

The hardest for me are the questions about "possible evolution"

The class of questions I personally have the hardest time with are those where the OP is asking if it's possible for something to evolve. Think about it. We barely understand how humanity evolved and the science of genetic engineering is still very much in the science-fiction stage. Asking if it's possible for a fictional creature to evolve (or how it might do so) is, in my opinion, entirely opinion-based because there's no real examples we can draw from to establish a credible answer.

But, back to your question...

But, in general, you can help a lot by avoiding asking if something is possible. It's probably not what you're really after, anyway. It's more likely that you're wanting something like...

  • Are there real-life examples of something similar to X that I can use to justify or rationalize X in my world?
  • Is there science today that, if bent or looked at sideways, could rationalize X?
  • Is there anything about X that stands out as impossible or unbelievable for my fictional world?

In other words, how you ask a question really is really important. You can't (and shouldn't) assume that we can or will understand your intent. It's not that we don't want to, it's just that we can't. I know all too well that writing the "perfect question" is very, very hard. But I do recommend putting the time into it — and above all, understanding what it really is you're looking for.

Because if you ask if it's possible for a 2-pound bird to fly with 30-pounds of tail feathers, the answer will likely be "obviously no, duh." Even if what you meant to ask was, "on my world gravity is a third of Earth's gravity and my 2-pound bird has densely-packed muscles that give it 5X the lift/push power of terrestrial birds, is my 2-pound bird with 30-pounds of tail feathers believable under those conditions?"


Edit: One last thing. Not about your question specifically, but speaking quite generally (especially in light of questions I've tried to help over the last week)... I've been wondering since I wrote this if people are coming to the site looking for some form of credibility or authority. In other words, what they're "really asking" is whether or not their concept is believable, but they're asking it in a way that invites us to Officially Authorize the Design for Worldbuilding Purposes. Almost as if they're expecting their friends to laugh at them for their design and so they want a real-world explanation or some authoritative action to prove that it isn't something anyone can laugh at.

The feeling that this is a growing aspect of the problem (from the querent's point of view) has been gnawing at me for the last week. Maybe I'm wrong and I'm just reading conclusions into a data set that's too small, but if I'm right, then future readers would benefit from the following observation:

No one on this site can authorize or validate anything. As our stated purpose indicates, we can only help you continue and complete the task of building a fictional world of your own design. Seeking anything else from us is, indeed, a mistake for many reasons. Perhaps chief among them is that your willingness to bring the offspring of your creativity to us is a great privilege that we should respect and enjoy, rather than judge. Our job is quite literally to help you achieve believability, not validity or real-world credibility.

No one has the ability or the authority to validate a work of fiction. If my observation is right in any way, then any action we take to validate an idea is nothing more than the other side of the same bullying coin the querent is seeking to avoid in the first place. In an ideal world, down voting only identifies displeasure with a question that has not been properly researched or is ill-thought-out and closure only happens because the question has violated one of the rules of the Help Center that serve to keep this site focused on Stack Exchange's overall goals and to encourage questions to be specifically useful to a broad number of people. Any other action on our part is, quite frankly, hubris. And we, the children of imagination that we are, should know better than to do aught but to embrace new creativity whenever it knocks on our door.

It is with great sadness that I acknowledge that betimes... that's not the case.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for this! I have been considering my own answer (I have been honestly wondering if there is an underlying issue of philosophy, which I don't know if I can even talk about without violating the CoC), but I think you've hit more or less the same effect as I suspect. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 7 '20 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ Just because you don't understand evolution does not mean there are not real well understood principles that can be applied. Also in my experience on this site often there are real world examples the OP simples are not aware of. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 13 '20 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ @John You're certainly correct! And in my formal question expressing this general issue I even admit that it's wrong for me to worry about that. Although I may never be entirely happy with "how can X evolve?" questions. It would be a very rare story that cared about evolutionary pressures a million years ago (I've never read one myself that did). $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 13 '20 at 15:53
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I think this problem boils down to the fact that the real world is the logical basis for comparison, and that excludes magic as people tend to mean the term here. This shows up with any questions like "Is X plausible?" or "Is X biologically possible?"; the second one is what your example is ultimately asking, incidentally. Questions of plausibility implicitly state "without magic or handwavium" except as the question specifies is allowable, because that's usually how people will test for plausibility. People will naturally assume that the fictional world is functionally similar to Earth unless noted otherwise. If the question does not say anything to contradict that assumption, a scientific approach is typically the best way to answer the question: it can be fact-checked, compared against, etc., and will make a sound objective answer.

