Sunday, March 01, 2009


Meade Forever!

There’s no denying America’s number one (formerly, anyhow) telescope company has been struggling for the last couple of years. Combine the recession with a stack of Meade-specific economic dominos, and we’ve been wondering whether the company might survive till next year much less forever.

The small amount of good news is that former Meade honcho Steve Murdock has returned to the fold, the company’s finances seem (more) stable now, and they are preparing an innovative product, the Meade LS series, which, if it works right and reliably, could conceivably put Big Blue right on top again.

However that turns out, Meade has given a lot of amateur astronomers a lot of pleasure over the nearly four decades of its existence. Including me. Yeah, I know that when it comes to SCTs I’m pretty much known as a “Celestron man,” and there is probably some truth to that, but I still have a soft spot for the little ol’ scope company from Irvine. How could I not, muchachos? Meade is one of those old fashioned success stories Americans, including me, love. The last time I talked to the company’s legendary founder, John Diebel, nearly a decade ago, he was still recounting the story of how he started America’s favorite telescope company on his kitchen table—a story he never tired of telling and I, for one, never tired of hearing.

Despite that, I’ve never owned a Meade SCT. Oh, the university where I teach bought eight Meade LX10s for me to use with my students, and I’ve been happily doing just that for a decade, but, no, never had a Blue Tube of my own. Always seemed as there was a Celestron I wanted a little bit more (though, in retrospect, I believe a time or two I would have been happier with Blue than Orange). Which is not to say I’ve never owned a Meade scope; I’ve owned several, including my much-loved ETX125, Charity Hope Valentine. But the telescope that turned the Unk – Meade friendship  into a beautiful relationship was the one I want to tell you about today, an humble scope, but one that’s given me untold pleasure over the years, my StarFinder 12.5-inch Dobsonian. Oh, there were a few headaches along the way, but that’s always been part of the Meade story.

Hokay…let’s get Sherman to set the dials on the WABAC Machine to late 1993, to the time of the year when Meade, as was their wont, was adding-on ever more full-color glossy pages to their already huge astronomy-magazine-spreads for the approaching holiday season. What caught my eye then was not that alluring new LX200, but a breed of scope that was at the time completely new to mass production, the Dobsonian.

Yep, hard as it may be for you sprouts to believe, outside a few (very few) custom outfits selling them newfangled truss-tube scopes, the only person peddling Dobsonians in a big-time way was Jim Braginton, who was offering his cheap, optically OK Dobs to Joe and Jane Amateur through his company, Coulter Optical.

Soon as I saw the ads for Meade’s Dobs, though, I got the sneaking suspicion Coulter’s days were numbered. Why did I think that? The Meade ad showed amazingly good-looking scopes very much in contrast to the cobbled together look the Coulter Odysseys had assumed as the 1990s came in. Not that the little Idyllwild, California outfit’s products had always been looked down on. Back in the 1960s, the company was noted for turning out pretty good to real good optics, including classical Cassegrain mirror sets, and their Odysseys caused quite a lot of excitement in the beginning.

In that beginning, in 1980, Braginton’s Dobs, which ranged in aperture from 13.1-inches to an amazing 29-inches (8 and 10-inchers were added after a while, and the 29-inch, of which only a few were made, disappeared post-haste) originally looked respectable, even attractive. They were initially patterned after the Dob design pioneered by The Man himself, John Dobson, and his aperture-hungry SFSA followers. That design consisted of a an optical tube assembly made from a length of concrete form tube, “Sonotube,” held in and extending from a plywood (mirror) box. This OTA rode on a “cannon mount,” the rocker box.

At first, the mirror box and rocker were made of decently finished plywood, or, after a while, a good grade of particle board—if there is such a thing. The scopes were equipped with inexpensive but functional rack and pinion focusers. Yes, the primary mirror had to be removed for transport, and the secondary was held up by a thick strut extending across the tube rather than a real spider, but everything worked and looked purty good. Most scopes were attractively finished with blue paint (“Zolotone,” whatever the heck that was). The altitude and azimuth motions, the key to success with a Dobsonian, were OK despite Jim B. using something other than Teflon and Ebony Star Formica for the bearing surfaces. In toto, the Odysseys looked good and performed as well as their somewhat plebian optics would allow.

