Posts in the Standards Category

Back in the CSSWG

Published 1 month, 3 weeks past

As you might have noticed, I recently wrote about how I got started with CSS a quarter century ago,  what I’ve seen change over that long span of time, and the role testing has played in both of those things.

After all, CSS tests are most of how I got onto the Cascading Style Sheets & Formatting Properties Working Group (as it was known then) back in the late 1990s.  After I’d finished creating tests for nearly all of CSS, I wrote the chair of the CSS&FP WG, Chris Lilley, about it.  The conversation went something like, “Hey, I have all these tests I’ve created, would the WG or browser makers be at all interested in using them?”  To which the answer was a resounding yes.

Not too much later, I made some pithy-snarky comment on www-style about how only the Cool Kids on the WG knew what was going on with something or other, and I wasn’t one of them, pout pout.  At which point Chris emailed me to say something like, “We have this role called Invited Expert; how would you like to be one?”  To which the answer was a resounding (if slightly stunned) yes.

I came aboard with a lot of things in mind, but the main thing was to merge my test suite with some other tests and input from smart folks to create the very first official W3C test suite.  Of any kind, not just for CSS.  It was announced alongside the promotion of CSS2 to Recommendation status in December 1998.

I stayed an Invited Expert for a few years, but around 2003 I withdrew from the group for lack of time and input, and for the last 17-some years, that’s how it’s stayed.  Until now, that is: as of yesterday, I’ve rejoined the CSS Working Group, this time as an official Member, one of several representing Igalia.  And fittingly, Chris Lilley was the first to welcome me back.

I’m returning to take back up the mantle I carried the first time around: testing CSS.  I intend to focus on creating Web Platform Test entries demonstrating new CSS features, clarifying changes to existing specifications, and filling in areas of CSS that are under-tested.  Maybe even to draft tests for things the WG is debating, to explore what a given proposal would mean in terms of real-world rendering.

My thanks to Igalia for enabling my return to the CSS WG, as well as supporting my contributions yet to come.  And many thanks to the WG for a warm welcome.  I have every hope that I’ll be able to once more help CSS grow and improve in my own vaguely unique way.


Ancestors and Descendants

Published 1 month, 4 weeks past

After my post the other day about how I got started with CSS 25 years ago, I found myself reflecting on just how far CSS itself has come over all those years.  We went from a multi-year agony of incompatible layout models to the tipping point of April 2017, when four major Grid implementations shipped in as many weeks, and were very nearly 100% consistent with each other.  I expressed delight and astonishment at the time, but it still, to this day, amazes me.  Because that’s not what it was like when I started out.  At all.

I know it’s still fashionable to complain about how CSS is all janky and weird and unapproachable, but child, the wrinkles of today are a sunny park stroll compared to the jagged icebound cliff we faced at the dawn of CSS.  Just a few examples, from waaaaay back in the day:

  • In the initial CSS implementation by Netscape Navigator 4, padding was sometimes a void.  What I mean is, you could give an element a background color, and you could set a border, but if you adding any padding, in some situations it wouldn’t take on the background color, allowing the background of the parent element to show through.  Today, we can recreate that effect like so:
    border: 3px solid red;
    padding: 0.5em;
    background-color: cornflowerblue;
    background-clip: content-box;
    

    Padding as a void.