Your example, for instance. It's asking for a science-based answer by default, since asking about biological plausibility inherently assumes that biology alone contains the answer; if you add magic, you're stepping outside the bounds of "biological", and thus (given that inherent assumption) outside the bounds of what the question is looking for. Your line about "maybe they were created by magic long ago" is a fancy way of saying "I don't care how this evolved, so genetic engineering is also a valid answer". I'll grant you that some people do equate "is X biologically possible?" with "can X evolve?", which are two very different questions; it might be a good idea for questions to be explicit on that point.

When you explicitly ask a question about plausibility of a system of magic (or of some spell or other subset of that system), a lot of people will instantly jump to looking for the rules of that system. If those rules aren't specified or are too vague, then the question is effectively asking others "please write my magic system for me"; if anything goes, then the answer to any such question becomes useless rubbish like "I wave my wand and magic happens". Questions need some criteria to allow for the best answer to be judged as such: if the answer has to provide its own criteria by defining that system beforehand, that's a huge problem and indicates the question is badly written.

As for the two parts of your complaint, those reflect different biases. The "Ignoring the question" part is often a valid response for questions that invoke magic badly: there is no one set of rules for fictional magic, so any question expecting magic-based answers must define the rules of magic in the setting. If that is not done properly, people can make up whatever they want and technically have a correct answer; you can't judge any one answer as being the best when that happens, which is one definition of a bad question on Stack Exchange. The "Ignoring the stipulations" part, however, is (at least in your example) a case of misreading the question; the example question doesn't care about evolution, meaning that genetic engineering and the like are allowed, so that response is not in itself an answer to the question and probably isn't helpful.

Really, this is a case of science being the default basis for an answer. The science-based tag is arguably redundant: if people don't specify otherwise, that is what's assumed.

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Maybe the example is poorly conceived, but if you state

I don't care how they came to be in the first place

you are kinda defeating the point of asking in the next line

can such things exist based on what we know of biology?

That apart, biology as we know it doesn't involve magic, so, again, dropping in magic and then asking if that's possible based on NOT-magic is self contradictory.

Once upon a time, we seemed to understand this.

Communities evolve over time. Look at the anatomically correct series. Once it was well received, now, as a consequence of the repeated misuse by a subset of members, has gone down the drain and receives poor acceptance.

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  • $\begingroup$ there is a simple way to fix it too, "how can X evolve/exist with the minimum amount of handwavium" is completely answerable and assessable. Some of these are in my opinion some of hte best questions on the site. Another alternative is to define magic system clearly and ask how can X exist with the least amount of change to the magic system. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 18 '20 at 18:14
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By and large, the problem with such questions is that they ask if something is "plausible". What is plausible depends on the skill of the story-teller; let me give you an example:

Within the forest glades they found the house of Circe, built of polished stone in a place of wide outlook, and round about it were mountain wolves and lions, whom Circe herself had bewitched; for she gave them evil drugs. Yet these beasts did not rush upon my men, but pranced about them fawningly, wagging their long tails. And as when hounds fawn around their master as he comes from a feast, for he ever brings them bits to soothe their temper, so about them fawned the stout-clawed wolves and lions; but they were seized with fear, as they saw the dread monsters.
So they stood in the gateway of the fair-tressed goddess, and within they heard Circe singing with sweet voice, as she went to and fro before a great imperishable web, such as is the handiwork of goddesses, finely-woven and beautiful, and glorious. Then among them spoke Polites, a leader of men, dearest to me of my comrades, and trustiest: "Friends, within someone goes to and fro before a great web, singing sweetly, so that all the floor echoes; some goddess it is, or some woman. Come, let us quickly call to her."
So he spoke, and they cried aloud, and called to her. And she straightway came forth and opened the bright doors, and bade them in; and all went with her in their folly. Only Eurylochus remained behind, for he suspected that there was a snare. She brought them in and made them sit on chairs and seats, and made for them a potion of cheese and barley meal and yellow honey with Pramnian wine; but in the food she mixed baneful drugs, that they might utterly forget their native land.
Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties. And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before. So they were penned there weeping, and before them Circe flung mast and acorns, and the fruit of the cornel tree, to eat, such things as wallowing swine are wont to feed upon.

Homer, Odyssey, book 10, lines 210-245. English translation by A.T. Murray, 1910. Available from Perseus.)