If the Coulter Odysseys had stayed the way they were, they might have lived on at least through the 1990s. But they didn’t. Braginton made the decision at the end of the 1980s to redesign his scopes with the goal of cheapening them to the point where he could maintain something close to his original prices. When the 13.1 debuted in ‘80, it sold for an amazing $395.00, and ten years later it had increased only by one C note, to $495.00, despite the considerable shrinkage of the dollar and the unrealistic original pricing.

The 1980 Odyssey dispensed, first of all, with the mirror box. The tube of the latter day scopes was supported by two (small) round bearings bolted directly to the Sonotube. The primary mirror was no longer removable, nor was it held in an edge-supporting sling as in the original, but was instead RTVed and duct taped (!) into a simple push-pull mirror cell. The decent rack and pinion focuser was gone, too, replaced by a crazy-ass assemblage of plumbing parts. The rocker box wasn't just particle board, but rough, barely sanded particle board that appeared to have been cut-out with a chain saw. The never buttery-smooth motions of the Coulters were not improved on the new scopes, often being substantially worse. Finally, their crazy-thick Sonotubes were painted fire-engine red, leading to the sobriquets “Red Tube” and “Blue Tube” to distinguish new and older Coulter scopes.

How did the newuns work? Install a real focuser and maybe swap their plastic and floor tile bearings out for Teflon and Ebony Star and you had a scope that, like the Blue Tubes, performed as well as average-quality optics would allow. Which could be pretty darned good on the deep sky. But you sure didn’t have a scope that looked good, and when the Meade Dobs came out, yeah, I knew Coulter’s epitaph was written in the big advertising spreads in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy.

Not only were the new telescopes on display in the Meade advertisements prettier, with their nicely finished white tubes and rocker boxes, they included things the Coulters didn’t anymore, like real rack and pinion focusers, and things they never did, like genuine spiders and secondary holders. These “StarFinders,” which were made available in apertures of 6, 8, 10, 12.5, and 16-inches just looked far more professionally made than the Odyssey Red Tubes or, yes, even the Blue Tubes. Lots of amateurs hungry for deep sky aperture on the cheap, but wary of 1-wave Coulter mirrors (which could happen with some frequency with the 17.5-inch Odyssey II primaries, if only occasionally with the 13.1s) sat up and took notice of the new Meades, including your ol’ Uncle Rod.

How Unk got involved with Dobs is a story in itself. The short form is that a divorce drained his pockets and induced him  to sell quite a few things as the 1990s began. Following that, I made a promise to myself that I'd invest in a really nice scope—an Ultima 8 or one o’ them new LX200s. That was not going to happen overnight, though, and in the interim I needed and wanted something with a little more aperture than the Pal Junior and the homebrew 6-inch Newt I had on hand. Something. Anything. That “anything” was a Coulter Odyssey Red Tube. What led me down that path? Jim B. began advertising an 8-inch f/7 scope for the astounding price of $249.00.

A complete 8-inch telescope for that little seemed unbelievable to the point of irrationality. Being a curious sort, though, I just had to find out what Coulter could do for 250 George Washingtons. Quite a bit, it turned out. The Odyssey 8-inch f/7 was not a bad scope at all. It was possessed of all the minuses of the other Red Tubes as mentioned above, but for the price it couldn’t be beat—then or now. And Jim even got it to my door in about a month (Coulter was notorious for long delivery times).

All I had to do was slap a Telrad on it and I was out looking at galaxies; I got a good peep at a cool supernova in M81 with her at First Light. Heck, there was even an eyepiece of sorts in the box, a Kellner of obviously surplus binocular heritage. While the scope's mirror suffered from a bit of turned down edge, it did a good enough job, even on the Moon and planets, and kept me happy for quite a few months. Even did some imaging with my Red Tube, believe it or not, holding my K1000 up to the eyepiece to snap-shoot the December 1993 Lunar eclipse. Yeah, I was satisfied. Till the prospect of More Better Gooder came along in the form of the StarFinders, that is.