    But we didn’t have background-clip in those days, and backgrounds weren’t supposed to act like that.  It was just a bug that got fixed a few versions later. (It was easier to get browsers to fix bugs in those days, because the web was a lot smaller, and so were the stakes.)  Until that happened, if you wanted a box with border, background, padding, and content in Navigator, you wrapped a <div> inside another <div>, then applied the border and background to the outer and the padding (or a margin, at that point it didn’t matter) to the inner.
  • In another early Navigator 4 version, pica math was inverted: Instead of 12 points per pica, it was set to 12 picas per point — so 12pt equated to 144pc instead of 1pc.  Oops.
  • Navigator 4’s handling of color values was another fun bit of bizarreness.  It would try to parse any string as if it were hexadecimal, but it did so in this weird way that meant if you declared color: inherit it would render in, as one person put it, “monkey-vomit green”.
  • Internet Explorer for Windows started out by only tiling background images down and to the right.  Which was fine if you left the origin image in the top left corner, but as soon as you moved it with background-position, the top and left sides of the element just… wouldn’t have any background.  Sort of like Navigator’s padding void!
  • At one point, IE/Win (as we called it then) just flat out refused to implement background-position: fixed.  I asked someone on that team point blank if they’d ever do it, and got just laughter and then, “Ah no.” (Eventually they relented, opening the door for me to create complexspiral and complexspiral distorted.)
  • For that matter, IE/Win didn’t inherit font sizes into tables.  Which would be annoying even today, but in the era of still needing tables to do page-level layout, it was a real problem.
  • IE/Win had so many layout bugs, there were whole sites dedicated to cataloging and explaining them.  Some readers will remember, and probably shudder to do so, the Three-Pixel Text Jog, the Phantom Box Bug, the Peekaboo Bug, and more.  Or, for that matter, hasLayout/zoom.
  • And perhaps most famous of all, Netscape and Opera implemented the W3C box model (2021 equivalent: box-sizing: content-box) while Microsoft implemented an alternative model (2021 equivalent: box-sizing: border-box), which meant apparently simple CSS meant to size elements would yield different results in different browsers.  Possibly vastly different, depending on the size of the padding and so on.  Which model is more sensible or intuitive doesn’t actually matter here: the inconsistency literally threatened the survival of CSS itself.  Neither side was willing to change to match the other — “we have customers!” was the cry — and nobody could agree on a set of new properties to replace height and width.  It took the invention of DOCTYPE switching to rescue CSS from the deadlock, which in turn helped set the stage for layout-behavior properties like box-sizing.

I could go on.  I didn’t even touch on Opera’s bugs, for example.  There was just so much that was wrong.  Enough so that in a fantastic bit of code aikido, Tantek turned browsers’ parsing bugs against them, redirecting those failures into ways to conditionally deliver specific CSS rules to the browsers that needed them.  A non-JS, non-DOCTYPE form of browser sniffing, if you like — one of the earliest progenitors of feature queries.

I said DOCTYPE switching saved CSS, and that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth.  So did the Web Standards Project, WaSP for short.  A group of volunteers, sick of the chaotic landscape of browser incompatibilities (some intentional) and the extra time and cost of dealing with them, who made the case to developers, browser makers, and the tech press that there was a better way, one where browsers were compatible on the basics like W3C specifications, and could compete on other features.  It was a long, wearying, sometimes frustrating, often derided campaign, but it worked.

The state of the web today, with its vast capability and wide compatibility, owes a great deal to the WaSP and its allies within browser teams.  I remember the time that someone working on a browser — I won’t say which one, or who it was — called me to discuss the way the WaSP was treating their browser. “I want you to be tougher on us,” they said, surprising the hell out of me. “If we can point to outside groups taking us to task for falling short, we can make the case internally to get more resources.”  That was when I fully grasped that corporations aren’t monoliths, and formulated my version of Hanlon’s Razor: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by resource constraints.”

The original Acid Test.

In order to back up what we said when we took browsers to task, we needed test cases.  This not only gave the CSS1 Test Suite a place of importance, but also the tests the WaSP’s CSS Action Committee (aka the CSS Samurai) devised.  The most famous of these is the first CSS Acid Test, which was added to the CSS1 Test Suite and was even used as an Easter egg in Internet Explorer 5 for Macintosh.

The need for testing, whether acid or basic, lives on in the Web Platform Tests, or WPT for short.  These tests form a vital link in the development of the web.  They allow specification authors to create reference results for the rules in those specifications, and they allow browser makers to see if the code they’re writing yields the correct results.  Sometimes, an implementation fails a test and the implementor can’t figure out why, which leads to a discussion with the authors of the specification, and that can lead to clarifications of the specification, or to fixing flawed tests, or even to both.  Realize just how harmonious browser support for HTML and CSS is these days, and know that WPT deserves a big part of the credit for that harmony.

As much as the Web Standards Project set us on the right path, the Web Platform Tests keep us on that path.  And I can’t lie, I feel like the WPT is to the CSS1 Test Suite much like feature queries are to those old CSS parser hacks.  The latter are much greater and more powerful than than the former, but there’s an evolutionary line that connects them.  Forerunners and inheritors.  Ancestors and descendants.

