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Live Talk: Las Vegas

Writer Steve Friess  answered your questions on Tuesday, November 30 at noon ET.
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Greetings, Vegas lovers one and all! I sit comfortably in my rapidly-appreciating townhouse east of the Strip ready to roll the dice on your Sin City inquiries. It's a busy, busy time here in the desert, with the city's 100th birthday and a new Steve Wynn property opening next year, plus high-rise condos galore and Broadway descending on the Strip. Wait - didn't people go to Vegas to gamble? Yeah, we can talk about that, too... Let's have at it...

Steve Friess wrote about Las Vegas in "Old Showgirls Never Die..." for the December/January issue of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine. He answered your questions on Tuesday, November 30, at noon ET.

Steve Friess is a Las Vegas-based freelance journalist whose work appears regularly in Newsweek, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and USA Today. He spent three years covering boring stuff like education and county government for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1996-99, so you can ask questions about living in Vegas, too, if you want. He returned to freelance from Vegas in 2002 after living in China for more than a year. Since then, he and his Little Brother through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Nevada have graded the pools of the Strip and ranked the animal acts/attractions for the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune and Travel + Leisure Family. He also bashed the crap out of Reno in the Boston Globe. He's tried real hard, but he still can't figure out how to play craps. In fact, the most he's ever won was $3 in quarters -- from a malfunctioning pay phone.

Click here to read Steve's article on Las Vegas.


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Toronto, Canada: I read that you lived in China, did you have the opportunity to visit Macau and its gambling strip? How would you compare the gambling and ambience in Macau to Las Vegas???

Steve Friess: Yeesh. It’s really hard to compare – for now. Wait about three years before you go to Macau and you’ll see a much better offering because Steve Wynn, the Sands and MGM Mirage are all busy building modern Vegas-style casinos. The Sands Macau, the first American casino owned by the folks who brought us the Venetian, opened in May and it’s a start, but it’s not a hotel. The old-style Macanese casinos are gross – they’re small, cramped labyrinths with little light or air, throngs of people crowded around baccarat tables shouting out their bets, slot machines in the hallways. The Chinese are inveterate gamblers and they’re going to love the new stuff, but it’s not there quite yet. By 2006, the Sands company plans a replica of the Strip called the Cotai Strip, with a dozen or more hotels including a half-sized replica of the Venetian. Once that’s done, Macau will soon become a premiere gambling market for Westerners – it’s got a lot of the making of it with the beautiful views of the South China Sea, its proximity to Hong Kong (45 mins away by a pleasant, cheap ferry ride) and it’s intriguing fusion of Portuguese history and architecture and its current Chinese aesthetic.

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Arlington, VA: What's wrong with the monorail? I am going to Las Vegas on 12/17/04 for the weekend. Any chance that it will be running by then?

Steve Friess: Sigh. The monorail. What a mess. They opened it in the summer and it seemed to be OK, but by late August bits and pieces were actually falling off of it. It’s been closed since mid-September and it’s doubtful it will open before the end of the year. Meanwhile, it’s become this huge joke and embarrassment in Vegas. Once it actually opens and is deemed truly safe, my sense is it will be of great help to the town – it’s actually quite a unique and scenic perspective of the Strip. Just wait and see.

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Blacksburg, VA: Is there one site I can go to where I can find all events/happenings going on in LV during Christmas weekend?

Steve Friess: A number of you were looking for solid Vegas Internet reference sites. Two of them that I really like are www.lasvegasadvisor.com – and you can sign up to be on the free e-mail update list. Anthony Curtis knows Vegas inside and out, publishes several books about the city and is honest about his likes and dislikes. Also, Rick Garman has http://www.vegas4visitors.com/ which is similarly useful. Beware the information you get from www.vegas.com – the site is a promotional arm of the destination and won’t give you genuine criticism. However, it’s comprehensive and up-to-date in terms of names, dates, locations, that sort of thing.

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Chicago,IL: I'm going to Vegas the weekend of 1/14/05 with a group of 10+ guys, to watch and gamble on the NFL PLAYOFFS. Can you recommend a sports book?

Steve Friess: I have to say that the spirit and energy at Caesars Palace’s sports book rocks. People are just really friendly and the facilities are nice. Of course, leave it to the Bellagio to make the sports book into a luxury with sweet brown leather recliners and a yummy – but expensive – snack area nearby. I also think that you find more genuine sports fans over at the Orleans, believe it or not.

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Kingman, AZ: What's new on the Vegas gay scene? It's not always been a particularly good scene, has it?