I’m still not completely sure why I began considering the purchase of a Meade Dob rather than just continuing to marshal my forces for the purchase of a new SCT. Maybe because I wanted a cool SCT; one that would come in at well over two grand, the aforementioned Ultima or LX200. I’d get something I could use a little longer and more happily than the admittedly crude Coulter, and save for a top-o-the-line CAT. After talking the Meade Dobs over with my buddy Pat Rochford at length at Shoney's during the PSAS' 1993 Christmas dinner, I did the deed. On a pretty (must have been) March day in 1994 I picked up the phone and gave the bubbas at Astronomics a ring—and a credit card number.

Which StarFinder? That was easy to cipher. I wanted the most aperture I could handle. That meant the 12.5-inch. I was reasonably sure it would fit in my little hatchback Hyundai Excel, and I believed I could carry the OTA short distances without going to Herniatown. The 16-inch? That, I thought, would be like toting a water heater around. The good folks at Astronomics took my order and advised me the telescope would drop ship from Meade.

How long? “Weeks at least,” they thought. The StarFinders were new and immediately popular. In addition to the telescope, I ordered an upgrade. At the time Meade was including a tiny 30-mm finder with all the StarFinders, even the 16, but for a few dollars more you could replace that with a 50-mm and get a couple of extra eyepieces to boot--albeit their uber cheap "Modifed Achromat" eyepieces. Ordering done, I went back to the Red Tube and kept on truckin’.

Miss Dorothy
Not unexpectedly, March drifted into April, and April into May, and soon another Gulf Coast summer blazed away without the arrival of the StarFinder. I wasn’t overly concerned, and, at any rate, had my mind on other things. The Saturday I ordered the Meade (yes, Astronomics had and still has Saturday hours) was, coincidentally, the evening of my first date with the wonderful Miss Dorothy. That first date soon became a real romance, and the rest, as they say, is history. I did do a bit of observing that summer, and took Miss D to her first public outreach session, an event with the Boy Scouts where we showed off Jupiter. Dorothy, though very knowledgeable about astronomy, didn’t know much about amateur astronomy, and thought the Coulter and its views of Jupe were quite impressive.

As summer began a lingering death, I only daydreamed about the "big" scope once in a while. I suppose I coulda called somebody, but it was a busy late summer at work and, more importantly, Dorothy and I were now making plans for a Labor Day weekend wedding. I gotta say I was taken completely off guard when Mama called one afternoon to say a Big Brown Truck had stopped at her house and dropped off several GIANT boxes (I had the scope delivered to Mama's to ensure somebody would be around to receive it). You can bet I broke the speed limits getting across town. When I'd stuffed the boxes into my Hyundai--somehow--it was back to the Old Manse to see what exactly my long wait had got me.

Yeah, I was surprised the long-awaited Dobbie was finally here, but not quite as surprised, I reckon, as Miss D was when she arrived home to find the formerly spic-and-span parlor where our nuptials were to take place the next day covered with packing foam and peanuts, the remains of several boxes, and one honking big telescope. When the surprise wore off, Dorothy was almost as excited as I was, or at least excited for me. If I needed another indication I was now walkin’ in high cotton that was it.

Just what sort of scope was it? How good did the Meadesters do? Assembly was straightforward enough, and consisted of screwing the separately packaged primary mirror/cell onto one end of the tube, bolting the focuser in place, attaching finder and bracket, screwing together the sides/bottom of the rocker box, and, finally, attaching rocker to ground board via a simple pivot bolt. The only trouble I ran into was with the latter. If you used all the included Nylon washers on the pivot as Meade instructed in the scope’s slim manual, the Dob not only gained smoother action, but a distinct wobble as well, since the azimuth bearing surfaces were no longer in good contact. I experimented and found the right number of these Milk Jug Washers to ensure OK movement and no wobble.

Initial impressions? Good, not perfect. The tube was a thing of beauty, finished/coated a gleaming white. The rocker box was attractive; though obviously composed of particle board, it was finished with nice white laminate/Formica. The finder was Meade’s standard non-illuminated job I’d used before and I was purty sure would perform adequately. That was the extent of “impressive” as far as the mechanical qualities of the new baby. The rest was “so-so” or “what-the?!”

The most obvious downcheck was the focuser. While it was OK/smooth enough as far as I could judge indoors, it was not what I’d expected. The first Meade StarFinders, German Equatorial Mount Newtonians, were equipped with surprisingly good 1.25-inch rack and pinion focusers. Reminded me of what Old Man Novak used to sell back in The Day. The StarFinder Dobsonians maintained the 1.25-inch rack-and pinion paradigm, but with one change: the focuser body (not the drawtube or gears) was now plastic. You might say Unk was a mite disappointed.