The short summary is that Ulysses and his men come ashore on the island of Aeaea, home of the beautiful witch (and goddess) Circe, who drugs some of the men and transforms them into pigs. How on Earth is this plausible?

It's plausible because it fits in the overall story; it's plausible because Homer sprinkles well-placed attributes and gratuitous details, making the scene come alive; it's plausible because Ulysses tells the story straight (to his Phaeacian hosts) and Ulysses is set up to be seen as a truthful man.

In the end, everything can be made plausible by a skilled story-teller; so that the answer to such a question can only be, it depends, are you good enough to make it plausible?

(Ah, and yes there are many birds with long beautiful shimmering feathers; and there are many birds with feathery crests; so why wouldn't there be birds with crests of long beatiful shimmering feathers?)

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    $\begingroup$ Okay, I can maybe see that. I would however read "plausible" as "does it fit with known science"... especially if the question includes science-based. Certainly that's how I've used the word previously. (p.s. As elsewhere noted, yes, I deliberately chose an example with an "obvious" answer.) Do we maybe need to establish a standing guide that questioners can refer to to clarify what they mean by "plausible"? (I'd hate to have to do this in every question...) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 7 '20 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew Plausible isn't a function of the world being built it's a function of how the world is presented to the audience. In Star Wars we buy that starfighters fly similar to airplanes and that we can hear explosions in a vacuum. However if Seveneves had unrealistic orbital mechanics or sound in a vacuum it would have stood out like a sore thumb. The reason that Medichlorians didn't work isn't that they're less scientifically plausible that the Force, it's that how the Force has been presented up to that point, as a spiritual energy, adding some extra science feels out of place. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 7 '20 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings, at the point you're talking about someone experiencing (reading, watching, etc.) a creative work, I'd agree. However, I think most people asking such questions, who are asking at the point of creating that work, are interested in the former sense. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 7 '20 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew: Plausible means "seemingly or apparently valid, likely, or acceptable"; the operating words are "seemingly" and "apparently". What you are asking for is realistic or maybe verisimilar. Whether a story element is plausible or not is solely a function of the story. Basically, something is plausible if the readers or watcher are buying it. (The original Latin meaning of the word plausibilis is "praiseworthy, deserving applause".) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 7 '20 at 18:55
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This is a matter of WB.SE culture.

JBH hammers an important nail in the coffin of magical questions by noting that many folks judge queries by real life (i.e., the Real World as we so imperfectly know it). They want things to make sense in a fantasy world just as they make sense in the real world. And this, in such a shallow way of looking at things, means science.

When we look at the broad culture in general, we see the same trend: mythological, mystical, religious, and even fanciful ways of approach to reality are deprecated in favour of the ultimate truth of science. If the answer can't be found in physics, chemistry, or biology, then no answer can be found and no explanation made.

And so it is here, even in this place that ought to be a bastion of the mythical, the religious, the mystical, the fanciful --- and yes, even the scientifical! We expect your dragons to comply with all applicable laws of physics. Your Faeries are too small to be intelligent because their brains can't hold enough neurons. Your winged folk can't fly because human bones aren't hollow and they violate square cubed law!

WHATEVER!!

What went wrong?
We as a community went wrong: we let ourselves become duped by the aphrodisiac of the goddess Scientia.

enter image description here

We demand narrow focus in people's questions; and we also came to narrow our own answers. Only things that "make sense" in a scientific fashion are allowable. Answers that don't make sense came to be disdained. Look at the catalogue of tags for example: how common we see "science-based" and "hard-science"! Not to mention "physics" and "biology" and "evolution". And those question types are lauded. And this is because we have a pretty good and common understanding of those sciences. And where are the "hard-magic" and "alchemy" tags? Oh, no! We can't have those, because there's no way to define....

And so it goes.

How can someone ask a question without being attacked?
I don't think this is the right question. But to answer it, of course!: you have to ask a question that makes sense within a reasonably pure scientific mindset. Ask questions about planetary orbits and celestial mechanics all day long and you'll get good solid scientific answers.

But worldbuilding --- geopoetry --- is so much more than mere scientific equations. You shouldn't have to be attacked for asking questions relating to magic or fancy. On the contrary, WE as a community need to rethink our approach to answering such queries. I've often said in comments something to the effect of "This is Worldbuilding: we need to answer questions based on the OP's description and accept the OP's world as a given." In other words, you as OP have defined a world, and it ought to be up to us to apply real science, or apply parascience, or even conjure up a new science altogether in order to answer the question.