Steve Friess: It hasn’t always been, no, and I’m not thinking it’s quite up to NY, Chicago or SF standards just yet. I’ve got a partner, Miles, and we don’t go out too much, but there have been some significant new developments. First, Krave opened at the Aladdin – the first gay/alternative club on the Strip. It’s very stylish and they’ve got a cool show called Fashionistas. Also, a new ultralounge is soon to open next to the venerable gay dance club Gipsy called 8½. Most of the gay nightlife is in that area near Gipsy known as the “Fruit Loop” (so named by local gays, by the way) with a selection of other bars including one for bears, drag and lesbians. In addition, there’s a lot of talk of a drag-themed bar coming to downtown Las Vegas. In a section called Commercial Center (963 E Sahara), there are several new offerings. That’s where the Gay and Lesbian Community Center is, and a new 24-hour gay café and knick-knack shop called the Pride Factory opened recently. (It’s an offshoot of a similar one on US1 in Fort Lauderdale.) There’s a new gay restaurant there, too, called the Rainbow Lounge. The Blue Moon Resort is a gay hotel slightly west of the Strip in a converted Travelodge. There’s rumblings of a possible gay casino on the Strip, but I can’t see that working too well. Also, “Zumanity” at NY-NY has some gay content, although it’s otherwise a pretty schlocky show.

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Birmingham, AL: When is the best time to come to Las Vegas to avoid extreme heat?

Steve Friess: Well, right now it's just delightful -- cool, in the 50s and 60s -- a great relief to those of us who live here. But for vacationers, just stay away in June, July, August and the first half of September and you'll be fine. It's perfect in April, May and October -- still swimming weather, not too hot.

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Corpus Christi, TX: An article appearing today stated that Las Vegas will celebrate its centennial with, among other events, stunts like a contest in which 100 winning couples will get married. How does a couple enter this contest? Also, when does Wynn Las Vegas open?

Steve Friess: I’m pretty sure the thing with the weddings is a radio promotional contest in cooperation with Clear Channel, so I think you have to pay attention to what sort of local radio contests are going on. Keep your eyes peeled to http://www.lasvegas2005.org/ for all the latest about the celebration, which begins and ends with New Years’ parties and has a lengthy list of cultural activities.

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Bloomfield Hills, MI: I know you're a guy, but do you have any recommendations on spas for a GREAT massage? I'd like to get at least two massages during my upcoming trip but after trying several on previous trips, I have yet to find a spa I truly like. Someone mentioned the idea of having a certified massage therapist come to my room but that has been a slooow search thus far...

Steve Friess: Now wait a second – why is massaging for women? I’m sitting here right now with a tremendous backache looking forward to my masseur coming by to give me some relief after this is over! I’ve tried a number of massage therapists in this city, and for my money you can’t do better than David Pohl, whose e-mail is VegasMassage@aol.com. If David is too busy, try Carl Borey, whose site is www.carlborey.com. Both are really great. Finally, pretty much anyone sent to you by Hands On Massage, owned by Thomas Bogle, will be great. Check out http://www.handsonmassagelv.com/about.html.

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Los Angeles, CA: Which hotels offer a nostalgic feel on a budget-I want to take my grandmother to Vegas for a weekend and I want her to feel the old Vegas charm! Please help!!! It is for her 90th bday. Thanks.

Steve Friess: I wrote in the piece about the old wing of the Stardust. That would be ideal -- it's a 50-year-old section of a Strip hotel that's been refurbished so it's modern. And while you're there, you can take in Wayne Newton... can't get too much more nostalgic than that. The suites are reasonable; Wayne's gonna cost ya. But I can guarantee you that if he knows there's a 90-year-old lady in the room having a birthday, he'll kiss her. And you, too. He's the Richard Dawson of Vegas!

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Milwaukee, WI: What in your opinion is the best show to see in Las Vegas that can give you the flavor of the old Vegas acts?

Steve Friess: I am a huge fan of "Mamma Mia!" and Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere" and I think Rita Rudner is an absolute stitch. Sure, I like "O" too and I think Danny Gans is quite talented. But when my folks come to town, I routinely take them to see Clint Holmes at Harrahs. Clint's probably the hardest-working showman in Vegas and a terrifically nice man, too, and there's a very old-style sensibility to him because he was a Sammy Davis Jr protege. For the authentic Old Vegas showgirl routine, head to Ballys for "Jubilee!" -- but here's the secret of the day... they have this awesome backstage tour at 2 pm on Monday, Wednesday and Saturdays (check their site for details - I'm going by memory here) -- where you get to see the mammoth headdresses and quiz the showgirls about their lives. Brilliant.