What else? The spider’s legs looked awful thin. Almost in piano-wire territory. The secondary holder they supported was OK, but wasn’t the secondary mirror a mite large at 2.6-inches across its minor axis? That was necessitated, I reckon, by a focuser that was not just plastic but overly tall. Didn’t think much of the primary mirror cell, either. The mirror was glued (RTV) into a fixture not much different from the Coulter's, if a lot less crude looking. Unlike the Odyssey, it didn’t use pairs of push/pull adjustment/locking bolts, but three Allen head screws. Allen heads? I hoped to heck the gull-dern thing held collimation well.

I also was not impressed by the small (about 6-inches) altitude bearings. Given the weight of the telescope and their small diameters, Meade had tried to make balance less fussy—I guess—by using Nylon rather than Teflon for the altitude bearing pads. That helped balance, but when you moved the scope in altitude, the side bearings wanted to turn independently of the tube due to stiction with the Nylon, causing backlash. The scope’s motions in both altitude and azimuth were nowhere near the “buttery” goal of Dob users. Nonplussed was I. I’d expected to do some fine tuning, but not this much. How much time I was prepared to invest in making this scope truly functional hinged on one thing: how good the optics were.

Finding that out took a couple of weeks; there was an intermission before First Light. No, it wasn’t the new scope curse. It may have been cloudy down in Possum Swamp those first two weeks of September 1994, but I didn’t know it. The day after the StarFinder arrived, Miss D and I were married in the parlor of the old Victorian home that would soon be known far and wide as Chaos Manor South (I manhandled the 12.5 upstairs; I was a lot younger and stronger then) and were off on a two week honeymoon in Virginia, touring all the Civil War battlefields and tourist traps the Old Dominion State held. That’s right, brand new scope and I didn’t get take First Light for two weeks. Was I anxious and impatient? Naw. Well, maybe a little bit.

As soon as we returned and the skies cleared, it was Moment of Truth Time. Out into the backyard went the StarFinder. What to look at? Well, hows about Jupiter? I was doubtful this great big cheap thing would do pea-turkey on a planet. I expected about what a Coulter Odyssey I could deliver, which was “big,” “bright,” and “not too sharp.” I let the scope cool off (or, actually, warm up) for a bit, stuck a 25-mm Orthoscopic in the focuser, and aimed at ol’ Jupe. Hmmm…hard to tell at 60x, but looked promisin’. In went my beloved Vixen 7-mm Ortho. Mercy Sakes Alive! Jupiter was a welter of detail. Belts, loops, festoons, whorls, color, you-name-it!

Suddenly, spending some time and a little money improving the telescope seemed well worth it. Optically the StarFinder was flat-out amazing. The included 25, 12, and 6-mm Meade Modified Achromat oculars? Not So Much. In fact, these were, I thought, some of the worst eyepieces I had ever used. Sure, they probably would perform better at something slower than the StarFinder’s f/5, but even my cheap-o Orion Kellners presented a better field edge. Into the back of a drawer they went (they are probably still there to this day).

While I intended to do something about the StarFinder’s bearing problems “soon,” in the course of starting a new life with Miss Dorothy I just didn’t get around to that before my first opportunity to use the new scope under dark skies came ‘round. On a fine October morning I loaded the SF, me, Miss D, and various and sundry ancillary items into my Hyundai (somehow) and off we went to the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

Dorothy remembers DSRSG ’94 very fondly. It was her first star party, after all, and it was all new and interesting (if maybe a bit peculiar, too). Me? That fine weather did not last and I remember lots of rain and some of the fiercest thunderstorms I’ve seen at a star party. According to DSRSG legend, a tornado actually touched down on the field Saturday afternoon. I did get in some observing on the two previous nights, but it was limited and conditions were really not good enough to allow the 12.5 to strut her stuff. I did assure myself that, despite my fears, the thing held collimation very well despite a three hour drive over so-so Mississippi roads.