It’s been a real privilege to be present as CSS first emerged, to watch as it’s developed into the powerhouse it is today, and to be a part of that story — a story that is, I believe, far from over.  There are still many ways for CSS to develop, and still so many things we have yet to discover in its feature set.  It’s still an entrancing language, and I hope I get to be entranced for another 25 years.

Thanks to Brian Kardell, Jenn Lukas, and Melanie Sumner for their input and suggestions.


25 Years of CSS

Published 2 months, 5 days past

It was the morning of Tuesday, May 7th and I was sitting in the Ambroisie conference room of the CNIT in Paris, France having my mind repeatedly blown by an up-and-coming web technology called “Cascading Style Sheets”, 25 years ago this month.

I’d been the Webmaster at Case Western Reserve University for just over two years at that point, and although I was aware of table-driven layout, I’d resisted using it for the main campus site.  All those table tags just felt… wrong.  Icky.  And yet, I could readily see how not using tables hampered my layout options.  I’d been holding out for something better, but increasingly unsure how much longer I could wait.

Having successfully talked the university into paying my way to Paris to attend WWW5, partly by having a paper accepted for presentation, I was now sitting in the W3C track of the conference, seeing examples of CSS working in a browser, and it just felt… right.  When I saw a single word turned a rich blue and 100-point size with just a single element and a few simple rules, I was utterly hooked.  I still remember the buzzing tingle of excitement that encircled my head as I felt like I was seeing a real shift in the web’s power, a major leap forward, and exactly what I’d been holding out for.

Page 4, HTML 3.2.

Looking back at my hand-written notes (laptops were heavy, bulky, battery-poor, and expensive in those days, so I didn’t bother taking one with me) from the conference, which I still have, I find a lot that interests me.  HTTP 1.1 and HTML 3.2 were announced, or at least explained in detail, at that conference.  I took several notes on the brand-new <OBJECT> element and wrote “CENTER is in!”, which I think was an expression of excitement.  Ah, to be so young and foolish again.

There are other tidbits: a claim that “standards will trail innovation” — something that I feel has really only happened in the past decade or so — and that “Math has moved to ActiveMath”, the latter of which is a term I freely admit I not only forgot, but still can’t recall in any way whatsoever.

My first impressions of CSS, split for no clear reason across two pages.

But I did record that CSS had about 35 properties, and that you could associate it with markup using <LINK REL=STYLESHEET>, <STYLE>…</STYLE>, or <H1 STYLE="…">.  There’s a question — “Gradient backgrounds?” — that I can’t remember any longer if it was a note to myself to check later, or something that was floated as a possibility during the talk.  I did take notes on image backgrounds, text spacing, indents (which I managed to misspell), and more.

What I didn’t know at the time was that CSS was still largely vaporware.  Implementations were coming, sure, but the demos I’d seen were very narrowly chosen and browser support was minimal at best, not to mention wildly inconsistent.  I didn’t discover any of this until I got back home and started experimenting with the language.  With a printed copy of the CSS1 specification next to me, I kept trying things that seemed like they should work, and they didn’t.  It didn’t matter if I was using the market-dominating behemoth that was Netscape Navigator or the scrappy, fringe-niche new kid Internet Explorer: very little seemed to line up with the specification, and almost nothing worked consistently across the browsers.

So I started creating little test pages, tackling a single property on each page with one test per value (or value type), each just a simple assertion of what should be rendered along with a copy of the CSS used on the page.  Over time, my completionist streak drove me to expand this smattering of tests to cover everything in CSS1, and the perfectionist in me put in the effort to make it easy to navigate.  That way, when a new browser version came out, I could run it through the whole suite of tests and see what had changed and make note of it.

Eventually, those tests became the CSS1 Test Suite, and the way it looks today is pretty much how I built it.  Some tests were expanded, revised, and added, plus it eventually all got poured into a basic test harness that I think someone else wrote, but most of the tests — and the overall visual design — were my work, color-blindness insensitivity and all.  Those tests are basically what got me into the Working Group as an Invited Expert, way back in the day.