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Atlanta, GA: The only time I gambled in Las Vegas was at a casino called "Michael's," which was off the strip. I was wondering if it is still there, and if it is, does it still have the $0.25 crap tables? Also, what is there that is Jewish in Vegas? One doesn't hear much about the Jewish community there - is there one?

Steve Friess: Sorry, but nobody seems to know what happened to Michael's, but there are still a few places to play 25-cent craps tables – of which are in the downtown Vegas cluster of hotels. For history – if not charm -- try the El Cortez, which I wrote about in the Budget Travel piece, because it still has the same low-rise brown-brick gambling hall and neon lights from when it opened in 1941. This is a no-frills Vegas of viscous air, dingy carpeting, and low minimum bets. No Strip properties offer 25-cent craps, but Binion’s Horseshoe and the Las Vegas Club still do downtown.

As for the Jewish community, actually, I wrote a piece that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe last April about this – Vegas has the fastest-growing Jewish population anywhere. We’ve got a kosher Chinese place called Shalom Hunan, a Kosher Mart on Maryland Parkway and a few other places. On the Strip, the pickin’s are slim, but for functions the Four Seasons and the Rio both have installed kosher kitchens. All the Krispy Kremes in town are kosher, too. Also, during Passover several eateries – including Simon’s at the Hard Rock and Spago at Caesar’s Palace, add menu items like matzoh ball soup. Check out the piece at http://www.stevefriess.com/archive/chicagotribune/oyvegas.htm.

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Mamaroneck, NY: We were considering moving to Las Vegas. I was offered a job at about 60% of my salary in NY. If my wife took a similar paycut, could we live as well in Las vegas as we do in Westchester? We own an apartment and would buy a condo in Las Vegas. Thank you.

Steve Friess: Hmmm...this is certainly a boom town and things are less expensive than they are in NY, but 60 percent of an income is an awful lot to make up in cheaper groceries and taxes. Plus, gas is a lot more expensive here, I've noticed, having come from Long Island and having traveled to NY. Nevada often has the second-highest gas prices in the nation behind California. Those figures don't really add up to me. If it was 30 or 35 percent pay cut, I'd say sure, maybe. but 60? Ouch!

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Wichita, KS: My family and I are going to Vegas for Christmas. Where would be a nice, but moderately priced, place to take them for Christmas dinner? Also, do you think that it's safe to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to wonder through the hotel by themselves, but together?

Steve Friess: It's a challenge these days isn't it, finding moderately priced fare in Las Vegas? If you need to stay on the Strip, you might try the restaurants at the Flamingo or the Tropicana. If you can wander off the Strip, I strongly recommend an adorable restaurant called the Swiss Cafe on East Tropicana (look it up online and call to see if you need a reservation.) It's so cozy and the food's so good over there and it's not going to sting you quite as badly as, umm, Picasso.

As for allowing your teens to wander...it's not unsafe, per se, depending on if these are good, sensible kids who won't try to gamble or get into clubs they're not supposed to go to. I tend to think that a Vegas hotel is like a big amusement park -- you wouldn't think twice about letting them wander Six Flags or Disneyland, would you? There are obvious dangers, but I think that with proper warnings, they should be fine. I don't believe there are evil predators in casinos out to scam or con teenagers. At least not with all the security everywhere.

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Arcadia, CA: What's this I hear about some airborne flu infecting the casinos of Vegas? Is it safe to go there?

Steve Friess: The Norovirus that took hold at the Flamingo is the same sort of thing that pops up occasionally on cruise ships. The difference is that they can empty a cruise ship and disinfect it a little bit easier than they can an functioning casino, which cannot shut down by law unless, like the Bellagio, the power goes out. These public health issues will come up occasionally, but they're rare and not worth canceling a trip over. A few dozen people got sick at the Flamingo; thousands stayed there that week.

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Anonymous: Steve, You can't figure out how to play craps and I cannot figure out what exactly draws me to Las Vegas. I never tire of it and I have a great time, always, and I never gamble. I would never bring my children there, but why are the masses attracted to this city??

Steve Friess: I do have a few theories. First, the whole Epcot for adults thing is a draw. This is a very democratic city in that it's the only city I've ever been where nonguests are ENCOURAGED to tramp through hotels gawking and enjoying the amenities. And they build these unbelievable properties that demand to be viewed.