Never say die, of course. Surprisingly, given my track record, the skies cleared to an amazing extent Saturday night and Sunday morning. What do I remember best about those few hours? How M74 looked, how M33 looked, and how the telescope embarrassed me. M74, The Phantom Galaxy, is that maddening Messier in Pisces. Oh, a 10 – 12-inch will show it up fairly easily, but even under dark skies it is usually just a round, if large, blob. On this evening with the 12.5? It was a spiral. I have rarely seen the arms of this face-on Sc galaxy stand out more starkly. This was especially impressive given the simple eyepieces I owned at the time: Orthoscopics, Kellners, and a single Konig. M33 was likewise a marvel. It wasn’t just the just the spiral arms, either. What really tickled me was picking out one HII region after another, no filter required.

The embarrassment? Every time I slewed in altitude, the scope emitted disturbing POPS and CREAKS. The sides of the rocker box would bend outward slightly and then snap back into place as the side bearings stuck to the too-sticky plastic bearing pads and then let go. In addition, the backlash caused when the side bearings moved independently of the tube, which I’d noticed during assembly, was as annoying as I’d feared it would be. I’d applied Pledge furniture polish to the altitude bearing surfaces, but that obviously wasn’t going to be enough to keep the scope from backfiring like a gull-derned Harley.

Back home, I undertook fixing the bearing problem. First snag I ran into was finding a source of Teflon and Ebony Star Formica. Crazy Ed, that pioneer in the offbeat/small astro-accessories game, was in bidness by this time, but I hadn’t yet discovered him. I coulda called Randy Cunningham at AstroSystems, but, being cheap, I first hunted around locally, finally finding something that would serve in the K-Mart: furniture slides, “Magic Sliders,” little pads designed to allow you to scoot mama’s couch across the wood floor without scratching it. Package said “Teflon,” so I bought a bunch.

I intended to replace all the Nylon pieces with Teflon, and I did remove all three azimuth pads and put Sliders in their place. Even without Ebony Star, movement was now nice and, well, “buttery.” I did the same thing with the altitude bearings. Which didn’t work as well. Despite the addition of a Velcro-beanbag-filled-with-lead-shot counterweight system I bought from Orion, the combination of the Teflon and the small side bearings made balance near-bout impossible. I compromised, replacing one Teflon pad on each side with an original Nylon job, which worked well.

Other mods? Oh, I intended to do something about the focuser, change out the spider, and maybe add some ventilation holes to speed cooldown, but I never got around to any of that during the nearly four years the scope was in her original form. With the bearing problem licked, she just worked. The focuser was not elegant, but did an OK job, even bearing up without complaint under the weight of a 12-mm Nagler Type 2 Dorothy gave me on our first Christmas together. Despite using the scope on many nights everywhere from the Possum Swamp AS dark site to the Texas Star Party, the only other mod  I did was add a Telrad.

What’s with the “original form” stuff? By 1998 my Hyundai had long since given up the ghost. My new grownup's car, a Toyota Camry sedan, simply wouldn’t accommodate my mini-water heater. Not that I’d been using the scope as much as I had in the beginning. Despite my love for the Meade, an Ultima 8, Celeste, had come to live with me and D. in 1995, and that CAT was soon getting the lion’s share of the starlight. I did believe that if I could again take the 12.5 to dark sites I might use her a bit more often, and, with the assistance (well, to be honest, I was mostly an assistant) of ATM Pat Rochford, the StarFinder was converted into a beautiful truss tube scope in spring of 1998.

Where does she stand now? I'm observing with the StarFinder more frequently these days. After several upgrades, though, the only component now left from the original scope is the primary mirror. When we initially rebuilt her, we did reuse the secondary and finder, but everything else went to live in the garage (and eventually the landfill; though I tried to give the leftovers to somebody, I got no takers). Last to go was the oversized secondary, which I didn’t miss. Surprisingly, the original coating on the primary must have been done well, as it was still OK despite several TSP dust baths when I had the mirror recoated by Spectrum last year.

What’s the takeaway? What, if anything, does my love affair with my big, friendly, and somewhat goofy scope say about the Meade so many of us loved and bought from for years? That, as was the case with most of the telescopes they sold, they made a lot of folks happy with the StarFinders. Heck, anybody could suddenly afford a decent looking, decent working scope; in some cases the scope of a lifetime—I still see StarFinders in their original form on star party fields. The flip side, though, was that, as was sometimes the case with Meade’s other and more expensive scopes too, you wondered why they couldn’t or wouldn’t take the little extra step that would’ve made their products not just good, but great.