Before that happened, though, with all those tests in hand, I was able to compile CSS browser support information into a big color-coded table, which I published on the CWRU web site (remember, I was Webmaster) and made freely available to all.  The support data was stored in a large FileMaker Pro database, with custom dropdown fields to enter the Y/N/P/B values and lots of fields for me to enter template fragments so that I could export to HTML.  That support chart eventually migrated to the late Web Review, where it came to be known as “the Mastergrid”, a term I find funny in retrospect because grid layout was still two decades in the future, and anyway, it was just a large and heavily styled data table.  Because I wasn’t against tables for tabular data.  I just didn’t like the idea of using them solely for layout purposes.

You can see one of the later versions of Mastergrid in the Wayback Machine, with its heavily classed and yet still endearingly clumsy markup.  My work maintaining the Mastergrid, and articles I wrote for Web Review, led to my first book for O’Reilly (currently in its fourth edition), which led to my being asked to write other books and speak at conferences, which led to my deciding to co-found a conference… and a number of other things besides.

And it all kicked off 25 years ago this month in a conference room in Paris, May 7th, 1996.  What a journey it’s been.  I wonder now, in the latter half of my life, what CSS — what the web itself — will look like in another 25 years.


First Month at Igalia

Published 4 months, 2 weeks past

Today marks one month at Igalia.  It’s been a lot, and there’s more to come, but it’s been a really great experience.  I get to do things I really enjoy and value, and Igalia supports and encourages all of it without trying to steer me in specific directions.  I’ve been incredibly lucky to experience that kind of working environment twice in my life — and the other one was an outfit I helped create.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve been up to:

  • Generally got up to speed on what Igalia is working on (spoiler: a lot).
  • Redesigned parts of wpewebkit.org, fixed a few outstanding bugs, edited most of the rest. (The site runs on 11ty, so I’ve been learning that as well.)
  • Wrote a bunch of CSS tests/demos that will form the basis for other works, like articles and videos.
  • Drafted a few of said articles.  As I write this, two are very close to being complete, and a third is almost ready for editing.
  • Edited some pages on the Mozilla Developer Network (MDN), clarifying or upgrading text in some places and replacing unclear examples in others.
  • Joined the Open Web Docs Steering Committee.
  • Reviewed various specs and proposals (e.g., Miriam’s very interesting @scope proposal).

And that’s not all!  Here’s what I have planned for the next few months:

  • More contributions to MDN, much of it in the CSS space, but also branching out into documenting some up-and-coming APIs in areas that are fairly new to me.  (Details to come!)
  • Contributions to the Web Platform Tests (WPT), once I get familiar with how that process is structured.
  • Articles on topics that will include (but are not limited to!) gaps in CSS, logical properties, and styling based on writing direction.  I haven’t actually settled on outlets for those yet, so if you’d be interested in publishing any of them, hit me up.  I usually aim for about a thousand words, including example markup and CSS.
  • Very likely will rejoin the CSS Working Group after a (mumblecough)-year absence.
  • Assembling a Raspberry Pi system to test out WPEWebKit in its native, embedded environment and get a handle on how to create a “setting up WPEWebKit for total embedded-device noobs”, of which I am one.

That last one will be an entirely new area for me, as I’ve never really worked with an embedded-device browser before.  WPEWebKit is a WebKit port, actually the official WebKit port for embedded devices, and as such is aggressively tuned for performance and low resource demand.  I’m really looking forward to not only seeing what it’s like to use it, but also how I might be able to leverage it into some interesting projects.

WPEWebKit is one of the reasons why Igalia is such a big contributor to WebKit, helping drive its standards support forward and raise its interoperability with other browser engines.  There’s a thread of self-interest there: a better WebKit means a better WPEWebKit, which means more capable embedded devices for Igalia’s clients.  But after a month on the inside, I feel comfortable saying most of Igalia’s commitment to interoperability is philosophical in nature — they truly believe that more consistency and capability in web browsers benefits everyone.  As in, THIS IS FOR EVERYONE.

And to go along with that, more knowledge and awareness is seen as an unvarnished good, which is why they’re having me working on MDN content.  To that end, I’m putting out an invitation here and now: if you come across a page on MDN about CSS or HTML that confuses you, or seems inaccurate, or just doesn’t have much information at all, please get in touch to let me know, particularly if you are not a native English speaker.

I can’t offer translation services, unfortunately, but I can do my best to make the English content of MDN as clear as possible.  Sometimes, what makes sense to a native English speaker is obscure or unclear to others.  So while this offer is open to everyone, don’t hold back if you’re struggling to parse the English.  It’s more likely the English is unclear and imprecise, and I’d like to erase that barrier if I can.