Plus, as you mentioned, in recent years the city has diversified its entertainment options and made it as much about entertainment as about gambling. This was in response to the growth of gaming across the US, particularly California Indian casinos. If all you want to do is gamble, you can do so within a four-hour's drive of any major American city. If you want to see Celine Dion (don't ask me why, but many do!) you must come here.

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Gaithersburg, MD: My mom and I go to Vegas for Christmas every year. We are looking for a new place to have our fancy Christmas night dinner. Last year we ate at the Paris....Any suggestions? We both love steakhouse fare (French onion soup, steaks, chops, etc)...THANKS!

Steve Friess: Try Hugo’s Cellar in the downtown Vegas area. It’s in the basement of the Four Queens, believe it or not, but it is so elegant and wonderful. Every lady receives a rose – really old-Vegas. I’d also consider Alize at the top of the Palms. It’s a sensational gourmet room with an amazing view. I am also a huge, huge, huge fan of Aureole at Mandalay Bay – their 4,000-variety wine collection is presented not as a mammoth book but as a PC tablet! The food’s excellent and the décor is fascinating. (See my Newsweek piece on this at http://www.stevefriess.com/archive/newsweek/ewinebook.htm)

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Costa Mesa, CA: Mr. Friess, thank you for taking the time to answer questions. I will in Vegas (Staying at the Venetian) on the weekend of the 5th with two teens, one 18, the other 15. Do you have any recommendations for ways to keep them entertained in the areas around the strip? We are not big gamblers and are visiting for a wedding. Thank you for any advice you may have.

Steve Friess: The funny thing about Vegas is that while they insist they’re not in it to entertain the kids, there’s so much to do with them. First off, there are amazing rollercoasters. The NY-NY coaster is just like Coney Island; there are a few death-defying rides atop the Stratosphere. The Sahara, too, has a cool ride, and Circus-Circus has the largest indoor amusement park anywhere. I have a now-14-year-old Little Brother in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and we’ve done a couple of key projects together – rating the animal exhibits/acts and the swimming pools of Vegas for the LA Times and Chicago Tribune. It’s a little cold to swim – although that’s because I live in the desert where it has to be at least 90 – but we’ve always been huge fans of the Flamingo swimming pool partly because there are slides and waterfalls and partly because several entrances aren’t guarded by hotel security. On the animal front, take them to see the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. It’s an excellent aquarium with the only great hammerhead shark in captivity in the US. Plus, the audio tour is actually interesting and entertaining. See the pools piece at http://www.stevefriess.com/archive/latimes/vegaspools.htm and the animals piece at http://www.stevefriess.com/archive/chicagotribune/vegasanimals.htm.

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Flushing, NY: Hi Steve, I heard that a monorail will eventually connect the airport to several hotels on the Strip. I know that it is in operation but I'm just wondering if the monorail is complete and the hotels are now connected by it? Thanks.

Steve Friess: The current monorail, which is not working at the moment, (see above), runs along the back of the hotels on the east side of the Strip with seven stops from the MGM Grand to the Sahara and including the LV Convention Center. The next plan is to extend it north to downtown Las Vegas by 2008 and THEN to the airport by 2012, although some of these plans may be in flux because of the ongoing problems with the first leg. Eventually, they may connect it to the west side of the Strip, too.

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Atlanta, GA: What is the story with Lake Las Vegas? What is the lake? What hotels/casinos are there? Basically, why choose Lake Las Vegas over a trip to the Strip?

Steve Friess: You got me. If you want Palm Springs, go to Palm Springs. Lake Las Vegas is both a resort area and a residential area (Celine lives there.) But everyone I've ever spoken to who has stayed at the Ritz-Carlton out there has reported that it's BORING. Nice enough, but boring. It's 25 minutes from the Strip -- and cabs are NOT cheap in this town by any means -- and it all seems so remote.

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Houston, TX: I want to take my nephew for his 21st birthday next March, but he is hearing-impaired. Other than visual scenery and gambling, is there something that the casinos do for those that want to gamble, particularly table games where they need to understand the dealers?? Any other things we can do??

Steve Friess: I, too, have a serious hearing disability, although with my hearing aids I am fairly functional. It sounds like your nephew is more severely impaired than I am. When it comes to a lot of the table games, though, there actually is a built-in sign language. I suggest he read books on blackjack that discuss the etiquette -- there isn't that much that he needs to discuss anyway. It's hit, don't hit, double, whatever. There are hand motions for many of these. I'd stay away from some games like craps that are so frenetic and even people who can hear have no idea what's happening.