The addition of a few Teflon pads and larger altitude bearings would have cost insanely little, but would have made the StarFinders, the big ones especially, oh-so-much better. But that last small step never would come, and, as the years rolled on, this became an ever more common complaint even with the company’s most advanced CATs. Way back when, I wrote a letter to Meade concerning the StarFinder and the few cheap improvements that would make it a whole new scope. Did they agree? They didn’t even see fit to answer me with a form letter. The only thing they ever did to change the StarFinders was to switch out the 1.25-inch focuser with an even cheaper (and worse) 2-inch job.

Do I sound bitter? I’m not. I got more than my money’s worth out of the StarFinder, and most of the folks who’ve bought Meade’s amateur level scopes over the years feel the same, be that a 2080 or an RCX. I hope Meade does survive, has learned a few lessons, and goes on to the bigger and better. But if an inscription is finally needed for the company’s headstone, let it be, “They helped a lot of folks discover the wonders of the universe around them.” Can’t do much better than that, now can you?

I don't know where the time goes.
It seems like just yesterday the Starfinders were taking up 2 full pages in the back of our favorite astronomy mags. I still have my 16 although it took on another form within the first few months of owning it. Yes I hope Meade keeps on going for other generations to appreciate. Maybe one day someone will look back at the RCX and think, "Boy those old RCX scopes were primative"

Rod: Great story... Love the descriptions... Reminds me of my Odyssey with my beloved 12.5 inch Discovery... These days I have a 12.5 inch Meade but it's RG, arguably one of the few scopes where Meade did most everything right... And a 16 inch Starfinder DOB that soon transformed into something more manageable... I don't know if the hernia I suffered was due to lifting the OTA onto the base but I imagine it helped...

Well done

jon isaacs
I'm very lukewarm about Meade as a company & have no nostalgia for them. The founder might enjoy prattling on about the kitchen table, but I always thought Celestron was the real innovator & risk taker from the outset. I always had the impression that Meade's primary objective was being number one (nothing wrong w/that of course) at the expense of everything else. Some questionable business practices & an apparent desire to crush/or wipe out the competition regardless of it's effect on a pretty small community left a bad taste in my mouth. The RCT fiasco, & the experience my instructor has had with our community college Meade SCT w/the endless runarounds for worn out parts in the drive base & continual hassles that has gone on for years was the last straw. I find it hard to respect them. They remind me of GM. Disclaimer: I'm an amateur & not in any way, shape or form associated w/Celestron or or any other manufacturer, just making observations on some anecdotal experiences & what I've read in the news.
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How true! after years of owning Meade products, still use a 16 Classic. However, Craigslist threw up a 16 Starfinder and I had to bite- mainly to settle the fast versus slow scope debate with my own eyes. The optics on the dob blew me away- can't believe how much I see from a light polluted front yard with neighbors lights blazing. I added handles/wheels and find myself rolling this out more often that firing up the LX200 whenever time is short.
I do hope Meade makes it- they have brought me so much joy (and yes, frustration), but on balance, they have created lots of good karma......
I got my 10 inch GEM Starfinder about the same time you did. I ordered from a company in Florida, it came from Meade and like you I thought it was never coming. Once I set mine up I picked it up and carried outside and put it on my spray painted compass rose, aimed it at Orion and was amazed. It looked just like the pics I had seen of Orion. Eventually life got in the way and the Starfinder sat in the corner for years. I moved and it sat on my moms enclosed porch for a year. I fetched it my my new home and decided to use it. The secondary mirror had corroded and the spider literally fell apart. It has sat for a couple years but I am refurbing it now. I have the all metal focuser so it is good enough for now. I have ordered a new spider, secondary, and holder from AstroSystems. I have also ordered a right angle 8x50 finder as well as a Telrad for the big baby. While waiting for everything I am doing some painting of the inside the tube with Krylon Ultra Flat Black and I am going to paint the outside a pretty blue and put Orion on the side somewhere. Oh not the word but the constellation. I also hope to put some casters on the thing. I am not going to be lugging this thing around like I used to, five spine surgeries and a sixth on the horizon say I need an easier way to move the beast. LOL Anyway, that's my story.
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