The best way to submit a report is to send me email with [MDN] and the URL of the page you’re writing about in the subject line.  If you’re writing about a collection of pages, put the URLs into the email body rather than the subject line, but please keep the [MDN] in the subject so I can track it more easily.  You can also ping me on Twitter, though I’ll probably ask you to email me so I don’t lose track of the report.  Just FYI.

I feel like there was more, but this is getting long enough and anyway, it already seems like a lot.  I can’t wait to share more with you in the coming months!


First Week at Igalia

Published 5 months, 6 days past

The first week on the job at Igalia was… it was good, y’all.  Upon formally joining the Support Team, got myself oriented, built a series of tests-slash-demos that will be making their way into some forthcoming posts and videos, and forked a copy of the Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) so I can start making edits and pushing them to the public site.  In fact, the first of those edits landed Sunday night!  And there was the usual setting up accounts and figuring out internal processes and all that stuff.

A series of tests of the CSS logical property ';block-border'.
Illustrating the uses of border-block.

To be perfectly honest, a lot of my first-week momentum was provided by the rest of the Support Team, and setting expectations during the interview process.  You see, at one point in the past I had a position like this, and I had problems meeting expectations.  This was partly due to my inexperience working in that sort of setting, but also partly due to a lack of clear communication about expectations.  Which I know because I thought I was doing well in meeting them, and then was told otherwise in evaluations.

So when I was first talking with the folks at Igalia, I shared that experience.  Even though I knew Igalia has a different approach to management and evaluation, I told them repeatedly, “If I take this job, I want you to point me in a direction.”  They’ve done exactly that, and it’s been great.  Special thanks to Brian Kardell in this regard.

I’m already looking forward to what we’re going to do with the demos I built and am still refining, and to making more MDN edits, including some upgrades to code examples.  And I’ll have more to say about MDN editing soon.  Stay tuned!


First Day at Igalia

Published 5 months, 1 week past

Today is my first day as a full-time employee at Igalia, where I’ll be doing a whole lot of things I love to do: document and explain web standards at MDN and other places, participate in standards work at the W3C, take on some webmaster duties, and play a part in planning Igalia’s strategy with respect to advancing the web.  And likely other things!

I’ll be honest, this is a pretty big change for me.  I haven’t worked for anyone other than myself since 2003.  But the last time I did work for someone else, it was for Netscape (slash AOL slash Time Warner) as a Standards Evangelist, a role I very much enjoyed.  In many ways, I’m taking that role back up at Igalia, in a company whose values and structure are much more in line with my own.  I’m really looking forward to finding out what we can do together.

If the name Igalia doesn’t ring any bells, don’t worry: nobody outside the field has heard of them, and most people inside the field haven’t either.  So, remember when CSS Grid came to browsers back in 2017?  Igalia did the implementation that landed in Safari and Chromium.  They’ve done a lot of other things besides that — some of which I’ll be helping to spread the word about — but it’s the thing that web folks will be most likely to recognize.

This being my first day and all, I’m still deep in the setting up of logins and filling out of forms and general orienting of oneself to a new team and set of opportunities to make a positive difference, so there isn’t much more to say besides I’m stoked and planning to say more a little further down the road.  For now, onward!


CSS Naked Day 2020

Published 1 year, 3 months past

If you’re here on meyerweb on April 9th, 2020, then you’re seeing the site without the CSS I wrote for its design and layout.  Why?  It’s CSS Naked Day!  To quote that site:

The idea behind this event is to promote Web Standards. Plain and simple. This includes proper use of HTML, semantic markup, a good hierarchy structure, and of course, a good old play on words. It’s time to show off your <body> for what it really is.

So last night, I removed the links to the main stylesheets for the site.  There are, I should note, scattered pages where local CSS is still in play. I could have tracked them all down and removed their CSS as well, and I considered doing so, but in the end I decided against it.

There’s a history to this day.  In the late Aughts, it was an annual thing, not unlike Blue Beanie Day, to draw attention to web standards and reinforce among the community that good, solid, robust development practices are a good thing.  Because after all, if your site isn’t usable without the CSS, then it almost certainly has structure and accessibility problems you probably haven’t been thinking about.