I also suggest that even if he can't hear music, he gets out to see "Mystere" or "O" -- he doesn't need to hear anything to take in the amazing visuals and acrobatics. The lyrics to the music are a made up gibberish called Cirquish anyway... intended for anybody to be able to follow even if they don't speak English.

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Sterling, VA: Steve, I'm planning on going to Vegas around Jan. 6, but noticed that hotel prices have spiked up around that time. Is there a convention in town? What gives? Usually it's inexpensive that time of year. Also, what's the best way to find out when conventions are, so I can plan around them? Thanks!

Steve Friess: Actually, usually it's not cheap that time of year because the Consumer Electronics Show takes over from Jan 6-9 and it's one of the biggest times of year. The cheapest times in the city are right now -- the dead area between T-Day and Xmas -- and then around July-Aug, when it's obnoxiously hot. You can go to www.lvcva.com and look up what conventions are coming up in various time frames.

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Washington, D.C.: Steve, can you provide any recommendations of things to do, places to see "off the beaten path" in Las Vegas??? I've been several times and even though I love all of my favorites, I would like to broaden my horizons and find some new things to do/see.

Steve Friess: Yay! Someone who actually thinks there’s a real town out there somewhere! If you haven’t driven up to Mount Charleston, you really should. Look up the directions online and plan to go to the Lodge for lunch. The food’s adequate, but it’s such a different experience this time of year – there’s so much snow up there, people ski and snowboard. And it’s only about 40 minutes away. If you go to the northeast on I-15, you can hit Valley of Fire, which is this sensational red-rock canyon similar to what you see in Sedona, Arizona. Lots of hiking trails and a sensational place to take photos. In terms of more localish activities, I suggest you try to head to the Anthem Country Club for lunch or dinner. It’s in the hills south of the city about a 30 minute drive, but the food is outstanding and the view is sensational of the valley. And you can wander around quaint downtown Boulder City – where no gambling is allowed!!! – if you want to get a sense of the history behind the Hoover Dam. For some pretty decent shopping, go to the District in Henderson – an outdoor shopping area with some cool specialty stores that’s right next door to the Green Valley Ranch (of “American Casino” fame and, in its own right, a Strip-caliber property.)

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Bakersfield, CA: What is the best way to get "day of event" discount show tickets?

Steve Friess: There are reduced day-of tickets to some shows -- although not the biggest names -- at a ticket counter inside the big Coke bottle just north of the MGM Grand.

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Denver, CO: What's the most underrated show on the Strip? The most overrated? Who's the nicest star?

Steve Friess: Well, I already sang Clint Holmes' praises as a performer and a person... I also think that there's a new impersonator named Gordie Brown who is at the Golden Nugget and he's really in the Rich Little/Danny Gans mold. Also, Lance Burton is outstanding -- a little pricey, but for the value the best magic show in town even BEFORE Roy Horn's mauling shut down the Siegfried and Roy show. Overrated? Heard the one about the songstress from Canada for whom they built a $90 million arena? Celine's my biggest disappointment because I love her music -- and can't bear to watch her sing it. But by all accounts, she's a nice person. OH! I almost forgot -- I saw Gladys Knight recently and holy smokes she blew me away! And I'm only 32! But she was so smooth, so old-Vegas... excellent.

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Arcadia, CA: My wife and I will go to Las Vegas next month as a second honeymoon. We're already planning to eat at the Eiffel Tower. Can you suggest other romantic things to do?

Steve Friess: You know, I love to take my boyfriend over to the Bellagio every so often and walk around looking at the Conservatory. It's just one of the prettiest and smartest nooks of the city. I also am a fan of the gondola rides at Venetian, although PLEASE DON'T PROPOSE TO HER THERE.... that's so cliched.

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Pittsburgh, PA: My wife and I are planning a trip to Las Vegas in June. We were going to stay at the Aladdin hotel, but we now understand that Planet Hollywood has taken over that hotel. Would you suggest that we keep our plans to stay there, or would it be wiser to stay somewhere else and avoid any remodeling or risking that the pools would be unavailable due to new construction. What would you recommend? Do you think that the new hotel will be better than the Aladdin?

Steve Friess: You know, the Aladdin had some serious design flaws and was badly managed, but the rooms were really nice and had really good views of the Bellagio dancing waters. Call them to ask if there's going to be any construction, but its got this great location and a super-eager staff, so keep your plans unless they're going to be intrusive.

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Steve Friess: OK, folks... Thanks for hanging out with me. If you want, check out my site, www.stevefriess.com, and ask more questions. If I can help, I will. Best of luck!

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