I see no problem whatsoever with answering a planetary mechanics query with ordinary physics, when the OP specifies a world inhabiting a "realistic" universe, one that obeys known laws of physics. Nor do I see any problem whatsoever with answering a planetary mechanics query with astrological cosmology, when the OP specifies a world operating along different principles.

If you want your avians to have a crest of feathers that were placed there by magic, then it's up to us to consider magical avenues of discourse. In other words, to consider your world on its own merits. Magic does not negate science: it simply demands a different approach to answering.

We as a culture need to get over the whole kneejerk "it's your world, you decide!" and "we don't know all the rules of your magic, so no answer can ever be made" kinds of responses. Does anyone know the true and full extent of any science? And yet our comrades over on the science forums answer science questions all the time! We can do at least as well as they, if not better. After all, we have Imaginations to bring to bear!

While I find the linked question to be abysmally narrow minded --- why are magical queries even allowed to be asked here, indeed! I am happy to see a number of thoughtful answers that not only responded to the specific query, but also speak to the science-only culture we see evolving on WB.SE.

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    $\begingroup$ On this issue you and I think a lot alike. +1 for identifying the Goddess Scientia, who is also too often confused with the old Roman Goddess Veritas. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 7 '20 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH --- (: In this case, she's French, which is pretty close, having adorned Émile Desbeaux's 1891 "Physique Populaire". Science Photo Library describes her as "a muse-like female figure standing on the North Pole of an Earth globe, wrapped in telegraph cables, crowned in lightning, and using a magnifying glass to shine light and heat on a European city." Apropos: she could be burning away Imagination rather than illuminating a benighted world. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Dec 7 '20 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ You're correct that no-one can know the full extent of science. However what makes that distinct from magic is that there is only one body of generally accepted scientific knowledge. With magic that isn't the case. In Aladin magic can't bring people back from the dead, in D&D raising the dead can be done by any sufficiently experienced spellcaster. What magic is possible in a particular setting is unbounded until the person creating the world has imposed boundaries. So to ask "Is this plausible with magic?" will allow any answer, and be too broad, unless you have described your magic. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 7 '20 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings - That's one reason why we can ask an OP for clarification; or rather, why an astute OP will ask a really good question in the first place! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Dec 7 '20 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Which is why such questions are often poorly received. They are often, as written, POB. It's challenging to ask questions about magic since your magic can, or can't, do anything you want. If every answer is equally valid the question isn't a good fit for this site. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 7 '20 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings -- That's an issue with the community: shortness and impatience. That's not an issue with the question per se. As for being opinion based, I've said it often enough in this forum: if we were really serious about opinion based questions in WB, we'd have to close something like 90% of all our questions. The only ones left would be the maths homework questions and the real world history questions! A question like "what colour should I choose for a mage's robes", yeah, that's entirely a matter of opinion (in this case, aesthetics), as it really doesn't much matter. However, a... $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Dec 7 '20 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) ... question like "how can the colour of a mage's robes affect the efficacy of a spell" is nòt really opinion based. The cop out response too many people give is "well it's your world..." But really, the OP is asking for a reason, and they're unlikely to be asking for a trivial one. They may not know quite what they're looking for, and obviously don't know quite how to ask. As a creative community, we should be a little more proactive in trying to help such querents write a good question. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Dec 7 '20 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas That's the fundamental challenge with asking a good magic question. How do you ask a question about magic where all answers aren't equally valid? To quote from the help center "To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where every answer is equally valid" $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 7 '20 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings -- We're kind of running in circles here! This is on the OP. All we can do is ask for clarification and not jump down their throats into the bargain. We, as a community, can also work from the assumption that NOT ALL ANSWERS ARE ACTUALLY VALID. Shocker! Obviously, as I said before, a truly subjective question is opinion based and I agree are liable to be closed. However, also as I said, 90% of questions in this forum are, actually, subjective! Opinion based! And yet we manage to remain in business. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Dec 7 '20 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas that is what the sandbox is for, cleaning up your question into something that is answerable before you post it. If authors skip the sandbox and ask badly framed questions they should be closed or downvoted, with a gentle push to the sandbox. This also encourages the authors to be self-critical of their questions. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 13 '20 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ @John - Indeed. Sandbox is always an option for any poorly written query and (especially) for any new member who's not quite got the hang of writing good questions. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Dec 13 '20 at 14:56

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