In all honesty, I had forgotten about it until just a couple of days prior, I suddenly thought, “Wait, early April, isn’t that when CSS Naked Day was observed?”  I went looking, and discovered that yes, it was.  I had remembered April 7th, but apparently April 9th was the actual date.  Or became it over time.  Either way, here we are, feeling fancy-free!

What’s been interesting has been what CSS Naked Day has revealed about browsers as well as about our HTML.  To pick one example, suppose you have a very large SVG logo, which you size to where you want it with CSS.  This is ordinarily a best practice: the SVG is the same file size whether it renders huge or tiny, so there’s no downside to having an SVG that renders 1200 x 1000 when you view it directly — thus allowing you to see all the little details — but is sized to 120 x 100 via CSS for layout purposes.

But take away the CSS, and the SVG will become 1200 x 1000 again.  That might tell you to resize it for production, sure, and you probably should.  But it also points out that browsers will not constrain that image, not even to the viewport.  If your window is only 900 pixels wide, the SVG could well spill outside, forcing a horizontal scrollbar.  Is that good?  Maybe!  Maybe not!  We might wish browsers would bake something like img {max-width: 100%; height: auto;} into their user-agent stylesheet(s), but maybe that would have unforeseen downsides.  The point is, this is a thing about browsers that CSS Naked Day reveals, and it’s worth knowing.

Similarly, this reveals that browsers don’t have a way to restrict the width of lines of text.  Thus, if the browser window is wide, the lines get very long — long enough to make reading more difficult.  This isn’t a problem on handheld devices like smartphones, but on desktop (use of which has risen significantly in areas locked down to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2) it can be a problem.  Again, if browsers had something like body {max-width: 70em;} or max-width: 100ch or suchlike, this wouldn’t be a problem.  Should they?  Maybe!  It’s worth thinking about for your own work, if nothing else.

(For much more thinking about these kinds of browser behaviors and how to address them, you should absolutely check out the CSS Remedy project.  “CSS Remedy sets CSS properties or values to what they would be if the CSSWG were creating the CSS today, from scratch, and didn’t have to worry about backwards compatibility.”)

If I’d remembered sooner, I might have contacted the maintainers of the CSS Naked Day site and posted about it ahead of time and thought about stuff like a hashtag to spread the word.  Maybe that will happen next year.  Until then, enjoy all the nudity!


CSS Specification Timelines, Updated and Modernized

Published 1 year, 4 months past

Back in 2011, I decided to make a timeline out of CSS modules’ version histories, where “version history” means “a list of all the various drafts that were published”.  I updated the data every now and again, and then kind of let it go dormant for a few years.

Until this past weekend, when for no clear reason I decided what the hell, it’s time for a refresh.  So I trawled through all the specs’ version histories to get the stuff I didn’t have, and gave the presentation a bit of an upgrade.  The overall look and feel is pretty consistent, except now, thanks to repeating linear gradients, I have vertical stripes to show each year in the now 21-year-long timeline.  I put labels up at the top of the stripes, and figured they should remain visible no matter where you scroll, so I set them to position: sticky.  Then I realized most people would have to scroll horizontally, so I made the specification names sticky as well.

So now, no matter where you scroll on the page, you’ll see the specifications along the left and the years along the top.  The layout isn’t mobile-hostile, exactly, but it isn’t RWD-ized either.  I’m not really sure how I could make this fully responsive, except maybe to just drop the timeline layout altogether and revert to the lists that underlie the layout.

While I was at it, I converted a fair bit of the CSS to use var() and calc() so that I could set a column width in one place, and sprinkled in just a tiny bit more PHP to output offset values in a couple of places.  Nothing major, just quality-of-life upgrades for the maintainer, which is to say, me.

I bring all this up for two reasons.  One, I like the presentation upgrades, and wanted to share.  Two, by sheer coincidence, today the CSS Working Group published first versions of four CSS modules:

So I’ve added them to the timeline, along with CSS Color Module Level 4, which I’d overlooked in my weekend update.  These are the first module versions of 2020, so enjoy!

I do find it a little weird that Color Level 5 is out when Color Level 4 has never left Working Draft status, but maybe Level 4 is about to graduate, and this just happened to come out first.  We’ll see!


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